The prolific novelist Anne Manning (1807-79), best known for the diary novel The Maiden and Married Life of Mary Powell, Afterwards Mistress Milton (1849), produced a number of gently controversial novels over the course of her career, of which The Duchess of Trajetto (1863) is one. The Duchess was one of the small cluster of historical novels, beginning with Harriet Beecher Stowe's Agnes of Sorrento and George Eliot's Romola, inspired by the Italian Risorgimento. A number of Anglo-American Protestants believed--understandably, but, as it happened, incorrectly--that the Risorgimento heralded a revival of the Reformation within Italy, and their novels turned to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to reinvestigate the Italian Reformation's initial failure.
The heroine of The Duchess is Giulia Gonzaga, with special guest appearances by Cardinal Ippolito de Medici, Sebastiano del Piombo, Vittoria Colonna, Bernardino Ochino, and Juan de Valdes. Although the opening, which dumps the reader directly into Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha's attempt to kidnap Giulia, seems to set up an adventure tale, the plot rapidly tails off into a straightforward conversion narrative. Giulia "had not the faith which saves" (222), the narrator tells us, and the narrative dwells on Giulia's own laughable attempts to convert her Muslim servant to Christianity; similarly, her would-be lover Ippolito de Medici, who "believed in nothing" (175), gets nowhere with a Jewish physician, Bar Hhasdai. In fact, the novel winds up having harsh, or at least cool, words for most of its attempted Reformers. Vittoria Colonna is a pure, devout woman, but rejects Reforming opinions in the end (263), while the novel's historical appendix denounces both Ochino and Peter Martyr for having "left the sheep, and fled" (277). By contrast, the rather flibbertygibbety Giulia undergoes an authentic conversion experience at the hands of Juan de Valdes--skipping the bit about how Giulia spent the last three decades of her life in a convent--and winds up a thorough-going Protestant. Her conversion derives from de Valdes' insistence on loving all things "for the sake of God" (254), "love" being the key to Giulia's earlier lack of saving faith; the true sign of her conversion comes at the end of the novel, when Giulia's will orders her heir to free her Moorish slave, Cynthia, without looking into the possibility that she might have been in league with Barbarossa (271). This decision enables Cynthia to reconcile herself to Giulia's memory on the grounds of their mutual "love" (273), and the reader is probably intended to see Cynthia's breakdown as proof of her impending conversion.
Although The Duchess of Trajetto spends little time on theological disquisition, it does insist that early modern Catholicism was not only an entirely degenerate affair, but also that it shared in the brutal violence of its opponents. Thus, while the opening invasion appears to cast the Ottoman Empire as the dreaded heathen Other, Cynthia's and Bar Hhasdai's personal narratives promptly undercut this account: both Cynthia and Bar Hhasdai come from families that were forcibly and horrifically ejected from their homes as a result of the Reconquista. Understandably, neither one feels much in the way of affection for Christianity. Manning uses Bar Hhasdai's story to attack a number of anti-Semitic beliefs currently in circulation, including the recently-revived interest in the blood libel (76). Similarly, Cynthia becomes a vehicle for denouncing superficial attempts to interpret disasters in providential terms: when Giulia suggests that Cynthia's translation from a Muslim to a Christian household must, after all, be a "great mercy" (11), Cynthia firmly replies, "'No, [...] I do not feel grateful that I was torn from my home and country, and that my father was cut down on his own doorstep, and my mother dragged along the ground by the hair of her head" (12). (Giulia, not getting the point, insists that perhaps this might be a case of a "blessing in disguise" , and is then reminded that Giulia herself does not seem to interpret the current invasion that way.) These attacks on Christian anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic acts are not intended to make the reader believe that remaining Jewish or Muslim is a viable position; rather, they are part and parcel of the novel's conversionist project, intended to make the reader understand that, again, "love" is the cornerstone of evangelization, not horrific persecution. For example, when Bar Hhasdai offers up a parable to explain why Jews do not convert to Christianity, the Cardinal accepts his reasoning, but the narrator coolly observes that "in fact, it was very superficial" (71); moreover, a footnote dismisses the Mishna as a "bold imposture" (118).
The narrator's interjection highlights one of the more striking things about the novel's practice: its refusal to let the reader be fully engaged in the story as such. Manning involves a number of distancing strategies to remind the reader that the story is being told in the present, and that the narrative is derived from texts and objects accessible elsewhere. To begin with, the narrator goes beyond the usual moralizing to be downright condescending, especially about the decidedly flighty Giulia--who cannot help complaining that Cynthia has provided "only slippers" (11) for their escape from Barbarossa. As a result, Giulia's final flowering into exemplary status feels like an afterthought, especially because the novel usually asks us to recognize ourselves in the characters only as a dissuasive move (don't do that). In addition, the narrator frequently yanks us back to "now": she jokes about Elizabeth Barrett Browning (120) and the Pre-Raphaelites (105), criticizes (the unnamed) biographer William Roscoe's attitude to the Medicis (63), and twice sends the reader off to the National Gallery to see paintings of Giulia and the Cardinal (45, 106). Occasionally, the narrator quotes directly from the sources, whether sixteenth-century or Victorian. Moreover, the narrative actually climaxes in the production of a text that had been translated into English for the first time in 1861, Juan de Valdes' Alfabeto Christiano. In effect, the novel makes no attempt to hide its Victorian bookishness.