Monday, February 26, 2018

Falling Faster Than a Helmet From the Sky.

As I ponder Walpolian and Radcliffean female characterizations, in an Airbus bound for Los Angeles, a prospective couple in a seat behind me attempts pairing. After casual chit-chat, the y-chromosome bearer asserts to a candidate for a computer science master’s program at University of Southern California, how surprising her success is, given that women are generally unsuitable for careers in technology. From his tone, it is likely his intention is a desperate attempt to engage her through provocation. I am astounded by his hubris and cluelessness. At that moment, however, I wonder how the women populating The Italian and Castle of Otranto would react.
Matilda, after recovering from her swoon, would respond about duty and accepting her lot in society. After mentioning a constant wind blowing over the battlements, she would declare the predictable “Doubt not my obedience, my dreadful obedience...” followed by “I have suffered a passion to enter my heart without [society’s] avowal—but here I disclaim it” (Ch. IV) “After all,” she might later add, “Why should I aspire to any other purpose besides obeying my father, let the men till my fertile soil, sire healthy sons, and guarantee my family’s claim?” Why indeed, Matilda?
Radcliffean female characterization definitely shifted from the Walpolian style. While Matilda and Isabella are reduced to damsels in distress or—in the case of Hippolita—cast aside for incestuous adventures, the principal female characters in The Italian, burdened as they are by a similarly constipated patriarchal society, employ power and self- determination. This is not to say that Radcliffean women (the Marchesa, Ellena, Signora Bianchi, and Sister Olivia) control their destinies, but, like the first amphibians taking tentative steps on land, they were no longer starting at almost zero.
Zero is Hippolita being forced to accept Manfred’s unconditional divorce and enter the convent. Zero is a world where two noblemen can exchange their daughters to seal a political pact. If this is not enough abasement, Walpole’s dialogue ensures their impotence,(footnote 1) sinking them deeper in a sea of submission.
Manfred never petitions Hippolita for divorce. When she discovers her changed circumstance from Isabella, this is her reaction:
“Perhaps the sacrifice of myself may atone for all; I will go and offer myself to this divorce... I will withdraw into the neighboring monastery, and waste the remainder of life in prayers and tears for my child and the Prince!”
Is it noble to concede without quarrel? Let’s face it: Who wants to be married to Manfred? Isabella flees Manfred’s incestuous desire. In fact, Isabella’s response to any threat is to flee. So, what about Radcliffe’s Ellena in a similarly helpless condition?

In San Stefano, she receives a mandate, either accept the veil or marry the choice of 
the Marchesa, her kidnapper by proxy. Ellena’s response to the Abbess given with “an air of dignified tranquility” is so self-affirming to drop modern jaws (at least mine):
“My resolution is already taken, and I reject each of the offered alternatives. I will neither condemn myself to a cloister, or to the degradation, with which I am threatened on the other hand. Having said this, I am prepared to meet whatever suffering you shall inflict upon me; but be assured, that my own voice never shall sanction the evils to which I may be subjected, and that the immortal love of justice, which fills all my heart, will sustain my courage no less powerfully than the sense of what is due to my own character. You are now acquainted with my sentiments and my resolutions; I shall repeat them no more." (ch. 7)
Her best response to the Abbess though is:
"The sanctuary is profaned," said Ellena, mildly, but with dignity: "it is become a prison. It is only when the Superior ceases to respect the precepts of that holy religion, the precepts which teach her justice and benevolence, that she herself is no longer respected. The very sentiment which bids us revere its mild and beneficent laws, bids us also reject the violators of them: when you command me to reverence my religion, you urge me to condemn yourself." (ch. 7)
I find Ellena impressive. The Radcliffean female character who most practices power, however, is the Marchesa, Vincentio’s mother, who is determined to save her son from a presumed low-class marriage. Her relationship with the Marchese appears aloof, especially in contrast with her co-conspirator, Father Schedoni, the Count di Marinella. Radcliffe describes the Marchesa as someone of “inexorable pride, and courtly influence” who attempts to “secure the imaginary dignity of her house” (Ch. 2). She and Schedoni with many nods and winks orchestrate a plot to ruin Ellena’s life (stopping only with the murderous knife in hand). In this scheme, the Marchesa employs Schedoni as a pliant (if unreliable) tool. In a dramatic reversal from Walpolian characterization, the Marchesa exercises personal power, and better yet, the Marchesa does not represent the pinnacle of feminine power, not at all.
Getting shot down is bad. Getting shot down at 35000 feet is appropriately worse.
“[That’s like] ...the wind whistling through the battlements in the tower above,” says the woman behind me (Ch. 2). “Everyone has heard it a thousand times.”
“What?” says the man.
“This conversation isn’t going well. Besides...”
“I know. You already have a boyfriend. I’ll bet he’s not like me!”
“Fortunately not,” she replies, and then for six hours they are silent.