Book club

A Sicilian Romance: Our Readers’ Verdicts

Our readers had mixed feelings about A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe. While they described it as ‘pacey’, a ‘page turner’ and an ‘entertaining easy read’, the general consensus was that they enjoyed it less than our previous eighteenth-century novel, Letters of a Peruvian Woman by Françoise de Graffigny.

As discussed in our previous blog post, Ann Radcliffe helped to define the gothic genre in late eighteenth century Britain. A Sicilian Romance was her second novel and one in which she was still shaping her approach to the gothic. In fact, it was her subsequent three novels that she became most well-known for: The Romance of the Forest, The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, and The Italian.

Beaumont, George Howland, 1753-1827; Peele Castle in a Storm, Cumbria
George Howland Beaumont, Peele Castle in a Storm, Cumbria, c. 1800, Leicester Arts and Museums Service, L.F49.1986.0.0

A Sicilian Romance is set in sixteenth-century Sicily, and unfolds among a gothic landscape of shadowy caves and melancholy castles. We follow the story of eighteen-year-old Julia Mazzini, whose father is forcing her into an unwanted marriage to the cruel Duke de Luovo. After falling in love with the handsome Hippolitus, who is stabbed helping Julia to escape, Julia runs away, and we follow her journey through Sicily as she tries to evade capture.

Our readers both online and at Mycenae House took issue with the relentless set pieces and daring escapes, the number of coincidences where characters happen upon one another in convents or in the woods, and the lack of moral complexity in the characters, who are all either entirely virtuous or downright tyrannical. One significant issue was the amount of fainting in the text, particularly by Julia, the lead character – who even manages to faint while on horseback! Readers felt that her fainting was irritating and showed women as excessively helpless and feeble.

However, we discussed with our readers another way of thinking about Julia’s fainting. The novel was published in 1790 at the height of the cult of sensibility, which swept across Europe from the 1730s to the 1790s. During this period, emotional sensitivity marked a person out as being particularly moral and civilised. We can see Julia’s sensibility in how she is ‘uncommonly susceptible’ to external stimuli such as music, with which her feelings ‘trembled in unison’. And so while Julia’s fainting strikes us today as ridiculous, when the book was written it would almost certainly have been understood differently. Rather, Julia’s physical delicacy and capacity for feeling strong emotions (shown through blushing, crying, trembling and fainting) would have marked her out as virtuous and refined.

This led us to a discussion of Julia’s situation in the novel, and the impact of patriarchal structures on her life, particularly through her father’s attempts to marry her off to the cruel Duke de Luovo. Some readers wondered whether the book was a commentary on eighteenth-century society. However, we discussed the possibility that the book was, instead, contrasting the contemporary vogue for marriage for love with a deliberately ‘medieval’ view. Rather than reflecting on present society, once more the novel can be seen as ‘showing’ how enlightened and civilised contemporary society is by endorsing marriage for love (represented by Hippolitus), rather than for status or economic gain (represented by the Duke).

Ann Radcliffe was best known for creating her own style of the gothic, which became known as the ‘explained supernatural’. As one newspaper explained in 1794: ‘Supernatural semblances are very prevalent, and the address of the writer is seen in their natural solution’.[1] While creating a sense of mystery, terror or suspense that leads readers to suspect supernatural forces such as ghosts, she then explains it with natural causes. We discussed this in the group and it puzzled some of our readers, who were disappointed that supernatural occurrences were all so easily explained away by the author.

Another theme of Radcliffe’s work that we discussed at length was her engagement with the sublime, influenced by Edmund Burke’s hugely influential treatise on the subject.[2] Burke sought to define the sublime, and to distinguish it from the beautiful. He argued that it was pleasing to the mind (and sublime) to create sensations of terror:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.[3]

Burke explored how the natural world in particular could inspire awe or dread, and generate musings on infinity. There are several incidences in A Sicilian Romance where characters experience the sublime, such as the ‘bold concave of the heavens, uniting with the vast expanse of the ocean’ on the Sicilian coast, creating a ‘striking and sublime’ scene that inspires Julia with delight. This encounter with vast landscapes created a ‘delightful horror,’ in the beholder – ‘a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror’.

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
A sublime scene by J. M. W Turner (1775-1851) Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich, oil on canvas, exhibited 1842, Tate, N00530

Our group discussed whether the ‘sublime’ is a particular emotional experience that has disappeared over time (like other ‘lost’ emotions such as acedia). We considered whether we had ourselves experienced sublime moments. Two people shared examples: one described the sensation of being lost in the pine forests of northern Scotland as night fell, and the other described the feeling of being alone in miles and miles of cornfields in the American mid-west. Each person described a sense of foreboding, dread and terror, inspired by their surroundings. Neither felt that they had been able to take pleasure in the terror of these incidents however!

We hope that you have enjoyed reading and discussing A Sicilian Romance this month. Our book for May is Elizabeth Inchbald’s best-seller A Simple Story (1791), which we will introduce on this blog next week.


Further Resources

‘Sensibility’, In Our Time (2002)

‘What is the Sublime?’

‘How to tell if you’re reading a gothic novel – in pictures’, The Guardian (2014)

[1] Oracle and Public Advertiser, London, England, WedsJune 4, 1794, Issue 18714. P3.

[2] Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful with Several Other Additions. Accessed online: New York: P.F. Collier & Son Company, 1909-14. New York:, 2001.

[3] Ibid., Section VII ‘Of the Sublime’.

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