I'm reading a Virago reprint from the 70s, translated by Rosalind Delmar. There are times, describing the book to others, that I’ve doubted this and felt the urge to double-check. But indeed, A Woman, by Sibilla Aleramo – who earlier in her career wrote journalism and literary criticism under the name Rina Pierangeli Faccio – is astonishingly sharp in its feminist criticism of the family structure.
The novel, relatively short, is a survey of one woman’s life, beginning in small-town Italy where her father owns a factory. Married at 15 years old, the unnamed narrator struggles to balance the responsibilities of her home and husband with her own intellectual and spiritual development. She begins to feel acutely claustrophobic in the arrangement, and doubts, at times, her own sanity, wondering whether her aspirations are self-delusion.
But she has some outlets that briefly illuminate the possibility of an alternative life. One of the reasons this portrait of a woman’s life feels so modern for its time, beyond its searing insights into the psychological demands of a life resigned to domestic drudgery, is that she has the ability to write and work, at one point moving the whole family to Rome after securing a job on a women’s fashion periodical and becoming, briefly, the chief breadwinner.
Driven to write serious feminist criticism, the job does not satisfy her intellectually; she likens the magazine’s commercial, poppy style of politics to the latest fashion in hats. But still, “I loved that Roman autumn,” she writes about the first burst of freedom afforded to her by writing. “I walked through the city, savouring the mystery and the charm of everything I saw, and giving it all symbolic value in my mind.”
In the third section of the book, the narrator, once more consigned to the home, decries the societal expectation of motherly self-sacrifice. “At that moment I felt like everyone I had known, including my mother, my sisters and my brother, were like passing ghosts who had never really known me at all, had never discovered what deep feelings I had...” A Woman remains relevant, more than 100 years later, for its deep appeal to self-fulfillment, self-expression and creativity.