Austenalia, Book Reviews/Discussions

A Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

Full disclosure:  I bought this book because of the subtitle:  The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.  I should have known that I wouldn’t like it from the lack of an Oxford comma in the subtitle, but I pressed on.  The authors are academics, and there are endnotes and lists of sources, so it appears their research was extensive.  However, I found the chapters about Austen to be highly speculative and therefore, disappointing. Based on a few letters, which they read in a particular way, the authors build a whole “unknown” friendship between Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, the governess for Austen’s niece Fanny Knight. While it is true that Sharp did work for the family, and there appears to have been some interaction, and even some exchange of letters–most of those letters did not survive and Midorikawa and Sweeney read a lot into the ones which do, including some interactions between Cassandra and Anne after Jane’s death.  I think more work needs to be done with the sources they used and perhaps more searching for additional sources to verify their suppositions before their thesis, at least in terms of Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, can be addressed. Deirdre LeFay says it better than I do in this article.

The authors argue that these four women writers had mostly unknown relationships with other women which served to inspire and/or support their writing. The problem is that the evidence is pretty thin for them even being friends, at least in the case of Austen and Sharp, and nonexistent to show that if their friendship did exist, it provided any kind of support for either of them writing. I cannot speak to the other three authors discussed in the book, since I did not finish reading the book, but other commentators who knew about Woolf have written in reviews that there was really nothing new in this book. 

I would have to call  this a disappointment and I could not recommend it for those with an interest in Austen. Save your money for Janine Barchas’s new book instead.

Austenalia, Book Reviews/Discussions

The Regency Years by Robert Morrison

The full title is The Regency Years: during which Jane Austen writes, Napoleon fights, Byron makes love, and Britain becomes modern. Morrison’s book is highly readable and engaging, while maintaining a level of scholarly rigor not often seen in works marketed to a lay audience.  For those interested, there is a wealth of endnotes and reference lists. I will be investigating several as soon as possible. Hats off to Norton for including them.  I am happy to see academic historians, such as Morrison seeking to write accessible history that still adheres to the standards of the discipline.

Morrison’s main argument goes something like this: The Regency, though only a decade (~1811-1820), was a time of many world altering events and an explosion of creative output in almost all areas, including literature and the arts, science, engineering, and even politics throughout the world, but particularly in Britain.  Because of these events and the outsize personalities of many of the creatives, the Regency is where we should look for the roots of modernity, rather than the Victorian era. He gathers evidence from areas as diverse as sport and other forms of entertainment, sex, and landscape design. He manages to include the words of several women, albeit mostly of the upper classes, as well as evidence from the lives of free people of color. Although the scope is Britain, he makes the effort to take into account different perspectives, such as North Americans, including native people, and views from other colonized areas and people. He does not flinch from taking a hard look at from whence the prosperity of the Regency arose–often the backs of the working classes along with colonial expansion and exploitation. He uses the contradictions of the Regent himself–an urbane supporter of the arts who could also be crude and gluttonous for more than just food and drink–as a symbol of the contradictions of the Regency–a time of glorious literature and great advancements in science during which the wealth gap became ever wider and whole swathes of society lived in abject poverty and filth. 

At several points he seems to be using the Regency as a warning to us in the present;  the struggles for political representation and fairness engaged in by the working classes mostly ended badly, such as the Peterloo Massacre, because of the government’s overriding fear of something like the French Revolution happening in Britain. During much of the Regency, Wellington is fighting Napoleon somewhere. The warning isn’t that the people will be defeated, but that they have a point and that protest can lead to positive change without violence. 

During the Regency, radical orators, politicians, novelists, satirists, caricaturists, philanthropists, poets and journalists assailed the entrenched hierarchies of Church and State from every available angle, and focused in particular on the trumped-up, tricked-out Regent as a symbol of all that was wrong with Britain. Their strategies loosened the grip of Regency intolerance. Their courage and insight remain as inspiration to those who seek to carry on their work… (63).

While I enjoyed the book immensely and would highly recommend it for learning more about the Regency period, I am less certain that Morrison’s argument that the Regency is the root of modernity is completely convincing.  I don’t disagree, and he has more than enough evidence for the first part of his argument about the Regency as a watershed politically and creatively, it is difficult to trace the origins of a concept such as modernity. To be fair, Morrison is does show convincingly that the Regency era marks the beginning of realistic novel writing as opposed to Gothic/Romances (NOTE: this usage of Romance is the more classical meaning of a genre in which a hero has a quest), but he also rightly points out that the most popular novelist at the time was Walter Scott who situated his works squarely in the Romance category, albeit the newish genre of Historical Romance.  Even though Scott and the Regent admired Austen’s works, they never achieved the popularity of Scott’s during her own lifetime. In retrospect, Austen’s reputation outstripped that of Scott (for more about that read this recent article by Janine Barchas and Devoney Looser–you may recognize the license plate!), but this makes the case for realistic novel writing as a “movement” of Regency rather less sure. 

Likewise Morrison’s tracing of protest movements.  Though he argues successfully that they existed and that ideas about nonviolence may be traced to some stars of Regency protests, ultimately there is no indication that anything actually changed as a result. Even Peterloo did not really bring about any desired change. “Liverpool’s government was unrepentant. It tried, convicted, and imprisoned several radical leaders…It passed the notorious Six Acts, which introduced harsh measures of control over assembly, the popular press, and the bearing or arms” (56). Morrison is continuing the conversation about the significance of the Regency which will likely continue as more evidence is discovered, sifted, sorted, and analyzed.

Morrison’s use of a core cast of Regency characters lends continuity and a sense of intimacy to his work. He draws heavily from Byron, Leigh Hunt, Austen, The Wordsworths, Scott, two sets of Lambs, and Hazlitt among others.  By using evidence from these luminaries in each chapter, the reader gains a sense of the familiar that serves as a throughline for the book as it describes wide ranging aspects of the Regency. Morrison, not unsurprisingly, uses evidence most frequently from figures he has written about before in his other works.  This is both a strength–because he knows them well–and a weakness, because it limits the evidence. However, it is not a serious weakness and his conscious decisions to look for representations from all classes and types of people offsets any real criticism for sticking with his cast of Regency characters. It would be impossible not to limit the evidence somehow or else risk a book too long to read comfortably.

I recommend Morrison’s work to those with an interest in the Regency period–it is entertaining and informative, as well as being methodically sound. Enjoy!

Austenalia

Austen in Austin

Book Sculpture by Mike Stilkey

Yesterday, we had our regional Jane Austen Society of North America regional meeting–it was a great way to start off the year. We heard a wonderful talk by the president of JASNA entitled, “Jane Austen, Working Woman,” followed by a visit to the Harry Ransom Center to view the “Austen in Austin” exhibit, a part of a larger exhibit, Stories to Tell. Our tour was lead by Janine Barchas, UT professor and the curator of the Austen cases. Unfortunately, the exhibit closed today, but Janeites should know that the HRC owns the Austen family copies of her works–with annotations made by Cassandra. The photo below shows one of the annotations, but it is very faint. It is in a copy of Persuasion, and it reads, “Dear Jane, these words should be written in letters of gold.”

Another hidden gem from the exhibit is an association copy of Persuasion owned by T. H. White. White penned a locked room mystery based on Austen’s characters in 1932, “Darkness at Pemberly”, which was also adapted for a Radio BBC program. I will be looking to see if I can find a recording, but in the meantime, you can read the story here at project Gutenburg.

More Austenalia to come soon!

Austenalia

New Year, New Look…

Last year I began the Year of Reading Dangerously to celebrate the theme of the 2019 JASNA Annual General Meeting, which was focused on Northanger Abbey. It was great fun and I plan to continue reading and commenting on more Gothic fiction this year. However, it is a new year, and I have decided to broaden my scope and include a category of posts entitled Austenalia, which will be related to all things Austen and Regency. You can still see the Year of Reading Dangerously by clicking on the tag for that, but those posts will also be in the Austenalia category for anyone who would like to begin at the beginning. I have almost finished Robert Morrison’s book, The Regency Years: during which Jane Austen writes, Napoleon fights, Byron makes love, and Britain becomes modern, and it will open the series later on this week.

Until then, happy new year and happy reading and teatotalling to all!

Austenalia

The Mysteries of Udolpho, the final chapters…

Dear Reader,

I do apologize for taking so long to finish up with Mrs. Radcliffe’s enormous tome.  My goal was to finish it before the JASNA AGM, and I did, but just the day before on the plane, so it was only by a hair’s breadth.  Then the splendour of the AGM temporarily stalled my book reviewing plans. At long last, I will fill you in on what happens to Emily, whether Valencourt wins fair maiden, and what befalls the evil Montoni.

One of the sessions I attended was a talk by Marsha Huff entitled, “The Gothic Key,” in which Ms. Huff read Udolpho so that Janeites wouldn’t have to, as she so eloquently put it.  Many of the points she made were similar to those I have made, so I won’t belabor them. To review–Gothic fiction is very meta (before being meta was a thing!) and self referential–it refers to other Gothic novels, and the same images and tropes are recycled so that the reader knows what to expect, even though she (and it is always a she) is dying to find out what is behind the veil, just like Catherine!

When last we were together, I chose to discuss a few themes.  In this installment, I would like to point out the ways in which Austen explicitly refers to Udolpho in Northanger Abbey and elsewhere. There is one passage in particular, in which Henry goes on at length teasing Catherine about the Abbey. He asks whether she is prepared to “encounter all the horrors” (114) and be led around by an ancient housekeeper named Dorothy (115).  Of course, your footnotes may have told you he is teasing Catherine about one of the most tense series of scenes in Udolpho in which Emily is toured through the old castle by Dorothee and eventually sees what is behind the veil, although the reader must suffer through about 450 more pages before her curiosity is satisfied.  Spoiler: It is a wax work of a corpse–a weird form of penance being suffered by a minor character whose identity and crime is not revealed until the final two pages (I am not kidding) of Udolpho. Radcliffe obviously did not adhere to the “rules of composition” Austen did whilst composing Northanger Abbey (186). But I digress. 

One of Austen’s letters contains another explicit reference to Radcliffe.  In a letter dated Wednesday (March 2, 1814), Austen writes of having finished The Heroine by Eaton Stannard Barrett, which Austen refers to as a “burlesque” of Mrs. Radlciffe’s style.  The Heroine was a parody of the Gothic, and this is an interesting tidbit to file away–Austen admired the book, and one wonders if reading this made her more determined to get the rights to Northanger Abbey back from Richard Crosby. The Heroine was published in 1813 and in 1816 Henry Austen bought back  the copyright for Northanger Abbey on behalf of his sister, Jane. 

In case you are still wondering what happened to our cast of characters from Udolpho…  After much wandering through the countryside, which Mrs. Radcliffe describes in excruciating and minute detail, Emily ends up back at La Vallee. Montoni is killed by banditti, Valencourt is suspected of having led a dissipated life, but is exonerated through the offices of a poor old servant woman he has been supporting. The portrait Emily’s father was carrying around turns out to have been his sister, Emily’s aunt–she is the murdered Marchioness of Dorothee.  So, Emily looks just like her, because she is her niece. Emily and Valencourt are wed, as are Blanche and her love. Ludovico even reappears to Annette’s everlasting joy. All’s well that ends well. 

Radclffe, after making the reader suffer through 672 pages of which only about 250 were necessary, ties everything up in a neat bow in the last few pages, just as Austen does in Northanger Abbey.  Hmmm. Radcliffe’s narrator also gets in a didactic aside, which causes this reader to wonder whether she wasn’t having a laugh at the reviewers who always seemed to like Radcliffe’s Gothic novels, but not anyone else’s…

“O! useful may it be to have shewn, that, though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune.” (672)

Verbose to the last.


I have enjoyed this year of reading dangerously so much, that I am going to continue with the Gothic for a while longer.  I will intersperse my thoughts on the Gothic with reviews and book discussions of other novels as well. I have found much more to explore in the rabbit hole of the Gothic, some of which I will write to you about next time, including the “Terrorist System of Novel Writing” from 1797.

***Photo from the writer’s tour of the Swem Library Rare Book collection at the College of William and Mary

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Oxford UP, New York, 2008.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Oxford UP, New York, 1992.

Austenalia

Year of Reading Dangerously: The Mysteries of Udolpho, volume I

Originally published in 1794 in four volumes, The Mysteries of Udolpho is probably the prototypical Gothic Novel. Regular readers will know that I did not read it first, though it is of primary importance to Catherine in Northanger Abbey, preferring instead to work my way through Walpole and Lewis in preparation for Udolpho.  I must say I am glad I did.  Walpole had the advantage over Mrs. Radcliffe in brevity and Lewis has it all over her for salaciousness, at least so far.

In Volume the First, we meet our cast of characters and do a little bit of traveling, so that we can endure the picaresque of which Henry insisted on tutoring Catherine. I find it highly improbable that anyone as flighty and fickle as Isabella could possibly have read Udolpho in its entirety.  I think she must have read excerpts at best.

Here is the breakdown of Volume I:

Chapters 1-6 our heroine, Emily manages to lose her mother and meet her beloved, Valencourt. She travels through the countryside with her father, who is in ill-health. There is a mysterious portrait and a supernatural forest. There is a lot of nature and description…

Chapters 7-12  Emily’s father dies, but not before making her promise to burn some papers in a very specific location of his closet–without reading them! Dear reader, you can easily see that this will not go as expected.  Who among us could actually keep such a promise, virtuous though we may be? Emily, now an orphan (I am sure you see a theme here among our heroines.) returns home under the nominal care of her mother’s sister, Madame Cheron, who is, shall we say, less than virtuous. Valencourt reappears in the story and asks permission to court Emily, which Madame Cheron wants to refuse, but then reluctantly gives, when she realizes he is the nephew of someone important to her. Montoni arrives on the scene and it is apparent that he will be the villain.

Chapters 13-14 Emily and Valencourt are engaged and nuptials are being planned, but the evil Montoni elopes with Madame Cheron and announces that the household will be moving to Venice, all the better for Montoni to gain control of Emily, my dear.  Madame Cheron remains clueless and Valencourt is thwarted in his efforts to see Emily or write to her, but they meet by chance and are able to indulge in a tearful farewell. Emily entreats Valencourt to remain calm–she fears he will challenge Montoni to a duel, and reminds him it is only one year until she reaches her majority and will no longer have to abide by Montoni’s will. Gloom, despair and agony on Emily and Valencourt, dear reader. Thus ends Volume I.

There is really so much here, that I will just choose a few themes to discuss as they relate to Northanger Abbey. First, let’s talk tropes. The orphan virgin, the bad chaperone, and the evil foreigner. These three tropes have all been present in the books so far–The Castle of Otranto and The Monk. Emily is so virtuous, she almost gives me a pain, but she is so sweet, you can’t help but like her, at least a little.  By the end of chapter 7, she is orphaned and under the guardianship of the bad chaperone, Madame Cheron. Madame Cheron is a bad chaperone, because she doesn’t care about her charge, she is extremely self-absorbed, and by taking Montoni as her lover first and eloping with him later, she makes it difficult for Emily to maintain her engagement with Valencourt, or indeed with any gentleman. Finally, the evil foreigner, Montoni, embodies the dissipation of the Catholic Church, as interpreted by Protestant Englishmen and women. He is sly, sneaky, and willing to become the lover of Madame Cheron to get to Emily.  He plots, he thwarts, he is the supervillain we love to hate.

Austen uses these same tropes in Northanger Abbey–in fact she engages in literary shorthand with her readers by using the Gothic to fill in the details that are not explicit on the page. Catherine is not an actual orphan, but her trip to Bath with the Allens makes her a pseudo-orphan.  Her connection to home remains through her brother, but it is tenuous–she is left to figure things out mostly for herself, without much guidance. This is why Mrs. Allen is a bad chaperone–she talks incessantly of clothes and muslins, in fact, Henry Tilney charms her by discussing muslin himself-catching her off guard and winning her approval in one stroke. The Allens shouldn’t have let Catherine go riding with Thorpe alone–Mr. Allen doesn’t ask for enough details, and they really probably shouldn’t have let her go to Northanger Abbey without doing more checking. Mrs. Allen is self-absorbed in much the same way as Madame Cheron, minus the illicit love affairs. She is however, apparently somewhat younger than Mr. Allen, which makes one wonder…he very wealthy after all. Finally, the evil foreigner.  The evil foreigner in Northanger Abbey is off page, referred to by Thorpe in conversation with Catherine, and acknowledged by Henry in his “Remember we are English…” speech to Catherine, who is imagining all kinds of things that really would only happen in France, Spain, or Italy (a Catholic country), according to the English. Austen makes her point with tongue firmly in cheek.

Another hallmark of Gothic fiction, and really a lot of early fiction, is the use of books and reading to indicate the traits of the characters. In Udolpho, books are used as messengers to the reader. Valencourt proclaims his love for Emily through the gift of a book. “For some moments she was conscious of being beloved; then, a recollection of all the variations of tone and countenance, with which he had recited these sonnets…she wept over the memorial of his affection.” (58) Emily remembers her father after his death by spending time in his library and reading a book he had been reading, “To her the book appeared sacred and invaluable, she would not have moved it, or closed the page, which he had left open, for the treasures of the Indies.” (95)

As we know, the character depiction and action in Northanger Abbey depend on the reading habits of the players. Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho appears a virtuous reader–she and Valencourt share a love for poetry and reading is a large part of their courtship.

I await further developments in Volume II.

Austenalia

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Northanger Abbey on Film

I am writing this whilst slogging my way through 672 pages of The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Yes. 672 pages.  I am hoping to have something to write about on this blog when I get to the halfway mark.  Until that delightful day, dear readers, I thought we might pass the time with a discussion of Northanger Abbey on film.  

Naturally, when I decided to embark on this project, I reread Northanger Abbey.  Then I decided that I must watch the film version(s).  I had not yet seen the 2007 version and after reading Bruce Stovel’s article “Northanger Abbey at the Movies,” I felt I really had to see the 1986 (1987) version.  Fortunately both are available on Amazon Prime. Click here for 1986(1987) and here for 2007. Stovel has it right when he declares the 1986 version a “campy…romp.” Indeed it is.  This version stars Peter Firth (brother of Colin) as a Henry Tilney who alternately smirks and simpers his way through the movie. It is hard to believe from this performance that he had been nominated for an Academy Award in 1977 for his work on Equus with Richard Burton, or that he would go on to become the chief Spook on the series of that title, also known as MI5 in the United States, but I digress.  Henry really is probably the best thing about this version, since Catherine is portrayed as weak-willed and already in thrall to Gothic fiction from the opening scene in which she reclines in a large tree reading and imagining herself as the heroine about to be ravished. (!)

One of Stovel’s best points in the article is how the 1986 film version forces the reader to notice what is important in the book that cannot be easily translated to the movie. The Narrator is at the top of the list; “the narrator of Northanger Abbey is the closest Jane Austen comes to Henry Fielding’s obtrusive, poised and witty, wise philosophizing, self-conscious narrator of Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews.” (238)  The 2007 version, which we will get to shortly, does attempt to include the narrator, with uneven results. The voice overs are lackluster at best.

In the novel, as I wrote earlier in my post about rereading Northanger Abbey, the reader sees Catherine grow and learn to be discerning, both in selecting her reading and her companions.  However, in both film versions, Catherine is played as a static character, without the roundness of which E. M. Forster was so fond. The cast of the 2007 version includes J.J. Feilds and Felicity Jones, who both sparkle on screen. However, the dialogue, even when taken directly from Austen’s novel, feels stilted.  And Feilds’s Henry seems to smile at inappropriate moments–he’s not as creepy as Peter Firth’s Henry, but he is odd, to say the least, and not just because he knows about muslin….

If you, like me, enjoy the settings and costumes, by all means, watch both, though the 2007 version is probably superior in this regard.  Interestingly, the opening scene of the 2007 version is a near copy of the 1986 opening scene, but the films diverge pretty quickly from there. Carey Mulligan makes an appearance as Isabella, and though she is uber smarmy, she is infinitely superior to her counterpart from 1986. Interestingly, the 2007 version uses numerous references to Lewis’s The Monk, which features prominently in Catherine’s Gothic fantasies (but as Janeites know this is only in the movie).  I had forgotten that it is mentioned once in Northanger Abbey by John Thorpe when he goes on about novels being nonsense.  The only two he has enjoyed are Tom Jones and The Monk.  If you read my previous posts (part 1 and part 2) about The Monk and if you have read Tom Jones, you will no doubt see the humor here.  John mentions two books with plenty of sex and seduction, and a deal of it explicit to someone he is supposed to be courting for marriage.  He betrays his lack of couth and tact, but of course, Catherine, at this point in their relationship, is too innocent to catch the references.  I do not doubt that Austen’s readers caught them and had fair warning, if they needed it, of John’s real character. His reading choices also make his refusal to stop the carriage with Catherine in it more diabolical, and perhaps more meaningful. He intends to keep Catherine from his rival, even by force. Is it a nod to Ambrosio?  I can’t say for sure…

I don’t intend to bash either of these versions, though both are ultimately inadequate.  I think Stovel’s assessment is accurate–that without the witty narrator and without keeping the action from Catherine’s point of view, there is something lost in the translation from novel to film–Northanger Abbey is primarily an interior story, and those are hard to put on film. It is quite possible that in the future someone will find a way to adapt Northanger Abbey by distilling the essence of the novel in a way that neither of these versions does. They are not bad, and if I had to choose, I would prefer the 2007, but they are not instant classics in the way that the 1994 P&P or the 1995 Persuasion are. Even though purists may have their complaints about these adaptations, they are still beloved in a way that neither version of Northanger Abbey has been–though each is still great fun and a fine way to pass an hour or two if you enjoy costume drama with a big steaming helping of “camp.”

Stovel, Bruce. “Northanger Abbey at the Movies.” Persuasions 20 (1998): 236-247.

Austenalia

Year of Reading Dangerously: The Monk part II


When last we saw our cast of characters, Ambrosio was locked in Matilda’s illicit embrace, she having saved him from the viper’s poison through witchcraft; we have heard the tale within a tale of Don Raymond’s adventures, and Agnes was presumed dead, although Lorenzo was still searching the convent for her daily. In the second half, The Monk continues to be melodramatic and overwrought, but a lot of fun.  

Ambrosio immediately upon satiation, begins to regret his actions. “He reflected on the scene which had just been acted, and trembled at the consequences of discovery: he looked forward with with horror: his heart was despondent, and became the abode of satiety and disgust: he avoided the eyes of his partner in frailty.” (193)  So, like many modern villains, it is not a true repentance of the act which we find in Ambrosio, rather a fear of getting caught. Interestingly, he moves quickly in the next few pages from frequent and ardent relations with Matilda to using her merely for physical satisfaction. Matilda becomes almost loathsome to him and he blames her, as does Lewis, for his downfall.  Matilda goes from virgin maid pretending to be a monk to be near her beloved to a seductress versed in the dark arts of sorcery. By page 229, Matilda has turned procuress for Ambrosio, whose lust has been excited by the fair Antonia. Matilda not only gives him an enchanted mirror through which he may watch Antonia, but provides him with a specially empowered myrtle branch which will not only allow him entry into any door and thus into Antonia’s private chamber, but will also render her senseless and allow Ambrosio to rape her without consequence. Ambrosio has embraced a Faustian bargain, but one which will only doom Matilda, who has sold her soul to help procure his way with Antonia.  Ambrosio himself doesn’t pay the price for his own debauchery. Lewis uses Ambrosio’s thralldom to his sexual desires to make several misogynistic statements. Matilda condemns him for having a mind “weaker than a woman’s” (230) and Ambrosio chides her with, “Oh! Cease, Matilda! That scoffing tone, that bold and impious language is horrible in every mouth, but most so in a woman’s.” (231) There are more, but you get the idea. It’s all her fault–she seduced him. Not only that, but any weakness in mind or spirit is portrayed as feminine in nature, even when man is the weak one. [sigh]

We leave Ambrosio impatiently waiting to use his magic myrtle after midnight and go to Theodore, Don Raymond’s servant, who alone seems to possess the wherewithal to come up with a plan to find out what happened to Agnes. In a nod to the story of Richard the Lionheart, who, according to legend, was discovered by a minstrel who sang and waited to hear Richard echo him, Theodore sings, but hears nothing.  However, he is able to convince a couple of nuns to come clean and tell him that Agnes had been poisoned by the mother superior. Don Raymond’s hopes dashed, he proceeds to fall into despair.

Meanwhile, Ambrosio enters Antonia’s bedroom without incident. There’s just one problem.  The myrtle branch doesn’t work on Antonia’s mother, who discovers him almost in flagrante and threatens to sound the alarm. Unfortunately, because she knows that no one will believe her story if she doesn’t have another witness (HINT: she’s a woman, who would listen to anything she says or believe her without corroboration?), she ineffectually hangs on his arm and tries to wake the maid. Ambrosio panics and murders her, fleeing the room and returning to Matilda.

As Lorenzo vows to have his revenge on the murderer of his sister Agnes, Ambrosio plots to kidnap Matilda, fake her death, and have her as his prisoner in the catacombs beneath the Abbey. Oh, how the mighty have fallen! These two plots climax in tandem when Raymond inadvertently sets off a riot by unmasking the supposed murderers of Agnes. He chases after some nuns who are running into the tombs and hears cries coming from deep within. Meanwhile, Ambrosio and Matilda have drugged Antonia and faked her death–she lies in a sepulchre and he waits for her to wake so he can take what he wants. Ambrosio rapes Antonia disregarding her pleas for mercy and for him to return to his right mind. Afterward, it isn’t long before they hear the rioters approaching. Ambrosio flees as Lorenzo discovers Antonia.  The lovers are reunited, but she is damaged goods and does the only thing she can–dies after proclaiming her love to Lorenzo. He is suitably heartbroken, but soon has cause for wonder in his discovery of Agnes, still alive! She has been kept prisoner in the catacombs.

The last chapter ties up the loose ends by filling in the backstory of what happened to Anges and finding a new match for Lorenzo of appropriate rank and wealth.  All’s well that ends well.

There is a lot to discuss here, especially in relation to Northanger Abbey. I will just bring out a couple of points.  First, there is a section in which women’s reading is addressed–specifically Bible reading. Elvira, Antonia’s mother, believed that, “unrestricted, no reading more improper could be permitted a young woman.” (223) She had gone so far as to write out a special copy of the Bible in her own hand, altering or omitting the improper parts. (!) This section was removed by Lewis in later editions to avoid charges of blasphemy, but it offers an intriguing window into his view on women, as does his treatment of Matilda–pious virgin turned Satan’s handmaiden. Lewis’s mother was somewhat unconventional and these passages, along with some of his other commentary make one wonder if he had Mommy issues.

Second, there is a section in chapter 9, where Antonia is sitting alone after her mother’s death.  It is late at night, there is a storm, and she is reading the Ballad of Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogene–in which Imogene is faithless to her crusading knight.  He returns as a ghost to haunt her, etc. So, she’s reading a “horrid tale,” it’s a dark and stormy night, the doors are rattling, the wind is howling.  It is now that she sees Ambrosio dressed as a ghost. She tries to call for Flora, her maid…remind you of anyone? Maybe someone named Catherine? “With such a turn of mind.” (273) “Antonia’s heart throbbed with agitation; her eyes wandered fearfully over the objects around her…” (274)  You see what I mean.

Next up:  The Mysteries of Udolpho; I can’t wait!

Austenalia

The Year of Reading Dangerously: The Monk by Matthew Lewis, part 1

The Monk was published in 1796; some critics suspect that it was written, or at least started as early as 1792, during Lewis’s visit to the continent.  Several letters to his mother mention that he is working on a novel, and in a 1794 letter to her, he specifically mentions having written a novel in the style of The Castle of Otranto.  He must have revised his work, though, because it also contains nods to Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, which was published in 1794. Maclachlan writes in the introduction that despite initial favorable reviews, several reviews, especially the February 1797 article by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, were somewhat less than complimentary (ix, x).  The Penguin Classic version I am reading is a reprint of the April 1796 version, which would have been the second edition, to which Lewis attached his name. Interestingly, there is a passage in Chapter V of Volume II in which the writer directly addresses the reader with an aside about book critics, “for though all are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them…one man finds fault with the plan, another with the style, a third with the precept which it strives to inculcate; and they who cannot succeed in finding fault with the book, employ themselves in stigmatizing its author.” (172-173)  It seems Lewis was a little tetchy about some of the reviews of his work.

The Monk is extremely melodramatic and there is much that will be laughable to a modern reader, indeed, one can easily see why Austen enjoyed lampooning the Gothic in Northanger Abbey. Although some critics have sought to credit Lewis with giving women agency, because of the copious and frequent consensual “relations” in The Monk, I would tend to put his depiction of women under the heading of wish fulfillment.  I mean how many women fall madly in love with a middle-aged priest with a God complex?  Or maybe I lead a sheltered life. Also, anyone who makes as many misogynistic asides, such as this gem from chapter 1, “As this is the only instance known of a woman’s ever having done so [hold her tongue], it was judged worthy to be recorded here,” (33) is not interested in portraying women as fully formed humans with the ability to choose their own paths.

Something else to notice about The Monk in relation to British Gothic literature and Northanger Abbey is the setting, which is Catholic Spain.  In Britain, France and the Gothic, 1764-1820, one of Angela Wright’s main arguments is that British writers (and translators) of Gothic fiction had to walk a line between nascent British nationalism, especially in light of the French Revolution, and the standard ingredients in Gothic fiction, such as moody castles with Catholic priests and nuns, as well as an ample helping of the supernatural, which was usually somehow tied to Catholic mysticism. Walpole sidestepped this problem by giving his tale a fake backstory of translation from the Italian, but Lewis goes all in and writes somewhat condescendingly of Catholic rituals, beliefs, and clergy, make it obvious that he and his readers are above all that nonsense without overtly saying so. Interestingly, one of the pivotal moments in Austen’s Northanger Abbey is when Henry realizes what Catherine has supposed and says in chapter 24, “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English…” Austen was as much aware of the settings of the Gothic as her fellow writers and she walked the line right along with them; she uses the expectations of the reader (and Catherine) to full effect by having Henry remind us of the difference between fantasy and reality, at least in the world of Northanger Abbey.

Lewis’s The Monk is written as a story within a frame story, a commonly used device at the time. In chapter 1 we meet Antonia and her Aunt Leonella (the comic relief) along with three cavaliers and Ambrosio, a priest famous for his piety. Chapter 2 goes into the story of Ambrosio and Rosario, who is really Matilda (that name keeps reappearing!) who has disguised herself as a young monk and is about to take her vows, when she unmasks herself to Ambrosio and declares her undying love for him.  During one of their meetings, Ambrosio is bitten by a viper and Matilda sucks the poison out in order to save him, thus dooming herself to die, but not before they do the dirty on the final page of the chapter. The most obvious thing to point out here is the symbolism of the viper in the garden, but in Lewis’s telling, it is the man who is attacked and the woman saves him by sacrificing herself. Interesting. Since Matilda is about to die, they consummate their love, but one wonders what Ambrosio will do when he realizes what he has done.  Stay tuned…

Chapter 3-5 switch to the story of Alphonso (really the Conde de las Cisternas) and Agnes, the sister of Lorenzo–these are 2 or our three cavaliers from chapter one, if you’re keeping up. There are a lot of twists and turns, banditti, disguises, apparently a favorite tool of Lewis’s, and chase scenes. Of course, Agnes and Cisternas are in love, but through a series of miscommunications, she ends up pregnant and in a nunnery, while Cisternas is searching everywhere for her.  He finds her, but not before Ambrosio discovers her secret and rats her out to the Mother Superior and she is tortured and dies. Meanwhile, Lorenzo is pursuing his own crush on Antonia from Chapter 1. We are now about halfway through. The main points to remember as related to Northanger Abbey are the frequent misunderstandings and coincidences that serve to move the plot along. The characters always circle back into the story, just as they do in Northanger Abbey.  We think we’ve seen the last of James Thorpe, but he turns out to be the cause of Catherine’s summary dismissal by General Tilney. We think that Ambrosio has fallen, but I suspect he will make a reappearance in the second half.

The Monk is a great example of what Austen found so humorous about Gothic novels.  It is over the top melodramatic. There are hidden identities, melancholy castles, abbeys, and churches, overwrought clergymen and horse chases galore.  We’ll see what happens to our cast of characters next time when I discuss the second half of The Monk.

Austenalia

The Year of Reading Dangerously: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

In Gordon Wood’s Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, he writes that Revolutionary era literature contained a great deal of satire. He further argues that, “Satire as a literary device depends on a comprehending…audience…” (251). If we accept, as many Austen fans do, that Northanger Abbey is a satire of Gothic Romances, then in order to understand the full meaning of the satire, to get the jokes if you will, requires us to look at the stories and novels being satirized.  It is with this idea in mind that I have begun the Year of Reading Dangerously.

Jane Austen added a preface to Northanger Abbey, while preparing it for publication, in order to explain that because it had originally been finished in 1803, “The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.” (Emphasis mine.) Austen herself knew that to enjoy Northanger Abbey fully, it was important to understand the books and opinions (often about books) which were in vogue at the time it was originally written.

This year, I will be reading as many books referenced in Northanger Abbey as possible and writing about those reading adventures here.  I will also be reading and writing about other books, but my major project for this year is The Year of Reading Dangerously. I have started with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.  Though this slim novel is not mentioned in the text of Northanger Abbey as many others are, it is considered to be the first British Gothic novel, having been published in 1764, at least 25 years before Gothic fiction became a popular literary form (Gamer in the introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of The Castle of Otranto). Interestingly, Austen uses the name Isabella for one of her main characters, and that same name is given to one of the heroines in Otranto. Other parallels include the use of a sinister castle, a mistress whom the owner of the castle is trying to be rid of, and a whole host of coincidences which serve to push the narrative along.

In Britain, France and the Gothic 1764-1820: the Import of Terror, Angela Wright lists Gothic tropes as “melancholia, oppressive feudal castles and dreams which foreshadow disastrous outcomes for their protagonists” (39). All of these are found in The Castle of Otranto. The action takes place in and around the titular castle, which contains underground passages, and various rooms which may be used to take refuge in or to hold people against their will. Almost all  the main characters and many of the secondary characters have dreams or supernatural visions, including Manfred, Hippolita, Isabella, Matilda, Father Jerome, and Frederic. The mood of the entire piece is melancholy. Dim passage ways, fog, a supernatural giant knight seeking vengeance, and worst of all, Manfred’s weirdly manic behavior. Once minute, he is grieving his dead son and the next, he’s trying to force his son’s betrothed into a quickie marriage (after he finds a way to have his marriage to the long-suffering Hippolita annulled, of course).

As noted in the introduction, modern readers will most likely find Otranto overwrought and slightly silly, but this in fact adds to the reader’s enjoyment of Northanger Abbey, as undoubtedly, Austen is poking a little fun at Otranto along with other Gothic fiction. In fact, General Tilney bears more than a passing resemblance to Manfred; he is handsome and respected, yet seems a little manic.  Also, just as Manfred oversteps the boundaries of good taste with his plot to marry Isabella and put away Hippolita after Conrad’s death, General Tilney’s designs on Catherine and his head-spinning banishment of her upon discovering her true social and economic standing are similar. Both Manfred and General Tilney are mercurial in their behavior and are trying to insure the continuance of their legacies into the future via nefarious means.

Should you decide to read The Castle of Otranto, here are a few discussion questions to consider:

  1. How do the coincidences move the plot along?  What would happen to the story if they were gone?
  2. Consider the actions of the three female leads.  How were Hippolita, Matilda, and Isabella acting as expected by women of their station?  How were they acting in opposition to expectations?
  3. Reviews of Otranto even from the beginning were mixed. If you were to review it today, what would be your recommendation to readers?
  4. What are some other comparisons between Otranto and Northanger Abbey?
  5. What other characters can you think of from literature who are similar to Manfred? Is he a hero, and anti-hero, a villian?  Why do you think so?