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Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress.

MILES, ROBERT. Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress (New York: Manchester University Press, 1995). vi + 201 pp. $49.95 cloth; $19.95 paper.

The resurgence of interest in gothic novels and romances over the last ten years has created a body of criticism that tends to be a great deal more provocative and interesting than the novels themselves. Jacqueline Howard's Reading Gothic Fiction, for instance, manages to give a fairly coherent Bakhtinian reading of the gothic novel, while Kate Ellis and several of the scholars gathered in Julian Fleenor's The Female Gothic have pursued a productive rethinking of family relations and the role of the heroine in the gothic. But in the face of how bad gothic writers such as Horace Walpole or Clara Reeve can be, it becomes difficult to keep aflame the enthusiasm that such critical studies kindle.

Ann Radcliffe, however, being one of the most readable and most able of such authors, is a different case. She is not one who needs a complex critical apparatus to make her accessible. Her approach to the gothic is controlled rather than gratuitous. Readers are likely to have more difficulty with her politics than with her aesthetics. On the surface, her ideology seems quite conservative--or at the very least less subject to vacillation and undercutting than other gothic writers--and she is willing to offer the sort of closure that transforms supernatural events into rational explanations. She is, one is tempted to say, a safe gothic writer.

At least that is one traditionally held opinion, an opinion that Robert Miles sets out to disrupt. Miles goes to great lengths to present Radcliffe as a more complex writer of lasting importance. Her writing, Miles believes, challenges patriarchy in a way that other gothic work does not. Indeed, we may see that she helped create a new `topography of the self' and a new readerly hermeneutics (p. 11). Radcliffe is seen as consciously reforming the gothic romance, as having an agenda that differs from most gothic writers.

The purpose of Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress is threefold The first involves a historical understanding of the period: the book is meant to draw out the context in which Radcliffe's romances were first produced and consumed (p. 18). The second involves a revaluation of the "preconception" of Radcliffe as a conservative writer. The third, related to the first two, involves questions of Radcliffe's development as a writer--her rethinking of the gothic romance, the extent to which her work can be seen as a response to the French Revolution, and her use of progressively more sophisticated narrative techniques.

Of these three, Miles accomplishes the third most successfully, particularly in his discussion of Radcliffe's technique. His formulations of the transformations that take place from novel to novel are effective, and he has clearly drawn the stylistic relationship of one Radcliffe text to another. Unfortunately. Miles is less strong in the other two areas. In attempting to flesh out Radcliffe's context, Miles seems compelled to offer mini-courses in eighteenth-century history, culture, and aesthetics. When he speaks of the specific context of the gothic romance this is very well done, but the more general contextualization (both aesthetic and otherwise) is not as convincing. An extensive delineation of background is too large a task for a book of only 200 pages, and as a result Miles ends up with several less than satisfying generalizations. Difficult cultural, aesthetic, and historical points are glossed over in favor of solutions that fit a little too snuggly with Miles's opinions of Radcliffe. By the same token, the dispute over Radcliffe's conservatism is drawn less deftly than it could be. Miles seems too eager to speculate about Radcliffe's life and her relationship to her husband--though he points out the difficulties of such speculation from time to time, he continues to return to it. He is sometimes too insistent on seeing Radcliffe's liberal qualities at the expense of the conservative, and this leads him to put perhaps too great a pressure on certain aspects of her romances, particularly on the role of the figurative in creating an alternate understanding for the reader.

Though much of the more convincing elements of Miles's texts are the traditional ones, involving close readings of the book and careful thematic discussion, Miles manages to give some effective social analysis as well. Miles also searches for support from specific theorists such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan. Indeed, the first chapter suggests for Foucault an importance that the rest of the text does not fulfill, the use of Foucault throughout befog rather pedestrian. Lacan's Symbolic also appears in a form abbreviated and wrenched from its original context. The theory thus seems only partly integrated, occupying an odd in-between space, as if Miles himself is not altogether sure how important it is to his discussion. Indeed, it often seems more window dressing than anything else, something added to make the book more attractive to a particular kind of audience.

But what is the audience? "I have had a student audience primarily in mind" (p. 6), Miles indicates, but adds that he has been beckone on by thoughts of Radcliffe's appreciative public and the hopes that such a public will reconstitute itself today. At the same time, certain elements of the book--the theory, for instance--seem directed at Miles's peers. The result is a certain amount of vacillation in terms of audience. At times it seems the book is directed towards a reader with little previous knowledge of the period, while at others more is left assumed. The result, as I have suggested above, are little lectures on the eighteenth century, attempts to educate the readers in mid-flow which, if they are to be effective, need to be made more carefully.

Miles seems at great pains to make Ann Radcliffe's novels feel relevant to present readers, when in fact it would be better to worry less about this and let Radcliffe make her own way. He is best when instead of keeping one eye on the audience he immerses himself fully in Radcliffe's texts and world. Indeed, despite the difficulties I have suggested, there is a great deal in his reading of Radcliffe that is promising and provocative. Yet there is also a great deal that remains less finished than it could be, making the book feel like a partial formulation of a thought that is obviously intelligent and mature. Though there is very lime here that would appeal to the general reader, there is, despite other weaknesses, much in the discussions of individual texts that can be useful to students.
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Author:Evenson, Brian
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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