Adventures in Reading


Oh Mrs. Radcliffe!
December 18, 2007, 8:43 pm
Filed under: book reviews, fiction
“’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.

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7 Comments

I’ve never heard of this author before, but your review sounds very interesting. I’ll have to check out the book. Thanks for sharing!

Btw, I love how your reading list selection is so eclectic and non-mainstream. Where do you hear of these books?

Comment by T Y

What an interesting thing to do, to read the literature within literature. Can’t wait to read your review on all of the books mentioned in the six novels by JA.

Comment by Arti

The “Northanger Novels” (the horrid novels enumerated by Isabella Thorpe) are being republished by Valancourt Books. I’ve read a couple and they are so much fun–and so far I’m finding lots of stuff that made its way into Northanger Abbey. The Castle of Wolfenbach, in particular, had the heroine finding a woman locked up in a mysterious old house…sound familiar?

We’re reading The Midnight Bell together at Molland’s next month.

(I hope all my links work!)

Comment by Mags

TY:

One of the perks of working in a bookstore, and in particular with my position, is that I do a lot of unboxing and shelving. I have a great opportunity to stumble across books that are not in the news or that never make it to Publisher’s Weekly. Otherwise, I find a lot of them through word of mouth and being referenced in literary criticisms.

Comment by bookchronicle

Arti,

I would love to read all the books Jane Austen mentions, but I admit I would have to reread quite a few to pick up all the references. I admit I am fascinated with this period of time as really a lot is going on to shape the novel. Unfortunately, it does seem many of these books are entirely unavailable, so I will stick with whatever I can get my hands on.

Comment by bookchronicle

Mags,

Brilliant! and thank you for the links. I am definitely going to have to see about getting that Valancourt collection.

Comment by bookchronicle

I don’t know if you are into e-books, but some of Radcliffe’s books are available for free on the Internet at gutenberg.org and manybooks.net. There are other sites if you Google around. I read them on my Treo now but am looking into getting a dedicated e-book reader that uses eInk (like the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, or my preferred model, the Bookeen Cybook Gen3).

I’ve been on a kick of reading “what Jane Austen read” for the past few months–starting with Burney’s Cecilia, which I loved and found so much that must have inspired Jane Austen. These gothic novels are more of the same! And you will find there is a lot of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey.

I’m so glad you enjoyed NA–I feel it is the redhaired stepchild of the Austen oeuvre and I love it so much.

Comment by Mags




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