Gothics, ghosts, and and l'écriture-femme

The Romance of the Forest

by Ann Ward Radcliffe

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) Silence (1799-1800)

Naturally, a manuscript; The Justifiably Paranoic Core; Fuseli's Midnight and Silence; Torn Manuscript; Illegible Story; Feeling of Doom; a Prison; La Motte & Johnson's Rambler No. 28; Romance of the Forest and Chastenay's French and Radcliffe's English Udolpho


February 16, 2004 Re: The Romance of the Forest, Chs 8-10: Naturally, a manuscript; The Justifiably Paranoic Core

We are now in the center of the book -- and what do we find at its heart, a torn, half-defaced manuscript, the remnants of some tortured human being who is trying to tell what happened to him in the world. Bear witness.

Doubtless some readers will find this section totally unacceptable partly because of the language and typographical conventions (periods across a page to suggest tears and gaps) in which it is done. They may laugh at the absurdity of the idea. Jane Austen did the latter in her Northanger Abbey. But in terms of Radcliffe's contemporaries in Europe, less than 80 years before Marie Mancini, great-niece of one of Louis XIII's powerful ministers, was captured and imprisoned in a tower in the Pyrenees and brutalized by her Colonna prince of a husband (you had to watch out for these Colonnas). Her case is only a tip of an iceberg for women in this period -- Edgeworth tells of another more banal case in Ireland in her Castle Rackrent. Helena Maria Williams never tires of recounting the inflexible ruthless and cruel way the powerful older members of the French aristocracy used the lettres de cachet. (The other day I was reading of how in India it was de rigueur_ to demand of women they burn themselves to death upon a husband's death and about how attempts to stop this by British authorities failed; less often spoken of is the murder of extra girls and any crippled children at birth -- it was an act forced on or simply done by women.) The article about India appeared in one of the three weekly or bimonthly journals I read (LRB, TLS, NYRB) and the man was an anthropologist whose essay was partly based on his research to the effect that human beings are not among the species which automatically protect their young. Robert Hughes catalogues literally thousands of cases which resemble in outline the case of our sufferer in the penal Archipelego of Australia at the end of the 18th and into the mid-19th century. I have had students from Southeast Asia tell me how moving they find The Romance of the Forest for they and their parents lived in cells and escaped in dungeons, but they knew of those who didn't manage this.

So if the rhetoric is too elegant, and the conventions too hackneyed, the heart and soul of the content is alas not. The man who wrote the manuscript conveys how he was emotionally -- and perhaps physically tortured. He would be told he was going to be murdered tomorrow. (I have read that hostage takers do this to hostages.) Suddenly the manuscript stops and we are to imagine someone coming in. I know that the modern reader would respond better if Radcliffe were to have graphically told what happened to the man but we are left in the dark to suppose. Radcliffe's generation found this enough.

At the same time, the Marquis de Montalt is in hot pursuit of Adeline. Unfortunately again we are not given much of his elegant witty conversation. The conventions allowed for this, but we can see that Radcliffe is not very good at realistic dialogue -- though she's not bad when it comes to Pierre de La Motte's irritated self-justifications to Adeline ("Your plan is reasonable ... if I had the money ..."). The Marquis is pressuring Pierre de la Motte to "sell" her to him as a mistress -- he will use his power to get La Motte pardon from whatever has been La Motte's crime. Madame de la Motte knows what is going on and is willing to do nothing about it. Only the comical Peter, the servant, seems willing to help Adeline escape from a form of concubine (using the term to be forced sex as a man's partner). He has offered to meet her late at night (naturally) and to guide her to a place of safety somewhere in the woods.

The distraught and anxiety-filled psychological terrain of this book is such that the reader and of course Adeline-Radcliffe (through whose mind we experience this book) may not at first realize that such a scheme as a way of securing safety may well be a trap. She can be taken away to where no eyes will see her. Not the La Mottes either who to give them credit seem loathe to hand Adeline over to the Marquis. Pierre manifests an agon of conscience which emerges as irritable anger at the prize-target he is being pressured to give up.

There is a bell that keep ringing through the narrative, a repeated statement which is a key (I think) to Radcliffe's own place in this narrative (and may have helped give rise to Rictor Norton's thesis that Radcliffe was sexually abused when young and her mother instead of protecting or at least siding with her sympathetically was rigid and jealous). It is the repeated statement that nothing, nothing is so shocking, soul-shattering, and causes distrust in an individual ever after so much as seeing someone you loved and trusted turn on you. I counted three times this idea or thought was repeated; we already saw it very strongly stated by Adeline at the outset when Madame de La Motte first turned on her.

Another aspect of the terrain is Adeline's dread of her father. We are told it is of her father she only thought; she is terrified lest Pierre de La Motte produce him again (a sort of double?). She is hounded on two sides: on the one, the passion of the Marquis, on the other the chilling alienated behavior of Pierre and his wife -- though Madame now and again seems to become Adeline's companion and friend at least for a few moments.

For my part I get impatient when people who have read this book complain about an incident in this section. Adeline sees a ghost. We are not told if it was a real one or the product of her terror while down in the dungeons (or maybe it's high in the towers, the Piranesi setting inducing a disorientation). They berate Radcliffe either for not explaining this ghost or explaining it. I wonder what they are reading this section for. Does its inner life not touch them at all? Perhaps not. They are reading for the excitement and adventure, but if so, this would be pallid tame stuff in comparison to what is written and filmed today.

I'll coin a phrase on Dr Johnson who said a man who read Clarissa for the plot would hang himself; well, anyone who reads Radcliffe as an adventure story will end up disappointed -- because it is not an external adventure story. Her later supposedly finest book, and her most novelist, The Italian which has an upright sturdy male at the center, is or becomes one. This is a novel about the haunting of a mind by harassment and disquiet because what the mind fundamentally relied upon for sanity was pulled out from under her. I don't necessarily agree with Norton that it was incest with a mother turning on the daughter. It seems to me there are infinite ways in which human beings can be turned upon and shattered.

The Mysteries of Udolpho took the paranoia at the center of this book and made it a sublime, picturesque masterpiece of sentimental gothic literature. I like The Romance of the Forest because here we have the naked bare thing itself quivering in front of us -- while the comical Sanzo Panza figure looks on. It's in Peter that Radcliffe registers her control over herself and her narrative, her distanced perspective while she goes about releasing herself.


Date: Wed, 18 Feb 2004
Subject: [EighteenthCenturyWorlds] The Romance of the Forest, Chs 8-10: The Justifiably Paranoic Core

Ellen wrote about the manuscript:

Doubtless some readers will find this section totally unacceptable partly because of the language and typographical conventions (periods across a page to suggest tears and gaps) in which it is done.

It all made perfect sense to me, the condition of the manuscript. Anything written under those conditions and left for someone to find couldn't be in the best of shape. It would have seemed odd had it been in pristine condition and perfectly legible.


Date: Wed, 18 Feb 2004
Subject: [EighteenthCenturyWorlds] Fuseli's Midnight

In a book on film adaptations of Austen's novels, I read that one way in which movies function is to disclose the inner way people read novels -- what the film-makers at least assume their audience visualized and felt as they were reading a book. I suggest that Fuseli's psychological nightmare paintings, often centering on a woman, give us insight into how readers at the time might have visualized the sequences in Radcliffe's Romance of the Forest and other gothic novels.

One quality of Radcliffe's novels that is remarkable and original for third person narrative is her ability to project interiority through everything she writes down. My feeling is she learnt to seek this as an ideal by reading Richardson and those who imitated his use of epistolary narrative to achieve this. She may have seen or read it done before by some of the French writers: you find it in Prevost's Cleveland -- and also Diderot's Nun. But she seems to be the first in English to manage this through omniscient narrative.

So we don't need the details of Fuseli's picture to ourselves half-conjure up the picture as we move through Radcliffe's book. It hovers around that mutilated manuscript.

Fuseli's years are 1741-1825; he was a member of radical circles; his most famous paintings are called Nightmare and suggest that Freud was not the first to analyze the mind when sleeping as having latent content which is sexual and violent.

I've put up Silence as the poor man at the center of the book was mostly and is now silent.


Date: Fri, 13 Feb 2004
Subject: Re: [EighteenthCenturyWorlds] The Romance of the Forest: Intrusive Notes Reply-To:

Dagny wrote:

There is also of course for us today all the footnotes that made it > even worse for me by explaining all this.

I totally agree about the footnotes. I found them so intrusive that I stopped reading them. I have now surely missed out on a point or two but am able to enjoy the story without all the digressions. Sometimes I go back after finishing a section and glance at them.

Not to add to a chorus of "me-toos," but I've found the notes to this edition rather intrusive and flatfooted, too. Annotations are hard to do well (and I've written quite a lot of them): what to annotate in the first place, how much information to provide, where to put the note, keeping notes short enough not be intrusive but not so short as to be cryptic. And just what can you assume the reader already knows and doesn't need to be told? The notes to this edition are sometimes useful, but often simply repetitive and go over and over thematic material that might better have been dealt with in the introduction or, perhaps, a brief appendix or afterword. Because Radcliffe sets the book in such a fantasy landscape, it doesn't need the regular notes that a book making reference to contemporary (or historical, for that matter) people and events would need. She's making highly political criticisms, at times (against the ancien regime and so forth), but she's not political in the way, say, Jonathan Swift is; and while literature and the arts form an important backdrop to much of what she's doing, it's a generalised backdrop, not one that requires specific knowledge of particular references and therefore that sort of annotation, as Samuel Johnson, for example, might. It's actually sort of interesting to think about the different approaches to writing, the world, information, history, etc. that require or do not require extensive notes for a modern reader to get the point. With some basic knowledge about aesthetic theory (e.g. the sublime, the picturesque), one can read Radcliffe without the usual textual apparatus, it seems to me.


Date: Thu, 19 Feb 2004
Subject: [EighteenthCenturyWorlds] The Romance of the Forest, Chs 8-10: Torn Manuscript; Illegible Story; Feeling of Doom; a Prison

I enjoyed this week's chapters of The Romance of the Forest, with the tension growing steadily, but can't think of much to add to what Ellen has said.

After the nightmare sequence, the torn manuscript with its half- illegible story continues to build up the feeling of doom and the sense of the ruined abbey becoming a prison rather than a refuge. I was surprised to find La Motte suddenly betraying Adeline, because, although he has been melancholy and brooding up to this point, I had the impression he was honourable and would stand by his commitment to look after her. Now suddenly it seems he is willing to hand her over to the Marquis, with Madame La Motte also doing nothing to help, and we have to wonder why - and just what hold the Marquis has over them. I agree it's a pity we don't get more of the Marquis's witty dialogue - he remains just a wicked figure of an aristocrat.

I've read on now to the end of Book 2 and feel the tension does continue to build, again with a sort of film quality to it, as whenever Adeline thinks she is safe for a moment once again there is an ambush or an outbreak of violence.

All the best,

Subject: [EighteenthCenturyWorlds] The Romance of the Forest, Chs 8-10: La Motte & Johnson's Rambler No. 28

I was surprised to find La Motte suddenly betraying Adeline, because, although he has been melancholy and brooding up to this point, I had the impression he was honourable and would stand by his commitment to look after her. Now suddenly it seems he is willing to hand her over to the Marquis, with Madame La Motte also doing nothing to help, and we have to wonder why - and just what hold the Marquis has over them.

He has honourable impulses and feelings, but he's weak. Remember what the narrator told us about him at the very beginning: "He was a man whose passions often overcame his reason, and, for a time, silenced his conscience; but, though the image of virtue, which Nature had impressed upon his heart, was sometimes obscured by the passing influence of vice, it was never wholly obliterated. With strength of mind sufficient to have withstood temptation, he would have been a good man; as it was, he was always a weak, and sometimes a vicious member of society.... Thus he was was a man, infirm in purpose and visionary in virtue; in a word, his conduct was suggested by feeling, rather than principle; and his virtue, such as it was, could not stand the pressure of occasion" (2). This description of his character, and the way we see it playing out, is impressively perceptive and clear-eyed, I think. His good intentions, however genuine, don't stand up very long under any sort of pressure, and he will always put his immediate needs, wishes, and pleasures ahead of anyone else's well-being.

All of this made me think of Johnson's Rambler No 28, which talks about the difficulty of knowing oneself truly and honestly, and the strategies by which we deceive ourselves about our own character and failings. "One sophism by which men persuade themselves that they have those virtues, which they really want, is formed by the substitution of single acts for habits. A miser who once relieved a friend from the danger of a prison, suffers his imagination to dwell for ever upon his own heroick generosity.... From any censures of the world, or reproaches of his conscience, he has an appeal to action and to knowledge; and though his whole life is a course of rapacity and avarice, he concludes himself to be tender and liberal, because he has once performed an act of liberality and tenderness." And another passage from the same marvellous essay: "There are men who always confound the praise of goodness with the practice, and who believe themselves mild and moderate, charitable and faithful, because they have exerted their eloquence in commendation of mildness, fidelity, and other virtues. This is an error almost universal among those that converse much with dependents, with such whose fear or interest disposes them to a seeming reverence for any declamation, however enthusiastic, and submission to any boast, however arrogant. Having none to recall their attention to their lives, they rate themselves by the goodness of their opinions, and forget how much more easily men may shew their virtue in their talk than in their actions." La Motte may have virtue in his heart, but he lacks the strength of character to live virtuously, especially when virtue interferes with his pleasures or impulses.



February 20, 2004

Re: Romance of Forest; Chastenay's French and Radcliffe's English Udolpho

I started what I mean to make a slow reread of Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho today. I am reading the English text side-by-side with the 1797 French translation by Victorine de Chastenay. Comparative study goes very slow; I've never tried to do anything like the before, but I do find I'm discovering things -- about Radcliffe as well as Chastenay. In Beebee's study of Prevost's French and Michaelis's German versions of Clarissa against Richardson's original Beebee quotes Walter Benjamin to the effect that a "translation can show a deeper truth behind the original." By joining "imperfect copies" with imperfect original, we can seek what was most deeply meant to be expressed. In another essay on translation I read this week, this one by Yves Bonnefoy, Bonnefoy argues that great (creative) translators discover the inner structure of a work and mirrors that through a mirroring elaboration. From the 17th century on translation theorists say that a great translator adds to, enrichens the text (rather like a book illustrator. I don't know that Chastenay is that good, but she is careful, conscientious and she's teaching me things about Radcliffe. Chastenay also differs in significant little ways which begin to add up to a different experience.

I quote two brief passages side-by-side. The idea here is voiced by Austen in Northanger Abbey when she (lightly but nonetheless for real) has Henry Tilney suggest to Catherine she is right to learn from Eleanor as "one cannot have too many holds on happiness." St Aubert has been teaching Emily with unremitting effort (reading, botanizing, moralizing) and the narrator in Radcliffe says he "promoted very innocent means of happiness," and then goes on to moralize

The vacant mind is ever on the watch for relief, and ready to plunge into error, to escape from the languor of idleness. Store it with ideas, teach it the pleasure of thinking; and the temptations of the world without, will be counteracted by the gratifications derived from the world within.

That inward folding backward and forwards kind of twisting is typical of Radcliffe's mind.

Chastenay in her French says St Aubert "multiplier ses moyens de jouissances." The connotations here are not innocent, and she goes on to moralize more directly:

Un esprit vide a toujours besoin d'amusements, et se plonge dans l'erreur pour eviter l'ennui. Le mouvement des idees fait de la reflexion une course de plaisirs, et les observations fournies par le monde lui-meme compensent les dangers des tentations qu'il offre.

The last clause is different: it says that the movement of ideas [through the mind[ make reflect a course of pleasure and observations furnished by the world itself compensate (balance, equalize) for the dangers of the temptations the world offers.

The French woman's heroine is filling her mind with thoughts from and about the world; to have these compensate for the dangers of social experience; the English woman's heroine derives her thoughts from within and these counteract the experience she had in the world. Careful reading of Radcliffe's opening in Udolpho as well as what she as narrator expresses of the minds of her characters in RofF coheres with what Leslie suggested. Radcliffe is a feminine Johnsonian -- as is Jane Austen. The opening chapters of Udolpho are about controlling passion, the problems of sensibility. Emily and her father are Marianne Dashwood characters; they have to deal with death. Radcliffe shows them struggling to get through life as controlled and rational strategy (when you can) the way we see Elinor Dashwood do. I can see Emily reading Johnson as frequently as it's suggested Fanny Price did. La Motte is for me Radcliffe's most interesting and persuasively present character before Schedoni (Italian). He's too selfish and bitter (or narrow) to be a tragic hero, but he is a man of real gifts, understanding and conscience who has been corrupted, fallen away and is now unable to stop himself from going into someone's power deeper in order momentarily to free himself. He's more successful as inward portraiture than Willoughby, more thoroughly internalized than Austen's Henry Crawford. The types across the fiction of the women in this period are interchangeable.

Scott fits in here too. I've never read Daniel Cottom's The Civilized Imagination: it's a study of Radcliffe, Austen and Scott and I can see the trajectory and links.

Last comment on reading Radcliffe for tonight: Terry Castle's Udolpho also has long notes at the back of the book. They are overlong; what she and Chloe Chard are doing is providing small essays attached to bits of information. Ultimately it's defensive editing. They suspect the reader will not come to Radcliffe with the idea she's an original genius and won't respect her so they are trying to bring in as much as they can to make the reader feel this is serious stuff and help the reader through information makes acts of historical imagination. I like the essays by Castle much better as Udolpho is a genuinely more in-depth book, based on learning, poetry, coming out of paintings. Castle's little essays are more appropriate. You need much much less for RofF. But for a first time reader of Udolpho Castle could feel every bit as intrusive and overdone as Chard; she slows you down and takes you away from the text at hand.


Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Glastonbury Abbey

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