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I promessi sposi. English

THE BETROTHED


From the Italian of


ALESSANDRO MANZONI


_The street was deserted before him; but,behind him, the terrible cry still resounded."Seize him! stop him! a poisoner!"_]


London:Richard Bentley,(_Successor to H. Colburn_)Cumming, Dublin. Bell and Bradfute, Edinburgh.Galignani, Paris.1834


THE BETROTHED.


_So saying, he passed his arm around the neck of the Unknown, who after resisting a moment, yielded, quite vanquished by this impulse of kindness, and fell on the neck of the Cardinal in an agony of repentance._]


STANDARD NOVELS.


No. XLIII.


"No kind of literature is so generally attractive as Fiction. Picturesof life and manners, and Stories of adventure, are more eagerly receivedby the many than graver productions, however important these latter maybe. APULEIUS is better remembered by his fable of Cupid and Psyche thanby his abstruser Platonic writings; and the Decameron of BOCCACCIO hasoutlived the Latin Treatises, and other learned works of that author."


THE BETROTHED.


Complete in One Volume.


London:Richard Bentley, 8. New Burlington Street(Successor to Henry Colburn):Bell, and Bradfute, Edinburgh;and Cumming, Dublin.


1834.


London:Printed by A. Spottiswoode,New-Street-Square.


CRITICAL REMARKS on MANZONI'S BETROTHED:


BY THE COUNT O'MAHONY. [Translated from the Italian.]


To publish a novel, to analyse, to eulogise it, and recommend itsperusal to the good and pious, will appear no doubt very extraordinary,and offend the prejudices of many who have agreed among themselves toconsider a novel, whoever may be its author, and whatever may be itssubject, form, and design, as a pestilent production. If you ask themwhy? "Because," they will reply--"because it is a novel!" The answer isas wise as it is peremptory and decisive, and we will spare ourselvesthe useless trouble of replying to arguments so profound and powerful.We will, however, submit a few serious reflections to minds of a lesselevated order, were it only to prove that we can talk reasonably, evenon the subject of novels.


Certainly, if we are understood to designate by the appellation of_Novel_, the written dreams and extravagant imaginations of a corruptmind and depraved heart, where illusions are substituted for realities,vice transformed into virtue, crime justified by the passions that leadto its perpetration, and fallacious pictures presented of an idealworld, or criminal apologies for a world too real; if, we say, such arethe novels to be condemned and proscribed, none more than ourselves willbe disposed to confirm the sentence. The unhappy influence whichproductions like these have exerted over the minds of youth, and aboveall, the ravages which their multiplication has within a few yearsproduced, is a fact acknowledged by all, by those who have escaped thecontagion of their perusal, as well as by those whom that perusal hasinjured. With respect to this, the wise and the good are unanimous intheir testimony and their anathemas; it is one of those self-evidenttruths, about which an Englishman or a German might still elaborate manya learned dissertation, but of which we shall take no further notice,certain that we should only repeat much less forcibly and eloquently,that which a thousand writers or orators have said before us.


But there is another point of view under which we must consider novels,or rather the works so called, but which bear, to those which morals andgood taste reprobate, no other resemblance than the name. These are, itis true, unhappily few in number, and therefore have not been classed bythemselves, but have been comprehended in the common appellation, andincluded in the general proscription; like an honest man, who, bearingthe same name as a rogue, partakes with him the odium of his reputation.But this is an injustice for which we are disposed to claim reparation.


Every work of imagination, in which the author causes ideal personagesto speak, think, and act, according to his pleasure, has beenstigmatised as a _Novel_. But, if we allow this rigorous definition, theapologue, so dear to the moralist, is a _Novel_, and deserving ofproscription. We will go further; the parable, which also creates itscharacters and invents their words and actions, is a _novel_! But whowould dare to call them so? Who would dare profane by this name, thoseprofound allegories, those holy fables, so excellent in truth, and soreplete with instruction, which God himself has related to man? Finally,if we peruse the works of the most austere philosophers, and the mostsevere moralists, without excepting ecclesiastical writers, we shallfind among them all, pictures of fancy or ideal histories of imaginarypersons, fiction serving as a veil, or rather (we must acknowledge it)as an apology for truth.


Now, we ask, by what unjust caprice would we condemn in the novelistthat which we admire and applaud in the moralist and philosopher; orrather, by what title do we interdict to the former the right of beingequally philosophical and moral with the latter? If man were withoutweaknesses and society without imperfections, truth would prevail ofitself, and in order to be loved and obeyed, it would need only to beshown in its unadorned purity and undisguised nakedness. But, from thebeginning of the world, pride has precipitated man into darkness.Corrupt and blind, a jealous susceptibility is developed in hischaracter, which continually increases in proportion to his blindnessand corruptions,--that is to say, the deeper he is plunged in darkness,the more he dreads the light, and it is but by degrees, and undervarious disguises, that we can hope ultimately to make him endure itsfull blaze.


Besides, fiction, under divers forms, such as fables, apologues, novels,allegories, and tales, constitutes a large portion of the literature ofevery nation; to this we may add the utility, nay, even the necessity ofdisguising truth, in order to make it acceptable to our imperfection;and more than all, the good frequently resulting from these modestproductions ought to stimulate those on whom Heaven has bestowed thesame kind of talent, to employ it in exposing vice and reforming thecorruptions of society.


But if the imperfection and weakness of our hearts render fictionnecessary to us, a similar necessity results from the languor andinaction of our minds: for in proportion to the extent of publiccorruption, individual application of the mind to severe and seriousstudy diminishes. Insensibly all continued exercise of the powers of hisunderstanding becomes irksome to man, and he finally considers thoughtand _ennui_ to be synonymous terms. This is, without doubt, a deplorableand alarming symptom of the decline of society; but we are obliged toconfess its existence, and, not possessing the power of changing, wemust submit to its caprices and satisfy its necessities.


Now, whether from instinct or observation, writers appear for some yearspast to have generally understood the demands of the age; and throughoutEurope, men of distinguished talents have employed themselves inanswering them. It might be said that Germany, England, Switzerland, andItaly, have formed as it were a literary alliance, which will probablyendure longer than their _political alliance_. As to France, herattention has for fifteen years been attracted to literature as well asto politics; but she has thought it sufficient for her glory totranslate foreign books, and for her prosperity to translate foreignconstitutions.[1]


[1] In this assertion we do not agree with the critic. France, in common with other European nations, has unquestionably manifested much curiosity regarding foreign literature, and has availed herself of its treasures; but, by the original works of her own writers, the advantage has been reciprocated, particularly in the novels lately produced in Paris by such men as M. de Vigny and M. Victor Hugo. The "Notre Dame de Paris" of the latter has attained an European celebrity, and has accordingly been incorporated in the present series of "Standard Novels."--_English Ed._


However this may be, the new taste for foreign literature is remarkable.Numerous works of imagination have appeared simultaneously of anelevated style and uncommon erudition. The choice, and we may add thegravity, of the subjects, the importance of the action, the extent ofthe developements, and the fidelity of the descriptions, stamp them witha peculiar character, and oblige us to assign to their authors adistinct rank among novel writers. Although unequal in merit, they maybe arranged into two classes. The one, beholding how history wasneglected, has endeavoured to restore its influence by reviving ourancient chronicles, and presenting to us in an elegant undress, the samecharacters from whom we avert our eyes, in the magnificent and stiffaccompaniments of their historical costume. The other, less numerous,but, in our opinion, much more happily inspired, afflicted by the coldindifference with which the most excellent works on morals and politicsare received, or by the insulting contempt which discards themaltogether, has undertaken to allure and amuse the prejudices of theage, in order to correct them. In an imaginary picture, they havespecially devoted themselves to describe the great springs of humanaction, and to bring prominently forward those traits of character,those inflexible criticisms on society, which under such a form willattract attention, when every direct and serious admonition would berejected. Now, it is to this class of novel writers that AlessandroManzoni essentially belongs.


And here, a great difficulty presents itself; a work of which the actionis so simple, that an analysis of it might be given in half a page, andyet so rich in beauties, that a volume might be written in its praise;between these two extremes, the middle path is not easy to find. For, ifwe should content ourselves with stating that two villagers, who werebetrothed, and about to be united, had been separated by the menaces ofa rich and titled robber, calumniated, betrayed by a seeming friend, andaided by the unlooked-for benevolence of an enemy; again persecuted bythe tyranny of the great, and then almost immolated by the tyranny ofthe people, and finally delivered by the pestilence itself; if, werepeat, we confine ourselves to this exposition, we shall have presentedto our readers the abstract of the work; but shall we have given them asingle idea of its beauties?


If, on the contrary, we would enter on an examination of the characters,and follow them in their developement, what a task we impose onourselves! For here, what beauty! what truth! what originality! Thecharacter of Don Abbondio alone would furnish matter for extensiveremark, as it is assuredly one of the most profoundly comic creations ofthe genius of romance. A coward by nature, and selfish from habit,entering the ecclesiastical order only to find in it powerful protectionagainst future enemies, and a refuge against present terrors, during hiswhole life he pursues, without a single deviation, the tyrannicalvocation of _fear_. Ever disturbed by the apprehension of beingdisturbed, and giving himself prodigious trouble in order to secure histranquillity, the care of his repose takes from him all repose. "_Afriend to all_," is his device, and "_Be quiet_," his habitual reply.For him, the evil committed in secret is preferable to the good whichmight excite dangerous remark. However, at the bottom of his heart, hestill esteems the good and virtuous; as to the wicked, he caresses, andwhere there is necessity, flatters them; in every controversy, he deemsthe strongest party to be in the right, but his fear of mistake oftenprevents him from deciding which _is_ the strongest. In discussionswhere he is personally involved, he acts not less prudently; he does notgrant concessions, he does more, he freely offers them, as by so doinghe saves the honour of his authority. Indeed, he does not drop a wordnor risk a gesture, of which he has not previously weighed theconsequences. So that by calculation and foresight, he is prepared forall, except the performance of duty under circumstances of peril anddifficulty; to this he closes his ears and his eyes, and thuscompromises with the world and his conscience.


And here, let us add, that if any of our readers discover, in thischaracter, the intention, or even the possibility, of an applicationinjurious to religion, they understand but little the mind of theauthor, which is constantly animated by the most ardent faith, andimbued, we may say, with its highest inspirations. The curate Abbondioappears before us chiefly to give greater relief to the sublime figuresof the friar Christopher, and the holy archbishop of Milan, and tofurnish materials for scenes between these three characters, where theweakness, the cowardice, and the selfishness of the one serves tobrighten, by contrast, the courage, devotion, and heroism of the others.It is an eminently philosophical conception to portray three menentering the priesthood from such different motives, in the course oftheir long lives, disclosing faithfully in their actions, the sources oftheir primitive choice. A lesson indeed! from which we may learn whatreligion can do with men, when they obey its laws and devote themselvesto its service, and what men can do with religion, when they subject itto their caprices, or prostitute it to their interests.


But it is in the conversion of the formidable Unknown, that religionappears in all its power, and its pontiff in all the majesty of hisbenevolence. The interview between these two persons, the one theterror, the other the beloved of his country; the proud criminalhumbling himself before the most humble of the just; the formerpreserving in his profound humiliation the traces of his habitualwickedness and pride, and the latter, with humility equally profound,the majestic authority of unsullied virtue. This scene, conceived andexecuted with equal genius, combines within itself the deepest interest,and the highest beauty.


As an illustration of the ingenuity and discernment of the author, wewill offer one remark further; he has placed before us two wicked men;the one a subaltern robber, a libertine of the second rank, a swaggererin debauch, vainer of his vices than jealous of his pleasures. The othera superior genius, who has measured how far man could descend in crime,and himself reached its depths, where he governs human corruption as itssovereign, committing no act of violence without leaving the impressionof his unlimited power and inexorable will. One of these is to beconverted; which will it be? The least guilty? No; coward in vice, wherewould he find courage to repent? He will die hardened and impenitent. Itis the grand criminal who will be drawn from the abyss, for he hasdescended into it with all his power, and it will need a repentanceproportioned to the measure of his iniquities to restore him to thefavour of his God. There is evinced in this developement, greatknowledge of the human heart, and a very striking revelation of themysterious dealings of a just and compassionate God.


We find the same sagacity of observation in other parts of the work; itappears under an altogether original form in the episode of Gertrude;irresistibly conducted to the cloister, notwithstanding herinsurmountable repugnance, when she could by a single word free herselffrom such a condemnation, dooming her own self to a sacrifice shedetests; yielding without having been conquered; the slave of her veryliberty, and the victim to a voluntary fatality! It is not in a rapidsketch that we can give an idea of this singular and altogether novelcharacter. To appreciate its excellence, we must give an attentiveperusal.


But Alessandro Manzoni is not only a skilful painter of individualportraits, he excels also in grand historical representations. In thatof the plague at Milan, and the famine preceding it, his manner becomesbolder, his touch more free and majestic, without, however, losing anyof its exquisite delicacy. When he represents an entire people rebellingagainst hunger, or vanquished by disease and death, we deeply feel thehorror of the picture, at the same time that an occasional smile iselicited by the comic genius of the artist, which exercises itself evenamidst the agonies of famine and pestilence, so that, through the granddesign of the exhibition, the delicate touches of the pencil are stillvisible, and individual character perceptible through the very depths ofbold and general description; it is Van Dyck painting on the reverse ofone of Michael Angelo's pictures.


We will not take leave of this interesting production without indulgingourselves in one more observation, which is, that in this succession ofadventures, where appear, by turns or simultaneously, two robber chiefsand their followers, an unbridled soldiery, a people in rebellion,famine, and pestilence, all the evil specially resulting to thevirtuous, is the consequence of the cowardice of a single man! What alesson may we derive from such a _Novel_!





THE BETROTHED.



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