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Grazia Deledda: Marianna Sirca (Marianna Sirca)

Like many of her books, this one is set in Nuoro in Sardinia. Our heroine is the eponymous Marianna Sirca. Her father is a farmer but her uncle is a priest and therefore better-off. When younger she had been offered a deal. She would live and look after her uncle and would inherit his property as a reward. She was to be a little caged bird in exchange for a possible inheritance. For the past two years he has been very disabled and bedridden and it has been very hard work looking after him but he has now died, which is when the book opens.

She has inherited his estate. However her father and the housekeeper recommend that she get some rest in a little farmhouse she owned. One thing that she had learned over the course of her life – she is now thirty, though, as she says, she still scarcely knew anything of love – is to be always obedient. But she liked everything to be in order, cleaned, tidied away, belonging to herself alone.

She finds peace in the farmhouse. Two visitors arrive to see her. There is a cousin, Sebastiano, an older man, a widower and once, perhaps, a possible husband but no more. However, there is a tall handsome man somewhat younger than her. He is Simone Sole. They had worked together when both were much younger but he is now a bandit. Bandits were plentiful in Sardinia in that period and he does not hide his profession and everyone seems aware of it.

It seems that he had also worked as a servant in Marianna’s uncle’s household, albeit with a lesser status. While she was a servant, she was the priest’s niece and heir apparent. Simone came from a respected family that had fallen on hard times. Both parents had health problems and there were five sisters, who, because of their poverty, could not find husbands.

One day Simone suddenly disappeared from the house and, as we learn, became a bandit. He had joined up with another young man called Costantinowho had become a bandit after killing a man who was abusing his mother. The pair are not very good bandits, reluctant to spill blood or rob priests or do anything except for what we might call petty theft. You and I are not suited to being bandits. We were born as pure as churchwardens, and we shall die the same simple souls. As a result they live in a cave, living off the land. Occasionally other, more ferocious bandits want them to join up with them but they are reluctant to do so. Other bandits can be vicious. Fidela, Marianna’s housekeeper, tells of what happened in her previous position and it was brutal. However, we also learn that bandits sometimes have a good reason for turning to banditry, such as Costantino’s reason – defending the honour of a woman. A man has a right to have what belongs to him. I’m a real man and what’s mine is mine and woe betide anyone who lays a hand on it, Simone says, to which Marianna retorts nothing on this earth is ours because we are only passing through.

It gradually becomes apparent that the two are interested in one another and she eagerly awaits his occasional visits. Indeed, one of the strengths of this novel is the clear feeling that the two have for one another while, at the same time, realising there are considerable impediments to any sort of romantic relationship between the two of them.

From his side, he accepts that he is a bandit, which is still illegal in Sardinia and that to give up banditry, as he wants to do, would mean prison, probably a relatively short sentence but prison nevertheless. Moreover, he is still concerned about the traditional view that the man is the breadwinner and it would be difficult for him to earn an honest living.

For her part, she is well aware that marrying a (former) bandit would be socially unacceptable. When she first suggests the idea, her father, Sebastiano and Fidela are all strongly opposed and determined to do whatever it takes to prevent such a union.

But this is something of a feminist novel. All her life, Marianna has been told what to do , first by her father and then by her priest-uncle. She has accepted this as the natural order of things but now she is the boss. She is independent, well-off and beholden to nobody, and she is determined to be her own woman and do what makes her happy. But abandoning thirty years of conditioning is easier said than done. You should listen to what your loved ones say, she is frequently told and, of course, they are not concerned with her happiness but with doing what is, in their view, right, which means following the social conventions of their class.

The struggles of both Marianna and Simone with their own consciences, with their nearest and dearest and with what they feel is most likely to make them happy are what this book is about and Deledda tells her story very well. We can sympathise with Marianna and Simone while recognising, even if not agreeing with the opposing view, even if this is set well over a hundred years ago in a society with different mores from ours.

iFrst published in 1915 by Fratelli Treves
First English translation in 2006 by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press
Translated by by Jan Kozma (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press); Graham Anderson (Dedalus)