Saturday, 2 January 2016

The Romance of the Forest

Time to light the lanthorns, dandle a child on your lap, and breathe deep of those unwholesome dews.

I've just finished reading The Romance of the Forest by pioneer of Gothic Fiction, Ann Radcliffe. Writing between the late 1700s to mid 1800s (she influenced the Marquis de Sade, Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Walter Scott, dontcha know?) she is a mystery unto herself. Christina Rossetti had to abandon a biography about her, because so little was known.

I openly admit, I knew nothing about her until I started Romance of the Forest, and it's an absolute mystery how that ended up on my Kindle. Sometimes people suggest things to me and I'll pop a copy on my TBR list, other times I'll be reading something good and it's mentioned in the story (for example Chrome Yellow in Out of Africa). Radcliffe's own Mysteries of Udolpho is mentioned in Austen's Northanger Abbey.

However I came by it, I was enamoured from the off. I'm a bit of a sucker for French translations: Dumas, Hugo, Leroux etc. There's a feel to that sort of stuff you just don't get anywhere else. I don't read a lot of it, but what I do, I tend to enjoy. When I started out with this, I honestly assumed it was a translation of a French male writer. Then I looked at the cover and saw it was a woman - English, of all things. 

The reason it confounded me is because she writes about women rather more as you'd expect a man to do - all that fainting and weeping. At least Milady de Winter and Esméralda had some bloody backbone.

No - seriously - why do women in Western European literature do so much fainting? 

Dropping like flies (or at least as far as many stories indicate), it seems as if well-bred ladies in the 1800s struggled to maintain consciousness when faced with even the slightest emotional or physical shock. Over the years there have been several theories as to why this seemed to happen, from the women’s garb to simply conforming to societal expectations... (full article)

Whatever. I was extremely excited to realise who this author was, and how long ago she was writing. Romance was first published in 1791, and she is widely renowned as the Mother of the Gothic Novel. I was instantly predisposed to like her, and, my gods, what a start to a novel. One of the best openers I have read in anything ever, dated or contemporary.

Up until mid-point it was utterly engrossing. Gothic to the max, intriguing, eerie, disquieting. Then the novel takes a rather different turn. The main character packs her bags for milder climes and it all descends into a bit of a pining love story, with pages and pages of poetry.

It's the literary equivalent of Dusk Till Dawn - one minute you think you're on a road trip, the next you're surrounded by vampires. Only, in reverse - the ghosts come first, then the road trip. 

Radcliffe is, without question, a superb craftswoman of the descriptive. She's extremely poetic in painting breathtaking scenes of alpine views and forest twilight. She just takes it to the extreme in places. There are only so many tremulous lakes and sanguine sunrises one can be bothered with whilst waiting to find out whether the hero is going to hang, or the villain prevail.

Although, I did rather like this one:

Life's a varied, bright illusion,

Joy and sorrow - light and shade;
Turn from sorrow's dark suffusion
Catch the pleasures ere they fade. 
Fancy paints with hues unreal

Smile of bliss, and sorrow's mood;
If they both are but ideal,
Why reject the seeming good? 
Hence! No more! 'Tis Wisdom calls ye,

Bids ye court Time's present aid;
The future trust not - hope enthrals ye,
Catch the pleasures ere they fade.

Radcliffe appears to have done a bit of travelling, and liked poetry, and at some point halfway through the book, her desire to share her love of poetry, and her own verse, seems to take over. You sort of get the feeling many of the scenes, and perhaps some of the characters, are taken from her own travels; offered up as a thing of beauty, rather than to advance the story. But, then, that's why classical literature is so much fun, it isn't polished to within an inch of its life like today's sleek, slender volumes. 

A couple of entertaining travel observations - given that she's writing mostly from the perspective of French characters:

Adeline found that no species of writing has power so effectually to withdraw her mind from the contemplation of its own misery as the higher kinds of poetry, and in these her taste soon taught her to distinguish the superiority of the English from that of the French. 
If it is the privilege of wisdom... to look beyond happiness, I own I had rather be without it. When we observe the English their laws, writings, and conversations, and at the same mark their countenance, manners, and the frequency of suicide among them, we are apt to believe that wisdom and happiness are incompatible.

There's quite a bit of philosophical insight. Though the phrase 'confirmation bias' wasn't coined until 1960, it seems to have been a concept well understood even at the end of the 18th century:

What should we say of a painter... who collects in his piece objects of a black hue only, who presented you with a black man, a black horse, a black dog, and tells you that his is a picture of nature, and that nature is black? - "Tis true," you would reply, "the objects you exhibit do exist in nature, but they form a very small part of her works. You say that nature is black, and, to prove it, you have collected on your canvas all the animals of this hue that exist. But you have forgot to paint the green earth, the blue sky, the white man, and objects of all those various hues with which creation abounds, and of which black is a very inconsiderable part."

And, after this passage, I'm convinced that Radcliffe and Red Rosa would have gotten along famously:

[River Paglion, Nice] In this blooming region Adeline observed that the countenances of the peasants, meagre and discontent, formed a melancholy contrast to the face of the country, and she lamented again the effects of an arbitrary government, where the bounties of nature, which were designed for all, are monopolised by a few, and the many suffer to starve tantalised by surrounding plenty.

Isn't it fun to wander through history and see how much stays the same? 

Though, thankfully, with less fainting.

Radcliffe certainly had a way with words. Some scraps that didn't fit elsewhere, but stood out:

When her mind was discomposed... a book was the opiate that lulled it to repose. 
[H]ow much that which is commonly called opinion is the result of passion and temper.  
It seems... as if we were walking over the ruins of the world, and were the only persons who had survived the wreck. 
The sharpness of death consists in parting with those who are dear to us; when that is passed, death is disarmed.

What can I say? I love her. A beautiful, elegant writer. 

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