Recently, we had the pleasure of interviewing author Linda Cardillo to discuss her novel Love That Moves the Sun, Vittoria Colonna and Michelangelo Buonarroti. In today’s feature, we delve further into her experience writing women’s history.
Amy M. Hawes: When looking into the past, is it more challenging to find factual accounts and records of women than men?
Linda Cardillo: The invisibility of women in the historical record has perpetuated an imbalance in how we understand who we are and how we came to be. Forty years ago I edited a two-volume college textbook on the social and political history of the United States that barely scratched the surface of women’s contributions. Fortunately, that is changing as more women become historical scholars.
I began writing historical fiction with a book about the experience of an Italian woman emigrating to the United States in the early years of the 20thcentury. I began my research at a time when the daughters of immigrants from that time were still alive and were able to share with me the stories told to them by their mothers. I also had access to letters that captured the voice as well as the experiences encountered in the immigrant journey. Letters, in fact, are often the only source on women’s lives.
More recently, I’ve reached back deeper in history for my heroines. Writing about women who lived several hundred years ago presents a particular challenge because women rarely had a public role that would have been chronicled by their contemporaries. I stumbled upon Vittoria Colonna, the heroine of my latest novel while looking for something else. Because she was a noblewoman who had been born into a family that had educated its daughters for generations, a written record of her life existed in her letters, her poetry, and the writings of the men and women in her circle. In addition, she was at the forefront of a movement in which women’s writing began to be widely distributed via publication.
Despite this literary treasure trove, however, she and several women like her disappeared from view after their deaths, falling into obscurity because their work didn’t garner the respect of their male contemporaries. It is only now, with the research being done in women’s history, that they are regaining attention.
AH: Women have the unique ability to bear children and have traditionally been charged with the raising of them. How does this fact create, shape, or thwart their desires to achieve dreams that expand beyond the scope of their families?
LC: The bearing and raising of children has had a significant impact on the ability of women to accomplish or even imagine a life beyond the family. For Vittoria Colonna, her inability to have children colored her perception of herself as one who had not fulfilled her expected responsibility as a wife. But she also threw herself into the role of mother by adopting the orphaned cousin of her husband and taking on his education with passion and intensity. It was only after he was grown that she had the time and the emotional energy to write her poetry and explore the spiritual and political questions that were churning through her turbulent time. As a young woman raising a child, her life was limited and confined. As a middle-aged woman and then a widow, her life changed radically, giving her physical as well as intellectual freedom.
AH: Obviously, each person is unique. But are there some (typically) feminine characteristics that your protagonist possessed, which gave them a unique ability to attain their goals?
LC: Vittoria Colonna lived in an era when women’s sphere of influence was extremely limited. One avenue open to them, however, was the salon. They often relied on their beauty, intelligence and wealth to shape not only their own narratives but the cultural, political and religious thought of their age as hosts of glittering salons that brought together leaders and new talent.
Vittoria was part of a small circle of women connected by birth and marriage who were deeply influenced by Costanza d’Avalos, the ruler of the duchy of Ischia. Constanza nurtured them and encouraged them to take her ideas out to the great cities of Italy and establish their own salons, seeding—often at great risk to themselves—cultural, literary and religious transformation. All of them married condottieri, warriors who raised armies and who were consequently away for months and sometimes years at a time. Because their husbands were so often away, the women had a measure of independence unknown to most women in 16th century Italy. They managed their estates, conducted diplomacy for their husbands and, in one case, took up arms to defend her territory. All of them were widowed young and were wealthy enough to refuse offers of another marriage. The cloak of widowhood provided them significant freedom to direct their own lives.
AH: Does a heroine need to be a historical figure to inspire young women? Can a fictional character do the same?
LC: I believe fiction is especially suited to inspire. A novelist can place a fictional character in a particular moment in the past and weave together both the personal and the historical to bring an immediacy and relevance to historical events. As an example, in my first novel, I gave my immigrant character a role in a significant historical event, the 1912 Bread and Roses mill strike. She was one of many women outside of Massachusetts who took in and cared for the children of the striking millworkers. Her individual experience became a microcosm of the issues at the heart of the strike, in an intimate description of the practical and emotional challenges she faced. That novel is now one of the books in the Lawrence Historical Society library—a source, I hope, of both knowledge and inspiration for young women learning about the women who have gone before them.
AH: Do you envision a day when the accomplishments of women and men are viewed equally? How can writers contribute to that end? What will the stories of the future look like?
LC: I think writers have both a particular responsibility and a gift for bringing the accomplishments of women to equal recognition as those of men. I believe the stories of the future are already here, as more writers seek out the hidden and invisible women of the past. Writers bring to the page a recognition of our human longing for a deeply gratifying and emotional story, and the richness of women’s lives offers a wellspring of ideas that can fulfill that need to understand who we are.
Linda Cardillo is an award-winning author who writes about the old country and the new, the tangle and embrace of family and finding courage in the midst of loss. Hailed by Publishers Weekly as a “Fresh Face,” Linda has built a loyal following with her works of fiction—the novels Dancing on Sunday Afternoons, Across the Table, The Boat House Café, The Uneven Road, and Island Legacy, as well as novellas in the anthologies The Valentine Gift and A Mother’s Heart and the illustrated children’s book The Smallest Christmas Tree. Her newest book, Love That Moves the Sun, is a work of historical fiction based on the relationship between the artist Michelangelo and the poet Vittoria Colonna, the only woman he ever loved.
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