Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1573
First published: 1841 (English translation, 1853)
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Romantic adventure
Time of work: Early nineteenth century
Colonel Sir Thomas Nevil, an Irish officer serving in the English army
Lydia Nevil, his daughter
Orso della Rebbia, a lieutenant in the French army
Colomba della Rebbia, his sister
Lawyer Barricini, a blood enemy to the della Rebbias
When Lydia Nevil and her father, Colonel Nevil, first met Lieutenant Orso della Rebbia, they were impressed with the young man’s good looks and his obvious pride in his native Corsica. Although Colonel Nevil and Orso had been on opposite sides in the Napoleonic wars, each admired the other’s bravery and courage. The Nevils were on their way to Corsica when they met Orso, a trip they hoped would provide release from boredom for Lydia and good hunting for her father. Orso, a lieutenant under Napoleon, was going home on half pay now that the wars were over and his leader had been defeated.
A short time after the party arrived in Corsica, Orso’s sister Colomba joined them. From her and Orso, the Nevils learned the story of the della Rebbia family. The father had been murdered from ambush, and no one had paid for the crime. Colomba, however, firmly believed that Lawyer Barricini had been responsible for her father’s death; the two families had been blood enemies for generations, and she demanded that Orso avenge the death. Orso, having been absent from Corsica for many years, did not feel the old passionate hatred of his kin. He was satisfied that the law had rightly cleared Barricini, since there had been no proof that he was guilty of murder. Colomba, sharing the fiery passions of her ancestors, was determined that her brother should uphold the honor of their family. Lydia, on the other hand, pleaded with Orso to let the law settle such matters; she felt that to avenge the death would be to commit murder.
There had been evidence in the case, the bloodstained notebook of the murdered man, in which he had printed part of a name before he died. As mayor of the village, Barricini had impounded the book, and when it was offered in evidence, the name appeared to be that of a bandit in the district. Colomba believed that Barricini had torn out the original page and had printed the bandit’s name himself. No one believed her story except some peasant friends who were also bandits, and their testimony was of no value.
Orso and Colomba left the Nevils for a time and returned to their native village, and the colonel and Lydia promised to visit them later. Not long after their return, the prefect called on them and said that he had proof that Barricini was not guilty of the crime of which Colomba accused him. A thief, now imprisoned, had confessed that he had written a letter that had started the trouble between Barricini and the slain della Rebbia. Unimpressed, Colomba said that Barricini, fearing that she would prevail upon her brother to seek out their enemy and kill him, had no doubt bribed the prisoner to make a false confession.
The prefect invited Orso to accompany him to the Barricini house to settle the matter peacefully. The prefect, who also had a letter for Orso from Lydia, promised that he would hand over the letter when the young man made the call. The next morning, however, Colomba told the prefect’s servant that her brother had sprained his ankle; she asked the prefect to call at their home. When the prefect arrived, accompanied by Barricini and his two sons, Colomba confronted them with one of her friends, a bandit who said that he had been in prison with the thief supposed to have confessed to writing the letter. The bandit said that the prisoner had received many visits from Barricini’s son and that the prisoner displayed a great deal of money for one so notoriously poor. Convinced by this evidence, Orso accused Barricini of forgery, perhaps murder. He struck one of the sons and promised to seek true vengeance later. The prefect promised to investigate the whole matter and asked Orso to refrain from violence until the investigation was complete.
Orso wrote to Barricini’s son, however, and challenged him to a duel with guns. Barricini promptly sent the note to the public prosecutor as evidence that Orso had threatened his family. Orso then wrote to Lydia, whose letter to him had stated that she and her father were on the way for their visit, and asked the Nevils not to come until she heard from him again. He wished to spare them the danger of a feud. Learning that his letter had not reached Lydia in time, he proposed to intercept the Nevils on their way to the village.
In order to stir her brother to violence, Colomba slit the ear of his favorite horse. Convinced by his sister that his enemies had done the deed, enraged Orso swore he would avenge his honor, for to slit the ear of an enemy’s horse was a mortal challenge.
On his way to meet the Nevils, a friendly child warned Orso that his enemies were waiting to ambush him, but he refused to turn back. When he reached a thicket, he was attacked from two sides and injured in the arm. With one arm, he discharged his heavy gun twice and killed both of his attackers. Realizing that they were the two sons of Barricini, he knew that he would be arrested for murder. He took refuge with some bandits who were friendly to his family.
Lydia and Colonel Nevil, arriving in the village, learned of Orso’s disappearance, and they joined Colomba in fears for his safety. At last, the bandits sent word that Orso had escaped and was hiding with them. Believing in his innocence, Lydia convinced her father that Orso had only defended himself against his would-be assassins. In fact, Colonel Nevil told the prefect that he and Lydia had heard Orso’s gunfire twice after two lighter guns had been fired. The colonel’s reputation convinced the prefect that Orso had acted in self-defense.
Colomba and Lydia visited Orso in his hideout. As the two young people declared their love for each other, they were interrupted by the arrival of the police. Orso fled again. Colomba and Lydia were seized and returned to the prefect. By that time the prefect had proof that Orso had acted in self-defense, which carried no charge of murder. He demanded, however, that Orso surrender to the authorities so that the affair could be settled legally.
After his surrender, Orso was found innocent of any crime. He and Lydia married and went to Italy. Colomba and Colonel Nevil accompanied them. Although Colomba soon learned the dress and manners of polite society, she often longed for her wild life in Corsica. One day she saw an old man who had almost lost his senses. She learned that he was old Barricini, who had been forced to flee Corsica after Orso’s vindication. Now he was a broken man, mourning the loss of his sons and his honor. He confessed to Colomba that he had indeed torn the page out of the notebook and substituted another name for his own. Colomba had no sympathy for the old man. She felt that his plight was due to his own evil and was glad that her father’s blood was now completely avenged.
COLOMBA, Prosper Mérimée’s second novel, is set in Corsica. When the novel was published, Corsica was part of France politically but was, to most Frenchmen, an exotic country where life was simpler and where the vendetta held the place that law held in the rest of France. Mérimée’s talent for describing the folkways of exotic, lawless peoples is clear in COLOMBA, although not as fully developed as in his later novel, CARMEN. COLOMBA, however, is not an escapist romance. Although a love story, it is also a story, told on the personal level, of the struggle between the modern state, with its laws, and the ancient Corsican family, with its vendettas.
Most of the struggle is within the soul of Orso della Rebbia, a former Corsican soldier now in the French army. Familiar with the ways of the modern state, he is goaded into the vendetta by his sister Colomba, who knows only the old ways. He is restrained, to some extent, by Lydia Nevil, the English girl whom he loves and who has given him her Egyptian ring as a reminder that he must obey the law and disregard the vendetta. Lydia and Colomba are symbols of the modern view and the older view; their struggle for Orso symbolizes his internal torment. Ultimately he demonstrates the victory of Lydia and her way of thinking by formally surrendering to the law to stand trial for a crime he did not commit.
Peripheral roles are played by Barricini, who cannot give up the vendetta, although he has become a lawyer and a mayor under the new system, and by the prefect, who uses both persuasion and force to do his delicate job. The struggle between law and vendetta is seen from many aspects and brilliantly described from each of them.
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