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The most prominent imaginative writer of the latest generation in Italy is a woman. What little is known of the private life of Matilde Serao (Mme. Scarfoglio) adds, as forcibly as what may be divined from the tenour and material of her books, to the impression that every student of literary history must have formed of the difficulties which hem in the intellectual development of an ambitious girl. Without unusual neglect, unusual misfortune, it seems impossible for a woman to arrive at that experience which is essential to the production of work which shall be able to compete with the work of the best men. It is known that the elements of hardship and enforced adventure have not been absent from the career of the distinguished Italian novelist. Madame Serao has learned in the fierce school of privation what she teaches to us with so much beauty and passion in her stories.

Matilde Serao was born on the 17th of March 1856, in the little town of Patras, on the western coast of Greece. Her father, Francisco Serao, was a Neapolitan political exile, her mother a Greek princess, the last survivor of an ancient noble family. I know not under what circumstances she came to the Italian home of her father, but it was probably in 1861 or soon afterwards that the unification of Italy permitted his return. At an early age, however, she seems to have been left without resources. She received a rough education at the Scuola Normale in Naples, and she obtained a small clerkship in the telegraph office at Rome.

Literature, however, was the profession she designed to excel in, and she showed herself a realist at once. Her earliest story, if I do not mistake, was that minute picture of the vicissitudes of a post-office which is named Telegraphi dello Stato ("State Telegraphs"). She worked with extreme energy, she taught herself shorthand, and in 1878 she quitted the post-office to become a reporter and a journalist. To give herself full scope in this new employment, she, as I have been assured, cut short her curly crop of hair, and adopted on occasion male costume. She soon gained a great proficiency in reporting, and advanced to the writing of short sketches and stories for the newspapers. The power and originality of these attempts were acknowledged, and the name of Matilde Serao gradually became one of those which irresistibly attracted public attention. The writer of these lines may be permitted to record the impression which more than ten years ago was made upon him by reading a Neapolitan sketch, signed by that then wholly obscure name, in a chance number of the Roman Fanfulla.

The short stories were first collected in a little volume in 1879. In 1880 Matilde Serao became suddenly famous by the publication of the charming story Fantasia ("Fantasy"), which has already been presented to an English public in the present series of translations. It was followed by a much weaker study of Neapolitan life, Cuore Infermo ("A Heart Diseased"). In 1881 she published "The Life and Adventures of Riccardo Joanna," to which she added a continuation in 1885. It is not possible to enumerate all Madame Serao's successive publications, but the powerful romance, La Conquista di Roma ("The Conquest of Rome"), 1882, must not be omitted. This is a very careful and highly finished study of bureaucratic ambition, admirably characterised. Since then she has written in rapid succession several volumes of collected short stories, dealing with the oddities of Neapolitan life, and a curious novel, "The Virtue of Cecchina," 1884. Her latest romances, most of them short, have been Terno Secco ("A Dry Third"), a very charming episode of Italian life, illustrating the frenzied interest taken in the public lotteries, 1887; Addio Amore ("Farewell Love!"), 1887, which is here, for the first time, published in English; La Granda Fiamma, 1889; and Sogno di una notte d'estate ("A Summer Night's Dream"), 1890.

The method of Matilde Serao's work, its qualities and its defects, can only be comprehended by those who realise that she came to literature through journalism. When she began life, in 1878, it was as a reporter, a paragraph-writer, a woman of all work on any Roman or Neapolitan newspaper which would give her employment. Later on, she founded and carried on a newspaper of her own, the Corriere di Roma. After publishing this lively sheet for a few years, she passed to Naples, and became the editor of Le Corriere di Napoli, the paper which enjoys the largest circulation of any journal in the south of Italy. She has married a journalist, Eduardo Scarfoglio, and all her life has been spent in ministering to the appetites of the vast, rough crowd that buys cheap Italian newspapers. Her novels have been the employment of her rare and broken leisure; they bear the stamp of the more constant business of her life.

The naturalism of Matilde Serao deserves to be distinguished from that of the French contemporaries with whom she is commonly classed. She has a fiercer passion, more of the true ardour of the South, than Zola or Maupassant, but her temperament is distinctly related to that of Daudet. She is an idealist working in the school of realism; she climbs, on scaffolding of minute prosaic observation, to heights which' are emotional and often lyrical. But her most obvious merit is the acuteness with which she has learned to collect and arrange in artistic form the elements of the town life of Southern Italy. She still retains in her nature something of the newspaper reporter's quicksilver, but it is sublimated by the genius of a poet.

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