The Betrothed [1827/1972] – ★★★★★
The Betrothed is an Italian classic by Alessandro Manzoni, the man who happened to be the grandson of Cesare Beccaria, the world-famous criminologist and philosopher. The novel is set in medieval Italy where two lovers (Renzo and Lucia) are prevented from marrying by a cowardly priest. From this flows all sorts of misunderstandings and advances from corrupt regimes as the two lovers are trying to overcome numerous obstacles and go through life trials (including a war, a plague and famine) on their path to a reunion. Beautifully translated from the Italian by Bruce Penman and boasting colourful and memorable characters, this classic tale from Italy is about undying love, faith, hope and perseverance in the face of oppression, betrayal and despair.
The book is set in a picturesque region of Lombardy, northern Italy, along the Lake Como, while also taking place in Milan. Manzoni’s sumptuous descriptions of the region ensure that the reader is transported to that medieval Italian countryside where people live from harvest to harvest, where local nobilities always have the upper hand, and where religion governs nearly every aspect of the simple lives. The novel is written in a form of some romantic idealism and starts with an ambush of a priest – Don Abbondio. It so happens that, although Renzo and Lucia, the young couple in love, are engaged, Don Rodrigo, the local nobility, wants Lucia for himself and sends his men to prevent the two marrying. Soon, more and more people are involved in the affair in a growing-spider-web fashion, as Don Rodrigo becomes bolder in his devilish plans to entrap Lucia.
As we start to follow a number of characters in the novel, the once simple tale turns intricate and a number of colourful characters emerge, all having stakes in Renzo and Lucia’s destinies. Manzoni provides vivid insights into the characters of benevolent Father Cristoforo and Federigo Borromeo, real-life Italian cardinal as these are contrasted with evil Don Rodrigo and his men. Don Abbondio, the priest who initially refused to marry Renzo and Lucia, maintains a neutral position in the book, being weak in spirit. He is the one “whose personal system consisted primarily in avoiding conflict whenever he could” [Manzoni, Penman, 1827/1972: 38]. The interesting element here is that it is not evil that is the original cause of Renzo and Lucia’s unhappiness and trouble, but cowardice and neutrality in times of a moral crisis represented by Don Abbodio’s actions (or, in this case, his failure to act). It is precisely Don Abbondio “unarmed neutrality” which brought about and spewed misfortune for many characters in this story. The so-called Unnamed character in the tale is probably the most enigmatic and intriguing of all. This is the most unusual villain who undergoes a change hardly expected in a story, meaning that Manzoni’s message is also that appearances may deceive and every human being can change the course of their destiny simply through their strong will and a determination to follow a righteous path.
The Betrothed has been called a “national institution” for a reason – history of that part of Italy is everywhere within the pages. The story takes place at a time (the 1620s) when the region was occupied by foreign powers and found itself in a tricky political and economic situation. We see a war, a revolt and a plague raging through the eyes of poor Renzo who is separated from his young fiancée and is forced to wander the region while enduring extreme hunger. The simple and poor people around him are not happy with the allocation of resources dictated by those at the top of the societal hierarchy, as one such person says in the story: “what I’d like to know…is whether those fine fellows in Milan ever think about the poor people in the country, or if they’re just trying to get the laws altered to suit themselves. You know what they’re like, don’t you? Conceited city folk, who want everything for themselves. The rest of us might as well not exist at all” [Manzoni, Penman, 1827/1972: 308]. Insights into the human nature (its meekness in front of a grand authority) are readily given following this: “human beings are like that – we rebel in furious indignation against moderate evils, and bow our heads in silence beneath extreme ill-treatment. Stunned rather than resigned, we put up with twice the load which we had declared to be unbearable earlier on” [Manzoni, Penman, 1827/1972: 519]. However, while Manzoni attacks the establishments of nobility and priesthood in his story, exposing their weaknesses and vices, he also takes account of individual differences and has examples of people in high places who are extremely good and selflessly devoted to others, such as Federico Borromeo.
The Betrothed is a classic to be read and cherished. It is a tale of simple people caught in extraordinary circumstances, as well as about communities coming together to face major crises. Despite its evident Romeo & Juliet motif, the story is more multi-dimensional than first assumed, and represents a morality epic where courage and cowardice, hope and despair, love and hatred, mingle to finally lead to forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption.