The Italian is the first of Ann Radcliffe’s novels that I’ve read. I can certainly see why Jane Austen just couldn’t help herself and had to parody this style of book in Northanger Abbey. The absurdly complicated and melodramatic plot that relies on so many ridiculous coincidences was too easy a target to be ignored. The other great fault of the book is that the characterisations are just too black and white.
The book does have considerable strengths though. Radcliffe is exceptionally good at creating suspense and in ratchetting up the tension. Her prose is pleasing, and although she’s been criticised for going overboard with the descriptive passages I didn’t find that a problem at all in The Italian. It’s also worth considering that a reader in the 1790s would probably have found it easier to empathise with characters like the Marchese and his wife and their obsession with family honour.
Despite its faults The Italian is reasonably entertaining. Radcliffe’s feeling for landscape and the way she relates the landscape to the story and to the emotional states of her characters and to their situations are also impressive.
Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) was one of the pioneers of gothic fiction and was possibly the most popular author of her day.
Of the early gothic novels I’ve read I still prefer Matthew Lewis’s The Monk but I do want to read more of Radcliffe’s novels.