The Silent Duchess
(La lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa
by Dacia Maraini
Women’s Review of Books review
Women’s access to discourse involves submission to phallocentricity, to the masculine and the symbolic; refusal, on the other hand, risks reinscribing the feminine as a yet more marginal madness or nonsense.—Mary Jacobus
Not madness but mutilation lies at the hart of The Silent Duchess. This intimate, powerful novel tells the story of an aristocratic woman in eighteenth-century Sicily, struck deaf and dumb following an unspeakable trauma, one that lurks beneath the surface of her consciousness for most of her life, and that her male relatives conspire to bury and deny. While Duchess Marianna remains for those around her a marginal, vaguely threatening figure, a reminder of her family’s shame at having engendered such a freak, she manages to create a personal, empowering discourse of her own: not the “plenitude” of the spoken word, rendered forever alien to her by male violence, but the language of her awakening body and senses, and of the silent, material realm of writing, her preferred means of communication.
Marianna’s tale, in its barest form, has the grim, predictable quality of some feminist allegory, but Dacia Maraini’s art endows the duchess and her world with all the richness and contradictions of everyday life. The novel, essentially plotless, follows key events in Marianna’s life (betrothal, childbirth, rare forays outside of the family circle) through her eyes and other senses. At the birth of her third daughter, “She sinks her nose into the lacy dress that covers the tiny feet and smells the unique odor of borax, urine, curdled milk and lettuce water, which all newborn babies carry on them—and no one has any idea why that smell is the most delicious in the world.” The daily work of women—Marianna and other noblewomen, the peasants on her estate, and her eldest daughter, a wayward nun who discovers a passion for herbal medicine and ministering to the poor—occupies an important place in the novel, as do the pomp and fancy of ancien régime Europe. The jewel-like theatre Marianna has built to celebrate her recovery from pleurisy offers up a riot of color and texture, “to compensate for her deafness”: “the boxes lined with yellow damask with borders of blue velvet,” “a wide vaulted ceiling painted with designs showing birds of paradise, unicorns and chimeras with enigmatic expressions.”
Marianna and the other characters are drawn in similar loving detail, and neatly evade the manichaean stereotypes that sometimes plague ideologically engaged literature. Duke Pietro, the elderly “uncle-husband” to whom Marianna is married off as a girl, is an austere, even sinister man, but not without warmth and humanity. He reassures his young wife “kindly” when she fails to produce their longed-for son and heir; he hastens to transcribe a servant’s humorous remark about the baby boy who eventually does arrive “because he knew it would make Marianna laugh”; and he sobs inconsolably, leaning on his wife’s arm, when their daughter Felice takes the veil. At Duke Pietro’s funeral, Marianna reflects on his sad, lonely nature: “From his ancestors he had inherited the idea that love is predatory; to take aim, to assault, to lacerate, to devour—then to go away satisfied, leaving behind a carcass, a skin, empty of life.”
Though Marianna’s sensitivity and keen, questioning mind set her apart from her society, she, like her aristocratic peers, is affected by the prerogatives of her rank. She risks the ire of the Inquisition by reading the works of the “libertine” David Hume (“reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions”) but does not hesitate to dispose of Saro, the young servant who helps her discover the joys of the flesh, much the same way her own parents had handed her off, through an arranged marriage. At novel’s end, Marianna, a widow, her children grown and settled, sets off “to wander, to meet different kinds of people,” and contemplates “the gurgling yellow water” of the Tiber beneath her feet. The river flows on, boundless and forever mutable, like Marianna’s “will to resume her journey” and to resist the seductive “dream of closure” (to borrow a phrase from Carolyn Heilbrun)—and like the writing that represents her conduit to the outside world. Marianna “questions her silences. But the only answer she receives is another question. And it is mute.”
The Silent Duchess derives much of its seductive force from the contradictory interplay between Marianna’s silence and seeming isolation, on the one hand, and the kaleidoscopic symphony of her perceptions to which the reader is privy. Marianna’s thoughts drift from the (imagined) sound of her daughter Felice’s voice to the fashionable music of her times:
She has read of Corelli, Stradella and Handel as marvels of musical architecture. She has tried to imagine a taut arch of enchanting colors, but all that issues from the vaults of her childhood memory is a few sonorous gurgles, ruins of buried music. Only her eyes have the capacity to grasp pleasure, but is it possible for music to be transformed into something corporeal that can be embraced with a look?
Synaesthesia, or the intermingling of different sensory perceptions, is a fundamental trope of the Baroque sensibility that lingers in the Sicilian culture of Marianna’s time and in the wild, anachronistic landscape she contemplates:
The surrounding country is flooded with light. The plain with its olive trees is mantled with thousands of metallic scales and beyond it Capo Zafferano sparkles in the distance like another world. The jasmine and the orange blossom send their perfume upwards like diaphanous wisps of smoke that evaporate between the roof tiles… Nearer, at the bottom of the sloping valley, the outlines of the olive trees, the carobs, the almonds and the lemons give the impression they are all asleep.
Mariani’s meticulous reconstructions of Duchess Marianna’s world are not limited to ecstatic nocturnes and their accompanying visions of bold and handsome knights. The violence and brutality of a society lurching toward change run through The Silent Duchess like a despairing leitmotif, from the execution of a twelve-year-old thief in the novel’s opening pages, to the “nocturnal brutality” of Marianna’s uncle-husband, to the auto-da-fé with its excruciating depiction of two heretics being burned alive.
There is also the violence of convention and ideology that leaves Marianna a stranger to her own body for so long. A servant helps the duchess undress:
With their rich embroidery of pearls, the sleeves come off by themselves, like tubes of wood. The skirt rests rigidly on the floor. It is as if the Duchess were divided in two, one half the body of a woman, moving freely in her white cottong petticoat, the other Her Excellency the Duchess of Ucrìa, confined in stiff brocade… It is the point at which these two bodies meet that is hard to discern: where one acknowledges the other, where one is shielded by the other, where one displays itself and the other hides itself so as to become completely lost.
Women, their bodies and their relationship with language have been the mainstay’s of Dacia Maraini’s long and distinguished career. “When women gain control of the written word,” she has affirmed, “they win their freedom.” The Silent Duchess, on some level, explores the ultimate implications of this issue and suggests, as Anna Camaiti-Hostert points out in her illuminating afterward to the English-language edition, “the function of silence not as the absence of speech but as an alternative to male language.” Other works by Dacia Maraini propose different solutions: Isolina, for example (available in English from Dufour Editions), restores the name and voice of a working-class girl who died after a botched abortion, and whose existence had been (literally) erased from the archives of her city and the memory of her family and community. Another recent work, the Dizionarietto quotidiano or “Everyday Pocket-Dictionary” (Bompiani), focuses on language in the most direct possible way, by examining the personal and ideological valences of individual words from contemporary media and daily life.
Language comes to the fore in The Silent Duchess not only thematically but also through Maraini’s precise, sensual and limpid prose—arguably the glory of contemporary Italian letters. Maraini in fact has attributed the novel’s success to her overcoming the “literary puritanism” and “cultural terrorism” that had characterized the militant years of the sixties and seventies: “When writing prose, I felt I had to use a spare, detached, censured language,” she told one interviewer. “The taste for rhythm, for linguistic experiments, for the pleasure of metaphors and images—all that I saved for poetry. In The Silent Duchess there was a convergence, perhaps even a meeting of these two experiences, separated for so long.”
Rendering the lushness and elegance of Maraini’s prose in English is an arduous task, and the Feminist Press translation of The Silent Duchess only hints at the palpable immediacy of the original. It also contains the odd misconstrual, of no great consequence but troublesome nevertheless. These reservations aside, The Silent Duchess remains one of the most memorable Italian novels of the last decade: a paragon of stylistic beauty and intellectual rigor, whose characters touch the heart and challenge the mind long after the final page has been turned.