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Bills of Mortality

Disease and Destiny in Plague Literature from Early Modern to Postmodern Times


Patrick Reilly

Bills of Mortality: Disease and Destiny in Plague Literature from Early Modern to Postmodern Times explores the dynamic between the fact of plague and the constructs of destiny deadly disease generates in literary texts ranging from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. The volume is of interest to readers in both literary and scientific, especially medical, fields. In addition, it serves as an accessible introduction to plague literature and to the arena in which it has evolved since ancient times. To undergraduate and graduate students, Bills of Mortality affords an opportunity for scholarly engagement in a topic no less timely now than it was when plague struck Milan in 1629 or ravaged Venice in 1912 or felled Thebes in antiquity.
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Chapter Three: The Fourth Horseman. The Betrothed

← 40 | 41 → CHAPTER THREE


The Betrothed

So it is more useful to watch a man in times of peril, and in adversity to discern what kind of man he is: for then at last words of truth are drawn from the depths of his heart, and the mask is torn off, reality remains.


The 1827 publication in Italy of Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) proved to be truly a literary sensation, its two thousand copies—in three volumes—selling out in two months. Illustrated, set to music, scripted for puppet shows, adopted by schools, it won all manner of popular success, in no small part because it “create[d] a literary patria in the absence of political unity,” as Italianist Federica Brunori Deigan suggests: “Before becoming citizens of the same nation many Italians, from north to south, were able to enjoy a book whose subject—drawn from national history—and lexicon—echoing the spoken language—they could understand and appreciate” (19). An historical novel, its seventeenth-century substance and its Italian speech shared by the populace of a politically long-divided country, Manzoni’s opus inspired in its readers a new sense of national identity and destiny. It marked a literary achievement that was hailed by the writer-patriot Silvio Pellico as a “beautiful deed”: a work that can “educate the mind and refine the mores.”1 Then, too, it offered a rousing tale of romance and adventure.

← 41 | 42 → First published in 1827,...

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