Book Review: Wieland or, The Transformation

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.

Book Review: Lusignan, Or The Abbaye of La Trappe

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

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

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

One passage from Lusignan reads,

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

and another,

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Ancient Egyptian Literature Volume II

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Pompey the Little

A handsome hardcover edition printed by the Oxford University Press in 1974 as part of their English novels series.

A handsome hardcover edition printed by the Oxford University Press in 1974 as part of their English novels series.

There are many authors whose literary work, having at one time or another attained some amount of popularity or commendation, have almost entirely been forgotten over time. Such has become the case for Francis Coventry and his only novel Pompey the Little. There is only one edition that I know of currently in print. The one from which I read is an edition printed by Oxford University Press in the year 1974 for their English Novels series and has not been printed by them since.

It first came to my attention because it is a part of a series of hardcover classics Oxford University Press printed in the 1960’s and 1970’s (so long as they are books I have the interest to read) but my curiosity was encouraged by the hero being a spaniel (I have a spaniel named Spunky I love very much). It is a short book and took me around ten days to finish my reading but the narrative is quickly paced and filled with many amusing incidents. The story focuses on the life of a spaniel lapdog as it moves from own owner to the next, by various strokes of luck and misfortune. It’s narrative structure is in imitation of the fictional and non-fictional memoirs, concerning persons of either respectable or not so respectable reputations, that were popular at the time. It is also a relentless satire of 18th century society, ridiculing it many pretensions and hypocrisies..

In the first chapter he explains the prodigious history of dogs and the many respectable accomplishment they have made. Appropriately, he includes a reference to King Charles II, who was known to have a great fondness for a breed of spaniel, which now bears his name, and his many amorous affairs.

King Charles the second, of pious and immortal memory, came always to the Council-board accompanied with a favorite Spaniel; who propagated his breed, and scattered his Image through the Land, almost as extensively as his Royal Master.

Each chapter is headed with both a numerical and descriptive title. Many of these titles, of the later variety, are very straightforward but several others are clearly intended to poke fun at literary conventions.

Book I, Chap. IX
What the reader will know if he reads it.

Book II, Chap. II
A long chapter of characters.

Book II, Chap. IV
Another long chapter of characters.

Coventry also offers some biting political commentary through his characters. In one scene, occurring in a coffee house among a small gathering of men, one of them reproaches another for making strong claims without evidence or sound reasoning.

Bold affirmations against the government are believed merely from the dint of assurance with which they are spoken, and the idlest jargon often passes for the soundest reasoning.

Coventry himself remarks upon this character as being a “miniature tyrant,” who will deprive anyone of their freedom and hypocritically claim them all for himself.

Nothing can be more common than examples in this way, of people who preside over their families with the most arbitrary brutal severity, and yet are ready on all occasions to abuse the government for the smallest exertion of its power. To say the truth, I scarce know a man, who is not a tyrant in miniature, over the circle of his own dependants ; and I have observed those in particular to exercise the greatest lordship over their inferiors, who are most forward to complain of oppression from their superiors.

The language may be difficult for some to enjoy but if you are like me, and appreciate the rhythmic prose of the 18th century, then you will likely take great delight in Coventry’s prose. The humor, though it regards many historical and cultural details that would have been more well known at the time, remains in many ways relevant and amusing. It’s a gem of 18th satire and certainly deserves to be read.

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.