- Narrative as Enchantment in The Mysteries of Udolpho
“We shall not forestall [the reader’s] pleasure by detailing the particulars,” wrote an early reviewer of The Mysteries of Udolpho;
but we will not hesitate to say . . . that, within the limits of nature and probability, a story so well contrived to hold curiosity in pleasing suspence, and at the same time to agitate the soul with strong emotions of sympathetic terror, has seldom been produced. 1
Most striking in this litany is the way the critical vocabulary rehearses the psychological and epistemological watchwords of Udolpho: the lip service to “probability,” the ambivalent respect for “limits,” the coy refusal to “forestall,” the oscillations of “curiosity” and “terror”—and subsuming all these, the “pleasing suspence” maintained throughout the pursuit of the narrative. “Suspense” is used here in a way that consciously aligns the reader’s experience with the heroine’s inescapable, equivocal anxiety. Within four typical pages of Udolpho, for example, Emily St. Aubert is wracked by “torturing suspense” and “trembling expectation,” resolves to “terminate her suspense,” but finds that her “state of intolerable suspense” yields only to further “days passed in suspense.” 2 Radcliffe’s contemporaries, in turn, dwell so insistently on her “use of obscurity and suspense” that their experience suggests a form of mimesis, as though the mere repetition of a magic word could elicit the state it describes. 3
Such a superstition may, at least, be glimpsed in the recurrent testimonials to “the potent charm” of this “mighty magician,” who reigned “over the world of wonder and imagination” with a “spell” that bound her readers while “the secret . . . fl[ew] like a phantom before” them. 4 Reader response here duplicates Radcliffe’s most arresting trope for textual suspense, the diffuse “enchantment” that hovers between the registers of the (exploded) supernatural and the (extrapolated) commercial. 5 The reader “kept on the stretch from page to page, and from volume to volume” reproduces Radcliffe’s immobilized heroine, her “faculties . . . suspended” (U, 261) by mysterious forces no less [End Page 159] compelling for being repeatedly unveiled. 6 More embarrassingly, this “thrilling attraction of awakened curiosity and suspended interest” even “suspends [critical] remonstrance till after the perusal.” 7 Rapt in the toils of the “great enchantress,” the reader surrenders both will and judgment, the world well lost to a realm of factitious pleasures. 8 This is a familiar Romantic story, told didactically in Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads and seductively in Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Equally familiar, equally Romantic, is the tale of tropic drift from representation to reader, in which a certain picture of the mind magically induces somatic effects in the consuming subject. These are also, however, Radcliffe’s stories, tales that her novels repeat about themselves. The gothic novel tells how the law of genre suspends, or usurps, the laws of nature and probability; and in the moral of this story, its bathetic and disciplinary resolution, lies the indiscreet “charm” of gothic genre—its power to attract and absorb.
The following essay attempts an analysis of gothic charms, engaging Foucault’s left-handed inclusion of Radcliffe among the “initiators of discursive practices” who “produced not only their own work, but the possibility and the rules of formation of other texts.” 9 “To say that Ann Radcliffe created the Gothic Romance means,” to Foucault, “that there are certain elements common to her works and to the nineteenth-century Gothic romance.” 10 The “rules of formation” consist in a set of conventions shared by this “conventional genre par excellence.” 11 Equivalently, the genre may be defined by its elicited effect, the suspense that “produces,” as trappings presume, “the possibility . . . of other texts.” 12 Suspending origin and tendency, enchantment is its own objective correlative—a circular notion associated with circulating libraries. I propose, therefore, that the charm of the gothic lies in the way its most conventional motifs articulate a commentary on the psychodynamics of narrative form. 13 Is convention, the gothic novel asks, itself a genre? What, we may ask in turn, is the relation between subjective suspense and its generic encoding?
Suspense, I will argue, originates in its fictional diagnosis—born from, not despite, the...