Book Review: Wieland or, The Transformation

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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.

Book Review: Emmeline or, The Orphan of the Castle

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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 Austin 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.

Book Review: Lusignan, Or The Abbaye of La Trappe

25143464The works of Ann Radcliffe are of an immense importance to me, for reasons too numerous to name here, and it was with great excitement that I received the news that Valacourt books was publishing a new edition of a rare volume–Lusignan, Or The Abbaye of La Trappe. It was published anonymously in 1801 and has been highly praised by Montague Summers, whose opinion on the gothic I have often put much faith in, and in recent years it has been argued that it could even have been written by Radcliffe herself.

To be fair, there is nothing to really connect Radcliffe with Lusignan and since we do not have any evidence to suggest an author, we may never know with any certainty that she didn’t write it. It’s certainly tempting to think that Radcliffe preferred to published anonymously after the reputation of the gothic had fallen and to protect herself from the harsh, political scrutiny her works were beginning to receive. Indeed, Lusignan does bear some resemblance to Radcliffe’s work, in both style and theme, but it’s superficial at best.
The protagonists talk of virtue, retire to convents, and muse about the scenery but these instances are often short and lack depth. Suspense is rarely sustain for longer than a few pages and the eerie effects the authors employs are poorly executed and confusing. Even at her worst, Radcliffe wrote better than this.

What ultimately convinced me that Radcliffe did not write Lusignan was the sexist tone of the narrator. There are several instances in which the narrator makes misogynistic remarks about women characters.

One passage from Lusignan reads,

Emily had been nurtured in the bosom of virtue, which strengthened her mind, and rendered it capable of exertion, but could not subjugate a keen sensibility, too often fatal to female happiness. (pg. 29)

and another,

He found in her a fund of good sense and information very rare in the sex, and which soon induced him to abandon the trifling observations he had been used to detail to every woman he met, and turn the conversation to subjects less general, but infinitely more interesting to a cultivated mind. (pg. 138)

While it was common for Radcliffe to employ misogynist men as antagonists, her narrators never demean women. As I have argued in a previous post, Radcliffe’s works have a definite feminist tone that is expressed both through the characterization of her female protagonists and the dialogue. In fact, the second passage quoted above directly mirrors something Signor Montoni says to Emily St. Aubert, in an attempt to gain control over her property.

I am not in the habit of flattering, and you will, therefore, receive, as sincere, the praise I bestow, when I say, that you possess an understanding superior to that of your sex; and that you have none of those contemptible foibles, that frequently mark the female character—such as avarice and the love of power, which latter makes women delight to contradict and to tease, when they cannot conquer. (pg. 380)

I was very eager to believe that Radcliffe could have written Lusignan but, considering the blatantly sexist tone of the prose, I find it hard to believe that she could have. It’s a dramatic shift in tone, wholly discordant with her previous works. Frankly, I’m surprised that I seem to be the only one to notice this.

I’m not one to quit a book halfway but I found Lusignan to be so unbearable to read I simply had to put it down and remedy my disappointment by instead reading Radcliffe’s second novel, A Sicilian Romance, which proved to be not only of superior quality to Lusignan but a highly inventive and entertaining novel in and of itself. Plus, we know Radcliffe wrote it.

Book Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho

41dl-y-0UHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Ann Radcliffe was one of the most popular and highly acclaimed author of the 18th century. Although she wasn’t the first gothic novelist, her work was considered by many a the time to be the first mature works of that genre. While her novels might come as a melodramatic and superficial to contemporary readers (as a lot of older literature will, of course), they also bear many features which not only were innovative for their time but have become standards in fiction today.

Radcliffe’s most well known work is The Mysteries of Udolpho. It also happens to be her most “gothic” gothic novel. It contains more ghosts, secret corridors and chambers, and horrors than either The Romance of the Forest or The Italian. When I read Wuthering Heights in high school I was a bit disappointed by how retained the supernatural elements were and, although this did not negatively impact my appreciation for it, I was nevertheless happy to discover that Udolpho longed for in a gothic novel.

One of the characteristic qualities of Radcliffe’s work is her use of the explained supernatural. Some readers cannot stand this but I love it. It aids Radcliffe’s carefully structure suspense perfectly. Disappointment is necessarily a part of the way she builds suspense and teases the reader. The reader is lead to expect something horrifying (the essence of terror) and supernatural but is then disappointment the cause is revealed to be quite innocent and natural. This disappointment serves to temporarily relieve the tension of suspense but it never resolves any of the underlying fears or mysteries that protagonist must confront and discover. Just when the reader feels at peace, the expectation of horror is revived but this time does lead to something genuinely horrifying and the previous disappointments serves to intensifies the sensations of the scene.

The suspense is enhanced further by the first person perspective that Radcliffe’s uses throughout most of the story. We see everything from the protagonist Emily St. Aubert’s skewed perspective. Emily is not a believer in the supernatural yet when her rationality fails to explain strange event and phenomena, fear overtakes her imagination and distorts her perception of her environment. Unlike the protagonist of Jane Austin’s parody of the gothic Northanger Abbey, Emily faces both real and imagined dangers. Her perilous situation and relative powerlessness render her expectations of danger all the more reasonable, even when the exact details of her exceptions are not.

Radcliffe’s suspense is not only conventional but psychological and lends her fiction a depth of insight both powerful and sophisticated. This is why I am often surprised when people characterize Emily as one-dimensional, when in fact her characterization is anything but. Sure, Emily is very uncompromising, even uptight, about her morals and opinions but Emily’s psychological experience is incredibly dynamic. As I have argued in a previous post, Emily’s many fainting spells closely resemble panic attacks. These details may not be readily apparent to many but they are definitely present and demonstrates that there is more to The Mysteries Udolpho, and it characters, than its conventional gothic trappings.

For many contemporaneity readers, Radcliffe’s prose may be difficult to get through, as I myself found it nearly a decade ago, but her work easily rewards one’s effort with both fine storytelling and nuanced psychological depth. I would highly recommend it to those interested in the gothic, early women authors, romantic literature and, or, psychology. (I fit all these categories.) For those who might feel daunted by the length but want to read Radcliffe, I would recommend beginning with The Romance of the Forest or The Italian, with the later perhaps being the better of the two because its pacing is very much like a modern thriller film. There are a number of good editions available but I would most recommend the Oxford University Press edition, both for their scholarly introductions and annotations. Be wary of digitized texts, for they frequently aren’t of the highest quality! If you don’t like spoilers, do not read the introduction until you have finished the book; while it provides a lot of interesting history and insights into the novel, it contains plenty of spoilers. Personally, I don’t believe in spoilers–there’s so much more to a story than its major plot points.

Book Review: HA!

18210746Like a good joke, I will keep this review brief.

In Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why, Scott Weems explores the mechanisms of and motivations behind humor. His prose is concise, accessible, and at times quite amusing. The research he discusses is wide ranging and often fascinating. With a topic as elusive as humor, it is impressive how much Weems is able explain.

However, I felt he gave short shrift to he destructive potential of humor. Although he does discuss research regarding the relationship between prejudice and stereotype-based humor, he explains these jokes as representing conflicted feelings and not as an expression of prejudice. To bolster his claim, he refers the reader to the popularity of Polish jokes. According to him, these jokes cannot be expressions of prejudice because Polish people are not longer perceived as a cultural threat in the United States. Assuming that Polish jokes are indeed innocent (though I am inclined to think they are not), it would not explain the popularity of prejudice-based humor targeting groups people currently perceived as cultural threats.

Despite this one shortcoming, I think the book is well worth reading. Since this is the first book I have read on the subject, I cannot speak to whether it compares favorably or not to other books on humor. Weems’ arguments have definitely expanded my understanding of the subject and I am glad I had a chance to read it.

Book Review: Ancient Egyptian Literature Volume II

41pTk89KEBL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_About a year ago I began exploring my interest in ancient Egyptian culture and history beyond what I had already learned from various documentaries and museum exhibits. I started out with Nicolas Grimal’s history from 1988 and this in turn introduced me to ancient Egyptian literature. In particular, the Harper’s song from the tomb of Neferhotep intrigued me the most with its sensitive reflection on death and the afterlife. This and many other pieces relieved to me a dimension of the ancient world I was previously ignorant of but, in hindsight, should have expected. In many respects, we are not so different from our distant ancestors.

Choosing a collection of translations was difficult. I avoid E. A. Wallis Budge, despite his reputation, because his translations are not longer regarded as the most accurate. I paused several other collections, most of which of recent publication, but end up choosing a copy of Miriam Litcheim’s second volume of ancient Egyptian literature, fornicating on the new kingdom. It is the second of three volumes published in between 1973 and 1980 by the University of California Berkeley Press.

Over all I have enjoyed her translations, although I certainly cannot judge them in an kind of authoritative way, but I have come across what seems like a discrepancy in her translations. Several other collections of ancient Egyptian literature include the love songs, which are known for their evidently erotic content. However, the translations Lictheim includes of these songs are incomplete, whereas in other collections they are included intact (such as in the Yale University anthology of 2003). The excluded sections just so happen to be those containing the erotic passages. I am left wondering whether this was a conscious exclusion on her part, impelled by a prudish attitude towards sexuality. In her introduction to the love songs, she even refers to other translations including the erotic content as “so unfaithful to the letter and spirit of the originals” and dismisses them entirely (Ancient Egyptian Literature Volume II, pg. 182). If she had given alternative translations of the omitted sections, I might be able to deem her decisions as reasonable but without them I cannot tell; and with so many other authorities favoring the erotic content of these songs I am inclined to regard her choice as biased and unreliable.

Since I am not very familiar with Egyptology and am a newcomer to ancient Egyptian literature, I am posting this here to illicit thoughts from others who might possess more information on the subject.

Book Review: The Worm at the Core

41LMKElQ5yL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Death is an unpleasant thing. Sure, we may make jokes about it and wish it upon our enemies but when we actually begin to contemplate our own mortality we tremble in fear of what our existence, and lack thereof, might mean in the grand scheme of things. This might seem like a common sense—after all it has been a subject of serious contemplation by philosophers, theologians, and thinkers for centuries—but within the last thirty years or so psychologists around the world have been studying the role that the awareness we have of our own mortality has over how behavior and beliefs. In The Worm at the Core, psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski discuss the implications of a large body of research on what they have called “terror management” theory.

Terror management theory is largely derived from the 1973 book, The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker but addresses a problem that has vexed humankind for as long as anyone can recall. According to terror management theory, we rely on culturally relevant belief systems to buffer ourselves against existential anxiety. Our psychological defense can be both conscious and non-conscious but tend to be largely the latter. In addition, our reactions to death threat can varying in meaningful ways depending on whether or not death related thoughts are fully conscious or not.

When we consciously think about death we use proximal defenses. We use proximal defenses to remove conscious thoughts about our mortality from our minds. Once our awareness becomes non-conscious, we distal defenses. These defenses are only indirectly related to our mortality and lean instead towards fulfilling symbolic immorality. This is where our beliefs come into play. Ideals such as beauty, wealth, status, and good health can serve as buffers against existential anxiety. When participants are primed with a mortality reminder, their interest in these ideals increase compared to those in the neutral conditions.

However, for these ideals to have an impact, they must also be relevant to the individual. When people respond immediately to conscious death threats, they interests can radically change but participants are made to wait they tend to revert to which ever beliefs they held before. Awareness of death can make people express an increased desire to exercise but only those for whom exercise is meaningful part of their beliefs will actually increase the time they spend exercising.

Culture provides us with the defenses we use to buffer against existential anxiety but this does not mean that life is meaningless. Rather, it means just the opposite—that life is infinitely meaningful. However, the range of humanly relevant meaning is possibly quite limited. The beliefs we choose, whether consciously or not, are also hugely consequential. Our beliefs have the power to change the world and can quite literally be a life and death matter.

Prejudice is a type of culturally relevant belief, one that aggrandizes one group at the expense of others, and has been for a long time. In one experiments, researchers examined participants attitudes towards racial stereotypes. They found that those who were exposed to the death primer were more likely to favor people who fulfilled racial stereotypes, while those were were exposed to the neutral primer favored those who did not conform to racial stereotypes. In normal circumstances people tend to prefer those who do not fit racial stereotypes but when they are fearful of their own mortality they favor these stereotypes because they confirm a worldview that places them in a position of greater significance and value.

Terror management theory may seem rather grim but we are not mere puppets. In the concluding chapter, the authors point to potential solutions that may ameliorate the destructive potential our of defense mechanism. Accepting the finality of human life and becoming more aware of how the fear of death motivates us are necessary and vital components of our future survival and happiness.

The Worm at the Core is an incredibly insightful and well-written book. It sheds a scientific light on a problem that has plagued human consciousness for thousands of years. The experiments they discuss are wide ranging and touch upon many important social problems, such as judicial bias and prejudice. It well worth reading, not only those studying psychology or philosophy, but for anyone with an inquiring mind.