The Italian appeared in 1797 during peak Ann Radcliffe pandemonium. Fueled by the success of her uber bestsellers The Romance of the Forest (1791) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), this new release was destined to be popular, no matter what. Fans were anxious for another Gothic thriller by their favorite author, particularly since the genre had become so fashionable. Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796), for example, had recently scandalized readers in all the right ways. When rumor got out that The Italian was Radcliffe’s literary response to Lewis, anticipation whirred like a steam engine.
Certainly the publisher had big expectations. Radcliffe was already the highest paid author in the world after receiving a record-breaking £500 for Udolpho. For the The Italian she was paid £800, or about three times the annual salary of her successful, journalist husband.
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The Mysteries of Udolpho is considered Radcliffe’s most enduring literary achievement. At nearly 700 pages it’s certainly her longest. As such, and because I’m usually juggling several books, I decided to blog my review over time. This way I can capture a range of emotion experienced in the duration of such a sprawling epic.
Here’s how it all went down…
11/16/2020 Update – Seventy pages in and I can tell Radcliffe is doing something different this time. The mystery element mulls more beneath the surface than usual and pacing is far more luxuriant. Gorgeous scenery is crucial to the Radcliffe formula, but she really stops to smell the roses. Not a bad thing, as her travel writing skills have improved from her earlier novels. Here’s one lovely example:
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In 1791, while George Washington served his second year as president and politicians were preoccupied with drafting something called the Bill of Rights, readers across the pond devoured Ann Radcliffe’s hotly anticipated new novel The Romance of the Forest. If foreign affairs consumed their mind, these thoughts were easily vanquished to a fictional world of chilling melodrama and gothic romance.
Radcliffe wasn’t yet a household name—she would become one with her next novel, however—but the majority of literate society was familiar with A Sicilian Romance (1790) which was published only months earlier. This new novel, printed over three volumes, was longer, spookier, more atmospheric and more heart-pounding than her last. No surprise that it became an instant bestseller.
I suspect my reaction, 200+ years later, is similar to Radcliffe’s original audience: YES!!!! This story has everything I want and more. Can’t wait to read her next book!
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Ann Radcliffe was the J.K. Rowling of the late 1700s. She churned out bestsellers so popular they made her the world’s highest paid author for an entire decade. Her atmospheric gothic romances entranced the reading public similar to how Rowling made us obsessed with wizardry and magic.
Critics and fans alike could not get enough of Radcliffe. Once they finished her novels they fantasized about her personal life, imagining it as dramatic as her stories. Wild rumors were spread, including that she wrote while confined to a madhouse. The boring truth is that she was merely a private person who likely never traveled to any of the picturesque settings featured in her novels.
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