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Alba de Céspedes: Dalla parte di lei (The Best of Husbands)

The novel starts off by telling us where and when Alessandra Corteggiani met Francesco Minelli, before moving immediately into her life story. She was an only child, though she had had an older brother, Alessandro, who drowned when he was three, before she was born. He was being looked after by a thirteen-year old girl who, contrary to orders, liked to go swimming in the Tiber. One day, as she was lying on the bank of the river, enjoying the sun, she heard something falling in the water. She saw a tiny hand just before it disappeared beneath the surface. She made no effort to rescue him or call for help but rushed home to say that he had fallen into the water. His body was never recovered. This event has a profound effect on both Eleanora, his mother, but also on Alessandra. Not only is Alessandra named after him but she feels his presence during her childhood and feels that her parents are always comparing her, unfavourably, with Alessandro. She grows up very much on her own. Her mother is a piano teacher and Alessandra is left with the maid, with limited light, reading books. Her father generally comes home late though not just from work but, as we later learn, from his numerous affairs. Indeed, he continually faults his wife for being too thin and too flat-chested and sexually molests at least one of Alessandra’s friends.

As Alessandra grows up, her mother becomes friendly with a neighbour, Lydia, while Alessandra becomes friendly with Lydia’s daughter, Fulvia. Lydia’s husband is a commercial traveller and is often absent. Lydia is having an affair with someone known simply as the Captain. Fulvia is the complete opposite of Alessandra, flamboyant, very social and at ease with boys. She has a boyfriend, Dario, but admits that she is not in love with him. Alessandra, however, has continual dreams of love. She will later fall for Antonio whom she has barely met, because he seems to be a romantic hero, arrested and imprisoned for being a communist. When Claudio shows an interest in her, she goes along but is not too enthusiastic.

Two events change her life forever. In the first, she and her mother go to Madame Ottavia, a spirit medium. Eleanora is hoping to get in touch with her son through the spirit medium. However, Cola, the medium’s link with the spirit world, does not seem to be able to make contact with Alessandro but does tell her that she will have a great love soon. The second event concerns the Pierce family. He is of English origin and she is American. They have three children. Eleanora is brought in to give some artistic sensibility to the youngest, Arletta, about Alessandra’s age. She has a brother, Hervey, fifteen years older than she is, who seems to the one that the entire household is subservient to. If he wants a painting in their mansion, he gets it. If a tree is obstructing his view, it is chopped down. Arletta feels she needs this artistic sensibility to impress her brother, who is a violinist. Eleanora tries to help Arletta but, on her visits, does not meet Hervey, who is often travelling. When she does, everything changes. She is clearly very keen on him and, eventually, she and Hervey give a piano recital – a long-time dream of Eleanora’s – which goes down very well. Before long, she tells Alessandra that she is planning to run away with Hervey and take Alessandra with her. But her husband, when told, is not only against it, he states that Alessandra must stay with him and the law is on his side. Eleanora is devastated, torn between the two, and kills herself.

Alessandra is sent to the country to stay with her grandmother. Though the remainder of the novel is the largest part, it can be summed up quite easily. She is not too happy in the country, though her relatives, her cousin Giuliano apart, are good to her. Giuliano, in behaviour similar to Alessandra’s father, mocks Alessandra for being skinny, flat-chested and, above all, for putting on airs. However, it is clear that Alessandra, while she can continue to study cannot follow the courses she would have followed in Rome. Then she is introduced to Paolo. It is clear that Paolo is intended as a future husband and, indeed, Alessandra enjoys his company. However, when he mentions in passing after a few months, that they are engaged, she firmly rebuffs him and states that she likes him but that is all. Her grandmother cannot understand why that is not enough. But Paolo is offended and goes off and it is agreed that Alessandra will return to her father in Rome.

She resumes her studies and while going to museum with a friend, she is introduced to Francesco. Much of the book is about her relationship with him. They fall in love and get married but things are not right. He is in the resistance. He loses his job (as a teacher) and is often absent a lot. They have no money and have to pawn things, even though Alessandra has managed to get a job (through Fulvia’s mother’s latest boyfriend). There are considerable stresses in their marriage. In particular, Francesco won’t let her be involved in any of his resistance activities – it is too dangerous for a woman. De Céspedes really makes the point strongly about the role of women in such activities and when things go very wrong, she is naturally sympathetic towards Alessandra.

This may well be her most feminist book, telling how first Eleanora and then Alessandra are caught in a male-dominated world. Both are told by various people – both men and women – to just accept it. Eleanora is told that her husband in the husband and, therefore, what he says goes, while Alessandra’s family cannot understand why she would want anything like love when she has found a man who likes her. Ultimately, as de Céspedes has said in other novels, relationships between men and women are generally fraught and doomed to failure. Eleanora’s maid makes it quite clear that she has never had anything to with men as they are all animals, though she does kowtow to Alessandra’s father. But once again, de Céspedes gives us a first-class story about women trapped in their conventional Italian environment.

Publishing history

First published 1949 by Mondadori
First published in English 1952 by Macmillan