Yesterday’s post was a big one, so I’m going to try to keep it short today. Today is the birthday of not one, but two Gothic novelists. Ann Radcliffe, who was born in 1764 and Matthew Gregory Lewis, who was born in 1775. Both, as far as I can tell, in London.
Details about the life of Ann Radcliffe are pretty few and far between. Christina Rosetti once began to write her biography, but had to abandon it for lack of information. Ann was married to a journalist and they had no children. Ann filled in the long hours whilst her husband was at work by writing stories and poetry. She published six novels and probably the most famous now is ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’. This is because it features heavily in another novel, ‘Northanger Abbey’ by Jane Austin. It features many of the characteristics we associate with the Gothic. An orphaned young woman, held captive in a remote castle by an aunt and her cruel husband. She has an unwanted suitor and a true love. The discomfort of her situation is compounded by the creepy castle. There are doors which close on their own, apparitions, sounds in the night. What people loved about her work were the vivid descriptions of the landscape and settings. She includes many long descriptions of landscapes, describing places she’d never visited herself, but drew her inspiration from paintings. Though the money she earned from her writing did eventually allow her to travel. Radcliffe’s heroine highlights how much a young woman was at the mercy of the men in her life. She can be taken away by a virtual stranger and forced to marry someone she doesn’t like. Eventually though, she gets away, inherits property and marries her true love.
The seemingly supernatural elements in Radcliffe’s novels are only there to illustrate the mood of the characters. In the end it turns out that there is a perfectly natural explanation. In the case of Udolpho, there are pirates in the castle. The writers of Scooby Doo must have been fans of Radcliffe and her oeuvre. Ann Radcliffe felt the power to scare lay very much in what she called the difference between ‘terror’ and ‘horror’. Between what is imagined and what is laid out in front of you in startling and gory detail. She says: “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life, and the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them.” Her point was that something which is partly seen stimulates the imagination to fill in the rest of the details.
Matthew Gregory Lewis, on the other hand, enjoyed laying out all of the horror for us to see. He was a well-travelled and gregarious person, destined for a diplomatic career. You might like to know that he was briefly an MP and succeeded William Beckford, the author of Vathek, in his constituency. He made several attempts to write plays, in which he was only moderately successful. In 1803, his play ‘The Captive’ was staged at the Haymarket. It was about a woman imprisoned by her husband. Devoid of human contact, she realises she is on the brink of madness. It was performed only once. The audience hadn’t taken it well:
“…when it was almost half over a man fell into convulsions in the boxes; presently after a woman fainted away in the pit; and when the curtain dropped, two or three more of the spectators went into hysterics, and there was such a screaming and squalling, that really you could hardly hear the hissing…”
It seems even the theatre staff were horrified by it. Part of what was so frightening about his play was that in real life, no woman was safe from this fate. It was all to easy to claim that a woman was mad and have her locked up, no matter what her social standing. But Lewis was clearly pretty good at showing people something that scared them. His most famous work though, is a novel called ‘The Monk’. It is, of course, about a monk. He thinks of himself as a very pious man and is very proud of it and, as you might guess, this is a set up for a spectacular fall from grace. A nun, who disguises herself as a monk just to be near his ‘holiness’, eventually tempts him into a sexual relationship. There is rape, murder, imprisonment, incest, the spectre of a bleeding nun and a pact with the Devil, all luridly described. The Monk is the first novel to feature a holy man as the villain.
Ann Radcliffe did not care too much for The Monk, she felt it was all a bit graphic and it was probably what prompted her to write her essay about terror and horror. I have to admit, I haven’t read either of these novels. I’m writing about a new and unfamiliar subject every day, and there just isn’t time. Of the two though, The Monk sounds more readable for a modern audience. But I have to agree with Ann that, in fiction at least, a horrible thing which is presented to us in graphic detail is not as powerful as anything our imaginations can supply.