I recently finished an English audio version of the 1828 Italian novel The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni on Audible. I first learned of this book—apparently the most famous and widely read novel in the Italian language—from a post by Joseph Pearce on the Imaginative Conservative website with the provocative title, “The Betrothed: The Greatest Novel Ever Written?” That caught my eye, because, as a somewhat educated person, I had never heard of it.
I also share all this information to distinguish this book from a much more recent young adult romance novel and two-book series of the same name by Kiera Cass. This is NOT that.
Instead, this is a wonderful historical novel set in the 1600s in Lombardy, Italy (pictured above), telling the story of two young, relatively poor, and essentially good villagers preparing for their much-desired marriage, and a cowardly priest who refuses them the sacrament after a tyrannous local lord threatens his life if he should join them. The fearful parish priest is balanced by two heroic clergy, a Franciscan friar who serves as a father and spiritual director to the pair, and the real-life Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, the heroic and holy archbishop of Milan, whose pastoral efforts bring about novel’s conclusion.
What struck me most about this novel is how timeless great literature actually is. The book is about many things, each as relatable today as in the time it was set and the time it was written, including:
- How the powerful work to stay in power, benefitting each other at the expensive of common folk
- How those with means and access can get away (sometimes literally) with murder, but those without are often pursued for every perceived crime, real or unreal
- How the right thing is often the hard thing, and no real hero can skate through life keeping his or her head down and avoiding conflict
- How revenge and charity cannot be nurtured together
- How distress can cause us make poor decisions and do foolish things—none of which can separate us from God’s love and goodwill for us
- How often a simple life is best and most desirable, how hard it can be to acheive, and how even that may be bittersweet in this broken world.
Be warned, it contains a fair amount of actual history and characters based on real people, with and without their real names, as well as detailed descriptions of the Italian countryside, castles and cities, significant events, and more. If you can pace yourself, Manzoni’s love of his subject matter is apparent, and you’ll come to love it too…but I may have been blessed to listen to some of the longer passages while driving, rather than sitting alone with them in silent study.
Perhaps the most striking chapters of the entire novel, given the time we are currently living through, is one of these historical sections, describing an outbreak of the plague in Italy during this period. Those in power were at pains to show themselves responsive and in control whether they were or not; people affirmed or denied the existence and the seriousness of the illness as most benefitted their situation; and horror stories, conspiracy theories, and scapegoats abounded while the real causes and effects of the illness were neglected.
Sound familiar? Nothing is new; history repeats—and we can, and should, learn from the past.
I appreciated Manzoni’s voice in all of this: authoritative and humble at the same time, with a wry sense of humor that softens the more serious and tragic aspects of the story, keeping hope always in view. His characters are well drawn and complex for the most part; the female lead and primary villain are the most stereotypically good and evil, but as such, they are solid contrasts for the other characters and their growth and development.
At its core, The Betrothed is a beautiful story of perseverance in one’s vocational call and God’s providential hand that rewards faithfulness. I enjoyed it very much and recommend it to you!