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Introduction to I Promessi Sposi

by Rafael Sabatini

The writing of introductions of books that have stood the test of time has always seemed to me something in the nature of a presumption.

Unlike the professional man, who, having passed an examination and taken a degree, may thereafter teach or practise what he has learnt, the author sits for examination throughout his career, and often it is not until long afterwards that he ultimately graduates or fails. But his examiners are not the professional critics, or the usually letter lights of literature who write introductions to his books. They are the general reading public of his own and subsequent times, with whom no amount of praise can establish the inept, and from whom no amount of censure can exclude the worthy, a public whose choice is not to be guided, whose verdict, inevitably just in the end, is not to be constrained. If you consider the literature that has survived of all that has been written in the past, and survived, remember, solely because of the public demand in which it has persisted, you realize that of nothing is it so true as of authorship that vox populi, vox Dei.

This test of merit Alessandro Manzoni's great historical novel, I Promessi Sposi, has stood. Widely read and widely translated in his own lifetime, praised by Goethe as the perfection of its kind, and by Sir Walter Scott as in point of excellence above any of his own works, it found no merely ephemeral popularity. Published a century ago, it has been and is still being persistently read in Italy by each succeeding generation. Allusions from it are among the small currency of Italian daily intercourse. Perpetua, for instance, as a term indicating a priest's housekeeper, has passed into the language, and is used in this sense even by the illiterate, who have no knowledge of the original Perpetua and who have never read, possibly never even heard of, Manzoni.

No more than this need be said to show the fitness of a version through which English readers may become acquainted with this Italian classic. Various English translations have been published in the past. Copies of these have become extremely rare. Moreover, the texts are slip-shod, and do no sort of justice to the graceful original. In the present version more care has been exercised, with the result that it is easily the smoothest translation that has yet been place before the English reader.

I Promessi Sposi is the only novel from the pen of a writer very prolific in other directions. Himself belonging to the school of romanticism, founder, indeed, of that branch of it known as the Manzonian, it was natural that much being attracted to prose narrative he should have chosen the historical novel as his vehicle of expression. Having done so once, however, and despite the warm commendations of Goethe and Scott, he abjured it altogether, denouncing it as a hybrid which confounded the properties of history and fiction.

The reason for this is, I think, to be perceived in the work itself. Had Manzoni persevered, it is probable that he would have discovered the way more closely to interweave the history of the times he was reconstructing with the characters in the narrative of his own invention. It was not the confounding of the two properties which caused his dissatisfaction, but the failure to confound them closely enough, so that they should become indivisible. In The Betrothed the history and the fiction remain to some extent in different compartments.

That the reason he gave for his renunciation was fallacious, is readily perceived. Properly considered it will be seen that all novels must blend fact and fiction, for all fiction&151;saving the transcendental kind—must of necessity be based on fact. It can matter little for the purposes of the art whether the facts are historical—in the sense of belonging to the past—or contemporary. The historical novelist studies the past; the novelist of actualities studies the present; each sets down the types he sees, builds upon the incidents he observes, be it at first hand or at second. It is difficult to see why a transaction in the London of Elizabeth or the Milan of St. Charles Borromeo, should be more of a hybrid of fact and fiction, or less entertaining and instructive than a transaction in the Rome of Victor Emmanuel III or a marriage-tangle in the Mayfair of George V.

Those who read The Betrothed may well deplore that Manzoni should have reached a conclusion which prevented him from enriching the world's literature with further romances of its kind.

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