Sunday, April 9, 2023

Review: The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

I used to read a lot of historical fiction — the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell, The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, the list goes on. Historical fiction can serve to highlight the progress we’ve made — and it does sometimes: my favourite parts of Outlander involve time-travelling nurse Claire Beauchamp trying to recreate 20th century medical technology within the limits of 1740s Scotland. In practice, however, positive progress is often limited to highlighting how much more violent past societies were in their oppression of women – usually for titillation (Outlander is an example of this tendency too). Much of the historical commentary instead has a nostalgic, reactionary element to it: “we used to build gorgeous buildings”, “warfare used to be more noble”, “we were all happier when we were farmers living under the guidance of a kind Laird”, “we used to be faithful”. The choice of writing a novel set in the past implicitly makes a few political claims. This period has some particular value to understand at our current moment in time, or this period did something right (or maybe wrong?) that makes it a good setting for exploring love, loss, or some other aspect of human nature.

The Betrothed is a historical fiction novel set in the 1620s and written in the 1820s. Reading it in the 2020s makes the implicit political claims in Alessandro Manzoni’s choice of setting murkier to understand: the pressing political concerns of the mid-nineteenth century and how contemporary readers would have viewed the seventeenth century are not so front of mind. The 1820s were post-Enlightenment, post-French Revolution, with the capitalist class encroaching upon the power of the aristocratic class. The 1620s were feudal, dominated by power struggles between a powerful church and the aristocratic class and their thuggish bravi. Italian territories of the 1820s were governed by the Hapsburg empire, while Italian territories of the 1620s were governed by the Spaniards.

Manzoni, an aristocrat, grapples with the concepts of power and laws, the role of the (aristocratic) individual versus the State in charity, and the decline of Catholic morals, and the 1620s backdrop helps him explore how these facets of society had changed over time.

Our opening scene features village priest Don Abbondio accosted by the local baron Don Rodrigo’s hired hit men, who threaten him into not marrying the betrothed lovers Lucia and Renzo. By the law of the land, it was of course illegal to coerce people into performing or not performing marriages. Renzo is informed so by a barrister (Chapter 3), but when the barrister realizes his client would be facing the militarily mighty Don Rodrigo in court, he cowers in fear and joins the side of the law-flouting Don Rodrigo instead. Given the weakness of the law to the power of violence wielded by the nobility, how should Don Abbondio have reacted? The answer is the church: the novel devotes some fifteen pages (Chapter 25-26) to the chastisement of Don Abbondio by saintly Cardinal Federico Borromeo, who explains that Don Abbondio should have escalated the matter to the church, and watched out for his flock of parishioners rather than for his own skin.

A fourth faction complicating the Law/Nobility/Church power struggle is that of the masses, and we see their potential for power in the bread riots of Chapters 12-13. After two years of famine, aristocratic politician Grand Chancellor Antonio Ferrer attempts to soothe the masses who are furious at the rising bread prices by setting a price cap on bread, like “an aging woman who thinks she can be young again simply by altering her birth certificate.” While “orders less inane and unfair had [previously] not been executed (...) since they were so unrealistic”, the masses, in their dumb hunger for bread, ensured that this particular rule was enforced, attributing the lack of bread not to the famine but to the tyranny of the landowners, the bourgeois, and “anyone, in short, who had either a little or a lot or was reputed to have some”. The narrative is very sympathetic to the plight of the bakers, who must sell bread as if it's priced at 33 liras a bushel while the going rate is 80 liras a bushel, and face penalties for not selling their wares. While we do not see any starving peasants, we are shown several scenes of violent looters, participants running from the riots carelessly letting bread rolls fall from their overflowing baskets and arms. I took this chapter to be in part a reaction to the French Revolution of 1789, one that is suddenly aware of the power of crowds (“All that was missing was an occasion, a spark, an instigation of some sort to transform words into action”) but also one firmly believing that mob rule will lead to a degenerate state.

We see these same forces at work as the plague breaks out in Chapters 31-33: those in charge of writing laws and their learnèd consultants are stupid, ineffectual, corrupt, and break apart the ties of community, while the masses continue to fixate on conspiratorial explanations for their misery (a clandestine organization of noxious unguent spreaders) rather than material evidence (an airborne disease).

Amidst the senseless frenzy of the masses and the shortsighted overstepping of liberty of the legal system, there are nonetheless several examples given of good being done in the world. However, these are united by one principle: they are examples of highborn people following the ways of God and helping the less fortunate through charity. The turning point of the novel is the “miraculous” conversion of the Nameless One, from his days of marauding debauchery to becoming a model aristocrat. Upon his conversion, he uses his resources to rescue Lucia from the clutches of Don Rodrigo, and gives ample charitable gifts to her family to restore the balance upset by Don Rodrigo’s threats at the start of the novel. Contrasted with the bread riots, Cardinal Frederico, who “could be living in the lap of luxury”, is praised for feeding the hungry for bread from his own plate. These charitable gestures inspire a tailor to give food to a poor widow—this, presumably, is seen as a more just solution to a famine. The virtuous Fra Cristoforo, wealthy by birth and proud by nature who similarly miraculously converts to the ways of the Lord, helps the sufferers of the plague through self-sacrificing devotion in contrast to the heartless, cruel public health measures implemented by the Tribunal of Health. This emphasis on individual actions runs throughout the novel. “Do good to as many people as you can (...) and you will be rewarded many times over with faces that lift your spirits.”

In the 19th century, moral obligation had given way to legal formality. Where once one’s word of honour would suffice, now legal contracts were required. Where once noblesse oblige and the charity and protection of the church ensured the welfare of the commoners, now state intervention into the price of bread or into disease management prevailed. Manzoni appears to be commenting that, sure, the olden times had their issues with individuals (and their bravi) acting badly, but the Church and the charity of the good were there to counteract them. Now, we have just the State and the masses, and look how senseless that can be. Is there still a role remaining for the pious aristocrat?

Poor politics aside, I want to highlight two stand-out parts of the novel. The first is the portrait of Gertrude (Chapters 9-10). Her aristocratic father wishes to not divide his estate amongst his children, and so grooms Gertrude from an early age to become a nun. Despite these social pressures, Gertrude discovers the joy of love, which would be denied her were she to become a nun. However, the path to becoming a nun has been carved out for her, and to deviate from it requires upsetting every social and familial relationship she has. While Gertrude ultimately lacks the courage to leave the life others have created for her, her inner monologue is written with such empathy and compassion that it still feels like a very fresh investigation into social conditioning and the meaning of enthusiastic consent versus coercion. I think this same empathy allows Manzoni to portray plague survivors in a way that likely strikes readers of the 2020s as more accurate and true than it would have to readers of the 2010s even. There is a scene in which the star-crossed fiancé unites with a friend after the plague, and both feel out of practice socially but hunger for community and recount the trauma of the pandemic and how they’ve survived it. I, at least, have had a few of those conversations.

Finally, the translation by Michael Moore is vivid and lyrical.

And one last note: I had originally thought to write on the role of providence in the novel, however I really enjoyed Robert S. Dombrosk's treatment of the subject and direct the reader there instead.

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