THE ITALIAN; OR, THE CONFESSION OF THE BLACK PENITENTS (1797)

ANN RADCLIFFE (1764–1823)


The Italian, though less magical than The Mysteries of Udolpho, is a technical tour de force, and many critics believe that Radcliffe profited from a reading of Lewis. But whereas we know for certain that Lewis read and was deeply influenced by Radcliffe’sThe Mysteries of Udolpho, there is no clear proof that Radcliffe read anything more of Lewis’s The Monk than what was excerpted in the critical reviews. Schiller’s tragedy The Robbers (English trans. 1792), one of Radcliffe’s favourite works, may have been a more direct source, especially its theme of mental anguish and remorse. In The Italian the sublimation for which Radcliffe is famous is replaced by sensationalist references to the ‘sickening anguish’ of torture in the cells of the Inquisition, and much of her romantic atmosphere (e.g. landscape and poetry) has been curtailed, giving a tighter concentration on plot and action. Also, centre stage is taken by a male, the villain Schedoni whose shadow lay behind ‘the Byronic Hero’. The differences between Radcliffe and Lewis are fundamental: for Radcliffe, good characters ultimately cannot be deceived by demons, and guilt and depravity are constructed upon the desire for absolute power rather than repressed sexuality. In the selection I have chosen, Radcliffe’s wicked characters express a Lewisian cynical disdain for mere goodness, and the Marchesa’s rationalist-philosophical depiction of her husband could have been spoken by a character in a novel by the Marquis de Sade. After The Italian, Radcliffe inexplicably ceased writing for publication, though she was at the height of her powers, and would live for another 26 years.

Copyright © 2000, 2012 Rictor Norton


Vol. II, Chap. IV

Along the roofs sounds the low peal of Death,
And Conscience trembles to the boding note;
She views his dim form floating o’er the aisle,
She hears mysterioius murmurs in the air,
And voices, strange and potent, hint the crime
That dwells in thought, within her secret soul.

The Marchesa repaired, according to her appointment, to the church of San Nicolo, and, ordering her servants to remain with the carriage at a side-door, entered the choir, attended only by her woman.
          When vespers had concluded, she lingered till nearly every person had quitted the choir, and then walked through the solitary aisles to the north cloister. Her heart was as heavy as her step; for when is it that peace and evil passions dwell together? As she slowly paced the cloisters, she perceived a monk passing between the pillars, who, as he approached, lifted his cowl, and she knew him to be Schedoni.
          He instantly observed the agitation of her spirits, and that her purpose was not yet determined, according to his hope. But, though his mind became clouded, his countenance remained unaltered; it was grave and thoughtful. The sternness of his vulture-eye was, however, somewhat softened, and its lids were contracted by subtlety.
          The Marchesa bade her woman walk apart, while she conferred with her Confessor.
          ‘This unhappy boy [i.e. her son Vivaldi],’ said she, when the attendant was at some distance, ‘How much suffering does his folly [i.e. his love for Ellena] inflict upon his family! My good father, I have need of all your advice and consolation. My mind is perpetually haunted by a sense of my misfortune; it has no respite; awake or in my dream, this ungrateful son alike pursues me! The only relief my heart receives is when conversing with you – my only counsellor, my only disinterested friend.’
          The Confessor bowed. ‘The Marchese is, no doubt, equally afflicted with yourself,’ said he; ‘but he is, notwithstanding, much more competent to advise you on this delicate subject than I am.’
          ‘The Marchese has prejudices, father, as you well know; he is a sensible man, but he is sometimes mistaken, and he is incorrigible in error. He has the faults of a mind that is merely well disposed; he is destitute of the discernment and the energy which would make it great. If it is necessary to adopt a conduct, that departs in the smallest degree from those common rules of morality which he has cherished, without examining them, from his infancy, he is shocked, and shrinks from action. He cannot discriminate the circumstances, that render the same action virtuous or vicious. How then, father, are we to suppose he would approve of the bold inflictions we meditate?’
          ‘Most true!’ said the artful Schedoni, with an air of admiration.
          ‘We, therefore, must not consult him,’ continued the Marchesa, ‘lest he should now, as formerly, advance and maintain objections, to which we cannot yield. What passes in conversation with you, father, is sacred, it goes no farther.’
          ‘Sacred as a confession!’ said Schedoni, crossing himself.
          ‘I know not,’ – resumed the Marchesa, and hesitated; ‘I know not’ – she repeated in a yet lower voice, ‘how this girl [i.e. Ellena, whom Vivaldi loves] may be disposed of; and this it is which distracts my mind.’
          ‘I marvel much at that,’ said Schedoni. ‘With opinions so singularly just, with a mind so accurate, yet so bold as you have displayed, is it possible that you can hesitate as to what is to be done! You, my daughter, will not prove yourself one of those ineffectual declaimers, who can think vigorously, but cannot act so! One way, only, remains for you to pursue, in the present instance; it is the same which your superior sagacity pointed out, and taught me to approve. Is it necessary for me to persuade her, by whom I am convinced! There is only one way.’ . . .
          The Marchesa was for some time silent and thoughtful, and then repeated deliberately, ‘I have not the shield of the law to protect me.’
          ‘But you have the shield of the church,’ replied Schedoni; ‘you should not only have protection, but absolution.’
          ‘Absolution! – Does virtue – justice, require absolution, father?’
          ‘When I mentioned absolution for the action which you perceive to be so just and necessary,’ replied Schedoni, ‘I accommodated my speech to vulgar prejudice, and to vulgar weakness. And, forgive me, that since you, my daughter, descended from the loftiness of your spirit to regret the shield of the law, I endeavoured to console you, by offering a shield to conscience. But enough of this; let us return to argument. This girl is put out of the way of committing more mischief, of injuring the peace and dignity of a distinguished family; she is sent to an eternal sleep, before her time. – Where is the crime, where is the evil of this? On the contrary, you perceive, and you have convinced me, that it is only strict justice, only self-defence.’
          The Marchesa was attentive, and the Confessor added, ‘She is not immortal; and the few years more, that might have been allotted her, she deserves to forfeit, since she would have employed them in cankering the honour of an illustrious house.’
          ‘Speak low, father,’ said the Marchesa, though he spoke almost in a whisper; ‘the cloister appears solitary, yet some person may lurk behind those pillars. Advise me how this business may be managed; I am ignorant of the particular means.’
          ‘There is some hazard in the accomplishment of it, I grant,’ replied Schedoni; ‘I know not whom you may confide in. – The men who make a trade of blood’ ——
          ‘Hush!’ said the Marchesa, looking round through the twilight – ‘a step!’
          ‘It is the Friar’s, yonder, who crosses to the choir,’ replied Schedoni.
          They were watchful for a few moments, and then he resumed the subject. ‘Mercenaries ought not to be trusted,’ –
          ‘Yet who but mercenaries’ – interrupted the Marchesa, and instantly checked herself. But the question thus implied, did not escape the Confessor.
          ‘Pardon my astonishment,’ said he, ‘at the inconsistency, or, what shall I venture to call it? of your opinions! After the acuteness you have displayed on some points, is it possible you can doubt, that principle may both prompt and perform the deed? Why should we hesitate to do what we judge to be right?’
          ‘Ah! reverend father,’ said the Marchesa, with emotion, ‘but where shall we find another like yourself – another, who not only can perceive with justness, but will act with energy.’
          Schedoni was silent.
          ‘Such a friend is above all estimation; but where shall we seek him?’
          ‘Daughter!’ said the Monk, emphatically, ‘my zeal for your family is also above all calculation.’
          ‘Good father,’ replied the Marchesa, comprehending his full meaning, ‘I know not how to thank you.’
          ‘Silence is sometimes eloquence,’ said Schedoni, significantly.
          The Marchesa mused; for her conscience also was eloquent. She tried to overcome its voice, but it would be heard; and sometimes such starts of horrible conviction came over her mind, that she felt as one who, awaking from a dream, opens his eyes only to measure the depth of the precipice on which he totters. In such moments she was astonished, that she had paused for an instant upon a subject so terrible as that of murder. The sophistry of the Confessor, together with the inconsistencies which he had betrayed, and which had not escaped the notice of the Marchesa, even at the time they were uttered, though she had been unconscious of her own, then became more strongly apparent, and she almost determined to suffer the poor Ellena to live. But returning passion, like a wave that has recoiled from the shore, afterwards came with recollected energy, and swept from her feeble mind the barriers, which reason and conscience had begun to rear.
          ‘This confidence with which you have thought proper to honour me,’ said Schedoni, at length, and paused; ‘This affair, so momentous’ –
          ‘Ay, this affair,’ interrupted the Marchesa, in a hurried manner, – ‘but when, and where, good father? Being once convinced, I am anxious to have it settled.’
          ‘That must be as occasion offers,’ replied the Monk, thoughtfully. – ‘On the shore of the Adriatic, in the province of Apulia, not far from Manfredonia, is a house that might suit the purpose. It is a lone dwelling on the beach, and concealed from travellers, among the forests, which spread for many miles along the coast.’
          ‘And the people?’ said the Marchesa.
          ‘Ay, daughter, or why travel so far as Apulia? It is inhabited by one poor man, who sustains a miserable existence by fishing. I know him, and could unfold the reasons of his solitary life; – but no matter, it is sufficient that I know him.’
          ‘And would trust him, father?’
          ‘Ay, lady, with the life of this girl – though scarcely with my own.’
          ‘How! If he is such a villain he may not be trusted! think further. But now, you objected to a mercenary, yet this man is one!’
          ‘Daughter, he may be trusted, when it is in such a case; he is safe and sure. I have reason to know him.’
          ‘Name your reasons, father.’
          The Confessor was silent, and his countenance assumed a very peculiar character; it was more terrible than usual, and overspread with a dark, cadaverous hue of mingled anger and guilt. The Marchesa started involuntarily as, passing by a window, the evening gleam that fell there, discovered it; and for the first time she wished, that she had not committed herself so wholly to his power. But the die was now cast; it was too late to be prudent; and she again demanded his reasons.
          ‘No matter,’ said Schedoni, in a stifled voice – ‘she dies!’
          ‘By his hands?’ asked the Marchesa, with strong emotion. ‘Think, once more, father.’
          They were both again silent and thoughtful. The Marchesa, at length, said, ‘Father, I rely upon your integrity and prudence;’ and she laid a very flattering emphasis upon the word integrity. ‘But I conjure you to let this business be finished quickly, suspense is to me the purgatory of this world, and not to trust the accomplishment of it to a second person.’ She paused, and then added, ‘I would not willingly owe so vast a debt of obligation to any other than yourself.’
          ‘Your request, daughter, that I would not confide this business to a second person,’ said Schedoni, with displeasure, ‘cannot be accorded to. Can you suppose, that I, myself’ –
          ‘Can I doubt that principle may both prompt and perform the deed,’ interrupted the Marchesa with quickness, and anticipating his meaning, while she retorted upon him his former words. ‘Why should we hesitate to do what we judge to be right?’
          The silence of Schedoni alone indicated his displeasure, which the Marchesa immediately understood.
          ‘Consider, good father,’ she added significantly, ‘how painful it must be to me, to owe so infinite an obligation to a stranger, or to any other than so highly valued a friend as yourself.’
          Schedoni, while he detected her meaning, and persuaded himself that he despised the flattery, with which she so thinly veiled it, unconsciously suffered his self-love to be soothed by the compliment. He bowed his head, in signal of consent to her wish.
          ‘Avoid violence, if that be possible,’ she added, immediately comprehending him, ‘but let her die quickly! The punishment is due to the crime.’
          The Marchesa happened, as she said this, to cast her eyes upon the inscription over a Confessional, where appeared, in black letters, these awful words, ‘God hears thee!’ It appeared an awful warning. Her countenance changed; it had struck upon her heart. Schedoni was too much engaged by his own thoughts to observe, or understand her silence. She soon recovered herself; and considering that this was a common inscription for Confessionals, disregarded what she had at first considered as a peculiar admonition; yet some moments elapsed, before she could renew the subject.
          ‘You was speaking of a place, father,’ resumed the Marchesa – ‘you mentioned a’ –
          ‘Ay,’ muttered the Confessor, still musing, ‘in a chamber of that house there is’ – ‘What noise is that?’ said the Marchesa, interrupting him. They listened. A few low and querulous notes of the organ sounded at a distance, and stopped again.
          ‘What mournful music is that?’ said the Marchesa in a faultering voice, ‘It was touched by a fearful hand! Vespers were over long ago!’
         ‘Daughter,’ said Schedoni, somewhat sternly, ‘you said you had a man’s courage. Alas! you have a woman’s heart.’ . . .
          ‘Hark!’ interrupted the Marchesa, starting, ‘that note again!’
          The organ sounded faintly from the choir, and paused, as before. In the next moment, a slow chaunting of voices was heard, mingling with the rising peal, in a strain particularly melancholy and solemn.
          ‘Who is dead?’ said the Marchesa, changing countenance; ‘it is a requiem!’
          ‘Peace be with the departed!’ exclaimed Schedoni, and crossed himself; ‘Peace rest with his soul!’
          ‘Hark! to that chaunt!’ said the Marchesa, in a trembling voice; ‘it is a first requiem; the soul has but just quitted the body!’
          They listened in silence. The Marchesa was much affected; her complexion varied at every instant; her breathings were short and interrupted, and she even shed a few tears, but they were those of despair, rather than of sorrow. ‘That body is now cold,’ said she to herself, ‘which but an hour ago was warm and animated! Those fine senses are closed in death! And to this condition would I reduce a being like myself! Oh, wretched, wretched mother! to what has the folly of a son reduced thee!’
          She turned from the Confessor, and walked alone in the cloister. Her agitation encreased; she wept without restraint, for her veil and the evening gloom concealed her, and her sighs were lost amidst the music of the choir.
          Schedoni was scarcely less disturbed, but his were emotions of apprehension and contempt. ‘Behold, what is woman!’ said he – ‘The slave of her passions, the dupe of her senses! When pride and revenge speak in her breast, she defies obstacles, and laughs at crimes! Assail but her senses, let music, for instance, touch some feeble chord of her heart, and echo to her fancy, and lo! all her perceptions change: – she shrinks from the act she had but an instant before believed meritorious, yields to some new emotion, and sinks – the victim of a sound! O, weak and contemptible being!’
          The Marchesa, at least, seemed to justify his observations. The desperate passions, which had resisted every remonstrance of reason and humanity, were vanquished only by other passions; and, her senses touched by the mournful melody of music, and her superstitious fears awakened by the occurrence of a requiem for the dead, at the very moment when she was planning murder, she yielded, for a while, to the united influence of pity and terror. Her agitation did not subside; but she returned to the Confessor.
          ‘We will converse on this business at some future time,’ said she; ‘at present, my spirits are disordered. Good night, father! Remember me in your orisons.’
          ‘Peace be with you, lady!’ said the Confesor, bowing gravely, ‘You shall not be forgotten. Be resolute, and yourself.’
          The Marchesa beckoned her woman to approach, when, drawing her veil closer, and leaning upon the attendant’s arm, she left the cloister. Schedoni remained for a moment on the spot, looking after her, till her figure was lost in the gloom of the long perspective; he then, with thoughtful steps, quitted the cloister by another door. He was disappointed, but he did not despair.


[SOURCE: Ann Radcliffe, The Italian, 3 vols (London: T. Cadell Jun. and W. Davies, 1797), vol. 2, pp. 118–38]


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