Day 13The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni
Chapter 9 (to end)
March 5, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
“The Signora, who in the presence of the seasoned Capuchin had measured her actions and her words, no longer worried once she was alone with the naïve peasant girl. The things she said became stranger and stranger. Rather than report them, we think it best to briefly relate the background of this unhappy woman.”
Finally we begin.
I hesitate to comment on this section of the novel, and allow the compassion it elicits to flow freely. Let me just add a couple of notes, one historical, one personal, as context.
In the few short years of his reign, Napoleon enacted reforms to dismantle the aristocracy that would long outlive him. The Napoleonic Code of 1804 abolished the right of primogeniture, by which the eldest son inherited all, and required that the estate be divided equally among the children. This reform would have benefited Gertrude and her siblings enormously. (By the way, the historical figure on whom she is based received a generous inheritance from her mother, which her father appropriated to pay off his debts.) Manzoni wrote his most famous poem, “Il cinque Maggio” [May 5], upon hearing the news of Napoleon’s death. It begins with two simple words: “Ei fu,” He was.
A personal memory: In 1983 I spent almost a year in Munich, where I had gone to learn German. I was a boarder in a large apartment with other guests, one of whom was an American woman that, in keeping with the novelistic convention, I will not name. We spent many long nights talking and trading information on things to do in the city on a student budget. One night she turned to me and asked, “Have you ever noticed anything odd about me?” I thought hard, not wanting to embarrass myself by saying something stupid. Then it came to me. “Well, you do talk a lot about your past, N***, but there seem to be a whole lot of years that are missing.” “I used to be a nun,” she replied. She then told me the story of how, as the youngest daughter in a large Catholic family, her mother had instilled in her from an early age the notion that she was to become a nun. She followed the path her mother had set out for her, taking her vows and joining the convent, until one day… I’ll leave that story for another day. What struck me about it, though, and what resonated with me so deeply in the tale that Manzoni tells, is the psychological coercion that a child is subject to, before the age of reason, in order to fulfill a parent’s dream.
“Words like these impressed upon the young girl’s mind that she was to become a nun.”