Friday, 13 November 2015

The Italian Job: rereading Ann Radcliffe's 'The Italian'


Last week’s Gothic Reading Group centred one of Sheffield Gothic’s favourite topic of conversation: Ann Radcliffe. In particular, her last novel The Italian (Okay, yes, it’s technically not her last novel. But let’s not get into Gaston de Blondeville right now, alright?). Our usual starter question- ‘But is it Gothic?’ – hardly seemed relevant, so instead we began by asking ‘Did we all like this novel?’ The answer was unanimously yes. But why?

The Italian was the first Radcliffe novel I ever read... I was just a little fledging Gothicist in the second year of my undergraduate. I’d taken the Gothic module on something of a whim; the subject talk had made it sound both fun and fascinating, and when I realised Northanger Abbey was on the reading list it sealed the deal. Just kidding. I took it because I was 19, literally living and breathing Jane Austen and the tutor had a jacket with patches on the elbows. It was a simpler time. Unsurprisingly, what I knew of the Gothic at that time amounted mostly to what I’d heard from Catherine Morland. I was excited to read this Mrs Radcliffe for the first time, to see what was quite so horrid about these novels. So over the summer I sat down and read the The Italian. And then I wondered if maybe I’d picked the wrong module.

So, Radcliffe and I did not get along at first. It wasn’t that I thought it was bad, or boring. But on that first reading there was, as they say, no spark. I just couldn’t seem to find what was supposed to be so engaging or enthralling, and it certainly didn’t seem ‘scary’. Either I was missing something, or I had become significantly less of on easy scare without realising. (Sadly, this was not the case...much to the amusement of the rest of Sheffield Gothic every time a film session rolls around.) But, a few weeks later, now armed with four lectures worth of context and a working understanding of what the Gothic actually was, I sat down to The Italian and tried again.

 
Virgil's Tomb by Moonlight (1782) by Richard Wright

This is not to say, however, that The Italian is a novel that is only good within context. It is perhaps Radcliffe’s most powerfully and beautifully written work and, thematically at least, her most complex. In our session, we discussed in some depth Radcliffe’s employment of the Sublime and her evocative descriptions of scenery:

‘She approached the windows, and beheld thence an horizon, and a landscape spread below, whose grandeur awakened all her heart. The consciousness of her prison was lost, while her eyes ranged over the wide and freely-sublime scene without. She perceived that this chamber was within a small turret, projecting from an angle of the convent walls, and suspended, as in air, above the vast precipices of granite, that formed part of the mountain. Those precipices were broken into cliffs, which, in some places, impended far above their base, and, in others, rose, in nearly perpendicular lines, to the walls of the monastery, which they supported. Ellena, with a dreadful pleasure, looked down them, shagged as they were with larch, and frequently darkened by lines of gigantic pine bending along the rocky ledges, till her eye rested on thick chestnut woods that extended over their winding base, and which, softening to the plains, seemed to form a gradation between the variegated cultivation there, and the awful wildness of the rocks above.’
-Ann Radcliffe, The Italian, p. 90 (Oxford World Classics, 2008)

It’s hard not to see the power of Radcliffe’s prose in passages such as these, even as an inexperienced undergraduate. But reading Radcliffe in context, informed by the French Revolution, by religion, by politics, by class, by sensibility, by chivalry, by Hurd, by Walpole, by Wollstonecraft, by Burke and, for The Italian, by Lewis? There is, if may I be so bold, nothing quite so engaging or fascinating, and Radcliffe’s engagement with her contemporaries is at its most commanding in The Italian.

It has been a long(er time that than I care to admit) since Radcliffe and I failed to see eye to eye. And the more time passes, the more I find in The Italian. And by more, I don’t necessarily mean more to like. Just more. Each of us at that table have our own specialisms, our own focuses. What was important, was not that each of us liked and enjoyed the novel, but that we each had our own distinctly different reason. Is that a terribly cliché thing of me to say? Probably. Regardless- I’m really glad we’re friends now, Ann.

All hail Queen Ann!

 
Lauren Nixon is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sheffield studying masculinity and the Gothic. She definitely didn't pick the wrong module when she was 19.

1 comment:

  1. Radcliffe offers what scholars all recognize as the Sublime. Her Sublime courses through all of your veins, once read. That links all of you, and, each in different subtle ways that are almost beyond description. Nonetheless, never underestimate Radcliffe's Sublime; for it's a very rare bird in literature.

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