Feminist rhetoric and family values: Forced marriages in Sicily after Franca Viola

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 15.27.24I’ve written before about the case of Franca Viola, the 17 year old Sicilian woman who in 1966 made huge steps towards ending the practice of kidnap and forced marriage in southern Italy. Kidnapped by her ex-fiancé Filippo Melodia in December 1965, she was held by him for a week before an extensive police search tracked them down. Melodia made one last desperate attempt to flee onto the rooftops of the adjoining houses with Viola before he was taken into custody. Continue reading

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Conference report: ‘Criminal Law and Emotions in European Legal Cultures: From the 16th Century to the Present’

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 14.55.27I’m just back from Berlin after an excellent few days attending the ‘Criminal Law and Emotions’ conference at the Max Planck Centre for the History of Emotions. I presented a paper on the case of Franca Viola, the 17 year old Sicilian woman who was kidnapped by her ex-fiancé in 1966 with the intention of forcing her into marriage, and became the first woman to refuse the so-called reparatory marriage offered to her, forcing her kidnapper and rapist Filippo Melodia to be tried and sentenced for his crimes. I’ve written more about her case here. Continue reading

Embroidering Emotions? Exploring the history of the trousseau

I’ve been thinking about dowries and trousseaus a bit lately. While the dowry was on the decline by the 1950s, most Italian women still married with a corredo or trousseau. Traditionally this was a collection of hand-sewn linens and typically included bed sheets and pillow cases as well as towels, napkins and table cloths. A girl might work steadily on her corredo throughout her adolescence. Sandro lived in a village south of Rome and met his wife in the late 1950s; he knew she was responsible and serious since she worked on her corredo each evening after a day’s work on the farm. This was before she had even met her future husband. In rural Tuscany, Laura listed in meticulous detail the items she had brought with her when she married in 1950; a blue cotton bed cover, four sheets, four pillow cases, one dishcloth, six towels, two night dresses and twelve nappies. The fact that she was able to remember the exact number of each item she brought more than thirty years later, is an indication of the value – practical and sentimental – that the corredo held for her. She had almost certainly sewn everything all herself and in the small sparsely furnished home than she and her husband shared in their first years of marriage, each of the items she brought would have been put to continual use. read more

‘Wretched’ and ‘humilated’? Writing agency into history

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Stefania Sandrelli as Agnese in the 1964 film ‘Seduced and Abandoned’

Despite having probably hundreds of ideas that I meant to blog about I have written barely anything for this blog lately. Partly that’s because I’ve been busily writing up my research and trying to cobble together the first draft of a book manuscript. However as I begin to revise some of those chapters, I’m thinking again about how I approach the people I research and write about.

During the summer I spent some time researching and writing about honour crime and forced marriages in 1960s Sicily. I’m still hoping to blog about that research more soon. However at the moment I’m reflecting more generally on the Sicilian women I encounter in my research and how I can capture their subjective experiences in my writing. read more

Visiting the ghosts of research past

The grave of Piero Gobetti, in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris

The grave of Piero Gobetti, in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris

I was in Paris for a few days at the end of last month and took the opportunity to visit the grave of Piero Gobetti in Pere Lachaise cemetery. I wrote my PhD thesis largely on the figure of Gobetti and published my first book on the subject in 2011. The research for the PhD thesis and book involved spending much time in Turin where the young intellectual had lived most of his life, and I was even lucky enough to be able to study and research in his home and offices, where a research library and archive is now based. However I had never had the chance to visit his grave in Paris and had always been intrigued by the idea of his final resting place. read more

‘This is how I dress’: Fashion before the age of mass production

advertisement for Necchi sewing machine, 1960s

advertisement for Necchi sewing machine, 1960s

Ever since I began a research project on dress and fashion in 1950s and 1960s Italy almost four years, I’ve wanted to learn how to sew properly. Reading through magazines filled with patterns, hand-drawn illustrations and advice about sewing new outfits and adapting old clothes, as well as interviewing people about their memories of fashion and dressmaking, gave me a much deeper interest and respect for these crafts. I did a short beginner’s course while I lived in Milan – and realised that the most challenging part is learning how to thread the sewing machine! – and now that I’ve moved back to Dublin, I’ve decided that I’m going to buy a sewing machine and teach myself how to use it properly, this autumn.

While I’ve been away though, it seems like everyone else has been catching on to the sewing trend too; there are sewing classes cropping up all around Dublin and new books on sewing and DIY fashion are on display everywhere. Knitting of course has been popular for quite a few years now, something that Australians didn’t quite seem to realise given the recent controversy over Knitted Kangaroo-Gate. Why is it that the idea of making, wearing and displaying hand-crafted clothes and home furnishings is becoming so popular again, at a time when mass-produced fashion is still readily available and affordable? Is it that several years of recession are changing our attitudes to dress, making us better attuned to the quality of a garment and how it is made and less appreciative of disposable fashion? It doesn’t really cost less to sew clothes rather than buy them, but it could be seen as the less wasteful, ethical choice. Most people presumably are also sewing as a hobby, and never intend to dress themselves entirely by hand.

In my research on dress in post-war Italy, people’s experiences of dressmaking were of course entirely different. read more

Does historical fiction make better history?

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Recently I finished reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, a book I’d been meaning to read for ages and finally got around to. I’d expected it to be good, but it was even better than I’d heard. I loved the writing, really clear and straightforward but which drew you into the story completely. But more than that, I finished it thinking that this was the one of the best books I’d read about twentieth century European history, despite never claiming to be a history book. Free from the imperative to appear detached and analytical, the book drew me completely into the worlds it was describing, from belle époque Paris to inter-war Vienna and finally post-war Japan. Since the author is an artist, his concentration on the material is crucial; the Japanese netsuke from which the ceramic figure of the hare is drawn are central to the narrative, but it extends beyond these. His focus on how the places and spaces and objects he describes are lived in and experienced gives the cities and homes he describes a materiality they might otherwise lack. Vienna in particular, was a place and a history I didn’t know in too much detail, but de Waal’s attention to the way that the streets outside the Ephrussi family’s palatial residence sounded and looked like – from the rowdy crowds of students singing bellicose songs after the outbreak of war in 1914 to the pomp of the emperor Franz Joseph I’s funeral cortege passing by in 1916 – gave a sense of what it was actually like to live through these times. I felt I understood the history of twentieth century Vienna and of European Jewish culture much better than I had before. read more