Book Review: Emmeline or, The Orphan of the Castle

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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 Austin 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.

Film Review: Crimson Peak

film_crimson_peak_PosterDom1Over the last month or so, I read numerous articles containing suggested reading and viewing for those eagerly anticipating Crimson Peak, the new film from Guillermo del Toro. I didn’t really follow their advice, partly because I found a number of their suggested titles distasteful but mostly because I am already well-acquainted with the genre. I would gripe about the omission of anything 18th century gothic novel from these lists but I won’t go there right now Needless to say, I have been looking forward to seeing Crimson Peak for more than a year and long before even an official title was given. However, as I often fear, with high expectations may come great disappointment, but I am much gratified to say that Crimson Peak is anything but disappointing.

Guillermo del Toro has frequently impressed me with his ability to convey genuine character in his films, a talent I attribute to his great passion not only for film but for literature. Even though I have technically enjoyed his films ever since I saw Mimic as a child and Hellboy later on as an adolescent, it wasn’t until I listened to his commentary to The Devil’s Backbone that I became thoroughly convinced of his capabilities. Though a number of his fans have dismissed his Hellboy films as inferior to the emotional depth of Pan’s Labyrinth, I believe both of equal merit, though they differ in aesthetic and dramatic qualities. As one studying psychology, I can more readily recognize the sign of emotional depth than the average film critic, whose abilities of appraisal seem to rest more on the flimsy criteria of conventional technique than intelligent insight …. but I digress. Like his other films, del Toro’s newest compares very favorably with his previous efforts and manages to be both entertaining and emotion effective.

Apart from the more apparent gothic trappings–such as the crumbling mansion, ghosts, Byronic hero, and intrepid heroine–the attitudes of the film, expressed both through its photography and characters, is thoroughly true to the ideas and sensibilities of the Romantic movement. The decaying home of Alderdale Hall, colorfully nicknamed “Crimson peak” for the blood-red clay inundating the soil beneath it and even the walls themselves, is imbued with the same ominously sublime character which Radcliffe gave to the castle of Udolpho. The house becomes far more than a thing, a glorious though decrepit gothic revival rivaling even the greatest architectural excesses of the Gilded Age, and reflects, with terrific effect, the evil deeds committed within its antique walls. Lucille Sharpe muses on the fragility of beauty as she holds a dying buttery in her hands, while her brother pointedly compares of the bitterness of the tea to the barren and desolate landscape surrounding the house, which can bear neither crop not hope. It is this that make the horrors of Crimson peak truly terrifying; without it the film would feel hollow and vapid.

Also true to the roots of the genre, is its finely wrought suspense, filled with terrible secrets and hidden agendas. The film truly surprised me many times and felt real, even despite its almost fanatic setting. Although, given my fondness for the genre, my reaction might be more correctly considered a matter of taste. In the language of the 18th centuries critics, I found it wholly probable, a fittingly appropriate portrayal of human psychology and the supernatural. Despite the forwarding of other critics, I found the film genuinely scary and quite disturbing, though perhaps for reasons many other might bot be easily affected by.

Without giving too much away, I can say that at the heart of Crimson peak is uncountable passion and the tragedy that inevitably befalls those who cannot mediates their passions. I found it distributing for the same reason I found Stephan King’s Misery disturbing. It is hard for me to easily hate someone when my heart is moved to pity them yet knowing that nothing but their own actions have condemned them and that nothing can change it. It is rare for me to cry in response to a film but the climax overwhelmed me with such sadness I could not help but do so.

To end on a more pleasant note, I would also like to commend to the building set and costume designs. Oh, and Tom Hiddleston’s bare behind. As a gay man who grew up with films featuring gratuitous female nudity and little, or no, male nudity, it was a refreshing change to see. I’m sure many would agree, if only to express their fondness for Hiddleston and his physical attributes.