Bibliomania: Oxford English Novels

From the 1964 to 1976, Oxford University Press printed a series of classic English-language novels. The Oxford English Novels series comprised many well-known and lesser known classics spanning nearly two centuries. For those familiar with the current and long-running Oxford World’s Classics series, the Oxford English Novels is very similar. They are scholarly texts, including informative introductions, extensive notes, and bibliographies. The texts themselves are excellently put together, as one would expect of the Oxford University Press, but what really interests about this series is the format. Unlike the soft-cover World’s Classics, the Oxford English Novels series are all hardcover and feature colorful dustjackets.

The Oxford English Novels series first came to my attention while I was searching the internet for a hardcover edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho. After a few dispointing purchases, I finally stumbled across the website for a small used book store in Oakland, which had a number of book from the series on sale. Plus, unlike most sellers on Amazon, they provided photos of each book. I bought their copy of The Mysteries of Udolpho with little hesitation and in a few weeks times, I also bough their copies of Pompey the Little, The Old English Baron, The Italian, Emmeline, Vathek, and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. 

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Later on, I collected other editions from Amazon and other online booksellers, including: A Journal of the Plague Year, The Old Manor House, The Castle of Otranto, Melmoth the Wanderer, The Man of Feeling, Mary and The Wrongs of Woman, and The Female Quixote.

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Many of the books from this series can be found easily online and for good prices but more popular works tend to be rarer and go for high prices when they are. (I was very lucky to find Melmoth the Wanderer for $25 and I’m very glad I got it when I did.) They are worth getting when the price is right and if you, like me, love beautiful hardcover editions.

Marchmont (Book Review)

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A new edition printed by Whitlock Publishing

Marchmont is utterly unlike any of the other early gothic novels I have read thus far. Charlotte Smith adopts many of the typical characteristics of the gothic (such as a female protagonist, eerie settings, ruinous castles, ghosts, and unscrupulous villains) but executes each of these elements with a realism unrivalled by her contemporaries and uses them to explore and the social and political problems of 18th century England.

The novel opens on the near idyllic life of Althea Dacres, who lives with her unmarried aunt Mrs. Trevyllian. Together they enjoy a solitary life away from the shallow distractions of high society but when her aunt becomes ill and eventually dies, Althea is sent to live with her father and step-mother and soon encounters many new dangers–the first of which is marriage. When Althea refuses to marry a man she can neither love nor respect, her parents punish her by sending her to live in the old, isolated, and partially ruinous Eastwoodleigh castle. As cliché as this might sound, Smith fleshes out her story with my realistic details and creates an effectively eerie setting.

What makes Eastwoodleigh castle so eerie is not the possibility of it being haunted but its desolate condition and the sequence of events that robbed it of all its comforts. Once the home of a proud and illustrious family, the castle stands as a sad testament to the usurious practices of debt collectors. Falling on hard times, the Marchmont family borrows a considerable amount of money in order to keep their ancestral home in the family but when they are unable to pay back this money they are forced to sell many of their personal belongings, stripping the castle of it finer furnishings and selling all the old-growth trees for wood. Their efforts ultimately come to naught. They are sued by their creditors and hounded by an unscrupulous lawyer called Vampyre, who exploits their ignorance of the law to the benefit of his client and to the ultimate ruin of the Marchmont family. Lord Marchmont takes his own life (a controversial detail Smith subtly alludes to), leaving his wife and three daughters living in poverty while his only son struggles desperately to earn money to support them.

To Althea, Eastwoodleigh castle initially presents itself as refuge, rather than as a punishment, and appeals to her romantic sensibility. She doesn’t mind a simply, solitary life away from society, as long as she has her aunts books and has some company. Even her step-mother tries to scare her into submission by mentioning rumors of the castle being haunted, Althea is hardly perturbed. Yet when she arrives she soon discovers that her new home is not exactly the romantic refuge she had envisioned. Her isolation and the dreary conditions of the castle begin to oppress her spirits and work its devious magic on her imagination. While Smith does employ the explained supernatural occasionally throughout her novel, they are often slight and quickly explained away. At first, these suggestively supernatural scenes seem disappointing but by rationalizing the supernatural Smith pulls the reader back down to earth and reminds them of the real dangers threatening Althea—namely poverty, ignominy, and Vampyre.

Vampyre is not the typical villain of gothic literature. He is a mere attorney, old and half-blind, but he knows how to exploit others to his and his client’s benefit and has few qualms about doing so. In her introduction, Smith mentions that Vampyre is based on an attorney she herself hired to represent her in the long, drawn-out legal battle over her father-in-law’s legacy. From other sources I have read, I understand that this attorney deliberately misinformed her and needlessly prolonged the case in order to change her more for his services. She also points out, in her introduction to Marchmont, that Vampyre is a softened portrait of the actual attorney because his “most hideous features are too offensive to be painted in all their enormity.” (Considering the nefarious deeds Vampyre commits in the novel, I shudder to think of the “offensive features” Smith only alludes to.) Although Vampyre’s many crimes never excel to the gruesome deeds of other gothic villains, Vampyre is fearful nonetheless, not only because he is powerful, but because he knows, as Smith reminds the reader throughout, that the legal system is designed to benefit the few and the affluent at the expense of the poor and vulnerable.

Althea fears Vampyre and his henchman, knowing well that her own situation is very precarious, but she is not afraid defy convention for the sake of what she believes right and true. When Althea discovers that Edmund Marchmont is indeed hiding in Eastwoodleigh castle, she considers the social consequences of her, a young unmarried woman, remaining within the same house as a young, unmarried man but ultimately determines to defy social norms despite the consequences in order to help a friend in need. Having been essentially abandoned by her only family, she reasons that she owes little to the rules of a society that has utterly resigned any responsibility to her well-being and therefore can no longer obligate her to follow its arbitrary rules when they conflict with her altruistic values. Smith imbues her protagonist with a strong, independent mind and, much like Ann Radcliffe, uses the gothic genre to explore how gender norms often disadvantage women socially.

Eighteenth century gothic novels are a mixed bag. Some are masterpieces of suspense and imagination, others are more shock than substance, and many more are poor imitations of more popular works but Marchmont stands out to me for the same reason Emmeline (also by Smith) did. Her characters feel so real and react to the world with a touching honesty. The problems they face reflect those that many people faced at the time when Smith wrote it, that she herself suffered through and never really overcame. It’s hard for me not to sympathize with her them and their plight or to recognize that the world is still haunted by the same ominous specters of vampiric greed that menaced many in the 18th century.

Smith’s works have long been neglected and have only recently received serious critical attention. In fact, when I was first introduced to her work, I was lead to believe that her later works were inferior to her early first novels but after reading Marchmont, her ninth novel, I simply cannot believe it. Marchmont is a well-written gothic romance that addresses the social problems of the 18th century with both great intelligence and wit. It won’t necessarily thrill you with suspenseful terror or shock you with gruesome horror but it will show you an oft forgotten political depth to the gothic that is still be relevant today.

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Marchmont is currently available in an affordable paperback edition (pictured above) from Whitlock Publishing. Although the Whitlock edition does contain a number of typos, they do not interfere with reading, it is a welcome sight to see among the many cheaply produced, over-priced reproductions that proliferate like rabbits on Amazon.

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.

Lusignan, Or The Abbaye of La Trappe (Book Review)

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.

The Mysteries of Udolpho (Book Review)

41dl-y-0UHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Ann Radcliffe was one of the most popular and highly acclaimed authors of the 18th century. Although she wasn’t the first gothic novelist, her work was considered by many at the time to be the first mature works of that genre. While her novels might come off as melodramatic and superficial to contemporary readers (as a lot of older literature will, of course), they also bear many features which were 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 any of her other novels. 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 had everything I had 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. Radcliffe’s rationalization of the supernatural is crucial in how she creates and sustains suspense. Radcliffe frequently disappoints the reader’s expectations, revealing natural and often innocent causes to her seemingly supernatural events, but just as the reader is being to feel safe, Radcliffe’s rebuilds the tension Again, she disappoints the reader’s expectation for supernatural horror but this time the cause is genuinely horrifying rather than innocent. By frequently disappointing the reader’s expectation, Radcliffe’s intensifies these rare moments of real horror and makes then genuinely surprising.

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 always reliable.

Far from being merely a literary convention, Radcliffe uses suspence to explore the psychology of her protagonist, lending the story 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 still want to read Radcliffe, I would recommend beginning with The Romance of the Forest or The Italian, with the latter 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 for their scholarly introductions and annotations. Be wary of digitized texts because 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, they often reveal important plot points and twists the reader might prefer not to know quite yet. Personally, I don’t believe in spoilers–there’s so much more to a story than its major plot points.

HA! (Book Review)

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.