The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Italian – Conclusion

Posted on: February 21, 2007

First “The Italian” post.

Radcliffe gave me a big surprise in the middle of the narrative. Our heroic Vincento and undaunted Ellena are separated and she is whisked away to a solitary shack by the seashore, inhabited by a grim, cold-hearted old man who, she concludes, can only mean her harm. After surviving one attempted poisoning she is allowed to take a walk on the beach and meets a monk, a possible source of aid, but whose foreboding visage indicates otherwise. Indeed it is Schedoni, come to see the deed done himself. As night falls he (reluctantly) takes it upon himself to deal the fatal blow. He enters her room, looks upon her prostrate form, raises his arm and pushes aside her lawn for a clear target when _________!

The story’s suspense and mystery were deftly woven, primarily because Radcliffe depended on more than action to achieve it. Her travelogue-like descriptions of scenery do greater service when depicting solitary convents set among the mountains, the ruined remains of house destroyed by natural disasters, and the oppressive gloom that permeates the air in the Inquisition’s dungeons. That, along with the wariness and suspicion that now colours, if even for a moment, all the interactions Ellena and Vinceto carried with any but their most trusted companions, and the dominant duplicitous presence of Schedoni, covered the tale with an inviting layer of intrigue that pulls you to the end of the novel.

Another aspect of Radcliffe’s nature descriptions much noted is its role as a spiritual aid to all those with exceptional Christian sensibilities. Throughout her trials Ellena was never too dismayed or downtrodden that she could not take solace from the visible evidence of God’s wonder, power and mercy, which she could detect in every mountain peak and verdant countryside. When she was a captive in a convent it is the chance discovery of a turret room that ably helped her to gracefully endure her hardship.

To Ellena, whose mind was capable of being highly elevated, or sweetly soothed, by scenes of nature, the discovery of this little turret was an important circumstance. Hither she could come, and her soul, refreshed by the views it afforded, would acquire strength to bear her, with equanimity, thro’ the persecutions that might await her. Here, grazing upon the stupendous imagery around her, looking as it were, beyond the awful veil which obscures the features of the Deity, and conceals Him from the eyes of his creatures, dwelling as with a present God in the midst of his sublime works; with a mind thus elevated, how insignificant would appear to her the transactions, and the sufferings of this world! How poor the boasted power of man, when the fall of a single cliff from those mountains would easy destroy thousands of his race assembled in the plains below!…Thus man, the giant who now held her in captivity, would shrink to the diminutiveness of a fairy;

Apparently this and other similar passages reflected a more spiritual interpretation of an 18th century aesthetic theory: “the idea that a sensitive observer could internalise some of the greatness of sublime objects”*. As I’ve mentioned before it reminded me a lot of Jane Eyre, in particular the scenes after Jane leaves Rochester and is left on the mercy of God through nature, and Wordsworth who tended to go on and on and on about the Glories and Godly Virtues of Nature. (Right? I haven’t read any Wordsworth in a long, long time.) Vincento , who is not portrayed as being particularly spiritual, never seems inclined to be inspired by a rose to wonder at God’s benevolence, and his faithful, simple servant Paulo can only think of the greenery at home when prompted (often by himself) to comment. Schedoni is forever insensible to his natural surroundings, whether it is bounteous or meagre. He is too egotistical, cruel and corrupted to be open to any sort of divine or even malignant influence. Any charitable thought which he may feel is rooted in selfish motives.

Some may find the care taken to describe each new setting irrelevant “muddle” that ought to be chopped down to commercially viable size but I really enjoyed it. It’s clear that the book was to take readers along on pleasurable tours through foreign lands as well as frightfully thrilling adventures. If I didn’t have National Geographic or the means to travel to myself I’d certainly want novels that I could use as a vacation.

It’s also clear to me that the story was to serve as some kind of warning at the dangers of Catholicism. E. J. Clery, the writer of the introduction, disagreed, positing that Radcliffe was not a “straightforward bigot”–and, even in some minor way, instrumental in promoting a liberal attitude–because of some ironic twist in the novel’s prologue and a certain plot development, both weakly argued. The two Italians’ responses to the Englishman’s cliched response on learning the church’s practice of sheltering assassins were filled with ironic humour but that was about it.Clery spun some tale about the observer [Englishman] becoming the observed but I’ve read the Introduction several times and haven’t a clue what she’s talking about. (Maybe you picked up on it litlove?) She pointed to an ill-treated nun who found solace in the better Santa Maria della Pieta , but Radcliffe went to such pains to elucidate exactly how the abbess of the latter was atypical, going so far as to mention that “she conformed to the customs of the Roman church, without supposing a faith in all of them to be necessary to salvation. This opinion however, she was obliged to conceal, lest her very virtue should draw upon her the punishment of a crime, from some fierce ecclesiastics”. Every good Catholic, save the abbess, is an unjust victim of the Church. I’m assuming Clery could have been more convincing if she were inclined to write a spoilerrific intro at greater length so I’ll probably JSTOR her and the subject.

This did not lessen much of my enjoyment. All in all it was a good adventure and a good romance, reminding me quite a lot of contemporary romances; I wonder if romance authors could not find a more suitable ancestor in Radcliffe than Austen whose coattails they glom onto in order to demand the literary respect they claim they don’t want. Ellena and Vincento overcame their internal and external obstacles to finally rest in each other’s arms. I may have rolled my eyes at the cheesy thriller B movie moments, and the clumsy caricatures, but I could not help grinning happily when, at the wedding, the foolish Paulo shouts exuberantly from the balcony, ‘O ! giorno felice ! O ! giorno felice !’**

*Oxford World Classic Notes to “The Italian” by Ann Radcliffe

**O happy day!

6 Responses to "The Italian – Conclusion"

Very nice post! I think you’re so right about Radcliffe being the real “mother” of modern romance novels. I like the landscape description in Radcliffe too, but I think I remember reading that Radcliffe never saw the places she describes and so got a lot of things wrong. But the point is the pleasure of the fantasy, not the reality of it.

[…] by Dorothy W. on February 22nd, 2007 I have been reading such good posts on 17C and 18C topics, that I am inspired to add something from my own 18C read, Boswell’s […]

Thanks Dorothy! Yes, that was mentioned in the introduction that she got some of the geography wrong, and a few things about Catholics as well, like having monasteries and convents on a single property.

Ooo imani, I didn’t read the introduction, I’ll have a look at it. But basically I agree with you – I thought it was very clear in its criticism of the untempered zeal of Catholicism, that was all about power, not love and charity. I really enjoyed your reading and think it so cool that we managed to post independently on the same day! Great minds think alike and all that!

Geez, between you and Litlove I’m going to have to find me a copy of this book. You two are an evil pair. The damage you do to my TBR piles! šŸ™‚

It’s our pleasure, Stefanie. šŸ˜‰

Oops, litlove somehow I missed your comment before this. Yes, please read the introduction and tell me what you think. If there is significant ambiguity in Radcliffe’s attitude towards the RC Church I’ve missed it entirely. I enjoyed our reading and was immensely impressed by your post, which articulated my own vague thoughts on a theme in the novel!

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