What Ferrante learned from Woolf

In her essay, “Three Guineas” (1938), Virginia Woolf begins by describing the double standard she discerns within England’s “educated class”. While well-to-do families, she notes, pour untold resources into “Arthur’s education fund” – that “voracious receptacle” – the daughters don’t fare nearly so well, having been denied access to the kinds of instruction the sons treat as a birthright. Education, in short, remains patrilineal. Even the daughters of “educated men” go largely uneducated.

I thought about “Three Guineas” the first time I read Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, since it is a story not just about female brilliance, but the manifold ways it can be thwarted – mostly by what the novel presents as a particularly banal and blinkered form of patriarchy. In the first of the Neapolitan novels, for instance, the gifted Lila is forced to leave school when her parents refuse to pay the fee required for a middle school entrance exam. Her mother, Nunzia, is timidly supportive, but when the teacher and principal press for her approval, she “couldn’t yield, she didn’t have permission from her husband. As a result she kept saying no until she, the teacher, and the principal were overcome with exhaustion”. By contrast, the similarly if less dazzlingly bright Elena has a father who is “cautiously in favour”, and thus is able to continue with her schooling.

From that point on, despite many subsequent points of intersection in their lives, the girls’ trajectories diverge in profound and permanent ways: Lila marries at sixteen and remains in Naples, while Elena continues on to university and, eventually, a career as an internationally known writer. Like the hypothetical subjects in “Three Guineas”, the fates of Ferrante’s characters are decided by forces bureaucratic as well as familial: by the existence of a test that, much like the “entrance examination” to Cambridge and Oxford, has been “expressly designed” to constrain, rather than promote, “women’s advancement”.

This recap, of course, obscures the nuances of the heroines’ respective experiences. Regardless, within the series’ narrative economy, it is difficult not to see this single test – and the further education it licenses – as determinative, more in the manner of naturalist fiction than a Bildungsroman, the genre to which Ferrante’s work is most regularly assigned, and which is nothing if not evangelical about the potential for self-invention. Indeed, both Lila and Elena originally subscribe to a similar ideology. Shortly after the school setback, for instance, Elena affirms Lila’s capacity, nevertheless, to persist: “She seemed the strongest of us girls . . . stronger than her brother Rino, stronger than her parents, stronger than all the adults including the teacher and the carabinieri . . . . Although she was fragile in appearance, every prohibition lost substance in her presence”.

And yet, despite the novels’ early investment in the heroines’ bildung, the tetralogy – which Ferrante has spoken of as a single, continuous story – is ultimately less about Lila’s formation than her deformation: her narrative less one of forward momentum, than a series of reactionary and defensive gestures made to achieve a measure of economic sufficiency and selfhood. As James Wood wrote in the New Yorker, My Brilliant Friend is a “Bildungsroman in mono, not stereo”. Only one of the two girls will get the education, and get out.

Indeed, Lila’s periodic crises throughout the novel – episodes in which she suffers the sensation of what she calls “dissolving margins” – seem to intimate the extent to which her sense of self is in jeopardy. When, in the series’ final instalment (and those who haven’t yet read The Story of the Lost Child and dislike spoilers should stop here) Lila’s daughter disappears, the loss feels like both the inevitable culmination and narrative manifestation of Lila’s more figurative dissolution over the course of the proceeding volumes.

In this sense, the first novel’s title reads in retrospect like a eulogy: a testament not only to the cumulative brilliance displayed by the novels’ two highly intelligent and capable heroines, but the brilliance that never was: the genius – to use a cognate for the Italian geniale – that Lila in particular displayed, but was kept from fully cultivating. It’s about the brilliant career a woman didn’t have.

It is in this sense, too, that the series also evokes Woolf’s better-known essay, A Room of One’s Own. Indeed, it would not be a stretch to say that Lila is an Italian incarnation of Judith Shakespeare: the “extraordinarily gifted” sister Woolf invents for William, whose early promise is not simply unfulfilled, but actively punished. In fact, the doom Woolf foresees for this fictional heroine – driven to suicide and “buried at the same cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop” – is only slightly worse than the suffering Lila endures: spousal rape, poverty, ostracism, bereavement.

What’s different, of course, is that the rage Woolf barely suppresses in that essay of 1928 – whose suppression is in fact its animating force – emerges unchecked in Ferrante’s fiction. There’s nothing suppressed about it, as critics have been quick to note. In a widely circulated review, The Australian’s John Freeman suggests that would-be readers of the Neapolitan series should “[i]magine if Jane Austen got angry”. Yet Austen seems like the wrong antecedent here, and not only because it is Woolf whose incipient anger is such a transfixing component of her writing. But also because Ferrante herself has identified Woolf as an influence on her work – a connection borne out by her fiction’s themes and feminist intensities, but which, to date, has gone oddly overlooked.

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