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.

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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.

The Castle of Otranto and The Old English Baron (Book Review)

The front cover of a hardcover edition printed by the Oxford University Press in 1964.

The front cover of a hardcover edition printed by the Oxford University Press in 1964.

Horace Walpole The Castle of Otranto and Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron are both seminal works in the history of the gothic novel but while they approach the same subjects (even in regards to plot) they diverge in interesting ways.

Walpole’s novel has fared better in the public memory than Reeve’s, though it reputations is primarily based on it being the first gothic novel. Nevertheless, both address the problems of social justice and virtue; both evoke the imagination through supernatural terror and suspense. However, how they portrayed and dealt with the supernatural elements are very different and perfectly represent a problem that was, in the 18th century, known as “probability.”

Eighteenth century authors were concerned with the notion of probability and whether or not the depiction of the supernatural could be seen as more likely than another. In other words, if ghost truly did exist, some depictions were considered to be more realistic and therefore more probable.

Walpole was deliberately fanciful in The Castle Otranto and accepted the melodramatic qualities of his story as he accepted the equally melodramatic conventions of opera and ballet. Reeve wanted to portray ghosts more realistically and restrained her ghosts considerably, to the point of making them seem rather dull  and too proper to many readers.

The front cover of a hardcover edition printed by the Oxford University Press in 1967.

The front cover of a hardcover edition printed by the Oxford University Press in 1967.

The notion of a probable ghost is rather difficult to define and I tend to believe that neither attempt is necessarily more probable than the other. After all, we have no model to judge it against other than fictional portrayals, which are primarily and appropriately poetic, and the personal testimonies we hear on the many ghost hunting programs on television today, which are sincere but rather mundane in contrast. If we want to be as realistic and probable as possible, we would be forced to rely on the latter model. The result would likely resemble the Paranormal Activity films. While films like these more closely approximate alleged encounters with ghosts and other supernatural entities, they lack the poetic elements that give stories of the supernatural element their dramatic power.

Overall, I personally found The Castle of Otranto more entertaining than The Old English Baron. Of course, neither of these evoke the same kind of tension and suspense as Radcliffes achieved so well in The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italien. Dialogue tends to run line after line, instead of being indented into new paragraphs, which I found to be rather tedious on the eyes. Nevertheless, I found both book interesting in their own ways and will provide any reader invested in the history of the gothic in literature some knowledge regarding its development.

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.