Reading the Feminine: Women Writers in Sicily

In the course of researching the works of authors concerned with matters Sicilian, be they foreigners or native-born and bred, we are constantly dismayed at the ratio between men and women. Readers will not need telling in whose favour that ratio falls. As we’re not only talking about islanders, but the literary world as a whole, this doesn’t just tell the story of gender disparities in the Sicilian world of letters, but indicates societal issues much further afield. This makes one of us rather frustrated at such domination in an area of endeavour that needs to hear the female voice, and the other somewhat shamefaced. Of course, times continue to change for the better with quality becoming blind to gender. In this article we unashamedly shine a light on female literary talent which has sometimes lingered long in the shadows.

In no particular order, we will start with Maria Messina, born in Palermo in 1887. First and foremost, Messina was a verista, who wanted to commit the real to paper rather than lofty literary contrivances – in this she was of the same school as Giovanni Verga. A small but devoted following claim her work to be the equal of the maestro from Vizzini, with whom she was in copious correspondence. Sadly, had multiple sclerosis not cut her writing career short, her output would have been more extensive.

Messina’s stories reflect the hidden world of female reality which we can see in the title of her short stories in English translation, Behind Closed Doors. We read of the hardships that prompted thousands of Sicilians to migrate to North America, Argentina, Brazil and Australia – two of her stories are even called ‘La Mèrica’. The old and the new worlds are not romanticized in any way; there is the heartbreak and misery of those who go and those who stay.

Mistretta by Salpetti

Both the working and middle classes feature in her work. We also gain an insight into the stultifying lives of daughters shuttered up in what amount to gilded cages, where maintaining a bourgeois sense of propriety was paramount. Messina, herself, was the product of a marriage between a young aristocratic woman and a student who went on to become a school inspector. It was his job that took the family to Mistretta, a locale that often appears in Maria’s work. Despite certain privileges, she knew first-hand the loneliness and isolation she included in her books, evidenced by the fact she was home educated by her mother and brother and had to teach herself literary Italian.

A move to the mainland took her away from the island, but her concerns were always centred there. As Elise Magistro mentions in her ‘Afterword’ to Behind Closed Doors, Messina felt her sicilianità very deeply. Maria was prepared to take a long hard look at the traditional Sicilian rule book whilst working within its confines; however, another writer, born in Catania in 1924, was prepared to rip it up completely. Goliarda Sapienza had a very different background, coming from an anarcho-socialist family and being educated in Rome at the Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Goliarda Sapienza
Goliarda Sapienza

She is best known for The Art of Joy (L’Arte della gioia), a book that almost never saw the light of day. As part of the introduction for the Penguin Modern Classic version, Angelo Pellegrino tells the story of its publication. Goliarda had finished the text in 1976, but had failed to find a publisher and it was Pellegrino who decided to produce a small privately printed edition after her death. This volume caught the attention of publishers in Germany and France who brought it to a much wider audience. Pellegrino calls them ‘daring’, perhaps because of the book’s subject matter.

The 600 plus pages of the novel recount the story of Modesta who, from very inauspicious beginnings, rides the tidal wave of twentieth century Sicilian history to become the owner of a palace. Bisexual, promiscuous, sensuous and adventurous, Modesta crashes through the moral mazes that have trapped others, rejecting convention and tradition in equal measure. In this respect, she was similar to her creator; Sapienza was brought up in a very liberal atmosphere with her parents refusing to let her attend school. Unlike Messina, who stayed at home out of propriety, Goliarda was kept out of official education for fear of nefarious fascist influences.

Both bawdy and serious, The Art of Joy has much to say about the nature of convention and change. There are moments of unbridled joy and the dark despondent consequences that echo some of the more flagrant breaches of societal norms. The story plays out against a backdrop of aristocratic privilege, peasant hardship, migration, war and political turmoil. As larger themes hover in the background, the characters react to the realities of murder, suicide, illness, imprisonment and manipulation.

Sicily, as the German Joachim Fest once implied, has so much history it almost has none. In fact, he said that the island’s history is in fragments, each mirroring a new invader or power and thus providing the setting for the fall of empires. True to a point perhaps, but it is precisely these fragments that enable the tessellation of historical fiction and biographical narrative. Two women writing today who have taken to this genre as a way of shining a light on forgotten lives are Simonetta Agnello Hornby and Dacia Maraini. Both have successfully used the vehicle of the historical novel to tell character-driven stories. We have had the pleasure of interviewing Simonetta, so we won’t elaborate further here. Those who wish to read more can click this link.

Dacia Maraini was born in Fiesole, Tuscany, but owing to her aristocratic Sicilian mother grew up in Bagheria near Palermo. The inhabitant of one of the town’s grandest villas, she witnessed the declining nobility up close and personal. Her portrayal of Bagheria pulls no punches. One of the most startling pen-portraits in the book is her description of the fin de siècle aristocracy as closed oysters, essentially dead and shrivelled.

She used much historic detail to write her novel, La lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa (translated in English as The Silent Duchess). It recounts the life of Marianna, who needs to communicate through writing, due to her deafness and inability to speak. She is taken to an execution in the hope that the provocation of strong emotions will awaken her latent voice, but to no avail; she is subsequently married off to her mother’s brother. The book unfolds in the manner of a family saga, but its charm lies in the little things, the vignettes of Sicilian life: the costumes, the furniture, the odours and scents. It’s a novel that has no need to shout its message.

Searching for the past, whether vicariously or in situ, can be a tricky business. We are made by our heritage, but a present too reliant on its precepts is liable to hinder the future – just ask ‘The Leopard’. Therefore, it’s usually with trepidation that we start reading travelogues that purport to unlock a country and its hidden traditions. Two books that have succeeded marvellously in uncovering hidden corners, telling forgotten stories and making it all relevant are The Stone Boudoir and On Persephone’s Island by Theresa Maggio and Mary Taylor Simeti respectively. Maggio, of Sicilian extraction, and Taylor Simeti, married to an islander, have spent much time travelling the highways and byways of Trinacria.

Theresa is not shy of confronting issues that challenge the modern Sicilian woman, particularly in the hilltowns of the interior. In one chapter, she shares with her readers the life of a small businesswoman trying to keep afloat amidst verbal abuse and petty damage to property. In another section of the book, Maggio, whilst on her own eating a picnic, was even taken for a prostitute and asked for sex – the perils of sitting in the wrong location at the wrong time.

In addition to her travelogue, Mary Taylor Simeti has also documented Sicilian culinary history. In Bitter Almonds, she recounts the life of Maria Grammatico who grew up in a cloistered orphanage cooking pastries. The fragile child went on to become the owner of a famous pasticceria in Erice. Both friend and chronicler, Mary’s transcriptions have brought her life to a wider audience.

Charlotte Gower Chapman
Charlotte Gower Chapman (Smithsonian Institute – Flickr Commons)

Certain aspects of women’s lives in pre-World War II Sicily were documented by Charlotte Gower Chapman. In 1928, Charlotte went to live in Milocca and spent 18 months with the villagers. By 1935, she had written up her account as Milocca: A Sicilian Village. However, the manuscript was lost during the frenetic months of war and didn’t come to light until a researcher discovered it in a Chicago University archive over thirty years later. One of her chapters deals with marriage. She quotes the proverb: ‘The relatives of the bride are like honey; the relatives of the husband are like vinegar’ – highlighting the antagonism that can arise between a wife and the husband’s mother, a relationship she dissects as an anthropologist.

Gower Chapman wasn’t the only intrepid female traveller to Sicilian climes. Eliza Lynn Linton, the first paid female journalist in Britain, went to stay with Tina Whitaker, née Scalia, in the 19th century. Tina, who had married into the family of Marsala fame, was also a writer, penning Sicily and England: Political and Social Reminiscences 1848-1870, which has only recently been translated into Italian. Entertainingly, the dynamic Frances Minto Elliot, author of The Diary of an Idle Woman in Sicily, was, quite rightly, more amused

Cover for The Diary of an Idle Woman in Sicily

than ashamed of being shown around the stone quarries of Syracuse unchaperoned – the young Sicilian man accompanying her seemed to be blushing to the roots of his hair. The above accounts were published with first and surnames appended to the authors. Try as we might, we can’t discover the first name of Mrs Nevill Jackson who penned A Student in Sicily in 1926!

Moving forward a hundred years, and at the age of nineteen, Lara Cardella wrote Volevo i pantaloni, the title of which was very loosely adapted into English as Good Girls Don’t Wear Trousers. With more than a hint of biographic detail, Laura tells the story of Anna confronting the male-dominated society in which she has to live during the not so distant years of the 1980s. It seems her small Sicilian town was not amused and the furore, so beloved of publishers, must have helped sales.

We will finish with a British man, Samuel Butler. He was the author of the Victorian classics, Erewhon and The Way of All Flesh and was also a Homer scholar. He dissected The Odyssey and posited the theory that Homer was a Sicilian princess. He was met with almost universal derision. We wonder how much of that derision was due to the holes that could be shot through the theory and how much was due to the idea that the great bard could be a woman – heaven forbid!

A Bibliography
Agnello Hornby, S., The Almond Picker, Penguin, London, 2006
Agnello Hornby, S., The Nun, Europa Editions, New York, 2012
Cardella, L., Good Girls Don’t Wear Trousers, Arcade, New York, 1994
Gower Chapman, C., Milocca: A Sicilian Village, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1973
Maggio, T., Mattanza: Love and Death in the Sea of Sicily, Perseus, Cambridge, 2000
Maggio, T., The Stone Boudoir: In Search of the Hidden Villages of Sicily, Headline Review, London, 2002
Maraini, D., The Silent Duchess, Arcadia Books, London, 1992
Messina, M., Behind Closed Doors, The Feminist Press, New York, 2007
Minto Elliot, F., The Diary of an Idle Woman in Sicily, Bernhard Tauchnitz, Leipzig, 1882
Nevill Jackson, Mrs., A Student in Sicily, John Lane, London, 1926
Taylor Simeti, M., Bitter Almonds: Recollections and recipes from a Sicilian girlhood, Bantam Books, New York, 2002
Taylor Simeti, M., On Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journal, Bantam Books, New York, 2002
Sapienza, G., The Art of Joy, Penguin, London, 2013
Whitaker, T., Sicily and England: Political and Social Reminiscences 1848-1870, Constable & Company, 1907

Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their book: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains’.

Andrew is also the translator of Alejandro Luque’s compilation of short stories set in Sicily, The Sicilian Defence. Diane Donovan in The Midwest Book Review called it ‘a magnificently crafted series of vignettes exposing the underbelly of choice and its consequences’.

Sicily: A Literary Guide for TravellersThe Sicilian Defence

Andrew and Suzanne Edwards
Andrew and Suzanne Edwards
In addition to freelance writing, Andy and Suzanne both work in education. Andy is also a translator who gets most enjoyment from translating literary works and Suzanne is a lecturer and linguistics graduate. They are frequent visitors to Sicily and have spent a great deal of time exploring its back roads in search of the landscapes that inspired the imaginations of many writers, both Sicilian and from overseas. Literature, art, food and society are their focus and their passion. Sicily has it all. They are the authors of the books - Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers, Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers, His Master's Reflection: Travels with John Polidori, Lord Byron's Doctor, Ghosts of the Belle Epoque: The History of the Grand Hotel et des Palmes, Palermo and Down to the Sunless Sea: A Troubled Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Mediterranean. Andy is the translator of Borges in Sicily and Federico De Roberto's Agony.

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  1. thanks for the article

    I wrote From Sardi’s to
    Sicily the biography of Marilyn Monroe who’s heritage is all Sicilian
    Nancy Cusumano

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