Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance

The approach of Halloween is a perfect time to read a book by Ann Radcliffe, the mistress of the Gothic novel. Although she lived until 62, she is remembered for a brief 8-year time-span. Between the ages of 25 and 33, she wrote 5 novels that made her a literary legend. Amazingly enough, at the height of fame and fortune, she retired her pen and lived a contented but secluded life with her journalist husband (Miles 1995, 24-27).

A highly private person, Ann Radcliffe remains an unknown figure to us today. When Christina Rossetti decided to write Radcliffe’s biography, she had to abandon the project for lack of information (Miles 1995, 21).

What we do know is that her first two novels – The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789) and A Sicilian Romance (1790) sold well. By the time she published her third novel, The Romance of the Forest (1791), Radcliffe could essentially set her own price. Her fourth novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), was a blockbuster at the time, establishing her reputation across Europe. The Italian (1797) was also very popular with readers. (Grant 1951). According to Murray (1972), Radcliffe achieved fame that no novelist before her had ever done, not even Henry Fielding or Samuel Richardson (19).

In A Sicilian Romance, the Marquis of Mazzina demands that his daughter Julia marry a wealthy Count whom she does not love. On the eve of her wedding, Julia breaks out of the castle and flees for her life. She is eventually pursued by the Marquis, the Count, and their servants through caverns, monasteries, underground vaults, and winding castle corridors. The narrative is filled with tension-filled suspense and numerous surprises. Inset stories and subplots expand upon the theme of tyrannical parental authority and the plight of women in the 18th century.

The suspenseful plot and mysterious atmosphere of the eighteenth-century Gothic novel greatly influenced later mystery novelists (see my blog on the Gothic impact on the mystery novel). Few authors make more effective use of haunting settings than Ann Radcliffe. Typical features of the Gothic novel such as, “battered castles, abbeys, subterranean passages, flickering candles, bats, rusty locks, creaking doors, dungeons, skulls, blood-encrusted daggers, darkness, dankness, and mold” (Murray 1972, 14), provide a fitting backdrop to Radcliffe’s narratives of psychological suspense.

A Sicilian Romance is not noteworthy for characters. Nor will you read it for the language; the prose is stilted and artificial. What you will enjoy is the exciting plot and the haunting setting.

The novel is still in print after two centuries; this public domain book is freely available from the Gutenberg site. If you are in the mood for a ghostly tale set in exotic 16th century Sicily, do not miss A Sicilian Romance.

Grant, Aline. Ann Radcliffe: A Biography. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1951.

Miles, Robert. Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Murray, E. B. Ann Radcliffe. New York: Twayne, 1972.

Radcliffe, Ann. A Sicilian Romance. 1790. New York: Arno Press, 1972.