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Matilde Serao is widely regarded as the most successful Italian woman journalist of the nineteenth century as well as being an important writer of fiction. A great observer of life, Serao focused her writing directly on the most pressing problems of a newly unified Italy, urban poverty, and the North/South divide. Historian and critic Benedetto Croce said of her that she had an "imagination that is limpid and alive"; Nobel Laureate Giosuè Carducci called her the greatest woman writer in Italy; and Gabriele ...
Matilde Serao is widely regarded as the most successful Italian woman journalist of the nineteenth century as well as being an important writer of fiction. A great observer of life, Serao focused her writing directly on the most pressing problems of a newly unified Italy, urban poverty, and the North/South divide. Historian and critic Benedetto Croce said of her that she had an "imagination that is limpid and alive"; Nobel Laureate Giosuè Carducci called her the greatest woman writer in Italy; and Gabriele D'Annunzio dedicated a novel to her. She was apparently on the short list for the Nobel Prize in 1926, which ultimately went to the Sardinian writer Grazia Deledda.
This collection, the first to make Serao’s short stories available in English translation, reflects this naturalistic writer’s interest in the everyday drama of the lives of women in the Italy of her day. In Serao’s spare and simple prose, the young women of turn-of-the-century Naples come to life, negotiating the details of school and work, church and marriage, in a world circumscribed by fathers and chaperones, fiancés and bosses. Infused with the writer’s deep sense of humanity, their quietly involving stories—at once so poetic and so ordinary—attest to the transformative power of literature, and to the promise that even the most humble life holds.
While the eight o'clock bell was ringing, the students began to enter the very long, very dark, narrow corridor. Through the door that opened onto the stairway, framed by an iron halo in order to shed a little light on that humid alley of a corridor, came the day students; through the opposite door, which was small and half-closed and opened onto the boarding school, the boarders appeared, two by two. And immediately, two enormous long lines formed: along the left wall, closed, unbroken by any doors, were the day students; along the right wall, which was broken up with four doors, three classrooms, and the principal's office, stood the boarders.
"Now, ladies!" the student de Donato had already exclaimed three times. She was a large young woman of twenty-eight from Avellino who had been going to make her debut as a singer and then had lost her voice.
But the boarders didn't hear the signal; the day students went on chatting among themselves, with their hats still on their heads, their overcoats buttoned, their skirts hiked up so that they wouldn't get dirty, muddy shoes, books under their arms, holding a box of compasses, a roll of paper, or a paper bag containing their lunch, exuding all the humidity of that rainy morning. The boarders were quieter, in their dry gray dresses, their white collars, with black velvet ribbons in their hair, their books tied together with string or with a rubber shoelace, but Carmela Fiorillo, the kind one with black eyes and a purple mouth, had a nosebleed, as usual; Alessandrina Fraccacreta, the ugly, sentimental one, had a discharge from her right eye that made her look terrible, in spite of the powder that she secretly used and her hairdo, for which she was always being punished; Ginevra Barracco blew her nose constantly, crying without meaning to; Giovanna Abbamonte had a hangnail on her left hand, after having had one on her right hand; and all the boarders had the unhealthy pale look of girls living in a damp place who eat poorly and sleep with the gas on. Sing? Neither the day students nor the boarders felt like singing that morning: the day students were already tired out from their walk and from getting wet in the rain and from the mud underfoot; the boarders were depressed by that great Jesuit convent that oozed water through every wall and that seemed on the verge of collapse.
"Now, ladies," shouted Signorina de Donato, clapping her hands and intoning the first note.
Distractedly, about fifty students listlessly sang the first verse of the morning song:
I have a divine father in heaven Who gives me light and life And who invites me to the banquet Of eternal truth.
It was slow music, with notes that were prolonged simply, as elementary as the first syllables of the alphabet; the singers sang without passion or warmth, understanding nothing, as though they were singing in a dream, and they pronounced the words as though they were in Hebrew. But the other hundred students weren't singing; a great mute pantomime of smiles, glances, signs, and smirks were exchanged between the lines, among the day students and boarders. A very severe rule from the principal forbade any relationship between day students and boarders, but because of this very fact, day students and boarders were united in couples and groups, so firmly that no punishment could undo them; because of this very fact, ardent friendships had sprung up that bordered on the passionate, invincible attractions that defied every punishment, and a continuous exchange of services-letters mailed, letters taken to the post office, cheap novels lent in secret, coins and oat soap passed from hand to hand; because of this very fact, there was nothing in these young heads but constant plotting to elude the surveillance of their superiors. Sing? In this hour that they were all gathered together, the strange network of love and hate, attraction and dislike, impatience and nervousness, tranquil affections and jealousies was evidently thick and sound. While the singers, so indifferent and bored and sleepy, sang the words
I have an earthly mother Who scolds and consoles me, With angelic words Of comfort and kindness
one could see the passionate look that Amelia Bozzo, a boarder in the upper class, turned on Caterina Borrelli, a day student in the third class with a pug nose and nearsighted glasses that gave her a look that was part ironic, part disdainful, and Caterina Borrelli twirled in her fingers a wilted rose that Amelia Bozzo had given her three days before. Gabriella Defeo, a little blond boarder in the third class, affectedly turned her back on Carolina Mazza, a day student in the third class, with whom she had argued the day before, and Carolina Mazza pretended to be reading out of a notebook so that she didn't have to raise her eyes. Artemisia Jaquinangelo, with her hair cut short like a man's, her masculine face, and her skinny body like an adolescent boy's, wasn't singing, because Giuditta Pezza, a day student in the first class, no longer loved her; Giuditta Pezza was smiling at Maria Donnarumma, but to no avail; Maria Donnarumma was vainly trying to find out whether Annina Casale had found any mail for her at the post office; Maria Valente was showing a card from a distance to her friend Gaetanina Bellezza, who was called "the Little Bottle" because she was small and round; a little bottle of scent that Clothilde Marasca had bought for Alessandrina Fraccacreta, the sentimental, flirtatious ugly girl, was being passed from hand to hand. The voices of those fifty lazy, bored girls, who were thinking of nothing, grew stronger, and they sang more and more mechanically, saying:
I have a country to which is sacred My heart and my mind Which in the hour of danger Will keep me ever faithful.
The others were silent. The day students were getting tired of singing that stupid music and those silly words, in that dark corridor, without piano accompaniment, still wearing their rain-soaked clothes, with their cold feet and their arms tired from holding their books and notebooks, their stomachs barely warmed from a bad half cup of coffee that had been reheated from the night before; they were tired of singing, with the prospect of seven hours of classes before them. Especially those in the third class, who would be teachers in the upper grades and were overwhelmed with work, since they had to study the most disparate things and were subject to constant torment, didn't have the energy to sing. Giuseppina Nobilone was the unhappiest of all; she didn't understand anything, either about physics, or geometry, or arithmetic, or geography; she was always failing Italian language, and every six months she would pass, by dint of pushing, screaming, tears, exhortations, and prayers. Giulia de Sanctis learned all her lessons by heart, with immense fatigue, but if she happened to lose her thread, the whole class made fun of her. Cleofe Santaniello was intelligent and studious, but when she was called on to recite the lesson, she was seized with such trembling that the professors thought that she was a lazy, stupid student. Emilia Scoppa had never been able to learn not to write receive with an ie and accommodate with one c; Maria Caresse was excellent in history and hopeless in geography, while Checchina Vetromile was so good in everything that the professors did nothing but call on her, which worried her and made her feel under greater stress every day. What a strange idea, to make girls sing who have to take exams in thirteen subjects: arithmetic, Italian grammar and language, physical and natural sciences, history, geography, plane and solid geometry, morals, religion, line drawing, pedagogy, French language, calligraphy, and women's work! Those fifty who didn't care at all, who made fun of the exams or didn't think about them-stupefied more than ever by the monotony of that rhythm beat out by the clapping hands of de Donato, who was taking seriously her role as choirmaster-went on singing themselves hoarse:
There are three rays in a flame That warm my heart and mind, I, a Christian and a devoted daughter, Will always live as a citizen.
Here the morning singing would have ended, but this last verse had to be repeated twice in a row, for emphasis, by the whole school, sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and contraltos. The repetition on a higher note drew in another twenty voices so that there seemed to be a breath of gaiety in that long, narrow, dark room, but the saddest ones kept the closed mouths and blank faces of people who live inwardly, suffering in their hearts, lacking the courage to tell anyone else about their sorrows. Giulia Pessenda was thinking about her mother, a poor Piedmontese widow who went out to care for the sick and women in childbirth for two francs a day and who still blushed at having to present a certificate of poverty so that at least the school would buy her books; Clemenza Scapolatiello was dying of undeclared love for her sister's fiancé; Giuseppina Mercanti was forced to live in a house with her father's mistress, next to a sister-in-law who was cheating on her brother, in an atmosphere of corruption that robbed her of a sixteen-year-old's ingenuousness; Lidia Santaniello, at eighteen, knew that she had tuberculosis and prayed to God that he would at least let her live for another five or six years so that she could work and help out at home until her brother grew up. All of them were incapable of singing. But the one who never sang was Giustina Marangio, with that pale face of an old lady of eighteen, that viper's head who always knew all her lessons, who would never explain them to any classmate, who never lent her notebooks or books to anyone, who laughed when her classmates were scolded, whom her professors adored, who had no friends, and who was the embodiment of the worst evil, the great malice of youth, without a vein of kindness or light of gaiety.
After the singing, a great stir took place, as happens when military ranks are formed: eighty-five girls, all of the upper class, had disappeared from the library, a vast room that was all oak bookcases, with shelves that were empty of books, black and dusty with wormholes; the forty-two in the second class had gone into their lesson in a big, cold, whitewashed room that was elegantly adorned with two maps; and the thirty-one in the third class had gone reluctantly into the damp, low little room where their class took place. Through the doors, a loud chatter was heard, since the professors had not yet arrived, but the long corridor remained empty; here and there on the floor were muddy footprints left by the girls' boots. And a girl who was leaning against the jamb of the door that opened onto the stairway seemed to be contemplating those footprints. Since she was standing against the light, one couldn't make out the features of her face: one could only see that she was of medium height, thin, and dressed in black. She had been there since the girls had started singing, and she had listened, without taking a step, without daring to move forward; she had seen the classes form and disappear from the door of the classrooms, and nothing had been able to make her move. Now a rustle could be heard: it was Rosa, the caretaker, a big, tall woman with enormous feet and knotty wrists, who looked like a policeman dressed as a woman, wrapped in a wool skirt with big red and black checks and a red wool shawl. She was using a big noisy broom to sweep the mud out of the corridor, and she was muttering, in her usual good woman's grumbling way. When she got to the door, she raised her eyes and saw that little black figure.
"What do you want?" she asked her sharply.
"The principal," murmured the other, in a faint voice.
"He's not here."
"Isn't he going to come? Couldn't I wait for him?" And she asked it with such sweetness that Rosa was moved.
"He'll be here soon; go ahead and wait."
And she continued her noisy sweeping. Encouraged, the little black figure had the courage to walk down the corridor and to glance through the open door into the third class. The girls were all away from their desks, both boarders and day students, chattering and yelling: in vain was the student supervisor trying to impose order from the teacher's desk. She was a big fat girl, white, very good, not very intelligent, very precise and quiet, who had gotten to be supervisor only because of the gold stars that she had earned in conduct, and she was ill suited for that job: she didn't know how to lose her temper; she didn't have the courage to get angry with her classmates; her nice fat girl's inertia made it impossible.
"Oh, ladies, I beg you, quiet down!"
"Oh, Supervisor, my friend!" quipped Borrelli, pushing her glasses up on her nose, "What's this? You're affecting a Tuscan manner?"
"She's doing it to flirt with Radente, the Italian professor," added Artemisia Jaquinangelo, passing her hands through her hair like a man.
"Radente's not coming, Radente's not coming," exclaimed Defeo, the little blond, clapping her hands.
"It's barely eight; the bell rang fifteen minutes early," said Costanza Scalera in a low voice.
And she got out her watch. Costanza Scalera, a boarder, was considered a great lady because of this watch, the only one in the class: and she really looked like a lady, with her big, dark, curly head, wide green eyes, a very gentle smile, and a very elegant way of moving, but her great advantage was in fact that little gold watch, which she took out every minute. Someone had dared whisper in class that Costanza Scalera's sister mended silk sweaters, but that very aristocratic little gold watch had made that seem like slander.
Now the little black figure had arrived at the end of the corridor, walking slowly; in a corner there was a little zinc sink that was painted blue; a loose faucet dripped water into it, like an occasional tear; a small lead pail was attached to the faucet by a metal chain. Seeing that she was alone, the little figure dared to turn on the faucet, let a little water run first to rinse out the pail, then drank. But the water was warm, as water from a pump always is, and it had the bad metallic taste of stored water. She bent her head and dropped the pail; she went back toward the entrance, glancing timidly again at the third class, which she would never enter if the director didn't come. Some of the girls were sitting: Giuseppina Nobilone was going crazy, imagining that four professors were going to call on her to recite the lesson, and she was looking blankly at her stack of books; de Sanctis was sitting with her hands in an old muff knitted of black wool, staring fixedly at the wall and repeating to herself a passage by Passavanti; Emilia Scoppa was rereading her Italian language homework for the tenth time, worrying because she couldn't find the spelling mistakes that the professor would find in quantities; Checchina Vetromile was writing a quotation in a notebook.
Excerpted from Unmarried Women by Matilde Serao
Copyright © 2007 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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