It’s easy to make fun of the heroines of Ann Radcliffe’s novels, with their tendency to faint at the slightest moment of stress. But, as I noted when I read The Romance of the Forest, this fainting does not necessarily mean weakness. Her women can show great moral and personal strength as they face down evil. That was certainly true in The Romance of the Forest, and it’s also true in her 1797 novel, The Italian, about the ill-fated romance between Ellena Rosalba and Vincentio di Vivaldi. (Both of them are Italian. As the introduction by E. J. Clery notes, the novel is full of Italians, making the singular Italian of the title a little odd.)
Ellena and Vivaldi fall in love almost at first sight, but a shadowy figure warns Vivaldi not to pursue her. More important, his parents are against the match, and the orphaned Ellena is uneasy about marrying into a family where she will not be accepted. The two makes their plans anyway, but then Ellena is kidnapped and Vivaldi has to figure out what happened to her. Could his mother’s confessor, the sinister Father Schedoni, be behind it? And is Schedoni connected to the monkish stranger who’s been warning Vivaldi not to woo Ellena?
Ellena, meanwhile, has been taken to a convent, where she will be forced to take a vow and become a nun. Here, we see her great strength of character, when she refuses to make any vow that isn’t wholly sincere. Ellena appears to have no choice, but she chooses to take what little choice she has and stand firm in it. In a way, her lack of choice in whom to marry and how to live represents that lack of choice many women faced in her day, and her refusal to go along with it shows even greater strength when seen in that light. Her initial refusal to accept Vivaldi’s proposal is similar in that she will not accept a marriage where she is looked down on. She will have her self-respect, even if it’s all she has. Plus, she only fainted about half a dozen times in the book, often for very good reasons.
But Ellena is not really the center of the book. Its real focus is the wicked Father Schedoni. He is a master manipulator, able to convince a respectable woman that murder is actually a moral choice. He’s able to use the mechanisms of the church, including the Inquisition (!) to get his way, and his way is the way of evil. Radcliffe allows his the occasional fit of conscience, however, as in this moment of reflection:
He threw himself into a chair, and remained for a considerable time motionless, and lost in thought, yet the emotions of his mind were violent and contradictory. At the very instant when his heart reproached him with the crime he had meditated, he regretted the ambitious views he must relinquish if he failed to perpetrate it, and regarded himself with some degree of contempt for having hitherto hesitated on the subject. He considered the character of his own mind with astonishment, for circumstances had drawn forth traits, of which, till now, he had no suspicion, He knew not by what doctrine to explain the inconsistencies, the contradictions, he experienced, and, perhaps, it was not one of the least that in these moments of direful and conflicting passions, his reason could still look down upon their operations, and lead him to a cool, though brief examination of his own nature. But the subtlety of self-love still eluded his enquiries, and he did not detect that pride was even at this instant of self-examination, and of critical import, the master-spring of his mind. In the earliest down of his character this passion had displayed its predominancy, whenever occasion permitted, and its influence had led to some of the chief events of his life.
As the plot twists, Schedoni (and the reader) has reason to revisit these questions of conscience and whether it is possible for him to be a good man or whether ultimately his pride will always control him.
The plot is filled with twists, some of them obvious and some totally surprising. One in particular completely astonished me, and it made me read on with excitement right at the point when I feared I was losing interest in the story altogether. At times, I thought the plot was unnecessarily tangled, but I could imagine readers in Radcliffe’s day taking great joy in trying to untangle it all. And I think Radcliffe is aware that her twists can get out of control. At least twice in the novel, she has people sharing a meandering story that seems to wander far from the plot, leaving their interlocutor frustrated at the impossibility of getting a straight answer. Her stories wander, too, and that’s part of the fun. Just where will she take her characters next?