Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Gone Goth

"There," said Montoni, speaking for the first time in several hours, "is Udolpho."

Emily gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle, which she understood to be Montoni's; for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. As she gazed, the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin vapor crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipped with splendor. From those, too, the rays soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely, and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign. As the twilight deepened, its features became more awful in obscurity, and Emily continued to gaze, till its clustering towers were alone seen, rising over the tops of the woods, beneath whose thick shade the carriages soon after began to ascend.
Darwin has been savoring the satirical pleasures of Vanity Fair, but I've taken the more sensationalistic route and have been reading The Mysteries of Udolpho. Udolpho is the ur-Gothic novel: innocent heroine, vile dark villain, a castle with a secret prisoner and horrors behind black veils, dramatic scenery, and the suspense is exaggerated by the pall of murky twilight. (Nothing happens during the day except the appreciation of vast vistas of countryside.) Having been inspired by watching Masterpiece Theater's recent (and very enjoyable) Northanger Abbey, in which Austen effectively demolished the gothic genre with her ridicule, I wondered if the original could really be that terrible.
They determined on walking round Beechen Cliff, that noble hill whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath.

"I never look at it," said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, "without thinking of the south of France."

"You have been abroad then?" said Henry, a little surprised.

"Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho. But you never read novels, I dare say?"

"Why not?"

"Because they are not clever enough for you - gentlemen read better books."

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days - my hair standing on end the whole time."

--Northanger Abbey

In my experience, the modern reader will find her ends splitting instead. It's hard to sympathize with the utter passivity of the young beautiful unstained afflicted Emily, with her ceaseless tears and fainting spells and delicacy so extreme that she would rather prolong the book another two hundred pages than have a candid conversation with her betrothed to clear up a misunderstanding. I couldn't help feeling a kinship with her callous aunt who is obviously driven crazy by Emily's extreme sensibility; or with the villainous Montoni, a suave force of evil who must be delighted to have such a milksop for a victim.

On the other hand, a knowledge of Udolpho makes Northanger Abbey that much more amusing; as for myself, I'll never read the word "verdure" again without a snort of derision.

In the interests of furthering my gothic education, I'm leaving Mrs. Radcliffe behind for a more Victorian tome: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.

6 comments:

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

The Woman in White is sooooo much fun! I found a copy of it on the patient book cart at City of Hope when my husband and I were there for treatments. It was the perfect distraction. (I returned the book to the cart when I finished it in hopes that some other patient or caregiver might find it of use.)

Theocoid said...

I took a grad course on Austen, and The Mysteries of Udolpho was required reading for it. If you want a little bit of fun (and a whole lot of ridicule), you might look at Austen's juvenalia. They're rife with parody on goth literature.

John Farrell said...

I remember reading Udolpho junior year for my undergrad tutorial (on Gothic lit); for all the now all-too-familiar cliches, the book remains a highly enjoyable book, and I still have my copy!

TS said...

would rather prolong the book another two hundred pages than have a candid conversation with her betrothed to clear up a misunderstanding

Oh so true...!This what Mrs. TSO & myself are always saying when we watch pretty much any Masterpiece Theatre set in the 19th century.

The plot always seems to hinge on a misunderstanding that could be solved nowadays by a quick email. Most recently in "Cranford", a friend of a young doctor sends anonymous Valentines to a couple of women, who assume the doctor sent it to them and somehow believe they are betrothed to him. The doctor is thus discredited and has to leave the town in shame but for a lady skilled in handwriting analysis.

Everything seemed so much harder back then - not just the work required, especially for women, but also the clothes and the social conventions and constant attention to details with respect to maintaining one's honor.

CMinor said...

Funny review! Never dipped into Mrs. Radcliffe's works before, but I may have to!

I was amused in the film Becoming Jane Austen by Jane's apparent delight at a (probably fictional) introduction to Mrs. Radcliffe. As noted above, from the age of thirteen onward, little Jane had been sending up Mrs. R. and her ilk with considerable satirical skill!

BTW, if you're interested, Austen's juvenilia has been published under the title Catharine and Other Writings as one of Oxford University Press's World's Classics. It's a fun read! I also recommend Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, if you haven't already read it, to round out your GothFest.

mrsdarwin said...

Oh, Rebecca is a favorite, and unlike Mrs. Radcliffe, Du Maurier has the gift of conciseness. Her other novels are also quite good -- I particularly recommend My Cousin Rachel and The Scapegoat.