Bandits! Plague! Sundered lovers! War! Famine! Subpar bread quality! If there is a disaster that can be thrown at the characters in Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (trans. Bruce Penman), you can guarantee he will throw it at them. Fortunately, this makes for a hugely enjoyable and only slightly overstuffed novel. Despite being an absolute whopper (I think it comes in at around 750 pages), I read it in well under a month – which, given that my reading time is limited right now because work is so busy, is pretty good going. The Betrothed is regarded as a contender for most read Italian novel of all time, and with good reason. It’s an adventure story, set in the 1620s, published between 1840-1842, and translated in 1983. I’m glad I put it on my Classics Club list, and even gladder that the most recent Classics Club spin prompted me to pick it up.

Rather like The Name of the Rose – the other book which lays claim to the title of bestselling Italian novel – this is presented as a translation of a found manuscript. The two central characters, the eponymous betrothed, are Renzo and Lucia, peasants who live in a mountain village in the Duchy of Milan. At the start of the story they are on the eve of getting married. However, Lucia has caught the eye of local rogue and nobleman Don Rodrigo, so he threatens cowardly local curé Don Abbondio until he backs out of conducting the wedding. Don Rodrigo’s plan is the straightforward one typical of many abusers: ruin Lucia’s life so comprehensively that he’ll seem like a welcome protector. However, he doesn’t count on Lucia’s genuine devotion to Renzo nor his to her, nor Lucia’s canny mother Agnese, nor the involvement of kind and wise monk Father Cristoforo. The book is basically about this little group as they attempt to outwit Don Rodrigo so that Renzo and Lucia can marry and settle down – attempts that end up taking them all over the Duchy of Milan in a daring battle of wits and courage.

The plot chugs along at a remarkable pace. It would be easy for a novel of this length to feel slow or ponderous, but apart from a brief dip in the middle, this kept me engaged the whole way through. I was particularly impressed with how well action scenes were described – I often find it hard to follow them, but I thought that Manzoni was skilled at placing the reader in the centre of the action and allowing her to understand what’s going on. Given that so many of the action scenes took place in moments of great confusion (e.g. in a riot, or a festival) this is quite the achievement. I also didn’t feel that any knowledge of the relevant history was needed in order to follow the story – I know nothing about Italy’s history in the 17th century (for instance, it was only through reading this novel that I found out it was a Spanish colony at the time), but I felt like Manzoni dropped in all the information I needed to understand what was going on. The settings are vivid, especially the scenes in the city of Milan, and I definitely felt transported to the time and place.

This has all the hallmarks I love about this era of storytelling: asides from the author, digressions to follow up a minor character’s backstory, vivid descriptions of people and scenery. For example, we spend a day in Milan during a bread riot. Manzoni goes into careful detail about the history and context of the riot, the effects on different groups of citizens and nobles, city gossip during the riot itself. All this is only tangentially related to the plot, but it adds wonderfully to the overall story. At one point, we spend two chapters on the history of a character with very limited effect on the overall narrative. Either you love this sort of thing or you hate it. It’s absolute catnip for me, but I know it’s not for everyone. It’s very well-done, so if you like that style of storytelling, I think you will love this, but if you hate it, steer well clear. Similarly, he spends a whole chapter just dealing with the ways that various local authorities (none of whom are particularly integral to the story) dealt with an outbreak of plague. This had a lot of surprising resonance, especially when Manzoni details the way that conspiracy theories developed in response to people’s fear. (A common one at the time was apparently “someone has poisoned the pews”, an interesting forerunner of “it’s the 4G”). There are a lot of these digressions, of which these chapters on the analysis of conspiracies were the most interesting. To my amusement, Manzoni himself (or at least his narrator) actually comments self-deprecatingly on the digressions:

We will leave in as much as we have already written, so as not to waste the work we have put into it, but we will omit what follows, and get back onto the main road again – all the more so because we have a good way to travel before we meet any of our characters again, and a still longer way to go before we find them engaged in the matters that must surely interest the reader most, if indeed he is interested at all in what we have to say.

There were some strange translation decisions made that took me out of the story. The phrase “Tom, Dick, and Harry” is used on several occasions, and it doesn’t strike me either as a particularly Italian expression or a particularly 17th-or-19th century one. Overall the translation seemed very modern – sometimes ruining the effect. “Tom, Dick, and Harry” was the most egregious (and most frequent), but there were other instances as well (one character repeatedly says “when your number’s up”). Conversely, there are also places where it seemed dated. We’re meant to be rooting for Renzo, and he’s a character that overall I loved spending time with – but there are times when it doesn’t seem like there’s all that much room between him and Don Rodrigo. In particular, there are occasions when he basically manipulates Lucia into doing what he thinks is the best course of action. I think Manzoni’s argument would be that Renzo is thinking of Lucia while Don Rodrigo is thinking of himself, and that’s mostly true. It would a bit much to expect a book written in the 19th century, about the 17th century, to engage with issues around agency and consent in the same way a contemporary novel would. Because of this, I found I was able to root for the couple to outwit Don Rodrigo and get their happy ending, but there were still times when Renzo’s behaviour made me wince.

There are also spots where it gets highly religious – specifically, very Catholic – that I found rather hard-going. I would be interested to read the perspective of someone of a different faith or none here. To me, it felt like being taken out of the story, but it’s possible that there were just too many theological differences between myself and Manzoni. It’s also fair to say that, though I think Renzo, Lucia, and Agnese are interesting and nuanced characters, the nobles are much less so. They are either Very Good or Very Bad (and occasionally first one then the other). This gets a bit much in places. I do kind of understand: the character of the local nobles has a hugely outsize effect on Renzo and Lucia’s quality of life. It thus makes sense that a lot of time is spent on the subject. However, despite the fact that it makes sense, it’s still a bit grating viewed with modern eyes.

Despite all these issues, I suspected this was destined to become a favourite by about 40% in, and I was bang on. The central characters are fantastic. Because Manzoni spends so much time on all their various histories, they feel absolutely vivid and well-realised. Even Lucia (who spends the first part of the novel being a bit weak and watery, if I’m honest) comes into her own. If you like either adventure stories or 19th century doorstoppers – or, like me, both – this gets my very highest recommendation. You might want to consider a different translation, though, and I’m going to be buying one myself. There is a new translation by Michael Moore that has been much lauded. It’s expensive, but I enjoyed the book so much even in this underwhelming translation that I’m planning to buy a copy to put on my shelves (albeit maybe when the paperback comes out). After all, I anticipate many happy rereads in the years to come!