Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Designing and Undrawing Veils: Anxiety and Authorship in Radcliffe's the Italian

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Designing and Undrawing Veils: Anxiety and Authorship in Radcliffe's the Italian

Article excerpt

On the final page of Ann Radcliffe's The Italian (1797), we are confronted with a paradox in the guise of a comic Shakespearean epilogue. The loyal and rustic Paulo, giddy at the end of the novel's terrors, begins making quasi-sensical exclamations: "May fly in the sea, or swim in the sky, or tumble head over heels into the moon! For remember, my good friends, we have no lead in our consciences to keep us down!"1 When pressed as to his meaning by a "grave personage," Paulo responds:

"Pshaw! . . . who can stop at such a time as this, to think about what he means! I wish that all those, who on this night are not merry enough to speak before they think, may ever after be grave enough to think before they speak! But you, none of you, no! not one of you! I warrant, ever saw the roof of a prison, when your master happened to be down below in a dungeon. . . . But no matter for that, you can be tolerably happy, perhaps, notwithstanding; but as for guessing how happy I am, or knowing any thing about the matter.-O! It's quite beyond what you can understand."2

On its own, this improvised doctrine is simple enough. Indeed, placed as it is as a sort of moral for the story, one would expect it to tie together the novel's philosophical loose ends-and yet this is precisely the contradiction. The moral of the book is something much closer to the exact opposite of Paulo's epilogue: think before you speak.

The novel begins with a demonstration of exactly this moral: "innocent and happy in the silent performance of her duties and in the veil of retirement, lived Ellena Rosalba, when she first saw Vincentio di Vivaldi."3 Ellena is "struck by the spirit and dignity of his air" and his countenance "which announce[d] the energies of the soul." And yet, acting according to the rule of Paulo's grave interlocutor, "she was cautious of admitting a sentiment more tender than admiration, and endeavored to dismiss his image from her mind, and by engaging in her usual occupations, to recover the state of tranquility, which his appearance had somewhat disrupted." The work that gives her such tranquility is what would be called, then and now, design: she draws up plans for furniture and embroiders dresses. Because Ellena has a veritable "genius" for this art she is able to sell her "designs" to local nuns (a community of women, perhaps resembling an idealized reading public composed primarily of female readers), thus enabling her to earn money, practice her art, and maintain a quiet, unobserved existence.4 We learn that Vivaldi is unable to perceive Ellena through her "veil of retirement"-he has many times observed her products and designs, but has never seen the artist behind the veil. An admission of her authorship, in fact, would have served only to "encrease the passion . . . it would have been prudent to discourage."5 Thus it is not merely an inherent desire for tranquility that compels Ellena into seclusion, but also a "disparity of fortune" and a pressing social concern to maintain the status quo.

Situated at the very beginning of the novel, Ellena's "veil of retirement" provocatively implies a sort of "false-retirement" in which a bourgeois artist, though apparently inactive, is at work behind the scenes. It has been common to read The Italian as fairly conscious "last book,"6 and it would therefore be reasonable to read this "veil of retirement" in relation to both Ellena and Radcliffe herself, dodging her growing cult of celebrity. Critics have suggested that the Gothic novel, and Radcliffe's Italian in particular, are "self-conscious," meticulously constructed narratives that inevitably end up revealing that their narratives are, in fact, constructed-constructed from other narratives, constructed by a writer, and constructed for a particular reason.7 Indeed, as Michel Foucault says of Radcliffe in his famous "What Is an Author?": "her function as an author exceeds her own work."8 I shall argue that Radcliffe is very much aware of her function as an author, not only as the active and quasi-masculine "initiator of a discourse" (the English Gothic novel), but also as a woman observed and scrutinized because of this authority. …

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