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his actual accomplishments, that Drake is worthy of remembrance.


The enthusiasm which greeted Walpole's enchanted castle and Miss
Reeve's carefully manipulated ghost, indicated an eager desire
for a new type of fiction in which the known and familiar were
superseded by the strange and supernatural. To meet this end Mrs.
Radcliffe suddenly came forward with her attractive store of
mysteries, and it was probably her timely appearance that saved
the Gothic tale from an early death. The vogue of the novel of
terror, though undoubtedly stimulated by German influence, was
mainly due to her popularity and success. The writers of the
first half of the nineteenth century abound in references to her
works,[34] and she thus still enjoys a shadowy, ghost-like
celebrity. Many who have never had the curiosity to explore the
labyrinths of the underground passages, with which her castles
are invariably honeycombed, or who have never shuddered with
apprehension before the "black veil," know of their existence
through _Northanger Abbey_, and have probably also read how
Thackeray at school amused himself and his friends by drawing
illustrations of Mrs. Radcliffe's novels.

Of Mrs. Radcliffe's life few facts are known, and Christina
Rossetti, one of her many admirers, was obliged, in 1883, to
relinquish the plan of writing her biography, because the
materials were so scanty.[35] From the memoir prefixed to the
posthumous volumes, published in 1826, containing _Gaston de
Blondeville_, and various poems, we learn that she was born in
1764, the very year in which Walpole issued _The Castle of
Otranto_, and that her maiden name was Ann Ward. In 1787 she
married William Radcliffe, an Oxford graduate and a student of
law, who became editor of a weekly newspaper, _The English
Chronicle_. Her life was so secluded that biographers did not
hesitate to invent what they could not discover. The legend that
she was driven frantic by the horrors that she had conjured up
was refuted after her death.

It may have been the publication of _The Recess_ by Sophia Lee in
1785 that inspired Mrs. Radcliffe to try her fortune with a
historical novel. _The Recess_ is a story of languid interest,
circling round the adventures of the twin daughters of Mary Queen
of Scots and the Duke of Norfolk. Yet as we meander gently
through its mazes we come across an abbey "of Gothic elegance and
magnificence," a swooning heroine who plays the lute,
thunderstorms, banditti and even an escape in a coffin - items
which may well have attracted the notice of Mrs. Radcliffe, whose
first novel, _The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne_,[36] appeared
in 1789. Considered historically, this immature work is full of
interest, for, with the notable exception of the supernatural, it
contains in embryo nearly all the elements of Mrs. Radcliffe's
future novels.

The scene is laid in Scotland, and the period, we are assured, is
that of the "dark ages"; but almost at the outset we are startled
rudely from our dreams of the mediaeval by the statement that

"the wrongfully imprisoned earl, when the sweet
tranquillity of evening threw an air of tender
melancholy over his mind ... composed the following
sonnet, which, having committed it to paper, he, the
next evening dropped upon the terrace."

The sonnet consists of four heroic quatrains somewhat curiously
resembling the manner of Gray. From this episode it may be
gathered that Mrs. Radcliffe did not aim at, or certainly did not
achieve, historical accuracy, but evolved most of her
descriptions, not from original sources in ancient documents, but
from her own inner consciousness. It was only in her last
novel - _Gaston de Blondeville_ - that she made use of old
chronicles. Within the Scottish castle we meet a heroine with an
"expression of pensive melancholy" and a "smile softly clouded
with sorrow," a noble lord deprived of his rights by a villain
"whose life is marked with vice and whose death with the
bitterness of remorse." But these grey and ghostly shadows, who
flit faintly through our imagination, are less prophetic of
coming events than the properties with which the castle is
endowed, a secret but accidently discovered panel, a trap-door,
subterranean vaults, an unburied corpse, a suddenly extinguished
lamp and a soft-toned lute - a goodly heritage from _The Castle of
Otranto_. The situations which a villain of Baron Malcolm's type
will inevitably create are dimly shadowed forth and involve, ere
the close, the hairbreadth rescue of a distressed maiden, the
reinstatement of the lord in his rights, and the identification
of the long-lost heir by the convenient and time-honoured
"strawberry mark." These promising materials are handled in a
childish fashion. The faintly pencilled outlines, the
characterless figures, the nerveless structure, give little
presage of the boldly effective scenery, the strong delineations
and the dexterously managed plots of the later novels. The
gradual, steady advance in skill and power is one of the most
interesting features of Mrs. Radcliffe's work. Few could have
guessed from the slight sketch of Baron Malcolm, a merely slavish
copy of the traditional villain, that he was to be the ancestor
of such picturesque and romantic creatures as Montoni and

This tentative beginning was quickly followed by the more
ambitious _Sicilian Romance_ (1790), in which we are transported
to the palace of Ferdinand, fifth Marquis of Mazzini, on the
north coast of Sicily. This time the date is fixed officially at
1580. The Marquis has one son and two daughters, the children of
his first wife, who has been supplanted by a beautiful but
unscrupulous successor. The first wife is reputed dead, but is,
in reality, artfully and maliciously concealed in an uninhabited
wing of the abbey. It is her presence which leads to disquieting
rumours of the supernatural. Ferdinand, the son, vainly tries to
solve the enigma of certain lights, which wander elusively about
the deserted wing, and finds himself perilously suspended, like
David Balfour in _Kidnapped_, on a decayed staircase, of which
the lower half has broken away. In this hazardous situation,
Ferdinand accidentally drops his lamp and is left in total
darkness. An hour later he is rescued by the ladies of the
castle, who, alarmed by his long absence, boldly come in search
of him with a light. During another tour of exploration he hears
a hollow groan, which, he is told, proceeds from a murdered
spirit underground, but which is eventually traced to the unhappy
marchioness. These two incidents plainly reveal that Mrs.
Radcliffe has now discovered the peculiar vein of mystery towards
which she was groping in _The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne_.
From the very first she explained away her marvels by natural
means. If we scan her romances with a coldly critical eye - an
almost criminal proceeding - obvious improbabilities start into
view. For instance, the oppressed marchioness, who has not seen
her daughter Julia since the age of two, recognises her without a
moment's hesitation at the age of seventeen, and faints in a
transport of joy. It is no small tribute to Mrs. Radcliffe's
gifts that we often accept such incidents as these without demur.
So unnerved are we by the lurking shadows, the flickering lights,
the fluttering tapestry and the unaccountable groans with which
she lowers our vitality, that we tremble and start at the wagging
of a straw, and have not the spirit, once we are absorbed into
the atmosphere of her romance, to dispute anything she would have
us believe. The interest of the _Sicilian Romance_, which is far
greater than that of her first novel, arises entirely out of the
situations. There is no gradual unfolding of character and
motive. The high-handed marquis, the jealous marchioness, the
imprisoned wife, the vapid hero, the two virtuous sisters, the
leader of the banditti, the respectable, prosy governess, are a
set of dolls fitted ingeniously into the framework of the plot.
They have more substance than the tenuous shadows that glide
through the pages of Mrs. Radcliffe's first story, but they move
only as she deftly pulls the strings that set them in motion.

In her third novel, _The Romance of the Forest_, published in
1792, Mrs. Radcliffe makes more attempt to discuss motive and to
trace the effect of circumstances on temperament. The opening
chapter is so alluring that callous indeed would be the reader
who felt no yearning to pluck out the heart of the mystery. La
Motte, a needy adventurer fleeing from justice, takes refuge on a
stormy night in a lonely, sinister-looking house. With startling
suddenness, a door bursts open, and a ruffian, putting a pistol
to La Motte's breast with one hand, and, with the other, dragging
along a beautiful girl, exclaims ferociously,

"You are wholly in our power, no assistance can reach
you; if you wish to save your life, swear that you will
convey this girl where I may never see her more... If
you return within an hour you will die."

The elucidation of this remarkable occurrence is long deferred,
for Mrs. Radcliffe appreciates fully the value of suspense in
luring on her readers, but our attention is distracted in the
meantime by a series of new events. Treasuring the unfinished
adventure in the recesses of our memory, we follow the course of
the story. When La Motte decides impulsively to reside in a
deserted abbey, "not," as he once remarks, "in all respects
strictly Gothic," but containing a trap-door and a human skeleton
in a chest, we willingly take up our abode there and wait
patiently to see what will happen. Our interest is inclined to
flag when life at the abbey seems uneventful, but we are ere long
rewarded by a visit from a stranger, whose approach flings La
Motte into so violent a state of alarm that he vanishes with
remarkable abruptness beneath a trapdoor. It proves, however,
that the intruder is merely La Motte's son, and the timid marquis
is able to emerge. Meanwhile, La Motte's wife, suspicious of her
husband's morose habits and his secret visits to a Gothic
sepulchre, becomes jealous of Adeline, the girl they have
befriended. It later transpires that La Motte has turned
highwayman and stores his booty in this secluded spot. The visits
are so closely shrouded in obscurity, and we have so exhausted
our imagination in picturing dark possibilities, that the simple
solution falls disappointingly short of our expectations. The
next thrill is produced by the arrival of two strangers, the
wicked marquis and the noble hero, without whom the tale of
characters in a novel of terror would scarcely be complete. The
emotion La Motte betrays at the sight of the marquis is due, we
are told eventually, to the fact that Montalt was the victim of
his first robbery. Adeline, meanwhile, in a dream sees a
beckoning figure in a dark cloak, a dying man imprisoned in a
darkened chamber, a coffin and a bleeding corpse, and hears a
voice from the coffin. The disjointed episodes and bewildering
incoherence of a nightmare are suggested with admirable skill,
and effectually prepare our minds for Adeline's discoveries a few
nights later. Passing through a door, concealed by the arras of
her bedroom, into a chamber like that she had seen in her sleep,
she stumbles over a rusty dagger and finds a roll of mouldering
manuscripts. This incident is robbed of its effect for readers of
_Northanger Abbey_ by insistent reminiscences of Catherine
Morland's discovery of the washing bills. But Adeline, by the
uncertain light of a candle, reads, with the utmost horror and
consternation, the harrowing life-story of her father, who has
been foully done to death by his brother, already known to us as
the unprincipled Marquis Montalt. La Motte weakly aids and abets
Montalt's designs against Adeline, and she is soon compelled to
take refuge in flight. She is captured and borne away to an
elegant villa, whence she escapes, only to be overtaken again.
Finally, Theodore arrives, as heroes will, in the nick of time,
and wounds his rival. Adeline finds a peaceful home in the
chateau of M. La Luc, who proves to be Theodore's father. Here
the reader awaits impatiently the final solution of the plot.
Once we have been inmates of a Gothic abbey, life in a Swiss
chateau, however idyllic, is apt to seem monotonous. In time Mrs.
Radcliffe administers justice. The marquis takes poison; La Motte
is banished but reforms; and Adeline, after dutifully burying her
father's skeleton in the family vault, becomes mistress of the
abbey, but prefers to reside in a _ch√Ґlet_ on the banks of Lake

Although the _Romance of the Forest_ is considerably shorter than
the later novels, the plot, which is full of ingenious
complications, is unfolded in the most leisurely fashion. Mrs.
Radcliffe's tantalising delays quicken our curiosity as
effectively as the deliberate calm of a _raconteur_, who, with a
view to heightening his artistic effect, pauses to light a pipe
at the very climax of his story. Suspense is the key-note of the
romance. The characters are still subordinate to incident, but La
Motte and his wife claim our interest because they are exhibited
in varying moods. La Motte has his struggles and, like Macbeth,
is haunted by compunctious visitings of nature. Unlike the
thorough-paced villain, who glories in his misdeeds, he is
worried and harassed, and takes no pleasure in his crimes. Madame
La Motte is not a jealous woman from beginning to end like the
marchioness in the _Sicilian Romance_. Her character is moulded
to some extent by environment. She changes distinctly in her
attitude to Adeline after she has reason to suspect her husband.
Mrs. Radcliffe's psychology is neither subtle nor profound, but
the fact that psychology is there in the most rudimentary form is
a sign of her progress in the art of fiction. Theodore is as
insipid as the rest of Mrs. Radcliffe's heroes, who are
distinguishable from one another only by their names, and Adeline
is perhaps a shade more emotional and passionless than Emily and
Ellena in _The Mysteries of Udolpho_ and _The Italian_. The
lachrymose maiden in _The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne_, who
can assume at need "an air of offended dignity," is a preliminary
sketch of Julia, Emily and Ellena in the later novels. Mrs.
Radcliffe's heroines resemble nothing more than a composite
photograph in which all distinctive traits are merged into an
expressionless "type." They owe something no doubt to
Richardson's _Clarissa Harlowe_, but their feelings are not so
minutely analysed. Their lady-like accomplishments vary slightly.
In reflective mood one may lightly throw off a sonnet to the
sunset or to the nocturnal gale, while another may seek refuge in
her water-colours or her lute. They are all dignified and
resolute in the most distressing situations, yet they weep and
faint with wearisome frequency. Their health and spirits are as
precarious as their easily extinguished candles. Yet these
exquisitely sensitive, well-bred heroines alienate our sympathy
by their impregnable self-esteem, a disconcerting trait which
would certainly have exasperated heroes less perfect and more
human than Mrs. Radcliffe's Theodores and Valancourts. Their
sorrows never rise to tragic heights, because they are only
passive sufferers, and the sympathy they would win as pathetic
figures is obliterated by their unfailing consciousness of their
own rectitude. In describing Adeline, Mrs. Radcliffe attempts an
unusually acute analysis:

"For many hours she busied herself upon a piece of work
which she had undertaken for Madame La Motte, but this
she did without the least intention of conciliating her
favour, but because she felt there was something in
thus repaying unkindness, which was suited to her own
temper, her sentiments and her pride. Self-love may be
the centre around which human affections move, for
whatever motive conduces to self-gratification may be
resolved into self-love, yet, some of these affections
are in their nature so refined that, though we cannot
deny their origin, they almost deserve the name of
virtue: of this species was that of Adeline."

It is characteristic of Mrs. Radcliffe's tendency to overlook the
obvious in searching for the subtle, that the girl who feels
these recondite emotions expresses slight embarrassment when
unceremoniously flung on the protection of strangers. Emily, in
_The Mysteries of Udolpho_, possesses the same protective armour
as Adeline. When she is abused by Montoni, "Her heart swelled
with the consciousness of having deserved praise instead of
censure, and was proudly silent"; or again, in _The Italian_,

"Ellena was the more satisfied with herself because she
had never for an instant forgotten her dignity so far
as to degenerate into the vehemence of passion or to
falter with the weakness of fear."

Her father, M. St. Aubert, on his deathbed, bids Emily beware of
"priding herself on the gracefulness of sensibility."

Fortunately the heroine is merely a figurehead in _The Mysteries
of Udolpho_ (1794). The change of title is significant. The two
previous works have been romances, but it is now Mrs. Radcliffe's
intention to let herself go further in the direction of wonder
and suspense than she had hitherto ventured. She is like Scythrop
in _Nightmare Abbey_, of whom it was said:

"He had a strong tendency to love of mystery for its
own sake; that is to say, he would employ mystery to
serve a purpose, but would first choose his purpose by
its capability of mystery."

Yet Mrs. Radcliffe, at the opening of her story, is sparing in
her use of supernatural elements. We live by faith, and are drawn
forward by the hope of future mystifications. In the first volume
we saunter through idyllic scenes of domestic happiness in the
Chateau le Vert and wander with Emily and her dying father
through the Apennines, with only faint suggestions of excitement
to come. The second volume plunges us _in medias res_. The aunt,
to whose care Emily is entrusted, has imprudently married a
tempestuous tyrant, Montoni, who, to further his own ends,
hurries his wife and niece from the gaiety of Venice to the gloom
of Udolpho. After a journey fraught with terror, amid rugged,
lowering mountains and through dusky woods, we reach the castle
of Udolpho at nightfall. The sombre exterior and the shadow
haunted hall are so ominous that we are prepared for the worst
when we enter its portals. The anticipation is half pleasurable,
half fearful, as we shudder at the thought of what may befall us
within its walls. At every turn something uncanny shakes our
overwrought nerves; the sighing of the wind, the echo of distant
footsteps, lurking shadows, gliding forms, inexplicable groans,
mysterious music torture the sensitive imagination of Emily, who
is mercilessly doomed to sleep in a deserted apartment with a
door, which, as so often in the novel of terror, bolts only on
the outside. More nerve wracking than the unburied corpse or even
than the ineffable horror concealed behind the black veil are the
imaginary, impalpable terrors that seize on Emily's tender fancy
as she crosses the hall on her way to solve the riddle of her
aunt's disappearance:

"Emily, deceived by the long shadows of the pillars and
by the catching lights between, often stopped,
imagining that she saw some person moving in the
distant obscurity...and as she passed these pillars she
feared to turn her eyes towards them, almost expecting
to see a figure start from behind their broad shaft."

Torn from the context, this passage no longer congeals us with
terror, but in its setting it conveys in a wonderfully vivid
manner the tricks of a feverish imagination. So exhaustive - and
exhausting - are the mysteries of Udolpho that it was a mistake to
introduce another haunted castle, le Blanc, as an appendix.

Mrs. Radcliffe's long deferred explanations of what is apparently
supernatural have often been adversely criticised. Her method
varies considerably. Sometimes we are enlightened almost
immediately. When the garrulous servant, Annette, is relating to
Emily what she knows of the story of Laurentina, who had once
lived in the castle, both mistress and servant are wrought up to
a state of nervous tension:

"Emily, whom now Annette had infected with her own
terrors, listened attentively, but everything was
still, and Annette proceeded... 'There again,' cried
Annette, suddenly, 'I heard it again.' 'Hush!' said
Emily, trembling. They listened and continued to sit
quite still. Emily heard a slow knocking against the
wall. It came repeatedly. Annette then screamed loudly,
and the chamber door slowly opened - It was Caterina,
come to tell Annette that her lady wanted her."

It is seldom that the rude awakening comes thus swiftly. More
often we are left wondering uneasily and fearfully for a
prolonged stretch of time. The extreme limit of human endurance
is reached in the episode of the Black Veil. Early in the second
volume, Emily, for whom the concealed picture had a fatal
fascination, determined to gaze upon it.

"Emily passed on with faltering steps and, having
paused a moment at the door before she attempted to
open it, she then hastily entered the chamber and went
towards the picture, which appeared to be enclosed in a
frame of uncommon size, that hung in a dark part of the
room. She paused again and then, with a timid hand,
lifted the veil, but instantly let it fall - perceiving
that, what it had concealed was no picture and, before
she could leave the chamber, she dropped senseless on
the floor."

In time Emily recovers, but the horror of the Black Veil preys on
her mind until, near the close of the third volume, Mrs.
Radcliffe mercifully consents to tell us not only what Emily
thought that she beheld, but what was actually there.

"There appeared, instead of the picture she had
expected, within the recess of the wall, a human figure
of ghastly paleness, stretched at its length, and
dressed in the habiliments of the grave. What added to
the horror of the spectacle was that the face appeared
partly decayed and disfigured by worms, which were
visible on the features and hands... Had she dared to
look again, her delusion and her fears would have
vanished together, and she would have perceived that
the figure before her was not human, but formed of
wax... A member of the house of Udolpho, having
committed some offence against the prerogative of the
church, had been condemned to the penance of
contemplating, during certain hours of the day, a waxen
image made to resemble a human body in the state to
which it is reduced after death ... he had made it a
condition in his will that his descendants should
preserve the image."

Mrs. Radcliffe, realising that the secret she had so jealously
guarded is of rather an amazing character, asserts that it is
"not without example in the records of the fierce severity which
monkish superstition has sometimes inflicted on mankind." But the
explanation falls so ludicrously short of our expectations and is
so improbable a possibility, that Mrs. Radcliffe would have been
wise not to defraud Catherine Morland and other readers of the
pleasure of guessing aright. Few enjoy being baffled and thwarted
in so unexpected a fashion. The skeleton of Signora Laurentina
was the least that could be expected as a reward for suspense so
patiently endured. But long ere this disclosure, we have learnt
by bitter experience to distrust Mrs. Radcliffe's secrets and to
look for ultimate disillusionment. The uncanny voice that
ominously echoes Montoni's words is not the cry of a bodiless
visitant striving to awaken "that blushing, shamefaced spirit
that mutinies in a man's bosom," but belongs to an ordinary human
being, the prisoner Du Pont, who has discovered one of Mrs.
Radcliffe's innumerable concealed passages. The bed with the
black velvet pall in the haunted chamber contains, not the
frightful apparition that flashed upon the inward eye of Emily
and of Annette, but a stalwart pirate who shrinks from discovery.
The gliding forms which steal furtively along the ramparts and
disappear at the end of dark passages become eventually, like the
nun in Charlotte Bronte's _Villette_, sensible to feeling as to

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Online LibraryEdith BirkheadThe Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance → online text (page 4 of 19)