REVIEW OF RADCLIFFE’S GASTON DE BLONDVILLE
Curiosity has seldom been more strongly excited by any announcement than by that of Mrs Radcliffe's new romance. The great and genuine popularity of her successive works, which peopled the imagination with so many grand and fearful pictures, and which have been to so many 'fair and innocent' novel-readers as a first love; her retirement, suddenly adopted in the height of her reputation and preserved till her death; and the strange mistakes which were so long prevalent respecting her personal history; were calculated to rivet the attention of the public to a production which her admirer had ceased to hope for. Long as the interval is since the Italian was published, and rich as it has been in works of fiction, 'the great Enchantress of Udolpho' held lone and unquestioned supremacy over that delicious region of romance which was first disclosed at her bidding. Her popularity has stood a severe test; but, instead of fading away, has strengthened into fame. Since she ceased to write, Maturin has developed the processional magnificence for his genius, aided by startling contrasts and moral paradoxes; Miss Porter and her sister have finished a series of pictures replete with smooth, glossy, and transparent beauty; Miss Edgeworth has exhibited views of human life from the nursery to the grave, from the hovel of Irish beggars to the saloons of English noblemen, illuminated by the glancing lights of wit, and replete with splendour, which 'borrowed all its rays from sense;' Mrs Inchbald has stripped oppression of its disguises, and bade the heart bled for others and itself; Miss Austen has displayed all the delicacy of female observation, and developed all the fervour of the female heart; and the author of Waverley has brought old histories before us instinct with present life, and filled with almost every variety of human character; yet Mrs Radcliffe's best works have continued to excite the girl's first wonder, and to supply the last solace to her grandame's age, thumbed over, begged, borrowed, and thought of as often as ever! To the fancies of her numberless readers, she seemed to hold august sway over the springs of error almost as the Siddons of novelists.
'It were to inquire too curiously,' if we should attempt nicely to investigate how far this effect is atributable to mere intellectual power, and to what extent it may be ascribed to the charm of the subjects which the authoress selected. If the fascination was chiefly in her range of imagery, she, at least, first showed how to employ it, and has alone been able to mould and arrange its varieties so as to produce a deep and lasting impression. If she derived any hint from the farcical extravagances of the Castle of Otranto, or the insipidity of the Old English Baron, our idea of her faculty is rather heightened than reduced: that on such cold suggestions she could devise solemn and decorous terrors, and spread out vast, sombre, and consistent pictures before the eye of the fancy. The ground which she chose was, no doubt, well adapted to her purpose; but the enchantments she raised there did not derive their influence from mere melo-dramatic artifices and ingenious trickery. There was a fine knowledge of the pulses of curiosity and fear in the human heart; and a nice discrimination in apportioning the degree and the kind of excitement which would call forth their fondest throbbings, which has never else been employed by the novelist. It may be true that her that her persons are cold and formal; but her readers are the virtual heroes and heroines of her story as they read; and when they rise from the perusal, instead of having become intimate with a rich troop of characters, they seem to have added a long series of interesting adventures to their individual history. It is idle, however, to dispute about the means, when the end is so apparent; to contend that that which has endured so long, had no principle of vitality; that books which have been devoured by thousands, have no legitimate hold on the sympathies; or that an effect is easily produced, which a hundred well-trained imitators have attempted to produce in vain!
[SOURCE: Mrs Radcliffe's Posthumous Romance', New Monthly Magazine, 16 (1826), pp. 5323]
Return to Gothic Theory and Criticism
Return to Index of Gothic Readings