Tuesday, 29 September 1998

Alessandro Manzoni: The Betrothed (1827)

Translation: Bruce Penman, 1972
Edition: Penguin
Review number: 122

The Bethrothed is probably the most famous work of Italian literature not by Dante or Petrarch. The introduction to this Penguin Classics edition compares its influence on Italian culture to an English scene where Dickens wrote only one novel and Fielding and Thackeray had never existed. Its revision by Manzoni into the Tuscan dialect was a major turning point in the establishment of that dialect as the standard literary Italian.

It is a long historical novel (written in the nineteenth but dealing with the early seventeenth century) with a somewhat melodramatic plot which to an English reader is distinctly reminiscent of Scott. In the early seventeenth century, the duchy of Milan was ruled by Spain, though the Spanish viceroys were unable to check the excesses and crimes of the upper classes, who employed large numbers of thugs known as bravos to get their way. Italy was also subject to famine and periodic epidemics of plague, both of which play a part in The Betrothed.

Two villagers, Renzo and Lucia, are on the point of marriage when Lucia catches the eye of local tyrant Don Rodrigo, who threatens the village priest into refusing to marry them. As they flee from Don Rodrigo's bravos, they become separated and get involved with the turbulent events of the Thirty Years' War as it affected Milan. Manzoni mixes his invented characters with real historical figures and their stories with great skill.

The main charm of the narrative is not the plot, but Manzoni's ironical tone and frequent asides to the reader. He manages not to overuse this device (unlike most authors who make use of it), carefully controlling his writing so that the reader is not put off.

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