Vivanti, Annie (1866-1942)
Annie Vivanti was born in London on April 7, 1866, the daughter of Anselmo Vivanti, a patriot from Mantova of Jewish ancestry, and Anna Lindau (a German writer who was the sister of the celebrated men of letters Paul and Rudolph Lindau). Her father, a follower of Mazzini's ideals, had found political asylum in the British capital after the 1851 uprisings in Mantova.
Brought up in Italy, England, Switzerland, and the U.S.A. (where Anselmo, a major silk trader, was president of the Società Reduci dalle Patrie Battaglie and of the Italian Chamber of Commerce of New York), and after an unusual experience of life as a theatre artist, Vivanti made her literary debut with the poetry collection Lirica (Milan, Treves 1890), published in Italy with a preface by Giosuè Carducci. The work immediately obtained immense success and tied Vivanti's name to that of the great Italian poet, to whom she remained deeply attached until his death (Bologna, 1907). In 1891 she published her first novel, Marion artista di caffè concerto (Milan, Galliums), but, after her marriage to the Irishman John Chartres in England in 1892, Annie spent nearly twenty years living in England and the U.S.A. During this period she wrote only in English, publishing stories (Perfect, 1896; En Passant, 1897; Houp-là , 1897; A Fad, 1899), novels (The Hunt for Happiness, 1896; Winning Him Back, 1904), and theatrical works (That Man, 1898; The Ruby Ring, 1900). In Italy she appeared to have abandoned literature, with the exception of the play The Blue Rose, the only clamorous failure of her very successful career. It was performed between 1898 and 1899, and never published.
A new chapter of her life began after 1900, following a difficult period at the turn of the century when her daughter Vivien -- born in 1893 -- developed into a child prodigy of the violin, quickly becoming an acclaimed international celebrity. Vivien's success provided Annie with a reason to re-launch herself into the literary world, first with the story The True Story of a Wunderkind (1905) and then with her most famous work, The Devourers, written and published in England in 1910. She then re-wrote the work in Italian with the title I divoratori (Milan, Treves 1911), and after a twenty-year absence returned to dominate the Italian publishing market. From then until the end of the thirties her success was uninterrupted, with novels like Circe (Milan, Quintieri 1912), Vae Victis (Milan, Quintieri 1917), Naja tripudians (Florence, Bemporad 1920), Mea culpa (Milan, Mondadori 1927); collections of short stories (Zingaresca, Milan, Quintieri 1918; Gioia, Florence, Bemporad 1921; Perdonate Eglantina, Milan, Mondadori 1926); plays (L'invasore, Milan, Quintieri 1915; Le bocche inutili, Milan, Quintieri 1918); stories for children (Sua altezza, Firenze, Bemporad 1924; Il viaggio incantato, Milano, Mondatori 1935; and travel accounts (Terra di Cleopatra, Milano, Mondadori 1925). Her works always achieved a remarkable international success. They were translated into all the European languages, and reviewed by the great names of European culture, such as Benedetto Croce and Giuseppe Antonio Borgese in Italy, George Brandes and Paul Heyse in Europe.
During the First World war, Vivanti defended the Italian cause in the columns of the main English newspapers (The Times, Westminster Gazette, Nineteenth Century), and in the immediate post-war period she embraced the nationalist cause, moving increasingly close to Mussolini and nascent fascism, and writing for papers like Il popolo d'Italia and L'idea nazionale. At the same time she and her husband -- a Sinn Fein activist -- supported the cause of Irish independence, writing articles for a number of different newspapers and journals, and assisting the Irish delegation to Versailles in 1919.
A celebrated and by now quite elderly writer, Annie Vivanti had been definitively settled in Italy for many years, attended by her secretary Luigi Marescalchi, when in 1941 the Anglophobic shift in fascist policy restricted her, as a British citizen, to house arrest in Arezzo. Although Mussolini's direct intercession soon freed her, allowing her to return to her home in Turin, the physical stress and the news of the death of her daughter Vivien, who committed suicide in Brighton in the autumn of 1941, brought about a rapid deterioration in Vivanti's health, and she died on February 20, 1942, shortly after converting to Catholicism. She is buried in the Monumental Cemetery of Turin, and her simple tombstone bears the first lines of the most famous poem that Carducci dedicated to her:
Batto alla chiusa imposta con un ramicello di fiori
Annie Vivanti's encounter with various cultures, languages, nationalities, and religions makes her literature and life experience exceptional, and, in the Italian context, unique. Born and brought up in direct contact with the English, Italian, Germanic, and American worlds, Annie assimilated and fused those different cultural and spiritual components, filtering them through the lenses of an entirely Latin sentimentalism and a purely Anglo-Saxon pragmatism.
Her husband, John Chartres, a businessman and journalist, but also a Sinn Fein activist for Irish independence, added an element of political passion to Annie's life, which had been marked already by her father's example. In her mature years this led her to take an active part in Irish and Italian irredentist politics, working against the status quo imposed by the great Nations, particularly England. Her conversion to Catholicism a few days before her death in 1942 represents the last stage in a heterogeneous and fascinating progress through all the forms of human spirituality -- the end of a complex spiritual and existential journey.
A great traveler, fully assimilated into the contexts in which she lived, and in full control of her own world, Annie Vivanti had conflicting feelings towards her native England, of which she always remained a citizen. She found the American way of life and mentality congenial, but chose Italy as her homeland. But trying to attribute national characteristics to her is reductive of her stateless and versatile temperament: Annie Vivanti in Italy, Annie Vivanti Chartres in Europe, Anita Vivanti Chartres -- or just Anita Chartres -- in the United States -- the various images that she offered of herself to her many publics symbolize her changeability, which is confirmed by the only spatial-temporal dimension congenial to her: the "here and now." For her, this was a continuous present without roots, projections, or prospects, a perpetual and airy movement that confers upon her work a sense of freshness and of spontaneous immediacy, allowing her to present her readers with a series of vibrant and emotionally enthralling impressions that achieve their greatest success in her short stories and tales.
Annie Vivanti does not belong to a single literary genre, nor to a particular cultural movement, given her internationalism and her disjointed literary formation. The echoes of the poetry of Heine are certainly strong in her work, as are, in the Italian context, the late Romantic suggestions of the last period of the Scapigliatura movement, which are particularly present in Lirica and Marion artista di caffè concerto. Her ongoing association with Carducci undoubtedly separated her from the prevailing d'Annunzian influence, augmenting her strong personal style and above all distancing her from the topics and styles typical of women's writing of her time.
After her brief experiment with poetry, Vivanti found the path to greater success through the novel and the short story, elaborating and inaugurating, with sure technique, a captivating kind of best seller, written with a sure and evocative style whose success was owed partly to a continuous reference back to autobiographical concerns. These were always present in her work, but in measured doses that she amalgamated into the fictional context in such a way that the reader is almost never able to recognize the point at which truth merges into fiction. This is the case for Marion artista di caffè concerto (whose characters and scenes recall Annie's youthful theatrical experiences) and for I divoratori, a family saga whose fundamental theme is the inevitable destiny of the Genius (first a minor poet, then a musical child prodigy) who "devours" those closest to her. In the still more complex case of Circe, the novel-confession of Tarnowska Maria (the protagonist of an infamous bloodletting in Italy in 1907), the author herself is the protagonist's interlocutor, and makes it clear that only destiny led the two women to two different fates from life experiences that are only apparently dissimilar.
In Vivanti's mature period, the experience of war and political engagement mingle with themes already consolidated in the plays L'invasore (which addresses the tragic topic of the rape of young Belgian women during the German occupation, a subject that was also to be the base of the novel Vae victis) and Le bocche inutili (about the moral drama of a soldier forced to choose between the patriotic and the personal). In Naja tripudians, Vivanti's ironic, light-hearted style masks a denunciation of the corrupt post-World War I society that draws the most ingenuous and defenseless people into its perverse coils. In the nineteen twenties, increasingly engaged in supporting oppressed nationalist causes, Vivanti, in Mea culpa, expresses a true indictment of English colonialism in Egypt and a passionate defense of the nationalist claims that she had already upheld in Terra di Cleopatra, which is more a true reportage on the Egyptian struggle against English domination than a novel. Lighter, sometimes humorous topics, and a sparkling and ironic, indeed we could say British style, distinguish her collections of short stories, which appeared in major Italian daily papers before being published together. Her works for children are also worthy of note, and bear witness to a truly comprehensive artistic career.
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