The Books of My Numberless Dreams

What I’m Reading

Posted on: February 5, 2007

The Italian or the Confessional of the Black Penitents: A Romance

Litlove and I are *galumphing through Melodrama country. The Italian is my first prototypical Gothic romance; and it is my great pleasure to note that it caters to all my expectations. The action begins in the first few chapters with ominous warnings and sinister cloaked figures lurking in the dark. There are the evocative classical ruins that can only be explored in the dark of night and isolated monasteries and convents, perched among the mountains. Mystery and suspicion accompany many of the character’s interactions. And the hero and heroine are two of the silliest characters you’ll ever meet.

Litlove had to adjust to Radcliffe elongated writing style. I had to adjust to the prevalent moral tone, which reminded me of Jane Eyre. It has been some time since I’ve read a novel whose words have been so wholly filtered through a Christian world view. It isn’t a bad thing, it just jolts the book out of its current space in my brain for a second or two, before it settles back in. (Think of that children’s game that teaches them to identify shapes by having to match each block to its suitably shaped gap.) Radcliffe’s moralising is facile what with each character uniformly fitting the role she’s given them but it’s all part of the fun. And a lot of fun it is.

Vincento di Vivaldi is an impulsive fellow, quick to anger, quick to assume and as easily able to reconcile and change his mind. If he falls in love with you he is sure to do so instantly, with little thought but with great resolve: prepare to be stalked, serenaded and politely cajoled until you see things his way lest you condemn him to a life of misery. Ellena, the instantaneous love of his life, is on first appearances a bland, reserved, silly miss who is sweet and faithful to her dear old aunt. A perfectly good citizen but not an ideal literary creation for this reader.

Vincento first spies Ellena and her elderly aunt leaving church and is **bespelled by the “sweet and fine expression of her voice” and the “distinguished air of delicacy and grace” that was her figure. Her face was veiled but that proved an incentive to follow her home, rejoicing at the sight of her poor aunt stumbling so that he could offer aid. (Radcliffe didn’t write that he rejoiced but I’m sure he did a mental jig.) From then on he makes whatever excuse he can to visit in order to see sweet, sweet Ellena di Rosalba, from making visits to enquire after the aunt’s health to dragging along a reluctant friend to break into their yard so they can serenade his future wife.

Now I don’t know how but Ellena is infatuated with Vincento too. Her emotions, however, are tempered by valid reservations. It is clear from his dress and carriage that he is of the aristocracy. Ellena is certainly not: she appears to be from a good enough line, but is an impoverished orphan who secretly sells her needlework (employment of any kind being looked down in “good” circles) whose aunt is her only relative. He is beyond her reach and even if his attentions were honourable, the family would object. She is quite proud and would not willingly be seen as an opportunistic, gold-digger who has no qualms about imposing herself on an unreceptive family.

Unfortunately for her thinking is not one of Vincento’s favourite past times. His pursuit is hardly subtle and he woefully underestimates his parents’ reactions, especially that of his mother, to his and Ellena’s detriment. His father threatens to disown him but it his mother who actively takes things in hand. She requests the help of the diabolical Dominican monk Schedoni. He is self-serving, duplicitous, cunning, manipulative and merciless to a stunning degree if I’m correctly assessing the hints Radcliffe dropped here and there. He is also one of the most engaging characters in the book, having an active brain and all, and therefore a favourite after completing the first volume. Radcliffe really works at him, writing vivid, dramatic descriptions of his person at every appearance, providing him with a mysterious background and noting the ambivalent reaction he provokes from his peers. He’s the kind of character you could really sink your teeth into, more burger than sirloin steak, but still delicious.

Surprisingly, Ellena is developing into a more respectable (literary) character. Her thoughts and reactions regarding her and Vincento’s relationship and its possible consequences are at every step more mature and nuanced than Vincento’s. She has a great deal of self-respect and a pragmatic take on life. She does appear passive but in her own way approaches her trials with as much resolve as Vincento, opposed to surrender, safe in the knowledge of her own moral principles and innocence. She is not easily intimidated nor a coward.

Indeed, it’s quite clear (to me at any rate) that Radcliffe has a great deal more respect for her than Vincento, whom she writes enough on to convey that he’s a good man but is not distinct enough as an individual to be much more than a heroic chap who treats his servants well. Marchesa di Vivaldi is a keener observer of her son than the Marchese, who is surprised at the ardour of Vincento’s devotion. (Radcliffe tries to soften this by explaining that his (limited) paternal affection prevented him from scheming, but the fact is it just never occurred to him because he underestimated Vincento. He doesn’t know his wife either.)

*In some dumb online dictionary they have “galumph” meaning “a clumsy tread” or some such nonsense. How absurd! The valiant hero of the Jabberwocky did *not* clumsily tread back to his father with the head of his vanquished foe.

**I am convinced that “bespell” is word even if I cannot find it in my computer dictionary or from a proper online source. It is a word, isn’t it?

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8 Responses to "What I’m Reading"

Bespell is definitely a word! I’ve always thought it to mean to place under a spell. It used a lot in Fairy Tales like the brother’s Grimm.

This books looks really interesting. Why do you say the words were “wholly filtered through a Christian world view”? I didn’t quite get what you meant when you said that.

Oh I guess I meant that Christianity was a more dominant and prevalent part of the fabric in British life in the 18th century. So in general books, novels and so forth, took for granted the religion of their audience; and part of identifying “good” characters from “bad” was their exhibition of Christian morals as it was understood then.

Of course this was done to varying degrees but I made the comparison to Jane Eyre because religion is also an inextricable element of the narrative.

I really did leave that bit hanging didn’t it? It was because I planned to write on it in another post dealing with Radcliffe’s nature passages (among other things), another thing the book shares with Jane Eyre, although Bronte developed it differently.

I should also note that Radcliffe’s point of view is a Protestant one as she does not seem to think much of Roman Catholicism judging by what she’s written in this book. E. J. Clery, the writer of the introduction to my edition, disagrees and I’ll read what he/she has to say about that after I’ve finished.

Oh yes, and I *knew* that “bespelled” was a word. Hmph! Silly computer dictionaries. Thanks for the confirmation.

I’m intriegued by this description. I might have to read something by Radcliffe – sounds like a blast overall.

Mind you, I’m often intriegued by your reviews!

Yay! It’s good to know that they’re doing a bit of good for someone else other than myself.

I couldn’t have put it better myself, imani! Great round up of the action so far. I think we have had pretty identical responses, although I hadn’t paid s so much attention to the weighty moral universe in which the action takes place. I did find Vivaldi’s courtship of Ellena a bit rich – I felt quite sorry for the girl. If I were serenaded, it is more than likely that a bucket of water would descend on the singer’s head! But I agree that Ellena is shaping up. I was also very impressed by her ability not to need to stop at the ladies’room on her 24 hour carriage ride! But hey, the 18th century was clearly another world altogether.

Ha ha I hadn’t noticed the lack of “urges” during that carriage ride. Maybe she was too nervous! It’s nice to see that we’re practically on the same page on the book (literally & figuratively).

I can really see why these kind of novels were so popular among women back then.

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