Versions of the Byronic Hero

Ann Radcliffe, from The Italian Villain

These passages from the second chapter of Radcliffe’s 1797 Gothic novel introduce the mysterious Father Schedoni, who, in his role as priest and secret adviser to the hero’s family, will set in the motion a plot against the book’s young lovers that will take three full volumes to unravel. Radcliffe’s portrait of this unfathomable villain—almost admirable in his ability to deflect others’ attempts to guess at his motives, his past, or his true nature—influenced Byron as he created the haughty, alienated heroes of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Manfred, and his Orientalist romances.

 

There lived in the Dominican convent of the Spirito Santo, at Naples, a man called Father Schedoni; an Italian, as his name  imported, but whose family was unknown, and  from some circumstances, it appeared that  he wished to throw an impenetrable veil over  his origin. For whatever reason, he was never  heard to mention a relative, or the place  of his nativity, and he had artfully eluded every enquiry that approached the subject  which the curiosity of his associates had  occasionally prompted. There were circumstances, however, which appeared to indicate him to  be a man of birth, and of fallen fortune;  his spirit, as it had sometimes looked forth  from under the disguise of his manners, seemed  lofty; it shewed not, however, the aspirings  of a generous mind, but rather the gloomy  pride of a disappointed one. Some few persons  in the convent, who had been interested by  his appearance, believed that the peculiarities  of his manners, his severe reserve and unconquerable  silence, his solitary habits and frequent  penances, were the effect of misfortunes  preying upon a haughty and disordered spirit;  while others conjectured them the consequence  of some hideous crime gnawing upon an awakened  conscience.

He would sometimes abstract himself from the society for whole days together, or when with such a disposition he was compelled to mingle with it, he seemed unconscious where he was, and continued shrouded in meditation and silence till he was again alone.  There were times when it was unknown whither he had retired, notwithstanding that his steps had been watched, and his customary haunts examined.

* * *

Among his associates no one loved him, many  disliked him, and more feared him. His figure  was striking, but not so from grace; it was  tall, and, though extremely thin, his limbs  were large and uncouth, and as he stalked  along, wrapped in the black garments of his  order, there was something terrible in its air; something almost super-human. His cowl,  too, as it threw a shade over the livid paleness  of his face, increased its severe character,  and gave an effect to his large melancholy  eye, which approached to horror. His was not the melancholy of a sensible and wounded heart, but apparently that of a gloomy and ferocious disposition. There was something in his physiognomy extremely singular, and  that cannot easily be defined. It bore the traces of many passions, which seemed to  have fixed the features they no longer animated.  An habitual gloom and severity prevailed  over the deep lines of his countenance; and  his eyes were so piercing that they seemed  to penetrate, at a single glance, into the  hearts of men, and to read their most secret  thoughts; few persons could support their  scrutiny, or even endure to meet them twice.

— From The Italian, or The Confessional of the Black Penitents (1797)


© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback  :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page    
Home