This is one thing I did this week, and where it took me.

I celebrated. It was a modest event, no popping corks, or bubbles.

There was, however, a jubilant, ‘Yes’, as I completed that task I signed up to with Cleo, on Classical Carousel, four months ago. You know, the marathon that seemed hardly possible. Surely you remember my mentioning that I intended reading Ann Radcliffe’s, The Mysteries of Udolpho? Well, I’ve finished. And I’m three weeks ahead of the reading schedule.

You’d be right in thinking that last statement is a surprise development. Just like Emily, I could never be quite sure that things would work out for the best. Well, I turned an unexpected corner.

It happened this way. I’d been avoiding even looking at the hefty tome for several days. It had been hot, I was lethargic, and the story seemed to be lagging. I had a list of jobs needing attention. It was a classic set-up for displacement activity-itous.

I started with taking on boring, mundane chores, that no one but me would notice. I became focused on crossing jobs off.

Days passed. I wrote course proposals, bringing fresh papers and books to the corner of the table that has become a temporary office.

Udolpho and my original list got buried, along with the top of the table. I found some new lines of research and began a fresh list. When that one disappeared, I started another. At some later point the table began to groan under the stacks of ideas.

One morning I walked into the kitchen and found an old envelope on my laptop. Written on the back of it, in large black letters were the words, ‘tidy notes.’ It was the reminder of a dream that I had woken from in the middle of the night. There had been an Alice-in-Wonderland like moment when page after page of a story had rained down upon me, and I had seen, clearly, some perfectly formed and irresistible narrative.

Tenniel’s ‘Alice’

Unfortunately, the form and shape of it had evaporated with the sunrise, as they usually do, even after making notes. But, looking at our mountainous table, I saw some other sense in those two terse words.

Dismantling a paper heap of that size is no simple matter. Things must be re-read, decisions need to be taken on what to save, where to tidy them to, and whether they’re safe to discard. I found several books I’d forgotten about before I resurrected Ann Radcliffe.

I did not pull back in horror, tattered as the cover is, though I may have sighed, a little, as I recalled that neglected schedule. Surely, I thought, I was so far behind by now it would need a marathon to catch up.

Could I have missed the finish date all together? I hunted around for the reading schedule, and perhaps I was half hoping that I might be able to add it to my must-finish-that-one-one-of-these-days shelf. I could not. I put the book back on the emptied table.

So imagine my surprise, later that morning, when I took it up to re-establish my ten-minutes-a-day reading policy, and a moment later realised that I had been reading for over an hour. More astounding still, I was reluctant to leave Emily and make lunch.

I don’t think it was just that I realised the end was in sight, and the pages I’d read far out-weighed those ahead of me. It was that at some point, about half-way through Volume Three, the story took me over.

Perhaps, I was better adjusted to the mindsets of the characters, and the author. It seemed to me that they had all become brighter, and more active. Strands of plot were coming together in interesting and unexpected ways. New characters appeared, and took me to fresh scenes.

There were some things about the plotting that seemed a little conveniently coincidental, but I was enjoying the journey. It seems that, when the writing works, we readers can accept it.

Maybe, the old saying about ‘truth being stranger than fiction’, could be said to apply when the writing doesn’t persuade us to suspend our sense of disbelief. Could it be that because most of us do experience odd coincidences, we’ll accept fictional truths so long as the characters and their world are believable?

The mystery of how I’ve reached volume III of Ann Radcliffe

There has been a lot of weeping, so far. I assure you, though, dark as this journey has been, these tears were not from me. Our heroine, Emily, is the watering can, crying her way through most chapters, now that she has been orphaned.

Oops, sorry for that spoiler, folks. Perhaps I should have warned you that I’m going to be discussing several incidents from the first two volumes. So, if you’ve plans to read The Mysteries of Udolpho, you’d be advised to leave me here. Because, unlike Miss Radcliffe, I’m not going to be coy with my revelations.

Yes, Ann, I do accuse you of deliberately withholding key information, a story-offence of the first degree, in my opinion. Let’s take the example of the veiled picture, first discovered while Emily and her maid, Annette, are trying to find Emily’s new bedroom in the huge and inhospitably drafty castle, in the dark.

Annette is too frightened to stay and lift the veil, she runs off with the lamp. Why wouldn’t she? The other servants have warned her about a range of ghosts and horrors linked to the castle and it’s questionable owner.

Emily though, like me, is driven by an overriding curiosity. The next day she retraces her route to the picture…

…which appeared to be enclosed in a frame of uncommon size, that hung in a dark part of the room. She paused again, and then, with a timid hand, lifted the veil; but instantly let it fall – perceiving that what it had concealed was no picture, and, before she could leave the chamber, she dropped senseless on the floor.

When she recovered her recollection, the remembrance of what she had seen had nearly deprived her of it a second time.

Yes, but what was it? What did she see?

I’m a hundred pages further into the story and I still don’t know, despite several occasions when Emily becomes weak at the knees over the memory.

I’m not too happy about the treatment of Annette, either. She’s full of the kind of sensibilities that allow Emily to demonstrate her superior commonsense and bravery. How does Emily repay this? When she’s too frightened to stay in her room alone she has Annette stay with her. Emily gets the bed, Annette must make do with a chair by the dying fire.

But let me get back to Emily’s weeping. No, wait, it’s never gone away. She’s prone to getting ‘lost in this melancholy reverie, and shedding frequent tears…’

To be fair, this young woman is at the mercy of an unenviable bunch of relatives who are intent on using her to advance their own fortunes. But what else should a female of the 1580s expect? Her role, as she continually reminds us, is obedience to the wishes of her elders, even when she knows that they act wrongly.

Except, hold on a minute, who says that their ambitions are wrong? Why Emily (and Ann Radcliffe).

The case for the defense, surely, is that Emily’s aunts, uncles and neighbours are acting in her best interests, as well as their own, in aiming her towards the most advantageous marriage possible. After all, upper class marriage in the sixteenth century is not about love, it’s a business deal negotiated by family elders.

Her father knew this, but still he decided to bring his daughter up in such a way that she was never going to fit the social scene. What was he thinking? I have some ungenerous thoughts about his selfishness. It was all very well to create a perfect companion for himself, but did he think beyond the limits of the estate where they lived?

In fact, now I come to think of it, this book sets me in a particularly judgmental frame of mind. Hmm, does that mean I’ve entered into the story?

It might. Though if so, it’s not in a way I would usually expect.

I’ve spent a lot of time locked up in dark spaces with Em as she dithers, sobs, faints and waits for things to happen to her. I’ve had to remind myself that, for readers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Emily is daringly independent. She goes alone, at night, to visit her father’s grave. She wanders through Udolpho Castle, a place full of mysterious corridors, rooms and presences, in darkness and daylight, despite her fears of molestation and abduction.

However passive she might be in some instances, she is a young woman without access to transport or uninterested assistance. The constraints of her time mean that she must always be limited by the need to hold onto her respectability. If that is lost, so is she.

What I’m irritated by is the very thing that Radcliffe is drawing attention to, the dangers of having too much sensibility. This is interesting, because it seems that here I am, 226 years after this book was published, reacting in a way that the author probably intended, despite our cultural differences.

The Mysteries of Udolpho summer readalong is organised by Cleo, at Classical Carousel.

Beginning the Mysteries of Udolpho read-along

As soon as I saw Cleo’s invitation, on Classical Carousel, to dedicate a month to reading Ann Radcliffe’s famous novel, I knew I was fated to join in. After all, not only have I got two identical copies on my shelves (certainly bought with the best of intentions, but who could say when?), in classes, I’m frequently given to quoting quotes about the importance of Radcliff to later writers. It is clearly about time I stopped having to admit that I’ve no right to express my own opinions on that.

So, I have begun. My first thought? It’s an awfully big novel, arguably a worthy doorstop for breezy days. It’s certainly been doing sterling work as a paperweight.

“No! Stop this sacrilege: this procrastinating! Get to the first page, why don’t you?”

Okay, so I didn’t say all that to myself out loud, but there was an internal monologue happening, along those lines, for around two days before I settled to the task. Which suggests the book is a hard read.

It’s not. There is, perhaps, more description than the writing I normally aim for, but I like a reading challenge, and variety. So I took another day to work through the first two pages, acclimatizing myself to the period and the locality.

On the pleasant banks of the Garonne, in the province of Gascony, stood, in the year 1584, the chateau of Monsieur St Aubert. From its windows were seen the pastoral landscapes of Guienne and Gascony, stretching along the river, gay with luxuriant woods and vines, and a plantation of olives.

How idyllic it is. What a joy to travel to such a place at any time, but especially now, when ‘real’ travel is a fantasy.

The first paragraph is a geographical orientation. Nowadays, we might think of it as a camera, panning round. To the south are the Pyrenees, described in rugged detail, to the north and east, are plains, while in the west is the Bay of Biscay.

Only then do we move in closer, joining M. St Aubert, his wife, and his daughter. We see the environment through their movements, and thoughts. Their lives happen at a gentle pace, and that’s how the reading feels: I’m drawn on, and into the layers of landscape.

There are momentous incidents, and the novel (the story) is driving forwards, but at walking pace (might I say isolation-pace?), and so far, with modesty and restraint. I’m only 50 pages in, and have yet to experience any sensation stronger than mild curiosity. No doubt I’m being lulled into a false sense of security, but actually, I wouldn’t mind if my reading continued in this gentle vein of wandering along the thyme, balm, lavender and basil scented pathways.

So far, this is an undemanding novel. I’m engaged by the characters, and the journey they’ve now embarked on. I know that they’ll be there, readily accessible and familiar, even if I miss reading of them for a day. Which I have, several times.

The challenge will be, whether I can reach page 632 before end of the month. It all depends, I imagine, on whether I become thrilled (which I think is a suitably dated expression) by developments or anticipation. Though I’m hoping for some inappropriate chuckling too.