Saturday, December 23, 2017

Beatrice Cenci

At nearly the half-way point of Edith Wharton's novel, The House of Mirth, Wharton's makes mention of a "bronze box with a miniature of Beatrice Cenci in the lid".

"After luncheon, when Grace Stepney's prying eyes had been removed, Lily asked for a word with her aunt. The two ladies went upstairs to the sitting-room, where Mrs. Peniston seated herself in her black satin arm-chair tufted with yellow buttons, beside a bead-work table bearing a bronze box with a miniature of Beatrice Cenci in the lid. Lily felt for these objects the same distaste which the prisoner may entertain for the fittings of the court-room. It was here that her aunt received her rare confidences, and the pink-eyed smirk of the turbaned Beatrice was associated in her mind with the gradual fading of the smile from Mrs. Peniston's lips. That lady's dread of a scene gave her an inexorableness which the greatest strength of character could not have produced, since it was independent of all considerations of right or wrong; and knowing this, Lily seldom ventured to assail it. She had never felt less like making the attempt than on the present occasion; but she had sought in vain for any other means of escape from an intolerable situation."

Having never heard of Beatrice Cenci, I immediately searched the name in order to get a sense of why Wharton might make use of this bronze box in her description of Lily's conversation with her aunt.

Wikipedia describes Cenci this way.

"Beatrice Cenci (6 February 1577 – 11 September 1599) was a young Roman noblewoman who murdered her father, Count Francesco Cenci. The subsequent, lurid murder trial in Rome gave rise to an enduring legend about her. She was condemned and beheaded for the crime in 1599."

And according to historical accounts, Francesco Cenci abused his first wife Ersilia Santa Croce and his sons and raped Beatrice multiple times. This abuse eventually led to Beatrice, her siblings, and their stepmother bludgeoning Francesco to death with a hammer and throwing his body off a balcony to make it look like an accident.

The four members of the Cenci family were arrested, tried and convicted of the murder and sentenced to death.

Down through the centuries, Beatrice Cenci's tragic story has had an influence on literature and the arts. Many of the works are either not in English, or are unavailable at Project Gutenberg. However, I was able to download Les Cenci, a short story by Stendhal and The Cenci, an essay by Alexandre Dumas in Volume 1 of Celebrated Crimes.

I haven't yet decided if I'll read those before or after I read Wharton's novel, The Age of Innocence.

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