Thursday, 21 May 2020

A Woman by Sibilla Aleramo

A Woman by Sibilla Aleramo
First published in Italian as Una Donna by Società Tipografica Editrice Nazionale in Italy in November 1906. English language translation by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell published by Penguin Classics on the 7th May 2020.

My 1900s read for my 2019-20 Decade Challenge and a Classics Club Challenge book

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

'To love, to sacrifice oneself, and to submit! Was this what all women were destined for?'

When her carefree, aspirational childhood in a seaside town is brought brutally to an end, the nameless narrator of Sibilla Aleramo's blazing autobiographical novel discovers the shocking reality of life for a woman in Italy at the dawn of the twentieth century. As she begins to recognize the similarities between her own predicament and the plight of her mother and the women around her, she becomes convinced that she must escape her fate. Unashamed and remarkably ahead of its time, A Woman is a landmark in European feminist writing.

Sibilla Aleramo is widely acclaimed as Italy's first feminist author with her autobiographical novel, A Woman, being, I think, her best known work so when I spotted this new Penguin English language publication I knew I had to read the book, if only for its historical significance. Happily, I felt that the writing had aged well. I was strongly reminded of Caroline Norton's real-life battle (to gain access to her children after finally leaving her marriage) some seventy years earlier in 1830s England, which I learned about through reading Roaring Girls by Holly Kyte and Difficult Women by Helen Lewis. It's both amazing and depressing to realise that A Woman was first published 114 years ago - amazing that I am able to read and relate to Aleramo's words after such a long time has passed; depressing that there are still women trapped in identical situations today.

In A Woman, our narrator marries in ignorance at sixteen having convinced herself that the man who raped her must have done so for love and, now that he has 'made her a woman' she is obliged to stay with him. Caught between a cultural tradition that teaches women should be satisfied with just home, children and church, and subject to her controlling husband's increasingly frequent paranoia and violence, the Woman (who is really still emotionally a child herself) withdraws into herself. She shows clear signs of what we would recognise today as PTSD and depression, which grow worse as she is forcibly confined to one room in her house, a situation eerily similar to that in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper although at least here the Woman does have her infant son in whom to confide and the decor is pleasing.

A Woman veers between descriptions of daily life and philosophical musings on the role and purpose of women, both of which I found interesting, however these aspects are padded out with a lot of self-centered woe-is-me introspection that soon became just a little tiresome. I do appreciate that rushing depressed people is not remotely helpful, and A Woman accurately portrays her fluctuating descent into a very dark mental place. Unfortunately, for this heartless reviewer anyway, too much repetitive detail doesn't make for good fiction. There is a long section in the middle where the Woman reflects on her predicament and the penny drops that she is reliving her mother's life (her mother has been driven to an asylum by this point). She yo-yos between desperately needing to grasp intellectual independence for her own sanity while being equally desperate not to abandon her young son. Because, of course, she cannot legally rescue both herself and her child. He is his father's property and the father stakes personal pride far above his son's emotional well-being.

I am glad to have had this opportunity to read A Woman. I believe it is an important part of the feminist canon and should easily be as well known as The Yellow Wallpaper or The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Aleramo's questioning the assumption that marriage and, especially, motherhood should so take over women's lives that they have nothing left of themselves is still an extremely relevant and vital discussion today. A Woman does show its age in its style, but I appreciated how this novel simultaneously shows how far women have advanced and how much is still unchanged from this snapshot of life over a century ago.

Etsy Find!
by Hallion Clothing in
Belfast, Northern Ireland

Click pic to visit Etsy Shop

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Sibilla Aleramo / Contemporary fiction / Books from Italy


  1. I love how your pair tees and books.

    1. Feminist literature does go so well with a strongly worded tee!

  2. I loved the cover of the book when I saw it on bloglovin and had to click through and read your review. I adore the Yellow Wallpaper so I am quite ecstatic to see the comparison made, but I do understand how the repetition doesn't make for the best reading.

    1. It's such an eye-catching cover image and I imagine you could achieve that pose? I'd collapse!