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In the last two decades, 19th-century Italian women writers have gained a much wider audience in American academia. Although women's studies still have a hard time working its way up in Italian universities, American scholars have been more and more focusing their attention on Italian women writers and their literary legacy. Fundamental novelists such as Marchesa Colombi and Neera are being translated and studied in the English language, thus giving them access to a wider public recognition. Looking for historical and theoretical coordinates, Italian scholars have been establishing parallels with other Western literary and social histories. For 19th-century women writers, two works in particular have become staples of feminist literary histories since their publication in the '70s: Gilbert and Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic and Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own. Although these studies focus specifically on English women writers, much of their theoretical foundations apply to the Western literary tradition in general. (1)
As many other countries of the Western world did, in the late 19th century Italy had a veritable explosion of women writers. What sets this group of women writers apart from their predecessors was, first of all, the fact that they were for the most part professional writers: journalists, essayists, novelists. They wrote for money and, for this very reason, they were in direct competition with their male colleagues. (2) This generation of women writers has become a complex and much discussed field of study, especially since traditionally--they have been labeled by the histories of Italian literature as "popular writers" and--as such--unworthy of serious study. Only recently have they been unearthed by new scholars and put under the scrutiny of academic research.
In A Literature of Their Own, Elaine Showalter begins her study by analyzing what was specifically new about 19th-century women writers. For example, why they began to write for money; how they negotiated the activity of writing for money with their families; what was their professional self-image; what effects criticism had upon them; what were their relationships to other women, to men, and to their readers; what were their experiences as women, and how these were reflected in their books; what was their understanding of womanhood; and, most of all, how the vocation of writing itself changed them. All these questions play a fundamental role in Grazia Deledda's Cosima, the "autobiographical novel" published posthumously in 1836. (3)
Deledda, too, wrote for money and was quite successful as a writer: she was both widely popular and recognized by highbrow critics. This is only one of her many paradoxes. Much has been said about why she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926. Some even say that Mussolini had something to do with it--choosing her being safer than choosing Pirandello (Wood 58). However, Deledda's work was much admired (D.H. Lawrence being just one among her many fans). Especially when one considers the predilection of those times for anything ethnic or ethnographic, it becomes easier to understand what made her so popular and a la page.
All things considered, Grazia Deledda's case is rather anomalous. As it has been noticed on several occasions, there isn't much recent research on Deledda's work. Could it be that Deledda's appeal, despite the huge success of her work in her lifetime, had simply died out? Could she be, in a word, passee? Although some excellent articles on her appeared in the last decade, most studies on Deledda as a woman writer go back to the '70s --the decade that gave the first major push to research in women's studies. It may have been just a passing fancy, an attempt to embrace a woman writer who may simply be unyielding to such a kind of reading.
In fact, a great scholar of Italian women's writing such as Sharon Wood has claimed that Deledda's appeal, nowadays, lies in very different aspects than those that brought her fame and the Nobel Prize. (4) It is in the very heart of Deledda's paradoxes that a revisitation …