A Very Long Engagement : Alessandro Manzoni – “The Betrothed”

ABOVE: Betrothed, Bewildered, Bebothered Part 2.

Completely unrelated to Walter Scott’s “The Betrothed”.

Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed” for quite a while trailed only Bocaccio’s “The Decameron” and Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” as one of Italy’s most beloved and significant works of literature. Written in the 1820’s and fixed up in the 1840’s, “I Promessi Sposi” is a historical novel set in 1628, (or, as I invariably think of it when Cardinal Richelieu gets referenced, “Musketeer Times.”) Does it deserve its fame as the greatest Italian novel? Pope Francis apparently loves it and recommends it to young couples about to marry.

Pope Francis ain’t the most reliable of literary judges, but it’s easy to see why he likes it. A novel best understood in Catholic contexts, the thick of it is dedicated to the activities of clergy of varying ethical fiber, and Manzoni does a decent job of portraying both religious leaders of actual morals, and the, shall we say, more dubious ones. I’m sure the Pope has met both kind frequently, and I can quite understand why he gets a chuckle out of this. The problem with Pope Francis’ admiration is that “The Betrothed” masquerades as a primer on how to be a good faithful Catholic, but it is actually an accidental satire on the so-called sanctity of marriage, and on the absurdity of taking abstinence to the verge of stupidity, (to the benefit of operatic drama).

Renzo and Lucia love each other and are about to be happily wed, but of course they mustn’t have fun with each other, not before marriage. It’s pretty clear that Renzo has been unsuccessfully begging for some pre-marital affection:

“For pity’s sake, do not talk thus; do not talk so fiercely!” said Lucia imploringly.
“You to implore me!” said he, somewhat appeased. “You! who will do nothing for me! What proof do you give me of your affection? Have I not supplicated in vain? Have I been able to obtain——”
“Yes, yes,” replied Lucia, hastily.

Lucia’s prudish ways catch the eye of a dastardly, mustache-twirling local proto-Mafioso, who intimidates a corrupt local priest into refusing to officiate the ceremony. The villain, the Spaniard Don Rodrigo, wants to “seduce” (rape, we call it now) the girl but, good religious person that he is, he’s only interested in raping her if she’s still an unmarried virgin. (Is Lucia a symbol of chaste Italy? Rodrigo of foreign occupation? Perhaps.) Much unnecessary pain and drama happens for a couple of years, all of which would have easily been averted if Renzo and Lucia had done what was natural and holy and sexy in the first place. Also, they should have told the pervy villain and the worthless priest to, pardon my Italian, “Vaffanculo!”

ABOVE: Manzoni, man!

Renzo is as generic a “handsome young man” as they come, and all I can say about the damsel in distress here is that Lucia is a pretty name. Their chemistry is unimportant since they’re separated throughout, (“The Betrothed” has mockingly been called a romance without romance.) The novel’s literary merits lie in the characterizations of the many peripheral characters: the cowardly Don Abbondio who’ll do anything to avoid his priestly duties; the saintly Fra Cristoforo who might as well come with a tacked-on halo. The thing is, while Don Abbondio is a great comic creation that would have done fine in a Dickens novel, the admirable priests are a little too admirable for their own good, and seem to have been thrown there to distract the more devout readers from Manzoni’s real marks: the questionable mores of a place where the good, poor people are bound into misery by Catholic strictures, while the bad, rich people do as they please because they’re in control of how the Church functions in the first place. (Shhh, don’t tell the Pope that this a perfectly accurate reading of the novel.)

“Thus goes the world, or rather, thus it went in the seventeenth century.

“The Betrothed” is very enjoyable throughout; in particular, its depiction of the plague in Milan in 1630 stands out as a vivid, chilling journalistic detour. It would sit decently alongside Walter Scott and mid-tier Dumas, but in translation it has neither the verbal authority of the former nor the suspenseful plotting of the latter. This is all different in the Italian original, where the novel is a seminal unifying work: what Italian literary language should sound like was still in dispute until Manzoni came along. While the novel earns its reputation, this is less a comment on its quality or popularity, than it is a comment on the state of Italian literature in the 19th century. (I would suggest that Carlo Collodi’s “Pinochio” is actually the best-KNOWN Italian novel worldwide, but obviously we can blame that on a Mr. Disney.)

RATING : MASTERPIECE in Italiano, but really COOL in English.


Just found a hilarious review by Edgar Allan Poe of “The Betrothed”, in which he also evokes Scott and manages to tear a dark and stormy hole on Bulwer Lytton. Poor Bulwer Lytton. (Is there a collected edition of Poe’s criticism out there? I want it now.)


2 thoughts on “A Very Long Engagement : Alessandro Manzoni – “The Betrothed”

  1. Pingback: Allan Quatermain # 1 : H. Rider Haggard – “Marie” | THE PAGEAHOLIC

  2. Pingback: Monte Cristo on a Gondola: Michel Zevaco – “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice” | THE PAGEAHOLIC

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