Blog post

Matilde Serao: a woman's war diary

The war diaries of the first female Italian newspaper editor

The memory of World War I, its events and consequences, its victims and victors, remains very much alive today, with he stories of soldiers and their families continue to be told and published from generation to generation.

This blog from the Biblioteca nazionale centrale di Roma looks at one example of such storytelling: Matilde Serao's Parla una donna, a collection of articles relating to World War I.

Matilde Serao was a journalist and novelist. She was born in Greece, to an Italian father and Greek mother, moving to Italy when she was a child.

She was the first woman to edit an Italian newspaper, when she and her husband established Il Corriere di Roma. Together, they later founded and edited another newspaper Il Mattino, and, in 1904, her own newspaper Il Giorno.

Serao was the author of several novels, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature six times.

Parla una donna: diario femminile di guerra, maggio 1915-marzo 1916 was published in 1916 by the the Milanese publisher Treves. It is a collection of articles by Matilde Serao, a writer and journalist (1856-1927), which had been published at the beginning of the war in her newspaper Il Giorno.

The diary, dating from 25 May 1915 to March 1916, turned out to be a rare document, extremely interesting not only because the reader learns about the war through a female voice, but also crucially because this woman, writing about war, is actually writing about women.

As a reporter, Serao records a picture of the first months of war, observing how Italian women made their contribution. 

Serao immediately points out that the book did not 'come out from the pen of an authoress: in it, a woman is talking'. A woman who is the mother of Antonio, Paolo and Vittorio: all three of her sons were called to arms, and to whom the book is dedicated.

As such, the book is addressed to women, called 'sisters', who, like Serao, prayed to God that 'the terrible bitter cup of war is taken away' from their lips and that will all be saved from the horrors of the war.

Matilde Serao wanted to make known the 'beauty of obscure heroism' and 'episodes of feminine virtue', among all social classes. 

She particularly admires the women that work, peasant women that replace men in the fields, provincial women knitting wool stockings for soldiers, Italian women abroad, mothers, wives, and fiancées who have a smile on their face when they accompany the leaving soldiers and then live waiting to hear from them. All these women, whose lives were transformed by the war, decided to silently sacrifice themselves - unlike many others that Serao calls 'female nits' ['nullità femminili'], who took advantage of the tragic moment to show off and give vent to their vanity.

However, the writer wonders who will appreciate these manifestations of feminine virtue, of daily courage: 'who will award a prize to this unknown value? God sees: but the world is blind'.

Matilde Serao gives herself her contribution: she reads to the mothers the letters of their sons at war, she visits the wounded soldiers in the hospitals and make them tell their stories, even if the soldiers prefer to tell the others’ deeds instead of theirs.

The author is driven by the will of collecting stories.

One such example is a time when, during one of her travels back from Rome to Naples, the train is full of officers with the greenish grey uniform of the Italian army. Serao speaks with some wounded soldiers and is struck, amongst them, by a pasty lieutenant that continually whispers 'If only I was injured…', complaining to go back home 'like a sissy' and not injured like his fellows, even if he had got hit by a grenade.

The diary ends with the waiting for spring that unfortunately will still be a season of war, but the Italian woman 'sees with her prophetic soul, beyond the season of tears and blood, the glow of peace'.

These words end the book and show the writer’s pacifism. Before the war, Matilde Serao made her newspaper Il Giorno took a neutral position - when the war begins, she deplores all its evil. With Parla una donna, she offers the positive examples of so many unknown women who, with commitment and humanity, gave their silent contribution in a moment of great difficulties.