Radcliffe's Materiality

Printer-friendly version

Radcliffe's Materiality

Yoon Sun Lee
Wellesley College

A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things... coming and going rather than starting and finishing....
—Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (25)

1.         Gothic things can create embarrassment—for example, the gigantic helmet that crashes down from the sky at the beginning of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), or the inevitable trapdoor that appears in the floor, the candle that goes out just when you know it will, or the door that seems to bolt or unbolt itself. As Jane Austen suggests when Northanger Abbey's heroine finds herself captivated by a mysterious lacquered cabinet, objects have a way of leading to the subject's mortification. But the problem is not simply one of animation, or the extension of human qualities to inanimate objects. A certain restless openness characterizes both human subjects and things. Gothic fiction can extinguish conceptual distinctions and narrative relations between subject and object in a radical manner. The contact is too intimate, too close, and too unmediated; the giant helmet and the puny body crushed under it form a grotesque material assemblage, as do Catherine Morland's "trembling hands [and] the hasp of the lock" (Austin 119). When Catherine examines and finally opens that cabinet in her room, furniture, heroine, and ambient environment meld into a fear-producing machine. Sounds within the body and those outside the room blend together, while motions ("the lock of her door was agitated, as if by the attempt of somebody to enter") travel freely from environment to supposed inhabitant ("Catherine trembled from head to foot") and back again (124-5).

2.         The Gothic novel, that staple of Romantic publishing and reading, has always seemed both thing-like and person-like: thing-like in its obvious, clunky reliance on formula and cliché, and yet person-like in the way that its superficial character appears to indicate the existence of something deeper, or even unconscious. "The superficial and the formulaic," as Elizabeth Napier puts it, "form the very heart of the Gothic" (29). Marshall Brown has shown how Gothic fiction's clichés perform the function of Freud's dream-work, communicating incommunicable desires.  [1]  But I want to step back from this assumed paradox and ask whether this genre, particularly in Radcliffe's handling, assumes anything distinctive about human consciousness: anything that distinguishes it ontologically from the hollow caves and passages, mountains and watchtowers, clouds, sounds, and effects of light and weather that fill its pages. Or even more radically: is there anything but movement on the surface? Does the phenomenon of interiority matter? Are subjects defined by their interiority or by intensities that freely wander across forms and surfaces, coming and going? Do affects have anything other than a temporary location? Does narrative have an inherent direction?

3.         To ask this is to put into question some basic assumptions of reading: that subjects are the subject, that landscape constitutes a background, that the novel is an exercise in representation analogous to consciousness, or, more recently, that the novel is an exercise in social will or construction. [2]  This essay engages a different set of assumptions and pursues a different, materialist protocol of reading. It will examine Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) as a phenomenon of continuous material surfaces and folds, rather than as a reflection of consciousness or a purposive ideological construction. It will look at how different elements of the novel move, rest, and collect into varied, manifold assemblages that express a single intensive materiality. The Radcliffean novel will be viewed as "a project of composition and synergy," to borrow a phrase from a recent interpreter of Benedictus de Spinoza (Sharp 13). Humans and non-humans, affects and things are brought into contact and combination in ways that defy conventional models of agency, causality, or narrative teleology. In other words, Radcliffe's Gothic represents a certain materialist vision of the world, but it does more than this. It accretes and flexes its own materiality as a supple discursive thing, extended in time as well as in space. [3] 

4.         What emerges in Radcliffe's novels can be described as a vibrant materiality, to borrow a phrase from political theorist Jane Bennett. According to Bennett, what so-called new materialists study is "not a world... of subjects and objects, but of various materialities constantly engaged in a network of relations... a world populated less by individuals than by groups or compositions that shift over time" (354). They reject the Cartesian view of matter as "extended, uniform, and inert... solid, bounded objects that occupy space and whose movements... are predictable, controllable, and replicable" (Coole and Frost 7-8). Drawing on post-Newtonian science, they emphasize "matter's immanent vitality," the way that matter materializes as "excess, force... relationality" (8). Such approaches may seem incongruous in this context, a latter-day attempt to revive interest in Radcliffe by associating her with strange new worlds of theory. So it is surprising to discover, not only within Radcliffe's novels, but in the contemporary context of their production and reception, a similar way of thinking about materialism along these lines of impersonal transformations and transpersonal assemblages. The explanation may have to do more with Spinoza than with Deleuze: as Marjorie Levinson has recently shown in relation to William Wordsworth and Spinoza, questions of "social ontology," or of "being numerous" may well be as vital to the project of Romanticism as the Hegelian questions of representation and self-consciousness that have long dominated critical discourse (643).

5.         The tendentious distinction between the natural and the social that Bruno Latour calls the constitution of modernity was a preoccupation of the popular fiction of the time as well as of the poetry. The natural world of things, "the mute and material multitude of objects," is understood to stand over and apart from the clamorous social world of human subjects, each world following its own laws and asserting its autonomy from the other (29). Yet everywhere, as Latour argues, person-thing and fact-interpretation hybrids proliferated, as it became modernity's distinctive self-given task to try to sort them out, to restore the autonomy of human subjects from the world of things. But their mutual imbrication has always been known. Readers and critics of Gothic novels reserved their gravest concern not for what these novels represented, but for what they seemed to do to the humans who consumed them. [4]  They worried about the physiological effects of repeated encounters with these types of objects, about the loss of distinction and identity perceptible everywhere. Books, authors, and readers switched places and blended identities within what might be called a social-physical-narrative network. Critics deplored the tendency for boundaries between subjects and things to dissolve, for powers to be communicated, and for unpredictable affects to be generated. John Keats, for example, in his well-known tribute to the romances of "Damosel Radcliffe," genially threatens to "cavern you and grotto you and... wood you, and immense-rock you, and tremendous sound you and solitude you," offering a remarkable instance of what Deleuze and Guattari would call the deterritorialization of language. Signifiers, signifieds, referents, and speaking subjects become nearly indistinguishable: woods, rocks, solitude, and you become sounds, events of playful aggression. [5] 

6.         Radcliffe's novels present a materiality composed of shifting, heterogeneous assemblages. They are striated by rhythms of movement and rest that include environment, characters, and discourse. But there is another twist to this story. Radcliffe's plots are to an unusual extent comprised of nothing but movement and stasis, in dialectical relation to each other. This characteristic draws attention to the nature of narrative itself as an uninterrupted material flow of discourse; as a result, I want to suggest, the concept of conatus undergoes a subtle shift. In Spinoza's thought, conatus refers to a "striving to persevere in existence," an intrinsic force by which each thing tries to maintain itself (Sharp 125, 133-34). It is "a force of existence unique to each thing... a power of self-organization, self-maintenance" (133). Each entity tries to remain itself as far as possible. Radcliffe greatly relies on, but also greatly downgrades, this force as something within matter: things strive to persist but dissolve, materiality changes shape and form without pause. She thus creates a tentatively reflexive function in her narratives, a function that could be seen as a kind of melancholic agency. This function consists in explicitly recognizing sameness, persistence, or repetition.

7.         While the notoriously repetitive quality of Radcliffe's novels has often been remarked, what has gone less examined is the degree to which they pose the question of identity over time. Sometimes it is actually a question. In The Italian (1797): is this monk the same as the monk I saw before? At other times, it is an occasion for a certain affect: "'There!' she would exclaim, 'there are the very cliffs, there the wood of pines.... There, too, under the crag of that mountain, is the cottage... which he bade me remember, and copy with my pencil...!'" (Udolpho 92). Remembering and copying, which are equivalent, enable a subject to do one thing: to point out persistence, identity over time. In Radcliffe's novels, subjects seem to be composed, like everything else, as ratios of rest and motion, speed and slowness. They blend indifferently or dissolve ecstatically into larger assemblages. But Radcliffe strikingly invokes a special function of recognizing sameness and a particular form of pathos. Persistence over time is linked to an overarching affect of loss and absence. In other words, everything strives—and mostly fails—to persist in its own form, but only certain super-agents seem capable of keeping track, of perceiving vacancy and negativity, and of retaining consciously the traces of former combinations. There are two more points to make about this exiguous form of agency. First, it describes what Radcliffe's narrative itself does: the material flow of discourse continuously shifts and evolves into varying assemblages, repeats itself, but it also keeps track. Second, the affective charge given to persistence can be seen as making a deep, almost subliminal, case for a generically conservative stance. Material persistence can even be regarded as an achievement productive of the most powerful affects; it is not something to be taken lightly.

8.         In these novels so often thematized as novels about confinement, imprisoning structures have an inexplicable habit of opening themselves. In The Italian, characters find themselves trapped in a subterranean vault: "the door closed, with a thundering clap that echoed through all the vaults." It appears impenetrable. "The thick wood was inlaid with solid bars of iron; and was of such unconquerable strength, that it evidently guarded what had been designed for a prison" (76). Yet typically, this boundary dematerializes when, one chapter and a few hours later, they discover that the door "stood a little open": "He could scarcely believe his senses, since... he had not heard its ponderous bolts undrawn..." The hero, Vivaldi, darts out, "breathless with speed" (99). Confinement in Udolpho also leads to mysterious releases and then into prolonged states of wandering for no reason. Those heavy doors or walls rarely, if ever, exert a blocking or containing function, as we are reminded by countless crumbling castles— "shattered battlements and half-demolished walls" that have simply "from age and neglect, fallen to decay" (Udolpho 606). The boundaries may be hollowed out. Doors in the castles of Udolpho and Le Blanc frequently lead into a passage "formed within the thickness of the walls..." Emily is informed "that there are many passages of the same kind concealed within the prodigious walls of the edifice" (458). A supposed prisoner, Dupont, wanders around Udolpho, passing through these hollow walls, even hearing and speaking through them: "the shell of the wall was there so thin... that I could distinctly hear every word, spoken on the other side" (459). And as everyone knows, he takes the opportunity to become himself a disembodied, inhuman echo: "I listened closely to Montoni... joined my voice, and repeated his last words" (460), provoking much consternation. Such passages do not lead anywhere; they pass by and connect, joining places, voices, and affective possibilities.

9.         But more than architectural boundaries seem to be porous. Objects frequently dissolve, losing their shapes, identities, and even substance. Emily goes in search of her aunt, and perceives "a track of blood, upon a stair." She follows it to a door, enters and sees "something lying in an obscure corner of the room." In a strange discursive skip in being, Emily "hurried towards the object that excited her terror, when, perceiving the clothes of some person on the floor, she caught hold of them, and found in her grasp the old uniform of a soldier, beneath which appeared a heap of pikes and other arms" (323). Emily's movement toward the object is interrupted when the object becomes something else mid-sentence, a "heap" of blood-stained clothes that itself merely conceals discarded weapons. That collection gives way narratively to another "track of blood... upon the stairs," which prompts further inconclusive movements by Emily, down and up, forward and back. The Italian offers a similar moment in which "an object" becomes without warning a moving heap of "remains," only to resolve later in the chapter into "part of the habiliment of a monk" (76-78). These could be read as moments of successive discovery, but they can also be read as curious moments of shape-shifting or even thing-shifting. Rather than existing as solid, bounded things, Radcliffe's objects are restless. They can become movements or itineraries in the discourse: "Dorothée was telling of a door, that opened from a gallery, leading from the great stair-case into the last anti-room of the saloon" (Udolpho 560).

10.         The boundaries of subjects are even less able to be defined; the majority of characters subsist only as an echo of another. [6]  Humans and animals alike seem to exist as "open, complex systems with porous boundaries"—systems that also replicate themselves (Coole and Frost 15). Characters are often indistinguishable, not only because they resemble each other (though they often do: in Terry Castle's witty formulation, "Every other looks like every other other," and we could add that every self looks the same as well), but because perceptions and affects travel freely across and between them (128). [7]  In Chapter Five of the fourth volume, it soothes Emily's "pensive mind" to take long walks in the woods in the evening, "watching, in tranquil melancholy, the gradual effect of evening over the extensive prospect, till the gray waters of the Mediterranean and the massy woods were almost the only features of the scene, that remained visible" (540). Some fifty pages later, we encounter the same set of emotions and perceptions moving across another set of characters in motion. Blanche, her father, and her lover St. Foix are travelling through the Pyrenees, but any other class-appropriate characters could be substituted here. Blanche, Emily's inexplicable double, is the first in this scene to be assigned "a pensive pleasure, as she watched the progress of twilight gradually spreading its tints over the woods and mountains, and stealing from the eye every minuter feature of the scene, till the grand outlines of nature alone remained" (598). The affect is next embodied in the lines of a poem in which the absent Emily had already created a trope for this love of liminality ("To the Bat"). The poem addresses its subject: "Thou lov'st to sport upon the twilight air, Mocking the eye, that would thy course pursue... Thou flit'st athwart the pensive wand'rer's way..." (598). The affect of pleasure seems to be itself a flickering materiality that crosses and recrosses the path of the now-generalized "pensive wanderer." The biological substrate of "the young St. Foix" is next in line as the temporary location of this affect. In this scene and throughout the novel, affects are strangely impersonal or transpersonal types of matter that float through various contingent locations. It would be an understatement to say that character is underdetermined; their names barely serve to register the frailest shade of distinction between them.

11.         Radcliffe's materiality seems to consist in intensities rather than in solid, bounded extension. Thus, the distinction between inside and outside becomes irrelevant. Instead of measuring dimensions or referring to objects, Radcliffe's narrative typically tracks continuous gradations of intensity: heat and light, speed and slowness, relative concentrations of color. A representative passage in Udolpho notes "[t]he solitary grandeur of the objects that immediately surrounded her, the mountain-region towering above, the deep precipices that fell beneath, the waving blackness of the forests..." before ending with "the wide horizon, where the same melting blue tint seemed to unite earth and sky" (166). How can plural objects be solitary? How can Emily be "immediately surrounded" by regions "towering above" and "[falling] beneath"? What is a "waving blackness"? The scene is constituted not by things but by qualitative intensities or vague essences: aroundness, aboveness, beneathness, blackness. In order to track fluctuations of intensity rather than the fixed locations of objects, the narrative creates what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as smooth or nomadic space: "an open space through which things-flows are distributed, rather than... a closed space for linear and solid things" (361). In this mode, there is "no line separating earth and sky"; it is "a tactile space, or rather 'haptic,' a sonorous much more than a visual space" (382). As in the passages above, the erasure of the horizon seems to repeat, and to initiate a broader openness to which flickering or "vortical" movements draw attention. Smooth space is not uniform, but rather open to "becoming and heterogeneity, as opposed to the stable, the eternal, the identical, the constant" (361). This is the space within which local variations occur, to which the names of characters are sometimes given and sometimes denied. "To a warm imagination, the dubious forms that float, half veiled in darkness, afford a higher delight, than the most distinct scenery that the sun can shew" (Udolpho 598). The "warm" imagination is an intensity that merges imperceptibly and almost haptically with others, unlike the eye, too prone to perceive the dimensions of objects over against itself.

12.         The scene inaugurated by that statement is constituted as fluctuating or flowing intensities of energy. Standing a little apart from the rest of the group, which has taken shelter from a storm in a shallow cave, St. Foix views:

with emotions of awful sublimity, the long volumes of sulphureous clouds, that floated along the upper and middle regions of the air; and the lightnings that flashed from them, sometimes silently, and at others, followed by sullen peals of thunder, which the mountains feebly prolonged, while the whole horizon, and the abyss, on which he stood, were discovered in the momentary light. Upon the succeeding darkness, the fire, which had been kindled in the cave, threw a partial gleam... on the surrounding figures it threw a strong, though pale gleam... while upon the foliage of a gigantic larch, that impended its shade over the cliff above, appeared a red, dusky tint, deepening almost imperceptibly into the blackness of night. (601)
What this impersonal focalization offers are "regions" localized by varying intensities of energy—contained in the clouds, discharged as lightning (of different intensities), contained and released by the fire, and dissipating as light in a continuum of energy. The material world represented is constituted by the differences and continuities between the "partial gleam" and the "strong gleam," the "dusky tint" and the "blackness of night," and the continuities are not merely at the level of the signified, but at the acoustic and visual level of discourse as well. Even things more solid than light are thus constituted as "forces, energies, and intensities... and complex, even random processes" (Coole and Frost 13). Human subjects, too, are complex processes that intersect or join their environment; in any given landscape Valancourt (or Dupont) may be "standing upon the bank of the road, resting on his pike with folded arms" (37), while Emily (or Blanche) "wanders away" nomadically to merge into this spectrum of intensity, "listening in deep silence" (37).

13.         I have, of course, been discussing what Radcliffe's novels represent, the sort of materiality that they seem to show or imagine for us. But the peculiar power of these novels lies in the way that they often seem to bypass this power of representing. They distribute discursive material through a smooth or nomadic space, at times intensifying its energy through concentration and at other times dissipating it. Another way to put this is that Radcliffe constructs discursive assemblages that produce powerful affects more through spatial contiguity and density than through syntactical relations. Representation requires elements to be put together in a certain way in order to produce a picture, whether you think of Kant's transcendental unity of apperception or of the rules of language. I would argue that Radcliffe's famed descriptive effects gesture toward a different use of discourse, one in which elements are linked neither hypotactically nor paratactically, but in a flexible linguistic assemblage or network that can be compressed or stretched out, usually over many pages. A typical assemblage from Udolpho might comprise the following: a cave—the sound of a dog barking—a rude bridge—an opposite cliff—a light—voices—"a single watch-tower"—a story—"a cloudy moon" (601-605). The representational or referential dimension of this assemblage cannot be entirely dismissed, but that dimension is tenuous, untotalizable in its shifting from visual to haptic to acoustic references. Its affective power seems to derive from the ways in which these signifiers do not add up to a single, fixed composition or mental image.

14.         Assemblages bring or join things together in a way that is inherently dynamic or non-totalizable. Radcliffe's narrative discourse moves continually, imbuing its regions with different quantities of intensity, creating densely- or sparsely-populated assemblages. It is motion rather than logic, smooth space rather than syntax that gives rise to the assemblage. The ancient fortress where Blanche's party takes shelter is another such heterogeneous assemblage: silence—path—summit—gate—view of main body—grey stone—an arch—shattered battlements—remains of a giant oak (606). The continual restless and recursive movement of Radcliffe's discourse draws attention to the looseness with which its parts are conjoined, including the part we generally call meaning or signification. Assemblages may feature flashes of reference, allusions to meaning, as in this one: curiosity of Blanche—Emily smiling—grave silence of Dorothée—the spectacle in the chamber of Udolpho—"the alarming words that had accidentally met her eye in the MS papers"—the black veil (491). The logical, or even narrative, relation between such elements counts for little; pure discursive or material proximity matters far more because it is only this contact or combination that can produce powerful affects.

15.         It is well known that contemporary critics condemned Gothic novels because they could and did "produce so powerful an effect" on their readers (Monthly Review, qtd. in Watt 115). It is not inaccurate to say that Radcliffe's readers saw her novels as material assemblages that affected them through direct physical contact. In E.J. Clery's account, "the distracted mass audience absorbs the [novels] osmotically, habitually," through "tactile appropriation" (152). In Northanger Abbey's sharp parody, we recall, Henry Tilney boasts of literally appropriating his sister's copy of Mysteries of Udolpho, "running away with the volume which... was her own, particularly her own" (78). Physical contact with the volume brings about an explosion of motion (ending in "the Hermitage-walk"). Tilney argues that he was compelled or propelled "in my eagerness to get on, refusing to wait only five minutes"; his consumption of the novel is measured in terms of time and somatic effect ("finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time" [77]). Readers and novels form grotesque assemblages, not unlike the disorienting swarms and multitudes that were identified with Gothic architecture. [8]  The products of the Minerva Press had a way of blurring all identities. As Clery notes, such novels were generally published anonymously or under a pseudonym, and sometimes were merely reshuffled and repackaged versions of other novels (138). [9]  Only the materiality of Gothic novels was iconic: in Austen's description, "three duodecimo volumes, two hundred and seventy-six pages in each, with a frontispiece to the first, of two tombstones and a lantern" (82). The identities of authors or even the function of representation became less important than the sheer material proliferation of these novels, as lending libraries established themselves in "booksellers...engravers, and picture-framers, grocers, jewellers, confectioners, tobacconists, perfumers, ironmongers" (qtd. Clery 136).

16.         The "multitude of readers" (qtd. Clery 151) combined with the multitude of Gothic novels to form a productive assemblage, in Deleuze's terms: "a machinic assemblage of bodies, of actions and passions, an intermingling of bodies reacting to one another" (Deleuze and Guattari 88). This was a powerful kind of agency, an ability to make things happen. [10]  Gothic novels linked bodies and discourse together to produce strong affects that transcended individual personhood and agency. The favored tropes of Gothic criticism reflect an awareness of this process. Gothic novels are consistently represented as itineraries, recipes, or a set of transformational procedures to be performed. They instruct their readers, critics complain, that "a young person [should] walk at night upon the battlements of an old castle... creep hands and feet along a narrow passage" (qtd. in Watt 81). Gothic novels produce and reproduce themselves, barely requiring the intervention of persons: "Take—An old castle... a long gallery, with a great many doors... Noise, whispers, and groans... Mix them together..." (qtd. Clery 147). Another critic gives instructions: "[f]rom any romance to make a novel. Where you find... A Castle..... put An house. A cavern... A bower. A groan... A sigh," presenting two parallel substitutable series of elements side by side: "The same table of course answers for transmuting a novel into a romance." [11]  A Gothic novel is itself a loose, non-linear material assemblage that cares little for the exact number, location, or identity of its parts. What counts is occurrence, recurrence, combination, and connection. One point can connect to any other point, in rhizomatic fashion, and the more connections, the better.

17.         There is a paradox that emerges in the criticism and even simply in the reading of these novels: we could call it familiar surprise, or predictable unpredictability. The novel's discourse continually moves and changes in order to present us with the same: yet another animal-vegetable-mineral-light-sonority assemblage. In Udolpho, assemblages form, fade, decay, and then inexplicably reappear. Volume 4 is another Volume 1, retracing the same combinations of motion and rest, speed and slowness, offering remarkably similar moments, affects, assemblages. But such conjunctures are not supposed to be predictable or measurable; affective power is tied to surprise. But how can surprise coexist with such a high degree of repetition? The answer, I think, points toward a crucial feature of Radcliffe's narrative ontology, one that ties her to the so-called new materialism. Instead of being assumed to be static, substantial, and unchanging, materiality is understood as a contingent conjuncture or fragile assemblage that does not stay the same. It is a slow-motion flicker or flash. The assemblage is always gradually fading, disappearing, or evanescing; this is as true of the novel's discourse itself, its ceaseless flow of words, as of the represented dimension. Instead of posing the question of how beings can change, in other words, Radcliffe's discourse asks how things or assemblages can stay the same or repeat, how the same encounter can occur again. Persistence is always a surprise; recurrence nothing short of a miracle. Emily ends many chapters waiting for once-heard music to return:

almost expecting, that... the sounds would return....Emily continued to listen, but no music came... Thus passed the hour in watchfulness... but no sounds returned; and, after remaining at the casement, till the light tint of dawn began to edge the mountain-tops and steal upon the night-shade, she concluded, that they would not return. (340)
Yet, though Emily fails to hear them, Radcliffe's sonorous assemblages are able to exert a powerful force in the narrative.

18.         Expectation and the capacity for disappointment give crucial hints as to Radcliffe's peculiar notion of agency. Agency is conceived not as a force that brings about change, but as that which lags behind change, or anticipates repetition, incorporating an otherwise inconceivable dimension of negativity into this material world. The distinction between subjects and objects is not necessary to maintain. Agency can be thought of as something like matter's own memory and expectation: that which preserves traces, keeps track of former iterations and assemblages, an after-intensity. It can be exercised by things or people, or distributed over assemblages: "there are the very cliffs, there are the wood of pines... There.. is the cottage," Emily notes when returning home at the beginning of the novel (92). She gives a local voice to a striving to persist that is not otherwise much in evidence. The last volume notes "the very avenue" that Emily had walked earlier; Emily points out to herself "the same high trees that used to wave over the terrace, and these the same flowery thickets... and there, too, on that bank, are the very plants" (583). This is in some ways the opposite of remembering; it is simply the awareness of persistence. Emily repeats the same assemblages: those steps, the terrace, the pavilion, Valancourt. In terms of the plot, persistence over time becomes visible against the ground of non-identity; in this case, the belief that Valancourt has changed morally: "he was no longer the same Valancourt." From this point of view, non-identity amounts almost to annihilation: "Valancourt seemed to be annihilated" (581). Yet the agency of retracing is so strong as to summon him into presence as part of this assemblage. "These recollections becoming too painful to be endured, she abruptly left the pavilion.. As she passed along the terrace, she perceived a person, walking... Valancourt! ...Emily, her eyes fixed on the place... remained, for some moments, unable to quit the spot, and scarcely conscious of existence" (586). Agency in this scene can be considered as the force that slows Emily down, reassembles an earlier conjuncture (pavilion—terrace—Valancourt), and fixes her to the spot, "scarcely conscious," thing-like. It seems to exist in excess of the immanent, ceaseless flow of materiality.

19.         As an arresting, persisting, or retracing dimension, agency belongs most strongly to the most notorious thing in Udolpho: what lies behind the black veil. We recall that Emily first approaches this object as part of a conscious effort "[t]o withdraw her thoughts... from the subject of her misfortunes" (248). It succeeds in withdrawing not only her thoughts but her consciousness. The horror produced by the "veiled picture," the narrative announces, "awakened all [her] powers" only to extinguish them when she perceives that the object behind the veil "was no picture" (249). Only in the final pages of the novel, to the eternal chagrin of readers, we learn that it was "a waxen image, made to resemble a human body in the state, to which it is reduced after death" (662). But from a material or ontological point of view, it is nothing to dismiss. It is not a picture, but neither is it "the murdered body of the lady Laurentini" (553). We could say of this body of wax that "an energetic materiality overspills the prepared matter" (Deleuze and Guattari 410). Its material agency certainly extends beyond its particular form or blurred figure. "A member of the house of Udolpho had been condemned to the penance of contemplating [it] during certain hours of the day"; and had "made it a condition in his will, that his descendants should preserve the image..." (Udolpho 662). The body of wax preserves its impressions and is itself preserved, "suffered to retain its station in the wall of the chamber" (663). But what it preserves, what seems to give it its uniquely petrifying effect on its observers, is the very frozen essence of materiality: "a human figure of ghastly paleness, stretched at its length, and dressed in the habiliments of the grave... the face appeared partly decayed and disfigured by worms, which were visible on the features and hands. On such an object...no person could endure to look twice" (662). There is the official horror of the memento mori, the reminder of flesh's decay. But beyond this, the object's powerful affect comes from the way it artificially arrests a certain material conjuncture, captures materiality in the act of decaying intensity, of changing phase and form. It attempts to stop the narrative's constant movement through this material image, and succeeds in more than one sense: putting a stop to the motor force of the reader's desire to look on the other side of the black veil. The agency of this object is powerful indeed, its pure persistence underlined by its apparent effect on viewers: "no person could endure to look twice."

20.         What this reading has tried to do is to question the relation between the novel and the individual, and to question the methodological individualism that still drives even recent critiques of the genre. Many important studies of the novel have focused on how the novel relies on, or alternatively, constitutes the subjectivity located within the boundaries of an individual human body. Nancy Armstrong, for example, has recently argued that "the novel was not made to think beyond the individual" (25). Radcliffe's novels, falling as they do within the general category of what Armstrong and many others have called the "literature of sensibility," may not seem to seriously challenge such arguments; indeed, Armstrong specifically maintains that such literature "opposes this individualism" through the mechanism of affective contagion (16). Armstrong also points out that after Radcliffe it became essential for the mainstream novel to include "Gothic elements" (12). However, the "gothic elements" in question need not be defined in terms of supernatural events, ghosts, creepy castles, and so forth. Rather, I would like to suggest that the gothic or Radcliffean element resides, on the one hand, in a persistent depersonalization of affect, and on the other hand, in an awareness of materiality as vital, in motion, and possessed of agency.

21.         The depersonalization of affect in Radcliffe is extreme: a feeling can be anyone's feeling, even if a story is usually somebody's story. [12]  But we need to consider affect not so much as delimited, defined sensations but as "an encounter between bodies that involves...a qualitative change... in the intensity of a being's power to persevere," in Hasana Sharp's gloss (26-29). Thus, affect cannot be the property of a single person; it is a relation that occurs at what might be called a molecular or micro-level. And the connection that Sharp makes between depersonalization and freedom, that "freedom involves a kind of depersonalization," seems to me central to any appeal that novels might possess (139). [13]  In other words, the difference between particular affects—and even individual characters—may not be as important as the transactions or contacts that occur between them. Novels create links and assemblages, though not always as visibly as in the case of Radcliffe. We might even say, in Bennett's words, that they reveal "not a world... of subjects and objects, but of various materialities constantly engaged in a network of relations... groupings or compositions that shift over time" (354). Drawing attention to what he calls "romantic physicalism," Colin Jager has suggested the importance in Romantic and post-Romantic discourse of the consciousness-matter relation. I would agree with Jager that one important consequence of reformulating the debate, of bringing matter back into it, is a change in how political terms get defined: "it deflates the language of progressive and conservative because it deflates the oppositions (mind/nature, subject/object) in which that particular political debate is embedded, and returns us to the more defined—if no less mysterious—terrain of the mind-body problem" (47). I would add that it doesn't simply deflate the idea of conservatism, but rather situates it at a molecular level. Radcliffe's understanding of matter as in constant, swerving movement places a high value on persistence, on the preservation of traces; the phenomenon of persistence even amounts to a special kind of agency. This is the level, I think, at which her novels' conservatism can be examined. Phenomena of revolution and counter-revolution can be grasped not only in structures of affect, temporality, or suspended action (as in the "agonized waiting" that Mary Favret describes in her study of Romantic war-time temporality), but in the ways that narratives spin out their own shifting networks of materiality (75). Finally, Radcliffe's notion of materiality also overturns the idea that narrative consists in change and difference (in things happening to people, or people making things happen); it suggests a way of reading narrative not as chained sequences of cause and effect, but as heterogeneous assemblages and chance conjunctures of effects that sometimes cut transversely across the linear duration of the narrative, and sometimes rely on that duration to accrete a certain thickness or intensity. Radcliffe's narratives themselves illustrate the melancholic, conservative agency of tracing the same assemblages again and again.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Nancy. How Novels Think: The Limits of British Individualism from 1719-1900. New York: Columbia UP, 2005. Print.

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Ed. James Kinsley and John Davie. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

Bennet, Jane. "The Force of Things." Political Theory 32.3 (2004): 347-72. Rpt. Web.

Brown, Marshall. The Gothic Text. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005. Print.

Castle, Terry. The Female Thermometer. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.

Clery, E. J. The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. Print.

Coole, Diana and Samantha Frost, eds. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, Politics. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987. Print.

Duncan, Ian. Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. Print.

Favret, Mary. War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern War-time. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.

Gallagher, Catherine. Nobody’s Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace. U of California P: Berkeley, 1994. Print.

Hawley, Katherine. How Things Persist. Oxford: Clarendon, 2001. Print.

Jager, Colin. Can We Talk About Consciousness Again? (Emergence, Natural Piety, Wordsworth). Romantic Frictions. Romantic Circles Praxis. Ed. Theresa M. Kelley. College Park: University of Maryland, September 2011. Web. 2014-01-19.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821. Ed. Edward Hyder Rollins. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958. Print.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.

Levinson, Majorie. "On Being Numerous." Studies in Romanticism 49 (2010): 633-657. Rpt. Web.

Napier, Elizabeth. The Failure of the Gothic: Problems of Disjunction in an Eighteenth-Century Literary Form. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987. Print.

Radcliffe, Ann. Mysteries of Udolpho. Ed. Bonamy Dobree. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

---. The Italian. Ed. Frederick Garber. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1981. Print.

Sharp, Hasana. Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2011. Print.

Watt, James. Contesting the Gothic: Fiction, Genre, and Cultural Conflict, 1764-1832. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.


[1] See Brown 161-182, as well as Duncan 20-50. BACK

[2] See, for example, Armstrong. BACK

[3] On perdurance theory, or the idea that you have different temporal parts as well as different spatial parts, see Hawley 10-11. BACK

[4] See Watt 8. BACK

[5] Keats to J.H. Reynolds, March 14, 1818, in The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, 1: 245. BACK

[6] Dupont's existence for much of the middle section of the novel is as a faint voice heard from beneath Emily's window, eventually identified as singing a familiar song (439-440); when finally revealed, he is simply an echo of an earlier lover, Valancourt, repeating Valancourt's emotions as well as his songs. BACK

[7] Castle's reading proceeds from many of the same observations about the novel as mine, but moves to a diametrically opposed conclusion, asserting a fundamental diremption between subjective fantasm and objective reality that she links to a "denial of corporeality" as a historically determined attitude (137). BACK

[8] See Napier 71. BACK

[9] "The trade seemed to resemble a chaos of shifting identities, mysterious reduplications or multiple repetitions" (Clery 138). BACK

[10] Austen, of course, mocks this in Eleanor Tilney's misapprehension of Catherine's remark that "something very shocking indeed, will soon come out in London" (81). BACK

[11] See The Age; A Poem (1810), in Napier 28. BACK

[12] The allusion to Catherine Gallagher's study, Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, is intentional. BACK

[13] This insight lies at the heart of what Sharp calls "the politics of renaturalization," and is intended to offer an alternative to the Hegelian politics of recognition, which aims ultimately at the reinforcement of self-conscious identity through the consciousness of the other. BACK


Published @ RC

February 2015