Showing posts with label Ann Radcliffe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ann Radcliffe. Show all posts

Monday, April 26, 2010

Story Throwdown: Mysteries of Udolpho vs. To the Lighthouse vs. The Thirteenth Tale

It turns out that I was reading three very different books simultaneously last week, and this enabled me to think about fiction, storytelling, and the way the novel has evolved.

Last week I finished up and posted on Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho.

On Saturday, I finished listening to Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

On Sunday, I finished reading Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale.

Udolpho was plot, plot, plot with little character development--despite having an omniscient narrator, we didn't know or need to know much about what was going on inside the heroine's head beyond whether she was happy, sad, fearful, hopeful, pensive, frustrated, or grateful. The story was not about what she was thinking or feeling, but what was happening to her.

To the Lighthouse couldn't have been more different. Very little happened, and what did happen did so so far off-stage that it's safe to say that there was really no plot. Instead, the reader spent the entire novel burrowed deep in the various character's random thoughts, knowing no more about why characters were thinking something than they did themselves. The story was not about what happened in this family and in this house and to this family and to this house, but what people thought about what was happening, minute by mind-numbing minute.

The Thirteenth Tale was an interesting combination of the two approaches to fiction, and as the most recently published of the three, this makes sense. Like Udolpho, the whole point of The Thirteenth Tale is to discover what is "true" in the story--for the reader to learn what lies behind the mysteries that bedevil the heroines, although it's hard to come up with two more different heroines than Emily St. Aubert from Udolpho and Margaret Lea from The Thirteenth Tale. Unlike Udolpho, ninety-nine percent of the action takes place in Margaret's head as she listens to Vida Winter tell her the story of her life and sorts through what is true and what is misleading or only a half-truth.

I enjoyed all three books, but in, as you might expect, widely different ways. Udolpho was fun in and of itself, and interesting in its relation to Austen, the development of the novel, and the development of Gothic as a genre. It was the easiest of the three to read, despite being written over two hundred years ago.

To the Lighthouse was the most work to finish. Sometimes I wonder if I would have stuck with it had I been reading it instead of listening to it. Virginia Woolf and I have a complicated relationship. I read The Waves in college and was thankful to get through it--I don't even remember whether I had to write a paper on it. Suffice it to say, she was not one of "my" authors that I was tested on in order to get my B.A. in English. I tried reading A Room's of One's Own about six months ago on my Kindle app on my iPhone. I thought it well-written but dull after awhile. Maybe it was the format, maybe it was my mood.

I enjoyed the artistry of To the Lighthouse--the repetition of phrases, the structure of the two main parts and the bridge in the middle, the fluidity of the symbolism of the journey to the lighthouse. I liked Mrs. Ramsay a lot. I loved the way the book ended with Lily Briscoe finally finishing her painting:
With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.

This might actually be one of the best endings I've read since The Great Gatsby, and not just because I was happy to actually get to the ending. The biggest problem I have with To the Lighthousee is that I don't feel richer for having read it. Maybe it's because I've read other "modern" novels and so that format, while it might have been groundbreaking in 1927, didn't startle me with its innovation. Unlike Udolpho, it is a tough book to appreciate in context.

The Thirteenth Tale is definitely in the Gothic tradition--the recurrence of Jane Eyre in the story says it all--and comes complete with blind alleys, disguised characters, innately evil tendencies in certain characters and innately good tendencies in others, ghosts, skeletons, crumbling houses, crumbling families, and a generally dark and creepy tone. The heroine is a mousy bookseller, as opposed to a mousy governess, who happens to write good author profiles and so gets tapped on the shoulder to write the autobiography of a dying author of bestsellers. Turns out the mousy bookseller, Margaret Lea, has secrets of her own that she discovers and deals with in the course of the story.

I liked The Thirteenth Tale. It is well-written and well-crafted, but almost too well-crafted, almost too tight. I tend to like books that are more organic--that take on a life of their own. I got the feeling that Setterfield kept her story under strict control--she would have to in order to get all the loose ends to line up at the end into a cohesive whole.

I earmarked a number of pages because they contained a passage or a phrase worked for me at the time...few jumped out again when I reviewed them for this post. However, this one did, from the chapter entitled "The Inheritance," in which Vida Winter tells Margaret that she knows that Margaret has her own story to tell, should she choose to, going on to observe that:
...silence is not a natural environment for stories. They need words. Without them they grow pale, sicken and die. And then they haunt you.

I like this idea because it resonates with what I believe about people and writers and stories and storytellers and truth in storytelling. Apart from Setterfield's way with words and fascinatingly unbelieveable macabre story, I ended up liking The Thirteenth Tale because it is about writers and writing and books and stories and what they mean to me.

Now that I have cleaned my plate, so to speak, I need to catch up with The Woman in White. I have fallen about a month behind in the weekly installments that are being emailed out, marking the 150th anniversary of its debut, then it's on to Sanditon and Wolf Hall. I wonder what parallels I will find between them?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mysteries of Udolpho--the Twilight of Its Day

These days, most people who know about Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho know about it because Catherine Morland read it and Jane Austen parodied it in Northanger Abbey. However, back when it hit the streets for the first time in May of 1794, it was a blockbuster…I like to think of it as the Twilight of its day.

If you are only going to read one Gothic novel, to see what all the fuss was about, read Udolpho. Unlike most of the others in the genre, it is truly suspenseful (you only find out what’s behind all the mysteries in the story in the last couple of chapters and the romantic dilemma is only resolved in the final few pages). Though not really terrifying, it is remarkably readable and I found it extremely fun.

I was warned of the lengthy descriptions of exotic locales, but I enjoyed visiting Venice, Tuscany, Provence, and the Apennines and Alps circa 1581 circa Radcliffe’s mind. She actually never visited most of the places she wrote about, and only visited France once. Her descriptions are the stuff that dreams and legends are made of and seem so familiar and right and romantic and thrilling to those of use who are experienced armchair travelers.

I was also warned of the melodramatic plot lines, and these are there in spades, but are a great deal of fun of you let your imagination get the better of you. Emily St. Aubert, the heroine who seems more like a Rousseau-educated English lass than a late Renaissance French mademoiselle, is a plucky, perfect specimen who cries buckets, faints at crucial moments (e.g., just after lifting the black veil, which means we don’t learn what is behind it for another 300 pages), and could give Marianne Dashwood instruction in sensibility and Elinor Dashwood pointers on rationality. The hero of the story, Valancourt, is a bit one-dimensional—we only hear about his depraved behavior in Paris but don’t get to witness it—and the villain, Monsieur Montoni, is wonderfully wicked and amoral but no match for our girl.

In thinking about the story, I think Radcliffe did a much better job with her female characters than the male ones. Madome Montoni, Emily’s foolish aunt who plays a reasonably good wicked stepmother for much of the time, has a somewhat interesting character, as does Signora Laurentini. The men are more static—either good or evil, with the exception of Valancourt, whose fortunes exemplify the moral lesson of the story, as expressed in the second-to-last paragraph of the novel:

…though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!

One unexpected aspect of the book is the poetry that Radcliffe inserts throughout the story. It shouldn’t have surprised me because the full title of the novel is The Mysteries of Udolpho, A Romance; Interspersed with some Pieces of Poetry. Emily is quite good at composing quite lengthy poems, usually when she stumbles upon a particularly gorgeous vista or after a particularly wrenching experience. I confess that I read very few of these, but I imagine Radcliffe’s original readers soaked them up before plunging ahead with the story, which does move at a pretty brisk clip.

I am not going to review the plot here as it would take a short novel to simply recap all of Emily’s adventures, but suffice it to say that there are castles, banditti, pirates, dungeons, secret passages, convents, nuns, ghosts, skeletons, poisonings, sword fights, abductions, storms, inheritances, deaths, confessions, and true love. What more could you ask for?

Finally, if you do take the plunge and decide to read this definitive Gothic novel, make sure you read the Penguin edition. The Introduction by Jacqueline Howard, which I scanned before and read after reading the novel, is absolutely first rate.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Gothic Novel

It's not even summer yet in the U.S. and already I'm anticipating October reading by diving into Gothic novels. I have only Northanger Abbey to blame. After rereading it earlier this year, my regional JASNA group decided to explore the reading list that Isabella Thorpe gives to Catherine Morland.

Here's the list:

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, 1794
The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents by Ann Radcliffe, 1797
Clermont, a Tale by Regina Maia Roche, 1798
The Mysterious Warning, a German Tale by Eliza Parsons, 1796
The Necromancer; or, the Tale of the Black Forest, by "Ludwig Flammernberg" (aka Carl Friedrich Kahlert, 1794
The Midnight Bell by Francis Lathom, 1798
Orphan of the Rhine by Eleanor Sleath, 1798
Horrid Mysteries by the Marquis de Gross, 1796
The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, 1796
Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, 1794

I chose the most popular of them all, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and the one that Catherine actually reads in NA, and I'm happy to say that I am closing in on the ending and will be posting on it soon.

In the meantime, I asked my JASNA friend, Maxene, if she would allow me to post the wonderful paper she developed a few years ago on the Gothic novel. She agreed, and here it is. In the words of my beloved Jane Austen, "run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint!" There is a lot of fainting in Gothic novels, but they are not for the faint of heart.

THE GOTHIC NOVEL - courtesy of Maxene

By the late 18th century, literacy in England had spread from the upper to the lower classes, and even servants, in their leisure time, joined the reading public, along with many women. Thus, literature reached a far wider audience than ever before. This new readership could now take advantage of the many circulating libraries available. There was also more of a tendency for people to seek out reading for simple pleasure and relaxation rather than for educational or religious purposes. During this period, especially in the years between 1790 and 1820, the most popular type of fiction read in England was the Gothic novel.

Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) is considered the first Gothic novel. A slight book, it is significant for its influence on those Gothic writers yet to come. This book introduced the elements of Gothic fiction, among which feeling is the distinctive attribute. Coral Howells, in her Love, Mystery and Misery: Feelings in Gothic Fiction, states: “Gothic fiction with its castles and abbeys, persecuted heroines, ghosts and nightmares, projects a peculiarly fraught fantasy world of necroses and morbidity—it is a shadowy world of ruins and twilit scenery, lit up from time to time by lurid flashes of passion and violence.” Gothic fiction contained descriptions of imaginary landscapes set in forests and mountains, had a large cast of characters, and, above all, was full of exaggerations.

There was no real successor to Walpole until 1777 when Clara Reeves’s Old English Baron was published. However, it wasn’t until 1789, with the publication of her Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne that the most important and most popular Gothic novelist, and the writer considered the founder of Gothic fiction, came on the literary scene: Ann Radcliffe. Of her five Gothic romances, written between 1789 and 1797, the most famous are The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian. Mrs. Radcliffe was a master of landscape description and specialized in terror by suggestion underlaid, however, by a basic rationality. Behind the terror of the Black Veil in Udolpho is something that can be explained.

After Mrs. Radcliffe, Gothic fiction evolved from terror to horror. One explanation for this evolution is the abundance of Gothic architecture which was available for first-hand inspection during the last decades of the 18th century. Earlier Gothic fiction relied for its effects on the damp, tortuous corridors of crumbling castles and abbeys. In reality, people were now able to see that these built Gothic buildings were light and airy. As one critic explains: “The effects of Mrs. Radcliffe and her heirs were dependent on obscurity and between 1790 and 1810 that obscurity was to be undermined.” Real, built Gothic was no longer a matter of mystery and irrationality, so written Gothic began to employ more stereotyped and extreme Gothic settings and shifted away from the suspense of Mrs. Radcliffe’s books to the described horrors of, for example, Matthew G. Lewis’s The Monk (1796).

The Monk plunges us into a world of horror with semi-pornographic elements in it. It is “a nightmare of fiendish wickedness, ghastly supernaturalism and sadistic sensuality.” Sounds delightfully repellent! And we remember that John Thorpe thought it a “tolerably decent” novel and had “read that t’other day….” C. Robert Maturin’s Melmuth the Wanderer (1820), published near the end of Gothic fiction’s popularity, is the greatest novel of the school of horror but includes within it some more complex psychology. There were hundreds of stories written in imitation of Radcliffe, Lewis and Maturin. Public demand for morbidly sensational fiction was also satisfied by a host of minor writers: for example, those published by the Minerva Press, most of whose work was repetitive and sensational in the extreme.

By 1816, the first great popular passion for Gothic romances had passed its peak. By the 1820’s, ‘Gothic’ had become a derogatory if not an abusive word. But Gothic conventions were assimilated into the imaginative literature of Romanticism. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), more psychological but with Gothic elements, is the most lasting example.

Gothic fiction, however, is significant for its attempt to write a new kind of fiction dealing primarily with feelings and with emotional and imaginative awareness, elements more typical of poetry and drama than of the novel. “These explorations were expressed through exaggerated imagery in which contemporary readers found excitement, suspense and beneath it all an interplay of the passions they covertly recognized in themselves” (Howells).

And this brings us to Jane Austen, who, with her family, read widely in Gothic fiction and enjoyed what she read. In a letter to Cassandra, dated October 24, 1798, Austen writes: “My father is now reading the Midnight Bell, which he has got from the library….” This book had just been published earlier that very year.

Almost every element of Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels is exactly the sort of thing Jane Austen went out of her way to avoid, the exact opposite of her “little bit of ivory.” Austen wrote Northanger Abbey when Gothic fiction’s popularity was at its peak and after Mrs. Radcliffe’s Udolpho had enthralled the reading public. But she acknowledged in her Advertisement to Northanger Abbey, in 1816, that she was aware popular taste had changed and that Northanger Abbey contained obsolete elements--nowhere so obsolete as in Isabella’s list of horrid fiction that she imparted to Catherine. None of these books was written after 1798. To some, though, this list does suggest the beginning, peak, and decline of the Gothic novel, just as Catherine’s questions about Blaize Castle’s age, keep, ramparts and towers suggest the phases of England’s long history of castle building from the keep of the 12th century through the ramparts of the 13th and then to the towers, a feature of late medieval castles. If Northanger Abbey is a parody of the Gothic novel, it also has elements which show Jane Austen’s affinity to it. She doesn’t so much reject the Gothic because it is different from life, but because it can so easily distort someone’s real life responses. As we all know from reading Northanger Abbey, real life and Gothic fiction aren’t so very completely different as Henry Tilney believed them to be.