Sunday, February 23, 2020

Classic Ghost Story Writers: Ann Radcliffe

Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823)

There's an excellent story about Ann Radcliffe quoted in Devendra P. Varma's introduction to the Folio Society reprint of her very first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne: A Highland Story (1789):
Fantasies gathered around Mrs Radcliffe's later life. As the years rolled by in silence, various rumours floated on the wind. It was suggested that she was away in Italy gathering materials for a new romance. ... Another persistent report was that she had been driven insane by her own ghostly creations and confined to an asylum. A minor poet of the time rushed into print an 'Ode to Mrs Radcliffe on her lunacy.' It was often openly asserted that she was dead, and obituary notices appeared in some newspapers. The fun of it all is that she did not trouble to contradict more than one of the misleading reports. In an amazing anecdote narrated by Aline Grant, the biographer of Mrs Radcliffe, Robert Will, a hack writer, approached Cadell the publisher after a report of the novelist's death and offered him a romance - The Grave - under the name of The late Mrs Radcliffe. Consequently advertisements appeared in the newspapers.

Amused by this ridiculous news, Mrs Radcliffe arrived one evening at Soho Square and silently climbed the steep steps to Robert Will's attic. Opening the door noiselessly she stepped into a small chamber hung with black and decorated with skull, bones and other graveyard trappings. An hourglass stood upon a coffin and crossed-swords and a poniard adorned a side table. A young man in monk's garb was feverishly plying his quill in the light of a guttering candle.

Mrs Radcliffe seated herself in a chair opposite him, and whispered, 'Robert Will, what are you doing here?' The young man's hair stood on end with fright as he viewed the pale apparition opposite, ghastly in the flickering light. Her thin, white hand stretched out slowly, took the manuscript and held it over the candle flames. When it was reduced to ashes, the visitor glided out of the room as silently as she entered. Next day the terrified Robert Will rushed to inform the publisher that the ghost of Mrs Radcliffe had burned the manuscript. [x-xi]
Se non è vero, è ben trovato, as the Italians put it - even if it's not true, it's well conceived. The story may be a bit hard to believe, but at least it paints her as a rather less solemn and humourless character than one might otherwise have expected, given her somewhat ponderous prose style.

Of course, Ann Radcliffe's main claim to fame and the attention of posterity lies in Jane Austen's decision to guy the former's style and approach to fiction in Northanger Abbey, her own first novel, completed in 1803, but not published until after Austen's death in 1817.

The two are portrayed as meeting for a bit of a heart-to-heart in the 2007 film Becoming Jane, but there's no real evidence that this ever happened. It's rather sad to think that Radcliffe may have lived to read this parody of her early style, given the fact that Austen, her junior by more than a decade, actually predeceased her by six years. Talk about outliving your own fame!

The comparative crudity of Northanger Abbey has led some to underrate it by comparison with Austen's more mature romances. I remember once trying to persuade a tutorial class that the approach she had chosen was very similar to that employed by the - then current - Clint Eastwood film Unforgiven. They remained unconvinced (though, to do them justice, I doubt many of them had more than a superficial acquaintance with the classic westerns the film was parodying).

Unforgiven (1992)

As in most Clint Eastwood films, the main character, William Munny, is a superman who is able to mow down a whole saloon full of murdering hoodlums at the climax of the picture. Since it also aspires to be a 'realistic,' 'revisionist' western, this had to seem plausible in context.

The author of the screenplay, David Webb Peoples, accomplished this in a most elegant way:

  • First, by introducing a subplot about 'English Bob,' a murderous British bounty hunter (played by Richard Harris), who claims - mendaciously - to be a Duke, and who goes about accompanied by his biographer, W. W. Beauchamp, a naive hack whose job is to churn out an endless series of dime romances, with titles such as The Duke of Death, celebrating his employer. The sillier aspects of these books are relished greatly by Bob's nemesis, Sheriff 'Little Bill' Daggett (played by Gene Hackman), who takes it upon himself to instruct Beauchamp in the 'true' nature of frontier conflict.

  • Next, by peppering the second half of the film with anecdotes (mostly told by Little Bill) stressing how difficult it is to aim in the heat of the moment, how few bullets actually find a target, and the fact that even shooting a man in the back from a few feet away is far easier to accomplish in theory than in practice.

The film thereby sets up its own rival paradigms of truth and fiction. Fiction is the world of the dime novels, the inexhaustible six-guns, the dead-eyed marksmen, the ridiculously long odds in each mortal conflict. Truth (or should we say verisimilitude?) is the world of the movie itself: the mud, the filth, the racism and corruption of lawmen such as Little Bill, the easy victimisation of the innocent (such as the town whores), as well as the vicious amorality of mercenaries such as Munny.

And yet, in the final analysis, Clint Eastwood's character is as noble, straight-shooting, and basically invulnerable as any gunslinger in history! But we've been set up in advance to see this as believable because it is at least tangentially more realistic than The Duke of Death ...

Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey (1817)

I trust you see the analogy with Northanger Abbey? My students didn't. In short, then, Austen carefully sets up a fantasy realm in Catherine Morland's head, constructed of details from the Gothic novels she delights in reading (the more 'horrid' the better).

In this world, mysterious treasure-chests, floating apparitions and spectres, wicked noblemen, and imprisoned nuns are all commonplaces. She therefore assumes that a place so romantically named as 'Northanger Abbey' must be a positive hotbed of such things.

The truth of the matter, however, is that General Tilney, whom she falsely suspects of having murdered or imprisoned his own wife, is actually a far more commonplace thing: a money-grubbing snob who turns her out of doors as soon as he discovers her lack of funds.

The dramatic nature of Catherine's expulsion from the castle, and the unlikeliness of level-headed Henry Tilney sacrificing his future inheritance to win her hand, are thus (in their turn) rendered plausible by their contrast with the sheer absurdity of her Gothic imaginings.

In other words, a very unlikely rags-to-riches romance is made into a persuasively realistic-seeming piece of narrative by constantly contrasting it with another set of - patently ridiculous - fictional assumptions.

Northanger Editions of Jane Austen's Horrid Novels (Folio Society, 1968):
Castle of Wolfenbach
The Necromancer
The Mysterious Warning
The Orphan of the Rhine
Horrid Mysteries
The Midnight Bell

in other words, there is no realism to be found in fiction except by contrast. Things do not unfold in reality the way they do in stories because, just as there are no straight lines in nature, there are no real narratives (with well-defined beginnings, middles, and ends), in the world around us.

To give our audiences - in whatever narrative genre - a sense of reality, we are forced to include elements sufficiently discordant with what they are used to encountering in stories (details such as the description of Leopold Bloom's bowel movements in the early pages of Ulysses, or the inordinate factual information in Zola-esque naturalism) to make them feel that they've somehow escaped from the tropes they're already so familiar with.

Since this is, in actuality, no more than a trick, it's necessary to keep on changing it up. For a while, simply breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging the illusory nature of the story we were being told was enough to recapture our attention (witness the work of Milan Kundera or Italo Calvino), but such techniques get steadily less effective over time.

What, then, of Ann Radcliffe herself? Was she really the naive and childish narrator pilloried by so many Austen critics, or did she have her own native sophistication as a narrative theorist?

What she's most famous for, of course, is providing - eventually - naturalistic explanations for all the apparently supernatural phenomena in her stories.

Stephen King: Danse Macabre (1981)

In Danse Macabre, his classic history / meditation on the whole horror genre, Stephen King explains succinctly just what's at stake when you make such decisions:
Nothing is so frightening as what's behind the closed door ... The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. 'A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible', the audience thinks, 'but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall'.

... the artistic work of horror is almost always a disappointment. It is the classic no-win situation. You can scare people with the unknown for a long, long time ... but sooner or later, as in poker, you have to turn your down cards up. You have to open the door and show the audience what's behind it ... The thing is - and a pretty good thing for the human race, too, with such neato-keeno things to deal with as Dachau, Hiroshima, the Children's Crusade, mass starvation in Cambodia ... - the human consciousness can deal with almost anything ... which leaves the writer or director of the horror tale with a problem which is the psychological equivalent of inventing a faster-than-light space drive in the face of E=MC2.

There is and always has been a school of horror writers (I am not among them - it is playing to tie rather than to win) who believe that the way to beat this rap is never to open the door at all. [114-15]
Only in her very last book, Gaston de Blondeville, written in 1802 but not published until three years after her death, in 1826 - a little like Northanger Abbey (1803/1817) itself, in fact - did Ann Radcliffe commit herself to a genuine spook. And even that may have been because the book was more of a private jeu-d'esprit than a commercial opus meant for publication.

Tzvetan Todorov: The Fantastic (1975)

Mind you, there are other ways to read it. As I explained in my previous post on E. T. A. Hoffmann, in his classic book on the Fantastic as a literary genre, Bulgarian critic Tzvetan Todorov explains how essential this moment of doubt and trepidation before the closed door is to a clear understanding of the form itself:
The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighbouring genre, the uncanny or the marvellous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.
Ann Radcliffe is the prophet and lawgiver of this necessarily fleeting sense of the uncanny - acknowledged as such by Todorov and other European critics who've always showed her considerably more respect than her Austen-influenced compatriots.
As a child the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky was deeply impressed by Radcliffe. In Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863) he writes, "I used to spend the long winter hours before bed listening (for I could not yet read), agape with ecstasy and terror, as my parents read aloud to me from the novels of Ann Radcliffe. Then I would rave deliriously about them in my sleep."
Perhaps, then, it might be as well to give the last word to Radcliffe herself:
O! useful may it be to have shewn, that, though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!

And, if the weak hand, that has recorded this tale, has, by its scenes, beguiled the mourner of one hour of sorrow, or, by its moral, taught him to sustain it — the effort, however humble, has not been vain, nor is the writer unrewarded.
― Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho

The Complete Novels of Mrs Ann Radcliffe (Folio Society, 1987)

Ann Radcliffe

  1. The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne: A Highland Story. 1789. Introduction by Devendra P. Varma. Wood Engraving by Sarah van Niekerk. The Complete Novels of Mrs Ann Radcliffe, 1. London: The Folio Society, 1987.

  2. A Sicilian Romance. 1790. Introduction by Devendra P. Varma. Wood Engraving by Sarah van Niekerk. The Complete Novels of Mrs Ann Radcliffe, 2. London: The Folio Society, 1987.

  3. The Romance of the Forest. 1791. Introduction by Devendra P. Varma. Wood Engraving by Sarah van Niekerk. The Complete Novels of Mrs Ann Radcliffe, 3. London: The Folio Society, 1987.

  4. The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry. 1794. Ed. Bonamy Debrée. Notes by Frederick Garber. 1966. Oxford English Novels. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

  5. The Italian, or The Confessional of the Black Penitents: A Romance. 1797. Ed. Frederick Garber. 1968. Oxford English Novels. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

  6. Gaston de Blondeville, or The Court of Henry the Third Keeping Festival in Arden. 1826. Introduction by Devendra P. Varma. Wood Engraving by Sarah van Niekerk. The Complete Novels of Mrs Ann Radcliffe, 6. London: The Folio Society, 1987.

Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1803)

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