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The Queen of Gothic,
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This review is from: A Sicilian Romance (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)
A Sicilian Romance, Ann Radcliffe's second novel, was published at the beginning of what was to be a remarkable decade for Gothic fiction. The genre may have existed since Horace Walpole's novel The Castle of Otranto appeared in 1764 but it was only with the 1790s, and with Radcliffe in particular, that Gothic fiction really came into its own. A Sicilian Romance takes many of the elements that defined the genre: there is a fiendish Italian nobleman with a poisonous wife and two beautiful daughters; he lives in a decaying castle, the south wing of which is reputedly haunted; he is surrounded by servants who range from the cowardly to the downright sinister and he clearly has secrets buried deep in his past. When his daughter, Julia, decides she doesn't want to marry the suitor her father has chosen for her and flees the castle the stage is set for a whole series of beautifully Gothic set pieces.
One of Radcliffe's great gifts as a novelist was her ability to describe landscape in a beautifully haunting fashion. During A Sicilian Romance Julia is pursued through moonlit forests; seeks shelter from a thunderstorm in a decaying monastery; contemplates the possibility of happiness while sitting on the shore of a sun-dappled lake and views the world from the lower slopes of windswept mountains. In a sense very little of this advances the plot but the descriptions do trigger an emotional response in the reader, awakening a sense of the beautiful and sublime in the landscape around us and thus setting the ground for the Gothic shocks lurking just around the corner. The plot, when you examine it, does seem a touch contrived (the thugish knights pursuing Julia continually miss her while her former companion stumbles across her straight away while strolling somewhat aimlessly down a hillside) but in a way that doesn't matter. Gothic fiction isn't really about tightly drawn plots and it certainly isn't about plausibility, it's about triggering a sense of fear and wonder and in that respect A Sicilian Romance, like most of Radcliffe's work, succeeds admirably.
I really enjoyed A Sicilian Romance, if you're looking for a way in to the weird and wonderful world of early Gothic fiction this is a great place to start. It's with Radcliffe that the frequently daft but fascinating excesses of Gothic become merged with a brilliant eye for description and effect. Nobody before Radcliffe, and very few since, could describe a crumbling monastery as seen on a summer's night by the flashes of distant lightning as well as she could. Her scene setting is superb and even her characters take on a depth that puts many of the cardboard cutouts of her predecessors to shame. It's no surprise that when Jane Austen took an affectionate dig at Gothic fiction in her novel Northanger Abbey she set Radcliffe up as the definitive example of the genre. For all of its implausibilities A Sicilian Romance is a very good novel and it shows the author well on her way to the heights of Udolpho and The Italian. Sublime, in every sense of the word.