Analysis

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Last Updated on March 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 330

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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.

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 other 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.

Form and Content

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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 reservation 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: either take vows and become a nun or marry whomever the marchesa chooses for her. She refuses both choices. As a result, she is kept in close confinement in a threatening atmosphere and shown tenderness only by Sister Olivia.

As the narrative pans back and forth between Ellena and Vivaldi, Vivaldi and his servant, Paulo, also become imprisoned when Paulo shoots at the archway monk. They then follow the blood-dripping form and find themselves locked in a room with a pile of bloody clothes and the recurrent sound of moaning. It is here that Paulo tells Vivaldi the story of a particular confession heard by a penitentiary (an officer of the Catholic Church appointed to act on behalf of a bishop) named Ansaldo di Rovalli. When Ansaldo heard the confession, it caused him to go into convulsions.

Sister Olivia plays an inexplicably important part in Ellena’s life, advising her to follow the directions of the abbess to take the veil and promising to risk her own safety by helping Ellena escape when she hears that the abbess intends to confine Ellena in a room, which certainly would mean her death. Sister Olivia’s kindness, her resemblance to Ellena, and her willingness to exceed the expectations of a nun in her position indicate a blood tie.

Finally about to be married in a chapel at Celano, Ellena and Vivaldi are abducted, this time by representatives of the Inquisition. They are separated again, and Ellena is taken to the house of Spalatro by the Adriatic shore, where Schedoni’s hired assassin keeps close watch over her. By this time, the marchesa and Schedoni have concurred that Ellena must be killed.

The turning point of the story occurs when Spalatro refuses to kill Ellena, his remorse getting the better of him. Schedoni vows to do it himself, but just as he has his dagger raised, he shudders at his own horrific nature and sees on Ellena a miniature portrait of himself as a young man. He undergoes a character change, thinking Ellena to be his daughter. He tries to get Vivaldi released from the Inquisition, but to no avail, for Schedoni has plotted himself into his own disgrace and disclosure: A mysterious adviser visits the imprisoned Vivaldi, telling him to disclose Schedoni as a fraud. He is not a monk at all, but rather Count Fernando di Bruno. Vivaldi is told to ask Ansaldo di Rovalli about the confession that he heard in 1752.

Vivaldi follows these instructions, which reveal that Schedoni was a count, the younger son of a noble family, and that he had his brother killed in order to obtain his position, property, and wife. He abducted the woman and raped her, and she married him out of propriety. When, though, he found her speaking with a visitor in their home, he (apparently) killed her in a jealous rage. The visitor turns out to have been the grand penitentiary himself, Ansaldo di Rovalli, and the woman was Sister Olivia, the former Countess di Bruni, and Ellena’s mother. Olivia, who survived the attack on her, affirms Ellena to be Schedoni’s niece and not his daughter. In order to escape the indignities that will clearly be his fate at the hands of the Inquisition, Schedoni poisons himself.

Context

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Like Emily St. Aubert in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ellena di Rosalba is a self-conscious heroine who has the capacity to imagine herself among the ruins of a tower. She is similar to Emily in other ways as well. Of highly refined sensibilities, she can feel empathy for even Spalatro, having, she says, suffered so much herself. Like Emily, she is a victim who fights against her oppression, and even within the constraints of the gothic world of evil, she manages to win. Insofar as Radcliffe’s heroines gain some power of action, Radcliffe has considerably ameliorated the image of the heroine in the novel.

The character of Schedoni, though, is commonly seen as the great contribution to literature of Radcliffe in The Italian. The prototype for the romantic hero-villains to follow, Schedoni, it has been said, is the character upon whom George Gordon, Lord Byron, modeled himself, and upon whom he modeled the heroes in The Giaour (1813) and Lara (1814). In the wide spectrum of his feelings, Schedoni broadens the range of the gothic villain.

Most of the major Romantics admired Radcliffe’s works, and some wrote about them, including Sir Walter Scott and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She was an acknowledged innovator in several respects, among which are her use of atmosphere and imagery as elements that give information about the moral, mental, and emotional states of the characters; her combining of the heroine and hero of the novel of sensibility with those of the horror novel; and her resulting creation of the “respectable” gothic romance. The Italian extends the possibilities of the gothic to include credible situations and developed characters, thus paving the way for the coalescence of the gothic and the realistic found later in the nineteenth century. Radcliffe’s precursors are Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Ferdinand, Count Fathom (1753), Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron: A Gothic Story (1777), and Sophia Lee’s The Recess: Or, A Tale of Other Times (1783–1785).

The Radcliffean gothic romance continued through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in a variety of manifestations. Radcliffe’s influence may be seen in the works of Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe. The influence of her work continues to be seen in the “formula gothic,” best-selling mass-market paperbacks which are currently being analyzed by feminist critics for their social implications regarding women’s issues. The horror novel, which evolved out of the same period, became a separate type and survives also in paperback books and films.

Places Discussed

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The Abbey of San Stefano

The Abbey of San Stefano is a religious complex used as a prison to incarcerate the central female character at the behest of an evil noblewoman. This structure serves two important purposes within the novel and supplements the themes of the work. First, the abbey is depicted as a place of coercive power and spiritual and physical darkness. It explains the criminality of the villain, an evil monk, as the environment within which his criminality was encouraged to grow. This representation is furthered later in the novel when the villain himself is incarcerated within the dungeons of the Inquisition. Virtually every religious person encountered in this novel is either a criminal or lacks the moral fiber to oppose criminality. This representation of religious criminality is to be expected in the eighteenth-century English gothic novel since anti-Catholicism was deeply ingrained in English culture.

For instance, the novel opens with a scene in which English travelers in Naples are touring a darkened Catholic church. There they see an assassin who has been given sanctuary inside the building. This opening scene prepares the reader for the other religious institutions encountered in the novel and demonstrates that her novel is hardly a sociological study but rather an English fantasy of Italian vice and Catholic corruption.

The dark Abbey of San Stefano serves another purpose, that of illustrating the sublimity of the natural landscape. The incarcerated heroine is sometimes permitted to wander through the abbey and frequently looks out on the landscape, expatiating on its beauties. She looks out on the mountainside and is spiritually reenergized. In turn, the sublimity of the landscape enables this character to endure the hardships she suffers.

Southern Italy

In this novel, southern Italy is described as a region of striking natural beauties: towering mountains and sheer cliffs, glowing moonlit nights, glimmering lakes, and sheltering forests. For much of the novel, the central characters flee through this landscape, sometimes meeting rural inhabitants, sometimes dodging religious pilgrims, but always aware of the landscape through which they pass. In part, this landscape serves to illustrate the beauty of the natural world and to explain the inherent virtue of the rural people. For instance, the young hero and heroine come across an aged shepherd who provides them with the best food and drink he has and who shelters them from pursuers. As the novel suggests, this character’s kindness results in part from such beautiful surroundings. In fact, throughout most of Radcliffe’s novels, and this one in particular, danger is almost never to be feared in such surroundings. Danger only comes to the characters in this novel when they take shelter in towns and cities.

Naples

Naples is a major city in southern Italy, sketchily described in the novel as a town of villas, churches, and beachside huts. Radcliffe’s Naples is populated almost entirely by three sorts of people: a closed circle of rich and overbearing noblemen and noblewomen, oppressive clergy, and happy albeit poor fishermen. Naples is barely described otherwise. The villas frequently have surrounding walls and central gardens and are tastefully decorated, the churches are decorated with statuary and vividly colored murals, and the huts of the fishermen are appropriately shabby. This representation of Naples illustrates Radcliffe’s contention of the inequities of Italian society, which is dominated by nobles and clergy and is oppressive to the less fortunate. In Naples, a poor woman falls in love with a young nobleman, and the setting furthers the difficulties of this relationship. The young people are isolated within this environment and are well aware that those with power are all too eager to split their relationship apart.

Bibliography

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Ellis, Kate Ferguson. “ ‘Kidnapped Romance’ in Ann Radcliffe.” In The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. Discusses the gothic in terms of domestic relations. Ellis sees Schedoni as fulfilling his own wishes to be first in a family circle by insinuating himself into the Marchesa’s confidence. See also herein Ellis’s chapter “Otranto Feminized: Horace Walpole, Clara Reeve, and Sophia Lee.”

 

Flaxman, Rhoda. “Radcliffe’s Dual Modes of Vision.” In Fetter’d or Free?: British Women Novelists, 1670–1815, edited by Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1986. Recognizes Radcliffe as developing a “new descriptive mode and technique,” that mode and technique including something akin to cinematography.

 

Hennelly, Mark M., Jr. “The Slow Torture of Delay: Reading The Italian.” Studies in Humanities 14, no. 1 (June, 1987): 1–17. Explores Radcliffe’s technique of suspense in the Inquisition segment of the novel.

 

Howells, Coral Ann. “The Pleasure of the Woman’s Text: Ann Radcliffe’s Subtle Transgressions in The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian.” In Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, edited by Kenneth W. Graham. New York: AMS Press, 1939. Concludes that Radcliffe’s interest lies in the subtle disruptions of the conventions of sentimental novels.

 

Murray, E. B. Ann Radcliffe. New York: Twayne, 1972. An excellent overview of all Radcliffe’s novels; contains long passages from obscure eighteenth-century novels. Provides psychological and ethical perspectives on The Italian.

 

Ronald, Ann. “Terror-Gothic: Nightmare and Dream in Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Brontë.” In The Female Gothic, edited by Juliann E. Fleenor. Montreal: Eden Press, 1983. Discusses archetypal images in works of Radcliffe and Brontë.

 

Ruff, William. “Ann Radcliffe: Or, The Hand of Taste.” In The Age of Johnson: Essays Presented to Chauncey Brewster Tinker, edited by F. W. Hilles. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1949. Discusses The Italian, the “novel of taste,” as Radcliffe’s most significant contribution to English letters.

 

Todd, Janet. “Posture and Imposture: The Gothic Manservant in Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian.” In Men by Woman, edited by Janet Todd. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1981. Analyzes the character of Paulo and shows how Radcliffe created him to embody ideal qualities of a manservant.

 

Varma, Devendra P. The Gothic Flame, Being a History of the Gothic Novel in England. London: Arthur Barker, 1957. In the section on Radcliffe, Varma observes the structure of Radcliffe’s novels, her explanations of the supernatural occurrences, and her ability to create suspense.

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