Neera the verist woman writer.
I will demonstrate, first, Neera's status as verist writer in late-nineteenth-century Italian literary circles. I consider public documents by third parties, in the form of reviews of Neera's work and two prefaces dedicated by Capuana to Neera, as well as Neera's public documents that reveal her adherence to verismo, such as her Confessioni letterarie dedicated to Capuana. I also refer to private documents, in the form of letters exchanged between Neera and other verist writers, in order to demonstrate the literary "fratellanza" that existed between Neera and fellow verist writers. I then provide an analysis of Neera's most renowned verist novel, Teresa (1886), in order to demonstrate that the quality of Neera's verist production merits her inclusion and reinsertion today in the literary canon. Lastly, in the conclusion of my article, I propose an explanation for how Neera's exclusion from the verist canon came about, a cancellation which I show to be unjustified.
Verismo develops as a literary movement in late-nineteenth-century Italy in the wake of French naturalism. Capuana is one of the first critics within the Italian context to direct attention to the circulation within Italy of the theories and works of French naturalist writers, whom he recognizes as "i nostri predecessori, i nostri maestri stranieri" (Per l'arte 29). (2) The Italian critic is principally influenced by Emile Zola's literary production and theories regarding the "experimental novel." The naturalist novel, as outlined by Zola in the 1880 essay Le roman experimental, employs what is called a "scientific" method of studying man, human nature, and society through the objective portrayal of reality. Capuana contributes to the theoretical elaboration and artistic development of the naturalist movement in Italy through critical volumes such as Per l'arte (1885), his narrative production, particularly the 1879 novel Giacinta and its two successive revised editions, (3) and through the encouragement and critical attention he lends the initial verist literary attempts of Verga, the movement's recognized artistic leader. Literary critics today, in fact, generally date the verist period as beginning with Verga's 1878 short story Rosso Malpelo and ending with his 1889 novel Mastro-don Gesualdo (Pellini 18).
Capuana and Verga aim, like their French literary fathers, to objectively and faithfully represent the circumstances taken into examination, eliminating sentimental and ideological intrusions by the author in favor of direct observation of events and human nature. In an attempt to let the characters "speak for themselves," Italian verist writers adhere to the naturalist canon of impersonality by limiting narratorial description to a minimum and by privileging dialogue and indirect discourse. It is particularly through use of indirect discourse that verist writers succeed in replacing the omniscient narrator with a narrator whose point of view and linguistic register reflect those of the members of the society represented. In the 1880 short story L'amante di Gramigna, Verga sums up the verist writer's goal: to produce a literary text that "sembrera essersi fatto da se, avere maturato ed esser sorto spontaneo come un fatto naturale, senza serbare alcun punto di contatto col suo autore" (213). Verist writers direct special attention to the regional context in Italy, particularly that of Southern Italy, in an attempt to bring to light the vast social and economic differences between the North and South in the recently unified Italy.
The first novel for which Neera begins to gain critical recognition as verist writer is Un nido (1880), her fourth novel. Capuana's review of the novel reveals his appreciation of Neera's creative ability, when he praises her "immaginazione vivace" and "ingegno non ordinario" (Studi sulla letteratura contemporanea 88), as well as his faith in her potential to participate in "arte moderna," a clear reference to verismo. Although Capuana criticizes the "mondo un po' artifiziale" represented in Un nido, he notes that the novel nonetheless demonstrates the essential characteristics of the new art form proposed by the critic in those years: "un notevole vigore di rappresentazione, una certa sottigliezza nell'osservare, l'istinto della convenienza, della misura, delle proporzioni, e l'abilita delle sfumature che in arte son molto quando, talvolta, non son tutto" (Studi sulla letteratura contemporanea 91). In another review of Un nido, Federigo Verdinois also notes Neera's potential for verist art by praising the novel's "bieco realismo alla Zola," (4) placing Neera in a category of writers influenced by and participating in the literary movement of French naturalist inspiration.
Two additional public documents, Capuana's dedication to Neera of the 1888 edition of Homo and the 1889 edition of Giacinta, further confirm Neera's status as verist writer in those years. The Homo dedication, entitled "Come io divenni novelliere" and subtitled "Confessione a Neera," is significant as "la testimonianza piu ricca, viva e utile sulla propria evoluzione culturale lasciataci dall'autore" (Madrignani 238). In the Giacinta preface dedicated to Neera, Capuana discusses the evolution of the Italian novel in those years. Neera's presence within the first dedication is strong and constant, indicating it as a type of open letter to Neera, or rather an explicit confession to a friend. The choice of confession as subtitle becomes apparent in Capuana's reference to "il demonio della novella e del romanzo" that took possession of him, allowing him to be blinded "dal torbido fumo balzacchiano, flaubertiano, zoliano, degoncourtiano, il peggio fumo che mai ingombrasse il limpido cielo dell'arte, e che mai lo appestasse colle sue fetide esalazioni" (xxix). Capuana's need for confession becomes clear if we bear in mind the critic's gradual refusal in those years of Zolian naturalist poetics, in particular Zola's notion of the "experimental" novel. Capuana's rejection culminates in the 1898 Gli "ismi" contemporanei chapter dedicated to "La crisi del romanzo." After more than a decade (1878-1889) of intense artistic and theoretical activity, in which Capuana recognizes French naturalist writers such as Zola as his literary predecessors, by the early 1890's Capuana and other writers begin to lose faith in the literary program proposed by Zola.
Capuana's desire to dedicate his confessions to Neera can be understood from the following section of the preface:
Ho fatto bene scegliendovi a mia confessora? Siete Voi cosi libera da ogni terreno vincolo da poter fungere da giudice imparziale secondo le piu pure dottrine della chiesa letteraria? Ahime, avete artisticamente peccato e continuate, ahime, a peccare anche voi, per quanto la vostra felice condizione di donna vel consente! Anche voi, ahime, vi siete, a poco a poco, lasciata adescare dalla eresia, spero inconscientemente: e sara la vostra difesa innanzi a Dio! (xxxiv)
It is clear from such statements that the second person plural form of the verb indicates the author's intent to address himself directly and solely to the letter's, or confession's, addressee. The references to Capuana and Neera's shared actions and responsibilities, expressed through the metaphor of literary sins, reveal, however jokingly, Capuana's consideration of Neera as a writer dedicated, like himself, to the "heresy" of literary innovation, a sin that Neera has not only committed, Capuana reveals, but continues to commit in 1888. In fact, the last of Neera's verist novels, L'indomani, was published in 1889. Neera's later novels, such as Nel sogno (1893) and Anima sola (1895), are testimony of her adherence to the literary movement of symbolism.
In the preface to the third edition of Giacinta, entitled simply "A Neera," Capuana picks up medias res his discussion of the evolution of the modern Italian novel from where he left off in Homo's dedication. The dedication opens with the following affirmation: "In quanto al romanzo, non avevo ancora un'idea precisa di quello che potevamo tentare" (29). Capuana's potevamo refers, most likely, not only to himself and Neera but to all the writers engaged in the search for literary innovation. The collective subject in consideration refers, therefore, to a group of people united by the shared attention to the problem in question, the contemporary Italian novel. It is important to note in this context that Capuana dedicated the first edition of Giacinta (1879) to Zola. Giacinta, defined by Capuana in the 1889 preface as "l'analisi d'un carattere, lo studio d'una passione vera, benche strana, anzi patologica" (35), represents, in fact, Capuana's most evident and ardent attempt to adhere to verist poetics. Capuana's dedication of Giacinta's third edition to Neera, which aligns Neera with the representative of French naturalism and therefore the father to a certain extent of verismo, reveals his consideration of Neera as verist writer, an inclusion confirmed linguistically by the very first line of the preface.
In the conclusion of Giacinta's 1889 preface, Capuana again refers to Neera as his accomplice in art:
E questo vi dimostri che forse soltanto noi, benche innanzi con gli anni e con tanta triste esperienza della vita, soltanto noi, in mezzo alla nuova generazione precocemente nauseata d'ideali, serbiamo ancora fede, a dispetto di tutto, alla infeconda illusione che e l'arte letteraria in Italia! (38)
Capuana's reference to noi must be interpreted here, unlike the noi of the preface's opening lines, as a reference exclusively to himself and Neera, representatives of a generation of writers that now finds itself being pushed out of the literary scene by a newer, younger generation.
Neera responds publicly to Capuana by dedicating the second edition of her novel Il Castigo to the writer in 1891. Neera offers Capuana, whom she refers to as a "studios[o] di psicologia," what she calls a "human document" in the narration of people and events that influenced the development of her artistic personality and literary vocation. Neera adheres to Capuana's understanding of the autonomous nature of art in stating her intention to let the characters of her past present themselves, almost without her intervention: "Incrocio le braccia e li lascio sfilare ..." (872). Justification for dedicating Il Castigo to Capuana can be found in Neera's reference to the novel as "il passo decisivo verso lo studio dal vero" (872). Il Castigo (1881), published the year after Un nido, the novel criticized in part by Capuana for its lack of realism, reveals Neera's decision to follow Capuana's advice to dedicate herself entirely to the study of reality. In her Confessioni letterarie, therefore, Neera reveals her conscious decision in 1881 to adhere to the verist movement and its doctrine of observing and faithfully representing reality. Il Castigo marks Neera's first step toward the analysis of the social and environmental conditions that lead to woman's unhappiness. In describing the novel's protagonist, Neera further demonstrates a verist understanding of art: "Laura, nel Castigo, e un tipo umano. In lei vivono e si riassumono i palpiti di mille donne. Sicuro, non e simpatica, ma passo quel tempo in cui le eroine di un romanzo dovevano essere simpatiche ad ogni costo. Ella e meno e piu che simpatica. E infelice" (873). Neera is not concerned with respecting morality or literary stereotypes of women, rather in her production of those years she strives to represent certain female realities, such as that of the zitella. Neera denies, furthermore, that observation of reality denotes female literature:
Non credo che questo amore del minuto, dell'intimo, del femminile mi venga dall'essere donna, perche altre scrittrici non lo hanno e predomina invece in tutti gli scrittori psicologici, come ho gia detto, dimostrando che e una conseguenza di temperamento e non di sesso. (894)
Neera rejects categorization of her production based on characteristics associated with women's writing, identifying herself instead as a "scrittrice psicologica," the same adjective she had used to refer to Capuana.
The public exchange of ideas between Neera and Capuana regarding poetics and the current state of the Italian novel reveals Neera as a point of reference for contemporary discussions on verismo and her active role in contemporary literary debates. The consideration of private documents, in the form of letters exchanged between Neera and verist writers such as Capuana, Verga, Federico De Roberto, Emanuele Navarro della Miraglia, and Tommaso Cannizzaro further contributes to an understanding of Neera's participation in the verist movement. (5) Such documents reveal a network of communication between writers who share common ideas regarding the evolution and need for innovation of the Italian novel in those years.
The beginning of Capuana and Neera's epistolary exchange dates to 1881, although the two had already met in Countess Maffei's literary salon. (6) Neera acknowledges Capuana as her instructor and seeks his approval throughout their exchange in the form of reviews of her work, as the following statement by Neera reveals: "Lei capira che la scolara non puo criticare il maestro--nemmeno in questi tempi di livellamento" (Arslan, "Luigi Capuana e Neera" 170). Capuana's comments on Neera's novels throughout the epistolary exchange reveal his appreciation for her gradual progression and evolution as verist writer. On July 28, 1881, Capuana writes: "Castigo mantiene in gran parte le promesse del Nido, cosa che non accade di tutti i lavori e a tutti gli autori; anzi!" (Arslan, "Luigi Capuana e Neera" 166). In a private, epistolary review of La Regaldina, Capuana compares Neera's female protagonist to that of Zola's latest novel La joie de vivre (1884): "La vostra Daria e piu umana e piu schiettamente donna della Paolina dell'ultimo romanzo dello Zola, colla quale ha qualche rassomiglianza" (Arslan, "Luigi Capuana e Neera" 174). In making Zola, the leader of French naturalism, a point of reference for Neera's novel, a point of reference which Neera surpasses according to the critic, Capuana reveals his high esteem of Neera as verist writer.
The most direct testimony of the verist dimension of Neera's literary production comes, however, from a reading of her most successful verist novel, Teresa. (7) Teresa is the study of the daughter's oppression in late-nineteenth-century patriarchal Italy. Teresa is the social analysis of the "problema della donna che rimane nubile," (8) as Neera states with regard to the novel in her autobiography Una giovinezza del secolo XIX. Teresa is the story of one of a multitude of young unmarried women buried within the homes of provincial bourgeois Italy, often because of the ruthless egoism of parents and relatives. Teresa uncovers, criticizes and ultimately denounces the social structures of fin de siecle Italian society that impose established rigid social roles on women. Neera's observation of and faithful representation of female reality in Teresa reflects the writer's adherence to verist artistic principles in this phase of her literary career. In Una giovinezza del secolo XIX Neera reveals the novel's real-life inspiration:
Tante fanciulle posarano inconsapevoli per la mia Teresa, ed una che si chiamava veramente Teresa mi basto vederla una volta sola. Pallida e mesta, seduta in disparte dalle sue sorelle, che giovani ed allegre scherzavano tra loro, cuciva una camicia per il fidanzato lontano, fidanzato gia da dieci anni, il quale non veniva mai, ed al quale ella pensava sempre. Queste due antitesi, l'indifferenza di lui, la costanza di lei: ecco il romanzo sorto in un attimo intero e vitale. (124)
Neera reveals the source of her representation in the observation of reality, one of the essential prerequisites of verist art.
Neera's ability to allow her characters to speak for themselves is a central aspect of the verist nature of Teresa. The author's narrative distance emerges from the novel's opening scene, which describes the flooding of the Po River in the town of the novel's protagonist. The first lines of the novel, which present the scene void of any introductory element, immediately establish the style of narration-action in progress, characteristic of verist novels: "--Coraggio, figliuoli, coraggio.--Ne abbiamo, Signor Sindaco, ma la faccenda e brutta assai; temo che l'abbia da andar male per tutti" (3). Neera immerses the reader, ignorant of the name of the town, the type of event and the identity of the "figliuoli," into the midst of the action, into the reality of her protagonists. Verga uses a similar technique in the opening scene of I Malavoglia in the presentation of people, places and expressions that have no significance for the reader who is not a member of the community represented in the novel.
Neera again avoids the use of mise en scene in passing directly from the scene of the catastrophe of the flooded river to the protagonist's home, where that night Teresa's mother is giving birth to her fifth child. Neera introduces the novel's protagonist through the mother's following remark to her midwife: "Saranno quindici anni appunto il mese venturo" (14), referring to Teresa's birth fifteen years ago. The negativity of Teresa's condition as woman is immediately underlined in the mother's wish for her unborn child to be a boy and in her consideration: "le ragazze, poverette, che cos'hanno di buono a questo mondo?" (14). Before Teresa even appears in the novel, Neera outlines through the words of the mother Teresa's role in society as female, condemned to hope for little from life. Significantly, it is Teresa's mother, a woman already familiar with what turn-of-the-century Italian society has to offer woman, who reveals Teresa's fate. Woman's inferior and oppressed condition within fin de siecle Italian society was evident not only to women themselves but also to men, as Teresa's father's thoughts reveal: "E una miseria l'essere donna" (169). Neera allows the characters of the novel, the members of the social realm she represents, to speak for themselves, thereby presenting a reality that seems, as Verga suggests in L'amante di Gramigna, "essersi fatto da se." In Teresa Neera gives voice to a multitude of women who surfer their condition in fin de siecle Italy in silence, without the means to effectively express their rebellion.
The novel follows Teresa's development from young adolescent, innocent to the ways of the world and to love, to woman in her prime years who yearns for love, to middle-aged woman who has seen her aspirations for love disappear. At age fifteen Teresa first becomes aware of her body and questions whether she is attractive or not:
Come erano bianche le sue braccia! Ella non aveva mai avuto tempo di guardarle, e le apparivano ora come le braccia di un'altra persona, cosi sottili, rotonde e bianche. Proprio non sapeva capacitarsi come fossero bianche, mentre il colorito del volto tendeva al bruno, ed anche il collo era bruno; solo scendendo sotto la clavicola, dove principiava il petto, il bianco riappariva. Questa ineguaglianza della sua pelle la sorprese; certo non doveva essere cosa normale. Allora, improvvisamente, lu assalita da un pensiero strano. Era essa bella o brutta? (48)
The above is an example of the indirect discourse adopted so frequently by verist writers in order to intertwine the narrator's voice with that of the characters represented. Teresa's interior monologue reveals not only her innocence and naivete regarding societal standards of beauty but also the conditions of her life so far, conditions which have not allowed time for the young protagonist to dedicate to herself or to thoughts of physical beauty. Neera utilizes Teresa's sudden awareness of the difference in color between her face, exposed to the rays of the sun when Teresa leaves the confines of her home, and the rest of her body to reveal, without reverting to narratorial intervention, Teresa's role as oldest daughter, required to think always of others before herself and to help her mother in running the house and looking after her younger siblings and father.
Later in the novel Neera reveals how Teresa, now age nineteen, is acutely aware of her limited prospects for finding a husband due to the economic limitations within the family, as the following exchange between Teresa and a friend reveals:
--To', perche non si potrebbe pensare a te? Non sei una ragazza come le altre?--e a parte i complimenti, le Portalupi te le mangi tutte in un boccone. --Ma sono povera. --Ah!... questo.... ... E Teresina intanto pensava che dacche avevano mandato Carlino a Parma, per via del liceo, e tutti i mesi bisognava pagare la pensione, si parlava molto d'economia in casa sua--e non avevano piu la donna di servizio--ed erano tre mesi ch'ella aspettava un paio di stivaletti nuovi. (69)
This passage is another example of how Neera utilizes dialogue and indirect discourse in place of narratorial description. Teresa's thoughts reveal her awareness of her fate as daughter, whose happiness and fulfillment come second to that of the family's only male child. No one has to explain to Teresa that her desires and needs come second to that of her brother Carlo: Teresa, regardless of her naivete, understands all too well the economic mechanisms that determine her fate within the family. Neera presents, from the perspective of one accustomed to such a reality and therefore without hint of condemnation or criticism, the crude societal pressures and realities that limit woman's destiny. When, three years later, Teresa's fiance Orlandi comes to ask permission to marry Teresa, Teresa's father openly lays out the reasons for his refusal to provide the "piccola somma per l'avviamento" requested: "Mia figlia non ha dote. Ho quattro ragazze, signore, e se dovessi dare una dote a tutte quattro, non resterebbe altra risorsa a mio figlio che quella di andare a fare il contadino" (134). All the family's interests are concentrated on Teresa's brother's future, while Teresa, unable to marry because Orlandi doesn't have a steady income, is left to fulfill her role within the family as caretaker. Teresa finds confirmation that economic factors deny her the right to marry the man she loves just as she later finds herself unable to fulfill her role in society as wife and mother when she refuses a marriage of convenience.
Teresa does not openly rebel, by standing up to her father or by eloping with Orlandi, when she is forced to remain at home to care for her younger sisters and aging father. It is Teresa's body, however, that rebels against the anguish and anxiety of such a situation, against the passing of her youth and youthful beauty. The protagonist's first hysterical episode occurs, in fact, after someone refers to her as a zitellona: "Si torceva sui letto, mordendo le coperte con una voglia pazza di rare del maie a qualcuno, col desiderio mostruoso di veder scorrere del sangue insieme alla sue lagrime. La trovarono sfinita, liwda in volto, coi denti serrati" (173). Teresa's desire to hurt someone derives from the frustration of an unjust situation, a desire to make someone pay for what is happening to her, when there is only society to blame. The protagonist's hysterical episodes continue throughout the novel, coinciding with significant occasions such as the wedding day of her two younger sisters, the moment that confirms Teresa's rate as zitella.
It is important to remember, however, that Neera's point of view, as member of the same bourgeois society that imposes restrictions on women, ultimately coincides with Teresa's point of view. (9) In her autobiographical novel Una giovinezza del secolo XIX Neera reveals the special meaning Teresa's story held:
Non altrimenti la patetica storia dena donna a cui manca l'amore germinava da lunghi anni nel segreto delle mie sofferenze, nelle inginstizie di cui ero stata vittima, nella persecuzione che aveva attossicato fin dalle sorgenti la mia ingenua giovinezza. Era il dramma di tante anime Femminili che si era ripercosso attraverso la deviazione di un'anima sulla speciale sensibilita dell'anima mia. (124)
Neera identifies herself as woman in fin de siecle Italy with those, like Teresa, whose formative years are spent at home sewing "calze, camicie e calze." Neera's identity as woman and her middle-class upbringing lead her to identify with Teresa's situation and at times to interject her personal voice in the novel's narration, as the following passages reveal:
Quale infame ingiustizia pesa dunque ancora sulla nostra societa, che si chiama incivilita, se una fanciulla deve scegliere tra il ridicolo della verginita e la vergogna del matrimonio di convenienza? (180) [Teresa] aveva troppo vissuto in quell'ambiente e in quello solo, per non essere persuasa che la sua condizione di donna le imponeva anzitutto la rassegnazione al suo destino,--un destino ch'ella non era libera di dirigere--che doveva accettare cosi come le giungeva, mozzato dalle esigenze della famiglia, sottoposto ai bisogni e ai desideri degli altri. (170)
In these passages, it is not Teresa expressing awareness of her condition, but rather the author's voice denouncing the injustice of the protagonist's situation. It is again Neera, and not Teresa, who identifies the conflict between natural impulses and social constraints as the source of Teresa's hysteria: "la societa che le dice respingi, la natura che le grida accetta" (154). Neera denounces the fin de siecle familial customs that place the daughter's right to fulfillment second to that of the son and the social structures that place woman's only possibility for fulfillment in marriage.
Teresa is part of a literary program defined by Neera in several unpublished letters as "ciclo della fanciulla," dedicated to the exploration of post-Unification Italian reality "dalla parte di lei" (qtd. in Arslan, Dame, galline e regine 128). (10) Antonia Arslan describes Neera's mission in the novels Teresa (1886), Lydia (1887), and L'indomani (1889) to "disegnare con verosimiglianza caratteri di giovani donne poste di fronte alle varie occorrenze di un tipico destino femminile: lo zitellaggio, la caduta, il matrimonio" (Dame, galline e regine 128). In Teresa Neera examines the devastating effects on the female personality when familial customs deny the protagonist the right to marry the man she loves. In Lydia, she represents the disastrous results of one woman's search for true love within the confines and superficial customs of aristocratic society. In L'indomani, Neera examines woman's inability to find fulfillment within the structure of bourgeois marriage in fin de siecle Italy. The novels Teresa, Lydia, and L'indomani represent Neera's attempt to offer a trilogy from the female perspective that examines woman's condition in various social realities, in line with naturalist and verist literary cycles of the period, such as Zola's Rougon Macquart and Verga's "ciclo dei vinti." Neera's 1888 article "Le donne che piangono" in Fanfulla della Domenica sheds further light on her literary project of those years. Defining herself a "sperimentale o psichica" writer, two adjectives laden with literary references for the time, Neera affirms the need to denounce female suffering in society:
Noi rechiamo alla luce del sole i derelitti e gli sventurati presentandoli alla vostra pieta.... La causa che meglio abbisogna di quest'opera paziente e la causa della donna.... Mi si disse ingiusta, pessimista, partigiana del mio sesso, quando in lavori scritti col piu ardente amore del prossimo osai difendere la donna, la donna pura, la donna caduta, quella che ama e quella che non ama, la donna sempre, per cio che e donna, vale a dire oppressa. (11)
With the reference to "noi," Neera aligns herself with a group of writers who seek to bring to light the reality of certain oppressed groups within society. Whereas Verga dedicates his attention in I Malavoglia to the "piu umili condizioni" of his fellow man, those of the Sicilian fishermen, in the "ciclo della fanciulla" Neera examines the various aspects of suffering and oppression of her fellow woman.
Although Neera was an active participant in the debate on and evolution of verismo in the 1880's, as demonstrated through reviews of her production of those years, public and private testimonials to her status as verist writer and an analysis of Teresa, in successive years Neera turned her back on verist principles in favor of a new literary movement: symbolism. Neera's epistolary writings are an important source of information for an understanding of the evolution of her literary style. In a letter to Angiolo Orvieto in 1893, she writes:
Per parlare solamente della mia personalita letteraria osservo con meraviglia che quasi tutti i miei contemporanei si sono seduti o addormentati e molti fossilizzati sulla prima forma del loro ideale. Io ho gia compiuto da un pezzo due evoluzioni ed ho incominciata la terza nella quale mi slancio con un ardore ed una freschezza che formano, per il momento, la mia maggiore felicita. (12) (Arslan and Zambon 78-79)
Neera reveals an understanding of art as necessarily innovative and a desire for continuous irnprovement and evolution of her literary style. After her adhesion in her early novels to romanticism and the verismo of her production in the 1880's, Neera dedicates herself entirely to promoting her new literary style. In novels such as Nel sogno (1893), Anima sola (1895), L'amuleto (1897), and La vecchia casa (1900), Neera experiments a new approach to representing reality. The reality Neera strives to represent this time, however, is wholly an interior reality, such as the yearning for ideals such as platonic love, maternity and spiritual elevation. The following passage from La vecchia casa is an example of her new literary style:
Adorare insieme lo stesso ideale non e amarsi nel modo piu raro e piu profondo? Quale amplesso, quale bacio, li avrebbe awinti piu strettamente di quell'instante muto e solenne in cui, davanti all'immagine che per essi rappresentava la perfezione terrena, i loro cuori si fusero nella stessa tenerezza, salirono e divamparono nella medesima fiamma? Un soave calore li invase mentre stavano in piedi e vicini contemplando il ritratto amato. (124)
In the above-mentioned novels, Neera abandons the verist narrative techniques that characterized her production of the years 1880-1890 in favor of a literary style aimed at capturing the profoundly intimate essence of her characters' existences.
Arslan acknowledges Neera's constantly changing style, with the success and lack of success that it brought, as perhaps that which most damaged her reputation as writer in successive years:
Questo fatto le nocque moltissimo dopo la sua morte, tanto che, sulla base di alcuni romanzi di grande successo popolare ma di scarsa tenuta nel tempo, come Addio!, La Regaldina, Duello d'anime, Rogo d'amore, fu possible farla passare per decenni per una scrittrice "rosa," sentimentale e generica, e assimilarla in tutto a quelle operose artigiane della penna dal lieto fine assicurato che facevano la fortuna delle varie "Biblioteche delle Signorine," travolgendola poi come loro in un'impietosa e ingiusta oscurita. (Dame, galline e regine 125-26)
Whereas Arslan rightly attributes, in my opinion, Neera's categorization as "b-level" writer to the range in quality within her production, I suggest that her exclusion from the verist canon in particular finds its origin in Benedetto Croce's 1905 La Critica article dedicated to Neera. (13) Although Croce demonstrates, in his reviews dedicated to verist writers such as Verga and Capuana, a certain appreciation of the faithful representation of reality in verist art, he ultimately denies the aesthetic qualities of the movement:
Certamente questo loro programma era sbagliato: la scienza e l'arte sono inconciliabili, non perche avverse ma perche diverse. E la loro opera era tutt'altro che oggettiva, la rappresentazione della vita tutt' altro che piena, anzi sommamente unilaterale: l'uomo veniva abbassato ad animale, la societa a gruppi animaleschi disputantisi tra loro la preda, il cibo e la femmina. Pochi di quei veristi, infine, ebbero tanta forza dingegno da attingere il cielo dell'arte. (La letteratura della nuova Italia 4: 190)
Croce elaborates, precisely in those years, a fundamental notion of his aesthetics in the understanding of art's lyrical and individualistic nature, which leads him to condemn and ultimately deny the impersonal aspect of verist art. In his 1903 La Critica article dedicated to Verga, Croce observes: "l"impersonale' Verga rivela anche qui la sua personalita, fatta di bonta e di malinconia" (La letteratura della nuova Italia 3: 29). In such a way, Croce negates a fundamental aspect of verist art in its principal artistic representative. I argue that Croce's lack of appreciation for verist aesthetics led him to overlook the quality of Neera's verist production in favor of her later literary production, a production that followed more closely Croce's poetic ideals.
In his presentation of Neera, Croce proposes a decisive contrast between her style and production and that of Capuana:
Se si volesse trovare al Capuana un contrasto quasi perfetto, si dovrebbe pensare, io credo, ai romanzi e agli altri libri della scrittrice lombarda Neera. In Neera sono sovrabbondanti tutte le qualita che scarseggiano nel Capuana, e deficienti quelle che abbondano in costui. Il Capuana non ha idee, non ha sentimenti dominanti e trascinanti, offre spesso i fatti bruti per quella sola importanza che un fatto ha come fatto: Neera e passionale, sentimentale, moralista, meditativa, e non vede il fatto se non attraverso l'ideale. Il Capuana fa desiderare la lirica: Neera vibra tutta di lirica. (La letteratura della nuova Italia 3: 121)
Croce later clarifies his intention not to express a judgment of merit by opposing Neera to Capuana, but rather to better differentiate between the literary styles of the two writers. (14) Although the critic employs the contrast between Neera and Capuana only to begin his article, in defining Neera and Capuana as opposites, Croce's article puts in motion a process of identification in the mind of the reader that juxtaposes Capuana to Neera.
Throughout his article on Neera, Croce is concerned with identifying the nature of Neera's concept of ideal and demonstrating its coherency throughout her theoretical and narrative production. Croce emphasizes Neera's objective to view reality through the lens of an ideal, as opposed to Capuana's verist approach to representing reality, which represents exclusively what is observed, according to the critic. Praising above all Neera's morality, which he views as the driving force of her notion of ideal, Croce examines almost exclusively Neera's fervid activity as theoretical writer, collected in the volumes Il libro di mio figlio (1891), L'amor platonico (1897), Battaglie per un'idea (1898), and Le idee di una donna (1904). Croce defends the writer's antifeminist stance in such volumes, for example, by revealing how Neera's antagonism toward modern society's search for progress in the equality of the sexes derives from her understanding of modern society's materialism, "che trasforma un problema di anime in problema di cose" (La letteratura della nuova Italia 3: 123). Croce turns his attention to Neera's narrative production to assert the successful interweaving of her theoretical and narrative production: "i suoi libri teorici sono pieni di aneddoti e schizzi artistici; i suoi lavori d'arte tutti compenetrati di idee" (La letteratura della nuova Italia 3: 128). The overlapping of ideas between different genres reveals, in Croce's view, "la costanza degl'ideali e delle fonti d'ispirazione" (La letteratura della nuova Italia 3: 135) that characterizes an of Neera's production. Affirming that Neera's observation of reality is never separated from her objective to pursue an ideal, Croce proposes a reading of Neera's narrative production based on an understanding of her ideal as expressed in her theoretical writings. If we recall that Neera's theoretical production dates from 1891 to 1904, it is immediately clear that Croce's evaluation of Neera's production focuses primarily on her production of the years after 1891, following, therefore, her verist period.
After his La Critica article, Croce continued to dedicate attention to Neera, writing in 1919 the preface for her posthumous autobiography Una giovinezza del secolo XIX and editing in 1942 a volume of her narrative and theoretical works for publication by Garzanti. Successive critical attention to Neera, until her "rediscovery" in the 1970's, continued to propose a Crocean interpretation of her work, positioning Neera as essentially a moralistic writer. (15) In a brief reference to Neera in his 1956 Storia della letteratura italiana, Francesco Flora concluded: "Il ritratto letterario di Neera, in una maniera che non mi pare possa subire mutamenti, fu disegnato dal Croce" (V: 448).
In recent years critics have reconsidered Neera's literary production, in particular for the feminist nature of some of her novels, particularly Teresa. (16) No one, until now however, has analyzed the female prospective offered by Neera together with her formal verismo. Neera's adherence to verismo, in the faithful observation and representation of reality together with the attention to oppressed groups within contemporary society, goes hand-in-hand with her attention to the condition of her fellow woman in society, as the following passage from her 1888 article "Le donne che piangono" in Fanfulla della Domenica reveals:
Noi rechiamo alla luce del sole i derelitti e gli sventurati presentandoli alla vostra pieta.... La causa che meglio abbisogna di quest' opera paziente e la causa della donna.... Mi si disse ingiusta, pessimista, partigiana del mio sesso, quando in lavori scritti col piu ardente amore del prossimo osai difendere la donna, la donna pura, la donna caduta, quella che ama e quella che non ama, la donna sempre, per cio che e donna, vale a dire oppressa. (17)
It is particularly, therefore, within the verist production of this woman writer, who takes as her goal that of examining her contemporary woman's oppressed condition in late-nineteenth-century Italy, that Neera's feminism emerges.
(1) Neera's literary production spans a period of more than forty years, beginning in 1876 with Un romanzo and ending in 1919 with the posthumous autobiographical novel Una giovinezza del secolo XIX. For bio-bibliographical information on Neera, see Arslan "Neera" and Merry.
(2) As early as March 1877, Capuana reviews Emile Zola's novel L'Assommoir considered by many critics to mark the beginning of the peak decade of French naturalism (Pellini 15).
(3) The three editions of Giacinta, published in the years 1879-1889, are testimony of Capuana's ongoing search for literary perfection. Pellini notes that "le opere posteriori a Giacinta, con l'esclusione di alcune novelle di matrice verghiana, sono ormai quasi interamente estranee ai eanoni della poetica verista" (11).
(4) Federigo Verdinois, "Un nido" Corriere del Mattino (2 marzo 1880): 4.
(5) See Arslan, "Luigi Capuana e Neera," Arslan and Verdirame, "Giovanni Verga e Neera," and Arslan and Verdirame, "Neera a De Roberto."
(6) Capuana lived in Milan from 1876 to 1880, writing as literary critic for Corriere della Sera. In a letter to Capuana dated February 13, 1882, Neera writes: "la contessa Maffei jeri sera mi chiese di lei; tutti insomma gli amici e le amiche si mettono insieme per pregarla di ritornarvi." Arslan notes the existence in Neera's archive of 18 letters by Capuana to Neera and 28 letters (copied by hand from the originals) by Neera to Capuana.
(7) See Zambon (175) for an overview of the contemporary critical attention to Teresa.
(8) The theme of the zitella appears in the same years as Teresa in Marchesa Colombi's Un matrimonio in provincia and Matilde Serao's Il romanzo della fanciulla.
(9) Neera, of a middle-class Milanese family, was wife to Milanese banker Emilio Radius and mother to two children.
(10) In my interview with Antonia Arslan, director of Neera's archive, the critic revealed the existence in the archive of numerous letters in which Neera discusses her literary trilogy.
(11) Neera, "Le donne che piangono," Fanfulla della Domenica 15 April 1888. Excerpts from the article have been published in Arslan, Dame, galline e regine 59.
(12) A statement from Neera's 1891 Confessioni letterarie clarifies the reference to the two evolutions she had already completed in 1893: "I miei pfimi romanzi mostrano troppo il contrasto fra la tendenza del romanzo moderno al quale noi tutti aneliamo ed i preconcetti della letteratura romantica antecedente" (872).
(13) Neera's exclusion a posteriori from the verist canon must not be attributed to editorial misfortune, given that her novels were published by solid and prestigious publishing houses, a fact that guaranteed, to the extent possible, a respectable circulation of her work. Nor is it legitimate to consider Neera an isolated and weak voice within the artistic development of the movement, as the publication and critical reception in the years 1880-1890 of novels such as Il Castigo, La Regaldina, Il Marito dell'amica, Teresa, Lydia, and L'indomani reveal.
(14) Croce's review of Capuana's production was generally favorable, although he concludes the article by praising Capuana's critical over his narrative ability. See Croce, La letteratura della nuova Italia 3: 103-20.
(15) See Russo 138, Piovene 3, Cattaneo 400, Borlenghi 329, and Flora 448.
(16) See Baldacci v-xiii and Arslan, Dame, galline e regine 137 44.
(17) Neera, "Le donne che piangono," Fanfulla della Domenica 15 April 1888. Excerpts from the article have been published in Arslan, Dame, galline e regine 59.
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--, and Rita Verdirame. "Giovanni Verga e Neera: un carteggio." Quaderni difilologia e letteratura siciliana 5 (1978): 35-56.
--, and Rita Verdirame. "Neera a De Roberto." Archivio storico per la Sicilia Orientale 68 (1982): 249-70.
--, and Patrizia Zambon, eds. Il sogno aristocratico. Angiolo Orvieto e Neera. Corrispondenza 1889-1917. Milano: Guefini, 1990.
Baldacci, Luigi. "'Introduction." Teresa, by Neera. Torino: Einandi, 1976. vi-xii.
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--."Come io divenni novelliere. Confessione a Neera." Preface. Homo. 2nd ed. Milano: 1882. v-xxxv.
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Merry, Bruce. "Neera." Italian Women Writers. A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Ed. Rinaldina Russell. London: Greenwood, 1994. 286-94.
Neera. Confessioni letterarie. 1891. Croce, Neera 871-99.
--. Le idee di una donna. 1904. Croce, Neera 777-867.
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Piovene, Guido. "Idee e personaggi di Neera." Corriere della Sera 20 May 1943: 3.
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Verdinois, Federigo. "Un nido." Corriere del Mattino 2 marzo 1880: 4.
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Zambon, Patrizia. "La narrativa realista nei romanzi d'autrice di fine Ottocento." Problemi 108 (1997): 166-77.
CATHERINE RAMSEY-PORTOLANO The American University of Rome/Rome
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