Jane Austen, drawn by her sister Cassandra

Jane Austen, drawn by her sister Cassandra

This is sort of a continuation of a previous post about how novels have changed since they were first being written in the late 17th century. I kind of argued myself into a position that reinforces the divide between women’s fiction and general fiction. Now, I wonder.

I stopped at Ann Radcliffe, the gothic novelist whose torrid and frightening works set in imaginary historical Italy or Spain—particularly The Mysteries of Udolfo—inspired Jane Austen to write Northanger Abbey. In fact, Austen’s book inspired me to read Ann Radcliffe, just to see what all the hoopla was about. It was quite an education.

Radcliffe’s style is predictably full of hyperbole, and her writing littered with what today would be unnecessary commas, or sentences so structured that an excessive number of commas are necessary in order for them to make sense. Add to that the persistent use of the passive voice, and she breaks just about every rule a modern fiction writer is taught to obey. Here are the first two sentences of the novel:

Title page of the first edition of "The Mysteries of Udolfo"

Of course, the chapter is headed with a portion of romantic poetry by a long-forgotten poet. The verse relates in some way to the contents of the chapter. My paperback edition (Oxford’s World Classics) is printed on well over 600 closely packed pages. It’s a doorstop of a book, and I wondered on reading the opening whether I would be able to get through it.

Curiously, once I had allowed myself to sink below the surface of the antiquated writing and enter into the world Radcliffe creates, the novel became a real page-turner. Udolfo is full of tension and anticipation, and what is even more intriguing, hints of the supernatural. This was the frisson of terror that seized the reading public of early 19th-century England (and many other countries where her books appeared in translation) and ignited the imaginations of young maidens.

Yet women were not the only ones reading Radcliffe’s books. The heroine’s seemingly impossible plight and her eventual rescue by the honorable, handsome man she loves could make Udolfo appear mostly to be women’s fiction by modern standards, but it contains so much action, so many dashing feats of bravery and terrifying villains, that the book managed to appeal to a multitude of reading tastes—with the exception of the most serious or scholarly.

I can’t help being reminded of the current passion for vampire literature. The real feat of Radcliffe’s books, though, was that she didn’t have to resort to actual fantasy at all. While the suggestion of mysterious, inexplicable events hangs over the entire action, everything that occurs is eventually revealed as natural and explicable.

It was a formula that Wilkie Collins exploited when he “invented” the modern mystery novel.

Radcliffe was a cliché in her time, as Austen so ironically demonstrates in Northanger Abbey. And yet, it is Austen’s books, not Radcliffe’s, that have ended up being most closely identified as precursors of what readers today consider women’s fiction. The determined domesticity, the concentration on “small” matters of getting daughters married off to the right partners so that everyone can live happily ever after—those themes are the ones that morphed into Romance, for instance, where a happy ending is required as part of the definition of the genre.

This doesn’t really provide answers, only raises questions. Why, for instance, is it a “love story” when written by Charles Frasier, and a “romance” when written by Anita Brookner? Both are literary. One’s from a man’s point of view, the other a woman’s.

Just a little thought to leave you with…