Rating: 3 stars
Ann Radcliffe’s novel of gothic romance is an absolute hoot. It’s very much of its time, and I had to put myself in the frame of mind of someone from the 1790s when I started reading it. The language is wonderfully flowery at times, and the plot is very different to the type of book I normally read. The good are very, very good, the bad are very, very bad, and the secrets are very, very mysterious. It was a riot of hilarity for this 21st century reader.
The themes of the book have echoes in the potboiler historical romances of popular fiction today, but the style is quite fragmented and oddly breathless. Even though it’s all about passion and adventure, and is pretty exciting at times, the way the narration happens at a remove from what the characters are thinking and feeling felt strange. The jumping between plot points was disjointed and occasionally felt as though the author had become caught up in one thread only to suddenly remember there were other strands to the story that she needed to spend time on. It was like listening to someone recount an exciting episode in their life in a tumbling tumult of words that they had little control over.
The story starts with a traveller gazing upon the ruins of a castle in Sicily. A passing Friar notices him and gives him a bit of background history, then takes him to the local convent so he can peruse the muniments in the library. Here our hero encounters a familiar story of daughters from a first marriage left behind when the father marries again and enters into a new life, but it’s not just a Cinderella type tale. There’s intrigue and horror as well.
The daughters, Emilia and Julia, made me think of Jane and Lizzie Bennett and the Dashwood sisters in their differences – light and shade, sweet and feisty, calm and emotional.
I enjoyed the fact that the Marquis’s second wife has a character the polar opposite of his first. We’re told that this second wife governs the Marquis.
His passions were vehement, and she had the address to bend them to her own purposes; and so well to conceal her influence, that he thought himself most independent when he was most enslaved.
As the opening chapter progresses, we discover that the Marchioness is a wicked stepmother of fairytale proportions.
[Julia] secretly sighed for a view of that world, from which she had hitherto been secluded by the mean jealousy of the marchioness, upon whose mind the dread of rival beauty operated strongly to the prejudice of Emilia and Julia. She employed all her influence over the marquis to detain them in retirement; and, though Emilia was now twenty, and her sister eighteen, they had never passed the boundaries of their father’s domains.
Fortunately the daughters have a ladies’ companion who schools them in the rules of polite society and, more importantly, loves them, so they turn out okay. And it turns out that, although she’s spoiled and selfish, the behaviour of the Marchioness is pretty understandable when you realise that she’s trying to make her life as interesting as it can be when you’re married to a dullard.
The intrigue comes in the form of a secret hidden in a disused part of the castle, which only the Marquis’s manservant Vincent knows, but he dies before he can share it with the daughters’ companion. The Marquis returns to the castle too late for Vincent to speak to him, and goes around vehemently dismissing the rumours that the disused part of the castle is haunted. His behaviour is Very Suspicious.
Meanwhile, the Marchioness is making a cuckold of her husband with a handsome young Count. When the Marquis is joined by his son and wife to celebrate the son’s coming of age, the young Count tags along. Julia is excited about the festivities for her brother’s birthday and by the young Count’s handsome aspect. None of which is ever going to turn out well, especially not when Julia and the Count fall for each other.
The sisters confide in their brother about the strange lights they’ve seen and stranger groans they’ve heard coming from the disused part of the castle, and he decides to investigate. The passages describing this adventurous action made me think of the role playing video games my husband enjoys, like Skyrim and Dark Souls, that have a medieval feel to them. Ferdinand spends a lot of time running around in the dark, sword drawn, with only a lantern to light his way through mysterious passages and cavernous halls. He’s frequently thwarted by locked doors and has to rush back to the safety of his sisters’ quarters.
Intersecting with Ferdinand’s adventures is the love story of Julia and the Count, Hippolitus. This is gloriously florid, with Hippolitus expressing himself in terms straight from the mind of a woman. I can’t imagine any man, let alone one raised to be a warrior, saying to a woman the things Hippolitus says to Julia. Still, Julia seems to like it. Just as things seem to be going well for the young lovers, a dastardly older Duke hoves into view, enamoured of the eighteen year old Julia’s beauty and looking for his third wife, having seen two off already with his lack of interest. They wasted away through sadness, we’re told. Poor Julia. Understandably, she’s not thrilled at the prospect, despite her dad telling her what an honour it is.
Things get exciting when the Marquis’s attempts to control his youngest daughter fail. There’s a pursuit through storms and difficult landscapes, led by the Duke, who behaves towards his entourage as a lion behaves towards its pride. Whenever they do something that could be of benefit to the whole group, the Duke takes the larger share of the bounty before passing what remains to the people who were responsible for obtaining it.
Radcliffe plays with the sense of time and place, scaling up and down so that one moment the action is intense and claustrophobic, the next it seems as though time is dragging and the landscape around is overwhelmingly large and open. The action passes from dense forest to hidden cave to open plain to ruined building, and Radcliffe gives us the colours, sounds and smells to make us feel as though we are in the thick of it with the characters. For all that, there’s something naïve about how the story unfolds, making it feel more like a story told to listeners in a parlour by the light of a fire than like a novel to be read in personal solitude.
Although I found the novel to be a hilarious romp in many ways, with more twists than a curly wurly, there are also many serious points made in the narrative. The position of women in male dominated society, their imprisonment within social convention, their censure if they step outside the acceptable norms, their lack of choice, and their dismissal as hysterical when faced with the seemingly inexplicable is one thing that jumped out at me. This is the main focus of the novel, depicted in almost every scene. Women are nothing more than pawns in the power play of the men who control their lives, useful when they might bring about social gains through swapping a father for a husband, fatally dispensible if they don’t do as they’re told. But there’s also the opposite to that, the imprisonment of men within the same social conventions, their own relative lack of choice depending on their place in the pecking order, and their dismissal when someone with more money and power comes along. I felt sorry for each character who was at the whim and mercy of the Marquis.
In the Marquis also, we have a model for the foolishness of the aging powerful man in the presence of a pretty face and a manipulative spirit. In this, Radcliffe has a good grip on human nature.
If you’re interested in Ann Radcliffe and her significance as a writer (she was the highest paid author of her day, and influenced writers such as Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott), there’s a good article on the British Library site that’s worth a read.
I got an e-copy of the book for free from Project Gutenberg. You can, too, if you click through the image of the book cover at the top of the post.