Ann Radcliffe wrote A Sicilian Romance in 1790 the second of her early gothic novels. The main protagonist is Julia although her brother Ferdinand also features prominently in the book, an aspect that will be discarded in later female-centred gothic novels. Julia wishes to marry Count de Vereza but her father insists on her marrying the odious Duke de Luovo. When she tries to elope with the Count, Mazzini kills him and Julia consents to joining a convent rather than marrying. These were the only two options for a woman whose desire conflicted with those in power. Hoeveler suggests a convent is an attractive option being an all-female space, apart from men, who are seen as inherently violent. This may be true of her earlier works, but not of later books such as The Italian, where the convent can be administered by a malevolent abbess.
When Ferdinand asks about the lights and noises in the ruined south wing Mazzini tells him a series of lies. He even rebukes his son for believing anything but reason and the evidence of his senses. It is these noises that cause Ferdinand to explore the ruins and fall through the decayed staircase. Julia spends a lot of time poking around the south wing trying to find out what the noise and lights relate to. She finds some papers In a small drawer of a cabinet in her apartment along with a picture of a lady whose face is touched with sorrow and resignation. A face that reminds her of her sister Emilia. This is the first clue that her mother is not dead and it will be her job to bring her into the land of the living.
Madame de Menon is Julia’s tutor and the best friend of her mother Louise de Berini. Louise grew up near mount eta where her mother and brother were killed. Unable to marry the man she loved, Madame de Menon’s brother, she marries Mazzini a total stranger. After fifteen years of marriage, Mazzini fakes his wife’s death and imprisons her in an underground vault. In Radcliffe’s fiction imprisonment is preferred to murder. Julia finds herself imprisoned in the castle with a woman whom she discovers is her mother. Initially, she tries to escape with the help of her brother Ferdinand and her lover Hippolitus de Vereza, but they are betrayed by a servant. In her second attempt, she is helped by her maid and her maid’s lover and finds her way to the abbey with her tutor Madame de Menon. The fact that tutors and servants help her demonstrates an alliance between those who have been disempowered. That her brother should support both her and later her mother suggests a reworking of the rules of patriarchy, although not abandoning its male structure.
Ann Radcliffe was influenced by the Rousseauvian tradition of French romance where the main characters were brought up in isolation. This allowed the female characters to be portrayed as innocent and naïve. Rousseau argues in Emile that self-love is the source of our passion and our own personal good which he contrasts with self-interest which he states competes with the good of others. For him, the soft affective passions come from self-love and the hateful ones come from self-interest. In his 1755 Discourse on Inequality, he argues the development of a civil society brings economic inequality as it encourages man to compete jealously with his fellow man. This can be seen in the stepmother’s jealousy of Julia.
Julia is described as innocent, naïve, self-effacing, obedient, loving, passive, silent and long-suffering. It is wise passivity, reasonableness, tamed emotions, and rational and disinterested love that characterise the gothic heroine, who controls her emotions even in the most difficult situations. In contrast, her evil stepmother, Maria de Vellorno, is consumed with jealousy and imprisons her out of fear that she will draw Duke de Luovo’s attention away from her. She is the opposite of the bourgeois ideal, displaying extreme emotions, adulterous passions and intense desires for power and status. When Mazzini accuses her of infidelity, she poisons him and then stabs herself. Before he dies, he tells his son Ferdinand that his mother is imprisoned below the castle and gives him the keys. However, his mother has already been freed by Julia and Hippolitus. In gothic novels, the bad characters are not allowed to survive until the end.
Mazzini’s estate is connected by underground tunnels to the corrupt abbey of St Augustine. Religious and political power support each other in the gothic novel. When Julia seeks protection in the abbey the abate condemns her for her disobedience but does not return her to her father as he wants her to become a nun to obtain her inheritance. Monks and rulers are part of the old establishment and if the bourgeois wants to establish a new order based on protestant enlightenment values, they need to be swept away. This ideology puts the wife and mother at the heart of the family. A familiar nostalgia was attached to home and hearth prior to the industrial and French revolutions. Women were removed from the labour market and confined to the home with no other tasks than raising children. Anxiety arose as women realised how dependent they were on the goodwill of their husbands. The gothic created a fear of the unknown, foreign, catholic and primitive to reflect the cultural anxiety being created through change. It was up to the hero and heroine to create a new bourgeois world free from the trappings of the past, the aristocracy and the church.
The heroine suffers throughout this book, only becoming a wife after a struggle. This conforms to the sentimental idea of virtue under siege whilst the novel goes on to incorporate enlightenment rationalism and the triumph of reason over superstition. Radcliffe developed what Ellen Moers termed ‘female gothic’ where the heroine took centre stage. Many authors imitated her style including Eliza Parsons and Regina Maria Roche. Her most famous novel The Mysteries of Udolpho is even mentioned by Catherine Moreland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.