Edith Birkhead.

The Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance online

. (page 5 of 19)
Online LibraryEdith BirkheadThe Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance → online text (page 5 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

sight. The unearthly music which is heard in the woods at
midnight proceeds, not from the inhabitants of another sphere,
but from a conscience stricken nun with a lurid past. The corpse,
which Emily believed to be that of her aunt, foully done to death
by a pitiless husband, is the body of a man killed in a bandit's
affray. Here Mrs. Radcliffe seems eager to show that she was not
afraid of a corpse, but is careful that it shall not be the
corpse which the reader anticipates. She deliberately excites
trembling apprehensions in order that she may show how absurd
they are. We are befooled that she may enjoy a quietly malicious
triumph. The result is that we become wary and cautious. The
genuine ghost story, read by Ludovico to revive his fainting
spirits when he is keeping vigil in the "haunted" chamber, is
robbed of its effect because we half expect to be disillusioned
ere the close. It is far more impressive if read as a separate
story apart from its setting. The idea of explaining away what is
apparently supernatural may have occurred to Mrs. Radcliffe after
reading Schiller's popular romance, _Der Geisterseher_ (1789), in
which the elaborately contrived marvels of the Armenian, who was
modelled on Cagliostro, are but the feats of a juggler and have a
physical cause. But more probably Mrs. Radcliffe's imagination
was held in check by a sensitive conscience, which would not
allow her to trade on the credulity of simple-minded readers.

It is noteworthy that Mrs. Radcliffe's last work - _The Italian_,
published in 1797 - is more skilfully constructed, and possesses
far greater unity and concentration than _The Mysteries of
Udolpho_. The Inquisition scenes towards the end of the book are
unduly prolonged, but the story is coherent and free from
digressions. The theme is less fanciful and far fetched than
those of _The Romance of the Forest_ and _Udolpho_. It seldom
strays far beyond the bounds of the probable, nor overstrains our
capacity for belief. The motive of the story is the Marchesa di
Vivaldi's opposition to her son's marriage on account of Ellena's
obscure birth. The Marchesa's far reaching designs are forwarded
by the ambitious monk, Schedoni, who, for his own ends,
undertakes to murder Ellena. _The Italian_ abounds in dramatic,
haunting scenes. The strangely effective overture, which
describes the Confessional of the Black Penitents, the midnight
watch of Vivaldi and his lively, impulsive servant, Paulo, amid
the ruins of Paluzzi, the melodramatic interruption of the
wedding ceremony, the meeting of Ellena and Schedoni on the
lonely shore, the trial in the halls of the Inquisition, are all
remarkably vivid. The climax of the story when Schedoni, about to
slay Ellena, is arrested in the very act by her beauty and
innocence, and then by the glimpse of the portrait which leads
him to believe she is his daughter, is finely conceived and
finely executed. Afterwards, Ellena proves only to be his niece,
but we have had our thrill and nothing can rob us of it. _The
Italian_ depends for its effect on natural terror, rather than on
supernatural suggestions. The monk, who haunts the ruins of
Paluzzi, and who reappears in the prison of the Inquisition,
speaks and acts like a being from the world of spectres, but in
the fulness of time Mrs. Radcliffe ruthlessly exposes his methods
and kills him by slow poison. She never completely explains his
behaviour in the halls of the Inquisition nor accounts
satisfactorily for the ferocity of his hatred of Schedoni. We are
unintentionally led on false trails.

The character of Schedoni is undeniably Mrs. Radcliffe's
masterpiece. No one would claim that his character is subtle
study, but in his interviews with the Marchesa, Mrs. Radcliffe
reveals unexpected gifts tor probing into human motives. He is an
imposing figure, theatrical sometimes, but wrought of flesh and
blood. In fiction, as in life, the villain has always existed,
but it was Mrs. Radcliffe who first created the romantic villain,
stained with the darkest crimes, yet dignified and impressive
withal. Zeluco in Dr. John Moore's novel of that name (1789) is a
powerful conception, but he has no redeeming features to temper
our repulsion with pity. The sinister figures of Mrs. Radcliffe,
with passion-lined faces and gleaming eyes, stalk - or, if
occasion demand it, glide - through all her romances, and as she
grows more familiar with the type, her delineations show
increased power and vigour. When the villain enters, or shortly
afterwards, a descriptive catalogue is displayed, setting forth,
in a manner not unlike that of the popular _feuilleton_ of
to-day, the qualities to be expected, and with this he is let
loose into the story to play his part and act up to his
reputation. In the _Sicilian Romance_ there is the tyrannical
marquis who would force an unwelcome marriage on his daughter and
who immures his wife in a remote corner of the castle, visiting
her once a week with a scanty pittance of coarse food. In _The
Romance of the Forest_ we find a conventional but thorough
villain in Montalt and a half-hearted, poor-spirited villain in
La Motte, whose "virtue was such that it could not stand the
pressure of occasion." Montoni, the desperate leader of the
condottieri in _The Mysteries of Udolpho_, is endued with so
vigorous a vitality that we always rejoice inwardly at his return
to the forefront of the story. His abundant energy is refreshing
after a long sojourn with his garrulous wife and tearful niece.

"He delighted in the energies of the passions, the
difficulties and tempests of life which wreck the
happiness of others roused and strengthened all the
powers of his mind, and afforded him the highest
enjoyment... The fire and keenness of his eye, its
proud exaltation, its bold fierceness, its sudden
watchfulness as occasion and even slight occasion had
called forth the latent soul, she had often observed
with emotion, while from the usual expression of his
countenance she had always shrunk."

Schedoni is undoubtedly allied to this desperado, but his methods
are quieter and more subtle:

"There was something terrible in his air, something
almost superhuman. The cowl, too, as it threw a shade
over the livid paleness of his face increased its
severe character and gave an effect to his large,
melancholy eye which approached to horror ... his
physiognomy ... bore the traces of many passions which
seemed to have fixed the features they no longer
animated. An habitual gloom and severity prevailed over
the deep lines of his countenance, and his eyes were so
piercing that they seemed to penetrate at a single
glance into the hearts of men, and to read their most
secret thoughts - few persons could endure their
scrutiny or even endure to meet them twice ... he could
adapt himself to the tempers and passions of persons,
whom he wished to conciliate, with astonishing

The type undoubtedly owes something to Milton's Satan. Like
Lucifer, he is proud and ambitious, and like him he retains
traces of his original grandeur. Hints from Shakespeare helped to
fashion him. Like Cassius, seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a

"As if he mock'd himself and scorn'd his spirit
That could be moved to smile at anything."

Like King John,

"The image of a wicked heinous fault
Lives in his eye: that close aspect of his
Does show the mood of a much-troubled breast."

By the enormity of his crimes he inspires horror and repulsion,
but by his loneliness he appeals, for a moment, like the
consummate villain Richard III., to our pity:

"There is no creature loves me
And if I die, no soul will pity me.
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?"

Karl von Moor, the famous hero of Schiller's _Die Räuber_ (1781),
is allied to this desperado. He is thus described in the
advertisement of the 1795 edition:

"The picture of a great, misguided soul, endowed with
every gift of excellence, yet lost in spite of all its
gifts. Unbridled passions and bad companionship corrupt
his heart, urge him on from crime to crime, until at
last he stands at the head of a band of murderers,
heaps horror upon horror, and plunges from precipice to
precipice in the lowest depths of despair. Great and
majestic in misfortune, by misfortune reclaimed and led
back to the paths of virtue. Such a man shall you pity
and hate, abhor yet love in the robber Moor."

Among the direct progeny of these grandiose villains are to be
included those of Lewis and Maturin, and the heroes of Scott and
Byron. We know them by their world-weariness, as well as by their
piercing eyes and passion-marked faces, their "verra wrinkles
Gothic." In _The Giaour_ we are told:

"Dark and unearthly is the scowl
That glares beneath his dusky cowl:

"The flash of that dilating eye
Reveals too much of times gone by.
Though varying, indistinct its hue
Oft will his glance the gazer rue."

Of the Corsair, it is said:

"There breathe but few whose aspect might defy
The full encounter of his searching eye."

Lara is drawn from the same model:

"That brow in furrowed lines had fixed at last
And spoke of passions, but of passions past;
The pride but not the fire of early days,
Coldness of mien, and carelessness of praise;
A high demeanour and a glance that took
Their thoughts from others by a single look."

The feminine counterpart of these bold impersonations of evil is
the tyrannical abbess who plays a part in _The Romance of the
Forest_ and in _The Italian_, and who was adopted and exaggerated
by Lewis, but her crimes are petty and malicious, not daring and
ambitious, like the schemes of Montoni and Schedoni.

One of Mrs. Radcliffe's contemporaries is said to have suggested
that if she wished to transcend the horror of the Inquisition
scenes in _The Italian_ she would have to visit hell itself. Like
her own heroines, Mrs. Radcliffe had too elegant and refined an
imagination and too fearful a heart to undertake so desperate a
journey. She would have recoiled with horror from the impious
suggestion. In _Gaston de Blondeville_, written in 1802, but
published posthumously with a memoir by Noon Talfourd, she
ventures to make one or two startling innovations. Her hero is no
longer a pale, romantic young man of gentle birth, but a stolid,
worthy merchant. Here, at last, she indulges in a substantial
spectre, who cannot be explained away as the figment of a
disordered imagination, since he seriously alarms, not a solitary
heroine or a scared lady's-maid, but Henry III. himself and his
assembled barons. Yet apart from this daring escapade, it is
timidity rather than the spirit of valorous enterprise that is
urging Mrs. Radcliffe into new and untried paths. Her happy,
courageous disregard for historical accuracy in describing
far-off scenes and bygone ages has deserted her. She searches
painfully in ancient records, instead of in her imagination, for
mediaeval atmosphere. Her story is grievously overburdened with
elaborate descriptions of customs and ceremonies, and she adds
laborious notes, citing passages from learned authorities, such
as Leland's _Collectanea_, Pegge's dissertation on the obsolete
office of Esquire of the King's Body, Sir George Bulke's account
of the coronation of Richard III., Mador's _History of the
Exchequer_, etc. We are transported from the eighteenth century,
not actually to mediaeval England, but to a carefully arranged
pageant displaying mediaeval costumes, tournaments and banquets.
The actors speak in antique language to accord with the
picturesque background against which they stand. _Gaston de
Blondeville_, which is noteworthy as an early attempt to shadow
forth the days of chivalry, has far more colour than Leland's
_Longsword_ (1752), Miss Reeve's _Old English Baron_ (1777), or
Miss Sophia Lee's _Recess_ (1785), from which rather than from
Mrs. Radcliffe's earlier romances its descent may be traced. The
attempt to avoid glaring anachronisms and to reproduce an
accurate picture of a former age points forward to Scott.
Strutt's _Queenhoo Hall_, which Scott completed, was a revolt
against the unscrupulous inventions of romance-writers, and was
crammed full of archaeological lore. The story of _Gaston de
Blondeville_ is tedious, the characters are shadowy and unreal,
and we become, as the Ettric Shepherd remarked, in _Noctes
Ambrosianae_, "somewhat too hand and glove with his ghostship";
yet, regarded simply as a spectacular effect, it is not without
indications of skill and power. Miss Mitford based a drama on it,
but it never attained the popularity of Mrs. Radcliffe's other
novels. It was published when her reputation was on the wane.

Of the materials on which Mrs. Radcliffe drew in fashioning her
romances it is impossible to speak with any certainty. Doubtless
she had studied certain old chronicles, and she was deeply read
in Shakespeare, especially in the tragedies. Much of her leisure,
we are told, was spent in reading the literary productions of the
day, especially poetry and novels. At the head of her chapters
she often quotes Milton as well as the poets of her own
century - Mason, Gray, Collins, and once "Ossian" - choosing almost
inevitably passages which deal with the terrible or the ghostly.
She must have known _The Castle of Otranto_, and in _The Italian_
she quotes several passages from Walpole's melodrama _The
Mysterious Mother_. But often she may have been dependent on the
oral legends clustering round ancient abbeys for the background
of her stories. Ghostly legends would always appeal to her, and
she probably amassed a hoard of traditions when she visited
English castles during her tours with her husband. The background
of _Gaston de Blondeville_ is Kenilworth Castle. That ancient
ruins stirred her imagination profoundly is clear from passages
in her notes on the journeys. In Furness Abbey she sees in her
mind's eye "a midnight procession of monks," and at Brougham

"One almost saw the surly keeper descending through
this door-case and heard him rattle the keys of the
chamber above, listening with indifference to the clank
of chains and to the echo of that groan below which
seemed to rend the heart it burst from,"

or again:

"Slender saplings of ash waved over the deserted door
cases, where at the transforming hour of twilight, the
superstitious eye might mistake them for spectres of
some early possessor of the castle, restless from
guilt, or of some sufferer persevering for vengeance."

Mrs. Radcliffe's style compares favourably with that of many of
her contemporaries, with that of Mrs. Roche, for instance, who
wrote _The Children of the Abbey_ and an array of other forgotten
romances, but she is too fond of long, imperfectly balanced
sentences, with as many awkward twists and turns as the winding
stairways of her ancient turrets. Nobody in the novels, except
the talkative, comic servant, who is meant to be vulgar and
ridiculous, ever condescends to use colloquial speech. Even in
moments of extreme peril the heroines are very choice in their
diction. Dialogue in Mrs. Radcliffe's world is as stilted and
unnatural as that of prim, old-fashioned school books. In her
earliest novel she uses very little conversation, clearly finding
the indirect form of narrative easier. Sometimes, in the more
highly wrought passages of description, she slips unawares into a
more daring phrase, _e.g._ in _Udolpho_, the track of blood
"glared" upon the stairs, where the word suggests not the actual
appearance of the bloodstain, but rather its effect on Emily's
inflamed and disordered imagination. Dickens might have chosen
the word deliberately in this connection, but he would have used
it, not once, but several times to ensure his result and to
emphasise the impression. This is not Mrs. Radcliffe's way. Her
attention to style is mainly subconscious, her chief interest
being in situation. Her descriptions of scenery have often been
praised. Crabb Robinson declared in his diary that he preferred
them to those of _Waverley_. When Byron visited Venice he found
no better words to describe its beauty than those of Mrs.
Radcliffe, who had never seen it:

"I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of an enchanted wand."

In 1794 Mrs. Radcliffe and her husband made a journey through
Holland and West Germany, of which she wrote an account,
including with it observations made during a tour of the English
Lakes. All her novels, except _The Italian_ and _Gaston de
Blondeville_, had been written before she went abroad, and in
describing foreign scenery she relied on her imagination, aided
perhaps by pictures and descriptions as well as by her
recollections of English mountains and lakes. The attempt to
blend into a single picture a landscape actually seen and a
landscape only known at second-hand may perhaps account for the
lack of distinctness in her pictures. Her descriptions of scenery
are elaborate, and often prolix, but it is often difficult to
form a clear image of the scene. In her novels she cares for
landscape only as an effective background, and paints with the
broad, careless sweep of the theatrical scene-painter. In the
_Journeys_, where she depicts scenery for its own sake, her
delineation is more definite and distinct. She reveals an unusual
feeling for colour and for the lights and tones of a changing sea
or sky:

"It is most interesting to watch the progress of
evening and its effect on the waters; streaks of light
scattered among the dark, western clouds after the sun
had set, and gleaming in long reflection on the sea,
while a grey obscurity was drawing over the east, as
the vapours rose gradually from the ocean. The air was
breathless, the tall sails of the vessel were without
motion, and her course upon the deep scarcely
perceptible; while above the planet burned with steady
dignity and threw a tremulous line of light upon the
sea, whose surface flowed in smooth, waveless expanse.
Then other planets appeared and countless stars
spangled the dark waters. Twilight now pervaded air and
ocean, but the west was still luminous where one solemn
gleam of dusky red edged the horizon from under heavy

Sometimes her scenes are disappointingly vague. She describes
Ingleborough as "rising from elegantly swelling ground," and
attempts to convey a stretch of country by enumerating a list of
its features in generalised terms:

"Gentle swelling slopes, rich in verdure, thick
enclosures, woods, bowery hop-grounds, sheltered
mansions announcing the wealth, and substantial farms
with neat villages, the comfort of the country."

Yet she notices tiny mosses whose hues were "pea green and
primrose," and sometimes reveals flashes of imaginative insight
into natural beauty like "the dark sides of mountains marked only
by the blue smoke of weeds driven in circles near the ground."
These personal, intimate touches of detail are very different
from the highly coloured sunrises and sunsets that awaken the
raptures of her heroines.

With all her limitations, Mrs. Radcliffe is a figure whom it is
impossible to ignore in the history of the novel. Her influence
was potent on Lewis and on Maturin as well as on a host of
forgotten writers. Scott admired her works and probably owed
something in his craftsmanship to his early study of them. She
appeals most strongly in youth. The Ettrick Shepherd, who was by
nature and education "just excessive superstitious," declares:

"Had I read _Udolpho_ and her other romances in my
boyish days my hair would have stood on end like that
o' other folk ... but afore her volumes fell into my
hauns, my soul had been frichtened by a' kinds of
traditionary terrors, and many hunder times hae I maist
swarfed wi' fear in lonesome spots in muir and woods at
midnight when no a leevin thing was movin but mysel'
and the great moon."[38]

There are dull stretches in all her works, but, as Hazlitt justly
claims, "in harrowing up the soul with imaginary horrors, and
making the flesh creep and the nerves thrill with fond hopes and
fears, she is unrivalled among her countrymen."[39]


To pass from the work of Mrs. Radcliffe to that of Matthew
Gregory Lewis is to leave "the novel of suspense," which depends
for part of its effect on the human instinct of curiosity, for
"the novel of terror," which works almost entirely on the even
stronger and more primitive instinct of fear. Those who find Mrs.
Radcliffe's unruffled pace leisurely beyond endurance, or who
dislike her coldly reasonable methods of accounting for what is
only apparently supernatural, or who sometimes feel stifled by
the oppressive air of gentility that broods over her romantic
world, will find ample reparation in the melodramatic pages of
"Monk" Lewis. Here, indeed, may those who will and dare sup full
with horrors. Lewis, in reckless abandonment, throws to the winds
all restraint, both moral and artistic, that had bound his
predecessor. The incidents, which follow one another in
kaleidoscopic variety, are like the disjointed phases of a
delirium or nightmare, from which there is no escape. We are
conscious that his story is unreal or even ludicrous, yet Lewis
has a certain dogged power of driving us unrelentingly through
it, regardless of our own will. Literary historians have tended
to over-emphasise the connection between Mrs. Radcliffe and
Lewis. Their purposes and achievement are so different that it is
hardly accurate to speak of them as belonging to the same school.
It is true that in one of his letters Lewis asserts that he was
induced to go on with his romance, _The Monk_, by reading _The
Mysteries of Udolpho_, "one of the most interesting books that
has (sic) ever been written," and that he was struck by the
resemblance of his own character to that of Montoni;[40] but his
literary debt to Mrs. Radcliffe is comparatively insignificant.
His depredations on German literature are much more serious and
extensive. Lewis, indeed, is one of the Dick Turpins of fiction
and seizes his booty where he will in a high-handed and somewhat
unscrupulous fashion, but for many of Mrs. Radcliffe's treasures
he could find no use. Her picturesque backgrounds, her ingenious
explanations of the uncanny, her uneventful interludes and long
deferred but happy endings were outside his province. The moments
in her novels which Lewis admired and strove to emulate were
those during which the reader with quickened pulse breathlessly
awaits some startling development. Of these moments, there are,
it must be frankly owned, few in Mrs. Radcliffe's novels. Lewis's
mistake lay in trying to induce a more rapid palpitation, and to
prolong it almost uninterruptedly throughout his novel. By
attempting a physical and mental impossibility he courts
disaster. Mrs. Radcliffe's skeletons are decently concealed in
the family cupboard, Lewis's stalk abroad in shameless publicity.
In Mrs. Radcliffe's stories, the shadow fades and disappears just
when we think we are close upon the substance; for, after we have
long been groping in the twilight of fearful imaginings, she
suddenly jerks back the shutter to admit the clear light of
reason. In Lewis's wonder-world there are no elusive shadows; he
hurls us without preparation or initiation into a daylight orgy
of horrors.

Lewis was educated at Westminster and Christ Church, but a year
spent in Weimar (1792-3), where he zealously studied German, and
incidentally, met Goethe, seems to have left more obvious marks
on his literary career. To Lewis, Goethe is pre-eminently the
author of _The Sorrows of Werther_; and Schiller, he remarks
casually, "has, written several other plays besides _The
Robbers."_[41] He probably read Heinse's _Ardinghello_(1787),
Tieck's _Abdallah_ (1792-3), and _William Lovell_ (1794-6), many
of the innumerable dramas of Kotzebue, the romances of Weit
Weber, and other specimens of what Carlyle describes as "the bowl
and dagger department," where

"Black Forests and Lubberland, sensuality and horror,
the spectre nun and the charmed moonshine, shall not be
wanting. Boisterous outlaws also, with huge whiskers,

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryEdith BirkheadThe Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance → online text (page 5 of 19)