I cannot remember where I first heard about this novel, but a year or so ago, I found a copy in a local charity shop, and it has been sitting patiently on our bookshelves ever since.

It tells the tale of Fibrizio, the Prince of Salina, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The Prince is the head of an ancient, noble family and still owns some splendid houses and thousands of acres of land. However, things are changing rapidly in the world around him. With Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily and the massing of the ‘red shirts’ (the beginnings of what became the Italian Risorgimento), the Prince has to decide whether to try to resist this great upheaval or to stoically accept the changes as they come.

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

The author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, was himself the son of the Prince of Lampedusa, and this semi-autobiographical novel is, in a way, a kind of eulogy to the dying breed of aristocratic Italians. The prose is rich, the settings old, grand and decaying.

To give you a flavour of the text, I have picked out a couple of representative passages, which both, in their own ways, evoke something of the glory but also the decline of the old families and their fading worlds:

The ballroom was all golden; smoothed on cornices, stippled on door-frames, damascened pale, almost silvery, over darker gold on door panels and on the shutters which covered and annulled the windows, conferring on the room the look of some superb jewel-case shut off from an unworthy world. It was not the flashy gilding which decorators slap on nowadays, but a faded gold, pale as the hair of certain nordic children, determinedly hiding its value under a muted use of precious material intended to let beauty be seen and cost forgotten.

In this passage, the young blood of the family – the Prince’s bold, headstrong but somewhat naive young nephew – is depicted dancing with his new wife, whilst the air of tragedy looms somewhere just overhead:

Tancredi and Angelica were passing in front of them at that moment, his gloved right hand on her waist, their outspread arms interlaced, their eyes gazing into each other’s. The black of his tail-coat, the pink of her interweaving dress, looked like some unusual jewel. They were the most moving sight there, two young people in love dancing together, blind to each other’s defects, deaf to the warnings of fate, deluding themselves that the whole course of their lives would be as smooth as the ballroom floor, unknowing actors set to play the parts of Juliet and Romeo by a director who had concealed the fact that tomb and poison were already in the script. Neither was good, each self-interested, turgid with secret aims; yet there was something sweet and touching about them both; those murky but ingenuous ambitions of theirs were obliterated by the words of jesting tenderness he was murmuring in her ear, by the scent of her hair, by the mutual clasp of those bodies destined to die.

These and other similar passages are highly emotive and lend the novel a certain gravity, yet there are also lighter moments, and the overall picture of Salina, its environment and its inhabitants, is very striking.

L. P. Hartley is quoted on the back cover of my edition, saying: “Perhaps the greatest novel of the century“. Now, I wouldn’t go that far, by any means, but it is a fine book nonetheless. Plus I can well imagine why it was so beloved by L. P. Hartley, as it deals with some of the key themes so important in his work, namely the decline of the old feudal system, great social change and the last days of the once noble aristocratic families.

So, if you liked this, you might also enjoy L. P. Hartley’s wonderful novel, The Go-Between, which is set during the dying days of the English aristocracy.