How deep into the Forest are we?

Hi all! I haven’t been posting this week due to the onset of inevitable October Madness. Classes are fully in swing, I’ve had my first few visitors to this sleepy Pennsylvania town, and the job market is underway for next fall. (Yes, already!) How are we doing on The Romance of the Forest? Shall we slow the reading schedule down, and finish it for next Friday?

What do you make of all the poems Adeline writes? I am not a fan of Radcliffe’s landscape poetry myself, especially when her landscape prose is so beautiful, but I understand I have detractors. Thoughts on our new mysterious handsome Theodore? Is Adeline the most attractive woman in the history of humankind, that every single person who gazes upon her is overwhelmed by desire? Is it ever banditti? (No, it is never banditti!)

The Mystery of the Abbey

In deference to my fellow bloggers, I will try to keep my comments as general as possible to avoid playing the spoiler. Carrie has spoken about how Radcliffe gives “space and time” to the narrative–certainly, there’s time for buildup of some suspense, and the setting is pure Gothic. However, I found myself champing at the bit during the first few chapters (“Get ON with it!”) In contrast to Otranto, the “Manfredian” character doesn’t make his appearance for several chapters, nor is his true nature immediately revealed (unlike Walpole’s Manfred, who begins hitting on his nearly-daughter-in-law about two seconds after his son is crushed).

Then there’s the unfolding of the several mysteries, beginning with La Motte. We know he is financially ruined at the outset, but not what impels him to run–until we consider that being a debtor in those days was an imprisonable offense. Still, he seems to cut a less-than-admirable figure, skulking from town to town before stumbling upon the abbey. The mystery of Adeline’s persecutor also spans several pages until his identity is finally revealed during the telling of her pathetic life story. Of course, the mystery of the abandoned abbey trumps both these story lines–what is the reason it remains uninhabited? What’s the deal with all these secret passages, hidden apartments, trapdoors? What went on in this forbidding place?

I think it’s clear to all of us that Radcliffe has much more invested in developing her characters than Walpole–they are not cartoonish or unidimensional but believable, well-rounded figures with both fortes and foibles. LaMotte is weak, sometimes downright cowardly, but he’s capable of kindness and even charity. Madame La Motte, though given to attacks of the vapors, generally soldiers on and possesses real compassion for Adeline and her plight. Adeline, we grow to find out, is made of sterner stuff than it first appears, though both women and La Motte do a fair amount of hand-wringing and lamenting. To tell the truth, it’s a little off-putting until things really get going in the middle chapters.

In a sense, I suppose I’m spoiled by a lifetime of experiencing real blood-curdling horror in book and film, but Romance has its moments–all the machinery is there, the dungeon-like rooms, the howling,stormy nights replete with wind-blown tapestries, the rumors of supernatural goings-on, voices in the dark, half-seen figures appearing and disappearing inexplicably–and the characters are all appropriately terrorized as the scary events occur or the weirdness is revealed.

Next time, I hope we can discuss the Gothic villain of this story–when everyone’s caught up. Meantime, enjoy the novel–it’s a better read as it moves forward than it appears at the start!

Radcliffe day is tomorrow!

How is it going? Who is in for this one?

The Romance of the Forest is special in a lot of ways, not the least of which being that Radcliffe’s style (especially in this book) is, unlike almost all later Gothic, still that of an eighteenth-century novelist. All of the Gothic elements are there—the marvelous interior of the Abbey, the sexually threatening Marquis, the mysterious desirable Theodore, the missing and possibly malevolent father of Adeline—but it has the texture of eighteenth-century feeling. People are compassionate sometimes, or at least driven in part by compassion and earnest sentiment, without being fools.

Does someone want to contribute a post or two this weekend? I have a few things to say, but I’d rather get out of the way for tomorrow’s first impressions.

Had we but world enough and time!

As we count down to Radcliffe this Friday, I would draw your attention to the vast improvements she manages to make over Walpole’s Gothic prose. While reading Otranto can feel like a bit of a slog, I’d argue that it’s because, not in spite, of its brevity that it’s such a difficult read.

For me, the beauty of Radcliffe’s achievement in The Romance of the Forest is the space and time she gives her story. She manages to invent what I have (lovingly) referred to as “boring parts”—bits of down-time in the narrative when our heroine can wander through the woods and write poems about how sad she is—that space out the major revelations and events so they really are quite shocking.

During those boring parts, I feel, on the one hand, some relief, but, on the other, I get a bit bloodthirsty. Something creepy needs to happen, and fast! So when it does, I get the frisson of being both satisfied and guilty.

Radcliffe still isn’t going to work anyone up to a real frothing fear like some later books, but she perfects some little moments that I hope you also take note of as prototypical Gothic set-pieces (without spoiling: the men in the little door, the fawn, waiting for Peter, etc.). They’re tasty tidbits pleasingly set in a lovely ruined abbey. Just remember: it’s never banditti!

I hope you enjoy this one! First 10 chapters will be for Friday. (Any volunteers for a post this week?)

What is love?

(baby don’t hurt me don’t hurt me no more)
(’tis not hereafter; present mirth hath present laughter)

Gothic love is pretty famously stupid, from the perspective of dull sublunary lovers like myself. If I think too hard about the Bella-Edward situation, I get embarrassed for humanity. And even in truly great works of Gothic romance like Wuthering Heights, the primary relationship is so absurdly intense and metaphysically complicated that it doesn’t take a particularly hardboiled cynic to utter an “oh brother” every few pages.

But this over-the-top, wordless, self-destructive, sublime feeling that overwhelms all sense and reason emerges in fiction just at the time when fictional love was recommended to young readers in extremely sensible and domesticated forms. The marriage plot warns us that the entrancing, mysterious, brooding, sexy sort is probably a dangerous and ultimately unpleasant romantic option. Henry Fielding, for example, describes love in Tom Jones (1749) as “a kind and benevolent disposition which is gratified by contributing to the happiness of others.” He goes on:

[E]steem and gratitude are the proper motives to love, as youth and beauty are to desire, and, therefore, though such desire may naturally cease, when age or sickness overtakes its object, yet these can have no effect on Love, nor ever shake or remove, from a good mind, that sensation or passion which hath gratitude and esteem for its basis.

It’s a beautiful passage, one of my favorites in all of literature. Esteem and gratitude! Kind and benevolent! We so rarely hear these words associated with the feeling of love that it feels (to me) quite refreshing. Fielding recommends that the reader should seek out a partner for life who, yes, is sexually appealing, but also is kind, helpful, and compassionate. That is, in our romantic lives, we should choose, as much as we are able, to be happy.

Gothic love has no such goal. Falling in love in Gothic novels seems to create the same physiological symptoms in characters as discovering a blood-soaked veil hiding something in a secret passageway. They tremble, blush, weep, and can’t breathe. They can’t talk about it or explain it to anyone else, and when they try, it just sounds nuts. They no more choose to pursue it than one chooses to continue falling down a well. It ruins their lives, isolates them from contact with other people, makes them behave strangely. They will put up with all kinds of abuse and violence, either in the name of their beloved, or at his/her hands.

To most adults, this idea of love seems, at best, childish, and, at worst, disastrous. If you imagine a teen daughter of yours falling in love this way, it makes your head spin. And yet, there’s also something in Fielding’s definition of love that may strike us as a bit cold-fish. Even with his allowance for sexual desire, where is the hot, burning, all-encompassing passionate LOVE of one soul tragically and eternally split into two bodies?

Also, is it possible to attempt to enjoy Gothic love as an aesthetic experience, while still thinking it’s a pretty dumb idea for real life? (I say yes of course, and that it’s good for readers to learn to be emotionally flexible, but who can say?)

Things That Make You Go “Whoo”

So familiar have we become with the trappings of the Gothic horror story that The Castle of Otranto seems tame, almost quaint compared to the “slice and dice” entries in the genre today. But Otranto, as the earliest of the Gothic novels, was the first to feature an ancient pile haunted by the ghost of its rightful possessor, weird, inexplicable objects appearing as if by supernatural means, living skeletions, secret trapdoors, and drafty underground passages that invariably blow out candles in their darkest recesses. This Gothic motif, which Carrie parodied in an earlier post, got its start with Walpole.

I preface my remarks with this introduction to remind us (well,myself, mostly) that allowances must be made at the birth of any genre. Otranto seems a bit hokey to me at times–the machinery is all too transparent and the plot contrived, especially the denouement with its too-neat tying up of story threads. Still, I can’t deny that it’s a page-turner I finished in two evening sittings. (Yes, in the dark lit by an itty-bitty book light for extra atmosphere.) But what makes the story for me is the character of Manfred, whose behavior defies explanation at times. For instance, long before the revelation that he is not the rightful ruler of Otranto, he seems unduly preoccupied with producing a male heir–even to the extremity of divorcing his wife and marrying his dead son’s betrothed. Mighty creepy, that. And he is such a loose cannon, flying into fits of rage over every real or imagined slight or whenever someting doesn’t go his way, that we are left with an unsettled feeling throughout the narrative–something that certainly contributes to the general gloom and foreboding. His repentance, when it finally comes at the cost of his daughter’s life, seems genuine enough (though I thought of that short film Carrie posted of the squire who, after having confessed to killing his brother, chokes back a few crocodile tears).

Clanking armor, giant body parts, talking portraits–what fun! But enough out of me–would love to hear some of your feelings about this seminal Gothic work.

Present at the Creation

So what I was least prepared for (other than the sudden arrival of the casque on page 2)was the extent to which Otranto is more proto-Gothic than high (or even middle) Gothic. Between the castle and the presence of ghosts and a diabolical plan, it sounded like all the elements were in place.

But, unsurprisingly, the first explorer didn’t get the territory quite right. There’s exposition, but no actual setup, prior to the appearance of the first portent. Scenes of supernatural terror – or at least anxiety – are interspersed with wordy discussions more suited to a court romance. Most of the creepy details are undersold (3 drops of blood from a statue’s nose?).

In some sense, it simply seemed that the creepy elements were there not for dramatic effect, but rather as heavy-handed portents to make clear that Manfred was out of divine favor. They themselves didn’t seem especially ominous (although I appreciated an almost aside noting that Manfred was getting freaked out, but trying to hide it), and because the inhabitants of the story treated them as portents, not inexplicable intrusions from an unknown Beyond, they became hardly more significant to us (or me, anyway) than more quotidian details such as allowable consanguinity and marriages of convenience.

None of which is to say that I didn’t think the book had its strengths. In particular, while the characterization could be obvious (Theodore is rather a plaster saint), I appreciated Manfred’s vacillation between desperation and ordinary nobility (that is, behaving as a noble should), and I actually took a lot of interest in how the women, each a paragon of virtue, were shown to manage their feelings and obligations.

So was I expecting too much? Was I not in the right frame of mind? Do I need a rusty chair and bare light bulb in the basement? And was I too generous in how I viewed the (writing of the) womenfolk? And will Carrie take the keys away from me after this post?

“In two days, something strange will happen!”

said the hooded figure in the shadow. I could not see her face, but her voice was shrill and cracked with age. I struggled to determine her meaning over the howling storm that rattled the windows in their rotting frames.

I inched toward her along the wall, hoping not to startle her, in case she were of supernatural origin. “What do you mean, strange?” I entreated. “We’ve all done the reading here!” Yes, I and my whole household had finished The Castle of Otranto, taking turns aloud over a good crackling fire in the looming ruin of the old convent. Driven here by panic and storm, we found ourselves incapable of moving on or settling in, knowing not who, or what, properly resided in this half-standing ancient fortress.

The figure, which had been fixated on a spot low in the corner of the room opposite where I lay, slowly, slowly, began to rise and turn. I edged nearer, hoping to throw off that heavy cloak and see with whom I conversed. With the candle in my right hand, and my left, weaker hand raised and trembling, I suddenly made rapid, shuffling steps toward the cloaked thing, who wheeled around at me! I dropped my candle as I fell to the floor in a swoon of terror, and remember no more.

For real, though, how do you y’all want to do this? What kind of book club do you want this to be? Open threads? Suggestive (ugh) questions? Fan fic? Who wants to get us started on Friday?

Damages

An interesting idea came up in the discussions below about the power of art to do some kind of psychological harm to the viewer, especially in the case of representations of violence and violent sexuality, whether journalistic, realistic, or fantastic. Those feel like three categories to me, with, of course, some overlap. I’m thinking of a spectrum like: photos of the Vietnam War — Bugliosi’s Helter SkelterSilence of the LambsHuman Centipede28 Days LaterAvatar, on a scale from representations of real violence (through the lens of the artist who chooses what to represent and how and why) to fantasy violence (which nevertheless makes reference to the real world). Something like Blue Velvet (a popular thing here!) seems to fall, in my estimation, somewhere around Silence of the Lambs, or maybe a bit to the right of it. That is also, I think, the area where the Gothic happens, in some shadowy world that is uncannily like our own, but a place where worse things than usual suddenly take place.

It’s also an area where maybe we could continue our discussion of potential harm that books and films and images might do. In this reading group, I don’t think we’re covering anything that could be genuinely considered extreme sexual pornography or long, realistic descriptions of torture or genocide, and none of it is totally-outside-of-this-world fantasy. It’s more in the realm of the unnerving, upsetting, alarming, and transforming. There’s an effect created even by some of the earlier, gentler Gothics by which the reader starts to experience a sunny sky and the buzz of late-summer insects as ominous. A friendly stranger suddenly seems to be hiding something behind his smile. What terrible secret is everyone hiding from me?

The potential “harm” of the Gothic is subtle. Jane Austen parodied it humorously in Northanger Abbey, in which Catherine Morland, an average teenage girl, gets so sucked into reading Gothic novels that she begins to suspect that every storm is a supernatural tempest, every scrap of paper an ancient manuscript, and every locked door the secret entrance to underground passages full of murdered bones. Today, there’s plenty of handwringing about teenaged girls (and grown women) heaving their bosoms over Edward and Bella of Twilight, longing for a dark, secret love their lives to destroy.

Make fun of the vampire girls and wolf boys all you like, but thanatos is alive and well. In the eighteenth century, when so much fiction for young people wanted to teach them how to become happy by being good, marrying an appropriate and cheerful partner, raising delightful children, and dying at a ripe old age surrounded by a grateful, loving family, the rise of the Gothic had to feel like something of a relief and a revelation. Of course we don’t actually pursue happiness all the time. Of course we want to see the hideous things lying under the thin veneer of civility.

But, as Lauren and Rich mention below about Blue Velvet, there are things you can’t unsee, and they change your perspective, for something that is almost objectively worse. To what extent might the Gothic be useful for processing and understanding one’s own irrational, thanatotic desires and behaviors, and to what extent does it render the Enlightenment-style “pursuit of happiness” a naïve and silly project?

N.B.: I’m going through a phase right now during which I’m hyper-aware of arguments about how a particular text or film might harm some imaginary or stereotypical child who is infinitely hurtable, as in the “those impressionable teens over there with the Twilight books.” I tend to find these conversations much more challenging and interesting when we do them in first-person. Does that make sense?

Mixed characters

As we count down to Otranto Friday, I am thinking about Walpole’s insistence that Manfred is not evil, just volatile. Without spoiling anything, I can say that the plot Manfred hatches and relentlessly pursues does not seem like something a good man would come up with. And once a person is devoted to such a frightful purpose, could he have misgivings, but continue to act?

More than any kind of nature/nurture debate, I feel these are questions of whether, at any given moment in a person’s life, one may have an essential nature. Is it possible to “be a good person” but also do terrible things? How much evil can one do before ceasing to “be a good person”?

Part of Walpole’s innovation here is his attempt to prevent the reader from fencing Manfred off as simply a bad man. Literature of the eighteenth century had villains, of course—rapists and murderers and thugs—but usually they either come wearing their badness right on the surface, or their badness emerges as the true self under an elegant exterior. Rarely do we get to see someone wrestling with a sincere ethical motivation on the one hand and a desire to commit cruel, violent acts on the other. (My beloved Tom Jones wrestles between a desire to be a good man and his exuberant lack of social and sexual self-control. To me, that’s ethically different from wanting to hurt people.) We generally feel, in non-Gothic novels, like we have something of a grasp on the essential nature of characters. But Walpole’s characters feel somewhat obscure, like we’re only seeing the shadows of their movements, not the motivation for them.

One stunning exception to the non-Gothic legibility of ethical motivation is Robert Lovelace, the terrifying villain of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748). Clarissa is an important precursor to the Gothic in several ways—there is an innocent heroine who attempts to escape one kind of sexual threat and is trapped in a far more terrifying plot against her while being lied to and manipulated from all sides—but perhaps most of all in Lovelace, whose letters show increasing derangement, paranoia, and conflict within himself. What begins as a rake’s desire to conquer the prudishness of a virgin turns into a psychotic quest to control and manipulate Clarissa’s every thought. Lovelace seems primarily motivated not by sexual desire for Clarissa’s body, but by the essential goodness that she has, and that he knows he can never have. By destroying her, he hopes to prove to himself that goodness cannot really exist by enslaving it to his own badness.

It is hard to compare Clarissa and Otranto, if only because the former is 20 times the length of the latter. But I think one of the things Walpole made possible in the Gothic is a place for characters who have no essential nature. This is what can be so frightening about the Gothic, when it works. Although we think of there being heroines (good!) and villains (bad!) in the Gothic, the villains are almost always, like Lovelace, trapped in some bizarre contest within themselves for self-mastery. As badly as we might feel for the victims, we also have to confront our sympathy for the devil. We’re mixed characters, too.

In parting, I urge to you to watch this completely amazing short film, which reminds me so much of Manfred’s dilemma:


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.