“On the pleasant banks of the Garonne, in the province of Gascony, stood, in the year 1584, the chateau of Monsieur St. Aubert….”–Ann Ward Radcliffe

From not having said much of any real help for my readers about George Sand in my last post, I go now to Ann (Ward) Radcliffe, about whom I could say much more had I “time and space,” as Chaucer has it.  First, a dab at biography, just to allow you to get yourself situated.  And it will have to be a dab, because Radcliffe was something of a congenial recluse and nothing much is known about her life.  In fact, when Christina Rossetti attempted to write her biography in later years, she had to stop for lack of factual information (and this was in an era when fanciful notions and apocryphal stories about authors were still able to pass as currency).  Ann Ward was born into a merchant family which had professional connections with medical practice, in 1764.  In 1787, she married William Radcliffe, and shared a childless but happy marriage with him until she died in 1823, of a serious asthma attack.  They were companionable, as was evinced by the fact that she started her writings as a way of occupying her time while he was out late, and reading her compositions to him when he came home at night.  She kept an exceedingly private life, and despite her many travel descriptions in her books, did not travel extensively herself, but took her descriptions from art works and others’ accounts.  Most readers, however, find them convincing and properly detailed, full of the Romantic love of scenery which was current at the time, particularly love of the more dramatic and wilder aspects of nature, varied with a love of the simple pastoral as well.

Though originally, I had planned to read several novels of Radcliffe’s for purposes of comparison, I still retain a fond memory of The Mysteries of Udolpho, and as it is 676 pages long of tiny, close type and has moreover been described by several commentators not only as the archetypal Gothic novel but as the best one, which was imitated by many other writers, I decided to write my article on it alone, and leave the reader to perhaps pursue The Romance of the Forest, The Italian, and Radcliffe’s other works.  This one work alone, however, made Gothic romance more acceptable to a larger audience, which might have dismissed genuine supernaturalism.  As well, the book advocates female sufferage, and the triumph of the mind over the more fantastic of the emotions.  The book is parodied by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, whose heroine Catherine Morland has read Radcliffe and been superstitiously affected.  In her writings, Radcliffe practiced what she referred to as “terror” instead of the “horror” (terror with a mixture of the gross, reviled, or repugnant) espoused by other such writers as “Monk” Lewis, and she tried to exemplify this not only in her last novel, The Italian, but in an essay as well (which was published after her death by her husband).

The Mysteries of Udolpho begins with the heroine Emily St. Aubert in the bosom of her small family (death is ever present in her life; her two young brothers die as infants, and first her mother passes away when Emily is a young woman, and then her father dies when he and Emily are travelling afterwards).  Lest you be concerned that you won’t have enough plot tangles, twists, and mysteries to keep you busy, however, the book even from the beginning is bejeweled with smaller mysteries throughout, beginning with a mysterious unseen lute player and a poem with Emily’s name in it written on a wall of a fishing-house she and her parents frequent, as well as a miniature picture Emily sees her father kissing after her mother’s death (and which is not, needless to say, a portrait of her mother).  This early history takes place in a pastoral setting much celebrated in the classic “novel of sentiment.”  To give you just a taste of the lovely prose which is so much better than that in the average Gothic novel or novel of sentiment, I will quote from a couple of passages in the book relating to Emily’s father:  “M. St. Aubert loved to wander, with his wife and daughter, on the margin of the Garonne, and to listen to the music that floated on its waves.  He had known life in other forms than those of pastoral simplicity, having mingled in the gay and in the busy scenes of the world; but the flattering portrait of mankind, which his heart had delineated in early youth, his experience had too sorrowfully corrected.  Yet, amidst the changing visions of life, his principles remained unshaken, his benevolence unchilled; and he retired from the multitude ‘more in pity than in anger,’ to scenes of simple nature, to the pure delights of literature, and to the exercise of domestic virtues….To [his small estate in Gascony] he had been attached from his infancy.  He had often made excursions to it when a boy, and the impressions of delight given to his mind by the homely kindness of the grey-headed peasant, to whom it was intrusted, and whose fruit and cream never failed, had not been obliterated by succeeding circumstances.  The green pastures along which he had so often bounded in the exultation of health, and youthful freedom–the woods, under whose refreshing shade he had first indulged that pensive melancholy which afterwards made a strong feature of his character–the wild walks of the mountains, the river, on whose waves he had floated, and the distant plains, which seemed boundless as his early hopes–were never after remembered by St. Aubert but with enthusiasm and regret.  At length he disengaged himself from the world, and retired hither, to realize the wishes of many years.”

Madame St. Aubert is an equally admirable character, who participates fully in her husband’s and daughter’s enthusiasms for nature, and often roams with them.  As to Emily herself, we are given an interesting insight into her character which later may cause us to question her insights (and thus have those delicious doubts of the main character’s state of mind which Gothic readers revel in).  We are told:  “She had discovered in her early years uncommon delicacy of mind, warm affections, and ready benevolence; but with these was observable a degree of susceptibility too exquisite to admit of lasting peace.  As she advanced in youth, this sensibility gave a pensive tone to her spirits, and a softness to her manner, which added grace to beauty and rendered her a very interesting object to persons of a congenial disposition.”  We are told, however, that her father attempts to correct her “susceptibility” and “strengthen her mind,” to teach her “habits of self-command; to teach her to reject the first impulse of her feelings, and to look, with cool examination, upon the disappointments he sometimes threw in her way.”

After her mother dies and Emily and her father begin to travel, they first meet the man who is destined to become the romantic hero, Valancourt.  His consideration for her now ill father impresses Emily’s mind, heart, and sensibilities (and at the end it will turn out that he fortuitously lives only 20 miles from their old home).  It is at this point that her father tells her that he is ruined and that they are in danger of losing their home.  Some time after this, Emily’s father dies due to illness as well.  Emily now has to be protected by her aunt Madame Cheron, who marries an Italian brigand (the owner of the castle Udolpho).  He in turn imprisons Emily there, trying to force her to marry a fellow countryman of his own, and Emily wonders if she will ever see Valancourt again.  The tale twists and turns with all the tortuous (and torturous) windings of high mountain passes, and many more characters are introduced.  At this point, I cease my retelling not so much to avoid a spoiler (though there is that) but as much to observe some reasonable measure in the length of my post, which simply cannot be allowed to be long enough to tell all the gritty details.

A few more remarks about the book are in order, however.  While the long essays at poetry supposedly written by Emily are a trifle tedious (and the quotes from famous poets a bit short), the prose is not only moving and suspenseful, but often full of high sentiment as well.  As I said before, there is much incident and plot complication to keep readers occupied, and for once this standard Gothic series of devices works quite well.  What works less well for modern sensibilities and ethnic beliefs is the manner in which the main negative characters are often Italian and Catholic, which speaks of a frequent prejudice of the English Gothic novel of the period:  they were suspicious of the Catholic Church and of a stricter society, and often relied on cultural stereotypes.  It must also be remarked, however, in all fairness, that some of the main negative characters are Emily’s own aunts and uncles, so I suppose this in a way redresses the balance.  The combination of lovely descriptive travel and landscape prose as well as the overwhelming characteristics of Gothic mystery (the latter of which always turn out to have a realistic explanation, however, which added to Radcliffe’s renown and stature) make this book one that you should read if you read no other classic Gothic romance.  After all, if so notable a literary light as Jane Austen felt she needed to parody the book, can we do less than investigate what aroused her ironic tendency and set her pen a-writing?  I submit that The Mysteries of Udolpho is not only a good Gothic novel, in fact the best I’ve read so far, but just a plain all around virtuoso performance by a woman who preferred to appear only as an author, and keep her private life as mysterious as Udolpho itself, if not as wicked!

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2 responses to ““On the pleasant banks of the Garonne, in the province of Gascony, stood, in the year 1584, the chateau of Monsieur St. Aubert….”–Ann Ward Radcliffe

  1. As there needs to be an element of ‘fear of the unknown’, using stereotypes to start the distrust and then push it further seems a prudent way to go to convincing the reader.

    Surprised that Romance had a strong link to Gothic literature, though it makes sense with the whole Vampire infatuation thing I do not understand.

    As always, a well written and insightful piece =)

    • Thanks for commenting, DJ. I guess I would say that as far as stereotypes go, the early romance and Gothic novelists CREATED the stereotypes, rather than imitated them. And romance then didn’t mean so much what it means now (that is, guy-girl stuff, though it often ended with a marriage), as it did an adventure of some sort, with either a male or female protagonist sometimes travelling or sometimes having peculiar things happen to them. “The Faery Queen” was an early verse romance, as was “Orlando Furioso,” and they concerned knights and damsels in distress. By the time the so-called Gothic novelists came around, a romance had come to include elements of the eerie or mysterious sometimes, but not always. The “modern romance” where the main emphasis is on two people who are unlikely in some way as a couple somehow getting together and married in the end is a weak and watered-down version of only one element of one branch of the whole scheme, though we use the misnomer “modern romance” to define it. Sorry, didn’t mean to get preachy or didactic: they say that what we dislike most in ourselves is what we get the most upset about in others, and as I read a ton of modern romances as a girl and feel that they were in danger of corrupting my tastes and ruining my intellect, I have a special grudge against them. By comparison, the standard classic Gothic romance is an intellectual treat. And Radcliffe is highly lyrical in her prose, which is what I really like in her, and what prompted me to re-encounter “The Mysteries of Udolpho.” ‘Nuff said (I know you’ve got better things to do than read long answers from me, I just read the first installment of your new animal-hybrid story or novel, and loved it!).

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