When 'The Italian' was published in 1797, the queen of Gothic fiction, Ann Radcliffe, was the most popular and influential novelist in England. The copyrights for 'The Italian' and her previous and best-known novel 'The Mysteries of Udolpho' (so memorably spoofed by Jane Austen in 'Northanger Abbey'),had sold for a combined sum estimated at around 100,000 in today's money. Her mysterious retirement from the publishing scene after 'The Italian' can perhaps be explained more in terms of the fact that she had achieved financial independence than that, as was rumoured, she had gone mad from the images she had conjured up in the writing of her novels! She was the leading exponent of the 'terrorist novel' as it was known, with its picturesque foreign locations, supernatural occurrences, heroines in distress and dastardly villains.

'The Italian' is set in southern Italy, and is the story of two young people, Ellena and Vivaldi, who fall in love and are pitted against Vivaldi's disapproving family. Vivaldi's mother will go to any lengths to prevent the marriage. She is in league with the sinister monk Schedoni, Radcliffe's finest villain, who wishes to prevent the secrets and lies of his past from being exposed. Ellena and Vivaldi endure moonlight escapes, incarceration in convents, attempted murder and falling into the hands of the Inquisition.

Radcliffe was the mistress of the 'explained supernatural'; all the events have a rational explanation. Radcliffe makes less use of this device in 'The Italian' than in her previous novels, perhaps because she could get her effects without it, or because it was inevitably subject to the law of diminishing returns. So 'The Italian' is a more 'purist' novel in that sense.

The prevailing idea of 'sensibility' meant that the characters are deeply emotional and sensitive. Even the hero gets tearful on occasion. The heroine, while steadfast, has a tendency to wimpy behaviour at crucial moments, and is more likely to faint than get stuck in in an emergency.This results in some unintentionally hilarious moments, but it is all part of the fun. 'The Italian' is good escapist entertainment, but it won't be to everyone's taste.