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"Women journalists as cultural mediators: Frances Power Cobbe and Jessie White Mario in Italy" (Summary)

Article by Ivonne Defant, summary by Astrid Kulsdom

During the nineteenth century large numbers of British travellers visited Italy: most of them were male, but not all. In the British imagination Italy was a contradictory country because it was associated with inspiration and enchantment, but at the same time with nostalgia and decay. By enhancing Italy as the place of the aesthetic, the Romantic poets Byron, Keats and Shelley had surely contributed to the diffusion of a particular interest for Italy. But, as Shirley Foster states, «Italy took another and deeper symbolic meaning for women» [1990: 29]. Influenced by a strong literary perception of Italy, women journalists who travelled to document themselves expected Italy to be a country where the sensuality of language and place appealed to their feelings in order to create a space which was creatively liberating, and physically and psychologically female.

When travelling in Italy women such as Lady Morgan (1776-1859) or Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904) often adopted French as a source language to learn about the history of the country. Other women seemed to use French terms to give an authoritative aura to their travel narratives: Amelia Edwards' (1831-1892) description of her tour in the Dolomites is speckled with refined French terms which testify to how 19th-century women strived to find a place in language. But, as I will analyse in Frances Power Cobbe's and Jessie White Mario's (1832-1906) writings, it is the very role of Italian which gives a particular prominence to these two women in their responsible address to Italian history. They are however very different in their relationship with the Italian language: throughout Cobbe's writing Italian remains a language serving the purpose of information, while MARIO gets deeply involved in her experience in Italy and acquires the foreign language almost as a second mother tongue. While both journalists raise interesting issues concerning the gendering of the experience of being in-between languages in the 19th century, they also reveal how a woman's learning of a foreign language was bound up with her sex at the time.

Frances Power Cobbe: grafting Italian onto English
Frances Power Cobbe first came to Italy in 1857, at age thirty-five. She had already broken into intellectual journalism, and Italy gave her the zest to start new adventures. During her successive trips she made acquaintances with other people staying in Italy, such as the Brownings, and could support herself economically as a journalist who would write for the British press on the Italian cause. She travelled on her own, conscious enough of her linguistic education, since she mastered sufficient French and Italian, and even Latin and Greek, considered necessary for literary activity. However, in order to embark on a career, a scholarly knowledge of a foreign language was not enough: women needed a new pattern of life, which could be provided by the experience of travelling alone.

In 1864, in Italics, she collected many of the pieces she wrote about Italy during her several trips as foreign correspondent for the Daily News (the liberal newspaper launched in 1846 by Charles Dickens). Italian words, which are mostly culture-bound terms, are scattered throughout the book. They define cultural diversity and how it is filtered through language. Clearly Cobbe used them to express the sense of otherness which she experienced in an unfamiliar place, and the ways in which she tried to interpret it. In the context of the writing of a 19th-century woman, the implicitness related to culture-bound terms gains a particular female-oriented twist. Italian untranslated terms in Cobbe's book have an ambiguous function: they are not only a sign of authenticity that proves the female journalist's professional role, but also a means for interpreting social problems and considering issues sideways, so as to express herself, as a woman writer, in an oblique way. While they stand for an encounter with the other, they also represent at the same time a gender situation.

Throughout her narrative indeed, Cobbe insists on mentioning Italian terms related to the domestic sphere to disguise her criticism of it. By selecting these words and inserting them into the English text, so as to graft them, the woman journalist stakes a more effective claim because the gender issue is not only implied but also linguistically encoded through the ending -e in murate and sepolte, which stands for social gender, collectively understood. Interestingly, her anger at women's constraints is confined to the area of the untranslatable, where gender inequities are stressed, and her use of words in these Italian women's mother tongue strengthens the political function of language, without declaring it manifestly. Paradoxically, the marginal position of culture-bound terms in the text is heavily charged with a subversive meaning which bears on the gender position of the female journalist.

Rather than being simply disseminated in the English text, Italian words are grafted onto it in order to respond to the woman writer's desire to map it out. Grafting is a practice associated with plants, flowers and reproduction and thereby with the female world. If Cobbe seems to draw on Ruskin's idea of Victorian women as «queens's gardens», whereby women's beauty and piety induced him to compare them to flowers, she does so in order to criticise and reformulate this idea, underlining instead women's capability to interpret and manipulate language.

As we can notice Cobbe's role as mediator is itself as ambiguous as every female career was perceived to be at that time. In her intention to make the Italian culture knowledgeable to the British, Cobbe discloses a double-edged attitude of resistance and conformity which stands for an ambiguous gendered social role. Although the emphasis on gender outweighs Cobbe's conservative linguistic attitude, in her negotiation between the private and the public this woman journalist seems to bring back the more yielding Italian way of living to Britain, where she settles down together with another woman, thus refusing to follow a normal pattern represented by marriage.

Jessie White Mario: writing as a woman for women
The issue of in-between languages assumes another dimension in Jessie White Mario's book La miseria in Napoli (1877). Jessie White Mario was a British woman, devoted to the cause of the Italian independence. Throughout her career she wrote fifteen books on the Italian cause, among which is her social comment on Naples. She also translated into English The Austrian Dungeons in Italy, written by Felice Orsini, an Italian exile who fled to England. In her case, her condition of being between languages betrays a deep involvement, which is not only political but also linguistic. Her use of Italian, which turns almost into a second mother tongue, reveals itself to be above all a labour of love, a journalist's passion for foreign politics and the social condition of a country struggling for identity reflected in the language itself. Written in Italian, the host language, the book appears as an act of translation, since the author addresses an Italian readership , unlike Cobbe who wrote for an English one. Writing in Italian permits her to leave behind her social background, her British middle class identity, thus strengthening the perception of the other she addresses in her book: the Naples people of the very lower class. Mario has a direct knowledge of them, she visited their places, interviewed them and the language she uses seems to imitate words or expressions of the people she met.

Like Cobbe, she enriches her descriptions with many statistical details which are a constant feature in journalism but also stand for the female journalist's overt trespassing of the boundaries between the private and the public sphere. Like Cobbe's, Mario's language strategies are very often bound to the private sphere. Mario's Italian is often a language tinged with her very emotions and deep desire of empathy and compassion for Italian people. This results in her fusing the Italian language with the signs of the body, which are prevailing in the representation of Italian women. By taking advantage of her oblique position – she is a British woman writer in Italy – Mario manipulates the Italian language in order to speak as a woman for women and poor people as well, thus juggling gender, class and national identities. Her insistence on the correspondence between grammatical and social gender confirms her preoccupation with women's condition but at the same time it represents a foreign element against her Britishness. Mario’s concern with gender issues is revealed by her combining terms which for the 19th-century imagination represented two separate realms: the female sphere and professional work. In her hope and desire to see one day Italian women hold management positions, she linguistically stresses this preoccupation by grafting onto the same page terms which put women at the centre.

Jessie White was enamoured of the Italian cause. Her desire to «belong» to Italy is betrayed by the very name she chose to publish her book. Mario, which is her husband's surname, is also a popular male name in Italy. In this sense, MARIO can also function as a sort of nom de plume the author opts for in order to express her new identity. We could say that the surname Mario is grafted onto her British identity. Her condition of being in-between languages is realised in a process of negotiation through which she continuously redefines her place within language. The translation process implied in Mario's text is reproductive because her Italian is very often moulded into a language that includes the linguistic structures of English, but it is at the same time productive, as her play with grammatical and social gender, which entails covert messages sustaining gender issues, suggests.

The domestic and the public spheres
To conclude, in their understanding of Italy, both Frances Power Cobbe and Jessie White Mario merge their personal experiences with a political intention. Rather than being merely documentary, their accounts respond to a strong need for a new identity, and their linguistic devices reveal an innermost desire to undermine the paradigmatic structure of male dominance and to mediate between the domestic and the public sphere. The strong private dimension of Mario's relationship with the Italian language is reflected in a minor public role. Conversely, the greater public role of Cobbe as a journalist overshadows her personal tie with Italian. However, the appropriation of the Italian language by both women journalists becomes itself a significant strategy which implements their writing practice as a construction of a shifting and fluid feminine identity in a 19th-century context, which articulates itself in in-between bodies, across cultures and languages.

AsK December 2010

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