Wieland or, The Transformation (Book Review)

brockdenbrown

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.

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.