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Beauty Lying in the Lap of Horror; or, The Mysteries of the Lake District

A few weeks ago, I was re-reading Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. My reasons for doing so were largely pragmatic: last month The University of Sheffield hosted the first international conference on Radcliffe, marking the 250th anniversary of her birth. I was giving a paper on sociable travel and the discussion of landscape in Radcliffe and wanted to double check some Udolpho material as part of that. As I sat, dutifully taking notes on the way Emily St Aubert and Valancourt responded to the French landscape,  I frequently found myself stopping to admire the ‘scenery’ myself; enjoying the chance to be surprised again by some of the features of a novel I’d not read, cover to cover, for quite some time. Udolpho rewards this kind of reading, of course, with far more in its four volumes than the familiar set pieces of common critical analysis, clustered as they are around the eponymous castle.

Whilst meandering in this way around the first volume and picking out curios (the first ‘gothic’ object in Udolpho? – an oak table, not at Udolpho) I came up against one of Radcliffe’s more famous passages, the description of an alpine landscape as suggesting “beauty sleeping in the lap of horror!” Now, my edition of Udolpho is relatively old. Not so old as to be published by Robinson, but old enough to mark the aforementioned quote as “unidentified.” This intrigued me and, after a moment or two of concerned chin-stroking, I decided to investigate the matter. Well, sort of.

Being a thoroughly modern scholar, I directed a query not to Notes and Queries, but to Facebook, where I’m lucky enough to be connected to a number of excellent eighteenth-century literature specialists. None of those who, like me, were currently engaging in social notworking, could recall a source off the top of their heads.Others might have been able to do so, but by the time they next checked Facebook, my query about eighteenth-century landscape had probably been consigned to the dustbin by the social media algorithms – replaced, most likely, with a meme involving cats, HBO serials, or both.

I got on with my paper, gave it and, following the close of the (excellent) conference, continued to other tasks. One of these happened to involve a cross-comparison of Radcliffe’s Lake District (in her 1795 Journey) with William Gilpin’s 1786 Observations . . . on the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland. You can probably see where this is going.

Describing the Derwentwater, Gilpin quotes “the late Mr. Aviton, organist of St. Nicholas at Newcastle” who is said to have described the lake, sitting amidst the mountains by exclaiming that “here is beauty indeed – Beauty lying in the lap of horror!”

Being an aficionado of Gilpin and a proponent of his importance to the evolution of eighteenth-century Gothic taste, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the source. Of course, with nearly 20 years of scholarship since the missing attribution in my copy of Udolpho I didn’t expect this to be an original find and nor is it. Consulting Rictor Norton’s excellent critical biography I found the attribution there and can only assume (or at least hope) that subsequent editors of Udolpho have included it.

Original or not, though, I think the attribution represents more than a mere intertextual oddity, in which Cumbria does a convenient turn as Roussillon. That Radcliffe had read Gilpin is no surprise – it’s confirmed in her journals and would, in any case, be expected given the success of his works during the 1780s and 90s. But there’s still something striking in the idea that Radcliffe’s alpine scenery draws so directly on the print culture of eighteenth-century domestic tourism. In my current research I’m very interested in the way fiction like Radcliffe’s draws not just on the aesthetics of scenic travel, but also the experience – companionable, discursive and relatively egalitarian – that defines the picturesque as a practical pursuit. I actually think this may have something to do with Gilpin’s reason for quoting Mr Avison and his text’s being used in turn by Radcliffe.

One of the reasons Gilpin is attracted to the congruence of “beauty” and “horror” in the same scene is that it speaks to a tenet of his aesthetic: the claim that, in the practical experience of Picturesque travel, scenes can be discovered or constructed that partake of the Beautiful and Sublime together. For Gilpin, this combination is actually necessary for either Beauty or Sublimity to be “correctly Picturesque.” This brings him into conflict with Edmund Burke’s influential Philosophical Enquiry, but Gilpin stands his ground in the 1786 Observations. He appeals to the immediate “experience” of landscape and wonders (slightly cheekily) if Burke’s “refined reasoning” lacks such grounding. In this way Gilpin validates the experience of the Picturesque tourist – his audience – as a source of authority in landscape description, independent of property and education. This is a big topic and it runs, I think, through the heart of the Picturesque and its role in bringing national landscapes into the sphere of popular print culture. I’ve blogged about aspects of this elsewhere, but here I’m particularly interested in the connections between Gilpin’s defence of the individual Picturesque experience and the status of his 1786 Observations as a significant source for Radcliffe.

Norton observes that Gilpin’s congruence of the Sublime and Beautiful was an important influence on Radcliffe’s own aesthetic theory. I wonder, though, if Gilpin’s role as the source or inspiration for some of her most impressive descriptions also allows a glimpse of the travel experience she had in mind when she presented her characters’ alpine wanderings in the first volume of Udolpho. At this point, Emily, St Aubert (her father) and Valancourt (the hero) travel companionably, participating jointly in dialogues prompted by the landscapes they encounter. Theirs is a broadly democratic response to landscape, enabled not so much by property (the family has little and will soon have less) or refined theory, as by receptive personal experience. Put simply, this is the same kind of travel that validates Gilpin’s Picturesque and allows it to make the kinds of aesthetic statements Radcliffe herself draws upon. It’s also an experience that will be lost as Udolpho progresses, serving as a memory and point of contrast for Emily as she moves on in different company, through other scenes and into Udolpho itself. Udolpho is a far cry from the Lake District, certainly, but perhaps that’s the point. . .


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