The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

The Mysteries of Udolpho
Ann Radcliffe
England, 1794

The dawn, which softened the scenery with its peculiar grey tint, now dispersed, and Emily watched the progress of the day, first trembling on the tops of the highest cliffs, then touching them with splendid light, while their sides and the vale below were still wrapt in dewy mist. Meanwhile, the sullen grey of the eastern clouds began to blush, then to redden, and then to glow with a thousand colours, till the golden light darted over all the air, touched the lower points of the mountain’s brow, and glanced in long sloping beams upon the valley and its stream. All nature seems to have awakened from death into life; the spirit of St. Aubert was renovated. His heart was full; he wept, and his thoughts ascended to the Great Creator. (37, Volume 1, Chapter 4)

I sat down to The Mysteries of Udolpho expecting one thing but getting another.  Knowing it to be advertised as a “Gothic novel,” and having read others in the genre from around the same  era (The Castle of Otranto and Castle of Wolfenbach), I was anticipating something more fast-paced, silly, and perhaps containing actual supernatural elements. True, it remains within many of the Gothic tropes (innocent and vulnerable young heroine, remote locales, a dilapidated Gothic castle, a brooding villain), but it also explains away any seemingly supernatural elements and leans heavily on the Romantic side of its personality with the Natural World becoming almost a character in its own right. In short, it reminds me more of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein than Horace Walpole’s Otranto, a comparison I had not anticipated.

I also had reason to expect it to be more “horrid”–and more of a 20th century style thriller–because of Jane Austen. Namely, Northanger Abbey. Any number of Gothic novels are referenced in Austen’s early novel, but Udolpho looms larger than the others, as Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Moreland discuss it avidly, with Isabelle vowing not to reveal the mystery of the “black veil” for anything in the world. But it was not Northanger Abbey I thought of as I read Udolopho. It was Sense and Sensibility. Yes, Northanger Abbey is known as a parody of Udolpho (and other Gothic novels). But the concerns of Sense and Sensibility, the tension between the Romantic natures and feelings (sensibility) of Marianne and the good sense and reasoning of Elinor, are reflected throughout Udolpho. In some ways, the entire novel is an argument in favor of tempering (or overwhelming) one’s sensibility with good sense, and heroine Emily St. Aubert is seemingly an amalgamation of the two Dashwood sisters. She aspires to the sense of Elinor while her nature inclines her to the sensibility of Marianne. But to read it thus is to go backwards. No, Radcliffe came before Austen, so it is Elinor and Marianne that appear distilled from Emily, two characters of an argument that was clearly already in progress a decade before Sense and Sensibility was published.

“All excess is vicious; even that sorrow, which is amiable in its origin, becomes a selfish and unjust passion, if indulged at the expence of our duties–by our duties I mean what we owe to ourselves, as well as to others. The indulgence of excessive grief enervates the mind, and almost incapacitates it for again partaking of those various innocent enjoyments which a benevolent God designed to be the sun-shine of our lives. My dear Emily, recollect and practise the precepts I have so often given you, and which your own experience has so often shewn you to be wise.” (St. Aubert, Volume 1, Chapter 2)

Although the 21st century reader may be at times pressed to sympathize with Emily’s plight (I may have thought “can’t she grow a spine already!” at one particular moment of exasperation), the reader realizes that Emily is continually–and as the novel progresses, more often successfully–endeavoring to live by her father’s teachings to moderate her passions, to have strength of character. This strength of character, glimpsed even early, proves essential to Emily’s ultimate fate.

“Never, till this evening did I know what true devotion is; for, never before did I see the sun sink below the vast earth! To-morrow, for the first time in my life, I will see it rise. O, who would live in Paris, to look upon black walls and dirty streets, when, in the country, they might gaze on the blue heavens, and all the green earth!” (Blanche, Volume 3, Chapter 10)

But Radcliffe and Austen, though writing in overlapping eras, are writing from different perspectives. I have never once thought of Austen as a Romantic writer. Radcliffe clearly is. Nature and setting are of supreme importance. The isolation of location is, of course, essential to the plot points. But nature is also used to illuminate character. The “good” characters, that is those we should root for and sympathize with, are all drawn to nature, and appreciate its wonders and beauties, even in the most (naturally) dangerous locales, while the “bad” characters (okay, fine, some of these characters actually are reprehensible or evil people–but not all of them) tend to disregard the natural world, or see it as an inconvenience. A retreat in the country = good; a sojourn in the big city = bad. An interesting dichotomy, and perhaps the defining characteristic of Romanticism.

Thanks to Cleo at Classical Carousel for hosting the readalong! I would not have picked up The Mysteries of Udolpho nearly as soon as I did were it not for her. Much enjoyed. Though now I find myself with a strange hankering for more Austen?

I read  The Mysteries of Udolpho as part of a readalong, as part of my “Sensation!” project list, for “Written by a Woman” for Back to the Classics and “Over 500 pages” for Reading the Classics.

Anyone for a RAL?

It’s inevitable – no matter how lousy the reading’s been, no matter how many books are currently in the TBR stack next to my reading chair – come December (if not earlier), I’m thinking about the next year. What wondrous reading will be then? Admit it – you do it too. All those lovely end-of-year lists/goals/dreams. Truly, one of the highlights of December for me! (Can you tell I’m a planner/list-maker?)

So yes, I already have a pretty good idea of what I’m planning on for next year. And while I usually wait to share until either a) I’m signing up for a challenge I likely won’t actually complete or b) my end of year post, I thought there was one plan that I should mention early. Actually, a non-plan as well: I currently have no plans to continue the Children’s Classic Literature Event for a sixth year. If anyone else wants to host a similar event, please feel free (and I may even read along), but I won’t be hosting one.

A Wrinkle In Time Movie Poster (low res)

However. I am planning some Madeline L’Engle reading for next year, starting with a reread of A Wrinkle in Time. Yes, of course this is because of the upcoming film adaptation. And the fact that I asked for and received a box set of the Time Quintet books several years ago and still haven’t (re)read them. And then I thought, “hey, there’s a movie coming out–maybe I’m not the only one who wants to (re)read this?” So let me know if you think you might want to read along – if there’s enough interest in a A Wrinkle in Time RAL prior to the March release (I’m thinking January), I’d be willing to host. Alternatively, if there’s already a RAL planned/running, please point me that direction as I haven’t found it yet!

Now, just to clear the deck off first…

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland RAL

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland RAL April 2017

It’s here, time for discussion of our thoughts on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland! If you’ve never read Alice before (or are more familiar with any of the several film adaptations), was there anything that surprised you? Did you feel as lost as Alice? What just is this book about? Leave links to your posts in the comments, or feel free to discuss below.

Coming Soon: Classic Children’s Lit Event, 5

2017-ral-original

I’ve been more absent from here lately than I’d like–it seems like February is just a month that I don’t get along with. But now it’s March, the sun is shinning (and it’s supposed to be half-way warm this week!), and that means the 5th edition of the Classic Children’s Literature Event is just around the corner: April–less than a month away! I can’t believe this is the 5th year.

alice-original

As in years past, I will be reading an optional readalong title. I really waffled over what to pick this year, but finally opted for one of the runners up from last year’s poll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s been many, many years since I last/first read this–I believe in fourth grade, so I don’t remember it all that well other than that’s is odd, something that must surely appeal to many, as evidenced by the recent movie adaptations (confession: I haven’t actually seen them). Although I have an illustrated version that also contains Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, I decided to pick up The Annotated Alice from the library. Still a coin toss as to which book I’ll read from.

Event Basics

  • During the month of April, read as many Children’s Classics as you wish and post about them on your blog and/or leave a comment on the event page on this blog. I will have a link page starting the first of April to gather posts so that we may share as we go.
  • The optional RAL title: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. (Optional: also read Through the Looking-Glass. I’m guessing I won’t get through both.) I plan on discussion the weekend of April 21-23.
  • I’m not going to be the “children’s classics” police. Use your own judgement for what fits the category but if you want some guidelines, these are what I’m going by:
    • I think many of us have read more recent children’s books that we may already deem “classics” (for example, many people feel that way about the Harry Potter books), but for this event, I’d prefer if we read books that were written prior to 1967. This will still allow a lot of options, and will hopefully avoid the “but what is a classic” dilemma! (And yes, 1967 is rather arbitrary. Rebel if you wish, but 50 years old seems a good age.)
    • Defining “children’s,” especially prior to 1900 or so can be a challenge as some books we think of as “children’s” today may not have been intended that way at the time. Personally, I’d say books appropriate for approximately an elementary-school aged child or preteen (to read or to have read to them) should be fine. I’d personally also count the various fairy tales, even though some of the earliest versions were not exactly family friendly.
    • Feel free to include books from any country, in translation or not. I have limited exposure to non-American children’s lit, so I’d love to learn about books from other countries myself.
    • Feel free to double up with other events or challenges if you wish.
  • And if you need ideas I posted
  • There is no deadline for joining or participating (other than, of course, the end of April).

Most important: Have fun!

Please let me–and other participants–know in the comments of this post if you are interested in participating, and let me know if you have any questions. Also, please feel free to use any of the event/RAL images on your own blogs.

Classic Children's Literature Event April 2017 300px

Classic Children's Literature Event April 2017 250px

Classic Children's Literature Event April 2017 200px

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland RAL April 2017 300px

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland RAL April 2017 250px

Happy reading!

Participants:

Image sources: The event logo illustration is “Merry Christmas” from The Way to Wonderland (1917, Mary Stewart), illustrated  by Jessie Wilcox Smith (1863-1935). The RAL logo illustration is from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865, Lewis Carroll), 1907 edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Completed: Emil and the Detectives

Emil and the DetectivesEmil and the Detectives [Emil und die Detektive]
Erich Kästner
(1929, Germany)
Eileen Hall, translator
Walter Trier, illustrations

’Oh he’ll like Berlin, I’m sure of that,’ declared Mrs. Wirth from the depths of the wash-basin. ‘It’s just made of children. We went there the year before last for the skittle club outing. My word, but it’s a noisy place! Do you know—some of the streets were as light at night as during the day. And the traffic! My, what a lot of cars!’ (Chapter 1)

Emil and the Detectives starts out deceptively, Emil carrying the water jug and his mother washing her client’s hair—a scene of domestic tranquility, nothing of adventures in sight. Yet this opening chapter, slow by current standards, is our introduction to Emil and his character: he is obedient and polite, determined to do right by his mother. Which is why it is so important to Emil, when the one thing she warns him against happens, losing the money she gives him for his grandmother, that he make it right. Especially since he feels particularly wronged; he didn’t lose the money, it was stolen from him after he fell asleep on the train, despite all his precautions, both to protect the money and stay awake. It is from this point that the story takes off; Emil soon meets up with a group of boys who upon learning his story are only too happy to help him chase down and trap the thief. His cousin, Pony, the only girl in the story, makes occasional appearances with her new bike—which she is only too eager to show off—functioning as messenger or go-between with Emil’s adult relatives. We also see other aspects of Emil’s character–his determination to right a wrong, a bit of temper (he nearly fights the first boy he meets), and a hint of mischief: he believes he can’t go to the police, because he chalked a statue at home and believes the Berlin police will surely learn of it and accuse him of stealing the money!

I’m really not quite sure what I expected from this classic from 1920s Germany. Perhaps more of a mystery, but the detective work in this story is tailing a known suspect, not discovering “whodunit.” Of course, this makes for an exciting adventure, and the reader never really cares that we know the thief already or that we feel fairly assured of a positive outcome. After all, there are still plenty of twists and turns and we can’t be sure, exactly, how the boys will manager to confront the thief and reclaim Emil’s money.

A German writer, Kästner would some years after writing this children’s tale watch the Nazis burn many of his books, including the sequel Emil and the Three Twins. But they didn’t include Emil and the Detectives, in part because of of its popularity. It’s been adapted for several film versions, including multiple German versions and the 1964 Disney adaptation, as well as a UK stage production.

Emil and the Detectives Readalong April 2016 - 300px wide

As well as reading this for the readalong, it also counts as one of my titles for the Books in Translation Challenge 2016.