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Alba de Céspedes: Nessuno torna indietro (There’s No Turning Back)

This book was banned by the Fascist censors but was later translated into twenty-four languages and made into a film in Italy. Sadly, it is now out of print. It tells the story of a group of young women at a women’s college, run by nuns, called Grimaldi and based in Rome and set in the mid-1930s. We follow all of their stories, with the current situation mixed in with their previous lives. We also, of course, follow their relationships with one another. However, what matters most are their relationships with the opposite sex which, as this is de Céspedes, are generally unhappy. We even learn a little about the nuns but they are generally minor characters.

Emanuela seems to be unhappy and we soon learn her secret. She has a baby. She does not tell anyone about it. She had had an affair with Stefano, an air force officer, back home in Florence. They were planning to get married but he is killed in an air crash. By that time, she was pregnant. Her parents are, naturally, horrified. The baby is taken away from her and put in a home in Rome. She naturally wants to see the baby but is prevented from doing so. Eventually, she threatens to go to Rome anyway and, finally, her parents agree that she can study the history of art at the Grimaldi and visit the baby, which she does. The baby – Stefania – is now a young child and wants to learn about her father (she is told he is in the air force) and her mother’s prolonged absence (she is told that she has been in the USA, the same lie Emanuela will use about her parents to her friends at the Grimaldi). Emanuela will continue to visit her. She starts an affair with a young man, Andrea. He works in his parents’ shop but wants to become a writer. During their relationship, they move closer and are planning to get married. However, Emanuela has not told him about Stefania, though she always plans to do so.

Vinca is Spanish. She is studying in the Grimaldi, while her boyfriend, Luis, is studying architecture in Rome. She is unsure of him. There is a woman back home in Córdoba – Sol – whom his parents want him to marry but he tells Vinca that he does not want to marry Sol. However, he won’t tell her that he loves her. The Spanish expatriates in Rome meet frequently and talk about the political situation in Spain. Eventually, when the civil war breaks out, many of the men return home to fight. Xenia may be the most interesting. She fails her exams but cannot resit as her parents have mortgaged their vineyard to finance her education and cannot afford any more money. Xenia therefore steals Emanuela’s emerald ring, pawns it and sets out for Milan to make her way. After a difficult start, she gets a job and moves up the ladder. She also gets a boyfriend – Dino – but, of course, that does not work out either. She does later communicate with Emanuela, to pay her back for the ring, but asks her to tell no-one. Silvia is the hard worker and intelligent one. She is offered a job as researcher by one of their professors and does a good job but makes the mistake of falling in love with him. Of the others, we learn about the forty-year old who had only once been kissed (she didn’t like it) and is now writing a novel, instead of studying, of the woman who plans to marry a blind man but gets ill and dies and of a couple of other relationships that look to be doomed.

It is not all about men, as the women talk together and study together but somehow only feel close when they are together. Unlike Mary McCarthy‘s The Group, they do not seem to keep in touch after college. Much of their time together is spent in talk (often about men) though they do other things. For example, they have a seance, which looks like revealing Emanuela’s secret, till she breaks the whole event up. It is a fairly low key novel and difficult to see why censors would get upset (presumably for premarital sex). Interestingly enough there is very little about the rise of Fascism. However, it is a novel still very much worth reading, if you can find it.

Publishing history

First published 1938 by Mondadori
First published in English 1938 by Jarrold’s
Translated by Jan Noble