January 6th, 2012

Harriet Vane

Lake District Longings: Ann Radcliffe's 1794 Journey book: Landscapes that reconcile you to life

Dear friends,

She (who? Ann Radcliffe of course) has awakened in me a longing to return to the Lake District. I was there once and never got to see it. In 1976 I had a bad miscarriage and spent the week we had intended to explore the Lake District in in a small hospital in Kendal. All I ever saw was a mountain outside my window and the road to and from the train station and hotel.

Gainsborough, sketch of Glastonbury Abbey ruins

I have for the past week been reading a masterpiece of a travel book: Ann Radcliffe's A Journey Made in the Summer through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany, with a return down the Rhine, to which are added Observations during a Tour to the Lakes of Lancashire, Westmoreland and Cumberland. Not exactly a catchy title, but then people were not into succinct nifty signposts, but tried really to tell the reader what the content of the book was. What we today call Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle originally had an even longer title than Radcliffe's book: it covers 5 years of travel not a couple of summers.

Here are her last sentences of her 1794 book:  "The town and castle of Lancaster, on an eminence, gleaming afar off over the level sands and backed by a dark edge of rocky heights, look well as you approach them. Thither we returned and concluded a tour, which had afford infinite delight in the grandeur of its landscapes and a reconciling view of human nature in the simplicity, integrity, and friendly disposition of the inhabitants."  (Her very last reference to the friendly people she met reminds me of Darwin's last words in his Voyage of the Beagle).

Ann Radcliffe really is an extraordinary writer. I'm just now awed by the topographical, historical and archaeological books that went into her imaginative world and came out as these travel re-creations and gothic books. Her poetry is her visionary prose.

Modern photo of Furness Abbey, Cumbria

But she is also political.  After the vision of Furness Abbey she ends on a long description of the repressed existences of the monks, then the man who ran the place, his extraordinarily large income for the time and then drops down to the quiet irony of the surrender to Henry VIII and getting in turn from from him an income and place valued at 33 pounds 6 shillings and 8 pence a year.

And she is not just drawn to medieval convents and fortresses where violence and injustice and crazy irrational events occurred, places made fearful by people, but primitive structures, very early history: the neolithic stone monuments, the left-overs of the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon eras. And then she studies the latest detailed fat tomes with intense care and engravings of topological images: that's how she can create places she's never been in her fiction; in this non-fiction these huge books of archaeology, geology, histories of medieval abbeys, and more popular tour books on Italy (John Moore, Hester Piozzi), to say nothing of a translation of Schiller's The Ghost-Seer, Italian and German tour books are what she uses to pay attention to the minutest detail.  The politics of the past are fearful as she knows and brings out in the present.

I compared her text to Gilpin's Observations on Cumberland and Westmoreland (which Austen would have read) and discovered while his is interwoven with aesthetics, hers is with astute comments on politics from a strongly pro-revolutionary stance. That makes her so much more forceful and interesting in a riveting way, quite different from Gilpin (whom Radcliffe also read). Here is his sublime and gothic colored engraved drawing (a wash) of Penrith Castle:

I knew this was a good but had forgotten how good. It deserves to be better known.  Probably it's not been popular because the stance resembles Johnson versus Boswell:  Radcliffe sees the large general picture, she analyses the political structure (she's strongly pro-revolution, more like Priestley than merely Whig or liberal). She is intensely aware of violence constrained and competition underlying our structures, makes comments on war, the unemployed, poverty that rig relevant to today. And there is a quiet sardonic voice too. The dark pictures of cities and war-torn landscapes, the convents where so much is repressed and scary, and half-mad (like people silent all the time except for one hour a day) anticipates modern literature and our crazed world today.

Brougham Castle, from the North -- modern photo

I read it so much more carefully and with more understanding and appreciation than I did last time. Last time I didn't read the last part properly at all  Well, I just fell in love with her tone, her attitudes, all over again and yearned to go to the Lake District. Since my great dream since reading the Poldark novels and watching the Poldark films has been to go to Cornwall (also my love for DuMaurier's better novels and memoirs, and LeCarre nowadays too) and we can't do that for another 2 summers (when we will also we dream go to Hampshire for a Chawton conference), I have to set this dream up for even further away. That's okay. It gives me something to look forward to, a goal, and gives my life a pattern, some hope, an imposed meaning of sorts. So I declare in 4 summers we (the Admiral and I and perhaps Yvette with us) will go to the Lake District for two weeks.

And Radcliffe is not just drawn to wild landscapes and medieval fortresses where violence occurred, fearful places of human creation, but primitive places: the neolithic stone monuments, the left-overs of the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon eras. I compared her text to Gilpin's trip to Cumberland and Westmoreland (which Austen would have read) and discovered while his is interwoven with aesthetics, hers is with astute comments on politics from a strongly pro-revolutionary stance. That makes her so much more forceful and interesting in a riveting way, quite different from Gilpin (whom Radcliffe also read).There is no political analysis like this at all in Austen anywhere. Radcliffe anticipates the settlements of 1815 to come in her going over the battle fields of Europe.

She also can make visions out of words. The places she describes are plain in comparison to her visionary words as she imagines back to what was, and fills out what is before her.

A couple of books have tried to do a little justice to this and have brought together how the landscapes in Radcliffe's gothic books are a product of this explicit outlook, one is Renwick's Oxford History of Literature, 1789-1815 and another Robert Miles's Ann Radcliffe. Both write in clear English -- something most of the recent Radcliffe critics seem incapable of.  The best one though remains Rictor Norton's Mistress of Udolpho. Each chapter a gem of knowledge and intelligent inference in the context of literary history. Norton does not omit the tours or journals, but uses them repeatedly.

There needs to be a good modern scholarly annotated edition. There's been a critival edition in the form of a dissertation but it's murderous in cost. I have a lovely Elibron. Radcliffe is omitted I find in most political-literary accounts of the era, and also from Elizabeth Bohls's Women Travel Writers and the Language of Aesthetics, 1716-1816 -- where she absolutely belongs! Let me tell you about this one, gentle reader:

Bohls's thesis is that in the 18th and 19th century women were relegated away from writing philosophically as well as social criticism of a larger type. One place they could do it was through the travel book, its use of picturesqueness and delineation of the history of a place though evoking the past and present. That's just what Radcliffe is doing; Bohls includes Janet Schaw (who lived in Antigua), Helen Maria Williams (revolutionary landscapes) Dorothy Wordsworth's poetic Scotland.  Another wonderful book: Mary Wollstonecraft's Letters from Sweden and Denmark.

Skiddaw, engraving after a drawing by Turner

A second type of book is the one where the women writes a travel journey or sends letters or keeps a memoir and creates an identity for herself she can live with, endure.  I've been reading Anne Grant's Letters from the
, and like the French women memoirists, Grant creates a self-, an identity and a world (in her case the Highlands) and critiques is through her letters. Grant was accused of writing fiction, of making a novel, and she re-published her letters with the names of friends and herself and the real places to counter that. She did revise her letters for publication and they were apparently written with publication in mind.

A new step. Burney wrote hers similarly: create an identity, live through it, make a critique of her world, but she never fully admitted to herself she wanted them published. She did, and share, an interiority and she also reflects the cultural world she finds herself in.

Austen's letters I suggest might have been intended this way, especially the three packets of letters to Frank that were destroyed. We cannot know.  Grace Dalrymple Elliot's revolution journals (made into a film by Rohmer) help us here, as they too were savagely censored, the majority destroyed. She was a fallen woman and her book published by a granddaughter first. I suggest she meant her book to be one of the many memoirs by women about the revolution (Blood Sisters by Marilyn Yelcom is the book on this) but like Roland hers is unusual in being pro-revolution. Grace Dalrymple Eliot's journal is a "blood sister" revolutionary memoir

Austen does critique the world through her gothic book, Northanger Abbey and could be included in Bohls's trajectory, but as with Austen's brief literary criticism, her critique is not thought out in the way say of Radcliffe, Wollstonecraft, Williams. Charlotte Smith similarly poured her self and inner and outward landscapes into her novels, but and far more than Austen analysed what she re-created thoroughly.

I find myself wondering how Scott felt as he was reading Radcliffe and thinking she came directly into English literature through Scott's recreations in his novels. (Sometimes I wonder how Austen felt as she read the first of Scott's novels in her last two or three years - she cannot have missed the power of all this)  Scott realized the magnfiicent achievement of this vastness, the movement, the attachment to people and how it is shaped by people and used it in his novels.

Bowther Stone, 1817 print - brought to Lake District by a glacier

Oh I long to wander among stones again as we did 7 years ago now when we found Stonehenge, Avebury, and Stanton Drew. See my blogs on this at Ellen and Jim, Prior Park for example. We saw the mounds left from Cadbury and Glastonbury 

Castle Rigg -- a circle of neolithic stones in Cumbria, modern photo again

This is not supposed to be a literary critical blog but a personal one. I now have cravings to return to the Lake District and when I told the Admiral he looked more enthusiastic than he has about Cornwall. He said there is but one Landmark place (behind Wordsworth's Dove Cottage) but there are many others, agreed it would be spectacularly beautiful, quiet, wondrous, stimulating, rejuvenating and historical - and we could follow authors' books too - all at once.

I told Yvette and she was not adverse. So here am I dreaming of four summers from now.