Biography 25.4 (2002) 696-697
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Female Journeys is a study of nineteenth- and twentieth-century French and Italian women's autobiographical writings. The works examined, Marrone maintains in the introduction, often involve a movement away from oppressive structures, while taking on the characteristics of a bildungsroman. Their protagonists belong to different social groups (from prostitutes to princesses), but they all experience some form of awakening, which leads them to a departure. Significantly, then, the three parts that compose Female Journeys are titled "Leaving the Country," "Leaving the Family," and "Leaving the Mother."
The first part focuses on Princess Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso and Céleste Mogador. The two women came from different social classes, but both lived through turbulent times, traveled extensively, and took an active part in public life. Interestingly, they both also played a crucial role in creating corps of women nurses in their respective countries. Marrone provides an engaging portrait of Belgiojoso, a remarkable activist and writer who traveled in parts of the world where few Western women dared to venture. In Souvenirs dans l'exil (1850), a collection of letters written while en route to the Middle East, and Emina (1856), the princess shows an acute understanding of women's plight in different cultures. The second writer, Céleste [End Page 696] Mogador, became a prostitute at age sixteen. In a literary tradition in which the theme of prostitution is almost exclusively treated by men, her Mémoires provide a welcome exception. The fascination exerted by the figure of the prostitute on male writers is thus balanced by first-hand knowledge of the abuse and misery that often drew young women to embrace such a profession. Societal critique is tempered, in the Mémoires, by the unfolding of the "Cinderella story," "the typical female drama of the 'motherless' daughter of lower social standing who is saved by Prince Charming" (67). Love with Count Lionel de Chabrillan (Lionel de C*** in Mémoires) provides Céleste with a way to escape her condition. The couple's travel to Australia, and the prejudice encountered by Céleste because of her past, are described in the continuation of the autobiography, Un deuil au bout du monde (1877).
Part II deals with two texts that are milestones in the definition of Italian women's identity. The protagonists of Sibilla Aleramo's Una donna and Oriana Fallaci's Lettera a un bambino mai nato struggle with the limitations that society imposes on women, as they try to reconcile their rights as individuals with their role as mothers. The third part focuses on the mother-daughter relationship, through the discussion of the works of Marie Cardinal and Annie Ernaux. The comparative analysis of Ernaux's Une femme and "Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit" allows Marrone to discuss "the postmodern practice of incessantly rewriting the life story" (158).
Female Journeys constitutes a brave attempt to examine the links between biography, autobiography, and bildungsroman in the work of famous and lesser known women writers. It manages to incorporate current critical debates without resorting to jargon, and overall is enticing and readable. The book also presents some obvious shortcomings, however: perhaps in an effort to offer a balanced perspective, the author sometimes refers to critical opinions without discussing them, which leaves the reader wondering about their relevance and about the author's own stance (see for instance pp. 6-9). There is also a certain interpretative hesitancy: while praising Belgiojoso and Fallaci for their courage in exposing the plight of women in different parts of the world, Marrone is quick to label their criticism as condescending and moralistic, to the point of blaming Fallaci for taking a stance against arranged marriages (117). The discussion is slowed down and weakened, particularly in Parts II and III, by lengthy plot summaries that deal with widely known texts, easily available in translation as well as in the original. These limits notwithstanding, Female...