Toronto University Press, 2007

This book is a history and analysis of the representation of motherhood in Italian literature from 1886 to 1997, in the context of the historical, social, ideological, religious and demographic background of twnetieth century Italy. It traces the changes and events that affected Italian women throughout the twentieth century and their influence on the experience and literary representation of motherhood. While there is an abundance of literary depictions of the mother as an object viewed in relation to the son/daughter (from Giovanni Pascoli to Vivian Lamarque), what Benedetti brings together in her valuable study is the representation of the maternal figure as subject, and hence of motherhood as a woman’s experience from her point of view, which can be traumatic, desired, feared, inescapable, rewarding, enslaving, absorbing, paramount, or represented in idealised or mythical terms.

Italian writers who have contributed, in varying degrees, to the literary portrayal of the subject of motherhood analysed by Benedetti are: Carolina Invernizio, Neera (Anna Radius Zuccari), Carla Prosperi, Annie Vivanti, Luigi Pirandello, Sibilla Aleramo, Maria Di Borio, Grazia Deledda, Giovanni Verga, Margherita Sarfatti, Ada Negri, Gianna Manzini, Matilde Serao, Maria Luisa Fiumi, Paola Drigo, Alba De Céspedes, Giuseppe Marotta, Natalia Ginzburg, Fausta Cialente, Elsa Morante, Dacia Maraini, Carla Cerati, Oriana Fallaci, Clara Sereni, Fabrizia Ramondino, Elena Ferrante, Cristina Comencini, Francesca Sanvitale, Antonia Pozzi, Susanna Tamaro, Valeria Viganò. This obviously does not cover the whole canon of women’s writing in Italy, and on the other hand the selection includes male-authored texts as well as texts that are deservedly forgotten as Maria Di Borio’s UNA MOGLIE, 1909 (p. 32) but representative of contemporary conceptions of motherhood and hence indicative of the influence exercised by the dominant ideology and moral codes.

Though the book follows a chronological order, the author effectively highlights for each period the crucial factors that characterised that time: ‘Mother at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century’ (Chapter I, pp. 12–42), from 1886 to the Twenties, outlines the establishment of a new notion of motherhood as emotional bond (not at all to be taken for granted in the previous century) and, among other facets, the conflict between creativity and motherhood that is depicted in works like Pirandello’s SUO MARITO, Vivanti’s I DIVORATORI (a title ominously referring to the offspring) and the highly controversial UNA DONNA by Aleramo. ‘Resilience and Resistance: The Fascist Years’ (Chapter 2, pp. 43–73) shows how the fascist ideal of madri prolifiche never made it to becoming a popular theme in literature, which portrayed rather the subtleties of motherhood as a ‘secret, privileged relationship’, the ‘principle of mythical regeneration’, a ‘form of servitude handed down from mother to daughter’, and so on. ‘Questioning Motherhood’ (Chapter 3, pp. 74–93) traces the fundamental changes in the notion of motherhood from post-war years to the social upheavals of the Seventies that, among other things, posed new ideological conflicts in the way emancipation and motherhood were considered to be antithetical. Benedetti explores the subtle contradictions and nuances in Morante’s ‘mythical’ mothers, Fallaci’s letter to an unborn child that leads to the acknowledgment of a woman’s power to deny life but not to give it, and in the realisation that ‘la maternità non è tutto, non può essere tutto’ in Cerati (p. 87). ‘Struggling with the Mother’ (Chapter 4, pp. 94–113) provides an insightful analysis of the relationship between feminism, daughters and mothers, and the crucial topos of the city in Ramondino’s ALTHÉNOPIS and Ferrante’s L’AMORE MOLESTO. This chapter inevitably refers the reader to Adalgisa Giorgio’s seminal work on the mother–daughter relationship in WRITING MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS. RENEGOTIATING THE MOTHER IN WESTERN EUROPEAN NARRATIVES BY WOMEN (2002). ‘Mothers without Children’ (Chapter 5, pp. 114–22) offers a novel interpretation of motherhood as an attitude independent of biological factors that develops alongside the social practice of affidamento, and is exemplified by Viganò’s PROVE DI VITE SEPARATE and Maraini’s DOLCE PER SÉ.

The theoretical framework for this study is provided by international gender criticism, as represented by Adrienne Rich, Marianne Hirsch, Nancy Chodorow and Sara Ruddick, together with the philosophical revisions of the Diotima group. It is no coincidence that these critical contributions, as well as laying the foundation for a conceptualization of motherhood, appear to become more pertinent in the discussion of either more controversial texts such as those by Aleramo and Fallaci, or in the works from the Eighties onwards discussed in last two chapters.

It is inevitable that an overview of motherhood across the whole of Italian twentieth-century literature should touch only briefly upon some works and privilege others, but this, far from being a shortcoming, makes the study extremely focussed and engaging. Benedetti succeeds in finding the delicate balance between completeness within the set boundaries, focus, and depth of analysis, while providing the reader with the background that is essential for a clear understanding and contextualization of the fascinating subject of motherhood in literary texts.

[Vilma De Gasperin]