Bibliomania: Oxford English Novels

From the 1964 to 1976, Oxford University Press printed a series of classic English-language novels. The Oxford English Novels series comprised many well-known and lesser known classics spanning nearly two centuries. For those familiar with the current and long-running Oxford World’s Classics series, the Oxford English Novels is very similar. They are scholarly texts, including informative introductions, extensive notes, and bibliographies. The texts themselves are excellently put together, as one would expect of the Oxford University Press, but what really interests about this series is the format. Unlike the soft-cover World’s Classics, the Oxford English Novels series are all hardcover and feature colorful dustjackets.

The Oxford English Novels series first came to my attention while I was searching the internet for a hardcover edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho. After a few dispointing purchases, I finally stumbled across the website for a small used book store in Oakland, which had a number of book from the series on sale. Plus, unlike most sellers on Amazon, they provided photos of each book. I bought their copy of The Mysteries of Udolpho with little hesitation and in a few weeks times, I also bough their copies of Pompey the Little, The Old English Baron, The Italian, Emmeline, Vathek, and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. 

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Later on, I collected other editions from Amazon and other online booksellers, including: A Journal of the Plague Year, The Old Manor House, The Castle of Otranto, Melmoth the Wanderer, The Man of Feeling, Mary and The Wrongs of Woman, and The Female Quixote.

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Many of the books from this series can be found easily online and for good prices but more popular works tend to be rarer and go for high prices when they are. (I was very lucky to find Melmoth the Wanderer for $25 and I’m very glad I got it when I did.) They are worth getting when the price is right and if you, like me, love beautiful hardcover editions.

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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.