Is there a great Christian social novelist? The acknowledged masters—Dickens, Hugo, and Tolstoy—were geniuses with a certain respect for religion, but they weren’t orthodox. Graham Greene was interested in unsettled characters, alienated from society. Marilynne Robinson and Sigrid Undset’s books are fundamentally about family dynamics, and they deal with larger social issues through that lens. Dostoevsky is perhaps a better candidate, yet I think of him as a novelist of the anguished soul. My preferred candidate is Alessandro Manzoni, an Italian writer, scholar, and poet, who only published one novel. But what a novel it was.
Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi was written in the 1820s. It’s been titled The Betrothed in many of its English translations. It was renowned in the 19th century; Verdi called it a “gift to humanity” and dedicated his great Requiem to the novelist’s memory. In 1909, here in America, Charles W. Eliot chose it for inclusion in what became the Harvard Classics: the famous “five foot shelf of books” that Eliot intended to contain all that is needed for a liberal arts education. Yet Manzoni’s stock seems to have fallen in the English-speaking world over the last century. Penguin Classics keeps an English translation in print, but it’s hard to find much critical discussion of Manzoni. In Italian culture, his reputation is secure, although it seems the lengthy book is the bane of many high school students.
Perhaps some of our contemporaries find the plot too simple. The Betrothed is not the kind of story where the characters make a subtle psychological journey. It is, rather, an episodic historical fiction in a vividly realized setting. The heroes are Renzo and Lucia, the titular promised spouses, who live in a village on the shore of Lake Como. A powerful and dastardly noble wants Lucia for himself, and so he sends his goons to intimidate the village priest, who then refuses to perform the marriage. Renzo and Lucia have to flee the village, and they then have a series of separate adventures and meet interesting characters. The story carries them through some particularly tumultuous years in Milan’s history, culminating in the bubonic plague of 1630, during which Renzo and Lucia finally reunite.
More likely, it’s Manzoni’s overt piety that’s fallen out of favor. As a young man, Manzoni was an atheist, but he had the peculiar fortune to fall in love with and marry a woman from a Calvinist family. Soon after the marriage, she converted to Roman Catholicism, and it wasn’t long before Manzoni himself became a devout Catholic. The most heroic characters in The Betrothed are religious. Lucia’s faith is humble but deep: In every trouble, her first instinct is to trust God and ask for Mary’s intercession. Another major character, Father Cristoforo, is an energetic Capuchin friar who helps Renzo and Lucia early in their journey. Cristoforo’s story, relayed in a few chapters, is a study of how God can transform the vices of pride and anger into courage and zeal. And then there’s Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan, a real historical figure (and the nephew of St. Charles Borromeo) whom the characters meet along the way. Manzoni depicts Federigo himself as something close to a saint.
When I think of exemplary figures of holiness in other novels, I think of Dostoevsky’s Elder Zossima, or the bishop in Les Miserables. These men seem to be holy despite the church around them; they are solitary in their sanctity. In English literature not only are saintly figures rare but they are often not placed very high in the hierarchy: it’s almost a trope to hold up one particular good pastor as a standard by which the rest of the church can be criticized. Manzoni inverts this English trope: in The Betrothed, it’s the village priest who is a comical coward, and it’s the bishop who is saintly. And the novel doesn’t just hold up one good bishop as the counterexample to general ecclesiastical vice; Manzoni situates his figures of holiness in the context of the institutional Church. Cristoforo’s zeal for charity is limited by the orders of his superiors, who are perhaps a little more worldly than he is, and yet Manzoni never hints that this is a bad thing. Cristoforo welcomes the discipline of his Order; he knows that he needs it. And during the plague, Federigo Borromeo inspires the priests of Milan by his own example, so that only the priests and the Capuchins manage any real degree of self-sacrifice and service.
Yet Manzoni isn’t unrealistic about corruption among those religious in life. From this perspective, the high point of the book might be an extended conversation between Federigo Borromeo and Don Abbondio, the village priest who refused to marry Renzo and Lucia. At this point in the book, Federigo knows Lucia and Renzo’s story, and he wants to know why Don Abbondio hadn’t married them in the first place. Federigo speaks in the style of Catholic devotional writing: the kind of extended, theologically informed admonishments that you might find in a Newman sermon or in St. Francis de Sales’s writing: “Do you not know that to suffer for the sake of justice is victory, for us? If you do not know that, what do you preach? What instruction can you give? What good news do you proclaim to the poor?… You will be asked, one day, whether you have at all times used the resources that were in your hand to perform the duties that were prescribed to you—even when men of power had the temerity to forbid you to do so.”
Don Abbondio, on the other hand, comes off like one of C.S. Lewis’s more pitiably self-deluded characters, mired in self-justification and bad excuses: “So that’s how it goes!—thought Don Abbondio. […] all this noisy reproach for a half-lie, told with the sole object of saving my skin. But the people at the top of the tree are always in the right. It’s my destiny to get kicks from everyone, even from saints.”
And yet Federigo Borromeo’s gentle but piercing spiritual insight eventually has its effect: Don Abbondio feels “a certain dissatisfaction with himself, a compassion for others, a mixed sensation of tenderness and embarrassment,” which is perhaps a stage prior to true repentance, but a good state nonetheless.There are other moments like this in the book. Next to the saintly characters, the ordinary sinners look petty and foolish, because Manzoni understands the comedy inherent in all human endeavor, aside from obedience to God. And some of the funniest passages are ironic criticisms of the efficacy of government policy: most memorably, a section on Milan’s repeated but fruitless attempts to outlaw private mercenaries. As in any good 19th-century novel, there are fops and fools at all levels of society. But what doesn’t come in for ridicule is heroic sanctity. At the end of the book, the plague is devastating in Milan. The efforts of the monks and priests don’t do that much from a utilitarian perspective: the population of the city decreases by three quarters. But they pray and they serve, usually at the cost of their own lives.
Its wide sweep is what makes The Betrothed a social novel: It explicitly considers market forces, political motivations, class struggles, and other concepts that help answer questions about how a society works. Further, it’s a Christian novel not just because Manzoni believes Christianity is true, but because he is concerned to show what organized Christianity can be at its best: suffering with an afflicted society, not as individuals who happen to be especially devoted, but as part of the church’s institutional life. Finally, it’s a great novel because Manzoni writes with art, wit, and wisdom. I’ve found nothing else like it in literature.
[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]