Arora Response

Ann Radcliffe

The Italian


Sense and Sensibility in Ann Radcliffe's The Italian, Or the Confessional of the Black Penitents

"Oh!" cried Marianne, "with what transporting sensations have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feeling have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hostily off, and driven as much as possible from the sight.

"It is not everyone," said Elinor, "who has your passion for dead leaves." Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Twelve times did the iron register of time beat on the sonorous bell-metal, summoning the ghosts to rise and walk their nightly round.--In plainer language, it was twelve o'clock. Henry Fielding, Tom Jones


Ann Radcliffe's notions of the gothic are plain in comparison to her precursors, Walpole, Reeve, and Lewis. The gothic paraphernalia which is so prominent in the fictions of the aforementioned are all explained, are all rationalized by Radcliffe. The world of mystery, terror, and horror is one contrived by superstition, imagination, sublimity, and sensibility.

In Radcliffe's novels sensibility is linked to the irrational, a man or woman of feeling is more subject to nocturnal and spectral musings. In the earlier The Mysteries of Udulpho, Emily St. Aubert, the heroine, is warned by her father about sensibility: "Beware, my love, I conjure you, of that self-delusion, which has been fatal to the peace of so many persons; beware of priding yourself of the gracefulness of sensibility" (80). This is advice which Emily does not exactly internalize, as she weeps and faints some seven times in the course of the novel, but she does later respond by saying "I do indeed percieve how much more valuable is the strength of fortitude than the grace of sensibility, and I will also endeavour to fulfil the promise I then made; I will not indulge in unavailing lamentation, but will try to endure, with firmness the oppression I cannot elude" (214).

In The Italian there are not such explicit references to the dangers of sensibility, as the characters display greater fortitude, but Schedoni's scheme rests upon Vivaldi's irrationality. On his deathbed he says to Vivaldi, that "the ardour of your imagination was apparent, and what ardent imagination ever was contested to trust to plain reasoning, or to the evidence of the senses? It may not willingly confine itself to the dull truths of this earth, but, eager to expand its faculties, to fill its capacity, and to experience its own peculiar delights, soars after new wonders into a world of its own" (397-398). Vivaldi discounts his senses and common sense for the fantastic, for the cryptic and the crypt. His passions and feelings induce him to produce gothic paraphernalia.

Paulo seems to realize this phenomena when he says that the "fear of starving has taken such hold upon me, that it has nearly anticipated the reality of it already" (99). It is fear and the wanting to feel fear which dulls reason and creates a haunted reality. But in Radcliffe's gothic it can never create reality; a comment upon Ellena's imagination demonstrates this inability, as "even her fears could not give shape to it [spectre] beyond" (214). There is no beyond, there is no supernatural.

However, this equation between sensibility and superstition is not so tidy as Schedoni, Ellena, and Vivaldi all demonstrate variables of that equation. Schedoni has an interesting relation to reason as he is a man of no feeling. He is described as follows:

He seldom perceived truth when it lay on the surface; he could follow it through all the labyrinths of disquisition, but overlooked it, when it was undisguised before him. In fact he cared not for truth, nor sought it by bold and broad argument, but loved to exert the wily cunning of his nature in hunting it through artificial perplexitities. At length, from a habit of intricacy and suspicion, his vitiated mind could receive nothing for truth, which was simple and easily comprehended. (34)

[F]eelings which, while he contemnded, he believed he perfectly comprehended, but of which, having never in any degree experienced them, he really understood nothing. The callous Schedoni, by a mistake not uncommon, especially to a mind of his character, substituuted words for truths; not mistaking their very principles. Incapable of perceiving their nice distinctions, he called the persons who saw them, merely fanciful... And while he confounded delicacy of feeling with fatuity of mind, taste with caprice, and imagination with error, he yielded, when he most congratulated himself on his sagacity, to illusions not less egregious, because they were less brilliant, than those which are incident to sentiment and feeling.

Schedoni utilizes reason, but it is labyrinthine reason, it is rhetoric meant to satisfy his needs for power. The illusions of reason he creates are just as damaging as the excess of sensibility.

When he becomes sensible of certain feelings, when he finds himself unable to dig Ellena's watery grave, he is perplexed. "He knew not by what doctrine to explain the inconsistencies, the contradictions, he experienced, and, perhaps, it was not one of the least that in these moments of direful and conflicting passions, his reason could still look down upon their operations, and lead him to a cool, though brief examination of his own nature. But the subtlety of self-love still eluded his enquiries, and he did not detect that pride was even at this instant of self-examination, and of critical import, the master-spring of his mind" (225). Schedoni still has some reason, still has sway over the passions generated by the plight of Ellena, but his pride swells and bloats that reason. This is perhaps why he and Spalatro are subject to the same gothic paraphernalia of mysterious voices and fleeting shadows to which gothic heroes and heroines are so often subject.

One odd moment comes when Schedoni is so overwhelmed by "parental affections," that he "wished to plunge where no eye might restrain his emotions, or observe the overflowing anguish of his heart" (239). Schedoni feels but unlike figures of sensibility earlier encountered he does not want an audience, he does not want his tears colored with the reflection of another.

Finally, these "nice distinctions" of feeling manifest when the sensibilious characters, Ellena and Vivaldi have moments of temperance, of strength derived from both feeling and reason. This occurs when Ellena challenges the abbess: "I am prepared to meet whatever suffering you shall inflict upon me; but be assured, that my own voice never shall sanction the evils to which I may be subjected, and that the immortal love of justice which fills all my heart, will sustain my courage no less powerfully than the sense of what is due to my own character" (84). This occurs when Vivaldid challenges the machinery of the Inquisition: "While meditating upon these horrors, Vivaldi lost every selfish consideration in astonishment and indignation of the sufferings, which the frenzied wickedness of man prepares for man... His passions, thus restrained, seemed to become virtues, and to display themselves in the energy of courage and fortitude. His soul became stern and vigorous in despair, and his manner and countenance assumed a calm dignity, which seemed to awe, in some degree, even his guards" (198).

These three characters negotiate the web of sense and sensibility, reason and feeling, and each at moments offers a moment of equilibrium. One question might be how does Paulo negotiate this web? He is certainly the figure of the comic servant, but what other character dislays so much benevolence, sympathy, and compassion. He is the character who intrudes upon the machinery of the Inquistion, who intrudes upon the mansion of Count di Maro and those Italian grandees. He is also the character who concludes the novel, with his notions of carnival and speech. Does he display a sort of graceless sensibility if such a concept exists, after all he does display a certain affection for the irrational.