A Matter of Age

No wonder Jane Austen and her sister never married . If your imagination
keeps giving birth to amazing, charming, deserving young men, how can it be possible
to avoid the inevitable disappoint of harsh reality? Much better to end up an old maid.
Emma’s Mr Knightley is another Mr Perfect of Jane Austen’s fine gallery of men: rich, sensible, caring, sporty, quite the gentleman and if it were not enough, even handsome.
However, there is something not fully convincing about him, let’s call it a slight
imperfection especially at the eyes of a modern reader: the question of his age. At 37
he might be with reason considered too old as a life partner for Emma who is only 21.

In the previous post I explained Jane Austen’s choice of an experienced man at the side of her heroine with the necessity of a guide for a spoilt and still childish young woman
like Emma, and, of course, it has been rightly pointed out among the comments that such a difference of age in a married couple was not at all not something extraordinary at those times. By the way, the fact that this difference somehow mattered can be noticed in the passage where a possible attachment between Jane Fairfax, who is more and less Emma’s age, and Mr Knightley is talked of with positive remarks upon the whole, but for their difference of age, an issue that, of course, would have been easily overcome, considering who he was.

A modern reader might also turn up his nose at the point when Mr Knightley confesses he had been in love with her at least since she was thirteen. Thirteen?! Well then, when she was 13, he must have been 29, and nowadays there is a precise word to spot such an
interest toward a young girl and laws to protect her, but let’s leave this hero
safely to his time, we wouldn’t wish to ruin his impeccable reputation of righteous,
trustworthy gentleman. After all,these kind of matches did happen and even among well-known people. An example? Edgar Allan Poe.

If you are still wondering about Mr Knightley’s feelings toward a girl of 13, who was also his
sister-in-law, well, you should know that at the age of 26 Poe married his cousin,Virginia Eliza Clemm, and she was 13! Virginia was only seven years old when she met him the first time, that is, when her widowed mother Maria had then allowed Poe, who was 20 then, to stay with her family. Virginia saw her cousin with the girlish eyes of love and spent a lot of time with him. She even helped him in his love affairs delivering his letters of ardent admiration to a neighbor, until one day, his affections for her little cousin changed and decided to marry her.

Reality is always quite different from fiction. Of course, there was not the general approval at the announcement ( and if I do remember well, neither John Knightley was that enthusiastic once received the happy news from his  brother) as her mother Maria didn’t approve the match because of their age difference, and besides, Poe was practically penniless.  Regardless of family ‘s opposition, the couple did follow the example of many characters of Austen’s novels and eloped in Baltimore on September 22, 1835 to be married  in Richmond, Virginia, on May 16, 1836. The wedding was held at a boarding house, where the couple and Virginia’s mother stayed the night: a desperate attempt to preserve her daughter’s reputation.

What kind of marriage was it? Confused. The couple never had any children and it seems that their bond was more like brother and sister than husband and wife. By the way, Virginia adored him, but he was not indifferent to women’s charm and she was fine with it. Of course he was a women’s favourite. Poe’s friendship with the married 34-year-old poet Frances Sargent Osgood, for example, turned on the jealousy of another woman, Elizabeth F. Ellet, a fellow poet who had a crush on him, so that she started to spread rumors about their affair and Poe’s “lunacy.” The scandal which followed affected Virginia so deeply that on her deathbed she declared Elizabeth Ellet her murderer. Virginia died at the age of 25 of tuberculosis after 11 years of marriage and her afflicted husband “ used to cry over her grave every day and kept it green with flowers.”  It seems he had loved her very much, in his way, of course, which is not the way Jane Austen would have ever dreamed of, but it was intense, maybe selfish and desperately real.

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Mr Poe welcomes “the Betrothed Lovers” in the U.S.A.

bethrodedbethroted-5When Manzoni ‘s “The Betrothed Lovers” (I Promessi Sposi) landed in America in 1834, the book had already  become a hit in Europe. With more than 80 reprints in Italy and in Europe, “the Betrothed” had caught not only the attention of publishers and printers but also the praises of many illustrious writers of the time such as Mary Shelley, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, who had the fortune to know Italian and appreciate the book in the original language. The problem of the language employed by Manzoni  was no minor matter, as translators found it very difficult to interpret (as Italian students nowadays). That was one of the reasons why in England, for example, “The Betrothed” received bad reviews at first. For instance, on the «Foreign Quarterly Review» in November 1827  the reviewer smashed the novel with few words: «an indifferent novel written by a highly respectable dramatist» and  points out «the unnecessary and tedious minuteness of the historical notices with which it is interspersed». Certainly,  if “the genius of an author  is […] intimately associated with the genius and the very sounds of his language”, as Andrews Norton, another (bad) translator of “The Betrothed” remarked, it would be impossible to judge the necessary from the unnecessary and hence, the fortune of a book  would be entirely in the hands of translators.

bethroded4The Betrothed” was published in America on “The Metropolitan: a Miscellany of Literature and Science” in weekly installments in 1834 and translated by George William Featherstonhaugh (1780-1866), polygraph and English geologist who had emigrated to the United States. He also found the novel «exceedingly difficult to translate» and added that translating «such a work of pre-eminent merit […] is like attempting to paint the fragrance of violets and roses». However, Featherstonhaugh decided to handle the text in full, as he found impossible to clearly separate the dullest passages from “comic thoughts, and the finest touches of humor“. Even if there were no visible mistakes,  the style was too refined: vocabulary and syntax were actually Italian or Latin, therefore; far from current English. Such a choice would have been unpardonable for a fervent supporter of the “living and true language” as Manzoni was. In fact, Edgar Allan Poe , who had been commissioned the review of the novel, commented:

«We regret to say that the translation has many faults. We lament it the more, because they are obviously faults of haste. The translator, we fear, was hungry; a misfortune with which we know how to sympathize. The style is, for the most part, Italian, in English words, but Italian still. This is a great fault. In some instances it would be unpardonable. In this instance, perhaps, it is more than compensated by a kindred excellence. In a work like this, abounding in the untranslatable phrases of popular dialogue, it gives a quaint raciness which is not unacceptable.» 

Despite the many faults of Featherstonhaugh‘s translation, Poe was impressed by Manzoni ‘s masterpiece and his warm enthusiasm can be seen from the very beginning of his review:

«This work comes to us as the harbinger of glad tidings to the reading world. Here is a book, equal in matter to any two of Cooper’s novels, and executed at least as well, which we receive at the moderate price of forty-two cents!»

Even if he could not regard the novel “original” in the very sense of the word as ” the writer is obviously familiar with English literature, and seems to have taken at least one hint from Sir Walter Scott” Poe praises the perfection of the machinery of the story, which makes impossible and unworthy any attempt of summarizing it:

«Well! here is something that will stick by the ribs; a work of which we would try to give a sort of outline, but that it cannot be abridged. The machinery of the story is not intricate, but each part is necessary to the rest. To leave anything out is to tell nothing.»

bethroded2Unlike other critics of the time, Poe was not fooled by the writer’s Catholic attitude: “Manzoni was as much alive, as Luther himself, to the Church abuses of That.” But what particularly impressed Poe was  the author’s expressive power, which he wanted to give proof of, quoting entirely the episode of Cecilia’s mother and commenting: “There is a power in this to which we do not scruple to give great praise.” Of course, the description of the Plague in Milan in 1628, and the details of the “uncoffined bodies naked for the most part, some badly wrapped in dirty rags, heaped up and folded together like a knot of serpents,” and the “Monalti “  the men who,” having had the plague, were considered exempt from future danger, and were employed to bury the dead“, belonged much more to his taste and it seems to have strongly inspired his Mask of the Red Death and King Pest.

That was the beginning of Manzoni‘s fortune in America. The very same year another translation appeared in New York, but with a different title and more faulty than the previous one :” Lucia, the Betrothed” published by George Dearborn and translated by Andrews Norton. The blend of gloomy atmospheres and moral message succeed in touching many hearts. One of them, Charles Sumner, future American politician,was particularly struck by a scene where Fra Cristoforo asks the pardon of the brother of the man he had murdered and said: «The Pope should remit Manzoni ten thousands years trough purgatory in consideration of Fra Cristoforo and the Cardinal Borromeo. When I read the asking of pardon by Cristoforo, though I was in a public “vettura”, and albeit unused  to the melting mood, I yet found the spontaneous tear, the truest testimony to the power of the writer». Power which eventually managed to win over the ineptitude of his translators.