“’Tis unjust that they who have not the least notion of heroic writing, should therefore condemn the pleasure which others receive from it, because they cannot comprehend it.” – Dryden
Upon the advice of Miss Thorpe, Miss Morland, and Mr. Tilney, I scavenged the local branch of the county library until I found a copy of Mrs. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. To add to the list of places to find good book recommendations: what the fictional characters in your favorite books are reading. Perhaps this is a bit excessive in praise, as I am only two chapters into Mrs. Radcliffe’s 1794 terror classic, but it has been a riveting 26 pages.
There are so many interesting aspects to keep in mind while reading Radcliffe I hardly know where to start. One, I found it fascinating that Radcliffe is known for her detailed descriptions of western European landscape, but this was largely written without her ever leaving England (and when she finally traveled it was only to the Netherlands and western Germany – never to Udolpho’s setting in France). Similar to the world-renowned ceramist Wedgwood, the travel log was incredibly influential throughout the 18th and 19th centuries for supplying the written image of foreign lands. This is only more extraordinary as it seems that this famous terror novelist actually had a rather boring, plain, and uneventful life. (Christina Rosetti had to give up on writing Radcliffe’s biography due to lack of material.)
Radcliffe’s works, Udolpho in particular, were quite sensational and much in demand for centuries. Not only does Austen supply a literary nod to Radcliffe, but so do other popular authors from Thackeray to Keats, and it seems that Coleridge was one critic entirely in favor of her. I have just started one of Jane Austen’s biographies, which mentions that in Austen’s life time she made only a little more than £600 for her literary works, and only £10 for Northanger Abbey. In comparison, Mrs. Radcliffe made £500 for Udolpho alone and an additional £600 for her later work The Italian.
However, I find it absolutely fascinating that Mrs. Radcliffe is mostly forgotten (or is at least currently out of print), and that Miss Thorpe’s other reading recommendations to Miss Morland were considered made up by more recent critics though more recently it has been discovered that these texts simply did not survive. The lasting quality (or lack there of) of literature is an area I have always had particular interest in.
The introduction of the book greatly emphasized that Radcliffe was a terror novelist versus a horror novelist and I understand this to mean that Radcliffe is trying to thrill the reader and create suspense, but she is never trying to horrify the reader. Each of the chapters I have read provides the reader with queries in bite size morsels. Chapter one introduces us to the Aubert family – Monsieur, Madame, and Emily – in 1584. By the end of chapter one Emily has had an intriguing run in with a poet/musician/thief and Madame Aubert has died of a fever. The end of chapter two further acquaints us with the Aubert’s and their extended family – all who were opposed to the Aubert’s companionate marriage – and while Monsieur Aubert becomes increasingly ill, Emily spies her father kissing a silhouette of a woman who is not her mother!!!
Allow me to assure you, Radcliffe does a far superior job of explaining this and she is a whiz at foreshadowing. In addition, the introduction refers to her as a “poetic novelist” as many of the chapters have short snippets of Radcliffe’s and other poet’s poetry weaving throughout. I am not at all disappointed and I hope my experience with Radcliffe’s Udolpho works out a bit better than my attempt at Richardson’s Clarissa. At this time, Persuasion has been shelved, but I do not see anything wrong in carrying Austen into the New Year.