20/09/2010

MRS RADCLIFFE - THE ITALIAN (1797) , MY REVIEW


Mrs Radcliffe and the Gothic taste
When Ann Ward was born in London in 1764 from a wealthy middle class family the first Gothic tale, The Castle of Otranto,  was going to be published (on Christmas Eve) by Horace Walpole. She would marry William Radcliffe ,owner and editor of the English Chronicle,   and would become extreme popular as a Gothic writer . The marriage was childless and, to amuse herself, she began to write fiction, which her husband encouraged.Her first novel was The Castle of Athlin and Dumbaye (1789), but her The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) made her  extremely popular among the upper classes and growing middle class, especially among young women. It was her technique of the explained supernatural, in which every seemingly supernatural intrusion is eventually traced back to natural causes, and the impeccable conduct of her heroines that finally met with the approval of the reviewers, transforming the gothic novel into something socially acceptable.



Jane Austen mentioned The Mysteries of Udolpho in  her Northanger Abbey, in which she parodized the Gothic Novel and its melodramatic overreactive heroines. Though as noted Radcliffe's works had clearly influenced Austen's there is no historical evidence of  a meeting between the two writers as represented in the film Becoming Jane, where Mrs Radcliffe is portrayed by Helen McCrory.   In the mentioned scene  Jane Austen is accompanied by Tom Lefroy to Mrs Radcliffe's house where she  encourages the younger lady to embark on a writing career.

The Italian (1797)
As many other Gothic novels written in the last 3 decades of the 18th century, also Mrs Radcliffe's THE ITALIAN was set in a Catholic country, namely Italy, more precisely Naples.This was due to exoticism or the cult of the exotic (everything which was distant in space and in time) but also to the protestant prejudices against Catholicism. So the terrible frightening events told take place in isolated convents and abbeys very often and the villains are monks or nuns. This is exactly what happens in this novel I've just finished reading for my 18th-19th Women Writers Challenge.

The love between noble Vincentio di Vivaldi and  a beautiful but poor damsel,  Ellena Rosalba, is contrasted by Vincentio's mother, the Marchesa,  with the help of her wicked confessor, monk Schedoni, and the prioress of St. Stephen's Monastery . They plot and  kidnap innocent but brave Ellena, they menace and torture her in order to force her to become a nun  and are even ready to kill her.  Several twists and turns will lead to the discovery of the real origins of poor Ellena,  who eventually finds out who her parents (whom she believed both dead) were and even -unexpectedly and by chance- meets her mother. The clich├Ęs of the sentimental Gothic pattern  hero/heroine/villain  are all there as well as the taste for the sublime nocturnal settings , the supernatural mysterious events all aiming to frighten the easily touched 18th century reader. 

 I'm just teaching the Gothic Novel at school in this first part of the school year and this reading of mine was a perfect compendium to my teaching schedule for my oldest students. It was interesting, if not involving or convincing.




This review is my third task for  the 18th - 19th Century Women Writer Reading Challenge. My completed tasks and the ones yet to be fulfilled are on my right sidebar.

3 comments:

Ri The Bard said...

Its a good review, I understand your stand point of the novel, but I still would like to read Mrs. Radcliffe's work:)

maribea said...

Hi Maria Grazia. Every time I come to visit you I find something new and interesting. Congratulations on your commitment to literature and art. I am sure you are a wonderful teacher.
M Beatrice

Avalon said...

Ann Radcliffe was absolutely amazing!

Where are writers like this nowadays?