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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Matilde Serao (1856–1927)

AMONG the novel-writers of the present generation in Italy, Matilde Serao occupies a place of honor and popularity. She was born on March 7th, 1856, in Patras, a seaport of Greece; so that Italian is in reality for her an acquired language. Her mother was a Greek, and descended from the princes Scanavy, who gave emperors to Trebizond. Her father was a Neapolitan exile, who returned to his native city only when Matilde was twelve years of age. Signora Serao superintended the early education of her daughter, who is said to have been a lazy child, with a strong dislike of study. She found reading a pleasant pastime, however, and was interested in people and in the general routine of life. When sent to school in France she fed her mind on the novels of the French realistic school, and soon began to write on her own account. When seventeen years of age she published her first story, which was entitled ‘Opal.’ This tale created some little stir; and De Zerbi, editor of the Neapolitan Piccolo, offered her a place on his journal. The Serao family was poor, and this offer was eagerly accepted. In order to do better work as a reporter, she assumed a man’s dress and cropped her hair. The adaptability of her temperament enabled her to write to order with great facility. When her talent was left entirely free she usually wrote sensuous love tales, in which the dews of the fields and the stars of the sky were called upon to witness the raptures and the sorrows of her heroes and heroines. With equal ease, however, she produced sermons and criticisms. Her teeming imagination overflowed the restriction of subject. Despite her versatility and her need of money, it seems to have been always her aim to do the best of which she was capable; and thus her work was always a means of development to her talent. She married Signor Eduardo Scarfoglio, and with him established the Corriere di Roma. They afterwards removed to Naples, where they edited the Corriere di Napoli. In 1881 and 1883 she published two long romances, and gathered into volumes those of her short stories which she deemed worthy to live. She is fond of studying child life; and in her story ‘Little Minds,’ written for grown people, she pictures the little woes and pleasures and philosophies of children with that detail and objective passion which is characteristic of her.

‘An Unsteady Heart’ was her first long novel, and was followed by ‘Fantasia.’ This is the story of a morbid and fanatically religious invalid, who through her sickly romanticism is led into sinful feeling. She infatuates the husband of her dearest friend, and finally leaves her own husband to run away with him; but, overcome with remorse, evades her lover, and smothers herself with charcoal, to secure the happiness of the deserted wife.

Madame Serao’s plots are usually tragedies, and are worked out with precision and refinement of passion. She is a painter of details; no incident or expression is too trivial for her observation, and she loves the minutest traceries of life, which she sees purely from its emotional side. She is sometimes called “La petite Sand Italienne”; but while her mind has perhaps been influenced by French realists, her stories are essentially the creations of a more southern temperament. Many of her later novels have been translated into English.