While reading “A Sicilian Romance,” I thought back to some of my prior research on the gothic. I had noticed, of course, the descriptions that were obviously gothic in “A Sicilian Romance,” but also thought of the roots of the meaning of the word “Goth.” History tells us that the Goths were known as barbarians who destroyed classical Roman civilization and for centuries onward, rendered the civilized world dark and ignorant. In a book called The History of Gothic Fiction, Markman Ellis says that the Goths were a German tribe inhabiting the northern and eastern borders of the Roman Empire, and that they launched an invasion of the empire in 376 AD, after long-standing border disputes. Perhaps because they were repeatedly successful in the invasions, and eventually sacked Rome in 410 AD, their history has come to acquire a sordid aura, characteristic of savagery and cruelty. By the eighteenth century, “Goth” was a blanket term for all German tribes, and the term “gothic” came to be associated with medieval culture, “and thus the culture dominant in the Dark Ages (the period from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries” (Ellis 22). Because of the role of Goths in the disintegration of what is regarded as the greatest civilization the world has known, the word “gothic” came to mean “barbarous” – a connotation that can be found in Shakespeare and Chaucer’s writings, and which survives into the eighteenth century (Ellis 23).
In the eighteenth century, however, the term “gothic” was revised and gothic fiction came to be commonly thought of as representing “one of the defining moments when an old chivalric past was idealized at the expense of a classical present. The Gothic is then a conscious anachronism, presented not as an error of taste or a corrupting influence, but as a positive attribute” (Ellis 23). In other words, something that was thought of as classical, sophisticated and tasteful in the present could be compromised for an honorable and chivalric past without giving rise to criticism and opposition. It could now be said that “the gothic is not a destroyer of the civilized values of classical Rome, but rather is perceived as the source and repository of some of the unique, valuable and essential elements in English culture and politics” (Ellis 24). I looked for ways that this understanding of the gothic could be applied to “A Sicilian Romance.” While there were several instances that could fit this definition, I thought the most interesting one to examine would be the scene in which the Marquis tells Julia that she must marry the Duke de Luovo. Julia, who has fallen in love with Hippolitus, cannot bear the thought; she entreats her father to reconsider his orders, but he responds with, “Away! Nor tempt my rage with objections thus childish and absurd. What – when wealth, honor and distinction are laid at my feet, shall they be refused because a foolish girl…cries and says she cannot love!” Here, the Marquis is clearly privileging Duke de Luovo’s honor and rank, passed down from an old lineage, over something tasteful offered in the present (that Hippolitus is sophisticated and tasteful in his ways is evidenced even by the way he looks at Julia during the ball; “a timid respect marked the manner of Hippolitus, more flattering to Julia than the most ardent professions”; the gentle way he talks to Ferdinand is also of note). Therefore, the post-eighteenth-century definition of gothic is at play here; however, the scene can also be applied to the other definition of gothic. It would be difficult to argue that the Marquis is barbaric simply because he places financial concerns (he does mention “wealth”) over the ennobling emotion of love, as both love and money have historically been the basis for nuptials. However, the Marquis’s demeanor can be interpreted as barbaric; his dismissal of his daughter’s tears may be seen as cruel; his tendency to want to remain in the “Dark” (pun intended) about her desires, or, you could say, his “tearing down” of these desires, and his coercive nature, shown by his threat to withhold shelter if Julia does not comply – could all be elements of the pre-eighteenth century understanding of the gothic.