This is a gothic romance detailing the love affair between Ellena Rosalba and Vincentio de Vivaldi, and the attempts to thwart it by the devious and sinister characters of his mother, the Marchese di Vivaldi, and her advisor, Father Schedoni. There are wonderfully gothic features in the novel such as kidnappings and imprisonments, secret passageways and dungeons, isolated abbeys and castles and houses where anything could occur undiscovered, traps set along dark corridors, daring escapes and chases along mountain ranges, betrayals to the Inquisition, attempted murders, and seemingly supernatural events, all set against the backdrop of dramatic scenery.
I did find this book far more tense than Mysteries of Uldolpho, and soon realised that it wasn’t wise for me to read just before going to sleep as my heart was then pounding too much! This is a brilliant read, and far more gripping and exciting than I’d imagined it would be. I had thoroughly enjoyed Uldolpho and chiefly admired it for its old-fashioned style and expected much the same with this book, but The Italian goes far beyond. It is a lovely book to read with long drawn-out detailed descriptions that really reward your attention. There is great tension and drama, and I actually found myself drawing a sharp intake of breath at several points, particularly when the door suddenly shut on Vivaldi and his companion trapping them in the room. I like the way the author writes the tense sections in quite a slow-paced way (such as when Ellena is trying to escape from the convent) rather than quickly racing through the action, as I think this is a much more effective way of building tension.
I like Ellena’s character, and in particular that she is a determined person and doesn’t allow herself to be pushed around; a good example being when she speaks back to the lady abbess holding her prisoner. There are some deliciously sinister villains in this novel, particularly the Marchesa and Schedoni, and again a good example of tension-building is when they are plotting how they will deal with Ellena, with both of them trying to gain their own ends through the other but both confidently contemplating a criminal act; it is the way they speak to one another about this in such an everyday manner that makes it so menacing. Schedoni is a brilliantly written complex character as he almost ties himself in knots trying to play so many people and to keep his real purposes concealed as he seems one person to his fellow monks, another to the Marchesa, one to the Inquisition, and one to Ellena; it is fascinating to see this delicate planning gradually unravelling and him being exposed for what he really is. I was very surprised at the revelation of Schedoni’s history regarding Ellena (as was he!); this was a huge twist in the story and it was very absorbing to see how his aims then took on a different turn.
I was a bit anxious when beginning this book that there would be distressing descriptions of torture within the Inquisition, but thankfully not. In fact, the Inquisition scenes are another great example of how the author builds the tension so well, as these scenes are drawn out over several pages and I seemed to be holding my breath throughout! But the horrors of this time were brought home to me realising that people must have lived with the dread of suddenly being arrested and with little hope of justice if this happened; that such an all-powerful organisation could exist and be answerable to no-one is awful to contemplate.
I did have to suspend belief a little at the end of the novel with everyone ending up connected in some way and all the threads being tied up a little too neatly, but this is a Gothic Romance so I allowed for this being part of the ‘romance’ aspect. I can hardly imagine the effect this book must have had on readers when it was first released (as detailed a little in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey when the characters are reading another book by Radcliffe); it must have caused a sensation, and I feel sure contributed to the style of many other novels.