"The Marriage of Choice and the Marriage of Convenance": A New England Puritan Views Risorgimento Italy

By Lowenthal, David | Journal of Social History, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

"The Marriage of Choice and the Marriage of Convenance": A New England Puritan Views Risorgimento Italy


Lowenthal, David, Journal of Social History


American and European social differences are perennial topics of discourse on both sides of the Atlantic. Fascination with views from the other shore peaked in the early and mid nineteenth century, as the United States, avowedly demo-cratic and egalitarian, became a bellwether for Old World reform, while Europe reverted to post-revolutionary reaction. During these decades, Alexis de Toc-queville, Fanny Kemble, and Frances Trollope penned classic American pot-traits, and New World writers and painters toured Europe, envying Old World storied scenes yet disgusted by their ancient and enduring infamies. One well-informed and deeply enthralled American observer of Old World ways was Caroline Crane Marsh [hereafter CCM], wife of the newly-appointed American envoy to the new kingdom of Italy. Her Yankee-based reflections on manners and mores in the Savoyard court of Turin between 1861 and 1865 provide comparative perspectives on nineteenth-century social history unique for their topical range and insights.

In March 1861 President Abraham Lincoln named as envoy to the fledgling Italian nation the Vermont scholar and Italophile George Perkins Marsh [hereafter GPM], four-time congressman, former envoy to the Ottoman Empire, and staunch anti-slavery Republican. Accompanying Marsh to his new post were his semi-blind and invalid wife Caroline Crane Marsh, translator, poet, and essayist, and her young namesake niece Carrie Crane. They reached the Italian capital of Turin on June 6, three days after the death of prime minister Count Camillo di Cavour, the Piedmontese statesman whose consummate diplomacy, together with the armies of Giuseppe Garibaldi, had brought the Italian state into being. GPM remained American envoy to Italy for more than twenty-one years, a length of service unequaled before or since.

GPM's Italian perceptions are recounted in his thousand-odd State Department dispatches and in his essays and letters. (1) Here I focus on CCM's impressions, from the purview of her own New England upbringing and experience. Her views are reported in vivid and voluminous detail in diaries dictated to her niece during their four years in Turin, before the Italian capital was relocated to Florence and then to Rome. At the outset idealizing renascent Italian freedom, she grew exasperated by the gulf between rhetoric and action, but at length came to terms, if not into agreement, with modes of thought and behavior stemming from ingrained assumptions alien to her own. From narrator as Puritan moralist, CCM increasingly turned informant as participant sociologist. Her seventeen notebooks--a thousand typescript pages--are abridged in an Italian translation of 2004 but remain unpublished in English. (2)

CCM was a typical New England bluestocking of her time, but. little in her early career foreshadowed her extraordinary Italian diaries. Born in 1816, the seventh of nine children of a Massachusetts sea captain turned farmer, CCM at-tended and taught school in Providence, Middlebury and Burlington, Vermont, under the aegis of her brother Silas Axtell Crane, schoolmaster and Episcopai clergyman (3)In Burlington she met and in 1839 married the widower GPM, fifteen years her senior. With him she went to Washington in 1843 and to Constantinople in 1849, traveling extensively, despite being unable to walk, by litter through Egypt, Palestine, Germany, and Italy. Back in America after 1854 she learned and translated German and Swedish literature, notably the evangelical pastor Johann Christoph Biematzki's The Hallig: or, The. .Sheepfold in the Waters (1856), a devout romance set in an island off the coast of Schleswig, and Wolfe o} the Knoll (1860), poems by the Swedish Gothicist Bishop Esaias Tegner and others, along with her own, inspired by the German geographer Johann Georg Kohl's Marschen und Inseln der Herzogthumcr Schicswig und Holstein. Both works were highly praised by critics but proved commercial failures. Like CCM's diaries from the Levant, these books showed a gift for landscape and travel description but little of the deft social analysis that informs her Italian diaries. …

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