To deal with the topic of how the Italian cultural tradition influenced Victorian fiction would require not a single volume but a series of books each of which would need to concentrate on a different aspect of a phenomenon that is complex and variegated. From an extraliterary perspective, we could say that Italy has always been not only a cultural influence but a magical place from which the English imagination has always derived creative inspiration. For this reason, it has become a mental landscape, a mirror-like image, where many writers and poets have recognized their own artistic identity. And in close approximation to this idea of the country is that of the Grand Tour. 1 Italy, in other words, became an essential destination for all those who recognized in her culture and above all, in her art and monuments, the culminating moment of their artistic apprenticeship and cultural-ethical development. And in this specific context we must also mention the role played by the Italian countryside, that same countryside visited by the English artists of Victorian England that was seen not so much as a wonderful and picturesque environment but as something that answered their need for freedom and liberty. As E. M. Forster has demonstrated, artists were well aware that only through physical contact with the Italian scene could they realize their deeply-felt vocation for spiritual freedom. As a result, Italy became also a metaphor of life, a secluded and well-defined entity capable of bringing to fulfilment one's own grand design of life. As Goethe writes at the end of his fascinating Italienische Reise (1777), 'after all, life [is] a Roman carnival that cannot be embraced all at once, nor can it be entirely enjoyed, being, as it is, full of dangers [. . .]'. 2 It is clear that, by referring to the Italian influence on the Victorians, I am well aware that, especially in the Nineteenth century, there was a rich cultural and literary exchange between the two countries and as such the English influence on Italian literature was just as evident. It suffices to mention Scott, Jane Austen, Dickens, Wordsworth, and Browning, and above all, from a more general angle, Carlyle. Of course, in my paper, my attention will be focused on the textual presence of Dante in some of Gaskell's works, without excluding, however, some reference to other significant Italian authors. I am fully aware that I run the risk of omitting a great deal of pertinent material but I am equally aware that my task is not to exhaust the topic but merely to suggest some ideas that might be fruitful for future studies.
Granted that the debt which all world literatures have towards Dante is great, I believe that the best manner to introduce the divine Poet is through Carlyle. He more than any other Victorian figure is responsible for the diffusion of Dante among the English intelligentsia of the Nineteenth century. Naturally, before Carlyle we should mention Hazlitt and Coleridge, as well as Byron, but, as everyone knows, it is Carlyle who in Heroes and Hero-Worship ("The hero as Poet"), most emphatically assigns the Italian poet the place of honour in his special grid of evaluation of world literature. It is only Dante's greatness that can compete with Shakespeare's: 'Italy produced the one-world voice; we English had the honour of producing the other'. 3 Coming from a reader who, though acute and knowledgeable, had a weak grasp of the Italian language, this statement is rather hyperbolic:
[. . .] Dante speaks to the noble, the pure, the great, in all times and places [. . .] Dante burns as a pure star, fixed there in the firmament, at which the great and the high of all ages kindle themselves: he is the possession of all the chosen of the world for uncounted time. (Carlyle, V, p. 100).
Published in 1841, Heroes and Hero-Worship is an important landmark in the diffusion of Dante in England not so much because it presents the poet as hero but more simply because it assigns a primary importance, far exceeding that of any other poet, to the voice of Dante. He is seen as the absolute standard to be followed in order to judge human culture and morality. Superior to Shakespeare, Dante appears to Carlyle as the model and archetype of a regenerated humanity. As C. P. Brand has noted, '[. . .] Carlyle praises Dante both for the penetration of his moral understanding, but also for the sharpness and accuracy of his physical portraits and scenes [. . .] The gift of accurate representation of a thing is linked in Carlyle's judgement with correctness of moral perception [. . .]'. 4 What I would like to underline briefly at this point is that Dante as a hero presented by Carlyle was not - nor could have been - the authentic Dante as represented in the various authoritative studies of the Nineteenth century: Carlyle's Dante is primitive, the poet's greatness is founded exclusively in conciseness and 'sincerity of speech'; he does not take into consideration the linguistic complexity and the formal arrangement that are the foundations of the entire corpus of Dante. But Carlyle, after all, is only following the lead of his contemporaries: Hazlitt had noted that the poet combined 'severity' of style to depth of 'sentiment'. And Ugo Foscolo, in 1818, in the Edinburgh Review, had written that '[Dante] unites perspicuity with conciseness - and the most naked simplicity with the profoundest observation of the heart'. 5 In Hero and Hero-Worship Carlyle maintained that the extreme immediacy and intense realism of The Divine Comedy were due to the fact that the poet had written 'with his heart's blood' (Carlyle, V, p. 90), driven by an impulse verging on vengeance against those who had plotted against Florence. In the final analysis, the Scottish thinker's reading of Dante seems to be that of a romantic who, looking back at the Middle Ages, yearns for a kind of order that is no longer possible.
From a purely hermeneutical point of view, Carlyle's assessment presents a problem of a philological nature. It is more than probable that Carlyle read The Divine Comedy in translation, 6 but even if he had read it in the original language, it would have been impossible for him to evaluate it critically in all its nuances. Dante often becomes an unsurmountable obstacle to native speakers and scholars and it is not hard to imagine how this difficulty most certainly must have conditioned Carlyle's reading. Nevertheless, notwithstanding these linguistic complexities, Carlyle had a major role in the promulgation of Dante's vision, and by this I mean the Poet's universality and perennial relevance. What has interested the romantic and post-romantic sensibility is not so much the formal design of poetry but its scenes and characters. Presumably Carlyle's strong predilection for the Inferno derived from his taste for captivating vivid images, from the tragic and solemn utterance, from the shadowy recesses of the underground world that exhibit the human specimens symbolizing sin and human weakness. 7 For these reasons, Carlyle judged the Inferno as artistically and morally superior to The Purgatorio and The Paradiso. It is no accident that in the first chapter ("Midas") of Past and Present (1843), after having described the pitiful condition of the workers, Carlyle wrote: 'There was something that reminded me of Dante's Hell in the look of all this; and I rode swiftly away'. 8 And in the same volume Carlyle refers to the episode of Count Ugolino in order to emphasize the famine that was widespread in England during that time:
At Stockport Assizes [. . .] a Mother and a Father are arraigned and found guilty of poisoning three of their children to defraud a 'burial society' of some 3l. 8s. due on the death of each child [. . .] Yes, in the Ugolino Hunger-tower stern things happen: best-loved little Gaddo fallen dead on his Father's knees! (Carlyle, X, p. 4)
These are the pictures that Carlyle transmitted to Victorian sensibility - strong images that, at the same time, ended up by giving a grossly reductive interpretation of the greatness of the entire framework that supports the Dantean construction. The same could be said for the episode of Paolo and Francesca in the Fifth Canto of The Inferno. Carlyle was much taken by it. But long before, this story of the two lovers had already attracted the attention of Leigh Hunt, who in 1816 was ready to publish the poem The Story of Rimini, enlarging the Dantean episode, narrated in one hundred and fifty lines in the Inferno, into a text consisting of one thousand five hundred lines. But apart from this poem, which to a reviewer seemed characterized by 'indecent and immoral tendency', 9 Carlyle recognized in the Dantean love story a certain tragic passion fused with a spontaneous and natural sentiment of human piety:
I suppose if ever pity, tender as a mother's, was in the heart of any man, it was in Dante's. But a man who does not know rigour cannot pity either. His very pity will be cowardly, egoistic, - sentimentality, or little better. I know not in the world an affection equal to that of Dante. (Carlyle, V, 94-95)
Carlyle seemed not to be aware that in Dante, as Italo Calvino has recently pointed out, 'the weight of things is determined with precision'. 10 In other words, for Carlyle Dante was the poet who, in a very convincing manner, managed to portray human sentiments and feelings in all their overwhelming force, feelings that are 'fierce as the central fire of the world' (Carlyle, V, p. 101). This 'central fire' portrayed by Dante is the only rivalling concept able to compete with the solar vision that was introduced three centuries later by the Shakespearean theatre with its 'upper light of the world' (Carlyle, V, p. 101).
We have seen that in the "Proem" of Past and Present, Carlyle cites the episode of Ugolino as a striking and dramatic example of the suffering and pain brought about by hunger and starvation. Thus, this Carlylean interpretation can be easily recognized in the scene from Mary Barton when Elizabeth Gaskell invokes Dante to exemplify the wretchedness of hunger: 'Whole families went through a gradual starvation. They only wanted a Dante to record their sufferings' (MB, p. 96). 11 And, undoubtedly, the idea of starvation and horror brought to the very limits of human imagination is to be found in the episode of Count Ugolino, who, as Francesco De Sanctis has written, is 'the most eloquent and the most modern character of The Divine Comedy '. 12
It is the Dante of the Inferno that attracted the Victorian novelists who saw in this poem the reflections of those same struggles and passions that were re-elaborated in the European romantic tradition. But, together with strong feelings and sentiments, the Victorians discovered in the First Book a metaphor for the present - the Dantean dialectics involving social upheavals and political injustices seemed to parallel their own age of social unrest, economic transformation and cultural debate.
In this connection, it is significant that at the beginning of the Second Part of Cousin Phillis, before the introduction of Holdsworth, an engineer and figure of change and progress, Paul Manning discovers that his female cousin is intent on reading the Inferno: 13
I softly rose, and as softly went into the kitchen, and looked over her shoulder; before she was aware of my neighbourhood, I had seen that the book was in a language unknown to me, and the running title was L'Inferno. Just as I was making out the relationship of this word to 'infernal', she started and turned round [. . .]. (CP, p. 282)
To Paul Manning, who has no inkling of Dante or his poem, the title triggered a series of negative associations which seem to anticipate the story of suffering and disappointment that is to afflict Phillis. If the Inferno is the book that illustrates the sins of mankind and at the same time delineates a journey in the progressive awareness of the nature of Evil, it is equally true that it represents a poetic attempt to explain the purpose and final goal of human endeavour. Its great dramatic quality is generated by this noble aim. The fact that Farinata degli Uberti or Brunetto Latini are placed in the infernal circles despite their considerable importance as political and cultural figures, is not due to their total depravity but to some negative characteristic of their personality. It follows that the Inferno, with respect to the Purgatorio and the Paradiso, offers a wider gallery of figures, unburdened by their innocence, trying to rationalize the sense of human experience. And for this very reason, the Dantean reference may be connected to Phillis's gradual loss of innocence: from her life in Hope Farm to her experience in a world without hope.
Nor is Manning's association of the Italian language with the word 'infernal' necessarily casual. But it must also be said that Manning later associates Italian with Holdsworth, 'his hero', because the railway engineer is fluent in the language. One of Holdsworth's many merits is his knowledge of the language that Phillis struggles to comprehend by reading Dante.
"If, now, only Mr Holdsworth were here; he can speak Italian like anything, I believe [. . .] he's our head engineer. He's a regular first-rate fellow! He can do anything"; my hero-worship and my pride in my chief all coming into play. (CP, p. 283).
Clearly, the expression hero-worship is reminiscent of Carlyle. Paul Manning continues to portray Holdsworth in a rather exaggerated tone. He recounts when the engineer travelled extensively in Piedmont on account of his much-demanded skill. And he repeatedly stresses the fact that 'his hero' speaks a perfect Italian. Through the language, Manning subconsciously evokes a distant land, that in the heroine's imagination assumes a decidedly exotic quality. Italy and the Italian language thus become the first link between Phillis and Holdsworth. What results is a kind of indirect dialogue that, after the meeting of the two young persons, will again involve Dante and the Italian language.
It is, therefore, very significant that in his first visit to Hope Farm, Holdsworth, still convalescing, notices a copy of the Inferno, among the other books carefully arranged on the shovel-board. Manning is quick to underline that Phillis uses it to learn Italian. Holdsworth, at this point, cannot control his amazement:
"[. . .] Fancy her trying at Dante for her first book of Italian! I had a capital novel by Manzoni, I Promessi Sposi, just the thing for a beginner; and if she must still puzzle out Dante, my dictionary is far better than hers". (CP, p. 304).
I Promessi Sposi (1825-7; The Betrothed) is a love story that is finally consumed after many adversities more or less linked to historical developments regarding the early Seventeeth century. The Italian title refers to a promise of matrimony which, ironically, anticipates the unkept half-promise of Holdsworth. Four centuries divide Dante from Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873), who is practically a contemporary of Mrs. Gaskell. These four centuries are emphasized by Gaskell not so much as a chronological hiatus but more as a cultural gap - Phillis Holman, who hopes to learn Italian by studying Dante with the aid of an out-dated dictionary is completely unprepared to come to terms with the language of modernity - the world of technology and industry, the world of the railway and greater mobility that only with the advent of Holdsworth have timidly invaded the serenity of Hope Farm.
With his strong preference for Manzoni's historical novel 14 over The Divine Comedy, Holdsworth, after all, wants Phillis to realize that we all have our obligations to the present. He does not say that Dante is irrelevant, but merely notes that, linguistically, he is not the best guide for the girl. Always in tune with his time, Holdsworth knows that Dante is not the ideal text for a beginner like Phillis and he also realizes that Virgil's Georgics (37-30 B.C.) and Dante's Inferno do not account for the whole of the present culture. And his criticism of Giuseppe Baretti's dictionary, which he hastily confronts with his more up-to-date volume, is also indicative of his character. It is in this linguistic and literary context that Phillis's love first blooms:
That evening I had a little walk with the minister. I strolled along the Hornby road to meet him; for Holdsworth was giving Phillis an Italian lesson and cousin Holman had fallen asleep over her work. (CP, p. 305)
Briefly, then, the peaceful world of Hope Farm, in perfect harmony with nature and the cycle of the seasons, is not only 'invaded' by Manzoni but also by a new standard from which to observe the real. At the same time, from Reverend Holman's reductive and ingenuous perspective, Holdsworth seems also to revive the great classics, so much loved by the Hope Farm family simply because he has lived in places narrated by Virgil and Horace. The engineer is the man of experience who, unintentionally, with the help of Italian language and literature, introduces in the paradise of Hope Farm a way of thinking that, mutatis mutandis, we could define with Thomas Hardy 'the modern vice of unrest' 15 . This new outlook marks the end of a dream of order and permanent innocence, the end, that is, of the euphoric relationship that existed between nature and the individual. The railway, of course, puts an end to this illusion: it introduces a new kind of work force, an organization of labour that is quite different from that of the natural order that belonged to the rural world. In a certain sense, the railway and Manzoni demonstrate to the Hope Farm community that reality is no longer static but in a continual, frenetic movement directed toward a future of great promises and magnificent accomplishments.
What seems to emerge from a close reading of Cousin Phillis is the fact that The Divine Comedy is not just a foreign object quoted randomly to add lustre to the narrative but an essential element of the text. This functionalization is an important example of how Dante was perceived by Victorian writers. They did not passively imitate his moral lessons or repeat the same themes; on the contrary, they made use of his immense suggestiveness to comment on the actual state of affairs, on the emerging phenomena of industry, capital, and consequently, a radically new way of life. Their characters, though inspired by the Florentine poet, are never copies of the original.
Another important example of the influence of Dante is evident in the long short story A Dark Night's Work (1863), which, even though not always favourably viewed by the critics, remains in my opinion a fundamental work of Mrs. Gaskell. It deals with the role of a woman in a society that is still trying to define itself. In this story there is almost a repetition of the scene already briefly discussed in Cousin Phillis. In fact, with Ellinor Wilkins - a heroine closely resembling Phillis Holman - there is the same question of learning Italian through a reading of Dante. Early in the story we can see how much Ellinor suffers from guilt pangs and self-reproach for having refused to become engaged with Mr. Livingstone because she is sentimentally involved with another young man. In this context, her study of Dante could be seen as an attempt to escape from an oppressing/depressing present:
She made herself very miserable; and at last went down with a heavy heart to go on with Dante, and rummage up words in the dictionary. All the time she seemed to Miss Monro to be plodding on with her Italian more diligently and sedately than usual [. . .]. (ADNW, p. 48)
It is interesting to note how Ellinor's future is inscribed in the Italian language if it is true that her fate has decreed that she should go to Italy and visit Rome at the time of the unpredictable and splendid Carnival. It is barely necessary to repeat once again that her laborious reading of the Commedia is of little or no use to her during her Roman sojourn. And in A Dark Night's Work there is no Holdsworth to point out the uselessness of the Inferno with regard to the learning of Italian or that the dictionary being used is hopelessly out of date. A few chapters later, in Chapter 9 to be precise, Ellinor's governess insists that her pupil use the Dantean text: 'Miss Monro was, perhaps, very wise in proposing the translation of a difficult part of Dante for a distraction to Ellinor' (ADNW, p. 81). But to Ellinor, who is still much shaken by the crime committed by her father, the Inferno proves not to be a simple 'distraction' but a clear revelation of the idea that sooner or later one must pay for his evil deeds. There is no Holdsworth to comfort or at least distract the heroine; there is only a trip to Italy that enables Mrs. Gaskell to reminisce on her own inebriating experience of the Roman carnival. 16 Again, it is not by chance that Ellinor, amid the beauty and splendor of the Eternal City, for the first time, feels that she can forget the dark secret that belongs to her past: 'Ellinor had not been able so completely to forget her past life for many years; it was like a renewing of her youth; cut so suddenly short by the shears of the fate' (ADNW, p. 129).
It is not possible to give a detailed account of Ellinor's Roman experience here, suffice it to say that the scenes which describe the carnival in all its suggestiveness are the most memorable of the story. Gaskell succeeds in giving us the images of Rome as present icons of past glories: 'The crowd below was at its wildest pitch; the rows of stately contadini alone sitting immovable as their possible ancestors, the senators who received Brennus and his Gauls' (ADNW, p. 130). There is a Dantesque quality in the description with its throngs of human beings wandering around the labyrinthine streets resembling an underground world. From her privileged point of observation, the balcony of Via del Corso (1857), Mrs. Gaskell, like Ellinor Wilkins, had admired the frenetic euphoria of a crowd that, to her eyes, seemed to express a wild joy of being alive. This is the world that captivates Mrs. Gaskell. Before leaving for Italy in 1857, she wrote to Mrs. Story in February asking for information about the possibility of speaking French fluently. In the same letter she exclaimed: '[. . .] shall we truly see Rome? I don't believe it. It is a dream!' (Letters, no. 342, p. 445).
Ellinor Wilkins and Phillis Holman are two heroines who study Dante not only to learn Italian but also because it was considered necessary for the general education of girls at that time. It is not surprising, therefore, to find a third female character involved in the same kind of educational activity. This third protagonist is Margaret Hale, the heroine of North and South (1852-3), who, in my view, is the best example of Gaskell's concern to develop a character capable of evolving from a state of innocence to one of experience, from placid indifference to acute consciousness. Dante is invoked at key moments during Margaret's moral growth.
At the beginning of the novel, Margaret receives a possible suitor in her tranquil and silent world of Helstone. While Henry Lennox is left waiting in the small living room by a restless Margaret, he starts scrutinizing the room, and what immediately attracts his attention is a book on the table:
[. . .] it was the Paradiso of Dante, in the proper old Italian binding of white vellum and gold; by it lay a dictionary, and some words copied out in Margaret's hand-writing. They were a dull list of words, but somehow he liked looking at them. He put them down with a sigh. (NS, p. 23)
Margaret can only give her friendship to Lennox, but what should draw our attention is the association made between Helstone and Il Paradiso. This Dantean reference is, however, misleading. Behind the idyllic exterior of the landscape and an apparently peaceful domestic setting, lie several disquieting elements that create doubt as to the true felicity and naturalness of those opening scenes. We can see the theological and moral doubts of Reverend Hale, Margaret's father, who finds it difficult to belong to the Church of England. And, no less disquieting, the mysterious disappearance at sea of Margaret's brother, Frederick - a reality that can never be fully accepted by her mother who is doomed to live the rest of her brief life in anxiety and pain. One thing is certain, Dante's Paradiso is not the most appropriate symbol to represent an industrial reality that will meet the Hales. The green commons and forests of Helstone, together with the heroine's reading of Dante's Paradiso, are soon transformed respectively into the world of Milton-Northern and Paradise Lost, given the naming of the industrial town with its explicit allusion to the author of the epic poem. But despite this reversal, Margaret continues with her reading of Dante, so much so, that in Chapter 9 we are told of her express intention of reading 'a good piece of Dante' (NS, p. 75) on a daily basis. But it is no longer the Paradiso that is being studied but the Inferno, which seems more appropriate to her new environmental circumstances. The great city of the north appears, in her eyes, an infernal vision:
For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay. It was all darker from contrast with the pale gray-blue of the wintry sky [. . .] Quick they were whirled over, strait, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick. (NS, p. 59)
The emphasis should be placed on the word hopeless: as is written on the top of Hell's gate 'lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'intrate' (Inferno, III, 9 - 'abandon every hope, ye that enter'). 17 The entrance to the industrial city seems just as forbidding. Its sheer negativity is intensified by the idea of a whirlwind that sweeps the group against its will, over the 'streets of regularly-built houses'. The verb whirl is a direct allusion to the Dantean 'whirlwind' and this link is made explicit by Margaret in Chapter 44:
'[. . .] I am so tired - so tired of being whirled on through all these phases of my life, in which nothing abides me, no creature, no place; it is like the circle in which the victims of earthly passion eddy continually. I am in the mood in which women of another religion take the veil [. . .]'. (NS, p. 400)
Before the happy ending that seems to resolve the social and individual dilemmas, Margaret experiences a moment of extreme dissatisfaction which culminates in a crisis of identity. At that moment, the heroine articulates all the anxiety of a life that seems to evade her - 'so tired of being whirled on through all these phases of my life'. This state of utter alienation and passivity is given its full force by the Dantean image of the two lovers, Paolo and Francesca, being the victims of the whirlwind constantly transported from place to place, against their will:
La bufera infernal, che mai non resta,
Mena li spirti con la sua rapina;
voltando e percotendo li molesta. (V, 30-33).
['The hellish storm, never resting, seizes and drives the spirits before it; smiting and whirling them about, it torments them'.] 18
Without quoting from Canto Five, the words of Margaret express what is going on in her interior world since she is obsessed by 'a sense of change, of individual nothingness' (NS, p. 400) and cannot cope with the situation on her own. As we all know, Margaret succeeds in overcoming her moment of crisis and she solves all her problems by marrying Thornton, the young industrialist who, in his turn, will solve his economic problem thanks to Margaret's inheritance. But the main concern of this paper is to underline the role played by the Dantean references in determining the reader's response to the narrative text.
In closing, I would like to mention the episode in which Margaret shows remarkable composure in lying to the police inspector in order to protect her brother. This is another crucial moment of the novel in terms of the conflict experienced by the heroine between moral rectitude and daily expediencies. Even here we find an apt quotation from Dante, but this time from Vita Nuova:
E par che da la sua labbia si muova
Uno spirto soave e pien d'amore,
Chi va dicendo a l'anima: sospira! (NS, p. 277)
[And it seems that from her lips there comes to life / a soft spirit, full of love, / saying to the soul: 'Breathe!'] (my translation)
The title of my article refers only to The Divine Comedy, but I intentionally wanted to conclude by quoting from a work of Dante that is not usually conducive to an intertextual reading even though La Vita Nuova was glorified by the Pre-Raphaelites and, in particular, by the poetry of Christina Rossetti. What I would like to emphasize once again, after this brief Gaskellian excursus, is how the shadow of Dante is, at the same time, a clear example of what has been defined as the art of allusion, and a prime example of how the reader is invited to reflect upon the morally formative function of all great literature.