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Dacia Maraini: La lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa (The Silent Duchess)

This is a story about an eighteenth century Sicilian duchess. Like others of her period, class and sex, she has the standard life. She lives a sheltered life but sees the violence around her. She marries an older relative when she is only thirteen, gives birth to several children, reads, becomes a widow and tries to have some sort of post-marital life. The only difference from others of her class is that she is deaf and dumb. She does not seem able to lip-read so all her communication is in writing, passed between her and her family, her servants and the people she meets. Because she is unable to have the normal communication with people, except through these notes, much of her time is inevitably spent in her own mind with her own perspective, shut off from the world.

She lives in a violent age. We learn, later in the book, that her silence is due to the fact that she was raped when a young child by an elderly uncle. Since that time she has blocked off the world. But that is not the only violence she is exposed to. She sees a young boy hanged for a petty crime. She watches two heretics – one man and one woman – burned at the stake. Her servant is arrested and beaten up. Of course, the very clear point is that it is a man’s world – particularly in eighteenth century Sicily but, presumably, also in late twentieth century Italy when this novel was written.

For Marianna, trying to be herself is difficult. She is clearly better read and more intelligent than anyone around her – well versed in Voltaire and Hume, for example. She clearly tries to have an intellectual life, reading a lot and spending a lot of money trying to track down relatively rare books. And she carefully observes what is going on around her – both the political life and the domestic life. Sex, for example, is, despite her previous traumatic experience, something disgusting but no more than that. When she is first married, her”uncle-husband” as he is called, rapes her. She runs back to her parents and is promptly shipped back to her husband. In the future, she shuts her eyes, except on one occasion when her husband again rapes her but while she is asleep and, on awaking, she curiously observes, from close up, his graying hair and, when he retreats, his erect penis. Her other main encounter with sex is when she catches her maid in flagrante delicto but, again, intellectual curiosity is her main emotion, despite the fact that she feels that she should be shocked.

Maraini gives us, in her silent duchess, an excellent portrait of 18th century Sicily but, more importantly, she gives us a portrait of a woman – of women – cut off, isolated by the male world. Her decisions are made for her – by her father, then her husband and then her brother and her son. She is not allowed to make any decisions for herself. She is both deaf and dumb.

Publishing history

First published in Italian 1990 by Rizzoli
First English translation 1992 by Peter Owen
Translated by Anna Camaiti Hostert