I’ve discovered so many new (to me) authors & books through my 19th century bookgroup & this is another one. I’d never heard of Manzoni although he’s one of the best-known Italian authors of the 19th century. Verdi wrote his Requiem in his honour & this novel, The Betrothed, is considered one of the finest historical novels of the period. It struck me as I was reading this novel that I’ve read many English, French & Russian novels written in the 19th century but very few from other European countries. The conveners of my 19th century bookgroup are doing their best to remedy this lack in my education.
The Betrothed has a simple story at its heart. Renzo & Lucia are in love & wish to marry. They live in a village in the Duchy of Milan. The story takes place in the 1630s when this part of Italy was ruled by Spain. The peasants are hard-working but at the mercy of petty overlords who act with impunity & are virtually tyrants. One of these, Don Rodrigo, wants Lucia for himself & will stop at nothing to possess her. Don Rodrigo’s bravoes (hired thugs) have intimidated the nervous, cowardly priest, Don Abbondio, until he’s too afraid to perform the marriage ceremony. The couple fear Rodrigo’s next move &, when their plan to trick Don Abbondio into marrying them fails, they, along with Lucia’s mother, Agnese, leave the village to escape Rodrigo’s influence.
The couple are advised by the Capuchin monk, Father Cristoforo. He is a brave, fearless man who has entered the monastery as penitence for his own misdeeds. He confronts Rodrigo & tries to shame him into leaving Lucia in peace but this only results in Rodrigo using his political influence to have Father Cristoforo transferred to a faraway monastery. Lucia has been advised to take refuge in a convent with the mysterious Nun of Monza while Renzo heads to Milan to consult the Capuchins there. The lovers must undergo many trials in their long separation. Lucia is kidnapped from the convent & her fate is looking dire until rescue comes from an unexpected source. In her relief, she pledges her virginity in gratitude to the Virgin for her deliverance as she now believes that she will never see Renzo again.
Renzo reaches Milan after several adventures on the road but is then caught up in riots caused by famine & finds himself with a warrant for his arrest after he’s taken for one of the ringleaders. Then, war breaks out & Lucia & her mother, along with Don Abbondio & his wily housekeeper, Perpetua, must take refuge from the approach of enemy soldiers. After this, plague breaks out. In all this time, Lucia & Renzo have had little news of each other apart from some comically misinterpreted letters written by friends as the lovers are illiterate. When Renzo survives the plague, he is determined to find Lucia & sets off on his final long journey.to discover the truth.
The Betrothed is a wonderful book with enough romance, adventure & evil to satisfy any reader. The characters are beautifully drawn. Lucia is good, honest & beautiful, determined to stay true to Renzo & well-supported by her feisty, resourceful mother, Agnese. Renzo is brave & impulsive although unfortunately prone to drinking a little too much in taverns & making impulsive speeches that get him into trouble. He’s always worked hard – he has a farm but is also a trained silk worker – & he’s not intimidated by Don Rodrigo & his thugs. He has an innate belief in his own self-worth & won’t accept that evil, in the form of Don Rodrigo or any other petty tyrant, should have power over his life.
The portraits of the religious characters are interesting. The village priest, Don Abbondio, is timid with his superiors but confident with his parishioners. He just wants an easy life & his cowardly dithering is very funny. His housekeeper, Perpetua, keeps him in line, mostly for his own good. Father Christoforo is a penitent man who does all he can for Lucia & Renzo. His advice is good although his powers don’t match his desire to help. Lucia’s refuge at the Convent at Monza leads to the strange story of Gertrude, the Nun of Monza, who was forced into the convent by her wealthy family & who becomes enamoured of her power. Finally, Cardinal Borromeo, based on a real person, is the model of a churchman – kind, charitable, learned.
The many people the lovers meet on their travels, from the mysterious Unnamed, a petty tyrant like Rodrigo who undergoes a miraculous change of heart to the kind relatives & friends who help Renzo with food & work on his journey, are all fascinating & all individual. The epic scenes of famine, war & plague are horrifying yet compelling & obviously based on extensive historical research. Our narrator does digress occasionally into a chapter or two of exposition on the causes of the war or the political situation & this can become a little tedious. The only exception to this is the chapters on the progress of the plague which were compelling reading if disturbing in their detail about the horrors people suffered. But, as soon as we return to Lucia & Renzo, the pace picks up & I raced on to the end to discover their fate.