Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Monday, October 1, 2012

A Note on Radcliffe’s The Italian

The distinction between high and low art used to be largely a matter of venue and milieu. Poetry appreciated in court circles such as troubadour lyric and sonnets is easily differentiated from folk-song, and one could hardly confuse Sidney’s Arcadia with a penny dreadful title. The growth of a literate middle class, however, that accompanied the coming of capitalism led to a new market with its own demanding taste. The novel itself was regarded as an inferior literary form for years (in China as well as in Europe), often composed and consumed by women who were no longer required to spend their leisure doing needlework.

The work of Ann Radcliffe, praised by the great Romantic poets and a best-selling author as well, illustrates characteristics of both popular and high art. Every piece of literature confirms some expectations while denying others, but popular works tend to be toward the reassuring side of that continuum while “high” art often raises contradictions and ambivalences if not outright denial of received ideas. Radcliffe’s books, like most television narratives, conclude with the happy ending that reassures the consumer that, in spite of temporary upsets, all is right with the world. Her characters are flattened and overdone: the heroes are most “manly,” possessing at once good looks, courage, and an unerring morality, while the heroines are lovely, pious, and proper to the degree that in The Italian Ellena Rosalba in The Italian is troubled by such scruples as worrying about keeping company with a male admirer while he is rescuing her from vicious persecutors. Meanwhile the villains are black-souled indeed, though Schedoni practices such titanic and self-controlled machinations that he has been compared with Milton’s Satan and considered influential in the Byronic anti-hero.

Between these factions, Radcliffe regularly distributes retributive justice in the most predictable manner. One need fear no more than in a comedy that all might not come right in the end. The loftier social classes are uniquely capable of fine feeling, of sensibility. The fair heroine’s marriage is impeded by her presumed lower status, yet she turns out in fact to have been high-born after all and from a virtuous father, rendering irrelevant the issue about whether alliances between classes are possible. Paolo is a fair type of the lower strata. He is an exemplar of the best quality of the low-born, which is to say he is fiercely loyal to his master. His hound-like devotion is so great that he repeatedly makes a fool of himself to lighten otherwise serious scenes, and he is rewarded in the end by being allowed to sing a repeated chorus of good wishes to Vivaldi, “O! giorno felice!

Though there is no questioning of the old stereotypes about men and women, morality, or the order of society, Radcliffe did participate in her day’s more intellectual and aesthetic currents. The “Gothic” novel has become a popular genre little remarked by critics, but in the late eighteenth century, it was a new and ambitious orientation toward the sublime. To Edmund Burke “terror is in all cases whatsoever . . . the ruling principle of the sublime.” To him the “Astonishment” associated with the sublime is invariably accompanied by “some degree of horror.” [1]

Mrs. Radcliffe expressed derivative notions in her posthumous essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry” [2] where she argues that “obscurity” and grandeur” combine to generate sublimity. To her this recipe holds “not only on frivolous occasions,” “but in the “most important pursuits of life.”

For all that, to the modern reader, it is almost as though fear is used to ratchet up the story’s impact like sex in a music video. The Italian setting announced in the title is itself a somewhat sinister place smoky with Roman Catholic incense and moral corruption. The Inquisition even appears. All these thematics are as expected; what is “modern” in Radcliffe is the delectation, the self-conscious reveling in a safe, emasculated horror, whose epigone we see in the young college graduate of today who likes nothing better than to dress as a zombie or a vampire.

The effect is similar with her descriptions of nature which may provide grandeur as well as mystery. [3] Sometimes extensive and pictorial, they remain thoroughly conventional, a code that should elicit the proper response. The topographical poets had particularized; Radcliffe is always painting variations on the same few scenes.

Her taste is surely influenced by the Graveyard School poets, or she was a product of the same trends in taste. The enjoyment of a sweet melancholy, colored perhaps by a faint hint of the beyond, either Christian or pagan, a breath of the sublime was evidence of a person of sentiment, an aesthete. Radcliffe broadened the audience for such a vision by washing her stories with the same elements and ameliorating the edgier elements (such as Cowper’s real depression).

Radcliffe’s reader sought a domesticated horror. Her books are filled with spooky, seemingly preternatural events, but they are virtually always explained rationally. By rational, though, I do not mean likely, for Radcliffe inherits from the Hellenistic romances a fondness for formal symmetry in plot, welcoming all-but-impossible coincidence such as the revelations of the identities first of Schedoni and then of Olivia. Far from a failure of verisimilitude, this was a clear literary code. Scott defined the romance by its “marvelous and uncommon incidents.” [4]

She added the newer aesthetic ideas of the time, including the taste for horror and for landscape and a lugubrious sense of mortality, and attracted a mass readership as well as impressing Shelley, Byron (who called her the founder of a school) and Keats (who refers to her enthusiastically as an influence in his letters). She raised the ambitions and altered the direction of the novel genre, adding to the woman-in-distress theme of Richardson the “sublimity” of terror and of landscape, the power of meditation on mortality, and the love of the exotic (which is to say the partially understood) which made her and Mary Shelley avid travelers and original travel writers.

Her oeuvre at once advanced the prestige and popularity of novels. Though some writers in other genres before had addressed a general audience and found critical celebrity (such as Shakespeare) and others had addressed an educated audience yet found a broader readership (such as Milton), Radcliffe mediated the levels of literature, using familiar themes dressed up in the latest aesthetic styles, and created new readership and new tastes for the form whose very name means new.

1. Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757. Burke goes on to note that “obscurity” is effective as terror will dissipate with clear vision, adding that despots are secretive to excite fear in their subjects. He does not say whether such repression can result in the sublime.

2. First published in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 1826, 145-152

3. See Sir Uvedale Price's essay “On The Picturesque.”

4. See his “Essay on Romance.”

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