A Summer in Italy, 1929 (Part 9)

What a queer mixture – a baby & Rome.1

Frances Alone

Watercolour of the fountain in front of the Villa Medici, belonging to Frances.

The first few days after Bob left Rome on September 12 were wretched for Frances. The Nannis brought her home from the station after Bob’s train departed and tried to cheer her up, and the arrival of Bob’s first letter the next morning was welcome. Along with missing Bob and having to handle a cranky three-week-old baby, Frances was suffering back-pain and soon came down with a bad cold.

The biggest problem was, of course, the baby. Young Robert cried most of the night for the first few weeks. “His fortissimo is simply shattering.”2 His mood was not improved by Frances’ determination to apply modern American scientific childrearing methods and put him on a rigid schedule.

Your child is distressingly consistent in behavior.

2 a.m. woke, was fed, did not go to sleep until a little after four.

6:30 – was awakened to eat and went to sleep after an hour.

9:30 was awakened to eat (the bathwater having been delayed) – and now at 4:45 has just gone to sleep, – but I think is waking up again.3

The low point came five days after Bob left:

I simply can’t do everything myself, and so have simply lost control of everything & I wonder if I can regain it – or get the bimbo’s bad habits broken.

I don’t know when I have ever been so miserable – I knew this would be a miserable time – & it is more than meeting expectations – & a miserable prospect ahead. This is only the 5th day out of 60.4

The Nannis had no sympathy with Frances’ system and bombarded her with unwanted advice.

The signora has had only one baby, took none of the care of it, & admits that it cried constantly – still she is always giving me advice on the basis of her experience. “The poor little thing is hungry – it is wrong to wait three hours to feed it. It is wrong to wake it up at feeding time. It is wrong to let it cry. I ought to eat lots of fruit – she did. This is the wrong way to bathe it – she did another way, etc.” Signore Guiglelmo thinks I don’t have enough milk, and ought to drink wine.5

They objected in particular to Frances’ habit of sleeping with the window open. To her it was like sleeping outdoors, which she’d done all her life, but to them it was exposure to the malarial miasma of Rome — the Rome of a century before, Frances noted, since the swamps had all been drained.6

Frances perhaps does not give the Nannis enough credit for their tolerance, though. To have as a tenant a woman with a baby that cried all night and who refuses to do the obvious things to stop it must have tried their patience as much as hers. When the family on the first floor moved out, she joked that it was the crying that drove them away.7 Despite this, the Nannis made every effort to treat Frances as one of the family. In late September they celebrated their wedding anniversary, and included Frances in the festivities:

Stabile & his fidanzata were here – she is very nice, not very pretty but gentle & appealing, & older than I would have expected. Also his brother, a blushing caribiniero, and the huge man who was on the party with you. There were three bottles of Capri, three of lacrimae Cristi & four litres of frascati, not to mention the two litres of spumanti. We had fettucini fatte a cara, & cotallete milanese with potatoes, & chicken & salad, and prosciutto and cheese, fruit, and pastry. A good time was had by all, with many references to your buon compania, and such jokes as smearing pastry on the face of those who didn’t eat enough, & pouring wine in the pocket of Stabile who wasn’t drinking enough. They brought me a mezzo measure of water & then emptied it & gave it to the Caribiniero for wine. There were brindisi to us & Bertino & everyone else. I missed the high point of the party because of feeding the babe at 3:30. That was about the time they were brindising the Nannis & showering them with flowers and auguri.8

Frances passed the time with reading. She practiced her Italian with novels: Pirandello’s Il fu Mattia Pascal, Ettore Veo’s L’Osteria and Primavera in Collina by Luigi Antonelli.9 She also read American magazines, sometimes in their British editions: Good Housekeeping, Harpers, Saturday Evening Post10 When she had nothing else to write about except the baby, she summarized what she had been reading; sometimes she seemed to be trying to contribute to Bob’s writing, in the collaborative style of their marriage.

Speaking of Freedom of the Seas – in a Satevepost, I think for Oct. 12, there was an article by the admiral who got into trouble last year for critical remarks. I glanced at it – he has done a bit of research & gives a history of the idea of F. of the S. – probably stuff that you know already – but rather interesting. The Post was Miss Brindley’s so I can’t clip the article.11

By the end of September, though, Frances was getting out and seeing the city with new energy.

We went to the zoological gardens this afternoon. The tiger has three kittens, very cunning, and the monkeys have grown up. The elephant was very coy, and clever, and opened his great mouth to have apples thrown in. The distances that seemed so difficult to negotiate this summer are nothing at all now – so that whenever I go over any of our walks of this summer I have a curious feeling of fantasy, like floating in a dream.12

She had a few American or English friends who called on her or with whom she went out. Captain and Mrs. Short had a baby at the Anglo-American Nursing Home at the same time as Frances:

In the afternoon went to see Mrs. Short. Took Cesarina & babe in a carroza. She is still feeling very badly. Her baby was almost as big as mine, & she had 8 stitches. The baby is very good, but she worries over it a great deal – she couldn’t wake it up to make it eat – same difficulty as Robert – & called a doctor, thinking it had fainted! She is still as weepy as I was when you left. I felt very sympathetic.13

There was also Miss Brindley, a former nurse, who worked for the Associated Press representative in Rome,14 and Mrs. Osborne, the wife of an American embassy official.15 Her most impressive visitor was Signora Orsini, whose calling card bore a coronet indicating her princely rank.16 “The Nannis are pleased at having a principessa calling.”17

For the first week, as Bob travelled to Paris and Cherbourg, Frances received several letters each a day. There was then a two-week silence during his crossing, and then the letter from Halifax arrived on Oct. 4,18 followed the next day by all the letters he had written aboard the Arabia.19 Frances took the news of Bob’s shipboard adventure with the Victory sisters with equanimity:

I was envious of the Irish girl who was kissed on the upper deck – I not having been kissed even on the hand. I told Mrs. Nanni that you had kissed a signorina. She said not to believe it, that you were very serio. She was shocked just the same, and Cesarina said, reasonably, “why would he have written it if he hadn’t done it?”20

I think Frances enjoyed taking her revenge on the Nannis for their conventionality in baby-rearing by shocking them with her and Bob’s unconventionality in all things.

Signora Nanni and the maid Cesarina provided Frances with her closest companionship, though, at least on her good days. They taught her Roman songs and children’s rhymes (including ones that when spoken quickly made you pronounce an obscenity), chatted about current events including the brutality of the Fascists, and took Frances on outings.

Today I am going on a gita to the airport – with the signora. They want me to fly but I don’t think this is a good time to begin air travel, & besides I don’t want to spend my soldi thus. The signora says she doesn’t want to go to America because she is afraid of the voyage. She would rather like the vicarious thrill of sending me up in a plane.21

When Cesarina started hinting that she would like to come to America as “donna di servizio”,22 Frances was willing:

Cesarina wants to come to America with me. She might be given a visa, to come for a year, if she could get a passport. I wish we had looked to the matter before. Why didn’t we?23

After a visit to the American consul, though, Frances reported that Cesarina could only get a 6- or 8-month visa, which would not be worth the trip. “The family think she is joking – but she is very anxious to go. I wish she could.”24

As the weeks passed Frances came to feel more and more that she was marking time in Rome, just waiting to go home. In late October she wrote: “Somehow I got all set to go home two weeks before time, and now I find it hard to wait – not that I am ready to go – but I’d go this minute if I could.”25 But Bob’s letters about the situation at Smith College reminded her that she wouldn’t be going home to their apartment on Morton St. in the Village, but to a flat in Northampton, MA which she had never seen:

What you say about Northampton sounds very promising. Just now, however, whatever nostalgia I feel is for the gray brick-mass of New York, the subway & the streets where we used to walk. I am afraid life in Northampton won’t have the adventurous feeling that New York had – I am glad you are finding compensations.26

Bob and Frances had left New York on a joint passport. Before Bob left they had had Frances excluded, so that Bob could travel alone; Bob had then posted the passport back to Frances from New York, and she had taken it to the consulate in October to have Bob excluded and herself re-included, along with the baby.

Arrangements had to be made for the return voyage. The baby at two months was much easier to live with than he had been in September, but still Frances’ priority was to get a private cabin despite the expense. She ended up booking a ticket on the S.S. Saturnia of the Cosulich Line, sailing from Naples on Nov. 6 to arrive in New York on the 16th.27 She paid an extra $50 for a second class ticket in order to be assured of a cabin to herself, and packed “a half trunkful of cotton, to help in the diaper problem.”28 The Saturnia sailed in the afternoon, so Frances and the baby, accompanied by Cesarina, came down on the morning train. On arrival in Naples, though, it turned out that her arrangements through the American Express office in Rome were sadly inadequate. She spent the next few months pursuing the matter with American Express.

My difficulties in embarking at Naples, of course, have nothing to do with the matter of the overcharge on my ticket – excepting that the disagreeable experience I had there for which I blame the American Express, makes me the more insistent on being reimbursed for the extra money I paid for my ticket. To be thrust into the crowd of third-class emigrants, to have my ticket refused, to have to stand around for hours (with a two-months-old baby in my arms), on a cold rainy day, and to be able to find no one to give me the slightest assistance, although I was quite ready to pay any necessary fee, is the nightmarish sort of thing one doesn’t easily forget. If I had not depended on the American Express officials I could have made arrangements through my friends in Rome to help me and see that I received decent treatment. Your agent in Rome assured me again and again that I should not have the slightest difficulty, that my baggage would be cleared through to the dock, that the ticket need not be confirmed, that there would be interpreters on hand, – and none of these things were true.29

Nevertheless she made it aboard, and had a private cabin. When the ship stopped briefly at Lisbon three days later she sent cheerful letters to Bob and to her mother. The company on board was not as stimulating as on the trip from New York, but it put her in mind of her future after joining Bob at Smith College:

I had a fiendish time getting aboard – but succeeded. Voyage so far very pleasant, so far as weather is concerned, accommodations excellent. Passengers Italians of more or less doubtful respectability – with half a dozen rather bored Americans. My table companions are New Englanders, two Smith women, a Harvard lawyer & wife – quite nose-in-the-air about the rest of the world, but scarcely stimulating companions in conversation. However, – better than the other Bleeker street types.

I am suddenly frightfully homesick. I do hope all Northampton people are not snobs. I should so like to be with a group where one can talk as he likes, with no reservations or shocked faces, or blank lack of understanding. And I shall be happy to share the responsibility of Binks with someone. He behaves wonderfully, but I am always being terrified by some hint of a cold or a stomach-ache or something.30

  1. Doc. 821 1929-10-05. All the cited letters are from Frances to Bob, unless otherwise noted.↩︎

  2. Doc. 806 1929-10-22.↩︎

  3. Doc. 841 1929-09-16.↩︎

  4. Doc. 849 1929-09-17.↩︎

  5. Doc. 842 1929-09-16.↩︎

  6. Doc. 825 1929-09-27.↩︎

  7. Doc. 2549 1929-10-02.↩︎

  8. Doc. 817: 1929-09-28.↩︎

  9. Doc. 819 1929-09-30; Doc. 811 1929-10-10; Doc. 778 1929-10-30↩︎

  10. Doc. 844 1929-09-13↩︎

  11. Doc. 804 1929-10-24.↩︎

  12. Doc. 810 1929-10-12↩︎

  13. Doc. 803 1929-10-14.↩︎

  14. Doc. 802 1929-10-16.↩︎

  15. Doc. 10: FWB to her mother, 1929-09-27.↩︎

  16. Doc. 843 1929-09-19; Doc. 846 1929-09-20.↩︎

  17. Doc. 829 1929-09-23.↩︎

  18. Doc. 2550: 1929-10-03/04↩︎

  19. Doc. 821: 1929-10-05↩︎

  20. Doc. 821 1929-10-05.↩︎

  21. Doc. 809 1929-10-10.↩︎

  22. Doc. 846 1929-09-20.↩︎

  23. Doc. 821 1929-10-05.↩︎

  24. Doc. 803 1929-10-14.↩︎

  25. Doc. 784 1929-10-27.↩︎

  26. Doc. 811 1929-10-10.↩︎

  27. Doc. 803 1929-10-14.↩︎

  28. Doc. 14: FWB to her mother, 1929-11-02.↩︎

  29. Doc. 2605: FWB to American Express, 1930-02-15.↩︎

  30. Doc. 781 1929-11-09.↩︎


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