The Silent Duchess, by Dacia Maraini

A book about reading books.

I don’t know how I found it. I don’t know why I read it. But I did, and I’m so glad that I did.

The novel follows the life and times of Marianna Ucria, a duchess in late 17th and early 18th century Sicily. She has been deaf and mute since childhood, having suffered an appalling trauma as a very young girl, and has been boxed into her silent world ever since, excluded from participating in the current of family and public life both because of her disability and her gender.

Nothing really happens in the book. That’s the amazing thing. It’s not a thriller, it’s not a romance, it’s not a murder mystery. What it is, is 350 pages of pure poetry, a lyrical stream of prose that examines what it must be like to be an aristocratic woman at a time when women, particularly in southern Italy, were third class citizens, baubles to be displayed and paraded about by the male members of their family, sold into marriage for a dowry, and domesticated into irrelevance. More than this, it is an examination of the internal life of the human being. In Marianna’s case, it is an inner world her disability has compelled her to enrich by herself, through her imagination, memory, and her lifelong habit of reading.

In places, particularly towards the end, the novel reminded me of Far From the Madding Crowd, when Bathsheba takes the (patriarchal) bull by the horns and asserts her dominion over a male world of farming and agriculture. Marianna has neither spoken nor heard a human voice since the age of five, yet, after the death of her husband (the repellent Pietro, who’s crap in bed) she is able to take control of the family estate and make a financial success of it.

Marianna Ucria is a bit of a radical too. For most aristocratic women of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, education and learning were not exactly open to them. They didn’t go to school and they certainly didn’t go to university. They were educated in the ways of the ‘lady’; how to dance, how to simper, how to be a desirable bauble. But such is Marianna’s spirit, that she reads and educates herself. And when she comes across the works of David Hume, a Scottish thinker who was already making a name for himself as the enfant terrible of European philosophy, she is both horrified and drawn to the modernity of his thought: his unashamed trashing of convention, his revelation of the arrogance and ignorance underpinning western civilisation, his beautifully brutal, searing logic.

So really, above all else, The Silent Duchess is about books, about reading, about the infinite landscapes it opens up within you, the endless continents of thought it reveals as you explore further and further. All within the context of a mute woman who is socially invisible, irrelevant to her family, and anonymized by her gender.

I won’t go on. Suffice to say, it’s been a very long time since I read a book of such startling beauty, where passages take your breath away with their lyrical flow, and the trenchant observations it makes about the life of a duchess. But it is also a commentary on the life we live, or could live, if we wanted. I guess we are all, to a certain extent, silent witnesses to the world, and it is the power of reading and writing that gives us a voice.

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