by iampunha | 7/09/2008 08:00:00 AM
She didn't invent the genre, but Lord did she ever capture the imaginations of its readers.

At 30 years old, she had written one of the great Gothic novels.

Really, what can you do after that? Write a second of the great Gothic novels? Try to write the worst popular Gothic novel?

These days, a popular writer would travel the circuit, appearing on talk shows, doing book readings and (my ultimate goal) giving press to bookstores and booksellers with character. I'd go to the kind of places (and visit the kind of people) that don't push you to buy but push you to learn.

Today's honoree didn't do that (in part because there was no 18th century Oprah). In fact, other than write masterful Gothic novels, today's honoree mostly stayed home. The Mysteries of Udolpho was as mysterious as was its author.

Today, as with every other day, you don't have to go anywhere to learn about Ann Radcliffe, born on July 9, 1764.

For South African Olympic participation, renewed today in 1991 with a new dedication to equality among all South Africans.

And for the victims of the horrendous policies enacted by Donald H. Rumsfeld, born today in 1932.

Finally, a note of thanks to Radford University English professor Dr. Parks Lanier, whose critical, biographical and historical knowledge guides this entry. You get this information from me, but his is the scholarship, mine merely the forwarding.

In college, I took a class on British literature from Milton or so to as close to the modern literary age as the professor could get while still covering the canonical basics.

One of the many benefits of having gone to (and graduated from) a relatively small college is that my old professors actually have the time to answer my e-mail queries and announcements to them. As my Early American Literature answered my e-mail about my Anne Hutchinson diary, so did this professor answer my query on Ann Radcliffe.

Today, her reputation is eclipsed by Mary Godwin Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein (1816). In her own time, Radcliffe was very well known. She was born in 1764, the year Walpole published his ground-breaking Gothic Thriller The Castle of Otranto. She lived until 1823, but published nothing after 1797. Her success came as the emotional coldness of the Neo-Classical period ("Sense") gave way to an indulgence in feeling ("Sensibility"). Radcliffe's heroines weep easily. Today's readers are likely to find her "sentimental."

There is more (so much more) from Dr. Lanier, and this entry could easily be nothing more than my quoting my former professor, who shares my love of research (though he's done a bit more of it) and my love of grammar. (When he teaches grammar classes, the final exam is to assign form and function to every word of the Gettysburg Address.)

But within the story of Ann Radcliffe is the story of a woman who did not write what she knew about. She went against the conventions. And that story is, to me, at least as interesting as any of her Gothic novels.

Quoth Dr. Lanier:

Ann Radcliffe led a reclusive life. By 1809, readers thought she was dead. There was a rumor that her interest in Gothic horror had driven her insane.

There is another dialog to be had here, one regarding the sentimentality and mental weakness of women (as perceived back in the day, and an image still perpetuated by some people), and one that ignores the sheer mass of female readers of the Gothic novel. It also, helped by a lack of pre-modern scholarship, ignores the number of women who were writing back in the day:

Many, many women writers of the [19th century] have fallen by the wayside and are being resurrected by feminist critics. It is [amazing] how many women did publish before 1850. Look up Hawthorne's famous complaint about the "damned mob of scribbling women" to see how successful they were. Women did not need to take men's names in order to publish. Mary Ann Evans, for example, chose to write as George Eliot in order to set herself apart from the "mob" of other women writers.

That they were women and that some of them were writing exciting, easy-to-follow prose, rather than poetry extolling the virtues of some Greek figure, meant their work was not fit for public consumption, supposedly. In another class I took, a female novelist was quoted as complaining about how her public acceptance was massive the more she ignored her contemporary male editors, yet she was somehow beholden to them anyway.

(For a decent discussion of Evans' decision to write as George Eliot, read this.)

There's every reason here to engender (heh) a more substantive discussion on gender and writing, gender and creativity, gender and sensitivity, but there is an even more interesting point to be made:

Ann Radcliffe, writer of one of the best Gothic novels, wrote about the fantastic without experiencing it.

This is true of many Gothic writers, who couldn't exactly have experiences to draw upon when it came to witches, werewolves and other mythical figures.

But Radcliffe was a regular Emily Dickinson when it came to the outside world. She didn't even take many guests:

Jane Austen may have had access to Radcliffe, but I doubt [William] Beckford or [Matthew "Monk"] Lewis would have been allowed in the house.

In the cases of Beckford and Lewis, the lack of access to Radcliffe had at least as much do to with artistic differences as Radcliffe's reclusiveness. But otherwise, Radcliffe just plain didn't go many places, though you'd never know it (page author's bolding and underlining removed):

This pass, which led into the heart of the Apennine, at length opened to day, and a scene of mountains stretched in long perspective, as wild as any the travellers had yet passed. Still vast pine-forests hung upon their base, and crowned the ridgy precipice, that rose perpendicularly from the vale, while, above, the rolling mists caught the sun-beams, and touched their cliffs with all the magical colouring of light and shade. The scene seemed perpetually changing, and its features to assume new forms as the winding road brought them to the eye in different attitudes while the shifting vapours, now partially concealing their minuter beauties and now illuminating them with splendid tints, assisted the illusions of the sight.

Instead of going places, she looked at paintings:

For most contemporary readers, the charm and much of the originality of Radcliffe's novel lay in her descriptions of landscape, which were influenced by her favorite painters–Salvator Rosa, Claude, and Gaspar Poussin.

And indeed, as Dr. Lanier notes:

Radcliffe did not get her famous scenery from actually visiting those places so carefully drawn in her novels. It is no accident she was nicknamed 'The Salvator Rosa of fiction.' The gloomy sublime of Rosa's paintings fed her imagination.

Pay particular attention to Dr. Lanier's use of "gloomy sublime" there -- the man earned his doctorate writing on aspects of the sublime (in the poetry of William Wordsworth, if memory serves).

This notion of gaining popular acclaim by writing not based on visits to locales but to museums casts some doubt on the old premise that to write well, one must write on what one knows. And one knows nothing better than what is familiar.

Familiarity breeding content, to alter the famous sentiment, suggests to us that we will not be able to write convincingly about a subject unless we know of what we speak.

I've found, in practice, that people will believe most anything if it looks credible and they have no information to the contrary. (The fascinating thing is accepting the existence of vampires, then saying "They wouldn't say that!" and such. There is lack of credibility even in fiction.)

But I've also come to accept the truth of this exchange:

Sean: Thought about what you said to me the other day, about my painting. Stayed up half the night thinking about it. Something occurred to me... fell into a deep peaceful sleep, and haven't thought about you since. Do you know what occurred to me?
Will: No.
Sean: You're just a kid, you don't have the faintest idea what you're talkin' about.
Will: Why thank you.
Sean: It's all right. You've never been out of Boston.
Will: Nope.
Sean: So if I asked you about art, you'd probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life's work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You've never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you'd probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can't tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You're a tough kid. And I'd ask you about war, you'd probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, "once more unto the breach dear friends." But you've never been near one. You've never held your best friend's head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I'd ask you about love, you'd probably quote me a sonnet. But you've never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn't know what it's like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn't know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms "visiting hours" don't apply to you. You don't know about real loss, 'cause it only occurs when you've loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you've ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you... I don't see an intelligent, confident man... I see a cocky, scared shitless kid. But you're a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my fucking life apart. You're an orphan right?
[Will nods]
Sean: You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally... I don't give a shit about all that, because you know what, I can't learn anything from you, I can't read in some fuckin' book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I'm fascinated. I'm in. But you don't want to do that do you sport? You're terrified of what you might say. Your move, chief.

I could write about race, gender, sports, art, all of that for another 50 years. And all of the research I can do, every quotation I can pull, every word someone else wrote first ... would give you and me a great picture of what happened.

But I can't tell you what a riot smells like.

I can't tell you what it feels like to wake up the morning after you've been hit in the gut with water from a fire hose.

"Whites only" excludes my beliefs, but not my body.

And I'll never be able to identify innately with the feeling a black person has seeing that sign. There's an element of the struggle in every story I tell that I can't write about.

I don't know it to write about it. I can't see it, don't know how it smells and can't taste it in my mind. And if I try to grope about in the dark for it, all I end up doing is wasting my time and dishonoring the efforts of those who've had their hands full of the stuff, had it stain their palms, worn gloves to mask it.

So ... I do what I can. I quote the people who were there to talk about it. At my best, I "write the stories we weren't told about the people we never knew who made our world what we always thought we'd learned all about." But at my best, I'm writing those stories based very, very heavily on others' stories. And at my best, you're not thinking of me, not thinking about how I've written something. You get lost in the words I happen to have found, and you forget (as I do) that we aren't in 17th century America, that we aren't listening to this guy or serving with any of these people.

But do not ever confuse me with someone who has been there. When I haven't, I'll try to tell the stories through the words of those who were there.

And when I have, you'll know, because I won't be quoting much of anyone.

I'll be telling you what's going on.

Ann Radcliffe didn't go there. She didn't do that. (For that matter, neither did many of our great writers. Shakespeare never got shipwrecked, but he wrote The Tempest all the same.) But because she was writing fantasy, it didn't so much matter. She did it well, and she was recognized:

Joseph Wharton (died 1800), a pre-Romantic poet and critic, could not put Udolpho down. he sat up the greater part of a night to finish it. We know Radcliffe admired his verse because she uses it for epigraphs before chapters. Warton extolled imagination and originality.
Jane Austen satirizes the Gothic novel in her delightful Northanger Abbey (1803; publ. 1817). Poor Catherine has read too much Radcliffe and sees murder around every corner. It's funny to watch her scare herself.

Sir Walter Scott's series of Waverly novels (largely historical fiction) changed the taste of readers. Indeed, in Waverly, he said some unkind things about Udolpho and hurt Radcliffe's feelings. But he had many kind things to say about her later in Lives of the Novelists.

Some would say the Byronic hero owes something to Radcliffe's dark villains. Lord Byron must have been thrilled to [have] a character like "The Italian" in her novel by the same name.

I suspect Matthew "Monk" Lewis, author of The Monk, learned a few tricks from her. She stopped writing a few years after The Monk appeared (1795). She might have disliked where young lewis (he was only 20) was going with the genre. [William] Beckford's lurid Vathek, a mingling of Gothic and Orientalism, had shown the same tendency in 1786.