Dacia Maraini is something of a national treasure in Italy. The author of more than 50 books, a director of stage and screen, and an outspoken feminist, Maraini has never been afraid of controversy. The Silent Duchess won prestigious awards in Italy upon its publication there in 1990, and has since been translated into 14 languages. It tells the story of Marianna Ucria, an 18th-century noblewoman who is both deaf and mute following a mysterious childhood trauma. Though outwardly Marianna's life follows the same trajectory as most women's of her class and time--an arranged marriage and endless childbearing--her inner life is quite unique. Within the silent world she occupies, Marianna pursues a vigorous life of the mind; in fact, silence becomes a weapon she wields to defend her deepest, truest self against society's suppression of women's creativity and will. From the first, horrifying images of a child's hanging, through Marianna's forced marriage to her elderly uncle, and finally to her recollection of the trauma that scarred her, The Silent Duchess takes the reader on a remarkable journey through the mores and manners of 18th-century Sicily and into the mind of its enigmatic, courageous heroine.
The title of Dacia Maraini's The Silent Duchess refers to an intelligent deaf-mute woman in 18th century Sicily. Marianna is born into a life of wealth and privilege as a member of the aristocracy, but that does not protect her from the trauma that disables her as a child or from being married at the age of thirteen to her cold, anxious maternal uncle and becoming the mother of five (with three miscarriages) before the age of 30. The specific details of Marianna's life add to a larger understanding of how women's lives were rendered silent under patriarchy.
The story has a languorous pace and a deceptive depth to it that reminded me somewhat of Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian. Both novels were difficult for me to get into, but once I did I was richly rewarded by the experience. Vignettes unfold revealing Marianna at different moments in her life: watching her children play and grow; musing on David Hume and how disappointing life can seem after spending time with a book; reflecting on the luxury, idleness, and decaying grandeur of nobility; and discovering hereditary traits and unique quirks in her family members as they grow up and evolve into their own distinct personhood. There is a lot of reflection and not much 'action', per se, but Marianna is such a sympathetic and insightful character that her life and observations are well-worth reading. It is only after the death of her uncle husband that she takes journeys literal and metaphorical by creating and loving the members of her unconventional household, managing her deceased husband's properties when her son will not, and by leaving Sicily to travel.