Tag Archives: Mrs. Radcliffe

The Northanger Novels—They Give a New Meaning to the Word “Horrid”

Jane Austen, whose love for the Gothic, even by parodying it, has helped to keep the Gothic tradition alive, even inspiring new Gothic works like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in recent years.

In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818), the heroine Catherine Morland and her friend Isabella Thorpe delight over reading the popular Gothic novels of the 1790s. While they are busy reading Mrs. Radcliffe’s well-known The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and plan to go on then to her novel The Italian (1797)—two of the best-known and best-written of the Gothic novels of the period—Isabella creates a list of seven other “horrid” novels that she suggests they read. This list includes two novels by Eliza Parsons, Castle of Wolfenbach (1793) and The Mysterious Warning (1796), Clermont (1798) by Regina Maria Roche, The Necromancer; or, The Tale of the Black Forest (1794) by Ludwig Flammenberg (pseudonym of Carl Friedrich Kahlert), The Midnight Bell (1798) by Francis Lathom, The Orphan of the Rhine (1798) by Eleanor Sleath, and Horrid Mysteries (1796) by the Marquis de Grosse. Two of the novels, The Necromancer and Horrid Mysteries were translated into English from German. The others are by English authors.

Northanger Abbey is responsible for keeping the seven horrid “Northanger” novels’ memory alive.

I will not discuss here all the novels but simply make a few comments. I have been reading them as they have been reprinted by Valancourt Press (which has done us a great service by reproducing them and so many other obscure but significant literary works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Unfortunately, I read all of them other than Horrid Mysteries, which I just finished, before I had a blog so I did not write about them as I read them.

The truth is the plots of these novels are largely forgettable so I can’t comment on them other than to recall that the two novels by Parsons and Clermont by Roche were very readable. (Plot summaries of all seven novels, some brief, some extensive, can be found on Wikipedia at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northanger_Abbey#Allusions_to_other_works by clicking on links to the individual works).The finest of the novels was, in my opinion, The Orphan of the Rhine. It is the only one I can remember any of the plot to. The title orphan is a young woman in hiding. There is also a dastardly marchese who commits several crimes but repents on his death bed—a surprisingly early form of the Gothic wanderer villain redeemed. That said, I read this novel along with my friend, Jane Austen scholar Ellen Moody, who ended up writing the introduction to the Valancourt edition, and she pointed out that the marchese is not punished for his crimes but gets off easily by dying in the end; furthermore, while he repents, the marchese is forced into his confession. As for the other novels, the plots were convoluted and not memorable and would be difficult to summarize.

But one of these novels stands out as being truly “horrid” and not because of its ability to shock but because of its horrid plotting and writing. That novel is aptly titled Horrid Mysteries, and in the introduction to the Valancourt edition, Allen Grove makes this same point, that the writing may be considered horrid. He also points out that the disparity between the novels of Radcliffe and a novel like this one shows how undiscerning the reading public was in its desire for Gothic thrills.

Horrid Mysteries is the most convoluted if not the overall most horridly written of the Northanger novels.

Horrid Mysteries has a ridiculous, convoluted, and often hard-to-follow plot about a young man named Carlos who gains the attention of a secret society, the Illuminators in Bavaria. He is initiated into their rites but while they claim to be on his side, they continually seem to be working against him. He is often pursued or harassed as well by a creature named Amanuel (his name is always italicized), who seems to be some sort of spirit or “genius”—an evil spirit apparently, although at times Amanuel seems to act to save Carlos’ life when he is in favor with the secret society. (Amanuel ends up killed in the end so just how supernatural he is isn’t clear.) Carlos goes through no end of adventures, including loving Elmira, who ends up dying and being buried, only to show up later alive—the secret society allegedly faked her death. Later, Elmira is shot and again dies before Carlos’ eyes, only to return yet again. Finally, she dies and stays dead. Carlos ends up with another wife later, Adelheid, who gets him back into the secret society’s good graces—or is working for the secret society against him since she ends up having an affair with a baron associated with the society whom Carlos kills when he catches them together. Carlos then sends Adelheid to a convent to repent for her sins until she is worthy of him again. Eventually, she returns to him and Carlos is finally told he is safe from the society because the police investigated the baron’s murder, which caused the society to disband. Through four volumes, we follow these and Carlos’ other escapades across Europe, watching him often have romances with various women or spend time with male friends who are romancing women or have attractive wives who want to romance Carlos.

While there are secret societies in the novel, there’s only one really haunted castle scene, and overall, Horrid Mysteries is more of a picaresque novel of a young man’s adventures in the style of Tom Jones than a Gothic one. Indeed, it’s a wonder anyone could suffer through all four volumes of it—I did, but I found myself confused much of the time even though I took notes as I read to try to keep the multitude of largely undeveloped characters straight. There are plenty of sexual trysts and adulterous relationships to make Catherine Morland or any young female reader blush—in fact, I doubt any Gothic novel is so sexual except perhaps the much better written The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis.

The Orphan of the Rhine, a definition imitation of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Gothic novels, is probably the best of the Northanger novels.

For many years, scholars thought the seven Northanger novels were titles invented by Jane Austen, but research has now restored all of them to us. I would recommend readers curious about Gothic fiction and these novels in particular to start out by reading Northanger Abbey, then Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, and maybe The Italian, though I’m not a big fan of it and prefer her other novel The Romance of the Forest (1791). Once you understand the superb Gothic of Radcliffe, you can appreciate the works of her imitators, and all seven of these Northanger novels are in imitation of her except perhaps Parson’s Castle Wolfenbach which was published the year before Udolpho but not before The Romance of the Forest. I’d suggest you start with Orphan of the Rhine and then try Parsons’ novels, and then if you have the stomach for it, go on to the other ones, including the two German translations, which fall under the category of masculine rather than feminine Gothic (a complicated designation but a basic terminology would be that the feminine Gothic focuses on female heroines. I discuss these terms in more detail in my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption.)

These Gothic novels are but a footnote in literary history and would have been forgotten completely if not for Jane Austen, but while I did not care for all of them, the better ones still have the ability to give us the kinds of thrills and chills our ancestors experienced more than two centuries ago, and in truth, we would not have our superhero and vampire stories today if these books had not been written.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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Michelle Pillow’s New Novel Reflects that Gothic Romance Is Alive and Well

As a scholar of the classic Gothic novel of the nineteenth century, from time to time I like to read twenty-first century Gothic novels to see how well the seeds that Mrs. Radcliffe planted are flourishing. I’m happy to report that authors like Michelle Pillow are keeping the Gothic tradition alive and well by utilizing standard Gothic plot devices but making them their own as the Gothic evolves into something more spiritual and less terrifying than its originators may have first imagined.

Michelle Pillow's new novel Forget Me Not blends regency fiction with the paranormal for some surprising romance.

Michelle Pillow’s new novel Forget Me Not blends regency fiction with the paranormal for some surprising romance.

Forget Me Not has all the classic Gothic elements a reader could want, and it draws heavily upon those early novels for its setting and atmosphere. We can also define it as a regency novel—since it’s set in England in 1812—when George IV was still Prince Regent of England. Readers today might call it paranormal rather than Gothic, and, of course, it also falls into the romance novel category.

The story begins when Isabel Drake and her sister Jane are speculating about whether Rothfield Park is haunted. The family has let the manor house from its owner, the Marquis of Rothfield. Legend says that during a fire, a child and servant died in the house. Jane claims that she has seen evidence of hauntings in the castle, but Isabel thinks Jane has just let her imagination get the better of her after reading a “shilling shocker.” (Shilling shockers were popular short books in the nineteenth century that often plagiarized longer best-selling Gothic novels and were abridged to be affordable, costing only a shilling.) This scene recalls Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and the thrills that Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe have over reading “horrid” novels by Mrs. Radcliffe and others.

Isabel, however, has bigger problems than ghosts. Her parents do not like how she treats her governess so they have decided to hire a tutor approved by the colonel, nephew to the Marquis of Rothfield, whom they plan for her to marry. Isabel wants nothing to do with marrying the colonel or with a new tutor.

In anger, Isabel goes riding and comes to the woods, where a heavy mist is setting in. She meets there a mysterious child who asks her to play with her, but Isabel refuses, feeling spooked. As she tries to return home, she has an accident with a tree branch and falls from her horse.

Isabel has no memory of the accident, but by the time she recovers, she finds her parents have left her alone at Rothfield with her new tutor, Dougal Weston. Here, I admit, my willing suspension of disbelief was a bit challenged—no self-respecting noble family of this time would leave their daughter alone with just the servants and a handsome male tutor—but Michelle Pillow will provide some surprising and ultimately believable explanations for this chain of events before the novel is over.

Dougal Weston turns out to be unlike any tutor Isabel ever expected. He really doesn’t teach her much of anything—just asks her to read and then discuss with him what she read. Isabel soon starts to suspect he isn’t a tutor but someone with an ulterior motive for being at Rothfield.

Nevertheless, Isabel finds herself falling in love with him and confesses to him that she is now repeatedly seeing the ghost child. Dougal appears interested in the history of the house and the ghost child, but he also tries to comfort Isabel and calm her fears. His comforting eventually goes a bit too far—though Isabel doesn’t object—and you guess it, they have quite enjoyable sex. Before long, Isabel is starting to consider how she might shirk off her social status and marriage expectations to run off and live in a cottage with Dougal.

Eventually, however, Isabel begins to suspect Dougal is just using her to learn more about the ghost child. Dougal then asks Reverend Stillwell to speak to Isabel about the ghosts. Reverend Stillwell is a sort of medium who can communicate with the dead; he explains things to Isabel about ghosts that make her feel more comfortable and realize she isn’t crazy. He also will encourage Isabel and Dougal to seek happiness.

I can’t say more without giving away all the plot twists, but I will just say that I love how Michelle Pillow takes old Gothic themes and makes them new. Before the story is over, there’s even a cursed man who has made a Faustian pact to obtain knowledge from evil wizards in exchange for his soul. However, he can prevent himself from going to hell if he captures other souls for the devil—a classic Victorian twist previously used by authors like George W.M. Reynolds in The Necromancer (1852). Pillow also draws on regency novel conventions—there’s even a runaway marriage to Gretna Green, worthy of a Jane Austen novel. Finally, I didn’t see the final plot twist at the end, though I think I should have, but in any case, I was delighted by it.

Forget Me Not is not quite Jane Austen, but if you enjoyed books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, then Forget Me Not should give you plenty of ghostly pleasure. If you’re a fan of television shows like The Ghost Whisperer or films like The Sixth Sense, you’ll also find more enjoyable modern spins on ghosts and the Gothic in these pages. After you finish Forget Me Not, I suspect you will want to read more of Michelle Pillow’s novels—fortunately, she has written plenty in both the romance and paranormal genres.

For more information about Forget Me Not and Michelle Pillow, visit www.MichellePillow.com.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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The Black Monk: Gothic Wanderers and the Early Comic Book Superhero

When I saw that Valancourt Books had republished The Black Monk, or The Secret of the Grey Turret (serialized 1844-1845), I had to read it. I had previously read James Malcolm Rymer’s best-known works, Varney the Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood (serialized 1845-1847), the first full-length vampire novel in English and the precursor to Dracula (1897), and also The String of Pearls (serialized 1846-1947), which introduced Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street into English literature, so surely, I thought, The Black Monk would be an exciting Gothic novel.

The Black Monk, one of James Malcolm Rymer's first penny dreadful serials.

The Black Monk, one of James Malcolm Rymer’s first penny dreadful serials.

Written as a penny dreadful like Rymer’s other works, this work predates Rymer’s two more famous novels, if we can truly call them novels. Certainly, the plot is tighter in The Black Monk than in Varney, but it also tends to be quite wordy, a sign that Rymer continually tried to drag out the story because it was popular with Victorian readers. For the modern reader, who reads it as a novel rather than a weekly serial, it feels overly long and many of the scenes and plots feel repetitive, but that aside, it is a fascinating book in many ways.

To try to summarize the novel’s plot would make it feel ridiculous, but there are some key elements about the novel and this edition particularly that make it stand out. First of all, I have long believed that the Gothic novel with its supernatural characters is the grandfather of the modern-day comic book superhero. In my book, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, I traced how Gothic wanderer elements, such as extended life and other supernatural powers, eventually culminated in characters like Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, Superman, and Batman. There is much about The Black Monk that feels cartoonish. This edition has a back cover with little cameo drawing of the main characters which makes them look like cartoon or comic book characters. The original woodcut illustrations are included in the book, but these are far less detailed illustrations than those in Varney the Vampyre, which look like book illustrations. The Black Monk’s illustrations look in many ways more akin to comic book drawings. Finally, this edition has an introduction by Curt Herr, Ph.D. The introduction is not so much about Rymer or the novel as it is about how penny dreadfuls were the precursors of comic books in terms of being thought to have a bad influence on youths. Both were also very cost affordable publications and were produced quickly and for the lower classes. Herr even mentions comic book burnings that were held by communities in the mid-twentieth century, and while most of the comic books he mentions as being burned are of the horror and crime variety, Superman is included among them.

It surprises me that, as Herr asserts, and which I believe, despite the surprise, that comic books and especially penny dreadfuls, were seen as immoral and glamorizing crime and evil. This is probably largely due to the people who condemned them not actually reading them. I am not a reader of comic books myself, although what little knowledge I have of the ones produced in this century makes me think there may be some merit to these charges, but the penny dreadfuls like the earlier Gothic novels, despite depicting criminals and sinners, always held a highly moral tone in which those who committed crimes were ultimately punished, and usually, the virtuous were also rewarded. Certainly, a great deal of subversive behavior and undertones exist in these books, but as Herr points out, the social problems that exist in society are not from reading fiction but from the poverty that causes people to break the law, often just to survive. I would add to that a lack of education. Those who act in an immoral manner, even if influenced to do so by reading such works, do so because they lack the intelligence to understand the messages in these works or to understand simply that crime doesn’t pay. This is the same kind of lack of intelligence that causes some children to jump off roofs because they think they can fly like Superman. It is not the literature but faulty thinking and poor judgment that are to be blamed.

As for The Black Monk, I think a good argument can be made that it has within it the seeds of the modern day superhero.

I won’t go into the novel’s full plot, but in brief, it begins when Sir Rupert Brandon, owner of Brandon Castle, leaves the castle after being grief-stricken over the untimely death of his wife, Lady Alicia. He leaves the castle in the hands of Alicia’s sister and brother, Agatha and Eldred, as well as his trusty knight Hugh Wingrove and the neighboring abbot. While Sir Rupert is away, Agatha plots with Morgatani, an evil monk, to get her revenge on Sir Rupert for spurning her love and marrying her sister instead. While there is a large cast of other characters in the book, there are only four who are really of great interest in terms of understanding the development of Gothic literature and the modern-day superhero. They are:

  • Agatha
  • Morgatani
  • Nemoni
  • The Crusader

Let us look briefly at each one.

Agatha: There is nothing superhero-like about Agatha, but there is plenty that makes her an interesting Gothic wanderer. Female Gothic wanderer figures are few in number in Gothic fiction. Women tend more often to be the moral compass of the novels while the men are transgressors and guilt-ridden, a few notable exceptions being Fanny Burney’s Juliet in The Wanderer (1814) and Alice Nutter in William Ainsworth Harrison’s The Lancashire Witches (1849). Agatha is a very vile woman and intent on getting revenge on Sir Rupert because he chose her sister over her for his wife. Agatha plots to take the castle from him, and to do so, she falls into a romantic and sexual relationship with the evil monk Morgatani. However, she has moments where she feels remorse and regrets her evil deeds, but she is continually egged on by Morgatani, who displays disdain for her weaknesses and makes her false promises that he will be her lover and take her away from the castle once the revenge is completed. Agatha, unlike other Gothic wanderers of this period who show remorse, ultimately meets a bad end when she collapses in guilt and terror over her crimes.

Morgatani: Morgatani is a true Gothic villain. He has Gothic wanderer elements in terms of his supernatural abilities, but he never presents himself as in any way sympathetic to the reader. He is firmly in the Gothic tradition, his Italian background making him reminiscent of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Schedoni in The Italian (1797). He is also an anachronism because the novel is set in the twelfth century but he is a Jesuit, and the Jesuits did not exist until the sixteenth century. The novel itself is somewhat anachronistic, beginning in 1204 in the time of King John, but then later telling us it is the time of King Richard I (1189-1199) and that Richard is a prisoner on the continent during the Crusades so John is trying to take his throne. This plot has some similarities to the Robin Hood legend and also causes Herr, in his introduction to the novel, to suggest it is a revision of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819). I would not go so far as to call it a revision of that novel, but it certainly does share some similar elements and themes. The Jesuits are frequently depicted as villains in Gothic novels, most famously perhaps in The Wandering Jew (1846) by Eugene Sue; they are considered highly knowledgeable and know secrets or are involved in conspiracies, using their knowledge to manipulate society and political events. Repeatedly in the novel, Morgatani suggests that he knows things most people don’t because he is a Jesuit. Despite his religious connections (or perhaps because of them since the Gothic is notoriously anti-Catholic), he denies the existence of God, and while his origins are never made clear, he tells Agatha he is not immortal, but neither is he human. When he finally dies, the mystery of his origins remain unclear. That said, he clearly has supernatural abilities, at the very least, he possesses superhuman strength. This is significant because characters like the devils in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) also have great strength, making them able to rip up trees. However, strength is also something that will later be associated with superheroes. The mid-nineteenth century is transitional in how Gothic wanderers are morphing into heroes. For example, Jean Valjean has superhuman strength in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862), a novel that is not supernatural but still has many Gothic elements in it, including that Valjean is a wanderer, and a transgressor, a fugitive from the law; he is a villain/criminal in the eyes of society, yet the novel’s hero. Morgatani also leads a charmed life—an arrow fails to kill him early in the novel. He will only die as a result of his own alchemy when the turret explodes and crumbles; alchemy is another activity Gothic wanderers tend to indulge in—a transgression because it is against God’s natural laws to try to change the elements.

Nemoni: Nemoni is one of the most interesting characters in the novel. He is considered a madman, and he lives like a wild man in the forest; others believe him to be a wizard. This suggests that he is also supernatural in some way, although there is no evidence in the novel that he has any supernatural abilities. He is mostly insane with only a few lucid moments. His insanity comes from his desire for revenge upon Morgatani after having seen Morgatani cause the woman Nemoni loved (or his sister; the novel contradicts itself) to be destroyed. This woman was in a convent in Italy, and Morgatani tried to seduce her sexually. When she refused, he accused her of immoral behavior, resulting in her being buried alive in a wall of the convent. Nemoni is also a nod to the Arthurian tradition. Sir Lancelot becomes an insane wild man who lives in the forest, his love for Guinevere driving him to madness. Merlin also has a period in early life of being a madman in the forest, which is a parallel to Nemoni being called a wizard. Eventually, Nemoni does get his revenge, though he dies in the end, but not before he gives Sir Rupert the information that he has two children he didn’t know existed, which thereby restores the social order for the novel. No matter how scary a Gothic novel might be, the social order is always restored in the end.

The Crusader: This last character is the real superhero of the novel. He arrives at the castle while Sir Rupert is away and attempts to put things to rights. All the while, his identity is kept hidden because he wears a velvet mask. He is described by Eldred as “a whopper,” meaning he is large and strong, true heroic elements, yet his mask is more reminiscent of the Gothic. It is interesting that his name in the book is “The crusader”—he is the masked crusader, but that is not such a far cry from the “caped crusader,” Batman. In the end, it amounts to the same thing—he is fighting crime to see the castle saved and returned to its rightful owner. The astute reader will guess his identity before the novel is over—he is King Richard, and his return restores the social order to not only the castle but also to England.

The Black Monk is a curious blend of Gothic and medieval pseudo-history, as well as a blend of heroes and villains. It shows early comic book elements in its pictures and its action adventure style plot. While I would not call it a seminal Gothic text, it certainly shows how the Gothic was evolving in the nineteenth century, showing us both a repentant Gothic wanderer in Agatha, not yet ready to be redeemed—I would argue that Varney the Vampire is probably the first true Gothic wanderer to be allowed redemption—and heroes who disguise their identity to fight crime—something that will eventually lead to characters like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and yes, Batman.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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