An early Italian feminist classic for readers of Elena Ferrante
Sibilla Aleramo (1876 – 1960) was an Italian feminist and writer. Her real name was Marta Felicina Faccio, but she wrote under a pseudonym. In 1906 she published her debut novel, the autobiographical Una Donna (A Woman).
The unnamed narrator tells of her girlhood in Milan. She adores her father, who indulges her with a fair amount of independence. All is not good at home, though. Her mother is clearly stifled by the narrow confines of her life, looking after three children, and is suffering serious mental health issues. The expected role of Italian women at this period is to be obedient to their husbands and eschew any kind of ambition.
The father soon gets a business opportunity in the south of Italy running a factory and the family pulls up stumps and leaves. By now the narrator is a teenager and also works at the factory. When a young man shows an interest in her, she tries to gently push him away, but ends up raped. Extraordinarily, she feels obliged to marry him. And so begins a life of misery and madness. They have a child, the marriage is endured for many years until a crisis is reached and a terrible choice must be made.
Una Donna comes down to us today a remarkably modern novel. There is not much about it that is dated or out of place. The writing is clear and simple (if at times a touch florid), describing in calm tones the suffocating and repressive lot of Italian women at the beginning of the 20th century. It is also avowedly feminist, calling out in a firm, reasoned voice the need for women to be treated with respect as intelligent beings. Aleramo spends a lot of time in Una Donna discussing the inner life of women – the emotional, intellectual and creative – and highlighting the need to access those freedoms that nourish mind, body and soul.
Highly respected in Italy, this fresh, accessible translation should bring Sibilla Aleramo many new readers in English.
A Woman, by Sibilla Aleramo. Penguin Modern Classics. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books