No book shows how little we care to find out the truth, how little we know ourselves, how even less we know others, how rumor, prejudice, and illusion, rule our world as Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed.” Set in Lombardy in the 17th century, it covers the whole horror of a plague in whose deadly grip all suffered.

Plague makes each of us the possible carrier of death to others, and all those others the possible bringers of death to us, and thus it, the measures it requires, and the panic it stirs, weaken the very communities we need to live, and to live well, as large as a country and as small as fellowships, of families, of parents and children, of man and wife, and of friends. We should stay far away from each other, but can we bear to?

Only beasts and gods can live outside the city, solitary like Polyphemos, observes Aristotle. True, Nietzsche added, “or a philosopher,” who has the best of friends among the dead, but as he, living solitarily, came to suffer, and perhaps see, not for long.

Moreover, the great dead can be appreciated together. As Louise Cowan, the founder of the University of Dallas with her husband Don, used to say, yes reading great books makes you melancholy, and that’s why we do it together. And when suddenly the chance to teach Russian novel, not taught since her exile, came my way, I consulted her, and she said, “Well you can always read it alone, but it’s different isn’t it, when you read with the students.” That settled it, though it was a third preparation, and read we did, Anna, Brothers, and War and Peace, best class I’ve ever been in.

Many thanks then to Glenn Arbery for reminding us, recently in these pages, of some of the great books set in plague times, and suggesting that their study might sustain us in somewhat similar times today, of pan-virus and pan-panic.[1] In addition to the great books he mentions, there is Procopius’s History, Defoe’s Journal of the Plague year, and perhaps Camus’ The Plague. Best, however, might be Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed. Set in Lombardy, not this past winter, but in the 17th century, it covers the whole horror of that plague, in whose deadly grip all suffered, many dying, many failing in virtue, and some shining as bright as a human soul ever has. All of their experiences ask us, how would you do?

No book shows how little we care to find out the truth, how little we know ourselves, how even less we know others, how rumor, prejudice, and illusion rule our world, and us. At bottom, at home, safe in our bed, we are just as frightened, as in the plague, panicked; fleeing, we might become just as furious, even murderous, as the mob around us; and yet Manzoni understands everyone, feels for each of us, even to the most evil of us extends an understanding animated by love, as God must, we hope, do for us, and rejoices in how virtuous, despite our trembling, we can become.

The Betrothed gives the best portraits of daily cowardice, saintly love, and astonishing conversions I know of. The turning of meekness itself, in the person of Gertrude, gradually into confirmed evil, is truly unique, not equaled even by the rapid transformation of confident Othello into the suspicious murderer of his beloved wife. We can barely believe it is happening, that resolute Gertrude is going to yield, agree to take the veil, but we cannot doubt it, only be astonished, and then horrified at what she then does, turning trembling Lucia over to thugs, sent by the Unnamed. And yet the conversion of the eminently evil Unnamed to the good is more remarkable than Augustine’s or Paul’s. If this can happen, then a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao might repent.

Portraying evil is not easy. Shakespeare’s Goneril, Richard III, and Iago are an unprecedented achievement, and yet as Simone Weil said, the really hard thing to portray is goodness. Hearing of Federigo Cardinal Borromeo, so strong and so loving, it is impossible not to want to go visit him right now, as one might Fr. Barron, and just as the Unnamed does, seized by mortal thoughts, sick of his life, stirred to hope, and welcomed by Borromeo. (Yes, how I too would like to hear he’ll be preaching nearby.) We want such heroic goodness to help us, and maybe some young reader one day will want more than help, will aspire to become such a hero, the one at the funeral who bucks everyone else up, as Jordan Peterson says.

How finely Manzoni discriminates among the good, setting out the ladder of them, from the hearty Agnese, the heroic but ever struggling Fr. Cristoforo, and on to the superlative Cardinal Borromeo, who makes doing great good seem effortless, and it almost is, for it springs from love. How good and the cause of good in other men! Can there be a Christian Prince? Can one be both priest and ruler? The existence of this good Cardinal, Federigo, refutes all those, such as Machiavelli, who hold that no statesman could be a saint, and also all those, such as Tolstoy, who claim no saint could be a statesman.

Notable too are the discrimination of vices; from the evil of the Unnamed which shines with what one must admit is greatness, on to the ordinary thuggishness of Don Roderigo, and finally to all the habitual weaklings, whose evil effects can, nevertheless, be considerable. The daily cowardice of the Vicar, Fr. Abbondio, who rises each morning already anxious to make it back to supper and bed, prevents the lovers Renzo and Lucia from marrying, and they don’t get to marry till the end of the novel, 600 pages later. (When Michael Waldstein first recommended the novel to me, saying it’s the best book on marriage, and when half way through it seems Renzo and Lucia, the betrothed ones, are never going to marry, I asked, “So the best marriage is the one longest postponed?”) Such pusillanimity of the Vicar may show the mirror to even the bravest reader, and well deserves the stern, and yet also loving, rebuke of the Cardinal.

This range of virtue and of vice should instruct us, but it can be provoking. A great work is bound to disappoint almost all readers, including the good. Just as many contemporary clerics were offended by the trembling Don Abbandio as many contemporary patriots were offended by the goodness of Cardinal Borromeo. (A good journal, thought Charles Peguy, ought to offend a portion of its regular readers, and a different portion each issue.) Compromise offends the staunchly committed, but maybe they’re right. Maybe one must choose, one way this time, next time another. It is a nice question whether prudence or courage is the comprehensive virtue, whether gratitude is the fundamental one, and how they are related to faith, to hope, and to love, and The Betrothed will help us sort such things.

The wretched condition of divided and oppressed “Italy” portrayed in the novel so called for self-governing unification, and the novel so promoted it by giving Italians a language to share, that the Risorgimento thanked Manzoni. Yet how can this be, for The Betrothed teaches that the irremediable sorrows of our lives, in the extreme of famine, of war, and of the plague, which kindle charity in some and malice in more others, calls above all for the Risorgimento of Christ in us all. Would Manzoni have us sing “we shall overcome,“ or “kyrie elieson“? And if as it seems both, how do they go together?

Just a few years after the first version, Manzoni took a rare trip, and at the Genoese frontier, an old soldier poked his head in the carriage and recited paragraph after paragraph from the novel,[2] as Italians have since, in the version he produced fourteen years later in Tuscan to create a national tongue. For that and the novel’s other contributions to the unification of Italy, the nation esteemed him, Victor Emanuel added a pension, and a year after his death, Verdi honored him with his Requiem. Today the book is required in school, but Italians do come to love it later, and they will judge you by it. If you know Dante, you are considered educated, but if you know Manzoni, they will embrace you, and on the train, opening that fragrant basket, bid you eat.

Yet the book is hardly known elsewhere, hardly studied, and no College with an integrated curriculum, that I know of, includes it, and no Catholic one I know of, though I know of one considering how to (Thomas More in New Hampshire). There are fine things in O’Connor, Percy, and Waugh, but as Milosz once noted, few heroes in “modern” literature. In The Betrothed there are three. Need help dying well, then this might be the book.

Should a group of readers of the Imaginative Conservative read it, perhaps they might discuss it together, using Zoom, as my Seminar of mostly former students did all last fall, little knowing that something like a plague, and the panic it tempts us to add, might come so soon again, and yet knowing that if it did, Manzoni and his book would make for good companionship, for love in time of plague.[3]

Let me close by simply quoting passages, ones that members of the seminar last fall treasured most:

One member wrote:

Here are some candidates:

“A benefit of friendship is knowing whom to tell secrets to.”

But I savor the irony of this:

“One of the advantages about this life is that you can hate someone without knowing him”

And I would like to believe this one:

“God doesn’t start miracles without finishing them.”

Ah there are so many I’ve underlined.

Perhaps the best is Fr. Borromeo’s “love is intrepid,” l’amour e intrepido, p. 360), but to be appreciated requires the whole episode, the whole man, his whole life.

Another member:

Yes, love is intrepid, and Fr. Christoforo teaches the betrothed ones, Renzo and Lucia, “love one another as travelling companions, with thought you must be parted and hope of being united forever.” (Chapt. 36, p. 521) but what is the relation of faith and confidence? Are these the same?

Discussion often recurred to the passage, which a younger member first pointed to,

When just after Gertrude had taken the vow, Manzoni himself tells us she could, despite the suffering coercion and her weakness, nonetheless, from that point on have chosen a good life, and not the one that she does. What a hard teaching.

Another member relished the Cardinal admonishing Don Abbandio:

“To love, my son; to love and to pray. Then you would have felt that the forces of evil can threaten and can strike, but they cannot command. You would have joined together, according to the laws of God, what man wished to put asunder. You would have done those poor unhappy creatures the service they had a right to ask of you. For the consequences God Himself would have been your own surety, for you would have been treading in His path; by taking another, you have made yourself your own surety; and see what the consequences are!

And a sketch of the good but obtuse lady who takes Lucia in flight in:

Donna Prassede was an old lady with a strong propensity for doing good – certainly the worthiest profession that man can ply, but one which, like all others, is open to abuse. To do good, one must know what it is; and, like everything else, we can only know this by means of our own passions, our own judgements, our own ideas – which often do not amount to very much. Donna Prassede’s attitude towards ideas was the same as they say one should have towards friends; she had few but was strongly attached to the few she had. Among these few there were unfortunately many mistaken ones; and these were not the ones which she cherished least. Hence it happened that she would either take as good what was not so in reality, or use means which were apt to have the very opposite effect to her intentions, or think some of these means legitimate when they were not so at all, all from a vague presumption that those who go beyond their duty can also go beyond their rights. She often tended either not to see the realities of a situation, or to see realities that were not there at all; and made many other similar mistakes which can and do happen to all, not excepting, the best of us; thought with Donna Prassede they were apt to happen far too often, and not infrequently all at the same time.

All agreed that was the conversion of the Unnamed was most remarkable:

As one member affirmed:

One would be tempted to say that the marriage [at the end of the betrothed ones] was the happiest moment, but for me it was anti-climactic. I would say the Unnamed’s conversion was for me the happiest, most uplifting part of the novel, showing the possibility of change and redemption. At first, I was skeptical that his conversion was real, as it seemed to be brought on by the fear of death; as the old saying goes, there are no atheists in the foxholes, but such fear-inspired conversions often lack commitment. But as the novel moved along, it became clear that the Unnamed’s conversion was heart-felt and real.

Another member summed it all up:

There are so many maxims that I loved, but I chose this one because it satisfies the reader as well, in speaking of the satisfaction of all these groups. There is a hint of irony without bitterness, insight into motives without ridicule, and hints at the far-reaching diplomacy of the actions of Fra. Cristoforo, without diminishing his honesty or goodness.

“The family were satisfied, for they came out of it with honour; the friars were satisfied, for they had saved a man as well as their privileges without making any enemies; the experts on chivalry were satisfied, for they saw an affair of honour ending in a proper way; the people were satisfied, for they saw a man they liked get out of a difficulty, and at the same time had a conversion to edify them; finally, satisfied more than anyone else, in the midst of his sorrow, was our Lodovico, who was about to begin a life of service and expiation, which might, if not repair, at least atone for the harm he had done, and deaden the intolerable pangs of remorse.”

With these words from the conclusion of The Betrothed, let me recommend you take it up at the beginning.

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[1] No pestilence is without some relief; generations of mothers, nay centuries of them, are relieved that now we children are washing our hands, as they tirelessly admonished us to.

[2] Reported by Archibald Colquhoun, Manzoni and his Times (Dutton/Dent, 1954) p.203. At the hostel in Verona, I found the young keeper had come to love it in school.

[3] Readers considering The Betrothed, might seek either the old Everyman or the newer Penguin translation. Because the (1997) reprint of Colquhoun’s Everyman translation, edited by David Forgacs and Matthew Reynolds, adds Manzoni’s History of the Column of Infamy, an anthology of criticism, and more notes than any edition in English I know of, I favor it. For a glimpse of the valetudinarian life Manzoni conducted, read Natalia Ginzburg’s The Manzoni Family.

The featured image is “Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken” (between 1497 and 1499) by Josse Lieferinxe (d. 1508) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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