This semester I took an Italian Children’s Literature course, which has been an interesting juxtaposition to this class because Italy was only unified politically and geographically in 1861 . Even afterwards the central government/monarchy was shaky at best (you could say it still is). With this major political difference in mind and the fact that Catholicism permeated the homes of Italy, it’s been interesting to see the difference between the representation/freedom of women in Italy vs. Britain. This is particularly apparent in female authorship and the production of novels and journals. While Victorian England had acclaimed female authors such as the Bronte sisters and Elizabeth Gaskell, Italy lacked the same widespread readership and celebrity status around literary works/figures because until 1871, 80% of the population was illiterate! Therefore the readership was a minority and very elite. As literacy rates increased due to educational policies so did the role of female writers and readership. However, literary material was dominated by etiquette books and domestic novels (there are exceptions such as Anna Maria Mozzini’s literature on emancipation rather than virtue/marriage).
I thought I would share with you an excerpt from one of the class readings: For class we read an excerpt from Anna Caesar’s Proper Behaviour: Women, the novel and conduct books in 19th century Italy. Caesar argues that “what the proliferation of writings manifested was the widening gap between cultural constructions of femininity and women’s lives (29)”. Comportment books and journals for women were part of an important political agenda to domesticate women and provide a moral framework that women would then disperse in their homes. Women, though excluded from politics, were given the important task of forming Italy/unifying it through moral standards. Just like in Victorian England, Italy grappled with the double-image of womanhood. Italian women were supposed to be passive and segregated to the domestic sphere. Italian female writers struggled with the paradox of being submissive and writing-which was considered a public and scandalous activity—yet many of them were very successful. Still the ideology that “writing was an act of self-assertion at a time when self-effacement was considered proper behavior” continued to haunt the conscience of female writers of the 19th century (33).