Gaston de Blondeville – Review

Posted by Holly Hirst on February 05, 2016 in Blog, Holly Hirst, Reviews tagged with , , ,

 

Gaston_de_Blondeville_1826Gaston de Blondeville (1826) was the last of Radcliffe’s novels and remains, arguably,  the least famous.  It was allowed to slip quietly and quickly into obscurity at the time and has never since emerged. It is not hard to see why. The lengthy descriptions of natural situations in her earlier work, however they may pall on the modern reader, were regarded by many of her contemporaries as the apotheosis of the pathetic art of producing the sublime.  Not so the equally long, and infinitely more tedious, descriptions of court life with which they are replaced in this last work. The phrase ‘it were tedious to…’ is the refrain of the novel and indeed it was tedious.  That conditional ‘were’ serves no other purpose than to taunt the deluded and hopeful reader for, instead of removing the description she boldly tells us will be boring, she reduces it to what must, to her, seem a reasonable length. While antiquarians may revel in a half page description of the dishes on a medieval banqueting table, the average reader, unless fortuitously provided with a handy medieval cook book capable of translating the names of these incomprehensible dishes, cannot but find them tedious. Similarly, she warns that ‘it were tedious to…’ describe five knights, before offering a detailed description of four, removing the knife from our wrists just in time by shortening her description of the fifth.

Any contemporary reader hoping to find a tale of masterfully controlled terror would have been just as disappointed as one seeking the ‘pensive melancholy’ of her interchangeable woods. The subtle threats of supernatural terror are replaced with a supernaturalism almost as absurd as Walpole’s, if not more so. Spontaneously appearing blood, magical pageants and fully-armoured brooding knight ghosts who kill using the power of pointing are the supernatural delights offered and they are more ridiculous than affecting. While some hope would have been restored to the expectant Radcliffe fan by a chase through labyrinthine tunnels in the company of an evil friar, replacing the heaving bosom of a virtuous heroine with the wheezing breathlessness of a middle-aged merchant, removes much of the romance. If we add to these evident disappointments, the lack of narrative force, the slow pace of the story and the hurried ending, it seems that we should let Gaston de Blondeville slip back into oblivion before it stains her reputation. But…

Although Gaston de Blondeville is far from being a universally enjoyable read, it is a worthwhile one.  In terms of enjoyment, it has its compensations for the pages of tedium in such deliciously farcical gems as he ‘stood, weeping in silence, save that his sobs were audible’[1]  and who can resist the satisfaction of a good ‘pointing-to-death’? In terms of worth, Gaston de Blondeville offers a great deal more. Gaston de Blondeville turns all our expectations of a Radcliffe novel on their heads. The ‘stock-types’ we expect are absent and, in relation to male characters at least, she diffuses the boundaries that our standard criticism has erected between character types.  Her chivalric hero is a robbing ‘parricide’; her tyrant king is a weak but not vicious ruler who is capable of both wise and foolish judgements; her ‘heroine’ is the aforementioned middle-aged merchant; her ‘evil cleric’ is played by both a wise arch-bishop and an imposter friar; her wise and benevolent ‘hero’ is Prince Edward the man who would become Edward I, ‘Hammer of the Scots’ and one of the most ruthless and intolerant kings to have ruled England.

The confusion, ambiguity and complexity which are infused into her character portrayals are equally reflected in the world of the novel. We are dragged into the bafflement of the characters who have no effective system for interpreting the world. How should one interpret supernatural signs – as guilt or innocence?  The choice often seems arbitrary.  Why is blood, magically appearing on another man’s dress, a sign of my guilt while his death by ghost is proof of my innocence? How does one interpret the moral ideology of a world which rewards valour and honesty with baronetcies and with death sentences? How should one view the system of monarchy when the king is contemptible and the prince admirable? How does one understand the church when it can both guide and corrupt depending on the agent representing it?

The novel raises endless questions which are only enhanced by the intriguing narratorial structure of a found manuscript written by a (potentially) politically or religiously interested party with almost no proof of provenance. Anyone expecting to meet the demure, conservative, sit-at-home wife ‘Mrs Radcliffe’, churning out more fainting heroines and crying heroes running off into the melancholy twilight in nauseating sentimental bliss, will be pleasantly surprised by the cynical, questioning spirit of the novel. For any student of Radcliffe or Radcliffe scholar, it raises intriguing possibilities about the ambiguity of her views on everything from the monarchy and patriarchal structures to models of masculinity, which challenge some of our interpretations of her key concerns in earlier novels. While not the most enjoyable of her novels, it offers many riches to the indefatigable Radcliffe reader.

 

 

[1] Ann Radcliffe, Gaston de Blondeville, (USA: Createspace independent publishing platform, 2015), p274

 

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