Giulio Malatesta (by T. Adolphus Trollope, 1863)
Mr. Adolphus Trollope has written Giulio Malatesta apparently with the object of showing what sort of evils induced the Tuscans to change, their government, and keep the Roman States in a condition of perpetual simmering discontent. The story begins at Bologna. Cesare Malatesta, studying there in 1828, persuades a beautiful girl, called Maddalena Tacca, to marry him by the process of waylaying an archbishop, before whom the parties declare themselves man and wife in the presence of two witnesses brought for the purpose, one of whom is, in secret, a lover of the lady. Malatesta, however, who is heir to a title and a large fortune, had no intention of really marrying the girl, and therefore took the precaution of providing that one of his witnesses (the reputed lover) should be under age, which, according to the Italian rules of evidence, made him incompetent as a witness. In due time the flaw in the marriage is discovered, and Malatesta shakes off his mistress, and dutifully marries another wife, of great rank and wealth, provided for him by his family. Maddalena Tacca, having had a child–Giulio, the hero of the story—is put into a convent to be kept till she is wanted. Twenty years then elapse, and in 1848 Giulio Malatesta comes to Florence with a friend, to keep the carnival. He is all courage, enthusiasm, black eyes, and hair to match, and he employs his time in making love to a beautiful young heiress, called Stella, who lives in the house of a Frenchified countess. They engage themselves secretly, for his illegitimate birth and want of prospects of course put her as much out of his reach as the moon.
Giulio returns after the carnival to the University of Pisa, in which he is a student, and then sets out with various friends in the University volunteer corps, which fought against the Austrians, and held them in check for some hours at Curtatone and Montanara—a delay which Mr. Trollope says was of great importance in the subsequent campaign. he corps distinguishes itself vastly, and various pictures are introduced of its different members —a Professor (the same who, in 1828, had been the incompetent witness to the sham marriage), various students, and a beautiful sister of the Professor's, who accompanies the corps in man's clothes, and is in love with one and oved by both of two brothers, one of whom is killed, so that the one that she prefers can marry her comfortably. Giulio gets a captain's commission in the Piedmontese service. In the meantime, Stella's family want her to marry the legitimate son of the Marchese Malatesta, which she refuses to do, and is put into a convent for her pains by a cruel uncle. There she stays for some time, and a good deal of convent life is described. At last she is brought back to Florence, to have one chance more given her of repentance, and just then Giulio returns in a triumphant condition, with full proof that the incompetent witness was of full age, and that he, and not his disagreeable brother, is the true Marchese. Thereupon, of course, he marries the lady; the abbess of the convent in which she was confined turns out to be his mother; the Pope releases her from her vows, and they all live together happily ever after.
Considered merely as a novel, Giulio Malatesta is as commonplace a book as could be mentioned, and the difficulty of reviewing it is to say anything about it except that it is a thoroughly commonplace novel. It belongs, however, to a variety of novels which is not perhaps quite the commonest sub-genus of that class of literature. It is one of those novels which stand in the place of a private journal—a receptacle for descriptions and special knowledge. It so happens that Mr. Adolphus Trollope has lived a great deal in Italy, and takes a special interest in its politics, and . novel is a sort of carpet-bag to keep his views in. Every turn of the story is contrived obviously for the purpose of getting an opportunity to describe an Italian university, or a convent, or the battle of Curtatone, or the carnival at Florence, or some old-fashioned dowager or cavaliere serviente who happens to have struck his fancy. It cannot be said that there is anything morally wrong in this. If a man likes to knit together a set of Italian recollections by a chain of Giulios, Cesares, Maddalenas, and Stellas, there is no great harm in it, though the absence of any artistic merit in the book is certainly a vexation to the reader.
A book which really did describe Italian life as it passed in the smaller Italian States might be a very great book, but it would require a considerable man to write it. Such a book as Giulio Malatesta is not to be mentioned in the same year with the Chartreuse de Parme, and it is vastly inferior even to Tolla. There is nothing really characteristic about the figures, except a few turns of expression, and particular little tricks. The hero is simply, the hero vulgaris melodramaticus of commerce — the man with the dark eyes, pale but healthy complexion, and slight and well-knit frame which gradually fills out, and all the rest of it, as the third volume wears on. The heroine is simply an English girl with an Italian name, and a particularly strong will. Mr. Trollope is so anxious that she and her lover should be happily married and settled, that he cannot think of drawing her as she really must have been. He wants to make her as lovely and engaging as he possibly can, and it never seems to occur to him that a charming young Italian, bred up in a convent, ought to think and feel like an Italian – at least that there ought to be a considerable difference between her and an Englishwoman. The Chartreuse de Parme is not a pretty story by any means, and it would require special acquaintance with Italy to say whether it fairly represents the state of things which it claims to describe; but whether it does or not there cannot be a question that it does describe something, and something quite different from what we are accustomed to. It is, so to speak, good on the face of it. There is that sort of difference between the behaviour of the parties at the critical points in the story and the sort of behaviour which might be expected in the natives of other countries, which would naturally be produced by a long reign of superstition and despotism. Mr. Trollope cannot rise to this. He has not sufficient faith in himself or in his readers to introduce real defects into the characters that he likes. They are perhaps a little too romantic and febrile, but that and the indispensable local colour form the only distinctions between them and ordinary English people.
Like many other novels, Mr. Trollope's book suggests several questions to the solution of which it contributes little or nothing. The most interesting of them is — What will Italians be like in future? They are in a fair way, it may be hoped, by some means or other, to get the Austrians out of Venice and the French out of Rome. They will then have undisputed possession of one of the finest countries in the world, and of one which has certainly been the scene of some of the greatest events of human history. It may also be confidently predicted that, when they have obtained this advantage, they will by degrees form a government suited to them, and that it will give them all the benefits which we understand by the words “good order.” They will have schools, and railways, and public companies, they will pay poor-rates and do away with brigands, a great extension of trade will take place, and it is not improbable that they will gladden the hearts of a large proportion of English people by emphatically clipping the Pope's wings in some way or other. In short, they will embrace progress and civilization. The question, what will happen then, is growing almost daily to be of deeper interest. When they are grown up men and women, instead of overgrown babies, what sort of men and women will they be? Of course the mass of them will simply be very common-place people—richer, less superstitious, perhaps rather quieter than their predecessors—and the tendency of all civilization is to increase the relative importance of the majority. The minority, however, will no doubt retain much importance, and will, as in former times, determine the position which the nation will occupy in the world, and the character of the influence which it will exercise over its fortunes. What sort of men will the remarkable Italians be, and what kind of things will they do? If we consider the past history of Italy, it would seem that they will be amongst the very foremost men in the world, and that they may produce incalculable effects. Popery has been for some centuries the bugbear of Protestant Europe, and if Italy were a great constitutional kingdom, full of railroads, newspapers, trade, and books, no doubt the Pope and the priests would fall to a remarkable discount; but what would come in place of them? Some excellent people believe that the Italian nation would sit at the feet of the Bible Society, and bring an Italian translation of the new version of the Psalms. It appears about as probable that they should all come and take lodgings in London. To suppose that, if such a nation throws off the old associations and institutions which have enabled its priests to govern it, it will see in the Thirty-nine Articles or in the English Bible a religious Rubicon, is simply childish. They may very possibly cease to be Papists, but what will they be instead? Those who remember how Italian doctrines have more than once affected the whole course of European history will understand the vast importance of the question.
Another singular problem, on which nothing but conjecture is at present attainable, is to be found in the question, whether the causes which in old times made the Italian race one of the governing races of the earth have ceased to operate? Will there be any more Romans, and Marsians, and Sabines? Have they utterly disappeared from the face of the earth, or have they been lying, like the Seven Sleepers, in an unnatural torpor produced by the arts of the enchanters who are now thrown down? How, when, and why the old population of Italy disappeared has always been a problem, solved not in the most satisfactory way even by the great historians who have discussed it. Is it utterly out of the question that they should reappear as the missing Ten Tribes are expected to do, and take their place once more in European affairs? There is not the least fear that in such an event they would endanger those who were once barbarians; but they would certainly change all old political combinations. They would vastly increase the strength of the Southern and Latin element in Europe, and—especially if the Spaniards, too, were to recover their strength—might check the excessive vanity of the French, and teach them that they are not the only, perhaps not the most remarkable, branch of the great Latin and Catholic stem.
Saturday Review, June 13, 1863.