There are some authors who remain on the edge of your consciousness. For me one of these is Ann Radcliffe. Ann was the mistress of the Gothic novel, and was enormously influential on all who followed after - from Matthew "Monk" Lewis to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. She even gets parodied in Northanger Abbey, when the heroine manages to scare herself silly reading Ann Radcliffe.

So - a friend suggested that I should read the wonderfully named The Italian, or The confessional of the Black Penitents. Which sounds as though it should have been a '60s horror flick filmed by Dario Argento. Actually it's not that horrifying, although it's certainly got its creepy moments. The story follows the adventures of a pair of lovers, who thanks to an evil monk with murderous tendencies and an equally unpleasant mother are imprisoned; one by an order of nuns, and the other by the Inquisition. Thanks to the cleverness of Father Schedoni, the evil monk, it looks as though the lovers are trapped for good, but when Schedoni's own past comes back to haunt him there are unexpected events.

Perhaps due to the fact that Radcliffe had never visited Italy, the background is beautifully filled in with Italy forming a backcloth to the events that unfold in front of her. There is a wonderfully operatic quality to the novel - everything is over the top, and yet remains (most of the time) believable; although some of the relationships will stretch credulity to breaking point. There are some genuinely scary moments, and also a great deal of humour.

What shines through is Radcliffe's influence on later writers. She may now be largely forgotten, but Frankenstein couldn't have existed without Radcliffe (Mary Shelley was born the same year that The Italian was published), while Edgar Allen Poe also owes much to her. I don't know that I would read the novel again, but I would certainly recommend it. Influential, and a good read, very much of its time, but the pace of the novel means that it also remains as readable today as it ever was.


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