Sunday, July 31, 2011

Neglected classics: The Mysteries of Udolpho

Ann Radcliffe
Proof (if proof is needed) that I really am a nerd is made manifest in my response to the Twilight/vampire/gothic phenomena of recent years.  I did eventually read Twilight at the urging of my teenage daughter, but my response was not to devour the rest of the series, but to at last fulfill an intention I’ve had for the past twenty years, to finally read some of the original, eighteenth century gothic novels.  Although I blogged previously on The Monk, the first true gothic novel I read was Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, satirized by Jane Austen refers to in  Northanger Abbey.    

The heroine, Emily, left orphaned and at the mercy of uncaring relatives, is forced to leave the man she loves and travel with her guardian aunt (who has made a rash marriage) to Italy: first Venice and then the remote Castle Udolpho.  In between resisting her aunt’s husband’s attempts to sell her to the highest bidder, she seeks to unravel the mystery concerning her dead father’s connection to a supposedly murdered Marchioness, who was once an inhabitant of the castle.

This is a typical, peripatetic and lengthy eighteenth century volume.  One of the chief things it did was to remind me once more of Austen’s own achievement in launching her pithy, domestic novels on the world.  The lengthy travelogues (although making a point about finding meaning and consolation in the divinely created world) can be tiring, as can the poems, and the deus ex machina ending was quite a disappointment to me.  The element of horror is subdued; there is almost a humour in the way Radcliffe leads the readers to the brink of horrific discoveries time and again, only to draw back. 

What the novel does highlight, though, is the plight of young women of the upper classes dependent on their guardians’ whims.  Emily is often left physically helpless, and only survives through the philosophy of self control imparted by her father before his death.  Although historically interesting, I think The Mysteries of Udolpho is best read if you are already familiar with novels of this period, or you may find the style offputting.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Summertime, and the readin' is easy...

Summer is the time to (hopefully) kick back and take things easy – sometimes regardless of the to-do list!  Here are some new historical and classic recommendations for slower paced reads from members of my critique group.

Victoria Dixon aka the Ron Empress, recommends two new YAs (Young Adult Books), both my Pat Lowery Collins: Hidden Voices, set in 18th century Venice and Daughter of Winter.  Since I’m not familiar with Ms. Collins, I’ve taken the liberty of paraphrasing from her website here.  Daughter of Winter is set in mid-nineteenth century Massachusetts. After twelve-year-old Addie’s father has left to go gold prospecting, and her mother and brother die of the flux, Adiie flees into the woods, where she meets an older Wampanoag woman takes her in and she begins to learn the truth of her past.
Hidden Voices is set in 18th century Venice and tells the stories of three girls living in the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage renowned for its extraordinary musical program. The girls are sheltered by the orphanage and their talent nurtured by the young Antonio Vivaldi, but they are to learn that life in the real world, and a search for love, brings unthinkable dangers.

Writer Carolyn Domini reminds us to pick up the Brother Cadfael mystery series by Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter).  She comments, “For an absorbing traipse into the world medieval, there is nothing better, no character more soothing or sharp-witted at once, no medieval mystery more finessed.”  If you’ve only seen the TV series, it’s time to treat yourself to the original books.  If you’re familiar with neither, but enjoy murder mysteries and/or medieval history, you’ll love these stories of warrior-turned-monk Cadfael, the herbalist at Shrewsbury Abbey.  Ellis Peters writes in the classic vein of the traditional mystery and sets the bar high for all medieval mystery writers that have followed her.

Since my theme is summer reading, and I’m actually at the beach in Dorset, I recommend The Shrimp and the Anemone by L.P. Hartley.  It’s the first in three books, sometimes published as the Eustace and Hilda trilogy, and a book I first read while at school.  I liked it so much that it prompted me to read the others voluntarily!  Plus, I think it counts as a neglected classic nowadays.

In The Shrimp and the Anemone, set in Edwardian England, we meet Eustace and his sister Hilda as children, holidaying on the Norfolk coast.  Their mother has died several years earlier, and Hilda has taken it upon herself to fulfill this role for her Eustace, unconsciously setting up a domineering relationship that will affect her sensitive and introverted younger brother his whole life.  The story unfolds gently through the eyes of Eustace, and it is L.P. Hartley’s triumph that he captures so exquisitely the inner life of a young boy while allowing adult readers to read, sometimes painfully, between the lines.

Enjoy your summer (if it’s summer in your hemisphere); if I get more recommendations for historical and classic slow reads, I’ll be glad to highlight them in another post.