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  • Italian Women Writers: Gender and Everyday Life in Fiction and Journalism, 1870–1910 by Katharine Mitchell
  • Gabriella Romani
Katharine Mitchell. Italian Women Writers: Gender and Everyday Life in Fiction and Journalism, 1870–1910. University of Toronto Press. xii, 252. $65.00

Italy witnessed a deep cultural transformation during the post-unification period, thanks to educational reforms, technological advancements, and the professionalization of the figure of the writer, no longer exclusively affiliated with the aristocracy and more representative of a diversified social group in terms of both gender and class affiliation—one in which women as cultural producers and consumers were becoming increasingly visible. Katharine Mitchell’s Italian Women Writers offers the first comprehensive study of the journalistic and fictional works produced by three of the main women writers of fin-de-siècle Italy: Marchesa Colombi (Maria Antonietta Torriani, 1840–1920), Neera (Anna Radius Zuccari, 1846–1918), and Matilde Serao (1856–1927). This book provides two major contributions to the study of nineteenth-century women’s writing: first, from the point of view of content, its textual analysis covers a vast array of journalistic writings and fictional productions, from the essay to the short story and the novel; and, second, more structurally, it provides an excellent exploration of the material culture informing the life of a middle-class Italian woman, creating a sort of topography of the space, domestic as well as public, inhabited by the women of that era. Mitchell’s main argument is, to use the author’s words, that “girlhood and womanhood in Italian domestic fiction and journalism as written by women functioned as a type of conduct manual,” playing a role in “raising awareness among its middle-class women readers of what they endured in their everyday lives.” The book consists of five chapters, the first two of which are devoted to a general analysis of Marchesa Colombi’s, Neera’s, and Serao’s domestic fiction, their readership, and their non-fictional production, such as essays, letters, and articles published in [End Page 456] newspapers and journals. A brief but incisive review of some of the main journals of the time (Museo di famiglia, Il passatempo/Il Giornale delle donne, Vita intima, and La Donna) sheds light on the journalism targeting a female readership as well as on the creation of public opinion among women—an analysis in which Mitchell, joining feminist critics, challenges Jurgen Habermas’s famous theories on the public sphere, conceptualized essentially as a male domain. Chapter three examines the fictional spaces of domesticity (salotto, kitchen, doorways, and staircases, as well as balconies and windows), which Mitchell interprets as a world of ambivalence—a place of confinement and, at the same time, of protection from the harshness of the outside world—but also as the authors’ ideological critique of the suffering women experienced in life. The fourth chapter, devoted to the burgeoning topic of emotions in literature, gauges the emotional life of late nineteenth-century Italian women, as described in the domestic novel, whereby the figure of the hysteric woman takes centre stage. Of great interest is Mitchell’s examination of the nineteenth-century obsession with staging the suffering heroine, which illustrates how through domestic fiction and tragic Italian opera, artists and writers anticipated the medical discourse on hysteria that later developed in the scientific world. Finally, chapter five analyses the notion of women’s solidarity as it pans out in female friendships and in sibling and mother-daughter relationships portrayed in domestic fiction. In her concluding remarks, Mitchell is rightly cautious in declaring a “sisterhood” of sorts among these writers. Marchesa Colombi, Neera, and Serao admired each other and, to some extent, pursued similar artistic aspirations, but they also expressed personal ideological thoughts and literary voices that distinguished them from each other. If it is true that these three women writers focused on female characters and enjoyed an audience composed mainly by women, so did other male writers of similar popular fiction. The question then posed by Mitchell, of whether “women’s writing” existed in nineteenth-century Italian literature, remains an open one and should be read as an invitation to further examine the writings of these three great women...


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