In literature

Gertrude, but not only

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02 January 2021

Nuns who are protagonists of great novels


Gertrude and Maria. In Italy, any discussion about religious women in literature revolves around a polarity, one that oscillates between the powerful figure of the nun of Monza in Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, and the desolate protagonist of Storia di una capinera [Story of a Blackcap]. In both, the protagonists were forced to become nuns.

The tragic side of a life, which has been devastated by an imposed and therefore cruel choice, has always been predominant and overbearing in literature. Nonetheless, in the life of the Church, there are the sounds and powerful stories of women who, after escaping their family’s ambitious plans, (which was often encouraged by mothers and sisters aware of the alienation of a married life imposed by force), claimed the right to an alternative, which conformed to their aspirations. All of whom, Saint Clare.

Gertrude’s fame is undoubtedly linked to her centrality in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel in Italian literature, as well as in the history of the Italian language. However, Capinera [Blackcap] is also a character that almost everyone knows, regardless of having actually read Giovanni Verga’s novel, and who imposes herself onto the imagination for the poignant desolation of her destiny without appeal.

They could not be more different from each other. Gertrude is as much a lava-like creature corrupted by sin, sulphurous and capricious, as Maria is as white as snow, virginal, moved by a panicky sentiment towards nature. Gertrude is black and without redemption, Maria is snowy white, docile as a lamb, and so resigned that she does not even hint at the gesture of removing her head from the stone.

They are different in character, in biographical misadventures, in the times and places where they lived - one in seventeenth century Milan, the other in nineteenth century Sicily - for their social origin; yet, they do have two things in common. The first is the fixed denominator of this literary theme, which is ubiquitous throughout the ages, namely the forced monastic vows imposed on them by their families.

The second is a direct consequence of the first, meaning the impossibility of escaping men’s will who disposed of their destiny in a ruthless way. These women are considered things, objects of a functional nature to be used exclusively according to a rationale of profit or convenience. It is the fathers, but sometimes also the mothers, the stepmothers, the brothers, the sisters, who participate in the actual brainwashing, especially in the case of Gertrude. Unlike Maria, who is humble and vulnerable, but who soon realizes the strength of the meshes that are tightened around her, Gertrude, who is certainly harsher and prouder.  She is the one who unconsciously suffers the weight of her ruthless education; she is convinced with all the artifice to believe that she wants what does not correspond with her, according to a pedagogical model that would even arouse admiration for its effectiveness, if only we could leave aside the ferocity that animated it.

The destiny of Gertrude opens and closes around a sentence, the most famous in the story about her: and the unfortunate woman answered. As is often the case with authors of Alessandro Manzoni’s greatness, the periphrasis has a much broader sense than that referring to the context in which it is uttered. In the novel, it coincides with the act with which Gertrude is lost forever. Listening to Egidio’s voice and he her lover’s mellifluous words, instead of ignoring them as her monastic state demanded, she answers him. However, they are also the epitome of a much broader and more pervasive fate than the limits of the episode. The unfortunate woman responds not only to Egidio, but also to the family’s entire plan for her, and she begins to do so long before her encounter with the man, who is tragically instrumentalized to accept the expropriation of her destiny in favor of the interests of those who most of all should have protected and loved her. In this lies the tragedy, and even more so, the modernity. The contexts change, not the nature of relationships. There is no pain more excruciating than that which comes from the betrayal of those who should have taken care of us.

The destiny of imprisonment and unhappiness that befalls women who are forced to take their vows is a theme that has a very strong centrality in all literature dedicated to religious women. We have powerful examples, not infrequently of an autobiographical nature. I misteri del chiostro napoletano [The mysteries of the Neapolitan cloister], published in 1864, by the writer Enrichetta Caracciolo, who became a nun when she was very young in Naples, in the San Gregorio Armeno church, and after being freed from her vows became a patriot devoted to Giuseppe Garibaldi and a supporter of women’s rights.  Two centuries earlier, The Letters of a Portuguese Nun, by an anonymous author, first published in Paris in 1669, which explore the erotic and sensual implications of the prisoners who are seduced in the convent; or the story of Suzanne, La Religieuse told by Denis Diderot (the novel published posthumously in 1796), who in the first chapters recalls the candid sweetness of Verga’s Capinera, but then reveals herself to be a woman of an entirely different temperament, determined to decide for herself at any cost.

In order to come across a different point of view, we need to raise our gaze long before or long after these chronological dates. On the one hand, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, on the other, the Middle Ages. A nun is present in a story from the beginnings of two Italian writers, one already fully included in the canon of Italian literature, the other destined to become so, namely Elsa Morante and Rosella Postorino. The former with Le ambiziose [The Ambitious Ones], published in Oggi magazine in 1941, and the latter with In una capsula [In One Capsula], part of the collection  [Girls You Should know], released in 2004. They have much in common, because both recount two women of clear determined strength, and who embrace their choice of radical faith without any shadow of a doubt, and because they both put their will into their bodies, and by extension, their five senses. Postorino’s nun lies down in prayer in the nave to merge marble and flesh. Concetta, on the other hand, the protagonist of Morante’s story, is dazzled by the aesthetics of the sacred that fills her eyes full only of the solemnity of the cathedrals, the lilies, the flames of the candles, the legends engraved on the glass.

There are two men, however, who privilege a different representation of their souls. Guido Piovene and Giovanni Arpino are the authors, respectively, of Lettere di una novizia [Letters of a Novice], 1941, and La suora giovane [The Young Nun], 1959. Only the former rigorously takes up the theme of one forced to take her vows. However, regardless of the desire to take religious vows (apparently Arpino’s protagonist, Serena, entered the convent voluntarily, it is not however a choice of faith, rather of necessity) what they have in common is malice. This is a negative and disturbing trait that cannot be compared to Gertrude’s tragic dimension, but who is a rather artificial character. A cunning and tawdry array, who is more opportunistic in the case of Arpino’s novel, in which Serena limits herself to beguiling a man with the objective of settling down. This is cruder in Piovene’s, who draws Rita, the protagonist, who escapes all responsibility until she commits a crime.

However, along with the many women forced to enter a hated cloister, there were also those who took the opposite route. Medieval literature is full of them.

The Legenda Sanctae Clarae Virginis, attributed to Thomas of Celano is an official text, commissioned by a pope, composed for educational and devotional purposes, and for this reason even more surprising. The curial and canonical prose vibrates innervated by Clare’s impetuous resolution, and who in several points pierces the surface of the rhetoric of the hagiographic genre - one would think without the author even realizing it - to reveal with the burning force of the fiery nature of the protagonist. There is a gesture, an act among the many in the biography of Clare of Assisi, which I do not think is inappropriate to define as political. When the enraged men of her family arrived at the monastery where she had taken refuge after her escape, and who were determined to bring her back, their threats could not move her. Neither did the shouting, nor the violence, nor the obtuse refusal to understand; but they had to stop and desist in the face of a speechless act. Clare clung to the altar with all her strength, and uncovered her head showing her tonsure, the hair that Francis of Assisi had cut off at the Portiuncula to sanction her new status as a consecrated penitent. That was what silenced them. The coincidence between faith and choice, between body and will, between soul and ambition. That gesture told everyone: This is who I am. And without this, I am not. Respect my will.

by Emanuela Canepa

The last book written is “Insegnami la tempesta” [Teach me the storm] (Einaudi, 2020).  One of the three protagonists is a nun called Irene. She is a character who embodies both the idea of strength and that of spiritual motherhood. While writing, the author kept the Catalan Benedictine nun, Teresa Forcades, in mind. She was a mystic, activist, doctor, a creature of the cloister, and who was equally open to the world, even in its most extreme instances.