Gothic Utopia: Heretical Sanctuary in Ann Radcliffe's the Italian

By Tooley, Brenda | Utopian Studies, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Gothic Utopia: Heretical Sanctuary in Ann Radcliffe's the Italian


Tooley, Brenda, Utopian Studies


ANN RADCLIFFE PUBLISHED her last Gothic novel, The Italian, in 1797, at the end of a decade of political turmoil and violence occasioned by the French Revolution and the increasingly repressive British response both to events across the Channel and to dissent at home. Radcliffe's Gothic tale participates in a strategy whereby British Gothic writers situate their novels at a discreet distance (spatially and/or temporally) from current events while at the same time commenting upon political and familial questions sparked by the Revolutionary decade. In The Italian a poor but independent heroine is abducted by the Marchesa Vivaldi, the mother of the wealthy nobleman with whom she has fallen in love; the heroine is incarcerated in a convent from which she is rescued by her lover; she is again captured, this time by Schedoni, a priest and confident of the Marchesa, while Vivaldi is entrapped by Schedoni and imprisoned in the Inquisition. Schedoni soon discovers that he is apparently Ellena's father (as it turns out, he is instead her uncle). This changes his plans, as he is about to murder Ellena when he recognizes her as his `daughter'; instead, he returns Ellena to a benevolently administered convent, where she is eventually joined by her long-lost mother and remains for the rest of the novel (with an excursion to Schedoni's deathbed to witness his final confession). The Marchesa dies repentant; Vivaldi and Ellena marry.

Initial British interest in and approval of the Revolution was quickly superseded by general disapproval and finally, in many quarters, by a revulsion supported by governmental strictures against the radical press and radical spokesmen and a powerful propaganda movement amongst conservative journalists. Gothic novels of the '90s participated in the cultural debates taking place at the time by staging various conflicts between representatives of the feudal past (old, often male, authority figures) and representatives of the dawning modern era (young, beleaguered, often female figures of sensibility). The portrayal of the mansion as prison, the Inquisition as dungeon, the patriarch as murderous figure of traditional authority, and Catholicism as a labyrinthean organization dependent upon superstition and fear for its continuance underwrites a fictional mode that enables a certain limited cultural critique interwoven with affective pleasures, although as social critique gothic conventions are almost endlessly appropriable. Such social critique is interwoven throughout The Italian, which consistently uses the language of `rights' to signal the suffering and relatively passive heroism of its male and female protagonists in their opposition to the feudal machinations of Vivaldi's mother, the Marchesa, and the tyranny and corruption of the Catholic Church. The Italian also incorporates a compelling, complex vision of a utopian enclave within the heart of the very institutions most sharply delineated as corrupt and oppressive. I will focus here upon the purposes and paradoxes of this utopian enclave.

Radcliffe's The Italian presents an alternative to the novel's world of institutionalized violence in the convent of the Santa della Pieta, to which Ellena retires after her `rescue' by her pseudo-father/uncle Schedoni. Radcliffe's description of the convent is centered upon the maternal authority of the abbess, whose governance creates a space for a family of sisters and whose indifference to doctrinal rigor sanctions silent deviance from what Radcliffe constructs as a norm of Catholic intolerance. However, I argue that this utopian space--safe as it is from the machinery of persecution--is dependent upon the larger structure that enables its existence as much as it is an enclave of unregulated freedom of conscience that calls a certain `Gothic' representation of Catholic orthodoxy into question. This complicity engages with a textual tradition of proposals for and sketches of utopian women's community. …

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