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