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).

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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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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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Lady Susan: Jane Austen’s Comedic Seductress

Once upon a time (in this particular case the 18th century) quite a few novels were written entirely as series of fictional letters. These were called epistolary novels. Evelina by Frances Burney is one example, but far more well known was Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa. Jane Austen had probably read both Burney and Richardson when she penned her own epistolary work, Lady Susan.

In [Richardson’s] fiction, resourceful young women record their efforts to resist the advances of scheming libertines. The young Austen signals her audacity by turning the figure of the predatory male seducer into a highly unconventional (and middle-aged) seductress. — John Mullan in “Does Love & Friendship improve Jane Austen’s ending?

Don’t ever let anyone tell you Jane Austen was “just a romance novelist.” By the age of 19 or 20 she was perfecting her signature satiric style, turning Richardson’s well-respected style up-side-down, and inverting gender stereotypes for contemporary fiction. Predatory, aggressive, and manipulative women weren’t unheard of in fiction at the time, but making them the most engaging character in a story wasn’t encouraged. Perhaps that’s why she set the manuscript aside, choosing neither to destroy nor publish it (Lady Susan was first published 54 years after Austen’s death).Lady Susan: Austen's Comedic Seductress #theclassicsclub | marissabaker.wordpress.com

The story follows recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon. We enter the narrative as she announces her intention to visit her brother- and sister-in-law, Charles and Catherine Vernon, at their country residence. Though not happy to host the woman who tried to prevent her marriage, Mrs. Vernon welcomes her sister-in-law as cordially as possible. She becomes less cordial after her brother Reginald De Courcy arrives to meet “the most accomplished coquette in England” and falls head-over-heels for Lady Susan. And that’s after he’d heard from a reliable source that she’d left her previous residence after seducing the married Mr. Manwaring and stealing Miss Manwaring’s suitor, Sir James Martin, for her own daughter.

The first screen adaptation of this novella came out just last year. Titled Love & Friendship for some inexplicable reason (it’s the title of an unrelated work Austen wrote at age 14), I’m still not quite sure what to make of this film. While it preserves the witty, irreverent comedy of Austen’s novella, I still felt something was off about the adaptation. Transferring letters to dialogue made for some character meetings that didn’t make sense (Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson wouldn’t have been able to meet in person so often; the companion who arrives with Lady Susan in the film isn’t in the book and only exists here to be talked at). And while several female characters were fleshed out more to help them hold their own on screen with Lady Susan, the male characters became even more buffoonish than in the novella (SPOILER WARNING: Reginald in the film is helplessly manipulated throughout the film, while in the novella, he’s the one to break things off with Lady Susan).

Also, why does every single character introduction stop the action with an out-of-context shot of them overlaid with a description of how they fit in the story? The costuming is beautiful, though, and Kate Beckinsale turns in a fantastic performance as Lady Susan. As in the novella, she’s by far the most interesting character.Lady Susan: Austen's Comedic Seductress #theclassicsclub | marissabaker.wordpress.com

I enjoyed reading Lady Susan. I’m a big fan of Jane Austen’s work and this is the first of her writings outside the six major novels that I’ve read. It makes me want to track down more of her juvenilia. It’s fun reading your favorite authors’ early works, especially ones they didn’t necessarily mean for other people to read. I’ve heard that the other stories she wrote as a teenager were even less “proper” than Lady Susan; certainly much less refined than the novels she polished up for publication.

It was also nice to read a short book from my Classics Club list. I love long books as a general rule, but honestly I’m starting to feel intimidated by the number of enormous books I chose. Three Dickens novels? what was I thinking! At least I had the good sense not to put Clarissa on the list (word count for first edition: 969,000).

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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

Romance and Outlaws

I listed Lorna Doone as a re-read on my Classics Club book list, but suspect I hadn’t actually read an unabridged version before. I didn’t remember whole pages worth of conversation written in dialect or so much time spent building John and Lorna’s childhood relationship in the first half of the book. Pretty sure I read a copy that modernized the dialogue and skipped straight to the most exciting action. That’s probably why the book felt so long this time through, though I was thoroughly enjoying it by around the half-way point.Lorna Doone: Romance and Outlaws #theclassicsclub | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Grounded In History

Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by R.D. Blackmore is a historical novel published in 1869 and set in the late 1600s. I hadn’t realized before re-reading it how much the novel borrows from real events. My falling apart ex-library copy (published in 1943) even includes pictures of the locations Blackmore references. The brief introduction written by Basil Davenport states, “Blackmore made good use of his schoolboy memories of Devon; the outlaw Doones, the De Whichehalse family, the highwayman Tom Fagus and his mare, and even the mighty John Ridd, have at least some foundation in fact, while the book is full of local historical allusions, like the bales of wool that were used to repel bullets at the siege of Exeter Castle.”

The historical grounding is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this classic novel. It soaks through every page in tiny details, sweeping historical allusions, and our narrator’s word choice. Though I had a little trouble getting really “into” the first half of the story, it’s not because Blackmore isn’t painting an immersive world. Since this is a first-person narrative, we get to see the world through John Ridd’s eyes. And John isn’t shy about sharing his opinions on everything from farming to women to outlawry. It really feels like we’re there listening to John tell the story as he lived it.

Lorna Doone: Romance and Outlaws #theclassicsclub | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Carl Benton Reid as Sir Ensor Doone and Barbara Hale as Lorna Doone (1951)

Outlaws As Villains

We’ve all read stories where the outlaws are romanticized. Stories with dashing rogues, defensible pirates, and code-following outlaws fill our collective imagination. Not so in Lorna Doone. Even beloved highwayman Tom Fagus must mend his ways and conform to law and order before securing his happy ending. The more prominent outlaws in the story, the Doones, are decidedly cast in the role of the villain. Rather than seeking to romanticize and excuse the outlaws à la Robin Hood, the story focuses on rescuing Lorna (and by extension the romance plot) from them.

Several times, John talks about the Doones as a fixture in the neighborhood. The surrounding people have gotten used to them and they’re willing to put up with certain things. Since the Doones are a noble family, their neighbors consider it their right to steal sheep, run off with a few unmarried women, and even kill people who get in their way. The Ridds and their neighbors even resent external efforts to bring the Doones to justice, partly because they fear pay-back if/when the Doones win and partly because the Doones just seem to belong. But that doesn’t mean they’re happy about having a nest of outlaws in their backyards.

Lorna Doone: Romance and Outlaws #theclassicsclub | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Polly Walker as Lorna Doone and Sean Bean as Carver Doone (1990)

But What Does It Mean?

Though tolerated and occasionally defended, the Doones are viewed as a local plague, not as tragic heroes or admirable figures. They eventually cross a line and are wiped out by the very people who put up with them for so long. Interestingly, all this happens at a time of political unrest in Britain as a whole and there are numerous tongue-in-cheek references to political corruption and the failures of the nobility. I suspect that on some level at least, we’re meant to identify the overtly lawless Doones with the more subtle legalized injustice running through the British government. And we’re to root for the common man of good sense rising up to put an end to his “betters” ruining the country.

On a more obvious level, Lorna Doone really is a simple romance novel. And while there are plenty of romantic novels I enjoy more, I do love the story. John and Lorna aren’t my favorite literary characters, but even the fact that I didn’t like them 100% is in a way a testament to Blackmore’s writing. Though John is telling the story and he worships Lorna, Blackmore manages not to present either as unrealistically idealized “perfect heroes.” It reads like the honest account of two real people navigating romance in a world of outlaws. And that makes for a good story.

Lorna Doone: Romance and Outlaws #theclassicsclub | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Amelia Warner as Lorna Doone and Richard Coyle  as John Ridd (2000)

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A Visit To Middlemarch

My main goal before the end of 2016 was to finish George Elliot’s Middlemarch. I’d resolved to read at least one huge book from my Classics Club book list each year and this was my second after Frances Burney’s The Wanderer. Alas, I didn’t finish until January 1st, but we’ll still say it was close enough to count as part of the #ccwomensclassics event.

Though I’m an avid reader of British classic literature this is only the second George Elliot book I’ve read. I’ll admit I wasn’t a huge fan at first. I felt like the story spent far too much time on trivial details while skipping over scenes I would have expected more focus on (like weddings). But even when I was tempted to skim some sections I realized I would loose the plot thread if I missed even a few paragraphs and by the last 100 pages I felt everything coming together. It’s a much tighter story than I’d first given it credit for.click to read article, "A Visit To Middlemarch" | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Middlemarch chronicles the lives of a quite a large cast of characters, but Dorothea Brooks and Tertius Lydgate are the main characters. Interestingly, they are not love interests for each other. Rather, their stories parallel each other and intertwine in unexpected ways that you really don’t start to appreciate until close to the end.

Thematically, Middlemarch explores the nuances of marriage (among other things. It is, after all, 800 pages long). This aspect of the novel brings to mind the Tolstoy quote from Anna Karenina that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The main characters’ marriages happen for various reasons and become unhappy in different ways. Dorothea’s was made because she wanted to marry, and support, a man whose mind she could admire. Her husband wasn’t actively trying to deceive her, but he wasn’t at all the person she expected and turned out to be far more small-minded than she. Lydgate married because he fell in love with Rosamund, who married him because she expected him to rise socially. When he didn’t become her mental image of who he should be, she stopped loving him and Lydgate discovered he was trapped trying to make her happy while struggling to not completely abandon his dreams.

There are also three happy marriages made in this novel. And that gets us to the first part of Tolstoy’s quote: “Happy families are all alike.” Middlemarch’s happy marriages have one thing in common — they start from a place of honesty. The man and woman have known each other for years, neither is trying to deceive the other, and their expectations of their spouse are (at least mostly) realistic. It’s kind of sweet to see how the two marriages that take place near the end of the story develop throughout the novel. The two unhappy marriages are made quickly and soon deteriorate, but the ones that we see grow and develop over several years end up thriving.

After reading the first 700 pages or so with a fairly low level of engagement, those last hundred pages made me not want to put the book down. My two month investment with this book (I started it at the beginning of November and took a couple breaks to read shorter books like Heartless) was more than paid-off with the conclusion. This might seem weird to say for a book that’s 145 years old, but I don’t want to say too much more and spoil it for you. Sufficient to say everything really does go together and there’s a satisfying ending in store if you keep going through all 800 pages.

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