This lesson summarizes Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance and provides some analysis of the major themes found in the novel, including an introduction to the Gothic.
Introduction to the Gothic
The Gothic is a genre of literature that focuses on the dark elements of the human experience, both physical and mental. The first Gothic novel was The Castle of Otranto, written by Horace Walpole in 1764. Walpole was the first to include many of the elements and themes that would come to define the Gothic: castles, heroines in distress, malevolent fathers, and supernatural entities.
Walpole’s novel inspired many imitators, but the genre didn’t become truly popular until Ann Radcliffe took over in the 1790s. Her novel The Mysteries of Udolpho was an astounding success followed by the even more successful The Italian. Radcliffe suddenly quit writing after this last novel, however, and no one knows why. Still, she is credited with restarting interest in the genre, which influenced some famous novels that endure today, such as Frankenstein and Dracula.
Summary of the Novel
A Sicilian Romance was Radcliffe’s second novel published in 1790. It centers on a pair of sisters, Julia and Emilia, living in Sicily. Their mother is supposed to have died, and they are raised in part by their cruel stepmother. Julia is the focus of the narrative’s action. She falls in love with Hippolitus, but her father, who is stern and dominating, wants her to marry the Duke de Luovo. With the help of some servants, Julia escapes the castle where her family lives with the plan to elope with Hippolitus.
Their plan is foiled, however, and Hippolitus is captured. Julia runs away again and hides out in a confusing system of subterranean caverns. After much intrigue involving flight and pursuit, Julia ends up in an uninhabited wing of her family’s home. She finds that her mother has been there the whole time. Julia’s father and mother die during the climatic final scenes, and Julia reunites with Hippolitus.
Analysis of Major Themes
The first thing to note about A Sicilian Romance is the setting. Even though Radcliffe never visited Italy, she set all her important novels there. Since Italy was Catholic and England was Protestant, the two countries seemed, in many ways, like different worlds. In addition, Radcliffe usually set her novels in the past to add to the displacement felt when reading. Setting her novel in Italy also allowed Radcliffe to take advantage of the profound feeling of the sublime.The sublime is triggered when you feel the vastness of nature and the fear of impending death. Imagine standing over the Grand Canyon without a rail for support.
That sweeping, nervous feeling is something like the sublime. Radcliffe’s heroines are constantly experiencing the sublime, looking out over wide vistas and standing at deep precipices. At one point, Julia experiences a ‘view so various and sublime, that she paused in thrilling and delightful wonder. A group of wild and grotesque rocks rose in a semicircular form, and their fantastic shapes exhibited Nature in her most sublime and striking attitudes.
‘Lastly, Radcliffe began her use of flight and pursuit that would become a theme of the Gothic novel. Julia regularly runs from danger and is chased by people who wish to do her harm. In fact, much of the middle half of the novel is concerned with running, hiding, and being caught. It gets a little repetitive, yet it did influence many later writers. In fact, Frankenstein features many scenes of flight and pursuit.
In this lesson, we learned about the Gothic genre and some of its defining elements. We also learned about how Ann Radcliffe became an extraordinarily popular writer by continuing the example set by Horace Walpole in The Castle of Otranto. Finally, we summarized her novel A Sicilian Romance and talked about some big themes that the novel introduces, such as foreign settings, the sublime, and the focus on flight on pursuit.