Classics Club #49: ‘A Sicilian Romance’ by Ann Radcliffe ***

I am sure that the eagle-eyed amongst you are noticing a theme here, but I have wanted to read Radcliffe’s work for such a long time, and thought that placing A Sicilian Romance onto my Classics Club list would be a nudge in the right direction.  First published in 1790, the novel is firmly implanted within the Gothic tradition and veers toward the melodramatic almost from its beginning.

9780199537396As is often the case with my Classics Club reviews, the following blurb of the Oxford World Classics edition illustrates the story perfectly, without giving too much away: ‘This early novel explores the cavernous landscapes and labyrinthine passages of Sicily’s castles and covents to reveal the shameful secrets of its all-powerful aristocracy. Julia and Emilia Mazzini live secluded in an ancient mansion near the Straits of Messina. After their father’s return to the island a neglected part of the house is haunted by a series of mysterious sights and sounds. The origin of these hauntings is only discovered after a series of breathless pursuits through dreamlike pastoral landscapes. When revelation finally comes, it forces the heroines to challenge the united forces of religious and patriarchal authority.’

A Sicilian Romance is most engaging from the first.  I found myself immediately spellbound, drawn as I was into the Sicilian setting.  Radcliffe moves the plot along beautifully, and the whole has been so tenderly written.  Much emphasis has been placed upon the senses and the general feel of the whole.  Radcliffe’s descriptions are often sumptuous, and the way in which she weaves in the imagined history of the castle and the Mazzinis who inhabit it is a definite strength, adding another layer to the whole.  It certainly has shades of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (review here) about it.

As one might expect from a Gothic novel, particularly one at the relative beginning of the canon, A Sicilian Romance is rather dramatic, even to Shakespearean heights in places; characters are taken prisoner and confined to dungeons, ‘cruel fate’ awaits, there are elopements, and strange goings on prevail.  The story is rather predictable in places, particularly as it nears its climax, and it certainly relies heavily upon melodramatic incidents.  A lot of opposites manifest themselves within the plot, from bravery and cowardice to the disparities between rich and poor, and from a social perspective, I found this fascinating.

A Sicilian Romance is rich and well-paced.  The third person perspective and use of the past tense which Radcliffe has made use of both work well; it is so over the top in places that the two together do not really act as distancing devices.  Whilst I was not too enamoured with the convenient ending of this moral novel, I am most looking forward to reading more of her work in future.  Ann Radcliffe’s work is a wonderful choice for existing fans of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters; her writing is just as rich and descriptive, and I feel that she should certainly be more widely read.

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American Literature Month: (One From the Archive) ‘Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling’ by Michael Boccacino **

First published in July 2012.

Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling, billed as ‘a Victorian Gothic tale’, is American author Michael Boccacino’s debut novel. The story takes place in a country home named Everton on the edge of an English village named Blackfield.

The story opens with ‘the dance of the dead’, in which we are introduced to the protagonist’s late husband and parents. Echoes of the Victorian Gothic genre are apparent from the first page, and it feels from the outset as though something rather dark is lurking beneath the surface of the novel. The book’s opening line – ‘Every night I dreamt of the dead’ – is gripping and sinister in equal measure. Indeed, the ever-present fear of death death is personified and the very threat of it is treated as a character in itself. The line between the living and the dead is blurred in the novel: ‘Death made himself known to me as he took the souls of my loved ones to the Other Side’.

At the outset of the novel, Nanny Prum, ‘a woman of some physical substance’, is entrusted with the care of the two Darrow boys, Paul and James. She is soon found brutally murdered by one of Charlotte’s friends – it was ‘Nanny Prum… all in pieces. Like she’d come apart from the inside’. The boys, though only a young teenager and a five year old respectively, have already had to deal with loss and grief in their lives. Their mother, Lily, passed away the year before Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling begins. Charlotte soon takes up position as the nanny of the boys, leaving her post as governess more or less behind. In Mr Darrow, the master of the house, she finds a ‘nocturnal confidant’. The two grow closer as they try to ward off the ‘comfortable melancholy’ which has settled itself around them.

One morning, Charlotte takes the boys on a spontaneous morning trip, and this is where the more fantastical events of the novel begin to occur. Whilst in the forest, they find themselves ‘in a strange land with shadows that crawled and pieces of fruit that walked’. They come across a ‘great house’ and ‘a woman, tall and regal, even at a distance… She descended the steps leading up to the house with slow deliberation, almost gliding to the ground, a beautiful phantom’. This woman turns out to be the late Lily Darrow, and the mansion the magical House of Darkling. Here, time passes at a different speed, and everything is not quite as it seems. The boys are sworn to secrecy and promise not to tell about meeting her mother after Lily says: ‘It’s almost like a spell that’s keeping me from leaving you forever, and if you tell your father, it will be broken’.

The descriptions throughout the novel work well, and are rather evocative. Ballroom guests during the dance of the dead are ‘dressed in moldering finery’, and the large country house in which the Darrow family live has ‘fallen into a comfortable state of disrepair’. Charlotte sees in it, however, ‘a warmth… a kind of intimacy that only comes with age, like the creases around the mouth that appear after years of excessive smiling, or a favorite blanket worn down from friendly use’. The names of the chapter titles are intriguing and darkly magical, ranging from ‘A Lesson in Dreaming’ and ‘Interrupted Moonlight’ to ‘The Stolen Sun’ and ‘The Unraveling of Nanny Prum’.

Despite the novel’s promising beginning, interest in the story does wane around a third of the way through. The book holds many historical inaccuracies and countless phrases which would not have been uttered by English people during the Victorian era. The village of Blackfield is described as a ‘small, wholesome sort of place’, James Darrow says ‘I dunno’ – language which would not be used by a privileged boy who has been brought up with wealth and the best of intentions – and Charlotte ‘read for a bit’ to pass the time. References are made to ‘taffy’, and ‘cookie’ is used instead of ‘biscuit’. It stands to reason that an American author would use vocabulary which he is comfortable with, but such language would not have been used in England during the period. Such historical mistakes really do let the book down.

The novel uses the first person perspective of Charlotte Markham. At first her narrative voice is captivating and feels relatively authentic, working very well with the unfolding story, but it soon becomes evident that her voice is perhaps a little too modern to work with her character. Charlotte’s character, too, is not an altogether likeable aspect of the book. Whilst she is sympathetic to a point about the boys losing their mother, she often comes across as self-important, believing that her own status as a widow is far more important than two young children growing up without a parent.

Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling is rather an intriguing read, but one which seems to have not been checked for even the most basic of historical facts. It does not seem like a consistent novel in terms of its storyline or characters, and many elements fall flat in terms of their overall execution.

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‘The Unicorn’ by Iris Murdoch *** (Reading Ireland Month)

I read The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch as part of the Reading Ireland Month, hosted by the lovely Cathy746books and The Fluff Is Raging.

I was not entirely sure as to whether this book would qualify as Irish literature, but I decided to include it nevertheless. Even though Iris Murdoch is mostly considered a British author, she was born in Ireland from Irish parents, and this book is also set in Ireland, so I guess this makes it an eligible choice.253954

The Virago Vintage Classics edition that I read started with an introduction by Stephen Medcalf, who was Iris Murdoch’s very own student. As he mentions in his introductory essay, The Unicorn is “set between two famous landmarks on the west coast of Ireland, the cliffs of Moher and the limestone country of the Burren”. I have never been to Ireland myself (yet), but merely looking at pictures of these places just to have the image in my head when I read the story, made me think that Ireland was the perfect place for such a gothic story to unravel.

The book begins with one of the main characters, Marian Taylor, who has been given the job of a governess in a remotely placed castle in the west coast of Ireland. There, Marian comes to meet and hear about many different people, including the ones also living in the castle but also some strange-acting neighbours.

Marian’s life at the castle is pretty uneventful at the beginning, until suddenly she starts noticing that the people surrounding her may not actually be as innocent as they look. The castle itself, as well as her employer Hannah’s life turns into a complete mystery in which everyone seems to secretly participate and Marian decides to look for answers to all the questions posed before her. Hannah never leaves the castle and she appears to be a prisoner inside her own property, while her husband is enigmatically away for a long period of time. As Marian gets more and more deeply involved into this mystery, she (and the reader alongside her) begins doubting the verisimilitude of the events that occur to her surroundings and to herself as well.

I have to admit that The Unicorn is a wonderfully written novel. I had not yet had the opportunity to read any of Murdoch’s other works prior to this one, and it made me really intrigued about her other stories as well. However, it did take me quite some time until I fully got into the story. I loved the ominous atmosphere and the landscape descriptions at the beginning, but the novel felt pretty repetitive and redundant to me from that point on. I had been re-reading Jane Eyre before starting this novel, so it felt very much like yet another copy of this gothic romance type.

However, after a few chapters, the events took such a sudden turn, that it made me really curious to see how the author would end up wrapping things up and finishing this strangely enchanting tale. Luckily, it did not end up being similar to the other gothic novels I initially had in mind. I liked how the novel was separated into seven parts, and in each part the narrator’s voice would be interchangeable between Marian and Effingham Cooper, a visitor of the people that live nearby, who is in love with Hannah. Each narrator presents the events under their own circumstances, and therefore the lines between who is lying and who is not are becoming rather blurred.

After reading the entire novel, and especially upon reading the introduction, I am certain this novel contained much deeper philosophical meanings and symbolisms than I could understand. I did not particularly like how the characters fell in love with each other in a flash and forgot about it when the tiniest distraction came along. It might have been done in purpose, to serve the establishing of the magical and mystical atmposhere, since it looked like everyone acted while being under some sort of spell, but I found it rather unnecessary. Perhaps I should come back to this book some time in the future, when I will be able to notice more in it than in my first reading.



New Book Club: ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte

I have been corresponding with the lovely Susie at Girl With Her Head in a Book of late about starting a little online book club.  We have decided that our first ‘trial’ book, as it were, should be one which both of us have very much enjoyed in the past, and one which we were keen to re-read.  We have therefore decided that our inaugural book club choice will be Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

Susie and I would love as many people to join in with our project as possible.  We have decided upon the first week in January to post our Wuthering Heights reviews, so that we aren’t too bogged down in Christmas things, and to give everyone else a chance to read the novel too.  If you’re planning to join in, please let us know!


‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horace Walpole ****

Hesperus’ edition of Horace Walpole’s classic The Castle of Otranto has been published in honour of the novella’s 250th anniversary.  It is widely recognised as the first ever Gothic novel, and has inspired authors as diverse as Edgar Allen Poe, Daphne du Maurier and J.K. Rowling.  It is worth mentioning that Horace Walpole, born in 1717, was the son of Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister.

The Castle of Otranto, says its blurb, ‘abounds in mystery and melodrama’.  Its premise is interesting, and one can see how it has inspired so many works which have been published since.  In the novella, there is an ancient prophecy attached to the Otranto family, which tells that in the future, the royal family will have to ‘relinquish control’ of their kingdom: ‘the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it’. 

The crux of the story comes when the young prince Conrad – ‘the darling of his father’ – is killed in a mysterious accident on the morning of his wedding.  His father, Manfred, now without an heir and intent upon disproving the prophecy, vows to divorce his wife, Hippolita, and marry his son’s fiancee, Isabella, the daughter of the Marquis of Vicenza.  As one might expect, Isabella is horrified, and decides to flee the castle before she is forced into an unwanted marriage contract.  A peasant named Theodore – the sharp contrast to the wealth and power which the Otrantos hold – discovers her trying to run away, and gallantly tells Isabella, ‘I will die in your defence’.

Walpole came up with the setting for his story by basing it upon a Gothic-style house which he built in 1747 and named Strawberry Hill.  The entire castle certainly has a creepy feel to it, and is filled with shadows and secrets.  Walpole builds the sense of foreboding and the more Gothic elements of the tale very well indeed – ‘that long labyrinth of darkness’, for example.  He has also drawn his cast of characters in such a way that the range of emotions which they display renders them eminently believable beings.

The Castle of Otranto is very of its time; the sentences are sometimes complex, the whole is overdramatic at times – sometimes unnecessarily so – and there is a veritable mountain of ‘womanish panic’ which abounds, with the female protagonists both shrieking and swooning away.  It is undoubtedly well written, and Walpole’s grasp of language is marvellous, so much so that his prose style feels absorbing from the very first.  The dialogue is strong, and the entirety of the novella is very rich indeed.  The Castle of Otranto is one of those rare classics; one which everyone is sure to enjoy.

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‘The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls’ by Claire Legrand ****

Claire Legrand’s The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls begins in rather an intriguing way: ‘When Victoria Wright was twelve years old, she had precisely one friend’.  I liked our young protagonist from the start, mainly for her staunch determination in ensnaring her ‘one friend’: ‘Over the years, Victoria pushed herself into Lawrence’s life, and was pushed out of it when he decided that enough was enough, and then pushed herself back in, and finally they were really, truly friends, in an odd sort of way’.

‘The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls’ by Claire Legrand

Victoria is a privileged child, with a spotless bedroom and a schedule of activities hanging above her desk.  Her goal in life is to stay at the very top of her class, and to get the best grades which she can.

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, an orphanage owned by the enigmatic Miss Cavendish, looms at the end of Victoria’s street.  As soon as it is introduced, Legrand builds the atmosphere marvellously.  Wonderful Gothic elements creep in – odd goings on which cannot really be explained, the Cavendish Home exuding rather a creepy air, Victoria’s friend Lawrence’s mysterious disappearance, and the strange behaviour of his parents, and then her own.  As soon as Victoria notices that more children around her have begun to slip away without a trace, she starts to investigate.  In her quest to find out what is wrong with the oddly behaving adults around her, Victoria enters The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls.  Here the stories converge.

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls gave me quite the same feeling as Coraline did in its unsettling plot.  As with Coraline, the story is gripping and difficult to put down.  Legrand’s writing is marvellous, and in the way she crafts her plot and sentences, she allows the book to be just as well suited to a teenager as to an adult.  The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is deliciously, perfectly creepy, and comes highly recommended.


Sunday Poem: ‘Romance’ by Edgar Allan Poe

 Romance, who loves to nod and sing,
  With drowsy head and folded wing,
  Among the green leaves as they shake
  Far down within some shadowy lake,
  To me a painted paroquet
  Hath been--a most familiar bird--
  Taught me my alphabet to say--
  To lisp my very earliest word
  While in the wild wood I did lie,
  A child--with a most knowing eye.

Of late, eternal Condor years
So shake the very Heaven on high
With tumult as they thunder by,
I have no time for idle cares
Though gazing on the unquiet sky.
And when an hour with calmer wings
Its down upon my spirit flings–
That little time with lyre and rhyme
To while away–forbidden things!
My heart would feel to be a crime
Unless it trembled with the strings.

Edgar Allan Poe