Treasures from afar: Sibilla Aleramo


Photo: Mario Nunes Vais

Una donna. A woman. And yet, the seemingly unspecific choice of title is rather misleading. For the almost exclusively autobiographical story of Rina Faccio (The pseudonym Sibllia was adopted from a name given to her by a lover) is anything but vague. We find ourselves in Italy, at the turn of the nineteenth century. Aleramo’s Italy differs significantly from that which we know today; her pages immerse the reader in a stiflingly religious and patriarchal environment in which women possess neither legal nor personal autonomy. It is with painstaking detail that Aleramo, in tracing her own development from a ‘free and happy’ child to a woman chained to an abusive husband, depicts the degradation of not only her life, but that of other women at this time. The novel is written by one woman, for every woman (all potential Chaka-Khan references aside).

I have, then, at least briefly, given some introduction to the circumstances against which the protagonist is fighting. Whilst the novel could be described as a Bildungsroman in some sense, the journey to emancipation is by no means presented as easy. The depiction of the sheer extent to which one may have to sacrifice in order to obtain their freedom adds a poignant nuance to this journey and holds a certain relevance for the wider question of what constitutes freedom today. What makes Aleramo’s novel so captivating is that the sombre testimony of the protagonist is not simply resigned; the emotions and passion that her words evoke show inspiring determination and courage in the face of adversity. Alas, have I descended into the realm of cheesiness? Forgive me if I have done so, but I feel that one cannot fail to be moved by the poignant and genuine depiction of the frustrated, lonely and marginalised protagonist. In a modern society that has made so much progress in terms of women’s emancipation, it is still important to reflect on the relevance that texts such as this may have. The issues that Aleramo raises such as rape, domestic violence, and the sacrifice for motherhood are by no means absent from society in both an internal and international context.  However, whilst there is a clear gender-based aspect indicated by the novel’s title, there is another form of emancipation in the novel that is relevant to all areas of the gender spectrum: that of establishing and maintaining one’s own subjective identity. Aside from legal and political status, Aleramo also depicts the struggle of establishing one’s own sense of self-identity independent from societal norms. In short, Una Donna is relevant to marginalised identities in all ages as she encourages those who may not always have used their voice to speak.


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