The Betrothed Foreword

‘History may truly be defined as a famous War against Time; for she doth take from him the Years that he had made Prisoner, or rather utterly slain, and doth call them back into Life, and pass them in Review, and set them again in Order of Battle. But those braw Champions, that in such Lists doth reap the Harvests of Palms and of Laurels, may carry off in their Nief only the most pompous and grandiloquent of their Spoils, embalming in their Inks the Enterprises of Princes and Powers and such qualified Personages, and embroidering with the most delicate Needle of Wit the Threads of Gold and of Silk, that form a perpetual Tapestry of glorious Actions. But it is not lawful for my Infirmity of Genius to raise itself to such Arguments, and periculous Sublimities, with turning again amid the Labyrinths of Politic Devices, and the resounding of warlike Trumpets; yet having had news of some memorable Facts, though they did befall mechanical Folk, and of but small Account, I do now gird up my loins to leave some Memorial of them to Posterity, by making of all that did chance a sincere and genuine Account, or Tale. Wherein ye shall see in a narrow Theatre sorrowful Tragedies of many Horrors, and Scenes of Magniloquent Wickedness, with Interludes of virtuous Enterprises and angelic Goodness, opposed to those devilish Operations. And truly, if a Man consider that these Climes of ours doth lie under the Protection of His Catholic Majesty our Royal Lord, a Sun that doth never set, and that over them doth shine with reflected Light, as a Moon never declining, the Hero of noble Lineage who pro Tempore doth stand in his stead, and the most generous Senators as fixed Stars, and the other most venerable Magistrates as errant Planets that everywhere sheddeth their Lights, and thus portrayeth the Likeness of a most noble Heaven, no other causatory Reason can I find to see it transformed into a very Hell of tenebrous Actions, Wickednesses and Cruelties, which rash Men do daily multiply, save it be the Arts and dark Deeds of the Devil, seeing that human Malice by itself could never suffice to resist so great a Band of Heroes, who with Eyes of Argus and Arms of Briareus, goeth trafficking through the public Emoluments. Wherefore by describing this Tale which came to pass in the green days of my own Youth, notwithstanding that most of the Persons that therein playeth a Part hath vanished from this worldly Theatre, by making themselves Tributaries to the Fates, yet for certain worthy Respects, I will pass over their names in silence (that is the Families of which they were sprung), and likewise with the places of the Story, only indicating the Topography generaliter. Nor shall any man say that this be an Imperfection in the Tale, or a Deformity in this my unlicked Cub, unless indeed such Critic be a man who hath no Part in Philosophy; for those who are versed in that Discipline shall soon see that nothing be lacking to the Substance of the Narrative. For verily, seeing that it be a most evident Fact, and denied of no Man, but that Names are the purest of all pure Accidents …’

… but when I have laboured through the heroic task of transcribing this ancient story from its defaced and faded manuscript – when I have brought it to the light of day, to use the common phrase – who will labour through the task of reading it?

This doubt stole into my mind as I was wrestling with the job of deciphering a large blot which came after the word ‘Accidents’; I laid down my pen, and began to think seriously about what ought to be done. ‘It’s true enough’, I said to myself, leafing through the manuscript, ‘that the shower of conceits and tropes does not fall so heavily as this throughout the whole work. In his seventeenth-century way the worthy author clearly wanted to begin with a major display of his talents; but further on, in the main part of his narrative, his style follows a much simpler and more natural course, often for many pages at a time. But what a crude, graceless, faulty style it is even then! All those lapses into northern dialect, alternating with correct expressions used in the wrong sense; that arbitrary grammar, those disjointed sentences, those flowers of Spanish eloquence scattered here and there … But worst of all is what happens in the most horrifying or pitiful parts of the story, and at every opportunity to excite the reader’s wonder or give him cause to think. Such occasions do indeed call for a little eloquence, but it should be discreet, subtle and in good taste. This author, however, never fails to celebrate them with his own kind of eloquence, as exemplified in his prologue.

‘And then he shows a remarkable ability to combine the most opposite qualities, and finds a way of sounding both gross and affected on the same page, in the same sentence, with the same word.

‘It’s nothing but turgid declamation built up out of heavy-footed solecisms; and running through it all is that fatuous stylistic ambition which is so characteristic of the writings of the time in Italy.

‘This is really not the kind of thing to set before modern readers, who see through that sort of exaggerated stuff, and do not like it. It’s as well that the thought came to me before I had gone any further with this wretched job. I’ll wash my hands of it here and now.’

But just as I was closing the papers up to put them away, it began to grieve me that such a good story should remain unknown for ever – for I really believe, whatever the reader may think about it, that it is a good story; an excellent one, in fact.

‘Why not take the sequence of facts contained in this manuscript’, I thought, ‘and merely alter the language?’ There were no logical objections to this idea, and I decided to follow it. And that is the origin of this present work, explained with a simplicity to match the importance of the book itself.

But certain of the facts mentioned by our author, and some of the customs he describes, seem so strange and improbable, to say the least, that before putting our faith in them we wanted to hear other witnesses; and so we began to search among the memoirs of the period, to satisfy ourselves whether that was really the way things happened in those days. But our inquiries soon dispelled all those doubts; we found ourselves constantly running into things of the same kind, or even stranger. What seemed most decisive of all was that we found mention of certain persons whose names we had never previously encountered except in the pages of our manuscript, and whose existence we had begun to doubt. We propose to quote some of these other sources from time to time, to obtain the reader’s credence for things so strange that he might be tempted to withhold it from them.

We have rejected the language of our author as intolerable; but what have we substituted for it? That is the all-important question.

Anyone who, without invitation, takes it upon himself to redo another man’s work, makes himself liable to render a strict account of his own version, and indeed to some extent contracts a firm obligation to do so. This is a rule based on custom and right, and we do not wish in any way to claim exemption from it. On the contrary, by way of conforming voluntarily with the practice, we had originally proposed to provide a minute analysis at this point of the method of writing we have followed. With this object we constantly tried, all the time we were at work on the book, to imagine every possible criticism, whether essential or otherwise, that might later be levelled against it, meaning to rebut them all in anticipation. Nor was this so difficult a task in itself; for, to tell the truth, not a single criticism ever came into our mind that was not accompanied by a triumphant retort – the sort of retort that may not resolve the question, but makes it appear under a different light.

And often we were able to set two criticisms by the ears, so that each defeated the other; or we would establish and demonstrate by a careful examination and comparison of them both that though very different at first sight they were really both of the same kind, both springing from inattention to the facts and the principles on which judgement should have been based, so that we were able to pair them off (doubtless to their great surprise) and send them packing together. No author would ever have proved as clearly as ourselves that he had done his job well … But, then as we reached the point of bringing together all those objections and answers and putting them in some sort of order, we found to our horror that they added up to a whole book.

So we abandoned the idea, for two reasons which the reader will certainly approve: first, that a book written to justify another book (let alone the style of another book) might well seem a somewhat ridiculous undertaking, and secondly that one book at a time is quite enough, and may in fact be too much.