LONDON, ONTARIO - Well, here’s a seriously fabulous novel I’d never even heard of until I pulled out a slightly battered but otherwise gorgeous 1969 Folio Society edition from the new arrivals cart at Attic Books a couple years ago. First published in 1827, then refined and reworked into a definitive edition in 1842, The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi is the Italian title) is the only novel written by Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873). In Italy, this grand historical novel is revered to this day. No Italian gets through high school without reading it and schools, streets and cinemas are named after its author. Manzoni received a full state funeral at the time of his death and one year later Verdi premiered his decidedly operatic Requiem in commemoration of Manzoni at St. Mark’s Church in the author’s hometown of Milan.
Manzoni’s biographer Archibald Colquohoun also rendered the first truly adequate English translation of The Betrothed in 1951. (Almost ten years later Colquohoun worked a similar translative miracle with that other great Italian uni-novelist’s masterpiece, Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard; it would appear that one component of the Italian literary genius is knowing when to stop and thus keep your escutcheon unsullied.) Widely regarded as the first modern Italian novel, Colquohoun writes that “for Italy it is all Scott, Dickens and Thackeray rolled into one volume; though it does not quite correspond to any of these, and its spirit is perhaps nearer Tolstoy . . . It has gone into over 500 editions, and been translated into every major language, including Chinese; two operas, three films, a ballet and at least seven plays have been based on it.”
The story in outline is simple enough. The scene is set in Lombardi between 1628 and 1631. It is a period when there is no Italian unity, of separated city and region-based states, each with their own ways and laws for conducting their affairs. And out in the countryside, the situation is even murkier with mafiosa-type outliers from Spain and Austria (and a few homegrown ones as well) setting up their own fiefdoms. A couple of young peasants, hoping to wed, are thwarted in their ambition when the weak-kneed priest who is supposed to marry them, crumbles in the face of intimidation exercised by two henchmen working for a local tyrant who also has his eye on the would-be wife.
As these two are pulled apart for three years - she held in various form of confinement and hiding; he made into an outlaw on false charges and forced to keep one step ahead of policemen and hired thugs - the chaos of governance at all levels does precious little to ameliorate the widespread ravages of famine and the bubonic plague. Indeed, one wobbly local priest whose cowardice sets the whole thing in motion notwithstanding, the Roman Catholic Church in its many manifestations is the only coherent and stalwart force for good in the tale.
Aside from this one novel, Manzoni was also a poet, essayist and Catholic apologist of some distinction. Pope Pius XI quoted Manzoni’s exposition on Catholic morality in part of his 1929 encyclical on Christian education, Divini Illius Magistri, writing: “It is worthy of note how a layman, an excellent writer and at the same time a profound and conscientious thinker has been able to understand well and express exactly this fundamental Catholic doctrine.” Pope Francis has read The Betrothed three times, hopes to read it again and frequently commends it to engaged couples, not as a handbook, but as a sort of overview of the heroism and struggle that their desired estate may require of them.
Alessandro Manzoni lived and wrote during the period known as the Risorgimento (1815-71) during which the many different states that made up the Italian peninsula were unified into the Kingdom of Italy. One of the reasons Manzoni is held in such universally high regard by his countrymen is because he himself personified that integrating process; at least as far as language was concerned. As he wrote to a friend during the long composition of his masterpiece: “Imagine a language never written as it is spoken, and used by very few inhabitants of Italy; a language never used to discuss great questions verbally . . . a language corrupted and disfigured. There is a complete lack of feeling of communion with the reader, of that certainty of handling an instrument which is known equally to them both . . . to write a novel well in Italian is one of the most difficult things.”
Colquohoun comments in his introduction to The Betrothed: “Contemporary written Italian was still under the dead hand of the academies. It was no longer a living language. Speech was split into a series of local and regional dialects . . . Manzoni set himself, with everything else, to form a standard and style for the Italian language which would be accepted all over the peninsula . . . It is not too much to say that this played an important part in the unification of Italy. The clarification of Manzoni was to have a permanent influence on Italian prose.”
The comparisons to Tolstoy arise because of what Mazoni can accomplish in his descriptions of a society under siege. Scott is invoked because of Manzoni’s unerring gift for relating a distinctive, national romance. The reference to Dickens I think is a nod to Manzoni’s generous love for his characters; and Thackeray I think recalls the wonderfully dry objectivity Manzoni can employ which holds that love back from veering into any sort of sentimentality. Let me leave you with his devastating thumbnail sketch of the town do-gooder who offers to protect the novel’s heroine and, while she’s at it, improve her.
“Donna Prassede was an old lady with a strong propensity for doing good – certainly the worthiest profession that men can ply, but one which, like all others, is open to abuse. To do good, one must know what it is; and like everything else, we can only know this by means of our own passions, our own judgements; our own ideas – which often do not amount to very much. Donna Prasede’s attitude towards ideas was the same as they say one should have towards friends; she had few but was strongly attached to the few she had. Among those few there were unfortunately many mistaken ones; and these were not the ones which she cherished least.
"Hence it happened that she would either take as good what was not so in reality, or use means which were apt to have the very opposite effect to her intentions, or think some of these means allowable when they were not so at all, all from a vague presumption that those who go beyond their duty can also go beyond their rights. She often tended either not to see the reality behind facts, or to see realities that were not there at all; and made many other similar mistakes which can and do happen to all, not excepting the best of us; though with Donna Prasede they were apt to happen far too often, and not infrequently all at the same time.”
About thirty pages later as we watch our zealous do-gooder inflicting actual harm on the girl, Manzoni observes: “Had Donna Prasede felt urged to treat her in this way from some inveterate hatred for her, those tears might perhaps have touched her heart and made her desist; but as she was speaking for good ends she would push on ruthlessly, just as groans and imploring cries might possibly stay the weapon of an enemy but not the instrument of a surgeon.”
If that little excerpt does a thing for you and you're looking for a complete change from anything else you're likely to read this year, I warmly commend to you Alessandro Manzoni's engrossing tale about a much interrupted and highly eventful walk down the aisle.
Image: Portrait of Alessandro Manzoni, by Francesco Hayez (Milan, 1841)