“I was wrong to buy this notebook, very wrong,” writes Valeria Cossati, the heroine of Alba de Céspedes’s novel Forbidden Notebook, published in 1952. She is worried that someone might discover the diary; keeping it is taking a toll: “If it’s true that the hidden presence of this notebook gives a new flavor to my life, I have to acknowledge that it isn’t making it any happier.” Valeria lives in Rome in the economically strained years after the war, trying to meet the demands of being a wife and mother in a middle-class family, despite the fact that her husband and children disrespect and dismiss her: “In the family you have to pretend not to notice what happens, or at least not to wonder about its meaning.”

What exactly makes Valeria’s notebook “forbidden” shifts over the six months during which she records her increasingly troubled days. In the opening entry she describes how she had to beg a tobacconist to sell the notebook to her on a Sunday, when he was prohibited by a draconian law from selling anything other than tobacco. “I need it,” she tells him, “I absolutely need it,” and he gives in. It is the only time she expresses a desire so directly, the only time she forces a man to bend to her will, and after this unusual moment of insistence her immediate regret seems to infect everything else in her life.

Valeria’s life up to now has revolved around the small apartment she shares with her husband, Michele, and their two grown children, Riccardo and Mirella. Though the family is mostly comfortable, they live paycheck to paycheck, and daily expenses have required Valeria to take a job as a secretary while she fulfills her obligations as a full-time homemaker. Neither of these jobs, professional or domestic, is regarded by her family as real work in comparison with her husband’s position at a bank, or with the future employment her children, both son and daughter, imagine for themselves.

Her inferiority in the domestic hierarchy is an early preoccupation of the novel, full of painful scenes in which Valeria’s family openly mocks her. After dinner one night, she objects to the fact that Mirella keeps a drawer of her desk locked. Mirella defends her right to privacy—she needs a place to keep her diary. “Riccardo does the same thing—it’s where he puts the letters he gets from girls,” she adds. Like a competitive third sibling, Valeria says that she should also be allowed a locked drawer somewhere in the apartment. (Up to this point she’s been anxiously hiding the notebook in various nooks and crannies, as a pet hides its toys.) “For what?” her husband asks. “Well, I don’t know, to keep my personal papers,” she answers, “some notes. Or maybe a diary, like Mirella.” Michele and the children laugh at this idea. “What would you write, mamma?” asks Michele.

Insights about her family’s persistent cruelty gradually populate Valeria’s thoughts: “It seems to me that, although we love each other so much, we protect ourselves from each other like enemies,” she observes. Writing forces her to comprehend almost immediately the devalued position she has come to hold in her own life:

It occurred to me to wonder if my character began to change the day my husband, jokingly, began calling me “mamma.” I liked it a lot at first, because it seemed to imply that I was the only adult in the house, the only one who knew about life.

What she had wanted and felt fated to be as a young woman—a mother—is now a role that both proves her worth and robs her of it.

After having lunch with some female friends, Valeria writes, “I recognize their intention to prove to one another that they’re happy, rich, lucky.” It feels to her as if

they had remained stuck in our school years, and that, of all of us, I alone had grown to adulthood. Eager to be young again, I tried to imitate them. I made an effort to remind myself that we’re nearly the same age, we have a lot of shared memories, we’re all married, have children—so our problems should be the same.

Now that she has begun to question and reflect on the indignities of her domestic life, she pities those women for being unaware of their debasement. It takes an effort now, she thinks, to come down to their level.

The irony is that Valeria frequently reveals herself to be just as ignorant of the power structures at play in her own life. Though the reader can clearly see how the limits of postwar Italy—economically depleted and intensely patriarchal—have stunted her emotional growth, it takes her some time to catch up. And as writing in the notebook increases her self-awareness, the revelations become too much for Valeria to bear.


Alba de Céspedes was born in Rome in 1911, the daughter of the Cuban ambassador (and later Cuban president) Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y Quesada and his Italian wife, Laura Bertini y Alessandri. (Alba’s grandfather Carlos Manuel de Céspedes was the leader of the Cuban revolution for independence from Spain in 1868.) When she was fifteen, de Céspedes married Count Giuseppe Antamoro and moved to France, where she gave birth to a son. She divorced Antamoro when she was twenty and moved back to Rome.

There de Céspedes began her career as a novelist and journalist. Under Mussolini’s regime she was imprisoned twice for antifascist activities. In 1945 she married Franco Bounous, an Italian diplomat who brought her to Paris, Washington, and Havana, but she was uninterested in moving wherever he was posted. They separated in 1958, though they remained married until his death in 1987. Over the course of her career, she become a respected, best-selling novelist, publishing eighteen books between 1935 and 1974.

She also founded and edited the magazine Mercurio, the final issue of which contained an essay titled “On Women” by her contemporary Natalia Ginzburg. Published in 1948, Ginzburg’s essay hinges on the metaphor of the wells that women fall into—periods of self-doubt and torment, unavoidable so long as they are subjugated to men. De Céspedes responded to Ginzburg in a letter, published in the same issue, that puts forth a similarly fatalist feminism: women are “often unhappy in [heterosexual] love” because men cannot understand life with the depth and precision that they do. Neither writer casts any blame for their suffering on the social structures that ensure female servitude. “We would like to find a man who also, at times, falls into the well and, resurfacing, knows what we know,” de Céspedes suggests. “This is impossible, right, dear Natalia?”*

Quaderno proibito, de Céspedes’s ninth novel, was hugely popular when it was published in Italy in 1952. Translated into English as The Secret in 1957, it eventually fell out of print but remained a literary monument—Elena Ferrante cites it as an influence, and readers will find strong echoes of Valeria’s voice and predicament in many of Ferrante’s stubborn and paradoxical heroines. Last year Astra House reissued the novel as Forbidden Notebook, translated by Ann Goldstein.

The text was originally published serially over six months beginning in late 1950 in a weekly magazine called La settimana incom illustrata. Valeria’s fictional diary entries coincided with the magazine’s publication dates, and it’s easy to imagine readers blushing in recognition as she divulged anxieties familiar to housewives and mothers then, anxieties that were never meant to be spoken aloud. As those readers prepared Christmas dinners or came home from Easter services, the character in the latest installment was living through the same holidays and rituals, and in the process spilling their shared secrets and fears onto the page.

Valeria’s own immaturity and reluctance to change become most apparent in her painful relationship with her daughter. They have somewhat predictable, sometimes physical arguments about a woman’s place in society, written almost as dialogues between two visions of femininity’s future—Valeria defends the safe, limited path of marriage and motherhood, while Mirella is determined to pursue the uncertain freedoms of the unconventional life that now seems possible.

Valeria writes about Mirella as if with some kind of unrequited girlhood crush. At one point she stares into a department store window, wishing she could ply her daughter with luxuries, hoping she might “change Mirella’s life and her desires, that I could give her not only some things but everything.” Her longing verges on hatred as she tries to compete for her daughter’s love with Mirella’s boyfriend, Alessandro Cantoni, whom she is prevented from meeting for much of the book.

To Valeria’s dismay, Mirella stays out late drinking with Cantoni one evening, ostentatiously unconcerned about the damage this could do to her reputation. Valeria later tries to assert her authority, to insist that as long as Mirella lives at home she has to obey her parents:

Shaking her head, [Mirella] said it’s impossible for us to understand each other. “You recognize only the authority of the family,” she said. “It’s the only one you were taught to respect, without judging it, thanks to punishment and fear.” “And what do you respect, then?” I asked her sarcastically. She answered seriously, “For now, myself.”

“When I was twenty,” Valeria recalls,

Michele and the children were my fate, even more than my calling. I had only to trust, to obey. If I think about it, that seems to me the cause of Mirella’s restlessness: the possibility of not obeying. That’s what has changed everything, between parents and children, and even between men and women.

But when Valeria was her daughter’s age, World War II had not yet begun. For all Valeria’s development over the course of the novel, she never seems to understand how her daughter faces a starkly different present and future than the young adulthood she herself had; the expectations she imposes on Mirella are ultimately naive.


She finds this possibility of not obeying, embodied by her daughter and slowly explored by Valeria in her own diary, both seductive and disturbing. As a result, Valeria treats both Mirella and the notebook with the same marveling contempt. She obsesses over and cherishes them; she tries to hide and protect them; she despises them, fears them, and loves them, though she constantly finds both her own child and her own thoughts insufficient.

Valeria’s views on how a woman of her generation should live are further troubled by her friend Clara Poletti, who has found success in screenwriting after failure in marriage. Clara lives alone, smoking cigarettes, having affairs, eating chocolates, and generally refusing to conform. “She often asked me if I’d ever cheated on Michele,” Valeria writes. “From another person, who didn’t know me well, I wouldn’t have tolerated that question. Instead with her I’d say, laughing, ‘What nonsense!’” Later in the book, this scene will take on a new meaning when Valeria comes quite close to an infidelity of her own.

Michele, who dreams of quitting his bank job for a career in screenwriting, strikes up a mentorship with Clara that at first looks to everyone but Valeria a lot like an affair. “Very often, looking around, he talks about the furniture in Clara’s house; and I perceive that it’s not the house but Clara he admires,” Valeria writes. But the way she recounts an argument between Riccardo and Mirella reflects how she is trying to ignore the impropriety of Michele’s close relationship with an unmarried woman:

Riccardo claimed that there can’t be friendship between a man and a woman, that men have nothing to say to women, because they have no interests in common, except some precise interests, he added, laughing. Mirella at first maintained the opposite, in a serious tone, bringing up valid arguments, such as the education of the modern woman, her new position in society, but when she heard him laugh that irritating male laugh, she lost control…. I had to intervene, as when they were children, but, as then, I had the impression that Mirella was the stronger; and for that reason alone I would have liked to hit her.

Though so much of the social politics and manners in Forbidden Notebook are dated, this scene, with Valeria’s violent irritation at her daughter being “stronger” and Mirella’s exasperation over “that irritating male laugh,” is disturbingly current. It echoes that famous sentence from Christine Blasey Ford’s 2018 testimony against Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.”

Riccardo, without directly saying it, is telling his mother that Clara’s relationship with Michele should be a humiliation—women cannot be friends with men because of their innate inferiority, and thus their sexual relationship is blatantly obvious. Though Valeria believes this to be true, she doesn’t want it to be true, and there is the crux of her obsession with Mirella: her daughter represents a different possible future for women, one that Valeria both craves and distrusts. Even if Mirella’s hopes to reach this “new position in society” are met, Valeria will always be imprisoned in her generation.

When Valeria finally does meet Cantoni, she realizes that her daughter’s choices are a refutation of her own disempowered life. Cantoni is quite a bit older than Mirella and is still in the process of divorcing his first wife. When Valeria asks how long it will take him to marry Mirella, Cantoni explains, “Marriage isn’t our goal, we don’t want to be obligated to love each other; every day we choose freely to love each other. You understand, right?” Of course Valeria does not understand, but she tries to look at him “with Mirella’s eyes.” The scene has a confused, painful romance to it; it’s unclear whether she’s jealous of their relationship or simply finds such seemingly equal love impossible to comprehend.

The conversation with Cantoni energizes Valeria in a new way. She confesses to having become accustomed to “the habit of lying; the gesture of hiding the notebook is familiar to me…. I’ve ended up by getting used to things that, at first, I judged unacceptable.” She impulsively deepens a subtle but increasingly intense emotional affair that’s been developing with her boss for months. After she indirectly suggests that they might go away together, he agrees, then “he held me tenderly in his arms, brushed my temples with his lips, and murmured that we can’t give up love, happiness, we have the right. ‘Full rights,’ he repeated.” It is the first time they’ve even touched, but the fantasy of escaping has an undeniable weight.

The moment echoes something Michele says earlier in the book, himself parroting an idea he has absorbed from Clara:

“There’s a right…that derives from the intrinsic value of each of us. So what for one might be a fault, for others isn’t. At a certain point in life you have to be aware of your own situation and assert it; that, too, is a duty.”

It’s a duty that Valeria shirks, too inhibited and oppressed to assert much of anything. No one can enjoy a right they don’t believe they deserve.

Rather than possess her desires, Valeria dissociates. It is the only way she can explain acting on the urge to have a real affair with her boss, or to any passion at all: “When Michele and I were engaged, I sinned with him, but I pretended to do it reluctantly, swept away by him, without consenting.” It’s no wonder that Valeria intends to destroy the notebook in the end, just as she gives up all hope that Mirella will ever lead a life that doesn’t appear to Valeria to be dangerous and shameful. As punishment for sharpening Valeria’s awareness of the limits she lives within, both diary and daughter must be rejected. Self-awareness is the first step toward escaping subjugation, but Valeria chooses to remain blind.

Yet de Céspedes’s perspective on her narrator isn’t moralizing; there is simply no better life waiting for Valeria. As we learn from de Céspedes’s letter to Ginzburg, “All suffering is in a woman’s life,” and nothing can grant women “the confidence that men so often possess” because they gain that confidence through “ignorance of the true human condition.” It may seem like willful victimhood to the twenty-first-century reader, but to de Céspedes, suffering is the inescapable cost a woman must pay for vivid understanding of her world.