Mrs. Radcliffe’s Novels

[This is taken From Andrew Lang's Adventures Among Books.]

Does any one now read Mrs. Radcliffe, or am I the only wanderer in her windy corridors, listening timidly to groans and hollow voices, and shielding the flame of a lamp, which, I fear, will presently flicker out, and leave me in darkness?  People know the name of “The Mysteries of Udolpho;” they know that boys would say to Thackeray, at school, “Old fellow, draw us Vivaldi in the Inquisition.”  But have they penetrated into the chill galleries of the Castle of Udolpho?  Have they shuddered for Vivaldi in face of the sable-clad and masked Inquisition?  Certainly Mrs. Radcliffe, within the memory of man, has been extremely popular.  The thick double-columned volume in which I peruse the works of the Enchantress belongs to a public library.  It is quite the dirtiest, greasiest, most dog’s-eared, and most bescribbled tome in the collection.  Many of the books have remained, during the last hundred years, uncut, even to this day, and I have had to apply the paper knife to many an author, from Alciphron (1790) to Mr. Max Müller, and Dr. Birkbeck Hill’s edition of Bozzy’s “Life of Dr. Johnson.”  But Mrs. Radcliffe has been read diligently, and copiously annotated.

This lady was, in a literary sense, and though, like the sire of Evelina, he cast her off, the daughter of Horace Walpole.  Just when King Romance seemed as dead as Queen Anne, Walpole produced that Gothic tale, “The Castle of Otranto,” in 1764.  In that very year was born Anne Ward, who, in 1787, married William Radcliffe, Esq., M.A., Oxon.  In 1789 she published “The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne.”  The scene, she tells us, is laid in “the most romantic part of the Highlands, the north-east coast of Scotland.”  On castles, anywhere, she doted.  Walpole, not Smollett or Miss Burney, inspired her with a passion for these homes of old romance.  But the north-east coast of Scotland is hardly part of the Highlands at all, and is far from being very romantic.  The period is “the dark ages” in general.  Yet the captive 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.  He had the pleasure to observe that the paper was taken up by the ladies, who immediately retired into the castle.”  These were not the manners of the local Mackays, of the Sinclairs, and of “the small but fierce clan of Gunn,” in the dark ages.

But this was Mrs. Radcliffe’s way.  She delighted in descriptions of scenery, the more romantic the better, and usually drawn entirely from her inner consciousness.  Her heroines write sonnets (which never but once are sonnets) and other lyrics, on every occasion.  With his usual generosity Scott praised her landscape and her lyrics, but, indeed, they are, as Sir Walter said of Mrs. Hemans, “too poetical,” and probably they were skipped, even by her contemporary devotees.  “The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne” frankly do not permit themselves to be read, and it was not till 1790, with “A Sicilian Romance,” that Mrs. Radcliffe “found herself,” and her public.  After reading, with breathless haste, through, “A Sicilian Romance,” and “The Romance of the Forest,” in a single day, it would ill become me to speak lightly of Mrs. Radcliffe.  Like Catherine Morland, I love this lady’s tender yet terrific fancy.

Mrs. Radcliffe does not always keep on her highest level, but we must remember that her last romance, “The Italian,” is by far her best.  She had been feeling her way to this pitch of excellence, and, when she had attained to it, she published no more.  The reason is uncertain.  She became a Woman’s Rights woman, and wrote “The Female Advocate,” not a novel!  Scott thinks that she may have been annoyed by her imitators, or by her critics, against whom he defends her in an admirable passage, to be cited later.  Meanwhile let us follow Mrs. Radcliffe in her upward course.

The “Sicilian Romance” appeared in 1790, when the author’s age was twenty-six.  The book has a treble attraction, for it contains the germ of “Northanger Abbey,” and the germ of “Jane Eyre,” and—the germ of Byron!  Like “Joseph Andrews,” “Northanger Abbey” began as a parody (of Mrs. Radcliffe) and developed into a real novel of character.  So too Byron’s gloomy scowling adventurers, with their darkling past, are mere repetitions in rhyme of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Schedoni.  This is so obvious that, when discussing Mrs. Radcliffe’s Schedoni, Scott adds, in a note, parallel passages from Byron’s “Giaour.”  Sir Walter did not mean to mock, he merely compared two kindred spirits.  “The noble poet” “kept on the business still,” and broke into octosyllabics, borrowed from Scott, his descriptions of miscreants borrowed from Mrs. Radcliffe.

“A Sicilian Romance” has its scene in the palace of Ferdinand, fifth Marquis of Mazzini, on the northern coast of Sicily.  The time is about 1580, but there is nothing in the manners or costume to indicate that, or any other period.  Such “local colour” was unknown to Mrs. Radcliffe, as to Clara Reeve.  In Horace Walpole, however, a character goes so far in the mediæval way as to say “by my halidome.”

The Marquis Mazzini had one son and two daughters by his first amiable consort, supposed to be long dead when the story opens.  The son is the original of Henry Tilney in “Northanger Abbey,” and in General Tilney does Catherine Morland recognise a modern Marquis of Mazzini.  But the Marquis’s wife, to be sure, is not dead; like the first Mrs. Rochester she is concealed about the back premises, and, as in “Jane Eyre,” it is her movements, and those of her gaolers, that produce mystery, and make the reader suppose that “the place is haunted.”  It is, of course, only the mystery and the “machinery” of Mrs. Radcliffe that Miss Brontë adapted.  These passages in “Jane Eyre” have been censured, but it is not easy to see how the novel could do without them.  Mrs. Radcliffe’s tale entirely depends on its machinery.  Her wicked Marquis, having secretly immured Number One, has now a new and beautiful Number Two, whose character does not bear inspection.  This domestic position, as Number Two, we know, was declined by the austere virtue of Jane Eyre.

“Phenomena” begin in the first chapter of “A Sicilian Romance,” mysterious lights wander about uninhabited parts of the castle, and are vainly investigated by young Ferdinand, son of the Marquis.  This Hippolytus the Chaste, loved all in vain by the reigning Marchioness, is adored by, and adores, her stepdaughter, Julia.  Jealousy and revenge are clearly indicated.  But, in chasing mysterious lights and figures through mouldering towers, Ferdinand gets into the very undesirable position of David Balfour, when he climbs, in the dark, the broken turret stair in his uncle’s house of Shaws (in “Kidnapped”).  Here is a fourth author indebted to Mrs. Radcliffe: her disciples are Miss Austen, Byron, Miss Brontë, and Mr. Louis Stevenson!  Ferdinand “began the ascent.  He had not proceeded very far, when the stones of a step which his foot had just quitted gave way, and, dragging with them those adjoining, formed a chasm in the staircase that terrified even Ferdinand, who was left tottering on the suspended half of the steps, in momentary expectation of falling to the bottom with the stone on which he rested.  In the terror which this occasioned, he attempted to save himself by catching at a kind of beam which suspended over the stairs, when the lamp dropped from his hand, and he was left in total darkness.”

Can anything be more “amazing horrid,” above all as there are mysterious figures in and about the tower?  Mrs. Radcliffe’s lamps always fall, or are blown out, in the nick of time, an expedient already used by Clara Reeve in that very mild but once popular ghost story, “The Old English Baron” (1777).  All authors have such favourite devices, and I wonder how many fights Mr. Stanley Weyman’s heroes have fought, from the cellar to their favourite tilting ground, the roof of a strange house!

Ferdinand hung on to the beam for an hour, when the ladies came with a light, and he scrambled back to solid earth.  In his next nocturnal research, “a sullen groan arose from beneath where he stood,” and when he tried to force a door (there are scores of such weird doors in Mrs. Radcliffe) “a groan was repeated, more hollow and dreadful than the first.  His courage forsook him”—and no wonder!  Of course he could not know that the author of the groans was, in fact, his long-lost mother, immured by his father, the wicked Marquis.  We need not follow the narrative through the darkling crimes and crumbling galleries of this terrible castle on the north coast of Sicily.  Everybody is always “gazing in silent terror,” and all the locks are rusty.  “A savage and dexterous banditti” play a prominent part, and the imprisoned Ferdinand “did not hesitate to believe that the moans he heard came from the restless spirit of the murdered della Campo.”  No working hypothesis could seem more plausible, but it was erroneous.  Mrs. Radcliffe does not deal in a single avowed ghost.  She finally explains away, by normal causes, everything that she does not forget to explain.  At the most, she indulges herself in a premonitory dream.  On this point she is true to common sense, without quite adopting the philosophy of David Hume.  “I do not say that spirits have appeared,” she remarks, “but if several discreet unprejudiced persons were to assure me that they had seen one—I should not be bold or proud enough to reply, it is impossible!”  But Hume was bold and proud enough: he went further than Mrs. Radcliffe.

Scott censures Mrs. Radcliffe’s employment of explanations.  He is in favour of “boldly avowing the use of supernatural machinery,” or of leaving the matter in the vague, as in the appearance of the wraith of the dying Alice to Ravenswood.  But, in Mrs. Radcliffe’s day, common sense was so tyrannical, that the poor lady’s romances would have been excluded from families, if she had not provided normal explanations of her groans, moans, voices, lights, and wandering figures.  The ghost-hunt in the castle finally brings Julia to a door, whose bolts, “strengthened by desperation, she forced back.”  There was a middle-aged lady in the room, who, after steadily gazing on Julia, “suddenly exclaimed, ‘My daughter!’ and fainted away.”  Julia being about seventeen, and Madame Mazzini, her mamma, having been immured for fifteen years, we observe, in this recognition, the force of the maternal instinct.

The wicked Marquis was poisoned by the partner of his iniquities, who anon stabbed herself with a poniard.  The virtuous Julia marries the chaste Hippolytus, and, says the author, “in reviewing this story, we perceive a singular and striking instance of moral retribution.”

We also remark the futility of locking up an inconvenient wife, fabled to be defunct, in one’s own country house.  Had Mr. Rochester, in “Jane Eyre,” studied the “Sicilian Romance,” he would have shunned an obsolete system, inconvenient at best, and apt, in the long run, to be disastrous.

In the “Romance of the Forest” (1791), Mrs. Radcliffe remained true to Mr. Stanley Weyman’s favourite period, the end of the sixteenth century.  But there are no historical characters or costumes in the story, and all the persons, as far as language and dress go, might have been alive in 1791.

The story runs thus: one de la Motte, who appears to have fallen from dissipation to swindling, is, on the first page, discovered flying from Paris and the law, with his wife, in a carriage.  Lost in the dark on a moor, he follows a light, and enters an old lonely house.  He is seized by ruffians, locked in, and expects to be murdered, which he knows that he cannot stand, for he is timid by nature.  In fact, a ruffian puts a pistol to La Motte’s breast with one hand, while with the other he drags along a beautiful girl of eighteen.  “Swear that you will convey this girl where I may never see her more,” exclaims the bully, and La Motte, with the young lady, is taken back to his carriage.  “If you return within an hour you will be welcomed with a brace of bullets,” is the ruffian’s parting threat.

So La Motte, Madame La Motte, and the beautiful girl drive away, La Motte’s one desire being to find a retreat safe from the police of an offended justice.

Is this not a very original, striking, and affecting situation; provocative, too, of the utmost curiosity?  A fugitive from justice, in a strange, small, dark, ancient house, is seized, threatened, and presented with a young and lovely female stranger.  In this opening we recognise the hand of a master genius.  There must be an explanation of proceedings so highly unconventional, and what can the reason be?  The reader is empoigné in the first page, and eagerly follows the flight of La Motte, also of Peter, his coachman, an attached, comic, and familiar domestic.  After a few days, the party observe, in the recesses of a gloomy forest, the remains of a Gothic abbey.  They enter; by the light of a flickering lamp they penetrate “horrible recesses,” discover a room handsomely provided with a trapdoor, and determine to reside in a dwelling so congenial, though, as La Motte judiciously remarks, “not in all respects strictly Gothic.”  After a few days, La Motte finds that somebody is inquiring for him in the nearest town.  He seeks for a hiding-place, and explores the chambers under the trapdoor.  Here he finds, in a large chest—what do you suppose he finds?  It was a human skeleton!  Yet in this awful vicinity he and his wife, with Adeline (the fair stranger) conceal themselves.  The brave Adeline, when footsteps are heard, and a figure is beheld in the upper rooms, accosts the stranger.  His keen eye presently detects the practicable trapdoor, he raises it, and the cowering La Motte recognises in the dreaded visitor—his own son, who had sought him out of filial affection.

Already Madame La Motte has become jealous of Adeline, especially as her husband is oddly melancholy, and apt to withdraw into a glade, where he mysteriously disappears into the recesses of a genuine Gothic sepulchre.  This, to the watchful eyes of a wife, is proof of faithlessness on the part of a husband.  As the son, Louis, really falls in love with Adeline, Madame La Motte becomes doubly unkind to her, and Adeline now composes quantities of poems to Night, to Sunset, to the Nocturnal Gale, and so on.

In this uncomfortable situation, two strangers arrive in a terrific thunderstorm.  One is young, the other is a Marquis.  On seeing this nobleman, “La Motte’s limbs trembled, and a ghastly paleness overspread his countenance.  The Marquis was little less agitated,” and was, at first, decidedly hostile.  La Motte implored forgiveness—for what?—and the Marquis (who, in fact, owned the Abbey, and had a shooting lodge not far off) was mollified.  They all became rather friendly, and Adeline asked La Motte about the stories of hauntings, and a murder said to have been, at some time, committed in the Abbey.  La Motte said that the Marquis could have no connection with such fables; still, there was the skeleton.

Meanwhile, Adeline had conceived a flame for Theodore, the young officer who accompanied his colonel, the Marquis, on their first visit to the family.  Theodore, who returned her passion, had vaguely warned her of an impending danger, and then had failed to keep tryst with her, one evening, and had mysteriously disappeared.  Then unhappy Adeline dreamed about a prisoner, a dying man, a coffin, a voice from the coffin, and the appearance within it of the dying man, amidst torrents of blood.  The chamber in which she saw these visions was most vividly represented.  Next day the Marquis came to dinner, and, though reluctantly, consented to pass the night: Adeline, therefore, was put in a new bedroom.  Disturbed by the wind shaking the mouldering tapestry, she found a concealed door behind the arras and a suite of rooms, one of which was the chamber of her dream!  On the floor lay a rusty dagger!  The bedstead, being touched, crumbled, and disclosed a small roll of manuscripts.  They were not washing bills, like those discovered by Catherine Morland in “Northanger Abbey.”  Returning to her own chamber, Adeline heard the Marquis professing to La Motte a passion for herself.  Conceive her horror!  Silence then reigned, till all was sudden noise and confusion; the Marquis flying in terror from his room, and insisting on instant departure.  His emotion was powerfully displayed.

What had occurred?  Mrs. Radcliffe does not say, but horror, whether caused by a conscience ill at ease, or by events of a terrific and supernatural kind, is plainly indicated.  In daylight, the Marquis audaciously pressed his unholy suit, and even offered marriage, a hollow mockery, for he was well known to be already a married man.  The scenes of Adeline’s flight, capture, retention in an elegant villa of the licentious noble, renewed flight, rescue by Theodore, with Theodore’s arrest, and wounding of the tyrannical Marquis, are all of breathless interest.  Mrs. Radcliffe excels in narratives of romantic escapes, a topic always thrilling when well handled.  Adeline herself is carried back to the Abbey, but La Motte, who had rather not be a villain if he could avoid it, enables her again to secure her freedom.  He is clearly in the power of the Marquis, and his life has been unscrupulous, but he retains traces of better things.  Adeline is now secretly conveyed to a peaceful valley in Savoy, the home of the honest Peter (the coachman), who accompanies her.  Here she learns to know and value the family of La Luc, the kindred of her Theodore (by a romantic coincidence), and, in the adorable scenery of Savoy, she throws many a ballad to the Moon.

La Motte, on the discovery of Adeline’s flight, was cast into prison by the revengeful Marquis, for, in fact, soon after settling in the Abbey, it had occurred to La Motte to commence highwayman.  His very first victim had been the Marquis, and, during his mysterious retreats to a tomb in a glade in the forest, he had, in short, been contemplating his booty, jewels which he could not convert into ready money.  Consequently, when the Marquis first entered the Abbey, La Motte had every reason for alarm, and only pacified the vindictive aristocrat by yielding to his cruel schemes against the virtue of Adeline.

Happily for La Motte, a witness appeared at his trial, who cast a lurid light on the character of the Marquis.  That villain, to be plain, had murdered his elder brother (the skeleton of the Abbey), and had been anxious to murder, it was added, his own natural daughter—that is, Adeline!  His hired felons, however, placed her in a convent, and, later (rather than kill her, on which the Marquis insisted), simply thrust her into the hands of La Motte, who happened to pass by that way, as we saw in the opening of this romance.  Thus, in making love to Adeline, his daughter, the Marquis was, unconsciously, in an awkward position.  On further examination of evidence, however, things proved otherwise.  Adeline was not the natural daughter of the Marquis, but his niece, the legitimate daughter and heiress of his brother (the skeleton of the Abbey).  The MS. found by Adeline in the room of the rusty dagger added documentary evidence, for it was a narrative of the sufferings of her father (later the skeleton), written by him in the Abbey where he was imprisoned and stabbed, and where his bones were discovered by La Motte.  The hasty nocturnal flight of the Marquis from the Abbey is thus accounted for: he had probably been the victim of a terrific hallucination representing his murdered brother; whether it was veridical or merely subjective Mrs. Radcliffe does not decide.  Rather than face the outraged justice of his country, the Marquis, after these revelations, took poison.  La Motte was banished; and Adeline, now mistress of the Abbey, removed the paternal skeleton to “the vault of his ancestors.”  Theodore and Adeline were united, and virtuously resided in a villa on the beautiful banks of the Lake of Geneva.

Such is the “Romance of the Forest,” a fiction in which character is subordinate to plot and incident.  There is an attempt at character drawing in La Motte, and in his wife; the hero and heroine are not distinguishable from Julia and Hippolytus.  But Mrs. Radcliffe does not aim at psychological niceties, and we must not blame her for withholding what it was no part of her purpose to give.  “The Romance of the Forest” was, so far, infinitely the most thrilling of modern English works of fiction.  “Every reader felt the force,” says Scott, “from the sage in his study, to the family group in middle life,” and nobody felt it more than Scott himself, then a young gentleman of nineteen, who, when asked how his time was employed, answered, “I read no Civil Law.”  He did read Mrs. Radcliffe, and, in “The Betrothed,” followed her example in the story of the haunted chamber where the heroine faces the spectre attached to her ancient family.

“The Mysteries of Udolpho,” Mrs. Radcliffe’s next and most celebrated work, is not (in the judgment of this reader, at least) her masterpiece.  The booksellers paid her what Scott, erroneously, calls “the unprecedented sum of £500” for the romance, and they must have made a profitable bargain.  “The public,” says Scott, “rushed upon it with all the eagerness of curiosity, and rose from it with unsated appetite.”  I arise with a thoroughly sated appetite from the “Mysteries of Udolpho.”  The book, as Sir Walter saw, is “The Romance of the Forest” raised to a higher power.  We have a similar and similarly situated heroine, cruelly detached from her young man, and immured in a howling wilderness of a brigand castle in the Apennines.  In place of the Marquis is a miscreant on a larger and more ferocious scale.  The usual mysteries of voices, lights, secret passages, and innumerable doors are provided regardless of economy.  The great question, which I shall not answer, is, what did the Black Veil concealNot “the bones of Laurentina,” as Catherine Morland supposed.

Here is Emily’s adventure with the veil.  “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.  When she recovered her recollection, . . . horror occupied her mind.”  Countless mysteries coagulate around this veil, and the reader is apt to be disappointed when the awful curtain is withdrawn.  But he has enjoyed, for several hundred pages, the pleasures of anticipation.  A pedantic censor may remark that, while the date of the story is 1580, all the virtuous people live in an idyllic fashion, like creatures of Rousseau, existing solely for landscape and the affections, writing poetry on Nature, animate and inanimate, including the common Bat, and drawing in water colours.  In those elegant avocations began, and in these, after an interval of adventures “amazing horrid,” concluded the career of Emily.

Mrs. Radcliffe keeps the many entangled threads of her complex web well in hand, and incidents which puzzle you at the beginning fall naturally into place before the end.  The character of the heroine’s silly, vain, unkind, and unreasonable aunt is vividly designed (that Emily should mistake the corse of a moustached bandit for that of her aunt is an incident hard to defend).  Valancourt is not an ordinary spotless hero, but sows his wild oats, and reaps the usual harvest; and Annette is a good sample of the usual soubrette.  When one has said that the landscapes and bandits of this romance are worthy of Poussin and Salvator Rosa, from whom they were probably translated into words, not much remains to be added.  Sir Walter, after repeated perusals, considered “Udolpho” “a step beyond Mrs. Radcliffe’s former work, high as that had justly advanced her.”  But he admits that “persons of no mean judgment” preferred “The Romance of the Forest.”  With these amateurs I would be ranked.  The ingenuity and originality of the “Romance” are greater: our friend the skeleton is better than that Thing which was behind the Black Veil, the escapes of Adeline are more thrilling than the escape of Emily, and the “Romance” is not nearly so long, not nearly so prolix as “Udolpho.”

The roof and crown of Mrs. Radcliffe’s work is “The Italian” (1797), for which she received £800. The scene is Naples, the date about 1764; the topic is the thwarted loves of Vivaldi and Ellena; the villain is the admirable Schedoni, the prototype of Byron’s lurid characters.

“The Italian” is an excellent novel.  The Prelude, “the dark and vaulted gateway,” is not unworthy of Hawthorne, who, I suspect, had studied Mrs. Radcliffe.  The theme is more like a theme of this world than usual.  The parents of a young noble might well try to prevent him from marrying an unknown and penniless girl.  The Marchese Vivaldi only adopts the ordinary paternal measures; the Marchesa, and her confessor the dark-souled Schedoni, go farther—as far as assassination.  The casuistry by which Schedoni brings the lady to this pass, while representing her as the originator of the scheme, is really subtle, and the scenes between the pair show an extraordinary advance on Mrs. Radcliffe’s earlier art.  The mysterious Monk who counteracts Schedoni remains an unsolved mystery to me, but of that I do not complain.  He is as good as the Dweller in the Catacombs who haunts Miriam in Hawthorne’s “Marble Faun.”  The Inquisition, its cells, and its tribunals are coloured

   “As when some great painter dips
His pencil in the gloom of earthquake and eclipse.”

The comic valet, Paulo, who insists on being locked up in the dungeons of the Inquisition merely because his master is there, reminds one of Samuel Weller, he is a Neapolitan Samivel.  The escapes are Mrs. Radcliffe’s most exciting escapes, and to say that is to say a good deal.  Poetry is not written, or not often, by the heroine.  The scene in which Schedoni has his dagger raised to murder Ellena, when he discovers that she is his daughter, “is of a new, grand, and powerful character” (Scott), while it is even more satisfactory to learn later that Ellena was not Schedoni’s daughter after all.

Why Mrs. Radcliffe, having reached such a pitch of success, never again published a novel, remains more mysterious than any of her Mysteries.  Scott justly remarks that her censors attacked her “by showing that she does not possess the excellences proper to a style of composition totally different from that which she has attempted.”  This is the usual way of reviewers.  Tales that fascinated Scott, Fox, and Sheridan, “which possess charms for the learned and unlearned, the grave and gay, the gentleman and clown,” do not deserve to be dismissed with a sneer by people who have never read them.  Following Horace Walpole in some degree, Mrs. Radcliffe paved the way for Scott, Byron, Maturin, Lewis, and Charlotte Brontë, just as Miss Burney filled the gap between Smollett and Miss Austen.  Mrs. Radcliffe, in short, kept the Lamp of Romance burning much more steadily than the lamps which, in her novels, are always blown out, in the moment of excited apprehension, by the night wind walking in the dank corridors of haunted abbeys.  But mark the cruelty of an intellectual parent!  Horace Walpole was Mrs. Radcliffe’s father in the spirit.  Yet, on September 4, 1794, he wrote to Lady Ossory: “I have read some of the descriptive verbose tales, of which your Ladyship says I was the patriarch by several mothers” (Miss Reeve and Mrs. Radcliffe?).  “All I can say for myself is that I do not think my concubines have produced issue more natural for excluding the aid of anything marvellous.”





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