Monday, March 3, 2014

Book Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe (1794) Review Part 1

This is a classic Gothic Romance novel, and so far it has everything you might want in a Gothic Romance.  For those who don't know, this genre is all about dark, mysterious places and occurrences.  This particular novel is often held up as the standard of its kind.  If you want 18th century tales of castles, ghosts, secret passages, gloomy settings, evil villains and damsels in distress, this is your book.

The main premise is about a young woman, Emily, who lives an idyllic life, until all her props are taken away from her, one by one, and she soon finds herself forlorn, nearly alone, and held prisoner in a creepy old castle.  First her mother, then her father dies.  Next she is carted away from her beloved home and taken to (gasp!) Italy.  She misses her lover, she misses her sweet home, and she has every reason to fear for her life.

Okay, enough with the back cover hype.  Let's jump right into what's right and what's not-so-right with this book.  Remember, I'm here to tell you how well this book stands up to modern readers.  We want something different from a novel than our ancestors from centuries past.

This book is full of rich, gothic atmosphere.  It has wonderful passages written in the gothic style, just oozing with descriptive creepiness.  Here's a snippet of our heroine being led down a dark passage in a foreboding, ancient castle.
From the steps, they proceeded through a passage, adjoining the vaults, the walls of which were dropping with unwholesome dews, and the vapours, that crept along the ground, made the torch burn so dimly, that Emily expected every moment to see it extinguished, and Barnardine could scarcely find his way. As they advanced, these vapours thickened, and Barnardine, believing the torch was expiring, stopped for a moment to trim it. As he then rested against a pair of iron gates, that opened from the passage, Emily saw, by uncertain flashes of light, the vaults beyond, and, near her, heaps of earth, that seemed to surround an open grave. Such an object, in such a scene, would, at any time, have disturbed her; but now she was shocked by an instantaneous presentiment, that this was the grave of her unfortunate aunt, and that the treacherous Barnardine was leading herself to destruction. The obscure and terrible place, to which he had conducted her, seemed to justify the thought; it was a place suited for murder, a receptacle for the dead, where a deed of horror might be committed, and no vestige appear to proclaim it.

The downside to this book is that it's so, so long.  We're talking nearly 300,000 words.  That's far more than Moby Dick.  In fact, you almost need to read some Russian novels to find anything longer.

Plus, it's got too much flowery mumbo jumbo, with lots of descriptions of nature and plenty of poetry thrown in to boot.  It can be exhausting.  But then you get to some scene with spooky things happening and you're glad you paid attention earlier.

A heroine today might figure out mysteries, or fight bad guys with a flashing sword.  She would certainly be shown taking control of her circumstances.  But 18th century heroines did no such things.  Heroes did, but the thing that made women heroines was their womanly virtues - patience, goodness, and learning to sit quietly as turmoil revolves around them until at last a true hero (male) rescues them.  Emily is our heroine, and for part of the novel she is held captive by the evil Montoni.  I kept hoping Emily would say "enough is enough!" and grab a sword and slice Montoni's head off.  Or at least come up with some fantastic plan to set her life right.

But she has that "noble" quality so prized by writers of the day.  We see it in later writings of the Victorian period as well - "The only noble response is to return goodness for vice", and all that yak.

The author, Ann Radcliffe, made it clear that her heroine is full of sensibility and thinks with a rational mind.  Radcliffe's point of view is that to be superstitious is to be weak minded.  And only people with strong, reasoning minds can overcome the terrible downfall of believing in superstition.  To that end, Emily is faced with a series of situations that appear supernatural.  But each time, Radcliffe later shows that the incident had a perfectly logical explanation.  It’s like a way to gauge Emily’s state of mind based on her surrounding circumstances.  When she’s feeling strong, she laughs at the “supernatural” occurrence right away.  When she’s feeling weak, she tends to believe it a little.  Always, it turns out to be nothing, but her rationale is the key.  It’s the only thing over which our heroine has any control.  On her own, she does nothing except faint a lot.  But her reasoning mind, that’s her advantage, that’s what Radcliffe believes makes her heroine-worthy.

But these phony little ghosties become frustrating after a while.  This is a fiction book, why not let there be ghosts?  What's the harm?  It's as if Radcliffe is chiding her readers for believing the fanciful tales she's telling.

But, that such a book was written and widely read tells us there was more to 18th century readers than sensible prudence.  They loved the dark and mysterious as much as we do!

So it's odd that Radcliffe continuously makes it clear that fear and superstition are wrong, yet she writes this book!  Radcliffe herself must have loved the very emotions she's vilifying in this book.  Constantly we are told that Emily is wise because she scoffs at such terrors of the mind, while the simple minded Annette is foolish because she gives in to those terrors.  But don't let that fool you.  I wonder if Ann Radcliffe named that simple servant after herself, to reflect her darker, more mysterious side.

More later.

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