Just before things turn ugly (or uglier) for the characters in Maria Messina’s startling 1921 novel, A House in the Shadows, a young woman named Nicolina, who lives with her married sister and is about to become the mistress of her despotic brother-in-law, gazes down at her newborn niece:
If only she was a boy, she thought, she’d have an easier fate. Women are born to serve and suffer. Nothing else.
What was she holding in her little closed fists? Happiness maybe…. All of us clench our fists at birth so as not to let go of a blessing that we will never find again.
These dispirited ruminations might well serve as an epigraph for Behind Closed Doors, a collection of stories by Maria Messina, who was born in Palermo in 1887 and died in Pistoia in 1944. Translated by Elise Magistro and appearing in English for the first time, these ten persuasive tales offer stark, finely drawn portraits of poor and middle-class Sicilian women in the early years of the twentieth century. Resigned to servitude, poverty, insult, and violence, they are blindsided by abandonment; during the era in which these fictions are set, a million people, almost a third of the island’s population, left Sicily, in most cases for America.
As an older neighbor in “America 1911” tells a wife whose husband has resolved to emigrate, the lure of the New World is “a woodworm that eats away at things, a sickness that attacks, and when the time comes for a man to buy a suitcase, there’s nothing that can hold him back.” The wife convinces her husband to take her along, but is prevented from embarking at Palermo when she is diagnosed with an eye disease. In “Grandmother Lidda,” an elderly woman raises the boy her son has deserted, then must surrender her beloved grandchild when his father demands him back. The most nuanced of the emigration stories, “America 1918,” concerns a woman who, driven by loneliness and poverty, takes an initially companionable and increasingly brutal lover, whom she must give up when her husband returns from abroad. Impoverished, his health wrecked by a career spent pressing clothes (“It’s a new illness!” declares a Sicilian doctor), the spectral, doomed husband desires only to open a grocery store—and not to die.
For most of the peasant wives and their marginally more prosperous small-town counterparts, the only exit from their fate is into madness and death. Among Messina’s strengths are the tact and compassion with which she describes how these women are required to live within mental walls constructed from tradition, obedience, obsessive worry over minor gradations in status and reputation, and a stifled notion of possibility. The all-importance of their dowries teaches girls to calculate their value according to the delicacy of their embroidered linens, and the confining experiences of birth and mourning remind them how they must be ready to sacrifice autonomy to nature and custom. Everywhere daughters and sisters are …