A Modern Reader’s Frustrations With The Mysteries of Udolpho

I’d been excited to read Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) since I first came up with my Classics Club Book List a few years ago. I haven’t read much Gothic fiction, but when I do I tend to enjoy it. And I knew this was one of the main inspirations for Jane Austen’s Gothic satire, Northanger Abbey (and you know how much I love Austen), so of course I was intrigued. Strangely, what surprised me most about Radcliffe’s most famous “classic work of Gothic fiction” is how much of it isn’t very Gothic at all.

The book is 223 years old, but still … spoiler warning.

The Mysteries of Udolpho opens with a pastoral travelog detailing the main character, Emily St. Aubert, and her father’s journey through picturesque Italy. There are a couple scenes with a harrowing flavor in the first of four volumes, but not many. Even after Emily’s father dies and she goes to live with her aunt in volume 2 there’s very little about the novel that feels “Gothic.” The setting isn’t gloomy, decaying, or haunted. There aren’t any supernatural elements. And there are only a few hints at a larger mystery. The heroine is a damsel and she’s in a bit of distress, but not much yet. The only hallmark of Gothic fiction that you see from start to finish in this novel is a focus on intense emotions (you know, the sort that inspire fainting fits and romantic swoons).

A Modern Reader's Frustrations With The Mysteries of Udolpho | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Emily is a master of fainting. Graphic from “How to tell you’re reading a Gothic novel

The novel becomes recognizably Gothic only after we arrive at the Castle Udolpho on page 226 (out of 672 in the edition I read). And now, suddenly, it’s very Gothic. We have a creepy house that becomes almost a character in its own right. We have mysterious rooms, whispered histories of possible murder, unbridled villains (who still manage not to physically harm the heroine), secret passageways, dead bodies, and rumors of ghosts.

This was my favorite part of the novel because it’s what I’d been expecting. But it doesn’t last even half the book, since Emily escapes on page 451 and has no further contact with the villain, Montoni, who conveniently dies off-page before making any further trouble. It’s also a hallmark of Radcliffe’s writings that she leaves nothing with a supernatural hint unexplained, so before the story ends all the ghosts, murders, and mysteries are explained in such a mundane or outlandish fashion that it robs the story of a spine-tingling emotional pay-off.

For example, in the Blake Veil incident Emily lifts a curtain and swoons because what she saw behind it was so dreadful. That happens shortly after arriving at Udopho, but it isn’t until the end of the novel that readers learn she thought she saw the body of a murdered woman. Emily is left under that illusion. For us, Radcliffe explained that it was actually a wax figure molded to resemble a decaying corpse that a previous owner of Udolpho was assigned to look at every day as penance to remind him of his mortality. He put it in his will that all future owners of Udolpho should do the same or forfeit a good chunk of their land to the church, but they just hung a curtain over it ans locked the room. Mystery solved! (though honestly the idea that Montoni left a murder victim in the room would have been less fantastic).

A Modern Reader's Frustrations With The Mysteries of Udolpho | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Illustration from The Mysteries of Udolpho
(1806 edition)

I haven’t mentioned the romance yet because honestly there isn’t much to tell. Valancourt is a character throughout most of the novel but he doesn’t really do much. He befriends Emily and her father then spends most of his time after the father’s death moping around Emily’s home hoping she’ll step into the garden so he can declare his passionate love for her. While she’s in Udolpho he’s in Paris ruining his reputation. And when she returns, they get so tangled in miscommunication that they almost don’t get married. I found the romance incredibly frustrating because they were always so emotional that they wouldn’t just talk with each other.

In case it’s not clear by now, I didn’t really like this book. If you want to give Radcliffe a try I’d recommend The Romance of the Forest (which I read in college for my research project). It’s much shorter and, in my opinion, a more enjoyable read. So why was The Mysteries of Udolpho a best-seller in it’s day and now Radcliffe’s most famous work?

Perhaps the answer lies in an observation made in the introduction to my Oxford World’s Classic’s edition. This intro points out that while Radcliffe rationalizes the supernatural in the outside world of her novel, she “presents the mind itself as a kind of supernatural entity.” It is the characters’ perceptions of what is going on in the world around them that adds a magical, mysterious flavor to the story. Radcliffe gave the novel’s first readers “a fantasy about the mind itself” being haunted.

For modern readers this idea isn’t anything new. We live in a post-Freud world where we’re accustomed to thinking of our minds as having layers that we don’t fully understand and reading stories that explore how a character’s psyche unravels under stress. But for Radcliffe’s readers it was a new kind of thrilling, escapist reading even when the plot was a mess. The way she accomplished this psychological character exploration isn’t what we’re used to today and it feels sloppy to me an I suspect other modern readers. I usually find 18th and 19th century literature very accessible, but in this case I just couldn’t connect with the story.A Modern Reader's Frustrations With The Mysteries of Udolpho | marissabaker.wordpress.com

 

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What Are The Books That Have Influenced You The Most?

One of my Facebook friends shared a post about the ten books that have most influenced his life, which I thought was a great idea. But it took me two weeks to figure out which books I wanted to write about and by the time I hit 500+ words I thought, why not just make it a blog post? So if you are reading this and care to share your most influential books consider yourself “tagged.” I’d love to see what books have had the biggest impact on your lives either in the comments or on your own blog (there’s an article topic you don’t have to come up with on your own!). The original list was 10 but I ended up with 8, so post however many you like.What Are The Books That Have Influenced You The Most? | marissabaker.wordpress.com

The Bible

What Are The Books That Have Influenced You The Most? | marissabaker.wordpress.comA rather obvious first choice for a Christian blogger, but this book definitely deserves the top spot when talking about books that influenced my life. It’s still influencing everything I do and I fall more in love with this book and it’s Author every time I read it. It’s the greatest love story every told, the best handbook you’ll ever find for life, and an incredible source of hope and purpose. Since more than 50% of this blog is devoted to talking about this book I’ll stop now. You know I could (and have!) keep going on about it for several books worth of text.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

What Are The Books That Have Influenced You The Most? | marissabaker.wordpress.comI could have put several books by C.S. Lewis on this list, but this is the first of his non-fiction I read and it’s the one that’s been most influential (with Screwtape Letters a close second). I just love the way he writes about his faith. Not only is he firmly grounded in scripture, but he’s also a persuasive speaker to those who don’t already put their faith in the Bible. In the words of Anthony Burgess, “C.S. Lewis is the ideal persuader for the half convinced, for the good man who would like to be a Christian but finds his intellect getting in the way.”

Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

What Are The Books That Have Influenced You The Most? | marissabaker.wordpress.comI started researching my personality after starting college and realizing I was even more different from “normal” people than I’d previously thought. This is one of the first books I read on the subject and it literally changed my life. Like many introverts, particularly INFJs, I always felt there was something off about the fact that I couldn’t seem to socialize the way so many other people did. This book pointed out how introvert brains are wired differently and that there are strengths in that personality. In other words, it shows that we’re not broken extroverts and introversion isn’t something to “fix.” Continue reading

Adventures In Book Sorting

I’ve been sorting through my book collection and trying to get rid of things I don’t need.  I can hear you laughing — Marissa getting rid of books. But it’s true; I actually let about four large bags leave. Most were either duplicates, or in bad shape, or ones that I’d read and hadn’t liked but hung onto anyway. There were quite a few that were really nice copies, but I just didn’t need them on my shelves.

Unfortunately, I didn’t plan out the way these books are leaving my house very well. Some went to a trading book store, which was fine, but I took others to Half Price Books yesterday and only got $4.00 for three bags of books. They don’t pay much as a general rule, but that seemed really low so I asked and she said, “Well, most weren’t in good shape and we have trouble selling ex-library books.” I’d had a stressful day already so I just signed the paper and left, but in hindsight I wish I’d refused to sell them. Only one of the bags was ex-library and I had some really nice classics and academic anthologies in the other bags that I know they’ll be trying to sell for at least $12 each. *sigh* I really need to work on being more comfortable with standing up for myself rather than avoiding minor conflicts.

Setting those bookish trials aside, in keeping with my new responsible book keeper persona I’m also starting to read all those books on my shelf that I picked up to read “someday.” I started with Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe. I’d picked it up because pirates and time travel has to be fun, right? (Spoiler warning: it was.) I really enjoyed that one, and the last paragraph made me rethink the whole story (in a good way). I’ll definitely be reading more by that author.

Which brings me to the first time I almost fell off the wagon. Though committed to reading books I already owned, I was so very close to checking Wolfe’s book Peace out of the library. And then I found out that a three-book series I loved and thought I just finished is actually six books long (it’s the Study series by Maria V. Snyder). I was online ordering book four into the library before I caught myself and canceled the hold. With a heavy sigh, I redirected myself to checking a book out of the library on my own shelves.

I stopped reading the next book from my shelf after one chapter. I feel bad about it since The Last Light Of The Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay has such high ratings on Goodreads, but nothing in chapter one made me want to keep going. Mostly because of the sex scene. I’m not such a discerningly prudish reader (or writer) that I think sex should be left out of a book, but dubiously consensual scenes that are more graphic than the plot calls for turn me off. I also didn’t love the writing style, so why put up with that for the next 500 pages?

Now I’m reading Slave of the Huns by Géza Gárdonyi. And I’m thinking I might abandon that one, too, which is sad since I was really looking forward to reading a Hungarian classic. With this one, my problem is that I think the main character is an idiot. The plot is being moved forward by the incredibly stupid decisions Zeta makes to spend time with a hot Hunnish girl. He even admits he’s obsessed with her body and not her mind since they’ve never actually had a conversation.

As if that wasn’t enough (spoiler warning) Zeta becomes the titular “slave of the Huns” by choice. A free Greek, he poses as a slave and forges a letter from his master giving himself to the girl’s father. He means to only do this for the last 6 months of his fictional slave contract, but then the Romans plot to kill Attila and Zeta’s stuck in the repercussions of that (Attila decrees Roman and Greek slaves can no longer be freed or ransomed). Like I said, he’s an idiot.

But then again, we’re all idiots sometimes. Like when I gave away books (some of which I originally spent $15+ each on) to Half Price Books at $4 for three bags. So maybe I’ll keep reading and give Zeta a chance to grow and change. After all, I wouldn’t want someone to give up on me because of a stupid thing I did in my late teens/early 20s to impress an attractive member of the opposite sex.

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Accidentally Quoting Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s language has a reputation for being hard to understand. To our modern ears (or eyes if we’re reading instead of watching the plays), it can sound outdated, flowery, convoluted, or just plain ridiculous in some cases. No one actually talks like that anymore, at least not “normal” people. Right?

Well, actually we do (at least to a certain extent). It’s just that most of the time when we quote Shakespeare, we’re not doing it on purpose.

Accidentally Quoting Shakespeare | marissabaker.wordpress.com

perhaps a bit melodramatic, but I had fun stringing together Shakespeare quotes for the featured image

When this new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast came out, I started listening to the soundtrack and caught some lines I hadn’t in the animated version. I suppose I was just too familiar with the one I knew from childhood to really notice the lyrics. I’m thinking in particular of “The Mob Song” when Gaston sings, “Screw your courage to the sticking place.” Considering Gaston mocks Belle for reading, it’s ironic that this line is a quote from Macbeth (and it’s particularly noticeable in this version, where the book he insults is another Shakespearean play, Romeo and Juliet).

We fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.”
— Lady Macbeth, Act 1, scene 7

Gaston isn’t the only person who accidentally quotes Shakespeare. You yourself may have already done so this week. Have you talked about a “wild goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet, 2.4), spoke of the “green eyed monster” (Othello, 3.3), or waited with “bated breath” for something (The Merchant of Venice, 1.3)? That’s Shakespeare. And if someone has been “eaten out of house and home” (Henry IV, Part II, 2.1) or “seen better days” (As You Like It, 2.7), you’re using phrases we only have because Shakespeare used them first. Continue reading

Believing in Fairy Tales

I was chatting on the phone with a friend on Friday and he asked me if I believed in fairy tales. I deflected the question onto, “What do you mean by ‘believe in fairy tales’?” Because it really is a deeper, more complex question than it seems on the surface. Usually, people think of believing in fairy tales as romantic daydreams all day long and a “happily ever after” at the end of every story.

But I’ve read fairy tales. In most of  them, you go through hell several times over before getting to a happy ending (see the Handless Princess tales for one example). And sometimes there is no happy ending at all and they end with death or maiming or losing everything you love (such as when The Little Mermaid dissolves into sea foam).Believing in Fairy Tales | marissabaker.wordpress.com

So I’m not sure what to answer when asked if I believe in fairy tales (though I did have a good laugh after our conversion, when I realized I’d been wearing a shirt that says “I believe in fairy tales”). However, I suppose the short version would be to simply answer “yes” to any version of the question.

  • Do I believe in happily ever afters? yes, but only if 1) you work to make it happen and stay committed to falling in love with that person the rest of your life, or 2) if we’re talking about the Christian hope of spending eternity with God as Jesus’ bride.
  • Do you believe life can be cruel and horrible before you get a happy ending? Certainly. In fact, I’d say it’s much more rare to get happiness without having some kind of trial first. And without the contrast of highs and lows, I doubt we could truly appreciate the good things.
  • Do you believe happy endings aren’t guaranteed and life can feel senseless and hopeless? Yes. I’ve lost two friends close to my age to suicide, one to a car accident, and one to an illness. In my local church group, several families have lost young children or have kids and grandkids battling horrible illnesses. Sometimes there’s just no good explanation for why things turn out the way they do.

All too often, people dismiss fairy tales as out-dated children’s tales that teach things irrelevant to the modern world. I’ve heard the heroines are too passive, the dark tales too dark, the happy tales too unrealistic, the messages outdated. But I would argue the complicated nature of fairy tales is the aspect most relevant today.

Taken as a whole, fairy tales refuse to see life as easily explained. They present the strangeness, complexity, and downright cruelty of life in a stripped-down story form that refuses to be brushed aside. And many do earn their reputation for ending “happily ever after” because even after all the terrible things that happen they insist on hope. And that’s why I believe in fairy tales. I believe in the magic of storytelling, it’s power to hold a mirror up to our world, and our deep need for fantasy that illuminates reality. And I believe that in a world which refuses to make sense we need a hope that defies logic just as persistently.

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Tale As Old As Time

Beauty and the Beast has always been my favorite fairy tale. Favorite Disney movie, favorite Robin McKinley fairy tale retelling, favorite original tale … basically, I’m a fan. So you can imagine that I was beside myself excited when Disney announced their live-action remake of my favorite fairy tale. And yesterday, I finally got to see it.

It’s been a while since I wrote about fairy tales, so many of you probably don’t know that I’m not just a fan of Disney. I love the original tales as well. In many cases, I like them more than the lighter, tamer, happier versions. It’s hard to believe there was a time when it was considered normal to read children bedtime stories where stepsisters hack their own toes off, children throw witches in ovens, and princes fall from towers into thorns that blind them.

They weren’t just creepy stories for kids, though. Fairy tales represent a rich folkloric tradition passed along and refined by both male and female storytellers. And plenty of research has gone into documenting these stories’ histories, discussing their role in society, and cataloging the different styles. Beauty and the Beast, for example, is 425C in the Aarne–Thompson classification system. It’s one of a surprisingly large number of animal groom fairy tales and most likely has it’s roots in the story of Cupid and Psyche.Tale As Old As Time: Thoughts on the origins, meaning, and newest adaptation of my favorite fairy tale | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Fairy tales have always generated discussion and debate. This time around, people are talking about bestiality and wondering why this “tale as old as time” has endured for so long with such twisted ideas at its roots. But if we equate the Beast with an animal we miss the point of the tale. Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim believed the “animal groom” stories were “intended to reassure virginal brides about sex” (i.e. he seems scary, but once you get to know him he’s not so bad).

Beauty and the Beast goes deeper than most tales of this sub-type, though. What we know as Beauty and the Beast was first written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740. In this earliest version, as in subsequent versions, the Beast has to prove himself worth loving. Continue reading