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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 330

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.

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