The literary and journalistic successes of Matilde Serao: It all began at Poste e Telegrafi in Naples

“The Administration of Poste e Telecomunicazioni, which had her in the hard-working ranks of its employees for about three years, remembers her with reverence and joins in the well-deserved honours that will be paid to her”. In 1956, on the centenary of her birth, the magazine Poste e Telecomunicazioni remembered Matilde Serao, who had been a young telegraphist in Naples before becoming a prolific Belle Époque writer as well as a journalist and founder, together with her husband Edoardo Scarfoglio, of the newspaper Il Mattino. Matilde Serao is the most important of the female figures at the helm of the Belle Époque newspapers which, at the turn of the century, delighted the female public with fashion articles, novels, poetry and theatre chronicles using a wealth of Gallicisms, toilettes, and Art Nouveau graphics. And her biography also reflects those times.

A female novella

Matilde was the daughter of Francesco Serao, an anti-Bourbon lawyer and journalist sent into exile during the tumultuous years of the Unification, and Paolina Borely, a member of a declining Greek noble family. Born in Patras, Greece on 7 March 1856 and returning to Italy after the Unification, Matilde arrived at the Naples Post Office in the old location of Palazzo Gravina, on 1 September 1874. This experience did not fail to bear fruit from a literary point of view with the publication in 1886 of Telegrafi dello Stato (Sezione femminile), a lively portrait of a working environment into which women had entered only a few years prior, beginning to build the sturdy ‘female’ framework on which the company stands today. In the novella, the young Serao recounted the life of telegraph operators, their leaving the house in the morning when it was still dark, working at Christmas, the anxiety of being fast to complete the job on time, the overtime hours to make up for lost time when the line went down, the fear of being late and getting a fine. Into that world burst the thunderous laughter and boisterous gesticulation of Matilde herself who soon, however, took the path of journalism, bringing her frankness to the salons of wealthy Rome.

She never stopped writing

In 1882, at the age of 26, she left Naples for the capital. Her first book, Fantasia, was a great success with the public but cost her the criticism of the young critic Edoardo Scarfoglio, with whom she began an overwhelming love affair. The pair gave life to a rich journalistic production with the foundation of three daily newspapers. The first was il Corriere di Roma, which met with little success then, on their return to Naples, the couple founded il Corriere di Napoli financed by the banker Schilizzi (with whom they parted ways over political disagreements) and Il Mattino, which came out for the first time on 16 March 1892. At the helm of the new newspaper, Matilde Serao experienced her most successful period. The old aristocrats and the new bourgeoisie read her ‘Mosconi’ column in one breath — wit, literary liveliness and almanac-like curiosity merged into a unique editorial product that involved the first rotary presses, an external advertising agency, foreign correspondents and serialized novels, from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to Gabriele D’Annunzio’s L’Innocente. Matilde allowed Scarfoglio’s star to shine. Her husband started an affair with a French chanteuse, Gabrielle Bessard, who gave him a daughter. When he broke off the relationship, the actress arrived in front of Scarfoglio’s house with her little daughter and took her own life with a gunshot. Matilde decided to raise the child, naming her Paolina after her own mother and looking after her as if she was her own daughter, even though she already had four sons. In 1903, having separated from her husband, she founded Il Giorno, which she directed until 1927, the year of her death, which came a few months after she had come close to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to Grazia Deledda. From young telegraphist to journalist and writer, the ‘postwoman’ Matilde Serao remains one of the great female figures to mark the culture and customs of our country.