Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Author's Portrait: Marchesa Colombi nineteenth century was a hard time for women wishing to be taken seriously as writers. The Italian Maria Antonietta Torriani Torelli Viollier was one of those who succeeded although it wasn’t sung at her cradle either that one day she would be a noted and widely-read author. Like many of her female contemporaries she wrote under pseudonym, but instead of choosing a male one her sense of humour made her borrow the name of a character from the comedy La satira e Parini (1858; The Satire and Parini) by Paolo Ferrari, namely of the female part of a frivolous and vicious couple of small gentry. After first having used the name just for fun she became Marchesa Colombi for good in 1877. The life of the prolific and yet almost forgotten Italian writer deserves a closer look.

Marchesa Colombi was born Maria Antonietta Torriani in Novara, Italy, on 1 January 1840. After the father’s premature death her mother married the much older pharmacist Martino Moschini because with her small salary as an elementary school teacher she chouldn’t support herself and two daughters. The year of the wedding, in 1847, stepbrother Tommaso was born. Maria Antonietta attended school in Novara and then went to the Civico Istituto Bellini d'Arti e Mestieri (Town Institute Bellini of Arts and Crafts) as a day-pupil, probably from 1850 until her mother died in 1853. Soon relatives urged her to get married, but she refused preferring to continue her studies and to write. When her stepfather died in 1865, she was faced with the alternative of entering a marriage of convenience after all or of becoming her stepbrother’s lady companion. She decided to enter a convent.

The strict discipline to which Maria Antonietta Torriani had to submit herself in the convent of Miasino at the lake of Orta was against her nature and she experienced it as suffocating. With the help of the cook she managed, however, to escape temporarily from the monotonous and frugal life reading journals and magazines, while studying to become a teacher. She also began to write letters to the editor of L' Illustrazione Universale, Eugenio Torelli Viollier, because she liked his articles so much. After a while she even asked him for advice about how to become a journalist and he not only encouraged her telling her that she had talent, but he urged her to join him in Milan and already in 1868 she followed his invitation.

In Milan Maria Antonietta Torriani set out at once to make her dream of being a journalist and writer come true. Using different pen names her work was published in many periodicals. She also made soon friends with the feminist leader Anna Maria Mozzoni whom she supported enthusiastically accompanying her to conferences on the emancipation of women all over Italy and giving lectures. Important fruit of this collaboration is the essay Della letteratura nell'educazione femminile (About Literature in Female Education) from 1871 in which she emphasised the influence of reading and culture altogether on the formation of the minds of women. At the age of thirty-one Maria Antonietta Torriani brought out her first book titled Giulia Modena which was followed by Il Carnovale di un capitano (1873; A Captain’s Carnival).

Early on in their acquaintance, at a time when Maria Antonietta Torriani had been considered a spinster already for a while, a bond of love formed between her and Eugenio Torelli Viollier who was several years younger than her and established as a journalist of renown in Milan. Before soon they lived together in concubinage and in 1875 they got married. The following year Eugenio Torelli Viollier founded the Corriere della Sera and as a critic and expert in matters of fashion and good manners Maria Antonietta wrote for it, at first not signing her articles and after a while under the name Marchesa Colombi which she had definitely adopted by 1877, but her articles continued to appear in other periodicals too.

During the twenty years of their marriage Marchesa Colombi published – along with her articles in diverse periodicals – a considerable number of books, many of them highly successful and translated into several languages at the time. In 1877 she brought out the bestselling conduct book titled La gente per bene (1877; Decent People) which was as important for Italian society as the works of Freiherr von Knigge for the German-speaking world, Debrett's Etiquette and Modern Manners for the British Isles and the books of Emily Post for the USA. The same year also the little noted novel Tempesta e bonaccia. Romanzo senza eroi (1877; Tempest and Lull. Novel Without Heroes) and the collection of short stories titled Scene nuziali (1877; Scenes of a Marriage) appeared.

The topics at the heart of all fiction work of the enormously prolific author are love and the lives of the women of her time, the late nineteenth century, around which she weaved her stories with remarkable communicative skill and an ironic, sometimes sarcastic tone. Her most important novels probably are In risaia. Racconto di Natale (1878; In the Rice Field. Christmas Story), Dopo il caffè (1880; After Coffee), Prima morire (1881; Rather Die), The Wane of an Ideal (Il Tramonto d'un ideale: 1881), Senz'amore (1883; Without Love), A Small Town Marriage (Un matrimonio in provincia: 1885), and Umani errori (1899; Human Mistakes). There are, however, many more novels from the pen of Marchesa Colombi which are all quite forgotten today.

Apart from long fiction, Marchesa Colombi produced a couple of rather popular short story collections like just for instance Racconti di Natale (1878; Christmas Stories), Serate d’inverno (1879; Winter Evenings), La cartella n.4 (1880; Folder Number 4), Cara speranza (1888; Dear Hope), Raccontini e commediole (1887; Shortest Stories and Little Comedies), or Racconti popolari (1900; Popular Stories). In 1882 she tried her skill on two plays for the theatre as well. Writing the first, La Creola (The Creole Woman), she collaborated with her husband, while she composed the other, Il violino di Cremona (The Violine of Cremona), alone. In addition she made literary translations from English and French, best received among them the abridged works of Rhoda Broughton which appeared under the title L'Età del marito (1881; The Husband’s Age) and a rather free translation of Zénaïde Fleuriot’s La vie en famille which became La vita in famiglia (1881; Family Life) in Italian.

Marchesa Colombi also wrote some books for children, namely I più cari bambini del mondo (1882; The Dearest Children of the World), Dal vero. Racconti per bambini (1884; After Nature. Stories for Children), I ragazzi d'una volta e i ragazzi d'adesso (1888; The Children of Another Time and the Children of Today), Il piccolo eroe (1890; The Little Heroe), and the conduct book titled I bambini per bene a casa e a scuola (1884; The Decent Children at Home and in School).

In the mid-1890s the marriage of Maria Antonietta Torriani and Eugenio Torelli Viollier broke up because the author was morbid jealous of her sixteen-year-old niece Eva living with them like their daughter. After one of many terrible scenes, the young girl killed herself throwing herself out of a window. From then on husband and wife reproached each other for her death until they separated a few months later. Towards 1900 Maria Antonietta Torriani Torelli moved to Turin and retired from the literary as well as the social scene to enjoy the quiet, the company of friends and travelling with her long-time friend Giovanna Macchi, a retired teacher. She died in Cumiana, Italy, on 24 March 1920.

The works of Marchesa Colombi in their original version have been in the public domain for almost twenty-five years in countries like Austria where copyright expires seventy years after the author’s death. Many of her novels and short story collections are available in Italian for free and without need to sign up on Liber Liber and a few on Project Gutenberg, too.

This article is based on the following Italian websites:

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