Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: Gothic

In Memoriam

What is it about Paris and literary graveyards? Montparnasse Cemetery has Charles Baudelaire, Samuel Beckett, Guy de Maupassant and Jean-Paul Sartre. Père Lachaise is home to Honoré de Balzac, Molière, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde. The Panthéon hosts Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Rousseau, Volaire and Émile Zola.

Pure by Andrew Miller is about Paris’ oldest cemetery: les Innocents. In 1785 the church was destroyed and the bodies were removed and taken to the catacombs. Miller merges historical fact with fiction, as he follows the life and work of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, the engineer employed with this task.

The atmosphere of this book is incredible: The cemetery was overcrowded, tainting the air, the streets, the houses of the quarter. Cellar walls collapsed under the strain put on them by mass graves. The church was closed several years after the graves became unbearable. Morbid, yes, but also fascinating. It was an intensely sensory novel – I really got a sense of a cold sweet decaying smell, and the oppressiveness of the church looming over the houses.

I wasn’t as interested in the life of Jean-Baptiste, although the novel did have some good characters. Instead, I found myself stuck into the description of specifically how they emptied the graveyard and moved the bodies. I loved the description of the priests following the bones through the streets, with candles and prayer. It isn’t really a gory book, although in parts disturbing, but the event really caught my interest. After all, it was the end of burials in central Paris that led to the creation of such iconic (literary) Parisian cemeteries.

The Italian

The Italian

Her heart was as heavy as her step; for when is it that peace and evil passions dwell together?

I’ve been reading more gothic stories, this time The Italian by Ann Radcliffe. Overall I enjoyed the novel and a return to Radcliffe’s beautiful writing. I read The Mysteries of Udolpho and whilst I liked it I got a bit stuck with all the descriptive landscapes. This novel in comparison was good because there was still the focus on the sublime landscape but it didn’t really get in the way of the plot. On the downside, there aren’t the supernatural elements you find in Udolpho.

I don’t want to give much of the story away because the beauty of The Italian were the (most often completely unexpected) twists and turns. Basically the story involves a forbidden love between a Neapolitan nobleman Vincentio di Vivaldi and the beautiful but lowly and orphaned Ellena Rosalba. Vivaldi’s mother concocts a plot with her confessor to have Ellena kidnapped and imprisoned in a nunnery. The course of true love never runs smooth: On their way to elope they are taken captive by the Holy Inquisition. Throw in some parental revelations and you’ve got yourself a pretty captivating story!

I think the reason I liked The Italian so much is that it has almost all of my favourite gothic qualities:

  • Pathetic fallacy: There is an amazing kind of atmosphere in this novel; storms in all the right places, still and beautiful evenings during vespers, despairing seas and obstacles as big as mountains.
  • The sublime: Definitely not a concept I completely understand but I am enjoying trying to work it out in my head – its the part of the novel that has really stuck with me afterwards. I think the focus on the landscape is supposed to invoke a feeling of greatness beyond human comprehension, which is why gothic novels (etc) manage to be both beautiful and horrible at the same time.
  • Disguise:  Lots of dark places, flowing robes, concealed people and paths, secret identities.
  • Villain: Schedoni, the confessor, is a perfect gothic villain. He is passionate, dark, guilty, ambitious, ruthless, has a horrible horrible past, and is supposed to be the basis of a lot of Byronic Victorian characters.

It wasn’t until I put this list together that I started thinking about Frankenstein. Shelley wrote her novel twenty years after this was published which I suppose makes it easy to see the beginning of Radcliffe’s legacy. There is something about the writing of the late 1700s/ early 1800s which is so interesting… Perhaps a new reading list is coming on.

Overcoming Passions

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

This book has forced me to make the unusual statement: When it was romantic, I loved it.

But this is only about ten pages of the whole book. The plot itself is brilliant and Charlotte Brontë certainly has moments that make you convinced that she has a way with words, but there is something missing. There isn’t quite the intensity that a book dealing with such powerful emotions needed. Or, rather, when it was intense, it was pious and that wasn’t what I wanted.

From speaking to many people about Jane Eyre it seems that there are two camps: People who love Jane Eyre, and people who love Wuthering Heights. As much as you should ever base an opinion on just one book, I’m on team Emily.


Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

‘If only there could be an invention’, I said impulsively, ‘that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.’

I loved this book for the following reasons:

  1. The opening line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”
  2. Upper class English eccentricity
  3. Manderley: the description of the house, the furniture, the gardens, the views
  4. The importance of a ghostly character
  5. The plot twists (I was a complete Rebecca virgin, I had no idea what was going to happen)
  6. You never find out the main character’s name
  7. The ball and the costumes
  8. The non-slushy love
  9. The sinister housekeeper and how much I disliked her
  10. The way the characters surprised you

Pure enjoyment on this one, reminded me a bit (although I’ve read them chronologically backwards) of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. This is fantastic, definitely a new favourite book.

It was a Dark and Stormy Night…

Dracula, Bram Stoker

In the spirit of Halloween I decided to finally read this classic. I have tried to read it once before, years ago, but I only read about a quarter before giving up. I think you have to vanquish all your preconceptions of vampire myths in popular culture (all those years of watching Buffy for me!) because this is back to basics. I liked how the book is told; through diaries of and letters between the four/five main characters. It feels like an early documentary. And I liked reading the humble beginnings of familiar characters (e.g. Van Helsing).

All in all, a good read, and an interesting one, but you’ve got to be in the mood. I fancy a trip to Whitby soon to see Stoker’s inspiration.

Side note: iPlayer Mark Gatiss’ history of horror if you’ve not watched it yet, its awesome!

The Original Gothic Novel

The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe

I was so determined to read this book, and my determination turned out to be quite essential! This book is one of the first gothic romance novels, and when you read it you can see the huge influence it had on other authors’ style. Enjoyable gothic elements are as follows:

  • Creepy castle in the middle of nowhere
  • Lots of haunted houses
  • A Villain (Montoni, why so evil?!)
  • Lots of fainting women
  • Gory bits (blood spatters and dead bodies included)
  • Prisoners
  • Psychological torture
  • Murder

These parts are awesome (for want of a more literary phrase). When the story gets going, The Mysteries of Udolpho is delightfully more-ish. What I wasn’t expecting was the three hundred odd pages at the beginning which are devoted to a very romantic description of lots of landscapes. Hmmm. I like nature as much (or a little bit more) than the next person but Radcliffe was pushing my commitment to reading this!

All in all, definately worth a read, especially if you like gothic novels and/or Northanger Abbey. This book was so different to what I had expected, and I think there is so much going on that it will exceed your expectations too. Just power through the first volume!

The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters

This is one of the best books I’ve read in ages, a modern gothic classic in the making. Theres a perfect combination going on in this book between the psychologically creepy ghost story type elements during the background of a beautifully decaying post war georgian stately home. I wanted to wander around Hundreds Hall in its heighday… and stay well away when all the strange goings on were going on. I couldn’t put it down and read it in one weekend, as it got darker I could feel myself getting chills. Perfect.