Gloomy and Sublime

"There," said Montoni, speaking for the first time in several hours, "is Udolpho." Emily gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle, which she understood to be Montoni's; for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object….



The eighteenth-century Gothic novel is tied to July 9th through two birthdays, those of Ann Radcliffe (1764) and Matthew “Monk” Lewis (1775). The excerpt above from Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho conveys something of the genre’s aesthetics: an orphaned heroine escorted to her imprisonment in an Alpine castle, its portal bell tolling, the over-hanging turrets ready to fall, the torch-lit halls leading ever-downward and promising certain “long-suffering and murder.”

The popularity of such tales led Jane Austen to take aim in Northanger Abbey. Though published posthumously, this was her first-written novel, undertaken when literary gothic was the popular taste. Austen’s heroine is Catherine Morland, a young woman so captivated by Radcliffe’s Udolpho and others like that she imagines brooding villains and sudden danger around every corner, though her only actual torment is the polite drawing-room society of Bath. In the passage below, Catherine introduces her enthusiastic friend to a Gothic reading plan, all of the recommend books published about the time of Radcliffe’s novel:

“…and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian [also by Radcliffe] together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”
“Have you, indeed! How glad I am! What are they all?”
“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocketbook. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”
“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”

 

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

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