Billed as the first Italian feminist novel, A Woman is a remarkable piece of work that charts the downward spiral of a woman to a point of no return, only to claw back and display courage in reclaiming her life.
This unnamed woman is our narrator and from a certain vantage point several years later, she is now looking back on her past and recalling the events that have led up to her present circumstances. So there’s the benefit of hindsight, and also the necessary distance gained from those events to be able to analyse her situation with a certain modicum of detachment.
Our narrator’s first memories are of her childhood in Milan, those carefree days when she is blessed with robust health, charm and intelligence. She is the apple of her father’s eye and they share a special bond, while her mother never stands in the way of her wishes. Our narrator’s formative years are shaped by her father who guides her in her studies and her reading. She always excels in class and there is every indication of a bright future in front of her.
However, being thoroughly self-absorbed, her idyllic childhood blunts her to the harsher realities at home. The father is a dynamic, charismatic man but quite the tyrant. The mother is a frail woman, resigned and unhappy. As a young girl, our narrator has no qualms about displaying contempt for her mother for being weak and afraid of her husband.
The months passed, my mother’s sadness grew, Father’s attentiveness towards her dwindled, as did the shared walks; and I, not a little girl anymore, continued to live my life as if it wasn’t threatened in any way. Why? I was as absorbed in my admiration for my father as I had been when a child, but this alone hardly accounts for my blindness. Perhaps Mother herself, in her painful reticence about her illness, was avoiding an all too immature confidante: one who was too exclusively devoted, moreover, to the very person who was the source of her suffering.
When the father is presented with an opportunity to manage and lead a factory, the family relocates from the bustling metropolis of Milan to a smaller working class seaside town in the South. It would mean a disruption in her studies, but our narrator is not daunted and is struck by the beauty of the place. She begins to show an interest in working at the factory and the father encourages that ambition.
Things coast along smoothly until a tragic event causes our narrator’s best laid plans to go completely awry. When in a fit of abject despair, the mother attempts suicide, our narrator is shocked to the core. The mother survives, but her actions cast a pall of gloom over the entire family.
Subsequently, the mother’s over apologetic stance and feeble attempts to placate the father (in vain) only make matters worse. But the incident casts a new light on the father and changes the way our narrator perceives him. Disillusioned on learning that her father is having an affair, he is no longer the ideal she considered him to be, and when during a heated argument she sides with her mother, she is fired from the factory.
And herein lies the irony – Utterly alone and anchorless, our narrator finally begins to understand her mother, of her travails, of why she is so unhappy in a loveless marriage. At her most vulnerable, our narrator is lured by the attentions of a man working at her father’s factory and she gives in to him, if only to escape the desolate environment at home. After a night when he sexually assaults her, she is coerced into marrying him, and from then on even the most fragile connection she shared with her father finally breaks leaving her isolated.
In her marital home, our narrator is faced with the painful reality that there is not much to distinguish between her own predicament and her mother’s plight. With love and respect virtually absent in the marriage, the husband is a devious, cruel man subjecting her to persistent mental and physical abuse.
Utterly tormented, the only silver lining is the birth of her child, a son whom she loves unreservedly, who gives her a fresh purpose in life, whose upbringing and welfare gets her through her darkest days. But even then, moments of desperation seep in, and eerily similar to what her mother went through, our narrator’s fragile state of mind ultimately snaps as she plunges rock bottom.
And yet, unlike her mother who has plunged into the depths of mental illness, our narrator escapes that fate on the strength of two things – her deep love for her son and a fire that burns inside her to chart a new path fuelled by her passion for writing. Her vocation for writing finds an outlet when she is offered a position at the offices of a feminist magazine in Rome. There, surrounded by like-minded people and serious thinkers, our narrator experiences a broadening of her mind and an expansion of her worldview.
I realized that after a prolonged paralysis, my critical facility had seemingly expanded and intensified; and at the same time I discovered that I had a kind of heartfelt nostalgia for all the things that my education had lacked. Poetry, music, the arts of colour and form remained almost unknown to me, while the whole of my body longed for the rapture they might bring; the thought by which I lived sometimes wanted to take flight, to mingle with light and with sound.
A Woman, then, is rich with ideas and crackles with weightier themes – the limitations imposed by marriage on women of ambition, the obstacles they face in a patriarchal society, and how motherhood can be a fount of infinite joy and a weakness at the same time. But the theme that towers above all others is how crucial it is for a woman to respect herself, lead an independent existence and have her own thoughts and opinions.
But I sometimes tormented myself by thinking of the book that needed to be written; a book about love and sorrow that would be both harrowing and inspirational, relentless and compassionate; that would show for the first time what it was really like to be a woman now, and that for the first time would inspire in those unhappy brothers of ours, men, both remorse for the past and desire for a better future…
Was there a woman in the world who had suffered what I had suffered, who had received from both animate and inanimate things the lessons I had received, and who would know how to extract the essence from such an experience, to create the masterpiece that could properly represent a life?
Given that this novel was published in 1906, the originality of ideas on display is pretty astonishing and way ahead of its time. This was an era when opportunities for women were pretty limited with not many avenues open to make a mark for themselves, they were still fighting for various rights (for instance, it was in 1911 that Italy’s first national Feminist Congress was formed which called for divorce rights for women). Yet Aleramo, through our narrator, questions why marriage cannot be a union of equal partners and how women need to fight for their own individuality to bolster their self-worth and in the process command respect from their children. She also explores how women have the right to lead a life outside of marriage and motherhood, a topic that sparks debate even today.
But in the early 1900s, when the odds were heavily favoured towards men in a marriage, our narrator knows that once she leaves her husband she will lose full access to her child, a notion she finds unbearable. The dilemma that confronts her, therefore, is this – Should she stay in a demeaning marriage for the sake of her child she loves deeply knowing fully well the loss of freedom that it involves, or should she escape her fate to pursue her dreams and hope that her son understands and respects her decision later?
Aleramo’s writing style is formal and pretty intense throughout, and the feverish tone of the worldviews and emotions expressed make it a tad difficult to read the book for longer stretches of time – while exhilarating, it also leaves you catching your breath, but in a good way. Indeed, given how the mood of the book is so passionate, it makes sense to savour this novel in measured doses to let it all sink in.
Fiercely bold, brave and eye-opening, A Woman, then, is a paean to feminism with its core message centred on a woman’s right to choose freely the destiny that she desires.
To love, to sacrifice oneself, and to submit! Was this what all women were destined for?