A Feminist Perspective of A Sicilian Romance and The Castle of Otranto
In eighteenth century novels, a common means of discussing the role of women in society is through the characterization of two good sisters. The heroine of such a novel is a pure, kind young woman who also has a streak of spunkiness. Her sister may be more good and kind, but she is more submissive and reserved. I would like to look at these sisters (and their mothers) in Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance , and The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole.
It is possible that The Castle of Otranto was the first to introduce these two good sisters as a means of exploring the duties and expectations of modern woman and her right to love. Interestingly, the book comes out in favor of increased individuality and lessened submissiveness. One way contemporary ideas of femininity were being defined was through conduct books written to guide women. “Prescriptive writing…in the eighteenth century tended to portray most women as largely passive in the face of men, biology, and fate...” (Hunt, 75). Walpole and Radcliffe explore what happens when a woman is not passive. The consequences of this independence are gauged against the fate of the more acceptably feminine sister (and mother).
Though not blood relatives, Isabella has been raised as Matilda’s sister, and her relationship with the prince and princess is one of daughter to parents. Isabella has a more independent identity than Matilda does. There are suggestions that Isabella is slightly more sensual than Matilda, someone who admits her sexuality and attraction to men. Bianca, Matilda’s lady, says, “But there is my Lady Isabella would not be so reserved to me: she will let me talk to her of young men; and when a handsome cavalier has come to the castle, she has owned to me that she wished your brother Conrad resembled him.” To which Matilda replies, “I do not allow you to mention my friend disrespectfully. Isabella is of a cheerful disposition, but her soul is pure as virtue itself.” Matilda opposes “virtuous” with “cheerful,” the latter word given as an opposition to the suggestion that Isabella may have a flirtatious nature. It seems that one who is very pure and virtuous must not only hide sexual interest, but must curb evidence of any happiness or active enjoyment of life. This cheerfulness might indicate self-interest or a threateningly passionate nature. When Hippolita announces that a marriage between Frederick and Matilda has been proposed, Isabella says to Hippolita , “...But think not, lady, that thy weakness shall determine for me. I swear, hear me all ye angels—” (Walpole, 106). Matilda, who is in love with Theodore, cannot but agree to obey her mother.
Hannah More was a writer of a popular conduct book, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education. Kathryn Kirkpatrick writes that Hannah More felt that “One of the duties that the middle-class woman was to learn from her reading was how to...