Honolulu Sojourn: Sex, Lies, and Politics

Posted: February 6, 2008

What literary researcher doesn't dream of uncovering an unknown or long-forgotten manuscript among the reams of bibliographical materials she combs through? The fates were smiling on Ombretta Frau, assistant professor of Italian, when, in the course of researching Gina Sobrero, an early twentieth-century Italian journalist and novelist, she stumbled upon a reference to the woman's diary in the archives of the Hawaiian Historical Society. Frau had been unaware that Sobrero, who wrote under the name "Mantea," had ever published a diary, and it seemed highly unlikely that she should have any connection to the Hawaiian Islands. But she continued her investigation and ultimately uncovered the fascinating story of Mantea's early life.

As the result of Frau's sleuthing and scholarship, in fall 2007 Mantea's journal was reissued in Italy, edited and with an introduction by Frau. The volume tells how the 24-year-old noblewoman, raised in elegant, turn-of-the-century Torino, happened to meet and fall in love with Robert William Wilcox, a dashing Hawaiian gentleman who had been sent by the Hawaiian king to study at the elite military academy in Torino. After marrying in haste, the couple went to live in Hawaii. Neither Hawaii nor the marriage was quite the paradise Mantea had hoped for. Wilcox was a loutish husband, and Mantea's Eurocentric perspective made it difficult for her to appreciate life among the Hawaiians, whom she considered hopelessly uncivilized. "The geography and culture were too remote for her. By the time they arrived in Hawaii the marriage was in tatters," explained Frau. To make matters worse, Mantea discovered she was pregnant. Wilcox soon became involved in political upheaval among the Hawaiian ruling establishment, and within months after their arrival he and Mantea and their baby, Victoria, were forced to flee Hawaii. Mantea wrote her final journal entry the night they sailed for San Francisco.

According to Frau, Mantea remained in San Francisco for a year and a half, before leaving her husband and making her way back to Italy. The baby died of a mysterious illness in transit. Her marriage was annulled and, like a handful of other ambitious Italian women of her day, she pursued a career as a journalist and novelist.

Frau described Mantea's travels as "a voyage introspective as well as geographical." The journal, which Frau believes was Mantea's first attempt at writing, was published in Italy in 1908 but soon went out of print. Ironically, said Frau, Mantea was better known in Hawaii than Italy because Wilcox (who eventually returned to Hawaii) was a major figure in the political tumult that preceded Hawaii's official annexation as an American state. He was the first Hawaiian delegate to Congress after annexation. The Hawaiian Historical Society published Mantea's journal in an English language translation in 1991. It is of considerable interest to historians of Hawaii because of its account of Wilcox's Italian sojourn and details of political intrigue that are undocumented elsewhere.

Frau has written two articles about Mantea and continues to be enchanted by her story. "Mantea belongs to the still obscure world of women writers in late nineteenth century Italy. After unification, many women tried to write and publish their works; however, with very few exceptions, their writings did not survive the test of time. So far, I focused my attention on Mantea and one other woman, but I am currently working on an extended project on the rejection of maternity that includes studies on other forgotten contemporaries. With their cautious and conservative feminism, these women paved the way for twentieth-century radical feminist writing."

Related Links:

Ombretta Frau -Faculty Profile

Italian at MHC