Jakub Lipski and Jacek Mydla, eds, The Enchantress of Words, Sounds and Image: Anniversary Essays on Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) (Palo Alto: Academica Press, 2015), pp. xxi+250. 978-1-936-32096-7; £68.95 / $64.19 (hb).
Described by Thomas de Quincey as ‘the great enchantress of [her] generation’, Ann Radcliffe has long been identified as the author whose work contributed more than that of any other to the popularity of Gothic prose at the end of the eighteenth century. Yet in this new collection of eleven essays Jakub Lipski and Jacek Mydla achieve much more than simply perpetuating the image of Radcliffe as the eponymous ‘Enchantress’ of ruined castles and persecuted heroines. Rather, they have celebrated the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Radcliffe’s birth by assembling a range of scholarship that explores why this term is so applicable to Radcliffe, and which prioritises her identity as a Romantic artist over her status as a writer of popular sensational fiction.
Focusing primarily on Radcliffe’s most famous novels, the collection explores a diverse array of ideas and concepts which are all connected in some way through a shared motif of visual and/or audio imagery. In the first of four sections, ‘Radcliffe and the Language of Aesthetics’, three essays assess the relationship of the major novels to lyrical art forms such as poetry and music. Jakub Lipski begins with a helpful and concise overview of ‘Ann Radcliffe and the sister arts ideal’ that examines connections between poetry and painting from across all of Radcliffe’s narrative fiction. Raising the intriguing question of Radcliffe’s ‘scanty visual heritage’ in terms of images or paintings inspired by her works, Lipski suggests that Radcliffe’s true talent lies in ‘a poetics of the in-between’ that relies on a complex relationship between ‘words, sounds, and images’ (p. 19). In the following chapter, Alice Labourg develops conventional associations between Radcliffe and visual artists including Salvator Rosa and Domenicho Zampieri, providing a superb delineation of references to such contemporary figures in the only two novels to name specific painters, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797). Completing this section is a long overdue assessment of the centrality of poetry and music as verse forms within Udolpho by Joanna Kabot. Although Kabot’s assumption that epigraphic quotations fulfil the same function as in-text poems is perhaps a little limiting, much potential for further discussion is illuminated by her assertion that such poetic inclusions operate ‘as a kind of generalisation of some aspect of the presented reality’ (p. 67).
Diversifying from the main theme, the next section on ‘The Radcliffean Identities’ commences with an examination of linguistics in Udolpho from Thomas Dutoit, which poses an unconventional argument supporting the presence of subliminal authorial signing throughout the text. A range of highly original ideas are presented and passionately defended, although some arguments nonetheless remain unconvincing, such as the suggestion that Radcliffe deliberately chose the names of the ‘two most important servants of the novel, Annette and Old Carlo’ to provide a ‘cryptographic inscription’ of her own name within the text (p. 85). Somewhat more convincing is Agieszka Łowczanin’s reassessment of Udolpho as an integrally proto-feminist work coming in the wake of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In Udolpho, Łowczanin claims, ‘the prevalent politics of the ignorance women are subject to is additionally translated into the Gothic poetics of mystery’ (p. 119). Returning to the broader spectrum of Radcliffe’s fiction, a survey of the development of Radcliffean villains (somewhat confusingly referred to as ‘black characters’) is supplied by Marek Błaszak, together with a summary of aesthetic and literary influences upon these characters.
In the book’s third section, the experience of ‘Re-Reading Radcliffe’ is addressed, a topic implicitly interesting to all of Radcliffe’s most dedicated devotees. Jacek Mydla’s chapter provides a complex and original examination of Radcliffean terror. Although no definitive conclusions appear to be reached, it does provide an intriguing new perspective on one of the most unique aspects of Radcliffe’s writing, her approach to and construction of a sense of mystery. Following this, Joanna Maciulewicz’s analysis of Udolpho as an ‘allegory of reading’ presents a more clarified evaluation. Arguing that the ‘frequent use of the motif of books’ within Udolpho is an indication of ‘Radcliffe’s interest in the effects of the emerging book culture on social order’ (p. 167), she assesses the novel in relation to the function of other forms of predominantly female literature including earlier novels and conduct books. Her ultimate conclusion that ‘Radcliffe’s fiction becomes a manual of social conduct comparable to […] novels of manners’ provides a stimulating new envisioning of the function of Radcliffe’s work within the Gothic canon (p. 171).
Concluding the volume is a diverse range of essays grouped loosely under the title of ‘Radcliffe in Context(s)’. Magdalena Ożarska provides some fascinating commentary on the process of authorial composition in Radcliffe’s little-discussed travelogue, Journey Made in the Summer of 1794. Stepping away from Radcliffe’s persona as Gothic novelist, Ożarska debates perceptions of gender derived from the text via an assessment of the extent to which Radcliffe’s husband may have contributed to this work, and thus also inadvertently addresses a range of scholarly problems associated with identifying dual-authorship. Dariusz Pniewski follows this with an exploration of Polish translations of Radcliffe’s Gothic fiction, thus providing a brief glimpse into an area of growing interest in the process of contemporary translation of English texts into other European languages. This spectrum of differing ‘Contexts’ is completed by a brief discussion of contemporary attitudes towards, and responses to, Radcliffe’s Gothic prose by Wojciech Nowicki.
Drawing together an eclectic mixture of new scholarship, The Enchantress of Words, Sounds, and Images is an interesting and useful volume. Although in some ways it perpetuates the conventional focus upon Radcliffe’s three most famous Gothic novels—The Romance of the Forest, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and The Italian—there is a substantial attempt to provide new insights into these texts. Amongst the most useful points raised is the suggestion that Radcliffe’s Gothic fiction has an educational and morally informative purpose at its core, an idea that, though by no means original, is nonetheless greatly advanced by numerous chapters throughout the book (in particular those by Łowczanin and Maciulewicz). Whilst this does mean that the contents of the book sometimes stray a little from the ‘Words, Sounds, and Images’ of the title, it is this very tendency to prioritise less conventional qualities of Radcliffe’s works that is one of the volume’s greatest strengths.