A Sicilian Romance is a gothic novel first published more than two hundred years ago, in 1790. Set in the late sixteenth century, it’s the story of two sisters, Julia and Emilia, the daughters of the fifth marquis of Mazzini. After the death of the girls’ mother, the marquis marries again and as his second wife prefers to spend her time in Naples, he leaves his daughters living alone in his ancient castle in Sicily with only the servants for company. When their father returns to the island and informs Julia that he has arranged a marriage for her, she rebels against his choice of husband, putting her life in danger. Meanwhile several of the castle’s inhabitants report hearing strange noises and seeing mysterious lights shining in an abandoned part of the building. Is the castle haunted?
This is not the first Ann Radcliffe novel I’ve read; I had previously enjoyed both The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, so when I saw that the theme of the latest Classics Circuit tour was the early gothic novel, I decided to try another Radcliffe book. This one was shorter and less satisfying than the other two I’ve read, but in a lot of ways it was very similar. All of her books are perfect examples of gothic literature and have everything you would expect from a gothic novel: An old castle with crumbling staircases and dark, dusty chambers, locked doors, family secrets, lonely monasteries, bandits, shipwrecks, dungeons and underground tunnels, thunder and lightning, and almost anything else you can think of.
I’ve found that reading early gothic novels requires a different approach to normal. You need to be prepared for lots of melodrama and it’s necessary to completely suspend disbelief because in reality nobody would ever find themselves in the situations Radcliffe’s characters find themselves in. I hope not anyway! The characters also tend not to be as well developed as you would expect in a more modern novel and are usually portrayed as either completely good or completely evil. A Sicilian Romance features two beautiful heroines, a brave, handsome nobleman, and a wicked stepmother, among other stereotypes. The storyline is predictable and relies heavily on coincidences, last-minute escapes and other typical plot devices found in this type of book. It’s almost impossible to take these books seriously, but if you can accept them for what they are, they can be fun to read.
I should also mention that there are some beautifully written descriptions of the Sicilian scenery (although there’s not as much descriptive writing as in The Mysteries of Udolpho, which made this book easier to read and much faster-paced). I enjoyed this book but I think The Italian is still my favourite Radcliffe novel.
Visit the Classics Circuit blog to discover more early gothic literature.