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.

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.

We Need to Talk About Modesty

Modesty is an incredibility important quality. It allows us to regulate our self-perception and maintain self-esteem. However, while it is a while known and appreciated quality, I suspect that it is also widely misunderstood. People often confuse modesty with how we dress, rather than with how we regard ourselves, and tend to associate it with sexual promiscuity. In addition, this belief tend to negatively effect women far more often than it ever effects men. Modesty is definitely a problem in society but problem lies instead in our confused understanding of it and the unequal way in which it is applied.

For many, modesty comes down to how we dress. The more we cover up, the more modest we become; conversely, the more of our body we expose, the more immodest we become. It is understandable why provocative forms of dress are commonly thought of as immodest, since fashion as we know it is predicated on attracting attention from others, but I am strongly disinclined to regard clothing as the final or only manifestation of modesty. Modesty is hardly the only concern we consider when we choose our outfits. We dress to fit in, express personal aesthetic sense, and, or, to protect ourselves from harsh weather. With this in mind, we cannot conclude from a person’s appearance alone whether they are, in actuality, modest or not. Therefore, we must consider modesty for what it is—an attitude.

In Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, modesty is defined a “nondefensive willingness to see the self accurately, including both strengths and weaknesses (Peterson and Seligman, 2004, p. 463).” Modesty is fundamentally about attitude and not, as it is widely believed, about how we dress. It involves an unreasonable belief that one is better than others and deserves to be admired for it. The immodest person is one who boasts, exaggerating their skills and accomplishments, and is eager to put others down if it means making themselves look better by comparison.

In contrast, a modest person is someone who can knowledge their “mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge and limitations” but without utterly putting themselves down. Furthermore, they place less importance on their ideas, opinions, and moral perspective; and can appreciate “the value of all things, as well as the many different ways that people and things can contribute to our world (Peterson and Seligman, pg 462).” They are neither prone to boast about themselves nor reject praise when it is appropriate, and because they are comfortable with their strength and weakness, they feel little need to prove themselves at the expense of others.

This brings me to an important aspect of modesty and it regards gender differences. Whether you like it or not, acknowledge or deny it, modesty is a double standard. Women are expected to be modest, while men generally are not, and when women fail to meet these standards, they are punished very harshly. In the minds of many, modesty is more than what a woman wears. Wearing revealing clothing becomes a sign of promiscuity and the women bearing it are denigrated, regardless of their actual character or lifestyle. When it comes to the way women are perceived and judged, modesty is not really about unreasonable pride but about sexual control. However, contrary to the popular perception that women are immodest, research has consistently shown that men tend to score higher on measures of narcissism than women (Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T., 2015). If anyone is more likely to be immodest, it’s men and not women.

Modesty is not what we wear but how we wear it. Ultimately, our material possessions do not make us immodest but the fallacious belief that they make us better than anyone else and the desire to prove ourselves at the expense of others. The way we shame others, and especially women, is the true testament to the problem of modesty, not whether women wear a little or a lot of clothing. If we cannot understand this, we cannot understand modesty or even remotely achieve it.

References

Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T. (2015). Gender differences in narcissism: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 141(2), 261-310.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mistress of Udolpho (Book Review)

93138Once while I was taking the bus home from my courses, an intoxicated man awkwardly approached me as I was reading Mistress of Udolpho and said he had enjoyed reading it as well. I was very surprised by this because the book I was reading was a biography of the 18th century gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe, whose works and life are fairly esoteric topics in this day and age. Considering his intoxication, I very much doubt he had actually read it. Nevertheless, he was correct about one thing: the book is quite enjoyable.

Little is known about the “great enchantress” of the gothic but Rictor Norton has done an exemplary job at collecting what we do know about her and fills in the vague areas with a historical context she would have been a part of.

Radcliffe’s novels are notable for not containing the same vehement disdain for Catholicism that characterised many other gothic novels of the time. Instead, organised religion takes on a more ambivalent role, with convents and monasteries frequently acting as both sanctuaries and prisons. For Radcliffe, evil is a function of unrestrained passion and reason serves as the primary means of moderating passion.

While little is known about her own personal religious views, we do know that her family were known Unitarians and it is likely that she was raised as one. In the 18th century, Unitarianism was tied to the ideals of the Enlightenment and the influence can be readily seen in many of Radcliffe’s novels. Reason, equality, women’s rights, and education are prominent themes and are clearly advocated through her protagonists.

One only gets small glimpses into her personal life but it appears that she had a happy marriage and, although she never had children of her own, she saved and took care of several spaniels throughout her lifetime. (As a spaniel owner, I found this detail particularly satisfying.) She was shy and somewhat socially awkward, was sensitive to criticism of her work and shunned public attention. In this way, Radcliffe stood out but considering the popular reactions to gothic novels, it’s becomes quite easy to sympathise for her desire for seclusion. At the time, gothic novels were subjected to very harsh criticism and were scapegoated in much the same way as video games and rock n’ rock music. Criticism became especially harsh after the reign of terror. One critic even went so far as to accuse her of trying to induce terror in much the same way as Robespierre and the Committee for Public Safety had in France. Later only, 10th century critics were utterly dismiss he works as immoral, likely because of the socially and politically progressive attitudes she expressed in her works.

Norton makes a few claims I found to be rather problematic. Firstly, he argues that Radcliffe might have been bisexual because, in The Romance of the Forest, the narrator describes Adelines bosom in very alluring terms. While I cannot deny this as a possibility, I can’t help suspecting this is wishful thinking on the part of Norton because he frequently writes on the history of homsexuality. Secondly, he argues that Radcliffe did not write Gaston De Blondeville and on the basis that the style of diction varies from her other works. However, I do not find the diction to be very different at all.

For those interested in Radcliffe’s works, gothic literature, and the history of feminism, I would highly recommend this book. It is easy to follow, concisely written, and informative. It contains many more details than you are likely to find elsewhere online but sadly, due the sparse existing information we have about her, is still rather thin. Nevertheless, it has earned a special place in my library.

The Mysteries of Udolpho Revealed: The psychological terror and feminism of Ann Radcliffe

An illustration from an 19th century edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho.

An illustration from a 19th century edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho.

In the year 2005 I began reading Ann Radcliffe’s famous gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho and, after reading the first three-hundred pages, set it aside for several years since. In the interim I frequently wondered whether I would ever return to it and finally complete my reading but one thing or another deprived me of the interest in doing so. Then, in August of this year, I pulled it from its place on the self, determined to finish it, and—much to my surprise and delight—have! At long last I managed to read the last four-hundred pages and enjoyed every moment of the journey with its protagonist, Emily St. Aubert.

The Mysteries of Udolpho is not as well known today as it was two-hundred years ago. This cartoon by Lisa Brown perfectly reflects the reputation it has today. Unfortunately, it reduces the novel to a single aspect of its protagonist, both misrepresenting what it ridicules and neglecting the many good qualities that make Emily such a strong woman and her story so thrilling. Not only is Emily a strong, intelligent young woman who stands up for herself but the story clearly conveys a feminist message. Radcliffe was a talented author, whose sophisticated understanding of the human mind gave her characters unique dimensions and made the horror of the story truly psychological.

In The Mysteries of Udolpho there are no true supernatural phenomena and anything that appears so receives a perfectly rational explanation sooner or later. This has been the subject of some criticism ever since its publication but I found this aspect of the story both appealing and quite effective in creating an atmosphere of terror. For Radcliffe, terror is determined by how we perceive the world. Whether by superstitious belief or unease, Radcliffe’s characters are moved to feel fear, anxiety, and terror. Sometimes the explanation reveals a harmless source, even a friendly compatriot, but on other occasions Emily’s discoveries are far more macabre and often expose more mysteries.

Those who have criticized Radcliffe’s rational terror have argued that it robs the narrative of the sublime and of genuine horror but what she accomplishes in The Mysteries of Udolpho is really quite brilliant. Although the reader might know that the supernatural effects are illusions, these scenes are described in a way that defies an easy, rational explanation. Like Emily, I tried to explain what I saw through her eyes but failing to contrive a compelling answer actually intensifies the anxiety, and terror, we are supposed to feel with Emily.

Radcliffe was praised for her eloquent descriptions of landscapes and criticized for their frequency. Such is true for The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is only four pages short of eight-hundred. In addition to these beautifully poetic passages, I was impressed by her keen understanding of psychology. Her descriptions of Emily’s fears and how she checks herself by assessing or seeking out evidence reminds me of cognitive theory, which emphasizes how belief effects our perception of the world and how this, in turn, reshapes or reinforces, our beliefs. Emily tends to benefit most from her reason, while her companion Annette is more susceptible and willing to believe in supernatural explanations and less inclined to doubt what she assumes. Despite this, however, Emily does give in occasionally when her mood is affected by eerie stories or when she is caught off guard and Annette will dismiss a supernatural explanation when previous beliefs and knowledge provide a more compelling answer. They both have their own preconceived notions about strange phenomenon and although Emily generally tends to be right to assume a more rational perspective, she does not dismiss the possibility of the sublime when she considers her father looking after her from heaven.

The following passage perfectly reflect the psychological horror Radcliffe affects so well:

“The castle was perfectly still, and the great hall, where so lately she had witnessed a scene of dreadful contention, now returned only the whispering footsteps of the two solitary figures gliding fearfully between the pillars, and gleamed only to the feeble lamp they carried. Emily, deceived by the long shadows of the pillars and by the catching lights between, often stopped, imagining she saw some person, moving in the distant obscurity of the perspective; and, as she passed these pillars, she feared to turn her eyes toward them, almost expecting to see a figure start out from behind their broad shaft.”

Emily is notorious for her fainting fits and, like other aspects of the novel, I believe it has partly been misunderstood. They have been explained as a literary device that extends and enhances suspense, and in several instances this is true. Her struggle to maintain her senses in emotionally stressful situations does heighten the feeling of danger. They can also be understood as a reflection of the belief in “feminine weakness” that characterized the popular views of women at the time. Although all of Radcliffe’s characters are affected by the fear of the supernatural and of the fragility of their mortality, none of then men faint and only a few women characters in the novel actually do.

Both theories are apt but the way in which Radcliffe’s describes the psychic processes that precede her fits suggests another interpretation. What Emily expressions are panic attacks! She becomes anxious in the presence of danger or in the presence of a terrible sight, begins to breath heavily, loses her sense of the environment around her, and (if she fails to recover her composure) faints. A panic attack is understood as an abrupt experience of intense fear, induced either unexpectedly or by a specific object or situation, and is accompanied by physical symptoms that may include heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, and even dizziness. If we interpret these fits from a contemporary psychological perspective one would diagnose Emily St. Aubert as suffering from an anxiety disorder.

One must also consider the circumstances of life in the sixteenth century, during which the story takes place. People would not have had the benefit of modern medicine and medical theory. The memory of the bubonic plague would have still be lingering on the cultural consciousness. The mortality rate was likely high enough to warrant a phobic response to the sight of blood or a decaying corpse, and Emily encounters plenty of these sights. This fear would be viewed as ridiculous and unjustified today, for we do not have to fear disease as our ancestors would have centuries before. This could be the reason for why people now perceive Emily’s fainting fits as something worthy of ridicule; we forget just how precarious human life can be and was then.

The Mysteries of Udolpho also contains a feminist message. The reputation of the gothic novel may not immediately suggest it but at least in the case of Radcliffe’s novel, the rights of women are advocated and are treated as equals. This becomes apparent when one examines how the good men of the novel treat women in contrast to how the evil men do. Valancourt, who is Emily’s love interest, treats her as an equal. He respects her decisions even when they contradict his own wishes, rather than compel her to his will. The reverse is true in the case of Count Morano, a rival suitor. Earlier in the story Emily’s uncle Montoni has promises her to him but later retracts the marriage when he discovers the count has lost much of his personal fortune. Count Morano doesn’t give up, however, and sneaks into Emily’s chamber by way of a secret passage with the promise to save her from her villainous uncle but, in return for his services, he demands that she marry him. Emily refuses the offer, explaining to him the injustice of his coercive offer and states, quite powerfully,

“Count Morano! I am now in your power; but you will observe, that this is not the conduct which can win the esteem you appear so solicitous to obtain, and that you are preparing for yourself a load of remorse, in the miseries of a friendless orphan, which can never leave you. Do you believe your heart to be, indeed, so hardened, that you can look without emotion on the suffering, to which you would condemn me?”

Unfortunately, Montoni proves to be even more exploitative than Morano. He imprisons his own wife when she refuses to surrender her property to him and pursues Emily with as much cruelty when the properties eventually become hers. He attempts to deceive Emily into signing away her inheritance but she sees through his deception when he refuses to allow her to read the document. He underestimates her intelligence and then, in  a final attempt to persuade her into signing, tries to flatter her into compliance. In doing so he reveals his contempt for women:

“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.”

In the end, Emily triumphs over the evil schemes of her uncle and her other persecutors. She uncovers the mysterious affairs her father kept secret from her and marries her beloved Valancourt. Though she has lost her parents, she gains a new family previously unknown to her. Emily St. Aubert is not the weak heroine she has been mistaken to be but an intelligent and courageous young woman who defends herself despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Through she trembles at the sight of blood or of strange figures passing along the corridors at night, these circumstances never fully subdues her and she perseveres with fortitude against oppression.

In The Mysteries of Udolpho Radcliffe argues for the dignity and equality of women, and although it may not always stand up to the standards and criticism of contemporary Feminism, it deserves to be recognized for what it is rather than ridiculed for what it isn’t. Not only is it important within the history and development of the gothic literary genre but the merits of Radcliffe’s work are significant and should not be forgotten.