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the silent duchess

31 may 2017

The Silent Duchess is a fascinating novel, deliberately and idiosyncratically paced. I wasn't sure I would like it. I'm not always thrilled with realistic period pieces or politically programmatic fiction. Dacia Maraini's novel is about the manners of Sicilian aristocrats 300 years ago. It is avowedly feminist – that's clear from the text on the book's cover, as if its publication by Feminist Press weren't enough of a clue. Its protagonist is a duchess (as the title indicates), so the novel's feminism is focused on a very specific class of women with enormous power over servants, tenants, and other retainers. For all that, Maraini conveys the strange specificity of a bygone culture. Despite the limited palette of The Silent Duchess, it does what novels should do: lead readers into contact with a richly realized otherness. And along the way, the novel develops a sensitive critique of a class system that is not dying out as fast as the duchess would prefer.

Maraini's novel was filmed in 1997 as Marianna Ucrìa – with sound, from what I can gather. It would have been a natural as a silent film, because Maraini's most notable accomplishment is the evocation of deafness. Childhood trauma caused Marianna's deafness (she is also mute). She makes her way in the world via reading, writing, her sense of smell, and at times an inconvenient telepathy (what she calls her "intuitive sorcery," 214). Maraini conveys the texture of her protagonist's world with wonderful touches: the way silence cocoons and soothes her, the way doors always open as a complete surprise.

The Feminist Press's back-of-the-book blurb suggests that the plot hinges on a revelation about the trauma that made her deaf. But this revelation is just one plot point among many, and Marianna takes it with equanimity. It is true, as the back of the volume also suggests, that widowhood enables Marianna's self-discovery. She spends much of the story as a widow, and treats her fate (really her liberation) as an incitement to figural and literal voyages in search of independent experience.

As a child, Marianna was married to her uncle. Daughter of one duke, she became a duchess in her own right, and soon the mother of a duke-to-be, and many other children besides. Her "uncle husband" is abusive, and it takes Marianna a long time to realize that she can exert power over him by asserting herself – he's the proverbial bully who retreats when you stand up to him. Marianna eventually finds love, in a kind of romance subplot, but love does not define her. She is constantly in motion, and there are no happy endings here; the happiness she feels at the end of the novel is the transcendence of endings.

The novel is episodic, told in a strict chronology, but with many sudden vaults over intervening years. There's an extremely large cast of characters, for a book of only 227 pages, though the Press provides a family tree to help out – confusion can still breed, because the Ucrìa family recycles names like crazy. The Ucrìas are, as far as I can tell, completely invented; but Maraini herself is descended from Sicilian nobility, and must blend many a family tale and archival record with her own imagination in creating them.

Maraini, Dacia. The Silent Duchess. [Lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa, 1990.] Translated by Dick Kitto and Elspeth Spottiswood. 1992. With afterword by Anna Camaiti Hostert. 1998. New York: Feminist Press, 2000. PQ 4873 .A69L8613