How The Leopard changed its spots by Griselda Heppel

I’m finally getting round to a book I should have read long ago. It’s one of the world’s great classics and I’m slightly embarrassed not to have tackled it before, especially as so many people have told me how brilliant it is.

Set in Sicily in1861, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa is a powerful account of the Italian Risorgimento through the eyes of Prince Fabrizio Salina, whose coat of arms provides the book’s title. But rather than a blood and thunder depiction of Garibaldi’s arrival with his 1000 Redshirts, followed by the collapse of the Bourbon royal forces under his swift onslaught, the narrative concentrates on the effects such huge social and political upheaval had on the Sicilian class system, still largely unchanged since feudal times. Accustomed to a power over household, lands and the local populace that Henry VIII - no slouch himself when it came to autocracy
No slouch to autocracy: Henry VIII
- might have envied, Prince Fabrizio finds himself 
forced to bow to expediency, voting for the Unification of Italy against the interests of his own class, and dealing with the unsavoury, corrupt, fabulously wealthy-through-illicit-means Don Calegero, several rungs beneath him on the social ladder.  Politically astute, the prince does these things to survive. ‘Everything must change in order for everything to remain the same,’ is the most famous quotation from this book.

To my surprise, The Leopard is a terrific read. All that everyone has said about it is true.

So why the surprise?  Well, when I said I’d never tackled it before, that wasn’t quite true. A long time ago, in my gap year, I spent a couple of months in Florence learning Italian (mainly by way of articulating ice cream flavours and trying not to be accosted in the street). Somewhat ambitiously, I borrowed a copy of Il Gattopardo from the library but got no further than the first few pages. Not just because the language was difficult; if the story had grabbed me I’d have persisted, or at least switched to an English translation. No, it was the character of the prince himself that disgusted me, in particular the cruel, disdainful way he treated all the women around him. A hero who behaved like this was one I wanted nothing more to do with. And this was decades before #metoo.

Now, taking The Leopard up again, I was prepared to find my rudimentary Italian of the time at fault. Surely Salina couldn’t have been as bad as all that.

Oh yes, he could. I hadn’t grasped the half of it. In the first 20 pages, he terrifies his grown-up children into quaking submission, while a timid gesture of affection from his wife prompts him to call publicly for his carriage late at night in order to visit a brothel, leaving the hysterical Princess alone and pleading from the bedroom window. At the brothel, Marianina, blank-eyed and worn out by over use, duly obliges, poverty and social inferiority giving her no other choice. Both her miserable situation and his sad, neglected wife’s give the prince a brief twinge of conscience, but not much. I very nearly threw the book on one side all over again.

But I didn’t. And reading on, I realised what Lampedusa was doing. He allows his hero to behave this way not because he finds it admirable, but the opposite. Significantly, Salina never again shows such heartless brutality as in these first pages; rather, he develops as an intelligent, reasonable, even kind landlord who doesn’t hound his tenant farmers for their rents and tries to persuade them to give the new regime their mandate, knowing it will be the worse for them if they don’t. By creating such a rounded portrait, Lampedusa shows how power corrupts even the most decent, humane, magnanimous spirit; the prince is a tyrant to his wife, family and underlings because he can be. I expected The Leopard to be a lament for a golden, paternalistic age; instead, while Lampedusa portrays the new nationalist government as hypocritical and corrupt from the word go, he is equally clear-eyed about the flaws of the system it is replacing.
Garibaldi, red-shirted hero of Italian Unification
The nobility, as represented by Salina, is an outdated, no longer fit for purpose ruling class, whose rigid hierarchical structure becomes the cause of its own demise. The prince scorns his own children, whose apathy and weakness he compares unfavourably with his nephew Tancredi Falconeri’s brave and sparky personality. The fact that Tancredi’s fatherlessness has allowed his spirit to grow free and his ambition to soar escapes the Prince, who has successfully crushed all individuality and purpose in his own sons and daughters. Planning a brilliant political career for Tancredi, the prince dismisses his smitten daughter Concetta as a possible bride because her timid, submissive nature would always make her a ‘leaden weight at her husband’s feet.’ Yet who has forced this ‘submissive nature’ on the girl but the prince himself?

Oh, and there’s also that small matter of Tancredi having to marry money - a lot of it - since before dying, his father managed to gamble away the entire Falconeri family’s wealth. Really, the nobility - a class to which the author himself belongs - doesn’t come out of the story very well.

While I wish I hadn’t left it quite so long, I’m glad I didn’t force my 18 year-old self to continue reading The Leopard (bad enough having to do that with Middlemarch, a book I’ve never learnt to love). I’m not sure I’d have got the subtleties at that age, and fear I might have fallen for the easy, boyish, swashbuckling charm of Tancredi, just as his uncle does.

And I’m only half way through. Tancredi may yet develop into something more than a handsome figurehead for the old aristocracy, surviving by allying itself to a voracious, politically aware, ruthless nouveau riche in the form of the beautiful Angelica Calagero.

I’m not holding my breath.


Yes, Griselda, it's a great novel!
A good example of the vagaries and vicissitudes of publishing also.
I wrote a blog post for Authors Electric, "Fending Off the Next Dark Age", in May 2012, citing Lampedusa's struggle to see this novel published:

'Lampedusa was reading the rejection letters from the leading 1950s Italian publishers for his novel, THE LEOPARD, while on his deathbed.
“Too old-fashioned,” an editor wrote to the dying Lampedusa.
“This novel is not publishable,” said another.
Wonderful last words to read for Lampedusa, about the only novel he ever wrote.
But were the editors right this time?
No, Lampedusa’s novel, THE LEOPARD, published posthumously in 1958, became the top-selling novel in Italian history, never out of print since its publication, and also regarded artistically as one of the greatest ever Italian novels.'
“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”
Neither the prince, nor Tancredi, nor Angelica of course, can escape that vortex in the end...
Bill Kirton said…
Ah, Griselda, you stir memories of a me I used to be. One of the 'learned' articles I wrote as an academic arose from a colleague in the Italian department at Aberdeen university suggesting to me that, being a '19th century specialist' and lecturing, amongst others, on Stendhal, of whom Lampedusa was an admirer, I might find it interesting to write an article comparing the two. The result was a piece called 'Stendhal, Lampedusa and the Limits of Admiration'. (Prétentieux? Moi?) I remember little of it now, but I did find the parallels between 'The Leopard' and 'Scarlet and Black' very striking and I loved reading both.
Ann Turnbull said…
I read The Leopard when I was far too young, and although I enjoyed it I had no idea what it was really about. Must try again now - and your review will help, Griselda. Thank you.
As for Middlemarch, it's wonderful (though it does having boring bits) but it's not for an 18-year-old!
Umberto Tosi said…
A fabulous review of one of my favorite, yet most difficult to stomach novels. The Leopard certainly resonates in our times when an old, corrupt plutocracy attempts to put it's lickspittle-polished boot on our collective neck in desperate resistance to change - for better or worse - already greasing their skids. The Leopard is all the more troubling because of its subtext that the more things change the more they remain the same.
Griselda Heppel said…
Wow, lots of comments, thank you all! I am thrilled to find so many Leopard fans, and moreover ones not put off by my arguably modern reflections on it. What a great book it is because its observations are timeless - as Umberto points out, its political and human message is as relevant to today's problems as it was to the time in which it's set. And as you say, Umberto, that wonderful aphorism can be turned on its head - 'everything must change in order for everything to stay the same' can = nothing ever changes.

I'm ashamed to say it's so long since I read Scarlet and Black, Bill, that I can't immediately think of the parallels but I'm sure there must be, in the social revolution Julien Sorel embodies (my main memory is of him constantly getting into scrapes with women... Well, Salina would envy him that).

And no one would publish the novel initially! Hard to believe when to us its brilliance is so blindingly obvious. Tragic that Lampedusa never saw success in his lifetime.

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