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Sibilla Aleramo: Una donna (A Woman at Bay; later: A Woman)

If you think that Elena Ferrante wrote the first Italian feminist autobiographical novel, you are nearly a hundred years out of date. This novel was first published in 1906, though probably written three or four years previously, and certainly set the tone for literary feminism in Italy. Indeed, it is almost certain that Ferrante read this book and Italian literary critics have compared the two. Though not well-known in the English-speaking world, though it has been translated into English and is readily available in English translation, it is well-known in Italy and elsewhere in continental Europe.

Aleramo gives us a straightforward autobiography but it is told from a feminist perspective and she freely comments on issues that arise in her life. Her childhood, she says, was generally a happy one. She adored her father and admitted that she was generally spoilt. He helped her with her studies. However, there was what she called a darkness in her life. Her father, like many men of the time, was dominating and his authority was absolute in the house. Her mother, however, was clearly not happy. She was, says Aleramo, the Cinderella of the house when she was a child. The family was not well-off and had many children and, clearly, not much attention paid to her, as a girl.

As she grew older, Aleramo felt more alone. She did not feel that she could talk to her mother, who had mental issues. When she went to school, she behaved well at school, but, at home, she was, she said, like an earthquake. She did get on with her homework, preferring to be competently alone, but she did bully her younger siblings. Things were not going well at home, as her father suddenly quit his job as a teacher, over a dispute. He then set up a business with a partner but that did not work out. Eventually, he was given a position in charge of factory and the family had to move away from Milan to the country. In this position, he was autocratic and Aleramo clearly does not feel entirely happy about this. More particularly, her mother is not adapting well and clearly not happy.

As she gets older, her father decides to end her studies and she comes and works for him in the factory. She quite enjoys this, particularly when she travels with him to Naples and Rome. However, there is a man whom she works with. She gets along with him but he is clearly interested in her romantically. She makes it clear that she will never marry as marriage is not good for women. Tragedy also strikes in the household when her mother seemingly attempts suicide. She fails but does not seem to recover. More particularly, her father now seems to more and more to keep away from the house, from his wife and from his children. She later hears from her amorous work colleague that it is known that her father has a mistress in the village. The local priest says that her mother’s problems are God’s judgement on the family and on the narrator in particular.

One day, at the office, the colleague starts to get more amorous, kissing her. She does not stop him and the next day, he rapes her. While being shocked by this, she also thinks that she now has a duty to accept him and marry him. Indeed, she starts to have a different view of marriage. Is it, indeed, every girl’s dream and should she embrace this dream? When she tells her mother, her mother is happy at the prospect of having a grandchild. Her father seems to be indifferent but does not nothing to the young man. She is still only fifteen and a half, while he is twenty. Eventually, they do get married.

It is not a happy marriage. She lives with his family and does not get on with them, not least because they are not educated like her. However, as a married woman, she is not allowed to work any more, something she misses very much. Her husband starts to get possessive and she is not allowed to have anything to do with any other men. While she does not particularly get on with her mother-in-law, she does sympathise with her as it is clear to her that all women of that class have just three thing in their lives: church, children and kitchen. She does have a son but it soon becomes clear that this life is not for her. An attempt at suicide does not help.

We follow her subsequent life, as she becomes involved in the feminist movement and works for a feminist magazine. She moves to Rome with her husband (when he loses his job) and son and then to Milan. We learn about the early feminist movement in Italy, inspired by what is happening in England and Scandinavia. Above all, we follow the problems with her marriage and her relationships with others, men and women, romantic and non-romantic.

What makes this book so fascinating is firstly the way Aleramo deeply examines her own motives and actions, including her attitude to marriage, her relationship with her mother, her father, her husband, her in-laws and others. She does not hold back on self-criticism and she changes her views over time, something she is very conscious of. Clearly, by the end of the book, we feel we know quite a lot about her. The second key feature is the feminism. She describes the early feminist movement in Italy, commenting on, for example, the Italian legal system, which is weighted against women, and also the way women are treated in Italy. There are numerous examples of this, e.g. the way Italian men worship their mothers but seem to despise other women or the way she is despised and even nicknamed the little devil because she shows some independence of spirit. She is not averse to criticising women. For example, when working at the feminist magazine, she expresses her dismay at the quality of books written by women, which are often simply pale imitations of popular books written by men.

So how does this book compare with Elena Ferrante? I think that it is definitely a better book than Ferrante’s Naples series but, having said that, I am sure that Aleramo would have considered Ferrante a worthy successor to her and would have very enjoyed reading her work.

First published 1906 by Treves, Milan
First published in English 1908 by G.P. Putnam