When I think of 19th century literature, I think or tales that are heavily focused on morality. Characters may be deep if we are lucky, but there will be good people and there will be bad people. The good will be rewarded and the evil punished. No action required, this will all just happen by providence. Also, there will be frequent and lengthy possibly unnecessary digressions. With that, let’s talk about The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Barry Unsworth.)
I haven’t read much classic Italian literature, but The Betrothed wasn’t too far off the 19th century English or French literature I’ve read. As I said, it’s a bit of a long morality tale. There are many digressions. Still, it had some good characters and I did enjoy reading.
Anyway, The Betrothed starts out with a local curate (Don Abbondio) being threatened by brigands (referred to as ‘bravoes’):
It appeared evident to Don Abbondio that the two men above mentioned were waiting for some one, and he was alarmed at the conviction that it was for himself; for on his appearance, they exchanged a look, as if to say, “’tis he.” Rising from the wall, they both advanced to meet him. He held his breviary open before him, as though he were employed in reading it; but, nevertheless, cast a glance upward in order to espy their movements. Seeing that they came directly toward him, he was beset by a thousand different thoughts. He considered, in haste, whether between the bravoes and himself there were any outlet from the road, and he remembered there was none. He took a rapid survey of his conduct, to discover if he had given offence to any powerful or revengeful man; but in this matter, he was somewhat reassured by the consoling testimony of his conscience. The bravoes draw near, and kept their eyes upon him. He raised his hand to his collar, as if adjusting it, and at the same time turned his head round, to see if any one were coming; he could discover no one. He cast a glance across the low stone wall upon the fields; no one! another on the road that lay before him; no one, except the bravoes! What is to be done? Flight was impossible. Unable to avoid the danger, he hastened to encounter it, and to put an end to the torments of uncertainty. He quickened his pace, recited a stanza in a louder tone, did his utmost to assume a composed and cheerful countenance, and finding himself in front of the two gallants, stopped short. “Signor Curate,” said one of them, fixing his eyes upon him,–
“Your pleasure, sir,” suddenly raising his eyes from his book, which he continued to hold open before him.
“You intend,” pursued the other, with the threatening and angry mien of one who has detected an inferior in an attempt to commit some villany, “you intend to-morrow to unite in marriage Renzo Tramaglino and Lucy Mondella.”
“That is,” said Don Abbondio with a faltering voice, “that is to say–you gentlemen, being men of the world, are very well aware how these things are managed: the poor curate neither meddles nor makes–they settle their affairs amongst themselves, and then–then, they come to us, as if to redeem a pledge; and we–we are the servants of the public.”
“Mark now,” said the bravo in a low voice, but in a tone of command, “this marriage is not to take place, neither to-morrow, nor at any other time.”
“But, my good sirs,” replied Don Abbondio, with the mild and gentle tone of one who would persuade an impatient listener, “but, my good sirs, deign to put yourselves in my situation. If the thing depended on myself–you see plainly, that it does not in the least concern—-“
“Hold there,” said the bravo, interrupting him, “this matter is not to be settled by prating. We neither know nor care to know any more about it. A man once warned–you understand us.”
Despite the length of this scene, of which the above is only a small excerpt, you might not get that Renzo and Lucy, the innocent betrothed couple, are actually the main characters of the book. A local and evil noble has decided that they should not be married and decides to frighten the curate out of performing the ceremony. This works.
The rest of the novel is majorly about Renzo and Lucy trying to stay away from the rich guy and trying to get married. Without wanting to give away too much, the good are eventually rewarded and the evil are punished. I’d be afraid to tell you that much, but I’m sure you know that already. On the way there we have the abusive rich, the restless poor, ineffectual government, war, plague, and most everything else Manzoni apparently felt he could shove into this book.
Still, most of the criticisms I would have against The Betrothed are those I would have against almost any 19th century novel I’ve read. Really, like wearing an onion on one’s belt, it was the style at the time. In the end, though I don’t think The Betrothed touched me in a way I’ll never forget, it was a good read.