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  • Behind the Book with Katharine Mitchell

    4536 Michell Selected.inddKatharine Mitchell is the author of Italian Women Writers: Gender and Everyday Life in Fiction and Journalism, 1870-1910. This study looks at the work of three of the most significant women writers of the period: La Marchesa Colombi, Neera, and Matilde Serao. Katharine Mitchell shows how these three authors, while hardly radical emancipationists, offered late-nineteenth-century readers an implicit feminist intervention and a legitimate means of approaching and engaging with the burning social and political issues of the day regarding “the woman question” – women’s access to education and the professions, legal rights, and suffrage

    How did you become involved in your area of research?

    As an undergraduate at Leeds University in the UK in the mid-1990s, my final-year dissertation was on Puccini's last opera, Turandot (first performed in 1926), in which the slave girl, Liù, is made to suffer at length for no apparent reason, after which she commits suicide in order not to reveal the name of the Prince with whom she is secretly in love. This triggered an interest in studying other Italian tragic opera heroines, and for an MA by research I wrote a dissertation on female roles from Rossini to Puccini. I find the period in early post-Unification Italy intriguing in terms of gender representation, and my decision to focus on this period largely stemmed from my study of Verdi's and Puccini's tragic operas. It will sound essentialist, but having spent a lot of time working on female roles written for the Italian stage by male librettists and composers, I was curious to find out how women writers from this period constructed gender roles in their narrative fiction and their non-fiction. This led me to a reading of a selection of their works for a PhD.

    What inspired you to write this book?

    As a teenager I loved reading novels by women writers (Jane Austen; the Brontë sisters; Sylvia Plath; Margaret Atwood). While studying Italian at university, I wanted to discover what women writers in Italy during this unprecedented period of political, economic and social change were writing about, how they presented gender roles in their fiction and non-fiction, what themes they were engaging with in their domestic fiction. Ultimately I was interested to see if there were links with the themes with which emancipationists were concerned.

    How did you become interested in the subject?

    Studying Italian literature and culture during the mid-1990s, I was struck by the relative paucity of scholarly work in the Anglophone context on women and gender in Italy. The nineteenth century seemed particularly neglected, and yet this was the period when women were becoming visible in the public sphere as never before, as actresses, dancers and singers during the Risorgimento period - the movement for the Unification of Italy¬ - and then following Unification, as artists, writers, political activists, educators and translators. This phenomenon catalyzed a series of heated debates among intellectuals, politicians, the clergy, and later in the century, positivist thinkers, on the 'woman question'. Liberal Italy saw women and girls gaining access to free education for the first time, improvements in working conditions for women, the rise of the emancipationist movement. In short, it was an exciting and fertile time in which gender roles were being hotly debated, questioned, and radically redefined in the context of a relatively conservative, Catholic culture.

    Do you have to travel much concerning the research/writing of your book?

    I made several trips to Italy to work in some wonderful libraries and archives while I was writing my book, spending several weeks in the Biblioteca Nazionale and the Biblioteca Marucelliana in Florence, and at the Braidense library in Milan.

    What was the hardest part of writing your book?

    In general I find the process of writing very challenging, but mostly rewarding. I would set myself two to three 2-hour writing stints early on in the morning which is when I am at my most concentrated and focused, and would allow myself to type quite freely, even if it wasn't a proper sentence. I'd then go back and edit what I'd written, and re-edit. Even when I was almost (but rarely ever!) satisfied with the content, style and ideas, I would make changes. Writing is a constantly evolving, creative, process of revisions.

    Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

    I learnt a tremendous amount about women writers in Italy and the everyday lives of middle-class women and girls. I also learnt many things about myself, one of these being that while I enjoy the solitude of writing and thinking, I also get a great deal out of talking to people about my research and discussing ideas with colleagues and students.

    What are your current/future projects?

    I am currently working on a project on divas and female theatregoers in early post-Unification Italy (1861-1914), which I am hoping will become my second monograph. The project has grown out of my research on women writers for the UTP book: while I was reading their contributions to women's journals, I noticed frequent mentions in reviews, star profiles, lifestyle columns of dive/i, poet improvisers and opera singers. Also in the fiction by women writers, female performing artists are central and/or secondary characters, and scenes involving the ritual of theatregoing are common. I am interested in interrogating the relationship between female theatregoers and divas in the Italian context in the late nineteenth century through the accounts left to us in fiction and non-fiction (including letters and diaries) by women writers. Since 2008 I have been collecting material in theatre archives throughout Italy for this project and have published articles and book chapters on female desire and spectatorship. I am currently working on an article on the concept of beauty and the figure of the diva.

    What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?

    I like to read fashion magazines and novels (including chick lit) when I can, which is usually never! I recently read a novel about a caffe concerto singer by Annie Vivanti, and I'm currently reading Zola's Nana.

    If you weren't working in academia, what would you be doing instead?

    Travelling the world; volunteer work in Africa; playing my 'cello more often.

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