On Saturday 9th May Sheffield Gothic are hosting ‘Re-Imagining the Gothic’. Part academic symposium and part public showcasing event, Re-Imagining aims to promote interdisciplinary research within Gothic Studies. With my interest in the representation of architecture in eighteenth-century literature I’ve planned a stand around the idea of imagining the castles in Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic Romance, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794).
Now known for being one of the horrid novels read by Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818), Udolpho was hugely popular in its day and Radcliffe was paid the princely sum of £500 for the manuscript of this, her fourth novel. Although details of Radcliffe’s private life are rather scarce (Christina Rossetti abandoned her biography due to the lack of information available) we do know that she only travelled as far as Holland and Germany, never viewing the Italian landscapes she described so vividly at length. Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, situated close to Radcliffe’s home in Chesterfield, is thought to have been one source of inspiration for the Castle of Udolpho, but Radcliffe also relied heavily upon art – in particular the picturesque landscape paintings of Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa. In turn, Radcliffe’s own poetic descriptions became an influence to artists with three different paintings of Udolpho exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1797, 1798 and 1799* based on the following passage:
‘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 walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. As she gazed, the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin vapour crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipped with splendour. From those too, the rays soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely and sublime, it seemed to stand sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign. As the twilight deepened, its features became more awful in obscurity, and Emily continued to gaze, till its clustering towers were alone seen, rising over the tops of the woods, beneath whose thick shade the carriages soon after began to ascend.’ (The Mysteries of Udolpho , Vol. II, Ch. V)
Surprisingly for such a lengthy description the reader actually learns very little about the appearance of the building. Radcliffe is more concerned with describing her heroine’s emotional reaction than the architecture itself. The obscurity of twilight makes the precise architectural features unclear and thus renders the edifice an object of sublime terror for Emily St. Aubert. In the deepening darkness imagination takes over in the aesthetic interpretation of the scene. According to Walter Scott, Udolpho ‘affords a noble subject for the pencil; but were six artists to attempt to embody it upon canvas, they would probably produce six drawings entirely dissimilar to each other, all equally authorised by the printed description’ (Memoir, xxx). So what does Udolpho actually look like? I’ll be putting this very question to visitors to Saturday’s creative showcase – seeking to conceptualise what readers envisage by asking them to sketch out an image from the impressions generated by Radcliffe’s text. Here’s my attempt…
For more about this event head over to the Sheffield Gothic blog where you can also find my post all about Gothic Bluebooks. If you’ve not got the time to read 600+ pages of Udolpho a short Bluebook adaptation like The Veiled Picture, or, The Mysteries of Gorgono (1802) might be the answer!
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*Coral Ann Howells, Love, Mystery and Misery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction (London, Athlone: 1978)