In commissioning this feature, editorial fellow Rachel Moss asked contributors: how can we radically re-imagine the writing of history? Over the next few weeks, our contributors reply with creative new methods, sources and forms that they are using to reshape what history writing can look like. In this instalment, Niamh Cullen uses cases of forced marriage in modern Italian history to consider how fiction can illuminate dark places in the historical record.
Last year I published a book that I had been working on for many years. It was about a number of things: how late twentieth century Italian lives were shaped by migration, urbanization and the rise of consumer culture, and how individuals and families had their lives, values and emotions shaped by these changes. It was also about the history of emotions, and a history of gendered experience. It was about memoirs and personal writing; about subjectivities, narrative and meaning, and how the historian might begin to shape individual lives into a narrative of social and cultural change.
Looking back on it now, I wonder if I might also have written a different sort of book, or books, about all of these things. I thought carefully about how to represent the voices of the memoirists I studied in my book, how to pay attention to the meaning they ascribed to their own lives, as Alessandro Portelli might put it, and to point out the messiness, the uncertainty, the ambivalence and the particularity of ordinary lives in the past. I also took care to point out the gaps and silences that remained and to point out the limits of historical research. The form of the traditional academic book still inevitably imposed a certain organising structure, my structure and my narrative, on it all. At a little distance from the book, I’m aware of the ultimate futility of my attempts to capture the individual experience of social and cultural change within an academic work of history.
I would like now to dwell a little longer on the uncertainties, the ambivalences and the silences in the texts and the lives that I wrote about. The practice of abducting a young woman with the aim of forcing her into marriage seems to have been a well known, if not exactly acceptable, practice in Sicily and southern Italy up to the 1960s and probably beyond. A couple might also elope together if their parents were opposed to the marriage, or if they could not afford a proper wedding celebration. In both cases, a marriage was the most likely outcome, as it considered unthinkable for a woman to refuse marriage after the alleged dishonour of the abduction. To add to the confusion, a woman might also wish an elopement to appear like a kidnapping to save her reputation. It was often unclear from the reportage whether such cases were kidnappings or elopements, and even to friends, family and acquaintances might not have been certain.There were limits to what the memoirists were willing to write about the darker side of love, courtship and sexuality in 1950s and 1960s Italy. and in order to find out more about abductions of women and forced marriage, I turned to newspaper reportage. I spent some time analysing the well-known case of one Sicilian women, Franca Viola, who refused to marry her kidnapper in 1965, bringing him to justice and drawing national attention to this practice of forced marriage by means of abduction. A minor case that I came across in the Sicilian daily newspaper Giornale di Sicilia in the same days as Franca Viola’s case was breaking, still stays with me though.
It was reported in a short article with the headline, ‘A happy ending to the Christmas Eve kidnapping: Kidnapped and kidnapper have sworn their ”eternal love”’ on 28 December 1965. This particular case began, the article stated, when the woman in question was bundled into a car while walking home. Her parents quickly reported a kidnapping. The ‘happy ending’ came a few days later when the couple arrived home, declaring their love for each other. Neither family opposed marriage, and the case was closed when they both swore their love for each other in front of a magistrate, a necessary formality in order to have the kidnapping charges dropped. In the Italian colour-coded expressions for news of crime and love, the case quickly turned from ‘black’ to ‘pink’.
There is no way of knowing of course what really lay behind these few short paragraphs of reportage. I must admit that the cloying, sentimental nature of the language leaves me uncomfortable, from the ‘happy ending’ to the swearing of ‘eternal love’. I wonder if behind these lines of reportage, lies another story of coercion and sexual violence, compounded by the violence of erasing the woman’s experience by pasting a love story over it. Perhaps it really was a romance though, and the couple happily saved the money they would have spent on a large celebration for family and friends, enabling them to marry more quickly and to set up home together as they longed to do. Perhaps it was neither, or both. Whose suggestion was it to elope, and how much effort was needed to persuade the reluctant partner? How many days or weeks of setting out again and again the reasons not to wait, not to have a ‘proper’ wedding? We will never know, of course, although one thing that is certain is that it was always the woman who risked more, in such arrangements.
Recently I have also begun to wonder if the gaze of the novelist or the poet could sometimes be more honest than that of the historian. I am thinking in particular of two recent books that took as their subject the entanglement of the writer and narrator with the past. Javier Cercas’ most recent book Lord of all the Dead is a work of autofiction and historical investigation, detailing the novelist’s attempts to uncover the story of his great-uncle, who died while fighting for Franco in the civil war, and in doing so his attempts to understand this uncomfortable part of his family’s past.
The book details the messiness of this investigation and the limits of what could be known, making visible Cercas’ own personal entanglement in the story he was investigating and telling. We see his research process; the leads followed, some useful and some not, the interviews and the archive visits. He tests the limits of the form he has chosen too. There are some powerful passages in which Cercas imagines what it might have felt like to be on the eve of battle, or mid-combat, but draws quickly back again. ‘All this I could imagine’ he writes, ‘but I shall not imagine it or at least I’ll pretend not to imagine it, because this is not fiction and I am no literato, so I must confine myself to the safety of facts’. Jercas, the novelist turned historian, is toying with his readers just a little here.
In her recently published blend of memoir, autofiction and historical inquiry, A Ghost in the Throat, poet Doireann Ni Ghríofa writes of her decades long obsession with an eighteenth-century Irish poem of lament, and her efforts to piece together the life of the woman who wrote it, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill or Nelly. Here too we see the relationship between the writer and her subject laid bare. Cercas’ interest in his great-uncle is bound up with the need to situate his own family within the wider national story of Spain’s complex relationship with its fascist past. Ni Ghríofa’s entanglement with Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill is rather a story of poetry, motherhood and the female body.
Like Cercas, Ní Ghríofa is all too aware of the limitations of her knowledge. We see her efforts in trying to imagine Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s childhood from a distance of two centuries, and with a paucity of sources at hand. ‘I describe these lives as though they were easily conjured’, she writes, ‘but that is not true.’ She is all too aware of the gaps in our knowledge, the details of women’s lives and of intimate life in particular that the sources will never yield. While some scenes from Nelly’s life are sketched out in spare but evocative language, Ní Ghríofa, like Cercas, is wary of imagining too much, her tone veering between reverence and playfulness. She will not sketch out every scene in this life; ‘in the absence of evidence (…) to do so would feel like trespass, or theft’. Imagination can be a way of bridging the gaps in our knowledge and trying to understand the unknown, but it is verbal trick too as Cercas and Ní Ghríofa remind us. In painting a scene and then flipping the switch in a sense, to reveal the mere shadows moving on the wall, they expose the silence and the missing details too, reminding us that all writing involves contructing narratives, making choices and smoothing over the gaps.
Perhaps there could be a place in academic writing for using the imagination to illuminate the gaps, silences and uncertainties in what we can know. Both examples show how this doesn’t have to result in seamless narratives that conceal the unknowns: rather the opposite. In foregrounding the process, leaving the brickwork exposed so to speak, both writers draw attention to the messiness, the drudgery, the wondering and the doubt that lie at the core of historical research. To return to my unnamed Sicilian woman of December 1965, I wonder if there is a teasing out her story and those of women like her, without making assumptions? Of foregrounding the ordinary day to day violence of how restricted her options, within such a patriarchal society, must have been, without simply reducing her to a victim? Of managing to let multiple narratives sit within a text without privileging any of them? These are some of the questions I’d like for my writing, if it is to be properly radical, to grapple with.
Javier Cercas, Lord of all the Dead: A Nonfiction Novel (trans. Anne McLean, MacLehose Press: London, 2019)
Doireann Ní Ghríofa, A Ghost in the Throat (Tramp Press: Dublin, 2020)
Alessandro Portelli, ‘The Peculiarities of Oral History’, History Workshop Journal, Vol. 12: 2 (1981), pp. 96-107.
Niamh Cullen is a lecturer in modern European history at Queen’s University Belfast. Her most recent book is Love, Honour and Jealousy: An Intimate History of the Economic Miracle (Oxford, 2019). She is interested in the history of modern Italy and in the history of emotions, sexuality and the family in twentieth-century Europe.