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First published in 1797, The Italian is one of the finest examples of Gothic romance. The fast-paced narrative centers on Ann Radcliffe's most brilliant creation, the sinister monk Schedoni, whose past is shrouded in mystery. Ann Radcliffe had gained notoriety from several of her earlier works, most noticeably The Romance of the Forest in 1791 and The Mysteries of Udolpho in 1794. Radcliffe crafted a brand of explained supernaturalism (which owed not a little to the early novels of Charlotte Smith) that struck a chord with British readers during the anxious 1790s. Many readers prefer The Italian and the oft-overlooked The Romance of the Forest to the essential Gothic text, The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Ann Radcliffe (9 July 1764 – 7 February 1823) was an English author, and a pioneer of the Gothic novel. Her style is romantic in its vivid descriptions of landscapes, and long travel scenes, yet the Gothic element is obvious through her use of the supernatural. It was her technique of explained Gothicism, the final revelation of inexplicable phenomena, that helped the Gothic novel achieve respectability in the 1790s. Ann Radcliffe was the most popular writer of her day and almost universally admired. Contemporary critics called her the mighty enchantress and the Shakespeare of romance-writers. Her popularity continued through the nineteenth century; for Keats, she was Mother Radcliffe, and for Scott, the first poetess of romantic fiction. Radcliffe created the novel of suspense by combining the Gothic romance of Walpole with the novel of sensibility, which focused on the proper, tender heroine and emphasized the love interest.
Several Gothic novels are mentioned in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, including most importantly The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian. Austen also satirizes Clermont, a Gothic novel by Regina Maria Roche. This last is included in a list of seven somewhat obscure Gothic works, known as the 'Northanger horrid novels' as recommended by Isabella Thorpe to Catherine Morland:
“Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”
The Monthly Review, 1797 — We discern much more unity and simplicity in this than in the former publications of the fair writer; the attention never flags in the perusal; nor do inferior interests engage the reader, to the prejudice of the chief characters. The impetuous Marchesa, the stern, intriguing, terrific Schedoni, and the amiable, pensive Olivia, interesting as they are of themselves, become doubly so by their connection with Vivaldi and Ellena. The consultation in the church of San Nicolo between the Marchesa and Schedoni is a most striking and impressive scene; and the examination of Vivaldi at the Tribunal of the Inquisition is wrought up with great spirit and address.
The posthumous works of Anne Radcliffe, 1833 — "The Italian" has more unity of plan than "The Mysteries of Udolpho " and its pictures are more individual and distinct; but it has far less tenderness and beauty. Its very introduction, unlike the gentle opening of the former romance, impresses the reader with awe. Its chief agent, Schedoni, is most vividly painted; and yet the author contrives to invest him with a mystery, which leads us to believe, that even her image is inadequate to the reality.