Friday, February 24, 2017

Marietta: A Maid of Venice by F Marion Crawford

Much as I approve of the Victorian era in theory, I have to admit that in practice, I usually don't enjoy Victorian novels. (Unless they're by Anthony Trollope, and he is a different story). Recently, however, I decided to read F Marion Crawford's 1901 historical romance, Marietta: A Maid of Venice - and enjoyed it much more than I expected.

In 1470 Venice, the glassmakers of Murano enjoy a privileged position. Their social status permits them to intermarry with the nobility, and it's forbidden to teach their trade to foreigners, which ensures that the secrets of fine glassmaking never leave the lagoon. These two privileges benefit the wealthy Angelo Beroviero, a glassmaker who plans to marry his daughter Marietta to the young patrician Jacopo Contarini - but they pose a significant challenge for his young servant, Zorzi the Dalmation. Despite the law, Zorzi has learned the craft of glassblowing while assisting Beroviero, and has become a truly great artist - but being a foreigner, he'll never be able to go into business for himself, or to win the hand of Marietta, whom he loves.

When Beroviero sends him on a secret mission to Venice to arrange a meeting between Marietta and her intended husband, Zorzi stumbles upon a secret society and sets in motion a chain of events that threaten his whole future - his work, his love, and even his life.

Looking back, I can acknowledge that this story has its faults. The plot is not particularly tight, and some of the supporting characters are either underused or cartoonish. Contarini's villainous mistress, Arisa, is particularly deplorable - she's depicted as "savage" based purely on being Georgian and female.

But is that any worse than writers today who would depict her as being inherently righteous based purely on the same factors? More and more these days I'm finding I can identify the culprit in a murder mystery or guess the outcome of a sci-fi drama, just by ruling out the Minority Representation Characters - the real villain is never going to be the Moor, or the homosexual, or the difficult-to-communicate-with aliens. It's time we stopped evaluating moral worth based on social identity, and started evaluating it based on actual moral worth defined by Scripture.

Which I felt was actually something that Crawford overall did right; Arisa's character stood out as an aberration, a generally careful author falling into laziness. Because the main thing that impressed me about this book was how carefully and thoroughly it challenged the oppression in Renaissance Venice.

I recently read another book set in Venice, a twenty-first-century YA novel, and that one was very hamfistedly passionate about how badly women were treated in this time and place. I did not expect to find an author in 1901 getting passionate about the very same issues. Marietta, the title character, like every other girl in Venice, is expected to marry the man her father picks out for her. And if she refuses or disgraces herself, she'll be locked up in a convent whether she wants it or not. Crawford emphasises, again and again, the fact that Marietta is privileged to have a decent father who loves her and will listen to her, even as he takes for granted his right to dispose her life for her: many Venetian women didn't even have that much, and nobody thought twice of disposing them in the way that would be most profitable. 

The book was a breath of fresh air. Followers of this blog will be aware of how irately I react to hamfisted feminist critiques of past social eras. Too many ignorant feminists want to depict the entire past with a paint roller instead of a pencil. Any culture prior to 1960 (or 1980, or 2010) was a time of partriarchalist misery for women, right? Wrong: you can't just assume that every single person in every past culture in every part of the world believed the same thing about women. They were different. Some of them were quite good for women; many European cultures in the High Middle Ages, for instance. Some of them were terrible. Renaissance Venice seems to have been one such culture. And yet, the feminist answer is to say that men are baaaad, and women are goooood, and call for the latter to band together in a sort of revolution against the former.

The Christian answer is that men and women are bad and good, and that the line between good and evil goes right through the centre of every human heart; and that that is the great dividing-line, not the difference between the sexes. Men and women are allies in this fight. This is the truth that Crawford expresses in his book. Marietta's fight against the injustices her society imposes on women is a mirror of Zorzi's fight against the injustices his society imposes on foreigners. When Marietta finally confronts her father, she's described as "fighting for the liberty of her whole life". I was cheering all through the scene because it was such a brilliant picture of how Christians defy authority: with reason, respect, and love. Marietta is having no more of her father's nonsense, but she refuses to respond with fussiness, entitlement, or self-pity. It was great.

This book was all about patriarchal oppression, but I've rarely read anything less feminist. I loved it.

In addition, I really enjoyed how vividly the book was written, and the convincing detail about the art of glassmaking. Though not without flaws, it was a thoroughly enjoyable, informative, and stirring read.

Find Marietta: A Maid of Venice on Amazon, the Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.


Andrew of the House of Lacey said...

Sounds great, Suzannah!

I always growl slightly whenever I start detecting the putrid odor of feminism in a book. It IS a refreshing breath of literaturish air to find a book about the issues that feminists hate, and yet not feministic itself. I will look into.

Geybie's Book Blog said...

I'm a contemporary girl but I'm planning to read classics. Thanks for sharing. You really inspirasi me. :)

Joseph J said...

Identity and victim politics are supposed to be the antidote to negative stereotyping and misogyny, but they are really just a variation of the same problem. Its result of intellectual laziness. We want to be able to judge people easily and divide the world into black and white factions like a moral cheat sheet. Reality is so much less predictable and so much more interesting.

The best writers are able to judge people as individuals and show the complexity that exists within types and cultures.

Joseph J said...

"Its *the* result..." Unintentional irony.

Andrew of the House of Lacey said...

Yes, it was very good. I thought Zorzi's portrayal of courage was top-hole; his polite conversation with the masked conspirators was almost enough to label this book a swashbuckler. :)
There were times when I thought the author was in danger of painting the father (Beroviero) as a bit of a buffoon though. He only seemed to avoid this by managing to highlight his good qualities, strongly and often.
The doorkeeper's character, brought to life about half-way? through, added a vibrant zest! I think he must surely win Best Supporting Character. Hands down and with a profusion of profanities regarding the other contestant's extended family connections! (Wasn't entirely sure what to make of that aspect.)
So overall, I was highly impressed.

Have you read A Single Shard? If I remember correctly, that tale has a similar story-line to this, but is set in China.

Suzannah said...

Andrew, I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I wish it had been either a little more swashbucklery or a little more grounded, but that's just pickiness. Overall it was good fun. And thanks for the recommendation: I haven't heard of the book, but I'll keep an eye out.

Geybie, thanks for commenting and enjoy the classics!

Joseph, in a way I thoroughly agree with you - the answer to Group A saying "Group B is nothing but criminals of the blackest dye!" is certainly not for Group C to rejoin "Group B is nothing but saints of purest sheen!" In another way, I think that "conservatives" too often expect healing without reparations, and make this argument as a way to wriggle out of their obligations. In a family, when people squabble, it doesn't help to just brush stuff under the rug. Repentance and restitution is sometimes necessary. :-)

Andrew of the House of Lacey said...

Venice seems to have maintained pretty strict rules against non-citizens. I recently watched The Merchant of Venice with my family, (creepy film) but mildly interesting for its portrayal of antisemitism. It was recommended to us by someone who said it was a great example of the greed, cunning, and cruelty of the Jews.

-uh, come again-

But I was struck with the similarity here regarding harsh laws against all people who were not Venetian. If you were a Dalmation, you couldn't be a potter, if you were a Jew, then you couldn't obtain justice in the courts.

CVL said...

Thanks for this recommendation. I will check it out for my blog.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! You've got me wanting to read another famous (or frequently-encountered?) author, I've never yet tried!

Speaking of Victorian novelists, I'd be interested to read your reaction to Charles Kingsley's Hypatia, someday! (I suppose there are various historical novels which include St. Augustine as a character... I wonder if it was one of the first?)

Reading Victorian historical novels brought me to Alfred Duggan, who as a modern historical novelist got asked to write the introduction to a reprint of John Henry Newman's Callista (which I also very much enjoyed, though you might not find its method characteristically 'novelistic'!).

Your saying, "Marietta,[...] like every other girl in Venice, is expected to marry the man her father picks out for her" brought Duggan to mind, as his Leopards & Lilies is significantly about the radical importance of a mediaeval Christian woman's consent in marrying.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Suzannah said...

David, thanks for the recommendations! I don't read a lot of Victorian fiction (I eventually realised that I prefer medieval and early-twentieth-century stuff better) but I'll keep them in mind. And I'll certainly look up Duggan, he sounds very interesting!


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