Mrs. Radcliffe - PA Criticism Archive

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THOUGH every production which is good in its kind entitles its author to praise, a greater distinction is due to those which stand at the head of a class; and such are undoubtedly the novels of Mrs. Radcliffe,—which exhibit a genius of no common stamp. She seems to scorn to move those passions which form the interest of common novels: she alarms the soul with terror; agitates it with suspense, prolonged and wrought up to the most intense feeling, by mysterious hints and obscure intimations of unseen danger. The scenery of her tales is in "time-shook towers," [2]  vast uninhabited castles, winding stair-cases, long echoing aisles; or, if abroad, lonely heaths, gloomy forests, and abrupt precipices, the haunt of banditti;—the canvass and the figures of Salvator Rosa. Her living characters correspond to the scenery:—their wicked projects are dark, singular, atrocious. They are not of English growth; their guilt is tinged with a darker hue than that of the bad and profligate characters we see in the world about us; they seem almost to belong to an unearthly sphere of powerful mischief. But to the terror

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produced by the machinations of guilt, and the perception of danger, this writer has had the art to unite another, and possibly a stronger feeling. There is, perhaps, in every breast at all susceptible of the influence of imagination, the germ of a certain superstitious dread of the world unknown, which easily suggests the ideas of commerce with it. Solitude, darkness, low-whispered sounds, obscure glimpses of objects, flitting forms, tend to raise in the mind that thrilling, mysterious terror, which has for its object the "powers unseen and mightier far than we." [3]  But these ideas are suggested only; for it is the peculiar management of this author, that, though she gives, as it were, a glimpse of the world of terrible shadows, she yet stops short of any thing really supernatural: for all the strange and alarming circumstances brought forward in the narrative are explained in the winding up of the story by natural causes; but in the mean time the reader has felt their full impression.

The first production of this lady, in which her peculiar genius was strikingly developed, is The Romance of the Forest, and in some respects it is perhaps the best. [4]  It turns upon the machinations of a profligate villain and his agent against an amiable and unprotected girl, whose birth and fortunes have been involved in obscurity by crime and perfidy. The character of La Motte, the agent, is drawn with spirit. He is represented as weak and timid, gloomy and arbitrary in his family, drawn by extravagance into vice and atrocious actions; capable of remorse, but not capable of withstanding temptation. There is a


scene between him and the more hardened marquis, who is tempting him to commit murder, which has far more nature and truth than the admired scene between King John and Hubert, in which the writer's imagination has led him rather to represent the action to which the king is endeavouring to work his instrument, as it would be seen by a person who had a great horror of its guilt, than in the manner in which he ought to represent it in order to win him to his purpose:

—————If the midnight bell
Did with his iron tongue and brazen mouth
Sound one unto the drowsy ear of night,
If this same were a churchyard where we stand,
And thou possessed with a thousand wrongs,
———— if thou couldst see me without eyes,
Hear me without thine ears, and make reply
Without a tongue, &c. [5] 

What must be the effect of such imagery, but to infuse into the mind of Hubert that horror of the crime with which the spectator views the deed, and which it was the business, indeed, of Shakespear to impress upon the mind of the spectator, but not of King John to impress upon Hubert? In the scene referred to, on the other hand, the Marquis, whose aim is to tempt La Motte to the commission of murder, begins by attempting to lower his sense of virtue, by representing it as the effect of prejudices imbibed in early youth; reminds him that in many countries the stiletto is resorted to without scruple; treats as trivial his former deviations from integrity; and, by lulling his conscience and awakening his cupidity, draws him to his purpose.

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There are many situations in this novel which strike strongly upon the imagination. Who can read without a shudder, that Adeline in her lonely chamber at the abbey hardly dared to lift her eyes to the glass, lest she should see another face than her own reflected from it? or who does not sympathize with her feelings, when, thinking she has effected her escape with Peter, she hears a strange voice, and finds herself on horseback in a dark night carried away by an unknown ruffian?

The next work which proceeded from Mrs. Radcliffe's pen was The Mysteries of Udolpho. Similar to the former in the turn of its incidents, and the nature of the feelings it is meant to excite, it abounds still more with instances of mysterious and terrific appearances, but has perhaps less of character, and a more imperfect story. It has been the aim in this work to assemble appearances of the most impressive kind, which continually present the idea of supernatural agency, but which are at length accounted for by natural means. They are not always, however, well accounted for; and the mind experiences a sort of disappointment and shame at having felt so much from appearances which had nothing in them beyond "this visible diurnal sphere." [6]  The moving of the pall in the funereal chamber is of this nature. The curtain which no one dares to undraw, interests us strongly; we feel the utmost stings and throbs of curiosity; but we have been affected so repeatedly, the suspense has been so long protracted, and expectation raised so high, that no ex-


planation can satisfy, no imagery of horrors can equal the vague shapings of our imagination.

The story of Udolpho is more complicated and perplexed than that of The Romance of the Forest; but it turns, like that, on the terrors and dangers of a young lady confined in a castle. The character of her oppressor, Montoni, is less distinctly marked than that of La Motte; and it is a fault in the story, that its unravelling depends but little on the circumstances that have previously engaged our attention. Another castle is introduced; wonders are multiplied upon us; and the interest we had felt in the castle of Udolpho in the Appenines, is suddenly transferred to Chateau le Blanc among the Pyrenees.

The Mysteries of Udolpho is the most popular of this author's performances, and as such has been chosen for this Selection; but perhaps it is exceeded in strength by her next publication, The Sicilian. [7]  Nothing can be finer than the opening of this story. An Englishman on his travels, walking through a church, sees a dark figure stealing along the aisles. He is informed that he is an assassin. On expressing his astonishment that he should find shelter there, he is told that such adventures are common in Italy. His companion then points to a confessional in an obscure aisle of the church. "There," says he, "in that cell, such a tale of horror was once poured into the ear of a priest as overwhelmed him with astonishment, nor was the secret ever disclosed." This prelude, like the tuning of an instrument by a skilful hand, has the effect of producing at once in the mind a tone of feeling cor-


respondent to the future story. In this, as in the former productions, the curiosity of the reader is kept upon the stretch by mystery and wonder. The author seems perfectly to understand that obscurity, as Burke has asserted, is a strong ingredient in the sublime:—a face shrowded in a cowl; a narrative suddenly suspended; deep guilt half revealed; the untold secrets of a prison-house; the terrific shape, "if shape it might be called, that shape had none distinguishable;"—all these affect the mind more powerfully than any regular or distinct images of danger or of woe. [8] 

But this novel has also high merit in the character of Schedoni, which is strikingly drawn, as is his personal appearance. "His figure," says the author, "was striking, but not so from grace. It was tall, and though extremely thin, his limbs were large and uncouth; and as he stalked along, wrapped in the black garments of his order, there was something terrible in his air, something almost superhuman. His 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 trace of many passions, which seemed to have fixed the features they no longer animated. His eyes were so piercing that they seemed to penetrate with a single glance into the hearts of men, and to read their most secret thoughts; few persons could support their scrutiny, or even endure to meet them twice." A striking figure for the painter to transfer to the canvass; perhaps some


picture might originally have suggested it. The scene where this singular character is on the point of murdering his own daughter, as she then appears to be, is truly tragical, and wrought up with great strength and pathos. It is impossible not to be interested in the situation of Ellen, in the convent, when her lamp goes out while she is reading a paper on which her fate depends; and again when, in making her escape, she has just got to the end of the long vaulted passage, and finds the door locked, and herself betrayed. The scenes of the Inquisition are too much protracted, and awaken more curiosity than they fully gratify; perhaps than any story can gratify.

In novels of this kind, where the strong charm of suspense and mystery is employed, we hurry through with suspended breath, and in a kind of agony of expectation; but when we are come to the end of the story, the charm is dissolved, we have no wish to read it again; we do not recur to it as we do to the characters of Western in Tom Jones, [9]  or the Harrels in Cecilia; [10]  the interest is painfully strong while we read, and when once we have read it, it is nothing; we are ashamed of our feelings, and do not wish to recall them.

There are beauties in Mrs. Radcliffe's volumes, which would perhaps have more effect if our curiosity were less excited,—for her descriptions are rich and picturesque. Switzerland, the south of France, Venice, the valleys of Piedmont, the bridge, the cataract, and especially the charming bay of Naples, the dances of the peasants, with the vine-dressers and the fishermen,


have employed her pencil. Though love is but of a secondary interest in her story, there is a good deal of tenderness in the parting scenes between Emily and Valancourt in The Mysteries of Udolpho, when she dismisses him, who is still the object of her tenderness, on account of his irregularities.

It ought not to be forgotten that there are many elegant pieces of poetry interspersed through the volumes of Mrs. Radcliffe; among which are to be distinguished as exquisitely sweet and fanciful, the Song to a Spirit, and The Sea Nymph, "Down down a hundred fathom deep!" [11]  They might be sung by Shakespear's Ariel. The true lovers of poetry are almost apt to regret its being brought in as an accompaniment to narrative, where it is generally neglected; for not one in a hundred, of those who read and can judge of novels, are at all able to appreciate the merits of a copy of verses, and the common reader is always impatient to get on with the story.

The Sicilian is the last of Mrs. Radcliffe's performances. [12]  Some have said that, if she wishes to rise in the horrors of her next, she must place her scene in the infernal regions. She would not have many steps to descend thither from the courts of the Inquisition.

Mrs. Radcliffe has also published, jointly with her husband, Travels in Germany and Holland.  [13] 


[1] The British Novelists; with an Essay; and Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, by Mrs. Barbauld, 50 Vols. (London: Printed for F.C. and J. Rivington; W. Otridge and Son; A. Strahan; T. Payne; G. Robinson; W. Lowndes; Wilkie and Robinson; Scatcherd and Letterman; J. Walker; Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe; R. Lea; J. Nunn; Lackington and Co.; Clarke and Son; C. Law; Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme; Cadell and Davies; E. Jeffery; J.K. Newman; Crosby and Co.; J. Carpenter; S. Bagster; T. Booth; J. Murray; J. and J. Richardson; Black, Parry, and Kingsbury; J. Harding; R. Phillips; J. Mawman; J. Booker; J. Asperne; R. Baldwin; Mathews and Leigh; J. Faulder; Johnson and Co.; Sherwood and Co.; J. Miller; W. Creech, Edinburgh; and Wilson and Son, York, 1810), 43:i-viii. Mary A. Waters edited this edition for The Criticism Archive. BACK

[2] Elizabeth Carter, "Ode to Wisdom" 3 (1747). BACK

[3] Alexander Pope, Essay on Man III, 251-2, slightly altered. BACK

[4] This 1795 novel is actually Radcliffe's third. While Barbauld might almost be justified in ignoring Radcliffe's first, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), readers usually regard the 1790 A Sicilian Romance as a work of merit. Since Barbauld seems to confuse the title of A Sicilian Romance with that of The Italian (see below), perhaps this confusion explains the omission. BACK

[5] Shakespeare's King John III.iii.37-50, the first five lines of which serve as part of an epigraph to Chapter 14 of The Romance of the Forest. Radcliffe’s epigraph continues with the lines that Barbauld here deletes. BACK

[6] Milton, Paradise Lost Bk. 7, 22. BACK

[7] Barbauld describes The Italian (1797). Radcliffe never wrote a novel called The Sicilian. BACK

[8] In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke stressed obscurity as a critical characteristic of the sublime. Burke's work helped bring new respectability to Gothic literature and formed a standard in British aesthetics through the Romantic period and beyond. The quotation from Milton's description of Death in Paradise Lost (Bk. II, 667) serves Burke as one of the most powerful examples of the effect of obscurity in producing ideas of the sublime. BACK

[9] 1749 novel by Henry Fielding. BACK

[10] 1782 novel by Fanny Burney. BACK

[11] The first line of the poem "The Sea Nymph," which appears in Chapter II of The Mysteries of Udolpho is "Down, down a thousand fathom deep,". BACK

[12] Radcliffe's Gaston de Blondeville was published posthumously in 1826. BACK

[13] A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794, through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany, with a Return Down the Rhine (1795). BACK

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