Dr Rosemary Elliot discusses smoking and modernity in the era of Il segreto di Susanna.
Il segreto di Susanna demonstrates several themes in fin-de-siècle Europe: most obviously changing gender relations, but also the emergence of a consumer society in a globalising world. The cigarette symbolised these shifts. For much of the 19th century, smoking was associated with the male sphere of political, public, intellectual and commercial spaces. Female smoking was associated with immorality and deviance from respectable femininity.
When a few educated, elite women began to smoke handrolled cigarettes from Turkish and Oriental tobaccos, initially associated with immigrant groups, it caused a stir. An English periodical for tobacco connoisseurs noted in 1874 that ‘the cigarette is so dainty, delicate and withal harmless a method of indulging in the fumes of the fragrant weed… that the only objection to it is the fear our English ladies take to it, as many ladies have done on the Continent.’
Across Europe, cigarette manufacturers began to produce ‘dainty’, scented cigarettes for a nascent female market. These were distinct from the mass-produced, aggressively marketed Virginia cigarettes developed from the 1880s. Critics decried the smoking woman as ‘manly’, forecasting social upheaval as women adopted behaviours seen as male and raised the spectre of smoking-related reproductive ills. If they smoked at all, women often smoked in secret, like Susanna, or in private spaces, despite the wider associations of smoking with women’s emancipation.
Gil’s questioning of Susanna’s excursions and his jealous, violent reactions speak of a society where women were only slowly gaining social and political equality. 19thcentury domestic ideology had been hierarchical and controlling of women. Real life precursors to Wolf-Ferrari’s imaginings can be found in press coverage of divorce cases. In a British divorce case covered widely in the press in 1886, Lord Colin Campbell sued his wife on grounds of adultery, citing instances of her apparently smoking with her alleged paramour.
In 1896, the New York Times carried the story of a ‘prosperous’ French shopkeeper suing his wife for divorce on account of her suspicious conduct. The article stated that ‘he can prove nothing, except her garments occasionally exhale an odor of tobacco’. The same year, newspapers in Washington reported a divorce case where a man had thrown a coffee pot at his wife’s head as she had been smoking cigarettes, despite smoking being forbidden by him. Similar cases elsewhere show that female smoking was perceived as synonymous with illicit liaisons, disrespect towards husbands and general waywardness. Little wonder Susanna smoked in secret and Gil raged.
Rather than heading to the divorce court, however, Gil joins his wife for a cigarette, and possibly more. Wolf-Ferrari’s early 20th-century audience were on the cusp of new attitudes towards smoking as visually symbolic of modernity and sexual intimacy, and of emerging ideals of companionate marriage and equality. In Il segreto di Susanna, Wolf-Ferrari gave his audience a clear opportunity to detach themselves from 19th-century social mores and embrace these new ideas.