Seams Sewn: Bianca Pitzorno’s Tribute to Seamstresses Past and Present
WRITTEN BY LUCINDA BYATT
Bianca Pitzorno is one of Italy’s most renowned children’s writers and the award-winning author of some 70 works of fiction and non-fiction, but The Seamstress of Sardinia (Harper Perennial, 2022; Text, 2023) is the first of her adult novels to appear in English, in Brigid Maher’s elegant translation (reviewed in HNR 102). Pitzorno’s female protagonists frequently challenge social and gender stereotypes. The Seamstress of Sardinia is no exception, portraying the constraints imposed on working-class women in early 20th-century provincial Italian society. I was fortunate to be able to talk to both Pitzorno and Maher about the book and its translation.
Pitzorno tells me that her initial inspiration came from the proposal (put forward in 2017) to reopen the notorious “Case di Tolleranza” or municipal brothels instituted by Cavour in the late 19th century. Her research showed that the majority of women who ended there, as sex slaves, were housemaids seduced by their “masters”, but in second place came others who had worked as seamstresses. The book draws on a document that recounted how one such “prisoner” was released because she owned a sewing machine, proving her ability to make an “honest” living. As a trope, the impoverished seamstress forced into prostitution has appeared in classics, from Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) to Eugène Sue’s The Wandering Jew (1844) and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862). More to the point, Pitzorno says she was inspired by her own memories of the seamstresses of her grandmother’s generation whom she met as a girl, women who had lived tough lives but escaped the final ignominy of destitution. This novel is dedicated to them and honours their memory. Chronologically, they were also the last generation of women with direct experience of sewing for their families and for others, before the advent of “low cost” clothing.
The novel is rich in tailoring details: the choice of fabrics, the techniques, and the working routines of these women both at home and in their clients’ houses. I thought Pitzorno might have had to research these, but she tells me that she learned sewing and embroidery as a child simply by watching and being taught by these skilled seamstresses. The pleasure of manual craft was quite normal for a bourgeois family, like her own, she adds, especially in the post-war years when making do and mending was the norm. Pitzorno is also a good carpenter (“This is why, in the epilogue, the seamstress marries a carpenter”, she notes).
A particular feature of the book is its generic setting. None of the cities, not even the island itself, is ever named in the text. Moreover, the protagonist has no name. Pitzorno’s purpose was to make “her character emblematic of all the modest seamstresses working in Italy at the time, and the places emblematic of all small provincial towns throughout southern Italy”. However, because the author spent her childhood in Sardinia, it was inevitable that the island became the setting of the story. It is also interesting to note the change in the book’s title: the Italian title Il sogno della macchina da cucire (lit. “The Dream of the Sewing Machine”) becomes The Seamstress of Sardinia. As a translator herself, Pitzorno is well aware of the challenges and pitfalls of translation. Being translated, she says, “is both a satisfaction and an honour, on the one hand, but on the other it also brings concerns regarding the faithfulness of the translation”. In this instance, Pitzorno was reassured by Maher’s emails and the highly accomplished result.
Were there challenges with regard to dialect and the setting, I ask Maher. “There isn’t really much dialect in the novel so that didn’t pose any problems,” she writes, “but getting the tone right is tricky. I didn’t want to use anachronistic language, but it still needed to sound fresh and readable, like the original. And I had to do a lot of vocabulary work to get the sewing terminology correct – certain garments, fabrics, stitches, sewing machine parts, and so forth. The specifics of different kinds of housing are important, too, both the homes of the wealthy, and the squalid bassi of the very poor.” Maher knows Sardinia well and has been fascinated by the place ever since she translated four novels by the Sardinian writer Milena Agus. As for the book’s title, Maher tells me: “When the English title was proposed by my publishers, I said I was happy to approve it as long as Bianca agreed. That was really the first confirmation I had the novel was in fact set on the island! The original Italian title really would not have worked as the title for the English edition, hence the need to think up something else. It is quite common to include a reference to place in English titles of Italian novels, perhaps because Italy is perceived as appealing or exotic.”
The reception of books in translation has changed dramatically over the past two or three decades – although this might seem a strange assertion given the huge numbers of foreign works that have been routinely read in English for centuries! One facet that is somewhat slower to change, however, is the presence of a translator’s name on the front cover. When I point this out with reference to various editions of The Seamstress of Sardinia, Maher replies: “I’m pleased to say that my name does appear on the front cover of the Australian and New Zealand edition (2022). Happily, this is the policy of Text Publishing, the Melbourne-based publisher that commissioned the translation. There have been important moves in this direction in Australia and other Anglophone countries over the last few years, and I think it’s so important to provide a translator with this kind of recognition. It also helps to remind readers that a whole lot is going on out there beyond the English-speaking world and that their best access to this is through translation.”
Pitzorno is currently writing another historical novel, also set in Sardinia and centred on her great-grandfather, an anatomist and “a sort of mad inventor”. I couldn’t agree more with Maher when she states: “I was aware of Pitzorno’s renown as a children’s writer but had only read some of her historical novels. It would be nice to see more of her writing, both for children and adults, come out in English translation. Anglophone readers are missing out on so much!”
About the contributor: Lucinda Byatt’s latest translation is Antonio Forcellino’s The Sistine Chapel. History of a Masterpiece (Polity 2022). She recently published an academic monograph: Niccolò Ridolfi and the Cardinal’s Court. Politics, Patronage and Service in Sixteenth-Century Italy (Routledge, 2022). She is HNR’s Feature Editor.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 103 (February 2023)