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La Madre (The Woman and the Priest)

Author: Grazia Deledda

Translator: M.G. Steegman   Edited by: D.H. Lawrence   Cover design: Marie Lane   Cover illustration: Paul Cézanne  

Originally published over a century ago, La Madre charts a consecrated priest’s struggle to avoid temptation as he questions his vow of celibacy. Set in a rural parish in Grazia Deledda’s native Sardinia, Paul’s mother has ensured that he’s lived a life devoted to his priesthood, but when he falls for Agnes she is left conflicted between her maternal desire for his happiness, and an instinctive obedience to tradition.

Is his piety worth suppressing true love? Deeply nuanced characters compensate for the straightforward premise, with even those who make brief appearances seeming complex and well explored, and it never feels that the author is impressing her own opinion upon the reader – there is no ‘correct’ choice for Paul to make.

It's a timeless story that has been well trodden since, with films like Black Narcissus and Chocolat building narratives that are similar both in content and in their parable-lite nature. However, Deledda’s talent for capturing the internal torment of her characters, and the inspired use of the dual perspective of Paul and his titular mother, saw her win the 1927 Nobel Literature Prize, and ensures the novella remains a compelling and refreshing read today.

Alex Payne in Buzz Magazine

'The syntax of La Madre is uncomplicated, but its descriptions are vivid and moving. As with the reeds and the wind, Deledda draws on elements from everyday surroundings to conjure exquisitely lyrical metaphors:" little by little desire crept into that love of theirs, chaste and pure as a pool of still water beneath a wall that suddenly crumbles and falls in ruin." The theme of the priests forbidden love is rendered more complex by the towering figure of the mother, and the acute psychological strain provoked in each of the protagonists is superbly portrayed by means of analepses, reminiscences, inner questioning and dreams. This allows for the motives to be viewed from each character's perspective, shifting the reader's sympathy in the course of the novel. It can also lead to opposing evaluation on the reader's part. For the author of Sons and Lover, for example, the mother "succeeds, by her old barbaric maternal power over her son, in finally killing his sex life too". For Steegman," while she is inexorable with the priest her heart yearns over the young man, tender with his grief", and thus "claims the reader's whole sympathy".'

Vilma de Gasperin in The Times Literary Supplement

The story is simple enough, but its power lies in the atmosphere that Deledda so effectively presents. Wind, rain, and darkness dominate - but beyond the natural are also the human elements, not least the villagers, who mill and crowd around Paul; unsurprisingly, the novel culminates in the celebration of Sunday morning mass - though typically, too, Deledda's powerful conclusion is not in the Mass-scene itself, but in its aftermath, the crowd seemingly dispersed but then finding its way back again...
If the story is a fairly familiar one, Deledda's handling of it - and the characters - makes for a novel that still holds up surprisingly well a hundred years later. Compressed into a fairly short space, the action covering only a few days' time, La Madre is a work of consistently heightened tension, always on an edge - a fine little novel.

M.A. Orthofer in The Complete Review

Her simple yet powerfully written story, La Madre, in a workmanlike translation by Mary G. Steegmann (...) might profitably be used by the goodly swarm of analytical novelists as something in the line of a copy-book example. (...) The story stands out also as a study, but a study far and away removed from the necessity of including page after page of transcribed notes of a college extension course in psychology. (...) (A)ll this insight and interpretation have been worked so skillfully into the actual narrative that the unfolding of the little drama moves on with an unchecked precision. By exquisite workmanship and a fine charity of purpose Mme. Deledda has given to La Madre an almost epic air of inevitability."

The New York Times

Miss Mary G. Steegman's translation of Grazia Deledda's novel La Madre is excellently done, as far as smoothness and accuracy go. She has hardly succeeded, however, in reproducing the effect which Signora Deledda's stories achieve in their original tongue, especially in the dialogue (.....) It is a moving tragedy, but neither in English nor in Protestant England can such a tragedy make its fullest appeal."

The Times

RRP: £8.99

No. of pages: 138

Publication date: 07.04.2021

ISBN numbers:
978 1 912868 63 6
978 1 912868 64 3

World English in this edition