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!