Sunday, May 31, 2020

Ann Radcliffe: A Sicilian Romance (1790)

View of the Castello di San Giuliano, near Trapani, Sicily by Louise-Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont (c. 1824-26)

[Image source: . The painting is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.]

A Sicilian Romance was Ann Radcliffe's second novel (2 volumes, 1790). It trembles on the brink of the massive popular success that arrived with her third novel, The Romance of the Forest (3 volumes, 1791). All the essential components of her vision are here. I touched on some of them when I wrote about The Mysteries of Udolpho.

There's a strangely compulsive quality to Radcliffe's writing which displays itself as acts of reiteration. At times we are utterly unable to keep track of the number of gloomy corridors, rusted-up doors that may or may not yield to force, or mysterious midnight sounds and lights. Or patriarchal tyranny, or storms, or flight from pursuers, or banditti,  or dungeons, cells and ruins. The reader becomes both strangely lulled and strangely intrigued by the incessant recurrence, by the nearly identical. For example:

The confusion of Julia may be easily imagined
an agony not to be described
a state of anxious expectation not to be described
The effect of this event upon Louisa was such as may be imagined
The effect which the latter part of this sentence had upon the prisoners in the vault, may be more easily imagined than described
During this exclamation, the emotions of Julia, who sat in her closet adjoining, can with difficulty be imagined
a kind of anguish known only to those who have experienced a similar situation
The sensations of Ferdinand, thus compelled to remain in the dungeon, are not to be imagined
innumerable acts of kindness, such as the heart can quickly understand and acknowledge, although description can never reach them
The whole castle was immediately roused, and the confusion may be more easily imagined than described
The transitions of various and rapid sensations, which her heart experienced, and the strangely mingled emotions of joy and terror that agitated Hippolitus, can only be understood by experience
his grief may easily be imagined
it is not easy to imagine their horror on discovering they were in a receptacle for the murdered bodies of the unfortunate people who had fallen into the hands of the banditti
a state of mental torture exceeding all description
the joy of that moment is not to be described
his sensations on learning she was his mother cannot be described

Most of what matters in life eludes being described in words, but what a book cannot describe it can still convey, if the readers undertake, what is both so easy and so difficult, to look in their own hearts. The characters in the story are like ourselves, or the tyrants in our own lives, or its rescuers or comforters: Radcliffe rarely shows her characters displaying unexpected or counter-intuitive responses. The highly-coloured events of a story set formally in sixteenth-century Sicily; the desperate predicaments that entangle ordinary people; these are a way of inducing us to recognize the landscape of our own emotional lives.

The uncanny, after all, is best embodied not so much in the exceptional as in eruptions from the commonplace; night, doors, walls, forests. In Radcliffe's highly charged version of the world, the eerie potential in these everyday facts of our existence is constantly being unleashed. Prolonging an evening stroll beyond its usual bounds is apt to be fraught with consequences.

Julia accustomed herself to walk in the fine evenings under the shade of the high trees that environed the abbey. The dewy coolness of the air refreshed her. The innumerable roseate tints which the parting sun-beams reflected on the rocks above, and the fine vermil glow diffused over the romantic scene beneath, softly fading from the eye, as the nightshades fell, excited sensations of a sweet and tranquil nature, and soothed her into a temporary forgetfulness of her sorrows.
   The deep solitude of the place subdued her apprehension, and one evening she ventured with Madame de Menon to lengthen her walk. They returned to the abbey without having seen a human being, except a friar of the monastery, who had been to a neighbouring town to order provision. On the following evening they repeated their walk; and, engaged in conversation, rambled to a considerable distance from the abbey. The distant bell of the monastery sounding for vespers, reminded them of the hour, and looking round, they perceived the extremity of the wood. They were returning towards the abbey, when struck by the appearance of some majestic columns which were distinguishable between the trees, they paused. Curiosity tempted them to examine to what edifice pillars of such magnificent architecture could belong, in a scene so rude, and they went on.
   There appeared on a point of rock impending over the valley the reliques of a palace, whose beauty time had impaired only to heighten its sublimity. An arch of singular magnificence remained almost entire, beyond which appeared wild cliffs retiring in grand perspective. The sun, which was now setting, threw a trembling lustre upon the ruins, and gave a finishing effect to the scene. They gazed in mute wonder upon the view; but the fast fading light, and the dewy chillness of the air, warned them to return. As Julia gave a last look to the scene, she perceived two men leaning upon a part of the ruin at some distance, in earnest conversation. As they spoke, their looks were so attentively bent on her, that she could have no doubt she was the subject of their discourse. Alarmed at this circumstance, madame and Julia immediately retreated towards the abbey. They walked swiftly through the woods, whose shades, deepened by the gloom of evening, prevented their distinguishing whether they were pursued. They were surprized to observe the distance to which they had strayed from the monastery, whose dark towers were now obscurely seen rising among the trees that closed the perspective. They had almost reached the gates, when on looking back, they perceived the same men slowly advancing, without any appearance of pursuit, but clearly as if observing the place of their retreat. (A Sicilian Romance, beginning of Chapter 10)

[Image source: Wikipedia.]

I listened to A Sicilian Romance on Librivox, an excellent reading by Betsie Bush:



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