MYSTERIES ELUCIDATED (1795)

ANNA MARIA MACKENZIE (d. after 1816


Anna Maria Mackenzie married twice and after the death of her first husband supported her four children by writing, sometimes using the pseudonym Ellen of Exeter. Between 1784 and 1811 she wrote 16 or 18 novels, many ‘based on Historical Fact’ and most of them published by William Lane at the Minerva Press. Mysteries Elucidated is an example of historical Gothic, set in the reign of Edward II, in which the heroine is persecuted by the historical figures of Mortimer and Isabella. It is also one of the first novels to be directly influenced by Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. Its host of standard features – such as a hollow voice, apartments of gloomy grandeur, a discovered manuscript, an obscuring fog – are rather ineptly designed to cater for a fashion, though the characterization is good. In her preface, Mackenzie pointedly alludes to Ann Radcliffe and argues that historical romances are better than supernatural romances.

Copyright © 2000, 2012 Rictor Norton


To the Readers of Modern Romance

As many opinions have lately been promulgated, respecting the innovations upon (I would rather say, amendment of) ANCIENT ROMANCE, blaming, on the one hand, every attempt to reduce the monster to a more reasonable standard; and on the other, depriving him of the most necessary traits of his former dignity; a few remarks upon the subject may perhaps be admitted, without the imputation of officiousness, as they will neither be embittered by impertinent reflection, nor malevolent satire: but as it is a cause made really important to the female world, by its influence and effects, I shall venture to give my own sense of it, as adopted through long and frequent consideration, and in this place I must beg leave to observe the progression and perversion of such alterations. . . .
          The princess too, who once held her beautiful and sacred person at an awful distance, ’till her gallant defender had cut his way to her fortified prison, through the whole phallanx of horrible beings, brought into existence by the heated brain, and distorted fancy of mistaken writers; either not knowing him under the mighty change, or finding she must give up every hope of future celebrity, unless, trying her chance in a new situation, she weighs the difference, and quietly consents to enter the same road, substituting cross guardians for cruel dragons travelling chaises for flying chariots–– and vulgar post boys for rosy cupids – the massy gates, grated windows, and impervious walls vanish from the disenchanted eye, and the lady finds herself obliged to accept the common assistance of a waiting maid, to effect her escape, happy if she can retain so much of her former consequence, as to leap from the open sash to the arms of her expecting lover. . . .
          That the general run of novels have this sort of tendency, I believe every subscriber to a Circulating Library can witness; (but with the sincerest admiration of their talents, let me exclude the names of Burney, Bennet, Parsons, &c. from a share in the censure, whose elegant performances will, I trust, remove much of the contempt which has fallen upon works of this denomination;) and though the following observation may possibly be deemed an anachronism, yet I will venture to remark, that as it was not in the power comparatively of a few individuals to destroy, or even successfuly oppose, such a formidable body, it was thought expedient to attempt a middle kind of writing, founded too upon historical facts, neither so improbable (impossible might sound as well) as the one, nor so dangerous to the young and indiscriminating as the other.
          The success of the Recess, Warbeck, Monmouth, the Danish Massacre, Duke of Clarence [Monmouth and the Danish Massacre are her own novels], founded on particular periods in the history of this country, and one or two more, have proved the utility of the undertaking, and ladies are contented to be interested and improved, without being terrified.
          But another modern genius has lately out-soared them all, and scorning the track of more moderate predecessors, has contrived to give her story the highest colouring of unfettered invention, by a choice of fictious (sic) subjects, which naturally affords a greater latitude to the excentricities [sic] of a brilliant imagination, spurning the trammels of sober reason, and forcing, as it were, the willing slave of terror, to adopt the enthusiasm of ideas, which, like the description they are cloath’d in, are all wild, vast, and terrific.
          But while I would give all due praise to the merit of these designs, some objection seems to obtain against the general tenor of them: that they are really wonderful, I readily grant, but if the spirit of description can only be kept up by a succession of bold and horrible images, there is some reason to fear unhappy effects on the young and ductile mind. Indeed, were I possessed of powers equal to that truly ingenious author, I should be cautious of giving them that unbounded licence. Let every mystery thicken in the progress of the story, ’till the whole is elucidated, but let it be without the intervention of super, or preternatural appearances. Dreams and apparitions savour too much of the superstition which ought never to be encouraged; and indeed I was happy to see, in that author’s last voluminous publication, an amendment of this error.
          As it may be deemed presumptuous in one, whose powers of imagination are certainly inferior to those of this writer, to cavil at what has given such works much of their celebrity, I will endeavour to obviate the charge, by remarking, that as in every performance there must be a sombre tint, so it will be but a fair and common conclusion to observe, that nothing can be absolutely perfect.
          In historical traits, the objection before hinted, appears yet stronger, and though I am well aware, that the superstition of former times, may give an air of plausibility to descriptions of this nature, yet its effects will not be less impressive on the tender mind, perhaps the more so, from the supposition of its being founded upon facts, though I think it does not set them many degrees above Baker’s Chronicle, or God’s Revenge against Murder.
          It is extremely clear, from what I have formerly attempted, and what I have now ventured to lay before the public, that in my idea, historical anecdotes are the most proper vehicles for the elucidation of mysteries; but it clearly behoves an author to be careful in the choice of subjects, always premising, for instruction’s sake, that they shall be chosen from such as offer a description of vice in her proper garb, punished by the success of her detestable operations, while virtue, if it triumph not in the rewards of merit here, shall be painted in colours soft enough to allure the attention, and, if possible, inspire the emulation of young and well disposed readers: and here, another observation or two arises from the use made of the present mode of amusement, though I shall first observe, that to the combination of mysterious and perplexed events, the following sheets will witness; but I thought it a duty absolutely owing to those who may honour them with a perusal, to avoid even the supposition of visionary figures; and though, in so doing, it may appear as an open reflection upon the many, who following the masterly hints already thrown out by their great original,* (*Walpole, in his Castle of Otranto) have died their walls in blood – given life to pictures – disturbed the inhabitants of the silent grave – drag’d from his peaceful bed the airy form, to appear against the monsters who had destroyed an innocent family – nay, the enchanted glade – the ruined chapel, with all the perturbed elements which are brought in, to complete the horrid scene; yet I shall be better satisfied to escape the censure of the prudent, than to derive fame by my success, in alarming the timid: to excite wonder is one thing, to incur contempt another; nor can it reflect any credit upon an author, who prostitutes his own reason, and his reader’s judgment, to the profits of his pen.
          A licentious novel may sully the purity of a lady’s ideas, while the unnatural performances of the petty modern romance, claims almost equal power of doing mischief; so that between both, the head and the heart must be in a dangerous state.
          And that this important consideration may affect every one, who posessing the writing influenza, have yet their materials to select, is the sincere and earnest wish of,
                    Ladies and Gentlemen,
                              Your grateful and obedient servant,
                                        ANNA MARIA MACKENZIE.


[SOURCE: Anna Maria Mackenzie, Mysteries Elucidated, A Novel, 3 vols (London: William Lane, Minerva Press, 1795), vol. 1, pp. i–xvi]


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