Wieland or, The Transformation (Book Review)

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The Library of America edition.

Having read and enjoyed the majority of Ann Radcliffe’s novels, I have been searching for other works of a similar style and quality. For some time I have been curious about the gothic novels of Charles Brockden Brown, an early American author contemporary to Radcliffe, and finally came around to reading his most well known novel, Wieland or, The Transformation. It turned out to be a very enjoyable novel, sharing several of the key characteristics that I liked about Radcliffe’s novels but distinct enough to be considered more than mere imitation.

Brown adopts Radcliffe’s explained supernatural, descriptive prose, and carefully structured suspense but adds to this his own distinctive style. His prose style is succinct and very straightforward compared to his English contemporaries, who tended to be quite verbose and poetical. However, his concise prose is not lacking in expression and remains highly effective when necessary.

Radcliffe’s great talent was in her descriptive prose and how she used it to create suspense. Instead of merely telling readers what is happening, she shows it by describing what the characters see and feel in detail. In doing so, she slows down time and delays relief. There are numerous instances in Wieland where Brown uses this technique very effectively and it makes the novel as a whole very exciting to read.

The novel is told from the perspective of Clara Wieland and the narrative is written as her one personal account of the strange events that led to the brutal murder of her family. Like many of the gothic heroines of the period, Clara Wieland prefers a honest, hardworking life in the country to an ostentatious one in the city. She is also fairly independent and lives in her own house, apart from family. However, she stands apart from her fictional contemporaries in one interesting way. She is the only gothic heroine from this period I have come across who actually arms herself with a weapon. It’s a rare quality to see in 18th century English fiction and a very refreshing one at that.

My only disappointment with the novel comes near the end of the story. I was expecting some final, devastating reveal but it never came. It does not ruin the novel but i feel it would have improved it. Brown’s explanation for the seemingly supernatural events in Wieland are far-fetched but while his explanations don’t always work, he successfully uses them to explore the unreliability of human perception and its susceptibility to expectation, emotion (especially fear), and belief.

Anyone interested in early gothic fiction, especially those in the Radcliffian tradition, should enjoy Wieland or, The Transformation. The quality of Brown’s writing is what kept me reading and ultimately elevates Wieland in my estimation despite it faults. There are plenty of poor gothic novels from the 1790’s but this isn’t one of them.

For those interested, Wieland or, The Transformation is currently available in paperback format from Penguin books and is included in a very handsome hardcover collection by Library of America. I own a copy of the latter edition and like t very much, both for its handsome binding and compact size.

Emmeline or, The Orphan of the Castle (Book Review)

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The hardcover edition from the Oxford University Press English Novel series, long out of print.

Several years ago, I began collecting Oxford University’s series of classic English novels. But these aren’t the familiar paperback editions. They are a series of hardcover editions, printed from the mid 1960’s up until the early 1970’s, and comprise a wide array of authors spanning two centuries. In total they published something like seventy volumes, many of which are still available from Oxford University Press, but what makes this series interesting to me, apart from their handsome binding, is that the series focuses extensively on 18th century authors. One of these authors, Charlotte Smith, had not been seen in print for more than a century and has, for good reason, been rediscovered as an important and influential author of the late 18th century.

When I bought Emmeline or, The Orphan of the Castle I was under the misapprehension that it was a gothic novel but this could not be farther from the truth. In style and content, it is a courtship novel and has much more in common with Jane Austen than Ann Radcliffe. Initially, I was rather disappointed. I’m generally not interested in novels about courtship and marriage, unless it involves two guys or a ghost or social criticism, but Emmeline drew me in with its critique of gender inequality and realistic portrayal of depression. In the end, it was a worthwhile read and I would highly recommend it to those interested in early feminist authors, romanticism, and 18th century fiction.

Smith was known to use her own experiences as a source of inspiration for her writing. Portraits of both herself and her husband pop up throughout the novel. Her marriage was far from happy. Her husband was both reckless with money and physically abusive. After twenty years together and twelve children, she left him and took up writing, one of the few respectable profession a woman could have at the time. It comes then as no surprise why she chose to dramatize the struggles of women to determine their own lives and critique the social institutions that forced women into bad marriages in her novels.

Many of the women in Smith’s novel are used to illustrate the ways women are disadvantaged by marriage but the most striking of them is Adelina. Adelina’s husband gambles excessively, forcing both into poverty and debt, and eventually succumbs to alcoholism. Meanwhile, Adelina leaves her husband and bears a child with another man. Ashamed of her circumstances and fearful of her bothers, as well as society’s, condemnation, her mental and physical health begin to deteriorate.

Depressed spirits are a common feature of the novels of the time and often go hand-in-hand with physical health but Adelina character is described with an unusual amount of detail for the time. She ruminates on sad thoughts, writes self-pitying poetry, isolates herself, loses interest in activities she once enjoyed, and even contemplates committing suicide. Smith is clearly describing the condition we now acknowledge as clinical depression and I don’t doubt that she sourced these details from her own experience, as she did with others aspects of her novels. (In fact, some of Adelina’s poetry appear in Smith’s very popular Elegiac Sonnets.) Adelina’s depression is treated as real and attributes it to society’s unjust scrutiny over women’s virtue, rather than to any deficit in her character.

Curiously, Mary Wollstonecraft criticized Smith for the way she portrayed Adelina and her “excessive grief,” as Wollstonecraft called, but Smith’s portrayal of Adelina’s depression adds realism to her novel and enriches it as whole. For contemporary readers, Emmeline or, The Orphan of the Castle may still be too didactic for their tastes but it’s well worth reading for its realism and critique of gender inequality. I can only hope that more of her works will become available and that our appreciation for it may deservedly grow.

P.S.: If you are interested in finding a copy, I recommend the edition from Broadview Press. The Oxford University Press edition is long out-of-print but you can find some used copies online in a variety of places, such as Amazon and Abebooks.