For many years I have been intrigued by the figure of Marion Cave, of whose existence, like most Italians, I knew nothing and whom I discovered seven or eight years ago by chance on the occasion of an event organized by Le Voci della Luna dealing with the ‘mothers’ of poetry in Italy. Browsing through the biographies of the poets presented in the evening, including Amelia Rosselli, I came across her English mother, Marion Cave, including simple mentions of her anti-fascist activism alongside Carlo Rosselli and her efforts as an organizer of international networks of anti-fascist solidarity.
Over the years I devoted myself to researching further information and just a few months ago I discovered that the French historian Isabelle Richet, professor emeritus of the Diderot 7 University of Paris, had published at the end of 2018 with IB Tauris press a 348 page biography titled Women, Antifascism and Mussolini’s Italy – The Life of Marion Cave Rosselli , where in 14 chapters tracing her from childhood to her death at the age of 53 Isabelle Richet records forty years of the protagonist’s life using archival documents, letters and testimonies, as well as international historiography from the last 20 years. The result is the reconstruction of a well-rounded figure immersed in and operational within the reality of the countries she inhabited throughout her life (Great Britain, Italy, France, United States). Marion emerges as the creator of and an activist within very rich transnational intellectual, social and political networks, interacting even with ‘smugglers’, captains and pilots capable of organizing audacious international escapes of fascists confined to islands deemed inaccessible by the fascist regime. In some places, the volume has the feeling of an adventure book, a kind of Orientalism-free Salgari, set in and moving between Florence, London, Paris and the East Coast, rich with outlines of figures such as Gaetano Salvemini, HG Wells, Aldo Garosci, Filippo Turati, Anna Kuliscioff, Max Ascoli, Emilio Lussu, Ruth Draper , Ferruccio Parri, Ernesto Rossi, Vernon Lee, Marion Cave’s mother-in-law, her sister-in-law, her favorite son and Melina and Andrea her other children, fruit of unwanted motherhood (a very current topic in an age in which women are claiming the right to be child-free, but very controversial at that time). Her friends, classmates and schoolmates and later teaching colleagues also are described in their relation with her and the choices they made with their actions in those historical times.
Richet manages to provide readers with a very personal portrait rich in adventure driven by political fervor, always centered on the female figure of Marion, whose agency is linked to her own personal elaboration of concrete ideas and programs for resistance and sociopolitical change. Richet provides a convincing account of Marion Cave’s insistence on her own intellectual capacities and agency even when downplayed and challenged by others, typically male politicians and activists who tended to appreciate her contributions only when they were ancillary or other women bent on adhering to safe, traditional roles and what would be called today ‘family values’. The forces of patriarchal tradition would have liked for her to be deferential and step aside, and this triggered in her a great sense of frustration. In trying to find the sources for such ‘modern’ approach to women’s agency, Richet focuses on how her feminism was acquired in her youth also owing to the particulars of her family of origin, including their class positioning, as well as more philosophical traits deriving from her British upbringing and studies, such her empiricism and pragmatism, an imprint that distinguish her despite her dislike for her own country of birth. The frustration suffered by Marion as she was divided between political activity and relegation to family management is described in a very effective way in the book, with a wealth of examples that illustrate how patriarchal power was exercised by both men and women: in this regard, Richet’s focus is on Marion’s relationship with her mother-in-law Amelia, the juxtaposition of the model-wife Maria (married to Carlo’s brother Nello Rosselli) and Marion (wife but also co-conspirator of Carlo Rosselli).
In all likelihood, some of the misogynistic trends prevailing in her times and later in Italy contributed to the long-lasting defamatory portrayals made of her figure in Italy, starting with the character inspired by her in the 1951 novel The Conformist by Moravia (reprised by Bertolucci’s movie in 1970), to the pages dedicated to her in “Miss Rosselli”, to the more recent 2020 memoir by Italian writer Renzo Paris inspired by his friendship with poet Amelia Rosselli in which Marion, Amelia’s mother, is again portrayed as a great seductress and vacuous intellectual salon-queen, dissatisfied because her daughter is not following in her footsteps, practically a madwoman who, with her restlessness and instability, is responsible for her daughter’s malaise. As could be somewhat expected of an Italian man of his generation, Renzo Paris, despite his leftist leanings, fails to investigate the deeper question of unwanted motherhood endured in spite of themselves by a multitude of women of Marion’s generation (in reality among the shadows that roam the book, perhaps Paris has neglected to mention that of Marion, who would undoubtedly have been happy to gift him with few swift kicks to his butt).
To better understand the unfolding of both personal history and History, one must perceive the dynamics and power relations between human beings and Isabelle Richet’s book offers detailed descriptions, ranging from the internal and official functioning of institutional networks such as the British Institute both for expatriates and locals especially in the period in which fascism begins to take root, the networks, the early formation and later development of the Giustizia e Libertà movement which later became the Action Party within a 20 year period, international anti-fascist solidarity networks which also supported anti-fascists who had managed to escape Italy to France, England and the USA. An important space in the book is devoted to cultural debate networks such as Il Circolo della Cultura in Florence, the figure of Gaetano Salvemini who founded it, and a comparison of these intellectual networks with those originating in France after the Dreyfus Affair.
What is striking is the modernity and topicality of the historical, social and personal issues that the young and mature Marion found herself having to face. Almost a hundred years after the beginning of her story, in reality these knots still exist today without having been solved and are not very dissimilar from those faced by the new generations, especially women active in an intellectual and political context characterized by a cosmopolitanism. Contemporary young women face much of the same issues faced by Marion, especially those who are part of migration trends, are active in programs such as Erasmus and the globalization of knowledge, in a historical moment in which fascism is manifesting itself again strongly at the international level.
I believe that this English-language volume deserves an Italian translation not only because it restores dignity to a figure that the dominant paradigms of the intellectual system in Italy have long silenced, misunderstood, underestimated if not downright reviled, but also as a tribute to Marion Cave’s figure, who with her translations, in addition to his incessant political activity, made a great contribution to the transmission of knowledge, resistance and political action.