The trouble translating Ann Radcliffe’s best villain

Ann Radcliffe seems to be a name that has been forgotten, except for those who really dig into their gothic fiction. She was at the forefront of her craft, and when she was releasing her novels in the late 1780s and 1790s, was one of the top-selling writers of the time. She’s probably most famous and known now for two novels, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and The Italian. It’s this latter novel which I want to discuss, and specifically the character of Schedoni, the evil monk. As always, I’ll avoid as many overt spoilers as I can, but there will obviously be some discussion of plot details. You’ve been warned.

The novel itself concerns a young nobleman, Vincentio di Vivaldi, who becomes fixated with the young Ellena. But his parents won’t have it, and his mother enlists the help of her confidant, Schedoni, to make sure that Ellena is out of the picture completely. As the story unfolds, the Holy Inquisition makes an appearance, there’s an escape through secret passages in a nun’s convent in the mountains, and we learn why the monk, Shedoni, is such a shadowy, malevolent figure.

With so many figures to comb through older literature for, and especially in these times of going back and pining for classic characters to bring back to life (we’re always looking back at the old Universal monsters, for heaven’s sake), it seems strange that this one has slipped through the net of popular culture to a certain extent. This is a shame because he’s an absolute monster.

When introduced to him, he is a mystery, and mostly through his own doing. Chapter 2 describes him as ‘an Italian… whose family was unknown, and from some circumstances, it appeared, that he wished to throw an impenetrable veil over his origins.’ He is a gloomy figure, with ‘solitary habits and frequent penances’ that many believe is ‘the consequence of some hideous crime gnawing upon an awakened conscience.’ Already therefore we have hints of past deeds, and his potential to do harm. But never can we believe that he has come fully to see the light, despite being dressed in religious garb, because two paragraphs later we’re told that ‘Among his associates, no one loved him, many disliked him, and more feared him.’ ‘There was something terrible in its air; something almost superhuman.’ In his very first descriptions, Radcliffe goes to great lengths to give us this sense that Schedoni is more than just a monk. There is an air of menace, with eyes ‘so piercing that they seemed to penetrate, at a single glance, into the hearts of men, and to read their most secret thoughts.’ This is not a man to meet on a dark night; there is the feel of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

At first, the man is always Vivaldi’s shadow, stopping him wherever he goes. ‘“This man crosses me, like my evil genius,”’ Vivaldi says of him. He is always around the Marchesa, Vivaldi’s mother, acting as her confidant. Radcliffe sets him up as Vivaldi’s counterpoint; scheming and malevolent in direct opposition to the young nobleman’s straightforward, almost naive, innocence. We’ve all come across this kind of paralleling, from the light and dark clothing of Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader to the doubling prophecy of Harry/Voldemort, a setup also complemented by Harry’s reliance on friends and the dark lord’s reliance on follow

As the story progresses, Schedoni manipulates the Marchesa into agreeing on murder as a course of action to solve her problems, and is willing to get his hands personally bloody in the process. He rats out our heroes to the Holy Inquisition, who will go by any torturous means to get their confessions, even if they may be false. He lies and goes about in disguise. His past is a mixture of betrayal, murder, and pride. A perfect character for a world of today becoming, as Baudrillard would have put it, full of ‘less and less truth, and more and more meaning.’

Yet he is also a conflicted character, one capable of staying his hand. At times he questions whether he is doing the right thing. Many might see this as lessening his menace, but it might also be seen as making him a more well-rounded character. I remember Hayao Miyazaki saying that he didn’t believe any of his characters to be completely evil and that they all had good traits in them (Yubaba’s motherly affection for her baby in Spirited Away is a great example of this). At times, we see these small, but significant, good points creep through, despite his overall menace. But then at the end, his final act is that of murder, and the novel finishes with him being thoroughly despicable. But that’s kind of the point. He had a chance to atone and deliberately chose not to. That’s what separates the good guys from the bad guys.

So when you’ve got a villain this conniving, dark, and malevolent, as your central focus, why haven’t we properly embraced the character as a truly layered evil? Why hasn’t he been resurrected in the present day, maybe as a film or an 8 episode Netflix show? What’s stopping us from taking one of the great early villains of gothic horror and bringing him back to life again?

Perhaps several reasons spring to mind. In many people’s minds, horror kind of stops at Frankenstein, and occasionally they’ll go back for The Castle of Otranto, just for completion’s sake. Then it’s onto Poe in the ’30s and ’40s, and beyond into the future. We forget that many of the fundamentals of gothic texts, and beyond, occur in the few decades before Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. My disappointment that Doctor Who didn’t do anything with the character of John Polidori in the last series’ episode, The Haunting of Villa Diodati, which was set on the night Shelley created Frankenstein was unrestrained. How do you have the guy who pretty much established the foundation of the gentleman vampire, in the form of Lord Ruthven in his novella, The Vampyre, created on the same night, and not take advantage of that?

But I digress. My point is that many of the classics before Frankenstein haven’t made the transition from battered reprints of the novels into TV or Film. As much as Shelley’s novel is fundamental to literature as a whole, you can’t think of it without seeing Karloff in your head. Matthew Lewis, Ann Radcliffe, John Polidori, and even, come to think of it, Walpole’s Otranto, have never really got a foothold on screen. Which is a shame, because all of their works are fundamental to our understanding of how Western horror came about, in slow, incremental steps, and they deserve to be kept alive. We’ll adapt The String of Pearls into Sweeney Todd. We’ll get Corman and Price to do a string of Poe adaptations. And we’ll run Frankenstein almost into the ground with adaptations. But before Shelley, we’re severely lacking in adaptations or at least prominent ones.

So would Schedoni now be seen as something of an anachronism? Would you put him in a film and have the critics say that we’ve seen a thousand characters like him now, so why bring him back? His characteristics have seeped into every film and TV show that now it might seem like trying to hype up a museum piece; all very interesting but not very entertaining. And with Vivaldi being so incredibly naive (or at least not as complex as he could be), you’d need to do some serious modifications to make him as compelling a protagonist to put against Shedoni and create a proper double act.

If it could be handled right, the cloak-and-dagger menace from the late 1700s would be incredible on screen. Someone like Mike Flanagan would have a great time making it as a limited series. But I’m not sure how much of the novel would survive the translation for a modern audience, and Schedoni might suffer as a result. The character, as incredible as he is, may have to remain inside the pages of Radcliffe’s final masterpiece, at least for now. I think that’s an incredible shame, but a necessary evil.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: kjudgemental

One thought on “The trouble translating Ann Radcliffe’s best villain

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s