Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Seeing Things: literature and the visual

Peter Vernon

The Pleasures of the Eye: Landscapes of otherness in Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian

Soňa Nováková

Texte intégral

1Eighteenth-century aesthetics placed a high value on the visual. Sight was thought to be the noblest and most comprehensive of our senses, and visual pleasure was the first avenue of intellectual and therefore spiritual progress. The Gothic aesthetic set out to embody these values in vivid picturesque descriptions of exotic locale, natural landscapes, haunting Gothic mansions, and heroes and heroines of striking physical appearance. In my paper I want to discuss the ways that Gothic literature uses the visual and the meanings its practical applications bring about: Looking as a source of power and manipulation. The main starting point will be Ann Radcliffe’s novel The Italian with its narrative device of travelling and the accompanying ways of representing place, the power of the gaze which is directed at the exotic landscape, and the figure of the native 'Other'. The novel's replaying of the Grand Tour complicates the power structures implicit in its applications of the visual because of its framing narrative explicitly dealing with tourists from England. Depiction of place will not be the only focus of my attention. In my examination of the relationship between looking and power, I shall also discuss the strategies of authority inherent in Radcliffe’s appropriation of the image of the veil (which appears almost obsessively throughout the text), consider the master-servant relationship between Vivaldi and Paolo, and, ultimately, Radcliffe’s use of the carnivalesque in the concluding scene of her novel.

2In the process of interpretation I hope to apply some aspects of the theories of the gaze and of the discursive depiction of the colonial Other. Nevertheless, my intention is not to produce a new coherent reading of The Italian (which would entail imposing upon the text a scheme of reading). The strategy which I adopt in the ensuing pages will be less concerned with proving a point (arguing, for example, that previous traditional readings are mistaken or limited), but rather with exploring and hopefully enriching the possibilities of interpreting Radcliffe’s Gothic romance, always keeping in mind its wonderful complexity.

3In Radcliffe’s depiction of Italy centre stage in taken by landscape. This should not be surprising as Italy was mainly a visual spectacle for eighteenth-century British readers familiar with the works of Piranesi, Claude, Canaletto and others. Thus, as has often been noted, there is no nature in Radcliffe’s world, despite all the description of impressive natural scenery. All of these descriptions came from travel journals and paintings-Radcliffe saw nature through books. As Maggie Kilgour says, "... in Radcliffe nature always appears in the process of being shaped by the human mind" (130).

4Landscape has actually long been identified as one of the distinctive features of the genre of the Gothic novel. Established critical opinion considered the Gothic as a highly patterned narrative form, and consequently treated landscape as a recurrent topos in a stylised repertoire of motifs. Gothic landscape has been considered as a backdrop made up of repetitive, stereotypical, usually, ruined fragments-castles, abbeys, grottos, woods, rocks, mountains, etc. But Radcliffe’s geography in The Italian conveys much more than mood or tone, amounts to more than a decorative setting, or backdrop for the novel’s psychological dilemmas. I want to argue that place in this novel may be seen as the terrain where the tensions of the text are played out. It is a site of conflict between the observer’s desire for control and the subversive, chaotic forces of difference. The visual is a primary weapon in the struggle for cultural definition and dominance.

5In The Italian the activity of creating and facing cultural worlds of Otherness is executed very effectively: the novel’s very title and subtitle, "The Confessional of the Black Penitents", are an index to the crucial role of Italy and Catholic practice within the plot, and landscape and culture are coupled to create a cumulative image of difference. First published in 1797, this romance actually does not deal with remote events, rather the action is set Naples and Southern Italy only some forty years prior to the date of publishing (the framing narrative takes place in 1764; the main story of the novel in 1758). Abandoning "the time of old moldering manuscripts, medieval castles, or musty, tortuous passageways" Karl, 251), Radcliffe here takes the opportunity to deal with the more or less contemporary world in its less familiar aspects.

6The most interesting feature of this novel for my interpretation is the device of the opening frame, in which English travellers abroad witness a mysterious event. The text that follows this episode is a confession they read to illuminate what they have seen. Thus we, the actual readers of the novel, replay the activity of the fictitious readers within the novel and are invited to share their perspective - like the English tourists/readers in the frame, we too are foreigners in a strange land where people behave in ways unfamiliar to us. The prologue opens with a group of travellers seeing the sights and exploring the secret spots of Naples in 1764. Thus the text decidedly plunges into the mysteries of present day Italy and into the conventions of the Grand Tour with its peculiar modes of observation and evaluation. While the English tourists are appreciating the façade of a church, a striking figure appears in the dark portico and runs into the building: "There was something too extraordinary in the figure of this man, and too singular in his conduct, to pass unnoticed by the visitors"(l). Intrigued by this sudden apparition, the travellers enter the church and inquire of a monk about the identity of the unknown person. The foreigners’ surprise at discovering that he is an assassin legally protected by the church, in made to contrast with an Italian gentleman’s hyperbolic observation that "if we were to shew [sic] no mercy to such unfortunate persons, assassinations are so frequent, that our cities would be half depopulated" (2-3). At such an avowal of the irrational lawlessness of Italy, one of the English gentlemen cannot help but cry out: "This is astonishing!... of what avail are your laws, if the most atrocious criminal may thus find shelter from them?" (2). This apparently casual denunciation of injustice is, however, far from being an innocuous observation. It is a judgement of Italy both as a place (the church observed by the tourists) and culture (Italian traditional customs) by one who represents another world - a world of familiar order and normative authority.

7This scenario would be an extraordinarily neat one if Radcliffe did not remark that the mysterious man "had an eye, which, as it looked up from the cloke [sic] that muffled the lower part of his countenance, seemed expressive of uncommon ferocity" (1). The terrifying effect of this "looking up" contrasts with the rational inquisitiveness of the English tourist’s gaze. It defies an easy one-sided construction of reality and an easy dominance of the foreign observer. The roles are suddenly reversed and the assassin’s ability to disturb the apparently settled picture of the English gentleman brings down a clear-cut distinction between a viewing subject and a visually dominated object. The Other’s looking back represents an act of resistance to being inscribed in the subject’s categories. This prologue thus resembles a negotiation between opposite forces. (English) subject and (Italian) object confront each other in a space where hierarchy has to be constantly reorganized. At length, the English gentleman’s self-assured judgement upon Italy and his gazing curiosity are checked by his last look at the assassin. The cultural selfassurance is replaced by awe and shock when Radcliffe concludes the scene describing the English tourist as he "turned his eyes, and hastily quitted the church" (4). As Robert Miles says, "the Englishman first curiously gazes, then averts his eyes from the assassin’s ferocious ones. He is now an object of power" (175-6). He no longer observes with curiosity as one might an exhibit, but is shocked out of his complacent assumption that he is outside the brackets of the Italian’s cultural frame. His final, horrified reaction signals a realization that he now finds himself within them.

8The prologue identifies some of the structural issues of the main plot. Thus, The Italian can be viewed as a palimpsest text where one can observe two textual levels. The opening framing story could function not only as a neat introduction to the actual romance story of Ellena, Vivaldi and Schedoni transcribed in a manuscript given by the Italian gentleman to the Englishman, but more importantly, in it the author illustrates how her representation of Italy will use the modes of travelling by interweaving them with the Grand Tour approach. From the travels that lead the characters to Rome, Naples, Apulia, the Appenines, and Abruzzi emerges the difference of Italy as a set of themes which ultimately correspond to an elaboration of a geographic and cultural referent ordered and interpreted by the traveller’s perspective. Italy as an attractive spectacle blends with Italy as the source of terrifying otherness that inhabits the novel’s plot of persecution. In developing the prologue’s seminal situation, this novel works inside the cultural context established there and extends it through a number of omnipresent motifs such as that of eyes and visuality.

9The theme of looking takes centre stage immediately in the first chapter which follows the prologue. In the well-known and frequently quoted passage which begins the novel there is an intertextual reference to the initial scene of Lewis’s The Monk. Vivaldi and Ellena meet in a church and the hero falls in love with the heroine because of her beautiful voice and out of a desire to see her face that is hidden by a veil. In The Monk we also begin in a church with a young man – Lorenzo – looking at a veiled woman – Antonia – whose voice attracts his attention and makes him want to see behind the veil. The image of the veil serves Lewis to heighten the voyeuristic aspect of the theatrical world in which everyone is gazing lasciviously at everyone else. In his novel, the veil functions as a figure for hypocrisy, but also of repression. Unveiling can then be interpreted as an act of liberation (as the veil of hypocrisy in drawn to disclose the true nature of the monk Ambrosio’s desires; cf. Kilgour, 148-9), but it can also be an act of control, particularly of men over women. Despite Antonia’s protests, Lorenzo proceeds to take off her veil, which then allows him to take in her charms. His eyes are able to linger over every part, though hers are unable to look back; being the object of attention disconcerts her, and she looks down, showing that "She knew not what she was about" (12).

10The Italian’s thematic concerns, established in the opening frame, move the figure of the veil and the varieties of 'looking' "out of the register of modesty, and explicitly into the register of power" (Miles, 177). The negative aspects of Lewis’s opening scene are transformed in Radcliffe’s novel. No longer the source of a prolonged "strip tease", the unveiling is immediately fulfilled but not through Vivadi’s intervention. Nature, not masculine desire, removes the veil from Ellena’s face, allowing him a brief vision as:

The breeze from the water caught the veil, which Ellena had no longer a hand sufficiently disengaged to confine, and wafting it partially aside, disclosed to him a countenance more touchingly beautiful than he had dared to imagine. Her features were of the Grecian outline, and, though they expressed the tranquility of an elegant mind, her dark blue eyes sparkled with intelligence. She was assisting her companion so anxiously, that she did not immediately observe the admiration she had inspired; but the moment her eyes met those of Vivaldi, she became conscious of their effect, and she hastily drew her veil. (6)

11The relation between the women themselves and the onlooker is telling in its revision of Lewis’s scene. Vivaldi comes to the aid of the women, but they are already assisting themselves. Ellena is no passive and disembodied Antonia; she is too busy at first to see that she is exposed to masculine attention, but when she becomes conscious of Vivaldi’s invasive gaze, she comes to her own defence, using the veil. Unlike Antonia, she is able to use weapons, even those often used against women, to protect herself.

12The purpose of the veil is ambiguous, as it represents both reassuring protection and a sinister concealment of purpose. A veil protects by disguising Ellena in her escapes from her prisons; however, she is also threatened with being forced to take the veil, and is kidnapped when a veil is thrown over her face. In her confinement, veils provide her with a means of communicating safely with other runs and later with Vivaldi. They are a medium for contact, but also an obstacle to union and freedom, as it is Ellena’s novitiate veil that prevents her immediate marriage with Vivaldi. When the lovers are parted, Vivaldi in the subterraneous labyrinth of the Inquisition is bound by a black veil. Unable to see anything, he encounters his interrogators as threateningly disembodied voices. To be veiled, for him, is to be at the mercy of a power that sees without being seen. This constancy of the figure of the veil, despite changes of gender, institution and circumstance, suggests that The Italian goes beyond the sexuality of the veil to power, the common denominator of its usages.

13Thus the power of the male gaze controlling the female object of desire is problematised in the novel. Ellena gives a new dimension to the Radcliffean Gothic heroine when she proves to be rather more selfassertive than just passively resistant, but more importantly this happens through the text’s "feminization" of Vivaldi. The hero is "more memorable for suffering than for acting, and his passive fortitude in the face of the Inquisition is worthy of a Gothic heroine"(Spencer, 207). Moreover, it is Vivaldi, and not Ellena, who finds himself an enthusiast given to superstitious imagination:

This displacement of the predisposition towards the phantasmagoric to the male charcter subtly and critically changes the circumstances of the female Gothic sublime in The Italian. Vivaldi’s feminization-and one should recall the explicitly feminine inflection which superstition had - further serves to foreground the pervasive nature of power. (Miles, 174-5)

14Thus the veil is not used by Ellena to protect herself from the glances of Vivaldi, who is a representative of unthreatening familiarity or the knowable, but rather from the looks of the mysterious and sublime Other. For example, when she adopts the veil to escape from the convent of San Stefano, she feels that the "eyes of the Superior were particularly directed upon herself. The veil seemed an insufficient protection from their penetrating glances" (129).

15Vivaldi’s visual search for Ellena is a looking for the same, in that Ellena represents the ideal companion - the "beautiful" with its reassuring characteristics of relaxation and gentleness. According to a scheme that is familiar from much Gothic writing, the beautiful is here imaged through the heroine’s body and classical connotations, so that Ellena’s features have a "Grecian outline" and express "the tranquility of an elegant mind". In a later description Radcliffe adds that "the light drapery of her dress, her whole figure, air, and attitude, were such a might have been copied from a Grecian nymph" (12).

16Looking starts to be associated with antithetical issues of difference and power when, during one of Vivaldi’s nocturnal visits to Ellena, the Gothic sublime enters the scene:

... as he emerged from the dark arch of a ruin, that extended over the road, his steps were crossed by a person in the habit of a monk, whose face was shrouded by his cowl still more than by the twilight The stranger, addressing him by his name, said, ’Signor! Your steps are watched; beware how you revisit Altieri!’(12)

17After a teasingly brief moment the figure disappears defying Vivaldi’s cries for "the unknown person to appear... but the vision came no more" (12-13). Obscurity momentarily checks the ability to see, and thus to comprehend. Vivaldi’s search for the charms of the beautiful (embodied in his quest for Ellena) is bogged down in the darkness of the mysterious sublime, while his attraction towards the familiar turns into a confrontation with difference.

18Among Radcliffe’s Gothic novels, The Italian is most characterized by the sublime. This category typifies the novel’s relationship between characters and the cultural context by its association with ideas of male domination, of the Church, and of patriarchy. The sublime is instilled into the figure of the villainous monk Schedoni who is introduced only a few pages after the mysterious encounter at the ruin, with Radcliffe obviously aiming at creating a link between him and the previous 'supernatural' apparition. This connection between the sublime and Schedoni is a further hint at otherness. In the often quoted description of the monk, Radcliffe feels obliged to remind the reader that Father Schedoni was "an Italian, as his name imported" (34), along with the intriguing detail that his "family was unknown, and from some circumstances, it appeared, that he wished to throw an impenetrable veil over his origin". The semantic network of darkness woven around Schedoni’s figure, his dark cowl, his obscure origins, his "habitual gloom" (35) ascribe him to the specific domain of Italian and sublime difference.

19The process of facing an alien reality is implicated in a confrontation of cultural diversity that the prologue continuously reworks and renegotiates as a seminal situation. So, the crucial element of Schedoni’s physiognomy is, not very surprisingly, his eyes: "so piercing that they seemed to penetrate, at a single glance, into the hearts of men, and to read their most secret thoughts; few persons could support their scrutiny, or even endure to meet them twice". His eyes, like those of many Gothic villains, are weapons. Knowledge, seeing "into the hearts of men", is for him a source of power, as he is able to control others by recognising their weaknesses: the Marchesa, whom he easily manipulates, but also Vivaldi, whose ’feminine’ vulnerability to superstition he suspects, knowing the young man better than he does himself.

20The disruptive sublime of Schedoni’s visual power starts to work actively on Vivaldi when an interplay of glances takes place between them. At first, cultural shock and repulsion seen to be the codified responses to Italian (or, the Italian’s) difference, as Vivaldi’s first encounter with the monk and his gaze repeat the English gentleman’s scanning of the hooded assassin in the prologue: "Vivaldi, as he eyed with a penetrating glance, now recoiled with involuntary emotion; and it seemed as if a shuddering presentiment of what this monk was preparing for him, had crossed his mind" (35).

21At a later meeting at the Marchesa di Vivaldi’s palace:

Schedoni was so deeply engaged in conversation, that he did not immediately perceive Vivaldi, who stood for a moment examining his countenance, tracing subjects for curiosity in its deep lines. His eyes, while he spoke, were cast downward, and his features were fixed in an expression at once severe and crafly. (48)

22Here, Vivaldi’s gaze connotes curiosity and inquisitiveness as he intends to discover whether Schedoni may be his mysterious persecutor at the Roman ruin. He probes reality in order to return it to a single coherent image: "Vivaldi... determined to put some questions to Schedoni, and at the same time to observe their effect on his countenance" (49). Like the English tourists’, his eyes are always intrigued by the halo of difference around the object they perceive, for despite repulsion and hatred Vivaldi is incessantly drawn towards Schedoni and his domain of sublimity. The monk’s eyes, however, are not surprised by objects or people whenever he scrutinizes reality: "Vivaldi advancing, the monk raised his eyes; his countenance suffered no change, as they met those of Vivaldi" (48).

23In this second meeting an evident difference separates the searching of reality enacted by Vivaldi’s look and Schedoni’s impenetrable scowl. The latter’s eyes penetrate and unsettle. As vehicles of his sublime aura they 'look back' like the assassin’s eyes in the prologue, thus problematising any easy interpretations of the world by the subject. Following the palimpsest nature of the novel’s text, it may also be possible to read Schedoni’s gloomy figure, his eyes and his uncanny apparitions in the obscure archways as manifestations of the alien nature of Italy and of the dangers that impend over the characters’ individual and cultural identities.

24It may easily be argued that unlike the prologue, all characters in the novel are Italian. No English tourists ever appear in it. Ellena Rosalba and Vincentio di Vivaldi, just like Father Schedoni and his ally the Marchesa di Vivaldi, are all unquestionably linked to Naples and Italy as their cultural and national location. Yet, a comparison between prologue and text makes it possible to view the cultural confrontation found in the prologue as also present in the novel’s story itself. First, the murderer of the introductory scene is replaced by Schedoni: indeed, the confessional of the prologue is related to the monk’s mysterious past, and he becomes more and more the representative of Italianness and the object of Vivaldi’s gaze. And second, Vivaldi and Ellena gradually take over the role of the English tourists when they start traveling on a 'Grand Tour' through the peninsula and respond to its beauty in the codified language of the picturesque.

25The Grand Tour mode of traveling and scripting of Italy comes to the fore after Vivaldi manages to liberate Ellena from her imprisonment in the convent. In the long scene near Lake Celano Ellena and Vivaldi’s cultural competence is highlighted by the narrator’s attribution of the act of description to them. While escaping from the convent to reach the village of Celano and there to get married, the couple halt to admire a picturesque prospect. Radcliffe here gives priority to the fact that "the travelers stopped to admire the scene" (158), whereas "to give their horses rest, after the labour of the ascent" is presented only as a secondary aim. Aesthetic appreciation and perception precede economic and practical considerations, and acting as guide Vivaldi indicates the beauties of the landscape to Ellena. Then, in contrast with Vivaldi’s description of the sublime, Ellena remarks on the beautiful and the more tamely picturesque aspects of the same scene. The polyphony of this scene is built up further as Vivaldi and Ellena’s lofty topographical rhapsodizing intertwines with their servant Paolo’s minor-key remarks. The ability to manage the language of the picturesque is thus fully ascribed to the world of 'Englishness'.

26It may again be pointed out here that journeying and appreciating, the tourist’s distinctive activities, are also attributed to the Italian monk, when Schedoni replaces Vivaldi as Ellena’s traveling companion. Schedoni is in fact a traveler always restlessly on the move: from the convent to the Marchesa’s palace, from Naples to Apulia and back, from Naples to Rome and then to the Inquisition. And yet, he always remains a practical traveler with a practical goal. For example, when returning from Apulia to Naples, Schedoni and the heroine are led by a guide to spend the night among the ruins of the Barone di Cambrusca’s palace. On reaching the place, Schedoni does not appreciate the picturesque quality of the place. His only aim is to look around for shelter and human presence (260). Radcliffe reiterates Schedoni’s obsession with human presence as a mode of setting off his insensitivity towards the ruins, which strikingly contrasts with the priority given by Ellena and Vivaldi to the appreciation of nature over other practical aims. Yet, while the monk is utterly distant from the Grand Tour logic of traveling for observation’s sake, Ellena duly compensates for his lack. Immediately intrigued by the ruins, she listens carefully to the guide’s tale of the Barone’s evil character. Schedoni barely pays any attention and considers the tale a waste of time. Precisely here, where his attention to landscape reaches it lowest ebb, a very revealing microsituation is enacted by Ellena and the guide:

'Now it happened, that the Barone’s chamber was in that old tower,-if you look this way, Signora, you may see what is left of it.'
Ellena turned her attention to where the guide pointed, and perceived the shattered remains of a tower rising beyond the arch, through which she had entered the court.
'You see that comer of a windowcase, left in the highest part of the wall, Signora, 'continued the guide,' just by that tuft of ash, that grows out of the stone.
'I observe,' said Ellena (262)

27This perfect reproduction of a guide leading a lady on a sightseeing tour testifies to the exploitation of the Grand Tour as a significant subtext both on the level of general structure and in individual episodes.

28Nevertheless, Schedoni is not only a traveller himself, but unlike other Radcliffean villains, he actually also manifests a peculiar kind of emphatic feeling for nature. For example, he senses the storm that is going to break over the Apulian coast: '"The evening is closing fast,' continued Ellena, 'and I shall be overtaken by the storm.' Schedoni still mused, and then muttered -'The storm, say you? Why ay, let it come' (222). On one hand, the storm here represents Schedoni’s personality. Yet, on the other, this emphatic exchange between man and nature also participates within the framework of cultural confrontations on which the text relies. In his 'appreciation' of the storm Schedoni is reinstating his own mode of seeing. His apprehension of chaotic nature sets him apart from the traveller's process of systematizing and evaluating. Schedoni here "has a marked, non contemplative affinity with the wilder side of nature" (Punter, 79).

29Hence, what the novel seemingly figures as a homogenous alien culture actually diverges into two distinct blocks: the Other (the Italian, inherently foreign) and the familiar (disguised as alien, the apparently foreign, the hero and heroine couple). By endowing Ellena and Vivaldi with the tourist point of view, Radcliffe rearranges these two as sources of the familiar presence, while examples of native presence are objectified as distant, strange and alien. As a consequence, although - or, rather, because - Schedoni is inherently Italian and in his own country, he is constructed as different by the narrator’s intervention. Thus it is significant that Schedoni’s precursor in the prologue is actually presented as a "stranger" (1) just as is the mysterious hooded figure in the Roman ruin (12). The English tourist, first, and then the narrator assuming Vivaldi’s perspective, is here playing with the word’s double meaning of both 'unknown' and 'foreign' in order to turn this 'apparition' not only into an alien, but also into a foreigner in his own land.

30Radcliffe’s depiction of an arena where different cultures interact belongs in a discursive context that overcomes the boundaries of Gothic fiction. Indeed, the doubt and anxiety attendant upon the "traveller’s gaze" have been recognized as a major element in eighteenth-century travel writing. In a revealing article Margaret Hunt has studied the evolution of this genre. Hunt concludes that travel writing is the verbal expression of the traveller’s gaze in that the objects of narration are filtered through the traveller's cultural assumptions, and she clearly states that "the central thematic of [this] form centers on the contrast between the traveller’s 'Englishness' and the 'exotic', or at least 'un-English', peoples and places he or she encounters" (337). The gaze of the English tourist occupies a position of self-validating superiority, an outlook that tends to highlight differences rather than similarities. This offers the 'English' characters the possibility to occupy a hegemonic position entirely constructed at the expense of the alien object and through a sustained negotiation with it. In The Italian such a position is constantly reasserted in the tourist's evaluation of the landscape, the people, and other local phenomena.

31Yet, the continuous re-use of the prologue’s scheme prevents the novel from turning into a plain assertion of Margaret Hunt’s traveller’s ideology. Schedoni and Italy correspond to a world of otherness that has little in common with 'our' world and is both an attractive, exotic land and a source of endless menaces. Because it is so distant from the norm, the protagonists can observe and judge Italy, but they can never be entirely free of the risks contained in the encounter with it. Moreover, tensions and exchanges between positions of dominance (as present in the interplay of glances between Vivaldi and Schedoni) prevent the text from simply being a rewriting of the prologue. Eyes take part in a conflict between continuously shifting positions of subject and object. Each situation questions the initial confrontation and renegotiates the hierarchy between cultural identities as it nevertheless works towards a separation of cultural enclaves.

32Thus descriptions of this 'Other' civilization contain counterparts that bring to light the dangerous and terrifying traits implicit in the spectacle of Italy. For example, when she is imprisoned in the convent, Ellena takes part in one of the musical performances of the nuns. During the concert the heroine's eyes wander from object to object, moving from the ornaments of the hall to the imposing figure of the Abbess, then from the "gay colouring and airy elegance" (130) of the lay guests to the "dark drapery of the ecclesiastics". Catholic liturgy is figured here at its most theatrical and performative. Deprived of all religious meaning, this rite stands as pure sensual spectacle, visual and aural enjoyment at the same time. Yet this episode is also crossed by numerous signs of anxiety, such as "the solemn character of the institution" (129), the towering presence of the Abbess, or the dark clothes of the monks. In various ways these reinscribe the theme of oppressive power inherent in the sublime, so that Ellena’s vaguely perceived "sense of danger" is to be related to the observation that even on this festive occasion, "the light, the blooming, and the debonaire " (130) mingle with" the grave, the austere, the solemn, and the gloomy".

33The gap between these two dialectical positions is never an unbridgeable one as is revealed by the power of the sublime to act on both sides of the divide. The convent of San Stefano is set in the middle of a Salvator Rosa landscape. The natural sublime surrounds and overwhelms Ellena while she is being brought there, so that she gives in to the ambiguous sensations it inspires. Therefore, the oxymoronic "dreadful pleasure" (63) she experiences in looking from the window of her carriage turns into an apprehension of real danger and oppression: " this emotion was heightened into awe, when she perceived that the road led to a slight bridge, which, thrown across the chasm at an immense height, united two opposite cliffs, between which the whole cataract of the river descended." The natural sublime retains its traits of masculinity while unfolding its threatening potential, for whereas typical eighteenth-century sublimity is always apprehended from a secure vantage point, the Gothic experience involves direct personal danger (cf. Miles, 68-81; also Morris). Ellena is figuratively 'swallowed' by the landscape and eventually by the convent: "Perched high among the cliffs of a mountain, which might be said to terminate one of the jaws of this terrific gorge... appeared the spires and long terraces of a monastery; and she soon understood that her journey was the conclude there" (64). The imagery of swallowing reveals the anxiety implicit in the Gothic sublime and particularly in the dangerous outcome of female desire for sublime otherness and its masculine, patriarchal connotations. Linked to repression, and specifically to Schedoni’s world-order, this aesthetic category is a primary constituent of Italian otherness, too. The country and its culture are in fact traversed by similar forces of oppression and containment (as when, later in the novel, Vivaldi is 'swallowed' by the Roman prisons of the Inquisition).

34Later on, during her imprisonment in the convent, Ellena discovers a turret whose window dominates a sweeping vista over the Appenines. This passage is frequently quoted as it embodies a response to landscape with all the codified reactions to it. On the top of the tower, Ellena obviously occupies a position of self-assurance, and her eyes dominate the sublime spectacle so that she can organize it through description and, above all, inform it with the appropriate meanings.. This is in fact a cultural reading of the landscape enabling Ellena to position herself in it: "with a mind thus elevated, how insignificant would appear to her the transactions, and the sufferings of this world! How poor the boasted power of man!" (90-91). Nevertheless, the landscape she is enthusing over is the very natural obstacle that keeps her imprisoned. It is the same dreadful gorge that swallowed her on being brought there. Such double-edged nature of the sublime reveals the problematic aspects of the Italian world in this novel. It is recognizable and codifiable, thus it becomes familiar; yet, it always implies also its opposite, dangerous, uncanny difference. Thus, I believe, the well-known scene of Ellena on the turret ought to be read together with that of her arrival at the convent, because of the Janus-faced nature of the sublime and Radcliffe’s Italy. It appears to me that the otherness of Italy as both landscape and culture is an unstable construct moving within the dialectics delimited by Schedoni and the sublime on the one hand, and Ellena and Vivaldi on the other.

35The world of Italian otherness constantly attempts to 'swallow' the representatives of Englishness. This reaches its climax with the Inquisition scenes in the novel, where Vivaldi lies at the mercy of the sublime in its most terrifying embodiment. Radcliffe here seems to be placing Vivaldi, her 'English' character, into the closest possible contact with the alien culture, developing further the prologue’s palimpsest. Therefore, when Vivaldi arrives at the place of the Inquisition in Rome passing by some imposing ancient ruins, his response to the impressive scene is immediate: "... Vivaldi could not behold with indifference the grandeur of these reliques... without feeling a melancholy awe, a sacred enthusiasm, that withdrew him from himself" (195). The aesthetic experience and the codified reaction are parallels to Ellena’s enthusiasm in the convent tower. The effect, however, lasts only briefly ("the illusion was transient") as the sublime regains its oppressive tones. Once inside, Vivaldi is shrouded by darkness and becomes completely helpless. His initial outburst of indignation, "Can this be human nature!-Can such horrible perversion of right be permitted!" (198), will be repeated during all the hearings with the Chief Inquisitor (echoing the surprise of the prologue’s English tourist). But such appeals to external order and values remain ineffectual within the lawlessness of Italy.

36Vivaldi’s power of vision reaches such a low level that his ability to judge is replaced by conjecturing and a suspension of his capability to order the real. In this dark world where everything is veiled or hidden behind doors, walls, and curtains, the hero can only formulate suppositions: "Vivaldi conjectured, that in this chamber they were preparing for him the instruments, which were to extort a confession" (200). Robbed of his vision, Vivaldi’s security is shaken, and he is subjected by the sublime and its agents. The Inquisitor, who shares Schedoni’s invasive look, now wields vision as well as the knowledge it affords, and with such knowledge goes the power to dominate Vivaldi. The Inquisition extends and deepens the power of Schedoni’s gaze to unsettle the self-assured cultural positioning of the English characters. In other words, it pursues the same strategy sketched in the prologue. The English invasive eye tries to penetrate Italian sublimity but remains caught in the 'looking back' of its cultural antagonists, the assassin, Schedoni, and the Inquisitor. Vivaldi, like the curious tourist in the prologue, is a voyeur that by a quick turning of the cultural focus becomes object of both vision and power. The traveller’s ideology corresponds to an extended set of principles supporting the English world view shared by characters, author, and readers alike. But because this system does not form a sealed-off enclosure, Italy is not simply a silent other.

37Finally, Radcliffe’s reconstitution of the broken order which occupies the final pages of the novel, where the protagonists are eventually rescued from the dangers of Italianness, can possibly be similarly problematised. On many levels the text seems to conclude with a firm re-establishment of law and order, true and lawful authority, as a corrective of Schedoni’s machinations. For example, in recognition of his loyalty, Vivaldi offers Paolo independence which the servant vehemently rejects, choosing to stay with his master. The lower order recognizes its need for the higher, as the guarantee of true freedom. The proper lord is a benevolent authority who controls his employee with love and kindness. As Todd says, "Paolo represents a fantasy of service, an exaggeration of the component in the sentimental novel" (261). What follows as the concluding scene of the novel is a carnival. Paolo becomes the master of revels, as sort of lord of misrule, who in his joy confuses all natural and syntactical order and hierarchy. The scene is a celebration of language and imagination without meaning. Yet, like all carnivals, as Kilgour points out,

... this is clearly a moment of licensed subversion, a moment of freedom that is possible because the status quo has been securely established... Imaginative freedom and play, such as Paolo’s, is possible because of the presence of a benign, rather than... Schedonic, authority ensuring its containment. (184)

38Yet, it is this firm security that can possibly be questioned if we consider the depiction of the landscape within which such containment is supposed to occur.

39Upon marriage, the hero and heroine go to live in "a delightful villa" that resembles a "scene of fairy-land" (412). This place is described through a series of well-known devices: the picturesque nature that circumscribes it ("groves of various-coloured granites... lifted their tall heads, and threw gay gleams of light amidst the umbrageous landscape") and a dominant position in the surrounding panorama.

40The reader ought to be reassured that fear and anxiety have eventually given way to the security of a reconstructed Edenic home, returning visual pre-eminence to the English characters. Still, as Anne Mellor has remarked Radcliffean Gothic never views the home as a site of stability, for its discourse rather "subverts the bourgeois domestic ideology of the late eighteenth century, the sentimental vision of the private home as an earthly paradise of virtue, love and peace" (94). This subversion subtly emerges in the closing pages where sublime nature seems domesticated and subdued into trained, Capability Brown landscape: in the mansion "the style of gardens, where lawns and groves, and woods varied the undulating surface, was that of England, and of the present day, rather than of Italy" (412). This garden and this palace enclose all that is reassuring and delightful, thus concluding the protagonists’ quest for beauty. Familiarity seems to have staved off the threatening places of the other culture, this English garden concluding and resolving the cultural conflicts between Englishness and Italianness.

41And yet, the sense of harmony does not exhaust the whole picture. The harmony of the scene is broken by an intrusive presence. Although the sublime and its agents have apparently been defeated, somewhere in the garden an avenue of tall trees in the Italian style renews the shivers of the sublime by casting its "gigantic loftiness of shade" over the surrounding orderly enclosure. The sublimity of Schedoni’s dark Italian locale still lurks there, however displaced towards the edge of the picture.


Works Cited

Hunt, Margaret, 1993. "Racism, Imperialism, and the Traveller’s Gaze in Eighteenth-Century England". Journal of British Studies 32.

Karl, Frederick R., 1975. The Development of the English Novel in the Eighteenth Century. London: Thames and Hudson.

Kilgour, Maggie, 1995. The Rise of the Gothic Novel. London and New York: Routledge.

Lewis, Matthew [1796], 1973. The Monk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mellor, Anne K, 1993. Romanticism and Gender. London and New York: Routledge.

Miles, Robert, 1993. Gothic Writing 1750-1820. A Genealogy. London and New York: Routledge.

Morris, David B, 1985. "Gothic Sublimity", New Literary History 16.

Punter, David, 1980. The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fiction from 1765 to the Present Day. London and New York: Longman.

Radcliffe, Ann [1797], 1981. The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents. A Romance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Spencer, Jane, 1986. The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Todd, Janet, 1989. The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660-1800. London: Virago.


Assistant Professor of English Literature, Charles University Prague and Director of the British Cultural Studies Centre in Prague, Czech Republic. She specialises in Eighteenth-Century Fiction and Contemporary Literature written by Women.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

Conditions d’utilisation :


Volume papier