The Italian, Ann Radcliffe

Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) was most famously the author of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and she was if not the founder then the popularizer of the sensationalist school of writing known as Gothic Fiction. Udolpho was the fourth of her six novels and The Italian (1797) was her fifth. It is notable that as a teenager Jane Austen was making fun of Gothic Fiction as early as 1794 (Love and Freindship) and more particularly in Northanger Abbey (1818) which was first sold (as ‘Susan‘), though not published, in 1796. This may have been directed at Radcliffe, though I suspect there was a body of Gothic fiction out there before Radcliffe began writing at the end of the 1780s.

Walter Scott, in his first Introduction to Waverley (1814) was more specific, stating that the reader would find in his work neither Udolpho, nor “mysterious associations of Rosycrucians and Illuminati”.

My Oxford University Press World’s Classics edition (1968) has an Introduction by Frederick Garber in which he states –

[With] the sensationally successful Mysteries of Udolpho Mrs Radcliffe established for herself a position which few other novelists, Gothic or otherwise, could seriously challenge until the appearance of the Waverley novels..

Some of her popularity, and certainly much of her genius, rested in her ability to blend various themes and modes of eighteenth century literature into a distinctive style. It would be a mistake to think of her books primarily as terror fiction, though they have a good deal of the potentially ghastly in them. More accurately, they are basically novels of sensibility with heroes and heroines straight out of the tradition of Richardson, Prévost, and especially Rousseau… Mrs Radcliffe’s novels demonstrate her wide reading in the popular literature of the eighteenth century, not only in sentimental fiction but in the novels of terror like Walpole’s, the poetry of landscape like Thomson’s, and a wide variety of melancholics like Young and the elegaic Gray. Most of all though, she read Shakespeare.

Some notes following on from Garber:
Walpole. Horace Walpole (1717-1797) wrote what is generally accepted as the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764)
Richardson. Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) wrote three epistolary novels including Jane Austen’s favourite, The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753).
Prévost. Antoine Francois Prévost d’Exiles (1697-1763) was a French monk and writer who spent some time in England and wrote a number of works, including translations into French of Richardson’s three novels.
Rousseau. Presumably Jean-Jaques Rousseau (1712-1778) French philosopher and inventor of the autobiography. He wrote at least one novel, the sentimental/romantic Julie, or the New Heloise (1761).

I am really, really trying to get a handle on the novel pre-Austen and Scott. The more I look the more I see the C18th stuffed with significant, and not so significant, writers and now I’m being directed towards French fiction as well!

The Italian is set in Naples and in the heavily wooded mountains behind Naples and to the south. I see no evidence that Radcliffe was ever there, or ever left England, but I’m sure she had plenty of accounts of grand tours to draw on. The story is that a young man, Vivaldi while wandering above Naples hears a young woman singing from her balcony (of course!) and falls in love with her. The young woman, Ellena is poor but of gentle birth and lives with her aged aunt. Vivaldi and his faithful servant Paulo (I think here of Don Quixote, first published in English in 1612-1620) in making their way up the road to hear Elena, are stopped in a darkened doorway by a shadowy figure and warned not to proceed. They pursue the figure, who continually eludes them, and one night lures them into a dungeon where they are seemingly trapped.

Vivaldi’s parents, the Marchese and Marchesa, are opposed to Vivaldi marrying a woman without a fortune. Vivaldi however, wins over Ellena’s aunt and she persuades her niece to follow her heart and accept Vivaldi’s suit.

Vincentio di Vilvaldi was the only son of the Marchese di Vivaldi, a nobleman of one of the most ancient families of the kingdom of Naples, a favourite possessing an uncommon share of influence at Court, and a man still higher in power than in rank. His pride in birth was equal to either, but it was mingled with the justifiable pride of a principled mind …

The mother of Vivaldi, descended from a family as ancient as that of his father, was equally jealous of her importance; but her pride was that of birth and distinction, without extending to morals. She was of violent passions, haughty, vindictive, yet crafty and deceitful …

The villain of the piece, and by some accounts the central character, is Schedoni, the Marchesa’s confessor, with whom she conspires to prevent the young couple marrying.

We then go on with all the heartstopping ups and downs for which Gothic is famous. The aunt dies mysteriously. Ellena is kidnapped by monks and carried off to a nunnery before Vivaldi can rescue her. He spends weeks in torment until he receives accounts of a mysterious carriage leaving town that night. Ellena is offered the choice of becoming a nun or perpetual imprisonment. Vivaldi and Paulo insinuate themselves into a group of pilgrims, make their way to the nunnery, and with inside assistance and miles of gloomy underground passages spirit Ellena to safety.

Without a chaperone to be seen, Ellena is taken down the mountains and through the woods to a lakeside convent where she should be safe. Vivaldi resides nearby and attempts to break down her resistance to marrying him when his parents are so violently opposed.

Ellena immediately admitted the sacredness of the promise which she had formerly given, and assured Vivaldi that she considered herself as indissolubly bound to wed him as if it had been given at the altar; but she objected to confirmation of it, till his family should seem willing to receive her for their daughter; when, forgetting the injuries she had received from them, she would no longer refuse their alliance.

Nevertheless, Vivaldi wears her down. But, at the very altar, the young couple are arrested by the Inquisition …

And so it goes on. You can see, the obscurity of the language is impossible, but the sense of adventure is palpable. Radcliffe builds the tension very well and it is clear why she was so popular. The animus towards the Catholic church is harder to explain. England had been officially Protestant for more than a century but Catholics, I think, still made a convenient ‘other’ and racism towards Catholics was prevalent in the Anglosphere until the 1950s (partly of course as something to beat the Irish with).

Should you read it? No! Did I enjoy it? The story was fun but the language was too much work, so no. Does it have a happy ending? I’m not letting on.


Ann Radcliffe, The Italian: Or the Confessional of the Black Penitents, A Romance, first pub. 1797. My edition Oxford University Press World’s Classics, 1968, with Introduction by Frederick Garber, Professor of English at the State University of New York, Binghampton

22 thoughts on “The Italian, Ann Radcliffe

  1. Thanks to JA I have some curiosity about Radcliffe’s books, but you’re are the 23rd blogger that has now read one, mostly glad they did but happy not to go there again!


  2. I was going to say that Walpole’s Castle of Otranto in 1764 is regarded as the first Gothic novel, but then you told us further on.

    I like your honesty in your conclusion. Like you, I would like to get a handle on pre-Austen fiction, partly for interest and partly of course to understand Austen more through her literary heritage, but, oh dear, do I really want to read all that. My JA group has had one or two meetings where we’ve all chosen 18th century novels to read, and what trials preparing for those meetings are. i usually wuss out and find short ones (which are hard to find, haha!)

    All this is to say, thanks for taking one for the team!!


    • I certainly don’t regret reading it, I only regret I couldn’t set aside more time. (In the meanwhile I read an Iain M Banks chunkster just in the gaps so to speak).

      I need to look again at Moll Flanders, The Vicar of Wakefield and so on and see if their language is more like Scott’s or JA’s.


      • I’ve read Moll Flanders but back in the 1970s so I can’t really answer this. My memory is more Scott, but my memory is also that it’s different from both so really, I think I’ll not answer at all.

        BTW How much is this lockdown going to affect you? Will you have to quarantine on your return to Perth again, now?


      • I’ve enjoyed most of the pre JA books I have read and most of them from memory have not been hard going.
        So now I have two avenues of enquiry – the history of epistolary novels, and the predecessors of JA’s plain writing style.
        I’m in Victoria now, wearing a mask outside which I think is ridiculous (and not widely observed in the country). Milly tells me WA has reinstated Hard Borders which means it’s back to iso for me – but only while I’m not driving. My intention is to keep working rather than sit home alone.


  3. I’ve been to Horace Walpole’a brilliantly kooky mansion, Strawberry Hill House, which is only open to the public one weekend a year. It’s a real confection full of whimsy and bonkers design things and everything feels like it’s three-quarters scale. I imagine he wasn’t a very tall man.

    I’ve not read anything by Radclyffe Hall but I’ve seen her impressive burial vault in Highgate Cemetery. Her burial site is hidden away (there is no public access unless you go on a specific tour) in an area known as “The Circle of Lebanon”. It is, quite appropriately, very Gothic.


    • Those are ‘literary tours’ of which we (stuck in the) Antipodean can only dream. I’m glad Radcliffe was consistent in life and in death. Though it is worth pointing out that she seems to have been more interested in sensibility than in ‘gothic’ horror.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. These are certainly a bit “chewy”. I had to do Udolpho at university (along with The Castle of Otranto and something else, I forget which but I bet I still have it) and it did help with enjoying Northanger Abbey. Not sure I’d face up to the language these days. I haven’t re-read any of the others, e.g. Pamela etc since then either.


  5. There was a whole conversation with my co-worker about the phrase “racism toward Catholics.” We weren’t sure if you were being sarcastic or funny. I really want to like these older books, but I just drown in the language and the way the social norms are so different. Movies will bring such stories to life for me but I don’t know of any Radcliffe movies that have been famous and on my radar.


    • Anti Catholic prejudice was rife in Britain and therefore Australia for centuries. I may be wrong to call it racism, but it was often conflated with race based animus towards Italians and more particularly the Irish who of course were a British colony and therefore had to be treated as inferior.


      • The most encapsulating word would likely be bigoted. Anti-(person from another country) would be xenophobia. I still need to read the book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, as she tackles stuff like this. She doesn’t use the word racism because she believes to determine someone is inferior based on their skin color is an arbitrary choice to place a group in a lower caste system. I attended a virtual talk by Wilkerson; she’s brillant.

        Liked by 1 person

      • As long as they had some kind of British-y accent, regardless of the country they’re supposed to be from, that no British person could identify, they’ll pull it off in the box office.


  6. So the whole time I’ve been thinking that I’ve read one Radcliffe novel, but it was actually a Mary Elizabeth Braddon novel I read…gothic but perhaps not quite so ornate with the language? I’ve still got both a charming old Everyman’s hardcover set of Udolpho that I found second-hand at some point, and despite your best effort to convince me otherwise (heheh), I still believe I’d like to read The Italian. (For the past few years I was focussing on backlists because I thought I’d become too preoccupied with new books and, now that I’m swinging in the other direction again, I find the idea of reading a classic occurs to me even less frequently than it did before.)


  7. I looked Braddon up, she’s a century later so hopefully the language is clearer. I think The Italian is interesting, just hard work. I’m not sure what I’ll read next in that line – I have your Canadian on Kindle and I own some others. Sorry, can’t see my shelves to give you names. I do have Ivanhoe as an audiobook which I’ve read a couple of times over the years and I’ll be interested to see if it’s as ‘ornate’ as Waverley. That’s certainly not the impression I retain.


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