Serao, Matilde (1856-1927)

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Matilde Serao was a journalist, novelist, and short story writer, and was one of the best-known women writers of her time. Indeed, many literary historians believe that she had been posed to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926 and lost it to Grazia Deledda only because of Serao's failure to align herself and her newspaper completely with the policies of the Fascist regime.

Serao was born in Greece of an Italian father, Francesco Serao, who had emigrated from Naples after the turmoil of 1848, and a Greek mother, Paolina Borrely. Her family returned to Italy in 1860, and Serao would pass almost the whole of her life in Naples. There she received her teacher's diploma and started work for the state telegraph. Her preoccupation in her early works with employment opportunities for lower and middle-class women stems from her understanding of the lives of working women and the deplorable working conditions to which they were subjected. Serao moved to Rome in the earlier 1880's to work for a newspaper and there met Edoardo Scarfoglio (1860-1917), who would become her husband in 1885 and who was her journalistic collaborator for many years. (Some sources cite 1884 as the year of her marriage.) Serao returned to Naples with Scarfoglio after the failure of their newspaper "Il corriere di Roma." They had four sons together, but theirs was a tumultuous union which ended in a legal separation in 1902. (Serao eventually had another child at the age of 48 with her lover, a Neapolitan lawyer.) It is generally agreed that her separation from Scarfoglio allowed the conservative Serao to become slightly more liberal in her political views, since she no longer felt the need to echo her husband's reactionary political line. After their separation, Serao started her own newspapers, La Settimana and Il Giorno, the first Italian woman to accomplish such a feat. Serao ran Il Giorno until her death in 1927. She died as she lived, sitting at her desk.

Serao wrote in many different genres and on a variety of subjects. Her innumerable journalistic works include articles on the south of Italy, and Naples in particular, on poverty, work opportunity for women, fashion, literature, and society, to name a few. She wrote dozens of novels and stories, and they also run the spectrum of genres. Her first novels (such as Cuore infermo, 1881; Addio, amore!, 1890; Fantasia, 1893) follow the sentimental, late-Romantic tradition, and often include a female double. However, they break with tradition in that the real subject of their story is not the heterosexual love affair, but the relationship between the opposing female selves. They are also unique in their lack of a typical happy ending. The most acclaimed of Serao's works are undoubtedly those that adhere to a severe realism that liken her to the writers of Verismo. In these works Serao exposes the social ills of southern Italy: extreme poverty, political corruption, class differences. What are perhaps her two best-known novels are of this stamp: Il ventre di Napoli (1884), which discusses the government's failure to aid the Neapolitan people during a cholera epidemic, and Il paese di Cuccagna (1891), which examines the devastation wrought by the Neapolitan lotto on the lives of the participants. Her later works are both melodramatic and Gothic (examples are Il delitto di via Chiatamone, 1908; La mano tagliata, 1912), and were ignored or sharply criticized when they first appeared. Her last novel, the anti-war Mors tua (1926), was published the year she lost the Nobel Prize, and is considered by some to be the cause.

The critical tradition surrounding Serao has been as ambiguous as her own writings. Extremely famous in her own lifetime, she was ignored for many decades after her death. One of the most common criticisms of Serao's works is that they do not take their social criticism far enough, a criticism that has often been made of Serao herself. Indeed, much has been made over the fact that, for all her awareness of the problem of female identity in patriarchal society, for all her understanding of her own exceptionality as a woman writer, Serao was publicly anti-feminist. Even though women were the subject of her novels and the audience, she did not use her position at her newspapers to better their situation, but wrote against feminist causes such as suffrage. Similarly, critics have argued that despite her presentation of social ills in her novels, she did not condemn their causes or suggest ways to rectify them. And although she did publish some anti-fascist pieces in her newspaper, at risk to herself and her paper's survival, she also reconciled with Mussolini and met with him several times during her life. More recently, critics have re-validated her works by looking away from her political impegno and toward her portrayal of women. La virtù di Checchina (1884), for example, a tale of one bourgeois woman's failed attempt at an amorous adventure, is recognized as one of her best works because of the subtlety of the portrayal of the lead character. Following a biography by Anna Banti in 1965 Serao's critical star has continued to rise. In particular, her Gothic novels have been the subject of a critical re-evaluation that praises their portrayal of the problems of female identity and the mother/daughter bond.

Sources:

  • Banti, Anna. Matilde Serao. Turin: UTET, 1965.
  • Bonora, Ettore, ed. Dizionario della letteratura italiana. 2 vols. Milan: Rizzoli Editore, 1977.
  • Fanning, Ursula. "Matilde Serao (1856-1927)." In Italian Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book. Ed. Rinaldina Russell. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994. 386-94.
  • Harrowitz, Nancy. "Double Marginality. Matilde Serao and the Politics of Ambiguity." In Italian Women Writers from the Renaissance to the Present. Revising the Canon. Ed. Maria Ornella Marotti. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 85-94.
  • Kroha, Lucienne. "The Novel." In A History of Women's Writing in Italy. Eds. Letizia Panizza and Sharon Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 164-76.
  • Patriarca, Silvana. "Journalists and Essayists, 1850-1915." In A History of Women's Writing in Italy. Eds. Letizia Panizza and Sharon Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 151-63.
  • s.v. "Serao, Matilde." In Dizionario della letteratura italiana. Vol. 2. Ed. Ettore Bonora. Milan: Rizzoli, 1977.
  • s.v. "Serao, Matilde." In Dizionario enciclopedico italiano. Vol. 12 (Tau-Z). Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana fondata da G. Treccani, 1961.
  • s.v. "Serao, Matilde." In Enciclopedia Biografica e Bibliografica "Italiana." Serie 6: "Poetesse e scrittrici." 2 vols. Rome: E.B.B.I. Istituto Editoriale Italiano, 1941.
  • s.v. "Serao, Matilde (1856-1927)." In The Feminist Encyclopedia of Italian Literature. Ed. Rinaldina Russell. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997). 310-12.
  • Wood, Sharon. "The Sentimental Democracy of Matilde Serao (1856-1927)." In Italian Women's Writing 1860-1994. London: Athlone Press, 1995. 40-57.
Submitted by Margaret E. Kern, The University of Chicago, 2002.


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