Call for (female) novelists

Journals from the first half of the 19th century seems to a significant fact, concerning the social status of the novelists and the gender dimension of the research. In that period, Italian journalism was starting to become more independent from the French or English sources (see above) when it came to the reception and introduction of foreign culture in the peninsula. In fact, the original contributions started to be more and more every year, while the number of articles “copied” or adapted from foreign journals started to decrease sensibly. This means that the contents that started circulating about the novel, and specifically about the English novels, were the product of totally original reflections and meditations over the topic. This is not an irrelevant particular: after having been influenced by the foreign press, a more mature awareness of the particular social, economical, literary context was animating the journalism of the various Italian regions. The most relevant feature of this new trend concerns the involvement and the active role of women in the production of literature. Let us consider an example. The following excerpt, about female authors of novels, is taken from Giornale Pisano dei Letterati, 1806 (VI, p. 216):

Dopo gli eleganti romanzi delle de Tencin, delle de Fontaines, delle Graffigny, delle Riccoboni, è stato detto con qualche sorta di verità, che questo genere tra tutte le produzioni di spirito è quello di cui le donne sono più capaci. L’amore che ne è sempre il principale soggetto è il sentimento ch’esse meglio conoscono.

 

[After the elegant novels of the de Tencin, of de Fontaines, of Graffigny, of Riccoboni, it has been said with some sort of truth, that this kind of productions of the spirit is where women are more capable. Love is always the main subject, and it is the feeling that they know best.]

 

The journalist, clearly a man, prudently states that the novel might be the ideal genre for women writers. It could be said that after all this is just another sexist remark: women should not attempt the road to the poetical glory, and should prove themselves in a less prestigious literary format instead. Journals and pamphlets with this exact idea were circulating all over Europe in the long 18th century. But in this case there seems to be something more: the journalist does not speak depreciatively about the novels like in the previous examples we showed, and actually acknowledges that women are somehow superior when it comes to the topic of love, which was associated to the plots of most novels. Therefore, women should definitely occupy an important place in the literary panorama of the time, and they should do it by writing about what they know best. Also, since some pioneer women opened the path for the others with some excellent results, the public and the audience should expect some significant results from the gentil sesso.

What we have been trying to describe so far is made extremely clear by another article published in 1826 in Biblioteca Italiana, at that time one of the most prominent periodicals of the Milanese area and of the whole country. A (male) journalist wrote an article about the fact that Italy had still produced no significant novels until that moment, even if the Italian language would have been a good instrument and the Italian literary tradition an outstanding support. At one point in his essay, the journalist wrote

Più che agli uomini convien forse al sesso gentile questo genere di componimenti […]. E questo bene può ora l’Italia dalle donne aspettarsi, dappoiché la coltura dello spirito e lo studio delle filosofiche discipline qui ancora costituiscono nelle due primarie classi non l’infima parte della femminea educazione. Più soggette le donne al sentimento delle passioni, più sagaci nel seguirne gli andamenti, più studiose nel penetrare fra l’uman cuore e trarne profitto, aver debbono, ove intendano la letteratura, una naturale inclinazione ed attitudine a quel genere di libri, il cui scopo è quello di dipignere i costumi e lo stato della civile società, della quale formano esse la parte più soave e più bella; genere che non esige sempre volo d’immaginazione o vigore di raziocinio, ma piuttosto squisitezza di sentimento e diligenza di osservazione. […] Quanto non sarà più agevole alla vezzosa metà della specie nostra l’ottener nome trattando in prosa argomenti d’ immaginazione in un secolo assai più che agli studj poetici dedito alla morale ed alla filosofìa, e molto più se elleno alla naturale attitudine accoppieranno il corredo delle virtù domestiche? Così i giovani e le donne d’Italia non più sentirebbero il bisogno di pascere il lor cuore coi romanzi delle straniere nazioni; né inesperti volgarizzatori servirebbero in ciò sì facilmente l’avidità de’ librai; e fors’anco cesserebbe la guerra che a sì fatti libri venne dai vecchi nostri Aristarchi dichiarata.

 

[The genre is more suited for the gentle sex rather than for men […] And Italy can expect this from women, since here the culture of the spirit and the study of the philosophical disciplines still constitute in the first classes an important part of the female education. Women are more subject to the sentiment of passions, wittier in following its paths, more diligent in penetrating the human heart and in taking profit from it. They have, when they understand literature, a natural disposition to that kind of books, whose purpose is to depict the customs and the civil state of society, of which they represent the most suave and beautiful part. It is a genre that does not require flights of imagination or robust reasoning, but rather an exquisite sense of sentiments and a clever spirit of observation. […] How much easier will it be for the sweeter half of our species to acquire fame treating topics of imagination in prose, in a century keen on moral and philosophy rather than poetry, and even more if they will match to this natural attitude their domestic virtues? This way, the youngsters and the ladies of Italy would not feel the need to feed their hearts with novels coming from abroad; and also, no inexpert translator would easily help the greed of the book sellers; maybe, even the war carried against this genre by the many, old Aristarchus of our literary tradition would end]

 

This appears to be a “call for novels”, specifically addressed to Italian women. Surely, the domestic virtues are still perceived like a fundamental component of women personality, even for the artists. After all, women are still the sweetest, most lovely (therefore innocuous?) part of society. But besides this, the journalist clearly acknowledges and recognizes the superiority of women when it comes to the interpretation of passions, to the penetration of the human heart and to the depiction of society’s rituals and costumes. After having been for many decades the almost exclusive readers of the genre, it is time for women to capitalise this long training-experience, and to put it at the service of their natural attitude to the interpretation of sentiments and their spirit of observation. Even without pushing the interpretation of this article too far, it seems rather clear that it represents one of the first witnesses of an invocation for women empowerment in Italy, to be pursued through a specific kind of literature, which was not anymore facing the hostility experienced in the past. On the contrary, to quote the journalist, it was about time that a novel worth reading was published in Italy, as this achievement would also allow three important consequences. Firstly, to stop the everlasting xenophilia, that was historically perceived by many intellectuals like a threat for the Italian literary tradition. Secondly, to influence the book market, by slowing down the bad habits of the book sellers, which used to assign to inexpert people the translation of foreign books in order to save money and maximize their profits. Lastly, and most importantly, the rise of women novelists in Italy could put an end to the prejudices and the resistance the genre was encountering since the very beginning within the traditional literary milieu. Such a difficult challenge is now addressed to women, who are warmly invited to have an important spot in the Italian cultural and literary consortium

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