Captive Women: Problematic Gender Roles in Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance by Emma Yerly (Library Paper)

Emma Yerly

October 28th, 2017

ENGL 375KK,01/Foss (ROWOPO)

Library Paper


Captive Women: Problematic Gender Roles in Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance


For centuries women have been oppressed by men and the societal expectations impressed upon them during childhood, and governing the entirety of their lives. Fathers scold their daughters with harsh words, brothers believe their sisters to be intellectually inferior due to their lack of proper schooling, and husbands ignore their wives, forcing them to find solace in their children. Literature is the predominant method of the perpetuation of these expectations, as women are often depicted as docile, complacent, and submissive. Women are often the main characters of narratives set in domestic atmospheres since they were not encouraged to leave their homes – they had to tend to the house, after all. So, in the domestic sphere is where women writers exposed the harmful ideology of their male relatives and vented their frustration with their lives in captivity. In A Sicilian Romance, Ann Radcliffe uses the Marquis, Julia’s father, as a plot device in order to address the constrictive gender roles imposed on women in the Romantic era in an attempt to raise awareness of their problematic nature.

First, in the Romantic era, women were trained to maintain a home, so there was no need for them to quit their estates and engage in wild adventures like their male relatives could. It comes as no surprise that the Marquis forbade his daughters from leaving the castle, and he only returned from his stay in Naples with their brother Ferdinand to oversee the education of Julia and Emilia “as his pride, rather than his affection, seemed to dictate.” (Radcliffe 4) Even though they are forbidden to leave the castle grounds, Julia and Emilia still fantasize about the world outside of the castle walls. Ann Radcliffe implies through Julia’s wanderlust that women should be free to explore the world, just as men are. Radcliffe wanted women readers to sympathize with Julia’s curious nature, and to despise the Marquis’s enforced confinement. The Marquis, for them, represented the men in their lives who had left them behind, leaving them to care for the children while they traveled the world.

Then, since marriage was used to procure alliances rather than celebrate love, women were often promised to men without their knowledge. Unfortunately for Julia, she met the same fate. After Hippolitus proclaims his love for Julia, she finds out that she had been promised to the Duke du Luovo, who is rumored to be exactly like the Marquis. Julia rejects the marriage, like any rebellious heroine would, because she would rather marry the handsome and kind Hippolitus. When she confronts the Duke about her repulsion to their union he is understanding, and replies: “I shall certainly be very willing, if the marquis will release me from our mutual engagements, to resign you to a more favored lover.” (Radcliffe 60) Ann Radcliffe uses the Duke’s reaction to Julia’s rejection as a model of how men should act, since he respected Julia’s decision and did not force her into accepting the marriage anyway. Radcliffe wanted to exemplify the characteristics of a good man, and by doing so she shattered societal expectations by implying that women deserve, and should command, respect from men. However, when the Marquis is informed of the broken marriage arrangement he forces Julia back into the engagement by killing Hippolitus, showing that no matter how hard a woman tries to break free of her confinement, she will always be overpowered by a man.

Finally, throughout the novel strange events occur in the locked-up and abandoned portion of the castle. The servants see lights in uninhabited rooms, Julia and Emilia hear load groans, and Julia even sees a figure leaving the castle with a lantern. Ferdinand, Julia’s brother, after witnessing these occurrences firsthand, decided to confront the Marquis about the possibility of spirits in the castle to ease the minds of his sisters. However, when he asserts his fears to his father, he is met with patronizing remarks in regard to the nature of his gender. The Marquis reproaches Ferdinand, reminding him that he is a man and shouldn’t entertain fantasies “which the firmer nature of a man should disdain.” (Radcliffe 49) The Marquis’s reaction not only accentuates his stubborn nature, but also reflects the values of Romantic era England by enforcing the belief that women are weak and succumb to their feelings, while men are rational and in control of their emotions. Not only is Radcliffe attempting to spook the reader with tales of specters, as she is well-known for her Gothic themes, she’s also using the Marquis’s sexist attitude towards the supposed nature of women to create not only conflict with the mystery of the paranormal activity in the abandoned castle, but also between him and his daughters. Meaning, that Radcliffe wanted readers to recognize that the Marquis’s behavior is wrong not only because it prohibits the plot from progressing, but that it is also misogynistic and harmful towards Julia, their beloved heroine, and reflects the oppression they face in their own lives.

Ann Radcliffe was among the first generation of feminist women authors, even having her book The Mysteries of Udolpho used intertextually in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Radcliffe not only questions the confinement of women to the domestic sphere and their subjugation to their male relatives, but she also criticizes how men treated women, and suggested through characters like the Duke du Luovo, Ferdinand, and Hippolitus how men should treat women in their paternal, fraternal, and intimate relationships. Ann Radcliffe uses the Marquis’s misogynistic nature to highlight the double standard that Romantic women faced throughout their lives – men can do whatever they please, and women must stay behind and tend to the house.


I hereby pledge upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this assignment.

Works Cited:

Radcliffe, Ann Ward, and Alison Milbank. A Sicilian Romance. Oxford University Press, 1993.