Of Love and Pride

I’ve nearly finished The Italian by Ann Radcliffe, which imani and I have been reading in tandem. It’s very rare indeed for me to read something situated this far back in history, and so it took a little getting used to. I have to admit to finding myself irritated at times by the excessive use of commas in every sentence which results in a choppy delivery that mixes together subclauses, qualifiers and additional information. But eventually I told the inner swot that unless she could stop sabotaging the reading process, she would have to go and sit elsewhere and that seemed to help.

In many ways this is an action-packed, pacy narrative that delights in putting its main protagonists in endless peril. The story traces the fraught love affair between young noble Italian, Vincentio di Vivaldi and his socially inferior beauty, Ellena Rosalba. The main obstacle to their union, once Ellena’s natural reserve and uncertainty about the viability of their match is overcome, lies with Vivaldi’s parents. The Marchesa di Vivaldi must be one of the most horrific potential mother-in-laws that literature has produced, being prepared to first confine Ellena in a nightmarish nunnery for life, and then simply to wipe her out altogether for having had the temerity to attract her son and threaten the purity of the family line. She is aided and abetted in these machinations by the sinister monk, Father Schedoni, who has his own plans for political advancement in view by providing the Marchesa with what she wants.

This is a tale that is fascinated by the figure of incarceration. Both Vivaldi and Ellena are repeatedly imprisoned in life-threatening circumstances, and the narrative never tires of inventing exotic and unexpected methods of releasing them back into the plot. No sooner have they escaped from one imperilled situation, however, than they are thrown into even more acute danger. Now, you may not know this, but people are far more likely to fall in love with one another in situations of terror or anxiety. Some bright researcher performed a series of tests on men who were interviewed by an attractive woman at first on solid ground and then on a shaky rope bridge suspended above a chasm. There was a significant increase in the degree of attractiveness that the men attributed to the woman when they were on the bridge. This is probably explained by the fact that our first parental experience of love occurs in the context of the child’s uncertain survival. We must be loved by our parents or else our very existence is in doubt. What it means in narrative terms, is that we find it perfectly plausible that two people, who have no knowledge of each other, nothing in common, and everything against their union, should form the deepest of bonds under precisely these circumstances. The greater jeopardy Radcliffe arranges for her lovers, the more we buy into their mutual passion and long for their successful marriage.

Now this takes place within the overarching particularity of an 18th century sensibility. Or to put it a different way, different times allow people to experience and respond to emotions in different ways. The fashion for bodices is no coincidental thing; whilst they have a role to play in sculpting the body from the outside, they equally make the wearer highly attentive to a wildly beating heart. The atmosphere of the novel whips emotions up to a frenzy whilst placing all kinds of restraints – social, religious, moral – around the protagonists. It’s in the contrast between what they feel and what they are allowed to show that we measure the quality of Ellena’s and Vivaldi’s characters. Schedoni’s immense struggle to repress the signs of his own agitation indicate the fundamental weakness of his soul, whilst Ellena’s courage, even in the most fearful situation, her ability to soothe herself with the sights of nature or the grace of an unexpected friendship, demonstrate her superior mental and emotional flexibility. What has surprised me, and that I find myself slightly less able to account for, is the role played by pride in the novel. It is the Marchesa’s pride which means she cannot hope to approve her son’s choice of wife. It is Ellena’s pride which means she is unwilling herself to marry so far above her station (although if my own prospective mother-in-law was trying to kill me, I would probably entertain some doubts about the wisdom of the relationship too). I am wondering whether pride is considered a noble emotion in the 18th century, because this point of contact with the otherwise evil Marchesa is not intended to diminish Ellena in any way.

So for me this has been a novel about competing forces that place at risk the integrity of the individual subject. The characters are all at risk of internal collapse from the pressure of their extreme emotions, and at the same time they must pit their wits against overpowering forces in the outside world: duty, passion, the Inquisition, the supernatural. Or at least that’s what I’m digging out from underneath the racy plot full of adventure, abduction, torture and intrigue. This book has certainly taught me not to dismiss the 18th century as all dreary philosophical tracts and thousand page epistolary novels!

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14 thoughts on “Of Love and Pride

  1. You do give great review!
    I totally related about the brain shift you have to have when you go from something modern to something “antique”. I go back and forth a lot, but it keeps me on my toes.

  2. Great reading! I love what you say about the bodice; the conflict between emotional expression and control is all over the place in the 18C novel and other kinds of narratives. I’m reminded of Elinor from Sense and Sensibility who keeps her emotions inside, unlike her expressive sister Marianne, but Elinor comes across as the one with the more powerful feelings — feelings that we are to admire, partly because she does keep them under control so well. I think that pride, in the sense of knowing who you are, is another contested thing — many 18C novels tell of a heroine who is seemingly of lower or middle class or of uncertain origin turning out in the end to be of noble birth, and this makes the love plot all work out, so nothing in the social order is disrupted. But then there’s Pamela, that successful and hugely influential social climber …

  3. Pingback: The Life « Of Books and Bicycles

  4. Oooo, you put together your thoughts on the novel so well! I picked up on the pride issue as well, mostly with Ellena, and the fact that it acted as a restraint to her emotions for so long was something of a puzzle to me. I put it down to different times as well, although I did feel for poor Vincento when he was faced with her protestations (crazy, murderous mother aside).

    As I read more and more it became clearer why such novels were such popular fodder for women. The female characters pretty much outsmart the men 9 times out of 10

  5. This sounds like quite the roller coaster of a ride novel! What was Radcliffe’s motivation for writing this–high lit, or was it a bit of a potboiler, or something in between? Sounds like fun actually.

  6. Jay – thank you so much and welcome to the site! I did find the time-travelling a bit difficult, but you’re right that it’s good for variety. Dorothy – I wrote this with you so much in mind! I love your phrase ‘pride, in the sense of knowing who you are’. That’s somthing for me to ponder on. Imani – ha! you’re right! All the honours went to the women, really. I’m glad you felt puzzled by the pride thing too. Danielle – you’ve got just the right word for it – it IS a rollercoaster. I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who wanted to try the 18th century.

  7. I liked the analogy about fear and love. It aids my theory that human activity,weather it be intellectualism, communalism, or induvidualism, all boils down to the core instinct of being–survival.And also, I met my first love on a swinging rope bridge.

  8. This sounds like such fun! And what an interesing observation you make about love. I never really paid that much attention, but do I think you’re onto something. Even in modern day movies the male and female characters seem to start kissing more and more as the danger level rises.

  9. Equiano – watered down, transferred to more mundane settings, I don’t see why you couldn’t be spot on there with your Mills & Boon analogy! Kathryn – I stand corrected: Les liaisons dangereuses is an outstanding book in all ways. Ian – now that is a story I would very much like to hear one of these days! Stefanie – the greater the peril, the quicker the hero gets hold of the girl. I think you’re quite right!

  10. As a once prodigious and still occasional reader of contemporary romances (though not of the Mills & Boons variety) I spotted a number of similarities. In my post I said that I spot more similarities to Radcliffe than Austen, who is often labelled as a predecessor.

  11. Thanks for this interesting post about The Italian. Now I’ll have to add another book to the skyscraper stack topped with the logo TBR.

    I haven’t read Ann Radcliffe, excepting The Mysteries of Udolpho, many years since,in relation to Jane Austen, more of whom anon.

    Your post did put me in mind of a few things. This was another stress period in literature. I think you mentioned these in another post linking repression and the fantastic in literature called The Fantastic I. The gothic in general seems to fit that bill. Radcliffe wrote immediately after the French Revolution. In England this event and its horrible aftermath were seen as the result of indulging individualism, the overflow of emotions and instincts. An immensely antagonistic reaction set in as the leaders of society came to fear a similar and equally gruesome fate as the French aristocracy suffered. Supporters of the individualist position against the state were vilified for the smallest transgression in whatever field. Many causes which I think had been going quite well, like democratic enlargement, greater tolerance of religious dissent, feminism and the abolition of the slave trade, probably suffered from this backlash. Perhaps one of the themes Radcliffe tapped into was freedom-restriction, which was at the centre of the debate, and which you highlight as central to the plot: “they must pit their wits against overpowering forces in the outside world: duty, passion, the Inquisition, the supernatural”.
    Her book, as you point out, is strong on the individual under pressure, “a novel about competing forces that place at risk the integrity of the individual subject” and “extreme emotions”. Jane Austen seems to agree. She favours the opposite: controlled emotion, the importance of the state or estate as a cohesive entity and the application of reason. These are topics she pursues in Northanger Abbey, a novel which was published posthumuoustly but begun in the period of Radcliffe’s heyday. Austen’s heroine, Catherine, is led astray by her emotions after reading Udolpho, so that she suspects the hero’s father of ghastly deeds in his home at Northanger Abbey with its historical links to the gothic. She is brought back to “reality”, by the hero, who reminds her that they are in modern day England where such things as she reads of and imagines could never happen.
    Austen is making a clear distinction between her view of life, which appears in line with the general English reaction and Radcliffe’s position, which is more continental. Perhaps that’s how Radcliffe could be so popular, when many of the topics she writes about were so unpopular in England. The English reader could enjoy the thrill of her writing whilst seeing it as foreign. From what I understand Radcliffe’s novels are all set in Europe, never England, are in countries of Catholicism, not Anglicanism, and are set in the past as a further distancing device.

  12. imani – I think (though I’m not an expert here) that romance has a very long and involved tradition, and I’ll bet a lot of different branches of it survive in modern novels. Bookboxed – thank you for such an interesting and informative comment! I always think it is very telling when an author displaces the plot of their novel to a different time or a different country. I think you prove that in a very rich way in your argument here.

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