1919 was a landmark year for literary representation of desire between women in Italy, since two important novels were published, Il passaggio [The Passage], by Sibilla Aleramo, and Perfidie [Perfidies] by Mura (Maria Volpi Nannipieri), the romantic novelist and journalist.
I’ve written about these texts in my book. They are highly significant publications since despite the potential threat of censorship, and of personal criticism that was often directed at women who wrote about same-sex desire at this time, they both tackle sexual desire and love between women directly. It is actually a central element of both texts.
In Mura’s novel, two women, Sibilla and Nicla, withdraw from high society in Milan to live out an amorous idyll by the sea. The relationship is doomed to fail, following a familiar narrative pattern in which same-sex relationships end badly, often leading to misery and death. What is striking about this story is the detail we are given of the relationship as it unfolds. The narrative focus is on the two protagonists, and even though their relationship breaks up, there is no happy heterosexual ending to cancel out the same-sex love and desire we have read about. Mura wrote many romantic novels, most of which followed the conventions of the genre, recounting the trials and tribulations of a young female protagonist who eventually marries her hero. Some of her novels are quite transgressive for the time when they were written, depicting adultery for example, but this is the only text of hers that focuses on same-sex desire. It wasn’t censored, and she wasn’t openly harangued by the critics; they made quiet digs at her, saying that it was not her best work, and calling it a ‘youthful’ mistake. We don’t know what conversations were had behind closed doors with her editors, and she did not return to the topic, but the book sold relatively well: at least 9,000 copies. Of course, these were insignificant sales compared to other novels she wrote later, but still, it confirms that the novel circulated relatively widely. One of the things I find most fascinating about the novel is something that she writes in the introduction: she talks about a type of woman:
‘la donna quale la società del secolo dicannovesimo ha sognata, e quella del ventesimo sogna […] che riunisce in sé le debolezze di ieri e le libertà di domani […ma la quale] non è ancora sorta, non è ancora e non può ancora esistere’. (Mura 1919: 14-15)
[the woman who was dreamt of by nineteenth-century society, and is dreamt of by twentieth-century society […] who unites within her the weaknesses of yesterday and the freedoms of tomorrow, but who has not yet risen, does not and cannot yet exist].
Could it be that her protagonists are seeking to become this ‘dreamt-of’ woman? They haven’t quite managed it since she doesn’t exist at the time of writing, but it seems to me that Mura is inviting us to read the novel as a glimpse of a future of increased sexual freedom in which women are free to love whoever they choose; a time when relationships like that between Sibilla and Nicla may not be doomed to fail just because of their sex.
Aleramo’s Il passaggio is a different kind of novel since it has a strong autobiographical basis. It recounts a three-way relationship between Aleramo, Lina Poletti, a writer and scholar, who Aleramo met at the first National Conference of Italian Women in Rome, in 1908, and the poet Giovanni Cena with whom Aleramo was living at the time. The novel is written in a lyrical, poetic style, and imbued with passionate emotions. We hear how Aleramo fell in love with Poletti, who she calls ‘la favola’ [the fairy tale], and a ‘fanciulla maschia’ [male girl]. She talks about how the world seem ‘transfigured’ now that she has kissed a woman, and how their love is taking her to a higher plane of ecstasy. However, despite her eulogy to same-sex love, the relationship breaks down. This appears to be caused largely by the fact that Aleramo continued to live with Cena while she was involved with Poletti, and in the novel (as well as in her letters and diary from this period) seems to want them both to agree to a polyamorous relationship. As the text ends she is alone, but undaunted; she feels words dance out of her, drawing her on to new possibilities.
Aleramo’s novel is an unapologic celebration of unconventional desire that transgresses not only the categories of heterosexuality/homosexuality, but also of dyadic monogamy. It was well reviewed in France where critics applauded the quality of the prose and the emotional power of the work; in Italy, reviewers were less enthralled, and the novel did not enjoy the success of her previous autobiographical work, Una donna [A Woman] (1906). Yet like Mura’s novel, this text was not censored. As I explore in my book, Aleramo’s approach to same-sex desire was complex and often quite problematic; however she was a trailblazer who broke taboos and who narrated her transgressive desire and hopes for the future in a bold and compelling narrative.
Aleramo, Sibilla. 1919. Il passaggio. Milan: Treves.
Aleramo, Sibilla. 1999 . Una donna. Milan: Feltrinelli.
Mura, 1919. (Maria Volpi Nannipieri) Perfidie. Milan: Sonzogno.