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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 327

Ann Radcliffe (née Ward, 1764–1823) was one of the more distinguished practitioners of the Gothic novel, a genre usually set in a foreign country, often in the past, in which mysterious events place an isolated protagonist in peril. The Gothic is characterized by dramatic use of atmosphere, scenery, and convoluted plots filled with action and suspense. In some ways, one can think of the Gothic as a novelistic equivalent to the revenge tragedy.

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Although Jane Austen ridiculed Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho in her Northanger Abbey for its use of supernatural horror, in fact nothing actually supernatural occurs in The Italian or Radcliffe's other novels. Events such as mysterious voices and apparitions are always given a rational, scientific explanation by the end of the book. In this way, what is often considered a work typifying Romanticism is very much an exemplar of the Enlightenment, in which religious and other supernatural claims and occurrences were given rational explanations.

Another important element of The Italian is its Italian and Roman Catholic setting. Ward herself was a Latitudinarian, verging on Unitarian—in others, words a Christian who thought of God as a benevolent creator who set the universe in motion with natural laws and who thought that one could understand God or the divine within many different faith traditions or outside organized religion entirely. She regarded Roman Catholicism as an emblem of what was worst in religion, including authoritarianism, dogmatism, idolatry, and superstition. The Italian exemplifies this view and portrays Roman Catholicism as a form of hypocrisy in which outward obedience to ceremonial laws and rituals can conceal moral depravity.

Finally, although Radcliffe's work is sometimes derided as stories of "damsels in distress," Radcliffe understood her own work as differing from that of male Gothic writers in having strong female protagonists who were brave, intelligent, and morally good. Sister Olivia is a strong and benevolent character, and Ellena, although a terrified young girl, is quite brave under many moments of duress.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 818

The Italian: Or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents places the story of two young lovers, Vincentio di Vivaldi and Ellena di Rosalba, in a gothic setting. Ellena is a seamstress, and Vivaldi is the eldest son of an old and noble family. The Marchese and Marchesa di Vivaldi oppose the union so vehemently that Ellena’s life is endangered and Vivaldi is held captive and subjected to torture by the Inquisition. Vivaldi is warned early on by the mysterious archway monk to stay away from the Villa Altieri where Ellena lives. Most likely Schedoni’s agent, the mysterious, cowled figure reappears to repeat his warnings.

Vivaldi asks Signora Bianchi for Ellena’s hand, and the signora accepts with the reservations that their different class positions will cause problems. Soon after, she dies mysteriously. The Vivaldis soon begin trying to persuade their son to abandon Ellena. When he refuses, the Marchesa enlists the aid of her confessor, Father Schedoni, a mysterious monk of whom little is known except that he is of the brotherhood at Santo Spirito.

Vivaldi assumes that Schedoni has caused the death of Ellena’s aunt. When he confronts him about it, he enrages Schedoni and incurs his vengeance. Schedoni is instrumental in causing the many problems for the young couple. Abductions abound in The Italian , the first of which occurs when Ellena is getting ready to go into temporary seclusion with the nuns at Santa Maria della Pieta. She is driven instead to a horrid convent presided over by a wicked abbess who is obviously in the Marchesa’s employ. The abbess confronts Ellena with a choice:...

(The entire section contains 2570 words.)

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