Page images

must be admitted that Mrs Radcliffe's principle of composition was, to a certain degree, anticipated in that clever production, nothing can illustrate more strongly the superiority of her powers, the more poetical character of her mind, than a comparison of the way in which, in these different works, the principle is wrought out ;-the comparative boldness and rudeness of Clara Reeve's modes of exciting superstitious emotions, as contrasted with the profound art, the multiplied resources, the dexterous display and concealment, the careful study of that class of emotions on which she was to operate, which Mrs Radcliffe displays in her supernatural machinery. Certainly never before or since did any one more accurately perceive the point to which imagination might be wrought up, by a series of hints, glimpses, or half-heard sounds, consistently at the same time with pleasurable emotion, and with the continuance of that very state of curiosity and awe which had been thus created. The clang of a distant door, a footfall on the stair, a half-effaced stain of blood, a strain of music floating over a wood, or round some decaying chateau -nay, a very 'rat behind the arras,' become in her hands invested with a mysterious dignity; so finely has the mind been attuned to sympathize with the terrors of the sufferer, by a train of minute details and artful contrasts, in which all sights and sounds combine to awaken and render the feeling more intense. Yet her art is even more visible in what she conceals than in what she displays. One shade the more, one ray the less,' would have left the picture in darkness; but to have let in any farther the garish light of day upon her mysteries, would have shown at once the hollowness and meanness of the puppet which alarmed us, and have broken the spell beyond the power of reclasping it. Hence, up to the moment when she chooses to do so herself, by those fatal explanations for which no reader will ever forgive her, she never loses her hold on the mind. The very economy with which she avails herself of the talisman of terror preserves its power to the last, undiminished, if not increased. She merely hints at some fearful thought, and leaves the excited fancy, surrounded by night and silence, to give it colour and form.

Of all the passions, that of Fear is the only one which Mrs Radcliffe can properly be said to have painted. The deeper mysteries of Love, her plummet has never sounded. More wearisome beings than her heroines, any thing more tolerable and not to be endured' than her love tales, Calprenede or Scudery never invented. As little have the stormier passions of jealousy or hatred, or the dark shades of envious and malignant feeling, formed the subjects of her analysis. Within the circle of these passions, indeed, she did not feel that she could walk with

security; but her quick perception showed where there was still an opening in a region of obscurity and twilight, as yet all but untrodden. To that, as to the sphere pointed out to her by nature, she at once addressed herself; from that, as from a central point, she surveyed the provinces of passion and imagination, and was content if, without venturing into their labyrinths, she could render their leading and more palpable features available to set off and to brighten by their variety the solemnity and gloom of the department which she had chosen. For her purpose, that of exciting a deep, undefinable interest, ever apparently on the point of being gratified, yet, like the bird with Camaralzaman's ring in its beak, always flying before us as we follow ; an ever-increasing sensation of awe and superstitious fear, the preliminary agency of powerful passions was, no doubt, necessary. But it was quite sufficient to exhibit them in their results, and any minute analysis of their growth or action, any great anxiety to give individuality of character to the beings represented, would have been thrown away; if, indeed, it did not actually interfere with, and run counter to her object. The moral interest involved in the actual play of passion would, at the best, have imperfectly amalgamated with the state of restlessness and suspense occasioned by the investigation of a train of mysterious occurrences, or the thrilling sensations of the supernatural. Nothing, indeed, in her tales, indicates the possession of any power of character-drawing; nor would it, in our opinion, have very materially increased their fascination, if her personages had been discriminated by more characteristic traits. For her object it was quite sufficient, that as the representations of classes, their leading outlines should be sketched with a firm and spirited hand; that the heroine in white satin should be duly supported by the confidante in white muslin; that the bandit chief of the Apennines wore his mantle and plume with a true Salvatoresque grace; that the demure look or villanous scowl of the monk was touched in by a few decided and striking traits; that the chattering attendant, the thick-witted peasant, the thoughtless lazzaroni, the brutal robber, should all be grouped together, acting in their vocation; and should be so placed and opposed to each other as that, in the lan guage of the melodrama, the characters should form a picture' upon the most received principles of stage effect. Mrs Radcliffe's romances are to the tales of her predecessors, what the pictures of Martin are to those of the ordinary masters in historical painting. In Martin's pictures, how little of the effect lies in the figures! The groups, indeed, are good, the mass tells; but in those slight sketchy forms, and features indicated only by a spot of colour, what microscope shall detect the working of passion, or trace the


differences of feeling? The spell which binds the imagination lies in the scene where these personages are placed, and the atmosphere of uncertain light and shadow by which they are surrounded ;—in those vast pillars of Titanian architecture stretching off into endless perspective, those colossal towers of Belus or Nimrod rising into the moonlight air, the strange radiance of the prophetic characters on the wall, the lightnings which traverse the sky, the multitudes, 'beyond number numberless,' which throng the dim-discovered background ;-in all those accompaniments of grandeur and terror with which the artist has invested the scene, and in which the leading figures, though they are so placed as to assist the effect, form, after all, but one, and perhaps not the most striking, source of emotion. So also in Mrs Radcliffe's romantic pictures. The figures are there well sketched, though with a hasty pencil; but it is the scenes through which they are led, the skill with which she scatters over them her light and shadow, the magnificence or terror of the backgrounds on which they are relieved, the variety of the situations in which they are placed, and the sweet transitions from danger and anxiety to tranquillity and joy in which she delights, which give them their main hold on the imagination and the memory.

The truth is, as has been very beautifully remarked by a critic, that though Mrs Radcliffe's supernatural machinery is represented as influencing her characters, we tremble and weep not for others but for ourselves. It is on us directly that it properly operates. Adeline, Emily, Vivaldi, and Ellena, are nothing to us save as filling up the scene; but it is we ourselves who discover the manuscript in the deserted abbey, we who are prisoners in the castle of Udolpho, we who are inmates of Spalatro's cottage, we who stand before the secret tribunal of the Inquisition, and even there ' are startled by the mysterious voice deepening its horrors. The 'whole is a prodigious painting, so entire as to surround us with illusion, so cunningly arranged as to harrow up the soul, and the presence of a real person would spoil its completeness. As figures, all the persons are adapted with peculiar skill to the • scenes in which they appear, the more as they are part of one • entire conception.'

[ocr errors]

In this light, the profusion of landscape painting with which Mrs Radcliffe has been reproached, and which most readers may have thought carried to excess, was probably adopted on system, as an element of effect. Even while it tires us, as suspending the interest of the story, it probably attunes the mind to sympathy with the coming events, and, like an overture, conveys hints and shadows of what is to follow. That her landscapes are often vague that no two individuals who read them would draw

from them alike, we scarcely know whether to consider as a ble mish or not. It is not always desirable to paint or describe too minutely ;—it is a matter which depends essentially on the object the author has in view;-and considered in relation to the general tone and object of Mrs Radcliffe, the vague mist with which her towers and precipices are surrounded, the Claude Lorraine haze she spreads over her gentler landscapes, probably impress the mind more perfectly with the feeling she wishes to excite, than the most elaborate description in the spirit of an architect or a landscape gardener.

That she could paint with the firmest pencil, who that recollects the first glimpse of Udolpho, with the slant sunbeam lighting up its weather-beaten towers, will deny? Do we not actually see before us that lone house by the Mediterranean, with the scudding clouds, the screaming sea-birds, the stormy sea-the scene selected for the murder of Ellena by her father? Who cannot figure to his mind's eye that ruined villa, with its broken tower, the scene of some half-hinted guilt, in the deserted courts of which Schedoni is attacked by Spalatro? Or those enchanting silvan landscapes, dew-besprinkled, or sun-illumined, with which she has surrounded the half-decayed mansion which affords an asylum to La Motte ? But we cannot resist the temptation of comparing these ideal landscapes, with which every one is familiar, with some of Mrs Radcliffe's actual sketches from nature;-fresh, dewy, bold, instantly impressing the mind with their truth and vigour; as if she had caught, and fixed in the words of her journal, the very hues and tints of the scenes among which she had been wandering. She was accustomed almost every year to take a short tour with her husband, generally along the southern and western coasts of England, and to snatch a moment at the inns where they rested, to commit to paper the impressions and events of the day, though without the most distant view to publication. In these sketches, her acute perception of the beautiful and picturesque, and her power of conveying her impressions in language which excites a corresponding impression on the reader, are remarkable. Like Turner's, her empire is peculiarly that of the air; light and its effects, from dawn to the glow of sunshine,-twilight, or the azure depth of moonlight, as seen on the woodland landscape, the ruined tower, or the freshening sea, she depicts with singular skill and felicity. To us there is a great charm in the brief and picturesque style of these Journals, of which some extracts accompanied the posthumous publication of Gaston de Blondeville, but which we think ought to have been given to the public entire. They are far more interesting, and a thousand times more graphic, than her published

Journal of her tour to Holland and Germany, where much of the original spirit of the sketches seems to have evaporated in the process of preparation for the press.

Here is a sea-scene near, but not in sight of, Beachy-head. See with what a clear and Crabbe-like truth the leading outlines of this marine picture are sketched!

'A shore of ruins under the cliffs, which gradually rise from what is called the Wish-house, a small white building, standing sweetly near the beach, to the summit of the Cape. Large blocks of granite imbedded on the shore, and extending to the waves, which rage and foam over them, giving one dreadful ideas of shipwreck. Sometimes patches of gravelly sand or pebbles, soon ending against masses of granite or chalk, between which it is difficult, and not always possible, to walk: some of them must be stepped on. Within half a mile of the great front of Beachyhead, unable to proceed farther, sat down on a block, wearied out, desiring William to go on: he was soon hid by a turn in the cliffs. Almost frightened at the solitude and vastness of the scene, though Chance [her favourite dog] was with me. Tide almost out; only sea in front; white cliffs rising over me, but not impending; strand all around; a chaos of rocks and fallen cliffs far out into the waves; sea-fowl wheeling and screaming; all disappeared behind the point beyond which is the great cliff; but we had doubled point after point, in the hope that this would be the next, and had been much deceived in the distances by these great objects. After one remote point gained, another and another succeeded, and still the great cliff was unattained; the white precipices beautifully varied with plants, green, blue, yellow, and poppy; wheatears flew up often from the beach; Chance pursued them. At length William returned, having been nearly, though not quite, in front of the great promontory. Slowly and laboriously we made our way back along the beach, greatly fatigued, the day exceedingly hot, the horizon sulphurous with lowering clouds: thunder rolled faintly at a distance.'

[ocr errors]

A close like this is a good introduction to a nocturnal storm, in the Isle of Wight, which she visited in the autumn of 1801. After describing a fiery sunset in the evening, with sullen clouds,' she proceeds with this brief but graphic description of the thunderstorm which followed.

After dark, a storm with thunder and lightning; listened to the strong steady force of the wind and waves below. The thunder rolled, and burst at intervals; and often the sound was so mingled with that of the wind and waves, as to be scarcely distinguished from it. No complaining of the wind, but a strong and awful monotony. Lightning very blue, showed at moments the foaming waves far out. Glad to hear from the other side of the house cheerful voices talking or singing. When the storm subsided, the thunder rolled away towards the Sussex coast. This display of the elements was the grandest scene I ever beheld; a token of God directing his world. What particularly struck me was the appearance of irresistible power which the deep monotonous

« PreviousContinue »