Vincenzo; or Sunken Rocks (by John Ruffini, 1863)
Mr. Ruffini has republished from Macmillan’s Magazine another of the stories in which he aims at depicting contemporary life in Italy as it is at the present day. The story has little interest in itself. It contains next to no plot or incident, and very little description of character; and if the real truth must be told, it must be described as dull. Notwithstanding this, it has merits of its own. It gives, with the vividness which novels only can attain, a picture of the practical working of the Roman Catholic system in Italy, and of the means by which both the temporal and the spiritual power of the Pope are kept up in the face of the advance of knowledge and liberty. For is reason it deserves notice, and will perhaps be worth reading.
Vincenzo Candia is the son of a peasant, brought up by a landed proprietor whose father had been himself a working man, and has made a fortune in America. The landowner, who throughout the book is described as the Signor Avvocato, intends his protégé to be a priest, and for that purpose sends him to a seminary. In process of time, Vincenzo comes to the conclusion that to be a priest is not his business, and he runs away with the intention of joining the national army in 1848. In this he does not succeed, but the attempt puts an end to his career at the seminary, and he is sent to ' arm to become an advocate himself. At Turin his liberalism is strengthened, he comes to be acquainted with one of the Ministry, and on his admission as an advocate receives a Government appointment. At about the same-time, or soon afterwards, he contrives to marry his patron's daughter, with whom from childhood he had been secretly in love. At this point his troubles commence. Rose, his wife, is a very beautiful woman, and, according to her own standard, a very good one. She had been piously brought up, and her greatest pleasure in life was to do her best to ornament the church of the villae to attend all religious services, and to follow submissively the directions of the clergyman of the parish. She was sensible, commonplace, straightforward, and obstinate, with a great gift for all matters of domestic management and a blind confidence in her confessor. After a certain period of happiness, Vincenzo goes to his official appointment at Chambéry, and of course takes his wife with him. He soon finds himself very uncomfortable. She is constantly out of temper, and keeps reproaching him with his allegiance to a Government which takes the liberal side, and legislates in a way opposed to the pretensions of the Pope. At last, by pleading her interesting situation in a forcible manner, she persuades him to give up his appointment and to take her back to her father's house. He stays there for a time in a state of excessive discomfort, and at last plucks up heart of grace, and so a he will go and practise his profession as an advocate at Turin. Rose's confessor persuades her that she would peril her soul if she went with him, and he goes without her. At this there is a terrible quarrel, but at last she and her father, by obstinate silence and neglect, work upon him to such an extent that he meekly returns to their house, where, having got him down, they naturally stamp upon him, inflicting on him every conceivable humiliation. At last the Signor Avvocato is struck down by a fatal illness, during which his son-in-law nurses him with the utmost kindness. The old man dies, and his daughter, won by her husband’s kindness and alarmed by an illness caused by it, treats him much more kindly, and appears to come round to a certain extent to his way of thinking. In this state of things occurs the French entry into Italy in 1859, and Vincenzo goes with his wife to Turin to help in what is going on. She sympathises with him cordially and treats him with the utmost affection until, unluckily for him, part of the Papal States unite themselves to Piedmont, and the Pope excommunicates all persons concerned in the impious transaction. When this is put before her by her confessor, Rose tells her husband in so many words that, in the last resort, her priest is first and her husband next, and that, unless he gives up Turin and the service of the Government, she will give up him. As there is a second baby just about this time, and as the first died at its birth, Vincenzo gives way, throws up his employment, returns to his wife's apron-strings, and writes a letter to the friend who had introduced him to public life to say that, though in a great crisis he would prefer his country to his wife and child, he cannot do so in common life:—
‘That a man’s duty to his country is absolute and exclusive of all other duties, I readily admit, but only in a few extreme and, therefore, exceptional cases. Let the country be in danger, the Austrians at the gate of the city . . . . and no citizen . . . has a choice but to fly to the rescue. But that in ordinary times and circumstances a man . . . should owe himself quand même to his country, . . . the assumption is evidently too excessive to be tenable. . . . I lay it down then as a rule that, setting aside a few extreme cases, whenever duty to one‘s country clashes with other duties, the decision as to which shall take precedence rests with the individual conscience. Now my conscience tells me that my withdrawal from office does not the least harm to the State, while my persevering in it inflicts a very serious one upon my family.’Acting upon these flabby principles, expressed in language equally flabby, Vincenzo resigns himself to the occupations of a nursemaid. He begins to educate his little daughter in liberalism, by teaching her to make nosegays representing the colours of Italy, to clap her hands at the flag of the National Guard, and to call the picture of Cavour her “great papa." This is the final result.
The author ought to know what he is writing about, and if this is a fair, or anything approaching in the slightest degree to a fair picture of the part which priests play in domestic life, it is marvellous that any nation should tolerate them, or should fail to open its eyes to the fact—which our ancestors clearly perceived some three hundred years ago, and which really is as clear as the sun at noonday—that the clergy are men like their neighbours, neither much better nor much worse that their character is derived from the nature of their pursuits and from their education; and that they have as much claim to supernatural or magical authority as lawyers or doctors, and no more. Until this doctrine has thoroughly sunk into men's innermost hearts, as is happily the case in England, anything like freedom, or those virtues which freedom produces, is impossible. Unless every father of a family is, within his own walls, prophet, priest, and king, to his wife for their joint lives, and to his children till they grow up, he is nothing at all. This is the peculiar blessing of married life— that which alone enables it to produce those results which may constantly be traced to it in this country. A divided conjugal authority is as good as none, especially if the division, allots to the husband the wife‘s temporal interests and to the priest her spiritual interests. There is and can be in reality no distinction between the two, and it is impossible to get a really conscientious person, who wishes before and above all things to do rig it, to recognise any such distinction. Every act of our lives is at once temporal and spiritual, and in every action that which would be described as the spiritual element is, in truth, the most important one. Shall I sit in this chair or that? That is the more comfortable, but in this I am likely to keep wider awake and do my business most efficiently. Shall I vote for or against the Inner Circle Railway? There is no doubt a right and a wrong in the matter if it could be found out, and it is certainly my duty to do my best to find it out. What is to prevent my confessor from ascertaining, by such a cross-examination as he may choose to employ, whether have done my best to find out how I ought to vote, and whether I have voted accordingly? Everything is a matter of duty if you choose to look at it in that light. No exertion of the intellect, the reason, or the imagination, is without a moral purport. Of course different minds recognize this fact in very different degrees. There is a point at which the most submissive penitent would draw the line. Probably the humblest of women would tell her confessor that she did not quite see how it was any business of his whether she sent her baby to bed an hour earlier or an hour later; and on the other hand, a man like William Conqueror was prepared to assert, and also to stand to and make good his assertion, that the way in which be governed England was his affair and not Hildebrand’s. But the difference is only one of degree and temperament. Once admit that there is any one in the world who is entitled to sit in judgment on the right or wrong of any act whatever, and to lay a conscientious obligation in respect of it on the agent, and it is impossible to exclude the possessor of such a power from any province which he chooses to occupy, except, indeed, by the exercise of that tacit scepticism which is the great protector of mankind against spiritual tyranny. In practice, every one draws a line somewhere--but if husband and wife draw it at different levels, an element of discord, between them is introduced, painful and wearing in proportion to the degree in which they are conscientious and high-minded. The simple inference is, that the same person ought to be husband and priest in every house. The separation of the two characters degrades each, and puts them into an attitude of irreconcilable hostility.
Mr. Ruffini writes for English readers, and perhaps this may give a certain colour to his novels, but they form a very pleasant contrast to French novels. This story is as good as possible, and gives the notion that the people to whom it relates lead a quiet virtuous life, and are full of natural affection and other simple virtues. On the other hand, it implies that they are a weak race. In the whole three volumes of Vincenzo there is not one thoroughly sturdy character. A fanatical priest and a crabbed old humorist show the greatest amount of vigour, but the hero is a coward in grain. If he could not guide his wife and lead her to better views he ought in the last resort to have had the spirit to leave her, and take her child from her to be educated according to his own views. If a man really wishes to serve his country, these are the kind of sacrifices for which he ought to be prepared. Anybody can get killed in a battle, but it wants some vigour of character to quarrel with your wife and break up your home rather than give up your own plans in life. Of course every way of avoiding such results should be tried, but if the worst comes to the worst, a man who cannot in the last resort do it is a wretched cur; and a nation of such men deserves to be, and will be, priest-ridden to the end of the chapter, however much infantine patriotism may be instilled into its babies.
Saturday Review, January 30, 1864.