This year, Adam over at Roof Beam Reader picked Northanger Abbey as the readalong choice for his Austen in August event. It reminded me that I’ve been meaning to read Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance, since it served as Austen’s “inspiration” for Northanger Abbey. How fun it was to romp around Sicily with it, and how fun it was to imagine Jane Austen reading it and writing Northanger Abbey in response.
A Sicilian Romance is a Gothic romance written in 1790, so be prepared for lots and lots of drama and even more unbelievable coincidences. There are sinister dukes, evil stepmothers, and plotting padres, all out to get the young, virtuous women (who have a propensity for weeping and fainting). But if you can suspend your disbelief for a little while and if you enjoy talking to a story’s protagonists (“Calm down, Julia, a lifeless body is NOT the same as a dead body!”), then this one is a fun one. Thankfully, it’s also a relatively short one; I’m not sure how much longer I could have taken.
The setup is pretty clever: One day, a traveler notices the ruin of a castle—Sicily is apparently littered with ruins of castles, some romantically spooky and some romantically beautiful—and inquires in a nearby convent how this particular castle has fallen into disrepair. Ah, what luck! The convent just happens to have a written account of the story of the family of Mazzini, which used to lived in the castle. And what a story it is!
After spending many years in isolation, sisters Emilia and Julia find out that their father is returning to his castle, together with his second wife and his son, their brother, Ferdinand. Among the many people the Marquis of Mazzini is bringing along is Ferdinand’s best friend Hippolitus, who quickly falls in love with Julia. Since the stepmother wants Hippolitus for herself, she convinces the Marquis that he should marry Julia off to another man, and he promptly selects a duke whose previous wives have all died of despair. But the love of Hippolitus gives sheltered Julia the strength to dare an escape before the unwanted marriage. Alas, the escape is foiled. Ferdinand is thrown into the dungeon, Hippolitus is stabbed and carried off, and Julia runs into the wilderness.
Thus begins a merry chase across Sicily. In addition to lots of ruins, the island also has lots of rocky mountains, which provide various degrees of shelter, depending on the moonlight; dark woods, where hordes of banditti wait for unsuspecting or helpless travelers; and convents inhabited by monks and nuns of various degrees of piety. Caves and ruins all boast secret doors, most of which cannot be opened on first try and can only be opened from one side. Helpful hint #1: Before walking through a strange door, check to see whether it is a spring door! Helpful hint #2: If you see a light in the dark woods at night, you are bound to meet someone you know. This person will either help you and then you are both caught by robbers, or this person has already been caught by robbers and your gasp upon recognizing the person will alert the robbers to your presence. Maybe not get caught in the woods after dark! Then again, you are likely to escape no matter how agonizing the capture, and, after much anguish, you will meet again the people you love.
I have no problem with suspending disbelief before I start reading something like A Sicilian Romance, but I do wonder why the protagonists don’t learn from their mistakes. If you get caught by banditti, and it is so frightening that even the valiant men who have bravely fought many horrendous battles weep, then why go back into the woods as soon as you have escaped and calmed down? If you have just left behind a ruin with a vibe so terrifying that you can hardly move, would you not at least hesitate to approach the next ruin you come across? That’s my beef with the protagonists—although admittedly, the story would have been much less fun to read if they actually learned from their mistakes. My beef with the author is that she frequently describes horrible things as being so horrible that “they cannot be described by mere words.” The anguish is so bad that only someone who has felt this anguish can know how bad it is. Hmm, since I have never been caught by banditti or chained in a dungeon awaiting an unwanted marriage, I would have liked a little more detail here. But perhaps that would have been too much for the tender 18th-century audience. I guess it’s enough if the protagonists faint; you don’t want the readers to follow suit.
Of course, in the end, everyone is united, and even poor Emilia, who has spent the majority of the novel in anguish in her room, recovers enough to have a happy life. Conveniently, this is exactly where the manuscript stops, and the narrator has just enough time to add a moral of the story. Ah, I can just hear Catherine Morland sigh in contentment upon finishing A Sicilian Romance.
There is one little thing that bugs me. I don’t understand how the Marquis and his second wife could be “interred with the honor due to their rank in the church of the convent of St Nicolo.” Both have committed horrible crimes, and one of them commits suicide. Should they not have been excommunicated in Catholic Italy? Maybe the Victorians didn’t care much about that? In any case, this was a fun read for RIP XII.