Women and Redemption in the Romantic Gothic Novel

by Elizabeth Notarangelo

WomenRedemption-1-smallRomantic Gothic poetry highlights the uniquely transformative power that victimization can have on a female character. Such transformation, especially in the case of Percy Shelley’s Beatrice of The Cenci, does not always promise a change for the better. The leitmotif of transformation follows women into the Romantic Gothic novel; however, in the work of Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, personal conversion or change is neither limited to female victims nor does it indicate a change for the worse. Matilda, the long-suffering heroine of The Castle of Otranto, personifies the moral and emotional cures for her father’s paranoid despotism and has the potential to right the wrongs that threaten the rightful ownership of the castle. In The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, female villains wrong other women and then experience a moral awakening that redeems them. Transformation in the Romantic Gothic novel takes the particular light of redemption, and redemption is thematically linked to women in Walpole’s and Radcliffe’s works.

Gothic novels like The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and The Italian do not typically present comfortable places for female characters. The supremacy of male social power is pervasive, as is the dependence of females upon their sexual and reproductive value. Kate Ellis points out that Walpole “can hardly be called a closet feminist” and that “the women in The Castle of Otranto” have much to “gain from the demise of Manfred” (8). Regardless, Manfred, Otranto’s Prince, has a wife and daughter who are faithful and loyal to him despite his callousness and villainy. His daughter is particularly unshakeable in her solicitude for her father despite his constant, cruel dismissal of her. Matilda is not an overtly feminist character; at least, she does not seem so. She is submissive to the will of her parents, demure and fastidious about social delicacy. She is selfless to the point of saintliness and will put the needs of others before her own. She is, of course, beautiful, intelligent, and endowed with absolute moral and sexual purity. She is emotional, loving, and honorable. But she is not weak. Her emotional tenderness is grounded by resigned stoicism, and she demonstrates astonishing personal strength. Glen Cavaliero points out that “The Castle of Otranto…by general consent is the first deliberate exercise in what came to be known as the Gothic novel” (24). Walpole’s archetypal Gothic story created a literary template that was still popular “in the pre-feminist 1960s” in which “a terrified, good woman struggles” against “mysterious forces” (Ellis 8). His characters “are stock characters: Manfred [is the] satanic, wicked and lustful prince,” Hippolita is “his pious, long-suffering wife,”1 and Matilda is “his lovely daughter, modest and dutiful” (Kallich 95). Though archetypal, Matilda and Manfred both are complex, multi-faceted creatures. Despite Matilda’s feminine virtue and suffering, The Castle of Otranto showcases Matilda’s personal power by depicting her as a literary foil for her desperate, despotic father. She has the power of virtue that he lacks, and her admirable qualities are antidotal to her father’s paranoid tyranny.

By granting Matilda the virtue and sincerity her father lacks, Walpole makes her the hero of the story.

Manfred lives under a terrible prophecy that predicts a short reign for his line.2 He suffers under its weight, and he believes the principality suffers with him. Manfred’s suffering is a response to his threatened manhood, and his terror and paranoid anger blind him. His emotions rule him; he clings to the idea that the restoration of his family with a male heir would restore the land as well. This is evident when he tells Father Jerome that he wishes to divorce Hippolita and marry Isabella.3 He tells Jerome that by persuading Hippolita to consent to the divorce, he will “divert the calamities that are hanging over our heads” and “have the merit of saving the principality of Otranto from destruction” (Walpole 50). When Conrad dies, Manfred is more affected by his fear of the curse than any paternal grief: “[His] sublime terror at the horrific spectacle is not specifically evoked by ‘the bleeding mangled remains of his only heir’, [rather, Manfred] fully apprehends the dire warning…that the rightful prince, Alfonso, has begun the process of reconstituting himself in the armor of a warrior to carry out the prophecy that Manfred’s reign will come to end when his line is extinct” (Gentile 23). He seeks to restore that injury by securing a new male heir. What Manfred will not acknowledge is that his ancestor’s usurpation is the injury in Otranto’s castle; his hubris and self-delusion keep him in a constant state of paranoid terror which is often manifested as obsessive anger and jealousy.

Matilda possesses and personifies the antidotes to her father’s emotional, psychological, and moral failings. Her emotions are strong, but she always sees clearly.4 By granting Matilda the virtue and sincerity her father lacks, Walpole makes her the hero of the story. Manfred the despot renders himself powerless to redeem his family through his paranoid, angry pride, but Matilda embodies every answer to her father’s problems. In an introduction to the novel, E.J. Clery calls Manfred “the most developed”5 of the characters in the story (xix). Matilda, however, is by necessity as developed as her father: the readers’ understanding of either of them depends on the contrasting personality of the other. They are developed together throughout the plot, the juxtapositions between them drawing them into comparison with the other. Manfred is socially powerful; “the tyrant Manfred represents [the] governmental power [of] king or court” (Kallich 102). Though a consummate victim of her father’s cruel tyranny and the socially powerless female offspring of a usurping prince, Matilda has the restorative power Manfred lacks. He is tested again and again, and he fails where she would have succeeded.

One of the first, most striking contrasts between Otranto’s prince and his daughter is that she is inclined to sincere emotion and true, selfless sentiment. The night of her brother’s death, she “was ill-disposed to take any rest” because “the shocking fate of her brother had deeply affected her” (Walpole 39). When her father cruelly rejects her, crying “Begone! I do not want a daughter” and slamming a door in her face, she weeps despite the fact that “she was too well acquainted with her father’s impetuosity” to be really surprised (Walpole 23). Despite the fact that her father’s “heart was ever a stranger to [her],” she is still hurt by his cruelty; she is not hardened or desensitized. When she stands outside her father’s door after his heart-breaking assertion that he does not want her, she dries her tears to spare Hippolita’s feelings, knowing her father’s mistreatment of her will injure her mother. Even when she is emotionally injured, she concerns herself with the emotional needs of others. In this way, she is markedly feminine. In her reaction to her brother’s death, her genuine injury at her father’s mistreatment, and her concern for her mother’s feelings, she displays emotional “sympathy and sensibility” normally “relegated [by male writers]” to “mothers, wives, and sisters” (Richardson 15).

Manfred possesses no such emotive, generous sincerity. On the night of Conrad’s death, when his daughter cannot sleep for grief, Manfred propositions his late son’s fiancée. He does not seem to care at all for the death of Conrad. He tells Isabella that Conrad “was a sickly puny child” who “was not worthy of [Isabella’s] beauty” (Walpole 24). He goes so far as to say that he hopes “in a few years to have reason to rejoice in the death of Conrad” after achieving “numerous supports” for “the line of Manfred” through Isabella6 (Walpole 24). What emotion he does show for the loss of his son is spurred not by sincere grief but by social ambition and necessity. After his disgusting and cold attitude towards Conrad’s demise when proposing to Isabella, he paints a very different picture of his reaction when faced with the silent knights in his court. He is capable of crying over the loss of his son when he thinks it will get him what he wants. He makes an emotional appeal when he asks the mysterious knight (who turns out to be Isabella’s father) to “hear what [he has] to offer,” and Manfred “began to weep,” saying that he lost his “only hope, [his] joy” in losing Conrad (Walpole 68).

A reader might almost think that Manfred was finally grieving for his son but for the fact that he is obviously dissembling.7 His falsehood is apparent when he claims that he is “disgusted with the world” and says “the loss of my son has weaned me from earthly cares” (Walpole 68). Readers know the opposite to be true – he is obsessed with maintaining power at Otranto. Manfred’s emotional displays are deceitful and selfish, while Matilda’s are sincere and selfless. If Manfred had more of Matilda’s emotional power and courage, he would have seen the truth in Father Jerome’s remonstrance when he told the prince: “My lord, I respect your tears…let them flow, prince! They will weigh more with heaven towards the welfare of thy subjects, than a marriage, which, founded on lust or policy, could never prosper” (Walpole 51). Clery argues that Manfred’s evading the curse he so dreads “is blocked at every turn not only by supernatural phenomena, but even more by his own servants, whose panics…drive him into paroxysms of helpless fury” (xix). However, Manfred thwarts his own salvation when he disregards Father Jerome’s advice and turns away the comfort his wife and daughter offer him.

Another of Matilda’s admirable qualities is her unshakeable loyalty, especially to a father who treats her so poorly. She is always steadfast in protecting the interests and privacy of her father’s house.8 Matilda’s servant Bianca supposes early in chapter two that Manfred will be eager to see Matilda married now that Conrad has died. Matilda reminds Bianca of “the many proposals for [her] that he has rejected.” Bianca seems to scoff at Matilda’s acquiescence to her father’s will when she asks, “And you thank him, like a dutiful daughter, do you, madam?” (Walpole 40). Matilda, earlier in their conversation, says with resignation, “He is my father, and I must not complain” (Walpole 40). She protects her father when the peasant she converses with at her casement asks after the missing lady Isabella. She asks him, before shutting the window in a gesture of dismissal, “Dost thou come hither to pry into the secrets of Manfred” (Walpole 44).

On the other hand, Manfred is disloyal and capricious. He decides abruptly that his wife, who has never done him any wrong, is no longer of use to him. Upon realizing what has happened to his son, he does not evince any concern at all for Hippolita or Matilda. He seems only to care for Isabella, as she is the only woman of use to him now that Conrad has died. He has his servants see to her needs and comfort only when he says, “without mentioning the unhappy princesses his wife and daughter…‘Take care of the lady Isabella’” (Walpole 19). Despite his years of marriage to Hippolita and her obvious love for him, she loses her value to him the moment he needs a new son. Matilda, as a female, is of no use to him as an heir – the only woman of value to him is Isabella; she has sexual value in that she could produce a male heir. Manfred discards Hippolita easily when he “imperiously” says: “Hippolita is no longer my wife; I divorce her from this hour. Too long has she cursed me with her unfruitfulness”9 (Walpole 25). Hippolita means nothing to him; if he had Matilda’s loyalty, the kingdom of Otranto would have passed from Manfred’s hands as he would have stayed married to his wife. Significantly, Matilda’s death would never have taken place, and she would have married Theodore, keeping Manfred’s blood in the royal line at Otranto’s castle.

Matilda’s sincerity and loyalty are not the only ways in which she could have stabilized and legitimized the royal ownership of Otranto. She is innocent and kind – therefore, she has a capacity to always give people, even her villainous father, the benefit of the doubt. When Manfred orders that “nobody should have admittance to him” after the death of Conrad, Matilda assumes that he did not want to see her because “he was immersed in sorrow for the death of her brother, and fearing to renew his tears by the sight of his sole remaining child” (Walpole 22). Readers shortly learn why he does not wish to see his wife and daughter; they are of no use to him in evading the curse he so dreads.

Another of Matilda’s admirable qualities is her unshakeable loyalty, especially to a father who treats her so poorly.

Matilda’s beneficence extends to Isabella as well. The two women both have a romantic interest in Theodore, and Clery says that “the gravity of their plight” with Manfred “is undermined by [their] spat over” him (xviii). To call their exchange a spat hardly seems reasonable based on the text. When Isabella attempts to deceive Matilda on the topic of Theodore’s affection, Matilda is not jealous or suspicious – her innocent (and perhaps naïve) humility prevents such passions. She yields to her friend’s assertions, saying, “I am far from having the vanity to think that my little portion of charms could engage a heart devoted to you. May you be happy, Isabella” (Walpole 88). Almost instantly, both women insist upon ensuring the other’s happiness, but Matilda’s trusting nature is what breaks the tension. Isabella tells the truth when she is moved by Matilda’s “kind expression” in the face of her own self-serving lie (Walpole 88).

Manfred, however, is always jealous and suspicious, always struggling to conceal the secret of his usurping grandfather with self-righteous displays of vainglorious rage. When the helmet falls on Conrad, he chooses a peasant from the crowd to accuse of murderous magic. When Hippolita offers him a seat in her apartment when she learns that he wants to speak to Isabella, he snaps at her and unjustly accuses her of jealousy. Ultimately, Manfred undoes the survival of his bloodline when, upon the report of a servant that Theodore had gone to St. Nicholas’ church with a woman, he flies into a jealous rage and kills his daughter, mistaking her for Isabella. Had Manfred any of Matilda’s innocence, he would not have been so paranoid and perpetrated such a heinous accident. Martin Kallich points out the fact that “this important climactic episode is not carried through with conviction, for he could just as well have stabbed Theodore, his antagonist, and thereby could have assured his possession of the girl” (95). Kallich’s observation is astute, as his stabbing Matilda in mistaking her for Isabella is antithetical to his goal of securing support for his bloodline. Kallich’s analysis further delineates the portentous nature of the mistake; Manfred’s murder of Matilda is more symbolic than inevitable by virtue of his character or the plot. The murder of his daughter is the ultimate act of self-sabotage; the marriage of his daughter with Theodore would have secured Manfred’s blood as lawful royalty at Otranto, thereby healing the damage of the feud and the stolen crown.

Manfred’s paranoid jealousy is fueled in large part by his fear of the manifestation of the curse that hangs over his family at Otranto: “The castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it” (Walpole 17). There is some ambiguity there, and a clearly playful pun when one considers the giant armored ghost of Alfonso. Manfred is not the “real” owner, but he is the incumbent ruler, and he has grown metaphorically “too large” to maintain his rule. His ego is many times larger than any flying helmet, but he lives in perpetual fear of losing his foothold of power. All of his actions are fueled by his fear of the curse; this perfectly explains his desperation to father a son upon the death of Conrad. His “anxiety about his own masculinity…is gradually stretched to the breaking point” until he finally kills his daughter (Gentile 23). The irony, of course, is that Manfred has an heir still living in his daughter Matilda, but his chauvinistic fear blinds and sabotages him until he mistakenly murders his only shot at redemption.

Matilda, in contrast, suffers no such errors in judgment. She displays resignation and stoicism as she faces death. Matilda defends her father even after he has stabbed her. When Theodore wrestles the dagger from Manfred’s hand, she cries “Stop! Stop thy impious hand…it is my father!” (Walpole 109). Even when dying, she cares deeply for those around her. She, “resigning herself patiently to her fate, acknowledged with looks of grateful love the zeal of Theodore” (109). She asks, “while [she has] life to ask it,” what her mother will feel, and she forgives her father readily when he begs her to (Walpole 109). She, unimpeded by ego or pride, maintains clarity, humility, and love even as the blood runs from her heart. She does not struggle with anger or fear. If Manfred had any measure of his daughter’s stoicism, he would have accepted his fate when he interpreted Conrad’s death as the fruition of the curse. Had he done so, he never would have killed Matilda, she would have married Theodore, and Manfred would have sidestepped what he feared most. When he kills her, “the dagger mistakenly plunged into Matilda’s breast causes Manfred’s destruction” (Kallich 116); it is the only event in the story that renders his undoing inevitable. Manfred realizes that he has erred because of his fear when he asks Matilda “canst thou forgive the blindness of my rage” (Walpole 109, emphasis added).

Despite the fact that Madame Montoni protects Emily’s interests in the end, she is still guilty of severely mistreating the girl and breaking the gothic convention of feminine kinship.

Matilda suffers more than her share of sorrow with strength and grace at the hands of her father’s prideful, narrow chauvinism. Any hope of restoration at Otranto rested with Matilda before her untimely death. Manfred lacks her personal virtues, which leads him into actualizing the self-fulfilling prophecy he desperately tried to deflect. Her marriage with Theodore would have restored Theodore to his filial inheritance; her death has the same effect, if in a more tragic way. Restoration occurs, “yet it is restoration with a difference because in a patriarchal society women,” Matilda in particular, “bring to an end the usurped control of the castle” (Ellis 8). Matilda’s personal virtue gives her “a degree of power and control that the prevailing social order could not otherwise permit” (Ellis 8). Despite Matilda’s submissive, selfless, and emotional femininity, she is undoubtedly stronger than her father. Had Manfred more of Matilda’s stoic resilience and emotional fortitude, he might have broken the curse he so dreaded. Her marriage with Theodore would have prevented the castle passing from the present family: Manfred’s blood would have become legitimately royal through his grandchildren. Matilda’s “little portion of charms” makes her capable of the heroic act of unifying the lines of Alfonso and Manfred; if she fails to complete that union, it is only due to her father’s malice and jealousy. Still, even as a murdered hero, she dies with dignity and does not die in vain; the line of Alfonso, the truly injured prince, is restored to power through her death. Wilmarth Lewis remarks on the long-standing success of the novel in saying that readers “enjoy the gleams of human natures that wink about in the dark [as] his characters talk and act like mere men and women” (161). By this measure, Walpole’s ordinary woman is an extraordinary person: Matilda’s emotional sincerity, loyalty, kindness, and stoicism make her the unlikely tragic hero10 of the story.

Walpole’s novel spawned an entire genre, and Ann Radcliffe was certainly influenced and inspired by his work. In her own novels, she adheres to several Walpolian conventions. She makes abundant use of the archetypically villainous social power of men. “Walpole [pits] a helpless young woman against a devilish villain whom she is going to be forced to marry,” and in The Castle of Otranto, “one female [character] dies at the hands of an older man in a position of power” while “another lives to marry the devoted young man her own age” (Nelson 98). Radcliffe certainly uses this convention, but not exactly as Walpole did, as Victoria Nelson points out: “In the female-authored Gothics that followed Walpole, the single heroine (whose point of view we usually inhabit) escapes the villain’s clutches and marries the young man” (98). However, she makes some important departures from the formulaic template set down by Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.11

Gothic novels frequently set vulnerable female characters against evil forces; often, those evil forces are men in positions of social power. Ann Radcliffe’s heroines are no exception. Emily St. Aubert and Ellena di Rosalba face struggles that are reminiscent of the nightmarish experiences of Manfred’s daughter, Matilda. The key difference in Radcliffe’s novels is that they explore female villainy in a way that Walpole’s did not. While Radcliffe supplies her readers with no shortage of male villains, she also explores the concept of the feminine abuse of social power through Madame Montoni in The Mysteries of Udolpho and the Marchesa di Vivaldi in The Italian. The effect is a kind of negative empowerment. These two women cast aside their kinship with other women and take on masculine roles in their immoral quests for social status.

Walpole and, later, Emily Brontë12 both touch on the idea of feminine evil. Walpole’s Isabella lies to her devoted friend Matilda in a competition for Theodore’s affection. She immediately confesses the truth and the friends reconcile instantly, and Walpole’s single and brief foray into female malevolence comes to an abrupt end. Brontë, perhaps influenced by Radcliffe, makes a bolder play at cruelty in women with Catherine Linton, who mercilessly manipulates her husband and her childhood friend in the pursuit of her selfish desires. Significantly, neither Catherine nor Isabella is guilty of violating “the [gothic] genre’s emphasis on female kinship relations” (Greenfield 73). Though Isabella tries to lie to Matilda, she does not follow through, exclaiming that “a thought of [her] own happiness” cannot “suffer [her] to interfere with” Matilda’s happiness (Walpole 88). The women then engage in a “contest of amity,” each seeking to secure the other’s happiness (Walpole 89). Catherine, despite her selfishness and tantrums, upholds the gothic convention of female kinship by trying to warn Isabella Linton about the dangers of her attachment to Heathcliff: “He’s a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man…he’d crush you like a sparrow’s egg,” Catherine honestly tells Isabella, “if he found you to be a troublesome charge” (Brontë 101). While Catherine’s warnings might be motivated by jealousy, they are also at least partially uttered with a desire to spare Isabella suffering. This is especially apparent because Isabella does not heed Catherine’s advice and suffers exactly as Catherine predicted.

Gothic Romantic poetry links transformation with victims, but the Romantic Gothic novel connects female characters with redemptive and restorative power.

Radcliffe’s forays into feminine malice are much more thorough and distinct. She dabbles in the truly evil female character that does indeed break sisterhood with other women. Despite the fact that Madame Montoni protects Emily’s interests in the end, she is still guilty of severely mistreating the girl and breaking the gothic convention of feminine kinship. Similarly, the Marchesa di Vivaldi commits crimes against Ellena and fails to display female kinship despite her deathbed repentance. Madame Montoni and the Marchesa di Vivaldi represent two different kinds of female evil, one certainly more devious than the other. Both, however, realize their grievous treatment of other women and have redemptive moments that their villainous male counterparts, Monsieur Montoni and the evil monk Schedoni, do not.

The Mysteries of Udolpho’s Madame Montoni betrays Emily St. Aubert almost immediately. She mistrusts Emily despite having no reason to doubt her and seeks to separate her from Valancourt in the interest of her own vanity and social reputation. Once she realizes that Valancourt is connected to her socially reputable friend Madame Clairval, Madame Montoni (who is still at this point in the novel Madame Cheron) becomes “anxious…to secure an alliance that would so much exalt her in her own opinion and in that of the world” (Radcliffe, Mysteries 134). Madame Montoni takes no interest in Emily’s happiness in being attached to Valancourt, and she only cares to see them wed if it can be of some benefit to her. Madame Montoni offers to provide a dowry for Emily in her eagerness to secure the marriage. The gesture might seem generous if not for the fact that Madame Montoni has the chance for social gain by the union; significantly “Emily knew nothing of the transaction” (Mysteries 134). The choice of the word “transaction” when referring to Emily’s proposed dowry is telling; Radcliffe implies that Emily has been sold without her knowledge to Valancourt and Madame Clairval. That Emily has been sold by a woman endows Madame Montoni with typically male social power – men (fathers in particular) are usually in the position to arrange marriages for young women. Manfred, for example, was willing to trade Matilda for Isabella. Likewise, Madame Montoni was willing to trade Emily for social status and showed absolutely no interest in Emily’s personal happiness.

Much later in the story, Annette reveals another instance in which Madame Montoni has betrayed Emily. Annette, encouraging Emily to eat, tells Emily: “I have heard my lady talking of you and Monsieur Valancourt to Madame Merveille and Madame Vaison…telling them what a great deal of trouble she had to keep you in order…and that she believed you would run away with Mons. Valancourt if she was not to watch you closely” (Radcliffe, Mysteries 270). Emily is understandably stung by Annette’s report. She declares, with righteous indignation, “Is this, then…the treatment I am to receive from a relation – an aunt – who ought to have been the guardian, not the slanderer of my reputation…who, as a woman, ought to have respected the delicacy of female honour” (Radcliffe, Mysteries 270). In this passage, it is apparent that Madame Montoni defamed Emily to her friends for the sake of a good story. The passage also demonstrates that Emily possesses a virtuous understanding that Madame Montoni lacks: she knows that women should protect each other, especially in cases where the specific considerations of a woman’s reputation in society are concerned.

While Madame Montoni is a vain, egocentric, morally questionable woman, she is only a delicate experiment in female villainy. “Propelled by pride, [she is] an obvious target for Montoni” (Miles 143), and her character is colored by shades of victimization and heroism before her death in Montoni’s castle. The Mysteries of Udolpho was published in 1794. Two years later The Italian was published, and the Marchesa di Vivaldi was an even bolder, darker excursion into womanly wickedness. While Madame Montoni was content to capriciously forbid and then encourage her niece’s marriage as it suited her social aspirations and then slander Emily’s good name for a laugh, the Marchesa forgets any notion of female kinship in wishing to prevent her son’s marriage to Ellena: “Vivaldi’s and Ellena’s desires [to marry] run counter to the Marchesa’s feudal pride [and] Ellena is incarcerated within a convent through the Marchesa’s machinations” (Miles 150). Ellena becomes aware of the fact that she has been kidnapped at the Marchesa’s command when the Abbess tells Ellena that “[she] shall scrupulously observe the obligations of the troublesome office” of keeping Ellena from the mischief of marrying Vivaldi “which [her] regard for the honour of a noble family has induced [her] to undertake” (Radcliffe, Italian 67).

Later in the novel, the Marchesa’s villainy grows darker and evolves from kidnapping and life-long confinement to murder. The Marchesa allows Schedoni to browbeat her into conspiring to kill Ellena. Despite the confessor’s obvious manipulation of the Marchesa, and even despite her obvious reluctance and intense guilt, the Marchesa agrees to be an accomplice to the murder of Ellena. Her agreement is unstated while the murder is being planned, and this is likely so that she may later attempt to soothe her conscience. During her first conversation with Schedoni regarding Ellena’s death, she defers to him and will not frame the idea of punishing Ellena with death as her own desire. She says to Schedoni more than once that “it is your opinion this girl deserves severe punishment…that justice demands…her life?” (Radcliffe, Italian 170). When they meet to discuss the matter a second time, the Marchesa declines to articulate that she has reached a firm decision on the matter, saying, “We will converse on this business at some future time…at present, my spirits are disordered” (Radcliffe, Italian 178). Despite the Marchesa and the confessor shifting the burden of decision and responsibility back and forth between each other during their planning of Ellena’s execution, the Marchesa cannot for a moment be thought innocent. Her implicit desire that Ellena die for wishing to marry her son is apparent when she next sees Schedoni and she suspiciously asks him: “Have you failed? Is she not dead?” (Radcliffe, Italian 293).

While Madame Montoni’s cruelty pales in comparison to the Marchesa’s, they are motivated by similar circumstances. They are both concerned with social status, and they both assume a masculine role in their social concerns. While Madame Montoni bartered to trade Emily for social standing, the Marchesa “views her son as an object of exchange – a token she can use to purchase greater economic status and social prestige” (Greenfield 78). Like Madame Montoni’s original objections to Emily’s marriage to Valancourt, “the Marchesa is opposed to Vivaldi’s marrying Ellena because the girl is not aristocratic enough” (Greenfield 78). The difference between the two women is that the Marchesa is willing to commit heinous acts of violence to secure her social standing, while Madame Montoni does not endeavor to go to homicidal extremes. Not only are their motivations similar, but Radcliffe endows both women with masculine power. Their villainy could not be potent without an element of the social power usually attributed to men. In offering a dowry for Emily and seeking to benefit from arranging a marriage for her, Madame Montoni acts like a father to Emily. The Marchesa takes a similarly ambitious view of her son’s marital future, and “this is arresting because…throughout history and across cultures, it is generally the father who sells[?] the daughter in exchange for economic and political power” (Greenfield 78). In The Mysteries of Udolpho, Madame Montoni takes paternal control of Emily. In The Italian, the reversal is even more complete – the Marchesa treats her son the way a tyrannical father might treat a socially helpless daughter. “The main action concerns,” says Miles, “not a heroine in flight from a vile patriarch, but a hero persecuted (albeit indirectly) by his mother” (150). In this pursuit, Vivaldi is feminized, and the Marchesa strives after masculine strength (Miles 151). She declares, when Schedoni questions her resolve to protect the honor of her family by sanctioning the murder of Ellena, that he will discover that she is possessed of a man’s courage (Radcliffe, Italian 168).

Significantly, both Madame Montoni and the Marchesa di Vivaldi experience a kind of deathbed redemption. Nelson discusses transformation in female-authored Gothic novels when she observes: “The male Gothic, culminating in its overreaching hero’s death is tragic…whereas female Gothic ‘demands a happy ending’” and that the “heroine ‘experience a rebirth’” (99). In Radcliffe’s novels, heroines do indeed have transformative experiences, but so do her female villains. In the case of Madame Montoni, who married her dastardly husband to achieve her ambition of social prestige, she suffers bitterly when he seeks to take control of her property in France. She and her niece become prisoners in his Italian castle, and the newlyweds fight constantly. Robert Miles points out that “one of the unappreciated subtleties of Radcliffe’s art is her ability to equip her heroines with a psychological subtext” and that “her heroines…have an inner life” (139). The same can be said for Radcliffe’s villains, especially Madame Montoni when she opposes her husband in a startling display of maternal protection for Emily. Shockingly, Madame Montoni refuses to relinquish her property to her husband because she wishes to protect Emily’s inheritance, and it is obvious that the female kinship between them, though injured and insulted, is not broken beyond repair. Madame Montoni becomes very ill and Emily cares for her dutifully.13 The two show mutual affection in the end. It is hardly surprising in Emily’s case that she would care deeply and compassionately for someone who had mistreated her. Despite everything, “Emily never left her, for a moment, till long after midnight,” and in this way, she is very reminiscent of Walpole’s Matilda (Radcliffe, Mysteries 351). Though Emily, out of fear for her aunt, “repeatedly declared to [Montoni] her willingness to resign all claim to those estates,” Madame Montoni does not relent in the “obstinate dispute” (Radcliffe, Mysteries 351). At the cost of her own health, Madame Montoni will not give away Emily’s inheritance: “She directed her niece where to find some papers relative to [the properties], which she had hitherto concealed from the search of Montoni, and earnestly charged her never to suffer these papers to escape her” (351). “Radcliffe structures The Mysteries of Udolpho around a search for identity” (Miles 145), and in a sudden and unexpected stroke, Madame Montoni’s identity is revealed as a conscientious, caring woman. The women protect each other, both interceding with Montoni on the other’s behalf; the bonds of female kinship are temporarily broken in this story, but they are repaired by Madame Montoni’s redemptive efforts to protect her niece.

The Marchesa’s redemption is more limited than Madame Montoni’s in that she does not repair the broken female kinship between herself and Ellena, but she does make an effort to put things right for the sake of her son. That she suffers guilt for what she has done is apparent in Beatrice’s report to Ellena. Beatrice tells Ellena that the “Marchesa seemed to lay something very much to heart” and asked often in her final illness to see her son who she had severely wronged (Radcliffe, Italian 375). After conferences with Father Schedoni and the Marchese, Beatrice’s “Lady appeared more easy in her mind, and not long after she died” (Radcliffe, Italian 376). The Marchesa’s single redeeming moment seems to consist of telling her husband the truth of her involvement in their son’s recent troubles, thereby giving the Marchese the power to help the young afflicted lovers. “It is sensibility that humanizes the Marchesa” (Miles 161), and this is apparent in her guilt on her deathbed and her hesitation to agree to Ellena’s execution. Though the Marchesa’s intercession does not directly correct her mistreatment of Ellena, as she is looking to right the wrong she did to her son, Ellena will benefit from her truthfulness.14 Significantly, as soon as Ellena learns of the Marchesa’s death, she learns that Sister Olivia is her biological mother. Olivia can provide the female kinship that the Marchesa denied Ellena as a “good” mother figure replacing an “evil” one.15

In Radcliffe’s novels, her female villains are the ones who manage to transform themselves in redemptive ways.

While Walpole and Brontë toy with the concept of female villainy in The Castle of Otranto and Wuthering Heights, their female characters never break the bonds of female kinship and never trade femininity for masculinity. Ann Radcliffe takes a daring departure in The Mysteries of Udolpho through Madame Montoni’s betrayal of Emily. Madame Montoni assumes the rights of a father over Emily and abuses those rights the way a power-hungry man might, despite the fact that she is herself a woman. She exploits Emily’s social helplessness by trampling on Emily’s female honor when she lies to her friends. Madame Montoni even takes on a masculine role by resisting her husband’s demands and seeking to pass property on to Emily (property is typically passed from father to son).16 The Marchesa in The Italian displays no female kinship whatsoever for Ellena, and in her own admitted attempts to assume masculine control over her son, she agrees to have the girl murdered. The Italian takes the concept of female evil a step further than The Mysteries of Udolpho, but in both cases the role of villain endows female characters with masculine power over other women.

Radcliffe does not necessarily romanticize female evil; indeed, for these women to become masculinized, they both had to surrender their virtue. That they both ended up dying in sorrow is hardly coincidental – the power the women took on corrupted them and caused them to forsake other women. Radcliffe depicted plausible social situations where women took on social power that was traditionally male, and in doing so, she shifted societal gender roles in a revolutionary way. The male counterparts to these female villains, Montoni and Schedoni respectively, both die like these women. Neither of them, however, repents in any way, and they die without redemption. Montoni dies unceremoniously in a jail cell, and Schedoni poisons himself to escape punishment. “The strong resemblance of Montoni…and the priest Schedoni…to Milton’s brooding fallen angel Lucifer in Paradise Lost” (Nelson 102) suggests that their pride bars repentance, and they do not experience redemptive rebirth before dying. Radcliffe’s female villains exercise their redemptive capacity even if they only do so at the eleventh hour. They have a capacity for redemption that Radcliffe’s male villains do not.

Gothic Romantic poetry links transformation with victims, but the Romantic Gothic novel connects female characters with redemptive and restorative power. Matilda in The Castle of Otranto is the key to restoration in terms of uniting the lines of Alfonso and Manfred, and she also possesses every character trait that would have etherized her father’s paranoia and anger. Her compassion, kindness, and stoicism could have cured her father’s blindness and prevented the fruition of the curse. Even her death, though it thwarts the ultimate healing that could have taken place, checks Manfred’s villainy and then restores the castle to its rightful owner. In Radcliffe’s novels, her female villains are the ones who manage to transform themselves in redemptive ways. Madame Montoni repairs the broken kinship between herself and her niece, and the Marchesa takes corrective action against her own villainy before she succumbs to her mysterious illness and finds a sort of peace. “After this,” says Beatrice of the Marchesa’s last act, “my Lady appeared more easy in her mind, and not long after she died” (Radcliffe, Italian 376).


  1. “Hippolita is the prototype of a long series of victimized wives” (Clery xviii), and one such woman is obviously Lucretia in The Cenci. “She wanders freely if pathetically through the castle” (Clery xix) the way Lucretia wanders through Cenci’s – both women are sexually discarded for an incestuous relationship with a younger woman with a filial relationship to their respective lustful tyrants (though the motivation behind these incestuous desires differs dramatically).
  2. The Castle of Otranto is a variation of the Fisher King myth. Manfred’s sexual injury is the loss of his son under the giant enchanted helmet of Alfonso the Good. He imagines that the principality suffers with him in his terrible dread of the prophecy that predicts a short reign for his line. He seeks to restore the stability of his ownership of the castle and thereby, he believes, rescue Otranto.
  3. Cavaliero remarks that “the obvious parallels between Manfred’s plans to replace his wife and those of Henry VIII to divorce Katherine of Aragon lend force to the otherwise rather trivial momentousness which the tale attaches to the handing-down of property” (26). Manfred sees handing his property to a son as his only means of possible salvation, but he fails to see that the opportunity exists to hand it to Matilda as Theodore’s wife.
  4. One example of the contrast between Matilda’s clear insight and her father’s selective blindness is that she “is the first to respond to Theodore’s uncanny resemblance” to Alfonso (Gentile 23). “Manfred,” on the other hand, “remains obstinately blind to the connection until Theodore appears in armor, when suddenly the guilt-stricken Manfred perceives him as…Alfonso returned from the dead to avenge the crime against him” (Gentile 23).
  5. Clery also says that Manfred is the only one who “fully appreciates the import of the prophecy that hangs over his family” (xix). This is fundamentally untrue: the women in Manfred’s family understand this very well. Not only does Matilda recognize Theodore’s resemblance to Alfonso, both Hippolita and Matilda routinely pray at Alfonso’s tomb.
  6. Manfred never considers that Matilda’s children might offer his line such support.
  7. Manfred is a Machiavellian prince. In The Prince, Machiavelli writes that “it is necessary [for a prince] to be a great hypocrite and dissembler [because] men are so simple and so obedient to present necessities, that he who deceives will always find someone to let himself be deceived” (76). Manfred’s hypocritical display of emotion is only to serve his “present necessities” of marrying Isabella and producing a new male heir. Certainly, when there is something Manfred wants from someone else, he can be very manipulative: “he…seem[s] to be all mercy, all sincerity, all humanity, all religion” (Machiavelli 76). However, his true character is one of cruelty, manipulation, and selfishness. This duplicitous avarice extends to many Gothic villains including Father Schedoni, Monsieur and Madame Montoni, Heathcliff, Dracula, and Godfrey Abelwhite.
  8. The one exception to this is when she releases Theodore from imprisonment. She perceives her actions as disloyal to her father. This is apparent when she speaks to Theodore, telling him “though filial duty and womanly modesty condemn the step I am taking…holy charity, surmounting all other ties, justifies this act” (Walpole 72). She feels morally bound to defy her father, but because of her loyal disposition, the act pains her. It is her loyalty to her family and her friend Isabella that prevents her from running away with him: she asks what Isabella would think of his asking her to flee with him, but most significantly, she rebuffs him by exclaiming: “I am Manfred’s daughter!” (Walpole 72).
  9. Manfred’s dismissal of Hippolita closely parallel’s King Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon; both wanted new wives when they believed their current spouses would give them no male heirs.
  10. Matilda is only a tragic hero in the sense that she is the hero of the story and her fate is tragic. Manfred is a tragic hero in the classical sense, as he suffers a major downfall as a result of his hubris. Matilda and Manfred compare to Antigone and Creon in this way, and Walpole’s writing makes it clear that he is familiar with classical dramatic conventions. He is clearly acquainted with the dramatic unities. “The novel [illustrates] strict unity of action [and] the time of the action is limited to three days and two nights; the place, to the castle and its environs” (Kallich 94).
  11. One of these significant departures is that, while “Radcliffe eschews the wilder exaggerations of supernaturalist rhetoric” (Cavliero 27), she evokes the effects of suspense and terror by suggesting the supernatural to her susceptible characters and expectant readers.
  12. Wuthering Heights is not studied in depth here, but the novel bears mentioning in this context because Brontë explores the tension that can exist between two women in love with the same man and the way the bonds of female kinship can exist even in a relationship characterized by contest or enmity, the same way Walpole did with Isabella and Matilda and Radcliffe with Emily and Madame Montoni.
  13. Miles suggests that Radcliffe’s “heroines’ fainting spells dramatize subtextual conflicts” (141). This is interesting when considering Madame Montoni’s illness. Montoni and his wife argue over the property, and he “did not leave the room, till his wife, exhausted by the obstinate dispute, had fainted, and lay so long insensible that Emily began to fear that the spark of life was extinguished” (Radcliffe 351). If fainting, as Miles suggests, points to subtextual conflicts in Radcliffe’s heroines, Madame Montoni’s fainting as she struggles with her husband suggests her own subtextual conflicts. Miles’ suggestion works well for Radcliffe’s heroines and her female villains.
  14. The Marchesa’s attempt to help her son overcome the obstacles she places in the way of his happiness indirectly helps Ellena. Significantly, the Marchesa’s direct persecution of Ellena indirectly harms her son, and her direct effort to help her son indirectly helps Ellena. The women are bound to each other though they never actually meet; Vivaldi is the fulcrum on which the theme of female kinship balances in The Italian.
  15. This is an interesting development because Ellena is subject to “the device of the ‘two fathers’ [where] a malevolent patriarch appears to be the heroine’s father until the final revelation discloses the true one to be benevolent and paternal” (Miles 150). The two fathers are the malevolent Schedoni and the good Count de Bruno. Emily St. Aubert deals with a version of this device as well; her “good” father dies and her aunt’s hasty marriage places her under Montoni’s paternal control. The Marchesa and Sister Olivia represent this device in the form of two mothers, with the Marchesa in the artificially (and evil in this case) maternal role of potential mother-in-law and Sister Olivia as the beneficent and maternal biological mother.
  16. The limitations of this assumption are thematically explored in The Castle of Otranto when Manfred fails to consider that he might turn his royal ownership of the castle over to his daughter if she married Alfonso’s heir.

Works Cited

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Norwalk: The Easton Press, 1980. Print.

Cavaliero, Glen. The Supernatural and English Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

Clery, E.J. “Introduction.” The Castle of Otranto. By Horace Walpole. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. vii-xxxiii. Print.

Ellis, Kate. “Female Empowerment: The Secret in the Gothic Novel.” Phi Kappa Phi Forum. 90.3 (Fall 2010): 8-9. EBSCOhost. Web. 28 October 2014.

Gentile, Kathy Justice. “Sublime Drag: Supernatural Masculinity in Gothic Fiction.” Gothic Studies 11.1 (May 2009): 16-31. EBSCOhost. Web. 15 January 2015.

Greenfield, Susan C. “Veiled Desire: Mother-Daughter Love and Sexual Imagery in Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian.The Eighteenth Century 33.1 (Spring 1992): 73-89. JSTOR. Web. 27 July 2014.

Kallich, Martin. Horace Walpole: Twain’s English Author Series. Ed. Sylvia E. Bowman. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1971. Print.

Lewis, Wilmarth Sheldon. Horace Walpole. New York: Pantheon Books, 1961. Print.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2003. Print.

Miles, Robert. Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress. New York: Manchester University Press, 1995. Print.

Nelson, Victoria. Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012. Print.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Italian. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

The Mysteries of Udolpho. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2001. Print.

Richardson, Alan. “Romanticism and the Colonization of the Feminine.” Romanticism and Feminism. Ed. Anne K. Mellor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. 13-26. Print.

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Elizabeth Notarangelo completed her M.A. degree in English. This paper received the English Department’s Danny Ducker Graduate Merit Award in 2015.

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