Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Though he is almost forgotten today, the Romantic novelist Francis Marion Crawford, a Catholic convert, outsold his friend Henry James in the early twentieth century. Undergraduates at the University of Notre Dame in the 1920s devoured his novels, ranking him alongside John Henry Newman and Robert Hugh Benson. Russell Kirk was his Romantic disciple, and he endorsed Crawford’s novels as “handsome approaches which we traverse by owl-light” in a “fresh search for the wondrous.”

His bestseller Saracinesca, soon to be available in a new edition from Cluny Media, is both art and artifact. Set in Rome, it holds in its pages the last echoes of the era when “Viva Garibaldi!” and “Viva Pio Nono!” rang out in rivalry on the streets of the Eternal City.

Elected in 1846, Pius IX had to make a quick study of politics as the great powers around the Papal States struggled to maintain the geopolitical order known as the Concert of Europe. When King Charles Albert of Sardinia-Piedmont declared war on Austria in 1848, the Romans used the crisis to demand a democratic ministry in the Papal States. Pius IX and his government were forced to flee, and General Giuseppe Garibaldi was given command over the defense of Rome. A French army, deployed by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, forced Garibaldi’s troops to withdraw, and Pius IX and his government was restored. This detente in the drive for Italian unification and liberalization is the setting for Saracinesca.

Crawford wrote Saracinesca with the authority of an eyewitness. Born in Italy to American parents in 1854, he was raised in Rome’s Villa Negroni. The Crawfords’ landlord was Prince Massimo, a member of the black nobility—those princely Roman families who remained loyal to the pope. It was a different time: “People crossed the Alps in carriages; the Suez Canal had not been opened; the first Atlantic cable was not laid; German unity had not been invented; Pius IX reigned in the Pontifical States.” Romantic relations between men and women were hemmed in by the social construction of formal courtship and the practical construction of Roman couture. To sin against chastity is practical only in thought, not in deed, “when a woman of most moderate dimensions occupied three or four square yards of space upon a ballroom floor.”

Saracinesca is the first novel in Crawford’s Roman tetralogy, followed by Sant’ Ilario, Don Orsino, and Corleone. It follows Giovanni Saracinesca, the only son and heir to the millennia-old Saracinesca titles and estates. Naturally, he is the most eligible bachelor in Rome. His father, Prince Saracinesca, belongs to “the old, patriarchal class, the still flourishing remnant of the last generation, who prided themselves upon good management, good morals, and ascetic living.” He prefers manly activity on his country estates to gossip in Rome. His son’s disinterest in marriage exasperates him: “Would you have Saracinesca sold, to be distributed piecemeal among a herd of dogs of starving relations you never heard of, merely because you are such a vagabond, such a Bohemian, such a breakneck, crazy good-for-nothing . . .?”

Corona d’Astrardente is the most beautiful woman in Rome; Giovanni desires her because she is the one woman who cannot and will not rush into his arms. Crawford writes from experience. His teenage sweetheart was Lily Conrad, an American expat universally acknowledged as Rome's fairest young beauty. Corona, married to the wealthy Duca d’Astradente to save her father from financial disgrace, lives a lonely life of quiet piety and sacrifice despite her wealth, beauty, and position.

The antagonist of the story is Ugo del Ferice. He “represented the scum which remained after the revolution of 1848 had subsided.” A man of common birth, he flatters his noble schoolmates while making himself useful to the point where “it might be said that he was never missed, because he was always present.”

In the edges of the story moves the shade of the “red pope” Cardinal Antonelli, Secretary of State for Pius IX. One of the last cardinals created without priestly orders, his rise to power and endurance in his office provoked many jealous enemies to spread ridiculous rumors. They accused him of every sin and vice: an insatiable appetite for the sensual company of women, limitless greed unsatisfied by taking bribes and embezzling state funds, intentional violent cruelty toward children, a cultivation of occult powers that mesmerized the pontiff, and other ridiculous slanders that formed his black legend.

As the European powers from without and republicans and revolutionaries from within threatened the temporal power of the pope in the Papal States, Antonelli was Pius IX’s trusted advisor and chief diplomat. He had perfect manners, lived simply in the Vatican, worked tirelessly, and was devoted to his family. “The condition of our lives is battle, and battle against terrible odds,” Antonelli counsels Giovanni.

Russell Kirk likewise reminds us that men are put into this world to do battle, “to struggle, to suffer, to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves, and to aspire toward the triumph of Love.” Kirk loved Crawford’s stories because he recognized another great Romantic born out of his time. A Romantic conservative, Kirk spent his career defending the belief that the object of life is Love.

Crawford’s Romantic novels show us the rightly ordered relations of men and women enlivened by magnanimous love. Giovanni resists temptation and battles his desire for Corona, “for he loved her truly—and above all, he would do nothing to compromise the unsullied reputation she enjoyed.” Corona warns Giovanni that the only path to victory is in the sure knowledge that “the sin you see is real, but it is yet not very near you since you so abhor it.”

How near Giovanni and Corona come to their destruction is the great Romantic drama of Saracinesca. It is the dramatic struggle of all our lives, not only against flesh and blood, “but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places” (Eph. 6:12). Crawford did not write twee novels of manners. Crawford’s characters fight the temptations of power, wealth, and pleasure. They are novels of the virtue of fortitude, which is a spiritual weapon, as Aquinas teaches, sharpened by endurance and aggression. Because of this, Crawford’s novels ought to be remembered.

This essay is adapted from the introduction to a new edition of F. Marion Crawford's Saracinesca, forthcoming from Cluny Media on May 16. 

Stephen Schmalhofer is the author of Delightful People.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Image by Wikimedia Commons on Picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.  

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles