The Tempered Text: Three Roads to Udolpho

The Tempered Text: Three Roads to Udolpho

Harry Heuser

Among Terrorists and Theorists

As one of today’s curious wanderers in the darksome woods of the Gothic, I often find myself confronted with Procrustean critics eager to demonstrate their theoretical equipment; indeed, some of the groans that add to The Mysteries of Udolpho may well have been uttered in anticipation of such violent treatments.  While critics, the present-day highwaymen and women of literature, commonly branch out and attack passages congenial to their designs (and Radcliffe’s novel is held to be long and luxurious enough to sustain—to support and withstand—such diverse approaches), I have managed to lure three theoreticians, a reader-response critic, a feminist, and a favorer of deconstruction into the following:

Emily sought to lose the sense of her own cares, in the visionary scenes of the poet; but she had again to lament the irresistible force of circumstances over the taste and powers of the mind; and that it requires a spirit at ease to be sensible even to the abstract pleasures of pure intellect.  The enthusiasm of genius, with all its pictured scenes, now appeared cold, and dim.  As she mused upon the book before her, she involuntarily exclaimed, “Are these, indeed, the passages, that have so often given me exquisite delight? Where did the charm exist?—Was it in my mind, or in the imagination of the poet? It lived in each,” said she, pausing.  “But the fire of the poet is vain, if the mind of his reader is not tempered like his own, however it may be inferior to his in power.”  (Radcliffe 383)

Here, fellow travelers, are the responses these lines inspired.

Reader-Response: Reading Is Its Own Reward

As one prominent Victorian reader remarked, Radcliffe, “who introduced the romantic novel” has “consequently much to answer for” (Wilde 108).  The passage quoted above provides such an answer as it offers reading guidelines, or at least a caveat.  Readers complaining, as Anthony Trollope did, that once we know what is behind that “solemn curtain” we “feel no further interest about either the frame or the veil” (1: 143), may not have paid attention to Emily’s quandary.  The heroine’s comment before the curtain interrupts the plot and encourages the “mock reader,” whose “mask and costume the individual takes on in order to experience the language” (Gibson 2) to drop said mask and reflect upon the event of reading.  Radcliffe’s fiction signals a refusal to be reduced to a poetry-riddled whodunit (or who-was-done-in), as readers are reminded by Emily—herself both reader and poet—of the importance of tempering their minds with the imagination of the author.  The worshippers of Wimsatt and Beardsley may be horrified, but the pleasure of the terrorist reading experience “live[s] in” writer and reader alike.  

This living model suggested by Emily, the frustrated reader in Radcliffe’s tale, demands the attention as well as compliance of the literent; and while any “literent brings to a literary work, just as to any external experience, a characteristic set of expectations, typically pairs of hopes and fears” (Holland and Sherman 280), it is when the continuum of reader’s mind and poet’s imagination is violently disrupted that the reading event with all its “gothic possibilities” (281) cannot be realized.  Emily, who has been reading the mysteries of Udolpho instead, finds the path to her book and all its charms obstructed.  She cannot bring herself to read since she cannot bring herself (her hopes and fears) to the reading.

Gothic fiction comes “in simultaneously with a new wave in reader response, a shift [. . .] from reading for information [. . .] towards reading as an escape” (Richter 8); and Radcliffe’s novel brings this shift to the reader’s heightened awareness by suspending Emily’s story to suggest, in the heroine’s own words, a reader-response model conducive to the Gothic whose riches are in the temporal tease, not in locating certainties about, say, a waxen figure behind a veil.  Gothic form is “affective form,” and it is “central to the nature of Gothic fiction that differing interpretations of the material will seem equally valid” (Haggerty 8).  After all, “What can one do with a meaning that has been formulated and put on display, having been stripped of all its mystery?” (Iser 4).  If Udolpho is indeed a reworking of Richardson’s novels (Howells 152; Richter 85), its implied subtitle may be: “Reading Is Its Own Reward.”

Feminism: A Heroine Authored and Owned

“Woman must write herself,” must “put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement” (Cixous 309).  In Udolpho, “the most female-centered of Radcliffe’s novels” (Ellis 121), such a movement is invariably threatened and undermined.  While Emily “always manages to pack up her books, her sketching materials, and her lute, no matter how swiftly she is abducted” (Moers 138), her attempts to temper her desires with patriarchal texts prove unsuccessful.  And although it is the matrix of nature that “awakened her mind into effort, and led to enthusiasm and poetry,” Emily finds herself bound by a promise, having given her word to her dead father, the man who “cultivated her understanding,” “gave her [. . .] an exact acquaintance with every part of elegant literature,” and “taught her Latin and English, chiefly that she might understand the sublimity of their best poets” (Radcliffe 6).  Even when “transgressing her father’s strict injunction” (103), reading a sentence of a document her father instructed her to destroy, Emily remains governed by a patriarchal text that appears to define her existence.  Gothic romance, DeLamotte suggests,

is especially a woman’s genre because [. . .] it is about the nightmare of trying to “speak ‘I’’’ in a world in which the “I” in question is uncomprehending of and incomprehensible to the dominant power structure” (166).

Not only is Emily’s life (not unlike Hamlet’s) authored by a paternal ghost-writer, it is directed by the “metaphorical penis” of Montoni, the authoritarian ersatz-father who forces Emily to sign over her property, just as he very nearly brings her to sign herself over to Count Morano, a suitor she loves not, by deceiving her about the subject of a document to which she adds a note of submission.  Whenever Emily seizes the pen, she only writes herself back into the patriarchal context.  Thus, the relationship between “author/father” and “owner/possessor,” to which Sandra M. Gilbert alerts us (489), is played out in Udolpho.

The passage quoted above suggests Emily’s nascent—yet stillborn—doubt about submitting to the metaphorical penis.  Conceived in a profusion of masculine pronouns at the close of her “involuntary”—and potentially liberating—exclamation is at once Emily’s sense of alienation from patriarchal models and her imprisonment by them, the failure of becoming the heroine of her own text.

Deconstruction: Text-Tempering/Mind-Tampering

What could this be, one’s own text? A poem, J. Hillis Miller suggests,

is an ambiguous gift, food, host in the sense of victim, sacrifice.  It is broken, divided, passed around, consumed by the critics canny and uncanny who are in that odd relation to one another of host and parasite. (225)

Emily turns to a favorite book, expecting to lose herself yet unable to find a way in, expecting it to “delight”—as it has in the past—only to find it “dim” at present.  To Emily, her now unreadable book has become the bread that refuses to be broken in the company of Montoni.  Both familiar and strange, it is the Unheimliche that once seemed so unequivocally heimisch.

Yet while Emily appears to reason that the “charm” that “lived in each” did not survive since the internalized symbiotic relationship between host-poem and parasite-reader has been severed, a separation for which she makes an external, “irresistible force of circumstances” (a hostile Montoni) responsible, the undecidability of Emily’s pronoun-laden exclamation that “the fire of the poet is vain, if the mind of his reader is not tempered like his own, however it may be inferior to his in power” challenges the ordinary logic of polar opposition and resists the dialectical synthesis of host and parasite.  After all, is “it” the mind of the reader or the vain fire of the poet that “may be inferior”? And if the poet’s fire is vain—empty, unsatisfying, worthless—how can it be deemed the superior in a relationship that is argued to have “lived in each”?

Does Emily, bound by established hierarchies, expect her mind to be tempered, to be “brought to the required degree of hardness and elasticity,” to be “worked up to a suitable consistency,” to be “moderated, mitigated, allayed, toned-down; limited” (“Tempered”), rather than engaging in text-tampering by busying her mind “for some end; to machinate, scheme, plot” (“Tamper”), thus suiting the book to her own temper?

“A host is a guest, and a guest is a host.  A host is a host,” declares Miller, pointing to the etymological root common to both words (220-21).  Perhaps, the poet-reader Emily is a guest who has reckoned without such an equivocal host.  Thus lies abandoned a book unrestrained, a book critics, proclaiming that “there are no texts, but only interpretations” (Bloom 7), might take up with delight to make it, temporarily, their own.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold.  “The Breaking of Form.”  Deconstruction and Criticism.  Seabury, 1979, pp. 1-37.

Cixous, Helene.  “The Laugh of the Medusa.”  Critical Theory Since 1965.  1976.  Translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen.  Edited by Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Florida State UP, 1986, pp. 309-20.

DeLamotte, Eugenia C.  Perils of the Night: A Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic.  Oxford, 1990.

Ellis, Kate Ferguson.  The Contested Castle.  U of Illinois P,  1989.

Gibson, Walker.  “Authors, Speakers, Readers, and Mock Readers.” Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism.  Edited by Jane P. Tompkins.  Johns Hopkins UP, 1980, pp. 1-6.

Gilbert, Sandra M.  “Literary Paternity.”  Critical Theory Since 1965.  1976.  Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen.  Edited by Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Florida State UP, 1986, pp. 486-96.

Haggerty, George E.  Gothic Fiction/Gothic Form.  Pennsylvania State UP, 1989.

Holland, Norman N., and Leona F. Sherman.  “Gothic Possibilities.” New Literary History, vol. 8, no. 3, 1977, pp. 279-94.

Howells, Coral Ann.  “The Pleasure of the Woman’s Text: Ann Radcliffe’s Subtle Transgressions in The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian.”  Gothic Fiction: Prohibition/Transgression.  Edited by Kenneth W. Graham.  AMS, 1989.

Iser, Wolfgang.  The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.

Miller, J. Hillis.  “The Critic as Host.”  Deconstruction and Criticism.  Seabury, 1979, pp. 217-53.

Moers, Ellen.  Literary Women.  Doubleday, 1976.

Radcliffe, Ann.  The Mysteries of Udolpho.  1794. Oxford UP,  1966.

Richter, David H.  “The Unguarded Prison: Reception Theory, Structural Marxism, and the History of the Gothic Novel.”  The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, vol. 30, no. 3, 1989, pp. 1-17.

“Tamper.”  Oxford English Dictionary.  2nd ed.  1989.

“Tempered.”  Oxford English Dictionary.  2nd ed.  1989.

Trollope, Anthony.  Barchester Towers.  1857.  Edited by James R. Kincaid.  Oxford UP, 1980.

Wilde, Oscar.  The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde.  Edited by Richard Ellmann.  U of Chicago P, 1982.