Wednesday, January 25, 2012
The Most Boring Mysteries Imaginable
I really wanted to like The Mysteries of Udolpho. Really. I very sincerely wanted to do so. It is one of the first Gothic novels and it was written by a female author in a time where novels were sneered at as 'women's stuff' and women were considered too feeble-minded to vote, even though they were sometimes allowed to own property. However, because it is one of the first Gothic novels, it feels like Mrs. Radcliffe was working out what the genre was as she went along.
This makes the novel incredibly dull.
For example, she seems to have stuck with the classical French ideal of bienseance, which basically means that nothing exciting ever happens where the viewer/reader can see it. Whenever there's a fight, the heroine faints or staggers away pleading for the men to stop; whenever there's a scene of utmost horror, the chapter ends, or it happens to men that do not care to describe their experiences to the heroine until several chapters later, in the most boring fashion imaginable.
Perhaps the Amateur Historian is not the intended reader of the novel. Though I am a fan of Romanticism, I am not a fan of excessive sensibility, and all the times the heroine ends a chapter crying annoy me to no end. In fact, I am hard put to say what it is, exactly, the heroine does besides weep, suffer, stop playing her lute because she is crying so much, and get unfairly persecuted by nearly everyone she meets. I sometimes wondered if I was reading about a particularly mobile water feature.
Likewise, the Amateur Historian had nothing but cordial disdain for the love interest Valencourt. What good can be said about him that has not already been said about Koko the gorilla? He can almost express himself in a normal human fashion and his ability to form special bonds with pets makes one really hope for his intellectual development and the potential of ranty, emotionally disturbed young men to join normal society and actually resemble other human beings. Like many Gothic heroes, he thinks that stalking means love. The Amateur Historian does not, and thus felt extremely uncomfortable about the whole romance, which basically was Emily crying with happiness or vexation and Valancourt variously breaking and entering, defacing public property by carving poems on trees, trespassing and relying on really, really awful emotional abuse to get Emily to do things she did not want to do.
Granted, the whole book could be subtitled, 'Ranty Men Make Emily Do Lots of Things That Make Her Cry' but still, you want a love interest that isn't a total dick when he's not weeping piteously, releasing sighs fit to break one's heart and raving incoherently about his gambling debts. God, I hated him. I wanted to call the cops on his emotionally abusive behavior, only there isn't a police force in whatever-time-the-book-takes-place in the South of France, and he's a fictional character. However, just a general tip for any Gentle Readers out there thinking of writing their own Gothic novels-- when the hero is going through his requisite near-death experience, the reader should not be cheering for his demise, like I was. I was actually hoping that all the characters would mysteriously die because I hated them all so very, very much.
Some of the secondary characters were decent, of course, and the satire of various society figures was pretty well done, but it wasn't enough to pull the novel from the Marsh of Monotony caused by everyone going off into hysterics at the slightest provocation. The descriptions of nature and the French and Italian countryside were quite well done, and, like the neo-Romantic I am, I loved all the passages on the sublime aspects of nature and the "melting sweetness" of music. The plot is decent, which makes it all the more disappointing that the prose is so dull and the characters are about as sympathetic as mold spores.
It's hard to see what's so frightening about the book, too. Sure, there are elements of horror and everyone thinks they see a ghost at one point or another, but the narrative skims blithely over it. I found that the only really interesting bit was the third to last chapter where everything was explained. If the content of that chapter had actually been the whole book, it would have been wonderful. As it was we have Lady Mopey and her love interest Sir Douchebag weeping their way over the Alps and back.
I'm at a loss of what to say about this just because it was so dull. Perhaps this was not meant for modern eyes, or did not age well? I am at a total loss to explain the novel's popularity. I found it extraordinarily easy to put it down and it was even easier not to pick it back up for weeks.