As Ann Radcliffe began publishing her three major novels -- __The Romance of the Forest__ (1791), __The Mysteries of Udolpho__ (1794), and __The Italian__ (1797) -- sensibility was a much vexed issue. Mackenzie in 1790 resolutely turns his back on what was at least partially his own creation, writing in his "Account of the German Theater" that sensibility inspires a "mystical sort of enthusiasm" that can be ethically dangerous and even lead to "criminal actions" (quoted in Conger 117). In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft, another advocate of the powers of a feminine sensibility, renounces this position and describes sensibility as imprisoning in its constriction of the rational, "the slow, orderly walk of reason" (quoted in Conger 119). In some respect this distrust of sensibility develops from the ethic's connection with the irrational, feral mobs of the French Revolution and the visceral horror of the Terror that followed. Possibly, Mackenzie seems to think, a morality based on sensibility could lead to a complete abolishment of morality itself. The irony of this situation is the subject of a cartoon in the August 1798 __Anti-Jocobin Review__ depictiong a female Sensibility weeping over a dead bird as she tramples a crowned, severed head (Conger 119). Matthew Lewis in __The Monk__ (1796) also represents the problems of a sensibilious gnosis: a way of knowing founded on the individual's senses is not presented by Lewis as a possible escape from the corrupt institutional powers that deaden the individual self, but instead leads to the corruption of the sensibilious Ambrosio and to the destruction of the naively sensitive Antonia and Elvira. Sade, turning to the problems faced by a post-Revolution work of art that is designed to solicit a response from its readers or viewers, proclaims novels of this sort nearly dead, for what artistic work could rival in "feeling" the Revolution and the Terror ("Idee sur les Romans" 109).
It is within this literary and intellectual landscape skeptical of the ethic and the art of sensibility that Ann Radcliffe lights the fuse of a new literary vogue in England. Her three major novels in six years spawned a multitude of imatators, called for almost immediate translation into all the major European languages, and delineated the workings of the Gothic genre (see Spector 122 passim for more details). These novels call attention to their connection with the tradition of sensibility, and it seems that one of the important questions we must ask is in what ways is Radcliffe's work a critique of sensibility that is demanded by the climate of the 1790's and in what ways is it a defense of sensibility and even a re-visionary project interested in redefining the ethic and art against the distrust of Mackenzie and Wollstonecraft, the transgressions of Lewis, and the political hysteria on the Continent.
Does Radcliffe re-empower feminine sensibility and how does she carry this off if she does? This is a very large question with many different answers, and I see it as the driving force behind a great deal of the recent criticism of Radcliffe. The signals seem so often mixed. Conger claims that through Ellena Radcliffe posits a sensibility that is a private virtue, one that will help in refiguring the individual self, but serves as little use against a Schedoni or a world of "getting and spending." This, however, seems to me to be a vision of sensibility which valorizes isolation, passivity, and quiet suffering. The experience of the sublime beauties of landscape which is the paradigm of this type of private sensibility seems to me very limited and platitudinal when faced with the evils of Schedoni, the aristocratic older generation, or the Inquisition. Other critics such as Coral Ann Howells and Ellen Moers have suggested that Radcliffe explores a particularly feminine psyche with its own anxieties related to suffocating mothers, psychic dependence on patriarchy, and sexual fear. Howells argues that the conventions of the novel of sensibility quite often split or break down in Radcliffe's work (for example, Ellena saves herself from Schedoni rather than having Vivaldi come to her rescue) and that these "moments . . . which never quite fit into the story may be read as the signs of Woman's text written by a female novelist, not a Heroine's text written by a man" (152). Where else do we see this slippage of conventions? Susan Greenfield sees Radcliffe carving out space for a homoerotic relationship between women that is a defense against a violent, oppressing patriarchy. How conscious is Radcliffe of these moments? Is Ellena a powerful enough character to carry the weight of these claims? Why do the most sensibilious characters -- Ellena and Vivaldi -- seem also the thinnest, while Schedoni dominates? Do Radcliffe's heroines ever really change; do they learn how to recombine, redefine themselves, grow in a major way?
In thinking about Radcliffe within the tradition of the novel of sensibility, the contemporary critical reception is strikingly different in that almost all of the readers clearly see Radcliffe's work a play of conventions and are little bothered by the fact. No one ever speaks of Emily St. Aubert or Ellena Rosalba in the sensibilious manner they employ with the nearly breathing and living Clarissa and Werther. Instead, the positive reviews of Radcliffe's novels revel in the pleasures of the conventions, the artifice of the work. The review of __The Italian__ in the __ Monthly Magazine__ recommends the novel to those readers who "have an appetite which can digest improbabilities, they may feast even to satiety upon picturesque descriptions, singular characters, wonderful incidents, and delineations of over powering passions" (Aug. 1797, 120-21; quoted in Rogers 50). In a mixed assessment in __Analytical Review__ usually contributed to Mary Wollstonecraft, __The Italian__ is praised for its artifice: Pictures and scenes are conjured up with happy exuberance; and reason with delight resigns the reins of fancy, till forced to wipe her eyes and recollect, with a sigh, that it is but a dream" (May 1797, 519-20, quoted in Rogers 55). In 1810 a condescending but playful Coleridge writes Wordsworth with a send up of the romance's conventions that exceeds Sedgwick's list quoted by Zack last week:
I amused myself a day or two ago on reading a Romance in Mrs. Radcliffe's style with making out a scheme, which was to serve for all romances a priori -- only varying the proportions -- A Baron or Baroness ignorant of their Birth, and in some dependent situation -- Castle -- on a Rock -- a Sepulchre -- at some distance from the Rock -- Deserted Rooms -- Underground Passage -- Pictures -- A Ghost, so believed -- or -- written record -- blood on it! -- A wonderful Cut throat -- &c &c &c (Letter 808, quoted in Rogers 99).
What does the awareness of the conventions that these reviews suggest mean for the readers of the novel? What does the reliance on overt conventions mean for a novel which aspires to a sensibilious response?
I would begin to reply to these questions by saying that Radcliffe's reader is constantly piqued by an uncertainty in the text, usually a narrative uncertainty such as who is related to whom or how will Vivaldi save Ellena this time. This uncertainty is never very upsetting because the well known conventions reassure the reader that order will be reestablished, Vivaldi and Ellena will make it out alive and get married, the supernatural will be explained away. In this sense __The Italian__ is relieving and cathartic rather than terrifying and anxiety producing. The novel is a way of bringing forward emotions, particularly anxieties (about the faceless authority of Inquisitional-type powers, for example) and then putting them neatly aside; the reader knows that any uncertainty will be dissipated by the time she gets to the end of the work and if the reader doesn't understand this convention then she get a slap on the wrist and feel a bit ashamed, like Vivaldi, for being deluded by the fanciful when all is so clear and rational.
In this view Radcliffe's novels seem to serve very conservative purposes. There is no sense of self-examination and growth in the reader that we have noted as one of the central purposes of High Sensibility. Yet perhaps, Radcliffe's true power lies in some place other than her "terrifying" scenes, a location that is also signaled by the contemporary response.
Most of the contemporary reviewers feel uncomfortable with Radcliffe's "explained supernatural." They want her to fit neatly into their categories of fanciful romance on one hand and realism on the other; Artur Aikin and Coleridge in their reviews of __The Italian__ are not interested in mixing the two genres (see respectively __Monthly Review__ March 1797 and __Critical Review__ June 1798, quoted in Rogers 49 and 57). For Radcliffe, however, the fantastic/gothic and social realism are constantly entwined; her novels aspire for realism even as they are haunted by spirits. This creates a sense of the uncanny, the sense of the strange, the unexplainable, the dangerous, the undefinable within the perfectly every day. Radcliffe doesn't seem to know exactly what to do with this strangeness within the quotidian except to provide an unsatisfying rational explanation for it; her achievement, however, lies in its recognition.
1. All over __Udolpho__, where is sex in __The Italian__? We've seen that sex and sensibility don't easily mix, but they also seem inseparable.
2. Why the gothic? All of Radcliffe's novels are Gothic as they are also adamantly novels of sensibility. Is the Gothic as Louis Bredvold suggests the natural and unavoidable consequece of a literature designed to idealize sensibility in characters and solicit it from readers? Is there a better explanation as to why terror is suddenly so important to sensibility?
3. For Keats the author of __The Italian__ was Mother Radcliffe; for Byron she could sit beside Shakespeare. What is the connection between Radcliffe and the Romantics?
Frank, Frederick. __The First Gothics: A Critical Guide to the English Gothic Novel__. New York: Garland, 1987.
------. __Gothic Fiction: A Master List of Twentieth-Century Criticism and Research__. Westport, CT: Meckler, 1988.
------. __Guide to the Gothic__ Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1984.
Rogers, Deborah D., ed. __The Critical Response to Ann Radcliffe__. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.
------. "Ann Radcliffe in the 1980s: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism." __Extrapolation__ 4 (1991): 343-49.
Spector, Robert Donald. __The English Gothic: A Bibliographic Guide to Writers from Horance Walpole to Mary Shelley__. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984. Spector provides the most extensive bibliographic description of critical workd on Radcliffe, especially for the 18th and 19th centuries.
Foster, James R. __History of the Pre-Romantic Novel in England__. New York: MLA, 1949.
Moorman, Mary. __William Wordsworth: A Biography__, 2 Vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957.
Wright, Walter Francis. "Sensibility in English Prose Fiction 1760-1814: A Reinterpretation." __Illinois Studies in Language and Literature__ 22, Nos. 3-4 (1937).
Varma, Devendra P. __The Gothic Flame__. New York: Russell and Russell, 1966.
Howells, William Dean. __Heroines of Fiction__, 3 Vols. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1903.
Kavanagh, Julia. __English Women of Letters: Biographical Sketches__. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1863.
Kroeber, Karl. __Styles in Fictional Sturcture. The Art of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot__. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.
Moers, Ellen. __Literary Women__. New York: Doubleday, 1963.
Greenfield, Susan C. "Veil Desire" in __The Critical Response to Ann Radcliffe__, ed. Deborah D. Rogers. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Howells, Coral Ann. "The Pleasure of the Woman's Text: Ann Radcliffe's Subtle Transgressions" in __Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression__, ed. Kenneth W. Graham. New York: AMS Press, 1989.