Ann Radcliffe, the ‘Great Enchantress’ of the early British Gothic, was one of the most famous and popular writers of her time. She’s the star Gothic reference in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1816) and a must-read for everyone who’s just starting their journey in the rise of the Gothic in the late 18th century. She was not only popular but influential and her ‘Radcliffean Gothic’ model – featuring a melange of virtuous heroines, sublime landscape descriptions, fraught flights from persecution and heroes of sensibility weeping over trees – spawned a legion of imitators. Of course, the idea of the Radcliffean Gothic should be taken with a pinch of salt. It tends to paper over all the subplots and intricacies of her texts and just conveniently ignores her first novel and posthumously published work.
Radcliffe published six full length books before her death and had a posthumous collection of works published in 1823 :
The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne – 1789
A Sicilian Romance – 1790
The Romance of the Forest – 1791
The Mysteries of Udolpho – 1794
A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 – 1795 (Travel writing)
The Italian; or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents – 1796
Gaston de Blondeville; or, The Court of Henry III Keeping Court in Ardenn – 1823
St Alban’s Abbey: A Metrical Tale – 1823
The heroic ‘type’ that is usually quoted in reference to the ‘Radcliffean Gothic’ is that of the hero of sensibility. Sensibility, of course, was an 18th century discourse which prioritised emotional response and linked morality and virtue with ‘sensitivity’ or ‘sensibility’. Although it’s frequently discussed in reference to norms of female behaviour, we see it appearing in the 18th century as a much broader discourse which, while increasingly connected to the policing of female behaviour, education and expression, was also part of an non-gendered philosophical discussion about morality, ethics and emotion. This meant that in works like David Hume’s essay comparing the ‘Delicacy of Taste’ and the ‘Delicacy of Passion’ discussions of ‘sensibility’, in the form of emotional responsiveness and its appropriate control and manifestation, were applied not only to women but to men. As we near the end of the 18th century with the rise of the Gothic, women were taking the pen into their own hands with increasing frequency and popular success and, in doing so, they were writing, creating and imagining their own heroes. In depicting heroes of sensibility, they were applying the discourse which governed notions of female conduct and worth to their male characters but also exploring sensibility as a non-gendered model of virtue and moral value.
Radcliffe, like many of her contemporaries, was exploring a model of whose faults she was increasingly aware. The dangers of sensibility, and excessive emotional receptivity , frequently intrude into her texts and the depictions of her heroes. Finally, in Gaston de Blondeville, this heroic model is relegated to obscurity and replaced with a central character who is an honour-bound merchant in search of vengeance but also a prosaic middle-class hero struggling to survive in an aristocratic world. The hero of sensibility in Radcliffe ultimately goes the same way as the hero of chivalric or martial masculinity explored in her first novel The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne. The martial hero disappears from her texts until his re-occurrence in St Alban’s Abbey where he is no longer the centre of a romantic plot. In St Alban’s Abbey, there is little investigation of the figure’s heroic potential or desirability so much as a discussion and depiction of a historical reality, a persecuted hero and the woman who comes to rescue him. Ultimately, Radcliffe explores both chivalric and sensibility-based modes of masculinity in the creation of her heroes and finds both lacking.
The main problem for Radcliffe in the depictions of all these heroes is their essential uselessness. We’re used to heroic models of men swooping in and rescuing the ‘little lady’ (a misogynistic nightmare or wish-fulfilment fantasy depending on the reader). That’s not what we’re going to find in Radcliffe. Her heroes are far more likely to need rescuing than successfully rescue you. They’re not pillars of strength but frequently involved in marathon tear-fests and complicated strategies of emotional manipulation (but if you loved meeeeeeee…). If they do get in a fight to defend your honour or your life, they’re getting defeated. This growing critique of the hero of sensibility reflects a similar critique of sensibility itself, the philosophical model on which it’s based and, in feminist writings such as those of Mary Wollstonecraft, the connection of sensibility with the deliberate weakening and disenfranchising of those to whom it was applied as a model of conduct and worth. (Why would you need an education when your sensitive woman’s soul will intuit what is right? It’d only get in the way… wouldn’t it? Aren’t women more fitted to domestic cares by the very susceptibility of their natures, their exquisite sensibility…? Bleurgh.) As sensibility itself came under fire, so too the hero of sensibility became a questionable model. The martial hero is also, less expectedly, useless, reflecting a critical investigation of the self-defeating models of masculinity found in chivalric codes of duty, vengeance, rigid social hierarchies and courtly love.
Having given you an introduction to the issue of uselessness in Radcliffe’s heroes, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of the piece. The heroes of Radcliffe in order of uselessness! It’s about to get ridiculous!
Let the countdown begin!
In 7th place, the least useless, we have the Baron Fitzharding who appears in St Alban’s Abbey.
This metrical tale in ten cantos tells the story of the first battle of St Alban’s in 1455 which was the first major engagement of the War of the Roses. Our hero, Baron Fitzharding, is on Henry’s team (the Lancesters) who are, of course, defeated in this engagement.
Fitzharding really does quite well for himself. He survives the battle, including an engagement with Richard of York himself it seems, and escapes the field of battle after they are defeated.
This, unfortunately for him, is where martial masculinity flips on and fails him. Having got clean away he decides he MUST go back. For reasons. This, of course, leads to a game of cat and mouse in the Abbey with Richard’s men and almost leads to his demise a number of times for no actual discernible benefit. It’s his hiding skills and restraint that save him though as he quashes his militaristic desire for vengeance thanks to the gentle advice of the Abbot. Having survived his own martial masculinity, his sensibility comes for him and he almost gives himself away multiple times with a medley of gasps and audible sorrows (and an inability to not clank around in his suit of armour). However, all’s well that ends well. And just because his wife had to come rescue him and he survives entirely thanks to the good will of monks, their subterfuge combined with his and several doses of extraordinarily good luck doesn’t mean he that we can’t recognise him as the most useful of Radcliffe’s heroes.
In 6th place, we have another one of the hero’s of Radcliffe’s posthumously published works – the merchant Woodreeve in Gaston de Blondeville.
Poor Woodreeve. All he’s trying to do is accuse his kinsman’s murderer of said murder. Unfortunately, the murderer is none other than Gaston de Blondeville, favourite of Henry III. That means that Woodreeve’s accusation lands not Gaston but himself in prison and he spends most of the novel either imprisoned, being tricked by the perfidious Prior into flight towards, rather than away from, his own murder through the secret passages of castle and monastery, or failing completely to defend his cause in the biased tribunal of the king. Even the ghost of his kinsman appearing in all his pointing glory, an absolute barrage of supernatural signs, and the arrival of the murdered man’s wife to also sue (more secretly) for justice can’t save him.
Woodreeve effectively occupies the space of the Gothic heroine in the text, imprisoned and confined and threatened by a system (this time focused on class rather than gender) that is weighted against him. He doesn’t do anything wrong. There’s nothing he could do. It’s not a case of uselessness so much as the necessity of facing down and surviving an enemy far greater than you backed by a system you have no possibility of challenging. The fact that he does survive is a major victory even if it almost entirely passive.
In fifth place, we have Theodore in The Romance of the Forest. Theodore is perhaps the most successful of the Radcliffe rescuers but that’s really not a high target.
Theodore’s lady love is Adeline and she is the victim of persecution from a number of different directions. The most relevant at the point of his advent in the tale comes from the fact that his military superior (de Montalt), who also happens to be Adeline’s uncle, is unaware of Adeline’s identity and quite intent on seducing her. If she’s not interested, he’s quite happy to go down the kidnap route. She isn’t so he does. He’s trying to seduce her with his exquisite paintings, equally exquisite food and terrible chat but she puts him off by assuming the appearance of a sick chicken about two seconds from fainting.
She’s got rid of him and now she wanders alone. Despair. She’s lost in the garden. It’s an absolutely massive garden. Oh God, when will the garden end?
Theodore to the rescue! As you can see from the image for this section, he has become aware of de Montalt’s plans and he’s prepared a carriage and a ladder and he whisks her away over the wall. Triumph! Victory!
Well… for just under a day. And, as you’ll see, that’s pretty good going for a Gothic hero of sensibility. The baddies ultimately catch up with them because Theodore has decided that stopping for a nice long rest is the best way to conduct a daring escape. In another well-thought out move, he challenges de Montalt for a duel, promptly loses, is imprisoned and hauled off for court martial. He spends the rest of the novel in a cell. Nailed it.
Happily for Adeline, there’s a servant around, Peter, who is able to finish the job of saving her later. As we all know, its always the servants that actually come to the rescue in Radcliffe’s Gothics. A masculine figure who’s inherently useful and inherently un-threatening because of the rigidly maintained social distinctions. A great solution to the problem of how a heroine with no discernible skills of self-defence, self-protection, or even the ability to care for basic bodily needs can survive a Gothic novel. Sadly, it doesn’t solve the ‘who to fall in love with’ problem.
In fourth place, we have Vivaldi from The Italian.
If we were basing this scale simply on the amount of time that the hero managed to rescue the heroine for, Vivaldi and Theodore would swap places. Vivaldi rescues his beloved Ellena (with some derring-do involving perilous cliffs in order to see her) for more than a day. (Gasp!) However, I’m also factoring in both the respective fates of each hero and their culpability in relation to their own situation. Sure, Theodore spends most of the novel in prison but Vivaldi gets his own cell in the Inquisition! Theodore might have allowed a bit of incredibly foolhardy and inefficient martial pride and bad planning get in the way of his rescue, but Vivaldi spends the whole book being made a fool of. His superstition and inability to control his emotional reactions leads him into misunderstandings with his father (putting him more at the mercy of his mother and the evil monk Schedoni’s strategems) and allows him to be the victim of monkish trickery as they manipulate his supernatural fears. The Inquisition isn’t even the only time he’s imprisoned. He’s rash, lacks anything even vaguely resembling sense and singly fails to protect his lady love on numerous occasions – before his quasi-successful rescue when she’s kidnapped and after his quasi-successful rescue when she’s… also kidnapped.
Vivaldi’s failings are even more stark when placed in contrast to the virtues of his admittedly garrulous servant, Paulo. Paulo’s suggestions are always the sensible course, he remains immune to superstition and even defies the Inquisition with a bravery and loyalty of which Vivaldi is simply incapable.
In third place, we have the young Osbert, Earl of Athlin from The Castle of Athlin and Dunbayne.
Now, Osbert has some notable successes. In the battle which crowns the end of the narrative, we find him victorious. At that particular point in the novel, his martial masculinity finally appears to be rewarded but, then again, we’ve also watched him make an absolute tit of himself for the rest of the entire book.
Where do I start? Well, having been forbidden by his mother to wage an attack on the monstrous Baron of Dunbayne, Malcolm, in order to avenge the death of his father, he decides the best way to win her over and prepare for his future revenge is to take long sulky walks in the countryside. Eventually, in a fit of something extraordinarily like pique, he wages an unplanned siege against Dunbayne resulting in the death of many of the men putatively under his care and his own imprisonment as well as that of the secondary hero, Alleyn. While Alleyn makes a daring escape and uses his time to rescue Osbert’s sister Mary from kidnap and organise an assault of the castle to free Osbert, Osbert himself remains imprisoned and mournful. He spends his days checking out secret passageways and begins a delicate love affair with the equally imprisoned Laura. Worth noting that he doesn’t do much in the way of saving her either. After he is rescued, he manages to fail to save his sister from a second kidnapping attempt (Alleyn to the rescue again!), gets stabbed while out for a wander and gets in the way of the budding romance between Alleyn and Mary because of scruples about the fact that Alleyn is poor. Meanwhile, of course, Alleyn (who everyone thinks is a peasant but a curiously noble one…) is doing all the heavy duty work of heroing and getting none of the advantages. He ends up having to leave the castle for a space because of his temerity in… touching Mary’s hand, meaning that Osbert gets rid of the only person who’s done anything helpful all novel.
So, sure, Osbert has his little moment in the end. In a brief depiction of battle, he manages not to die and to win against a much older man in combat. He also finally gets out of Alleyn’s way when he realises he’s actually been secretly rich the whole time. He hardly covers himself in glory though.
Second place is reserved for Hippolitus in A Sicilian Romance who manages to rescue his heroine for less than an hour, setting a new Radcliffe record.
The heroine of A Sicilian Romance is Julia (she has a sister but no-one seems to care much about what happens to her) and she is being, predictably enough, persecuted. Her father is trying to force a marriage with the equally autocratic and awful De Luovo and Julia is not having it. In part she’s so determined because she’s already fallen irrevocably in love with her brother’s friend Hippolitus who she saw out the window.
Hippolitus has similarly fallen in insta-love and is all ready to help his best beloved escape from persecution. Unfortunately, his planning and his escape attempt are about as subtle as a bag of hammers to the face and he’s found out. I’m being generous really in saying that he rescued her for an hour because he spent approximately 2 seconds outside of the castle before getting stabbed. Julia is recaptured and Hippolitus is presumed dead for almost the entirety of the rest of the novel. Julia is saved by her brother Ferdinand who helps her get away to a convent (which is also unsafe so she needs rescuing again and once more it’s Ferdinand to the rescue) and undergoes most of her flights and her persecutions throughout the rest of the novel under the impression that he’s a corpse. Happily, however, miracles are ten a penny in ye olde Sicily and Hippolitus returns. He’s just in time to pose as a proper hero by rescuing her (and he finds her by chance although there’s some fairly exciting sword play that I have to acknowledge) from a band of robbers before he loses her again and she ends up accidentally finding the mother who’s been locked away for a couple of decades by her awful father. Hippolitus continues bobbing around looking for chances to be heroic and succeeding in the true Radcliffean heroic goal of almost complete uselessness.
One day, you’ll be a real hero, Hippolitus, just believe!
In first place, the one, the only, the man, the cautionary tale, the bellend – Valancourt. He is, of course, the hero of Mysteries of Udolpho.
Valancourt was always going to top this list. It may be because I’ve read The Mysteries of Udolpho too many times so that I’ve spent far too much time with him but my hatred at this point is fuelled by at least a couple of thousand suns.
Valancourt bounds into the picture dressed as a hunter. He’s not a hunter. He’s a young rich guy on holiday playing at blending in. He ends up tagging along with Emily and her father and spends the time sighing over sublime landscapes and lecturing Emily about the proper way to appreciate them. After they part company on separate paths, Emily’s father dies and she’s left alone. Valancourt’s not there, obviously, but that’s not his fault. This time.
He likes to go for the creepy factor in his courtship: watching her house while she sleeps (very Edward Cullen), hanging around in the garden, watching from a distance… His more direct style is equally displeasing. When Emily moves to live with her aunt, Valancourt’s there and ready to woo! When things disintegrate, their marriage is forbidden and Emily is about to be carted off into Italy by the evil Montoni, Valancourt is a pillar of strength. I jest. He loiters in the garden and, seemingly determined to get Emily caught and punished, warbles on for what feels on the page like literal hours. He presents Emily with a delicate mix of total lack of concern about her feelings, copious tears, accusations of her lack of affection, a lovely rendition of the ‘if you loved me…’ dance and a couple of extra sides of uncontrolled sobbing. Pillar of strength.
Most infamously, Valancourt spends the time of Emily’s imprisonment and persecution in the castle of Udolpho, living it up in Paris (to drown his sorrow, obvs), racking up huge gambling debts and hanging around with ‘loose women’. Emily might be keeping to their cutesy pact and looking at the moon every night imagining her beloved looking at the very same moon miles away (awwww) but Valancourt is face down in a vat of wine, cards in hands and lady at his side. He gets into so much debt that he ends up imprisoned. Emily is busy attempting to survive and worrying constantly about Valancourt’s fate while he seems to have dedicated himself to pretending she doesn’t exist.
Emily’s safe return from Udolpho means meeting Valancourt again but misinformed about his habits, there’s a rift. She didn’t know that he stayed in prison so long because he helped another man out by paying his debts, you see! That makes it all better. Valancourt sticks to his standard tactics – the guilt trip and the tear bath but Emily is unmoved. Well, she’s actually significantly moved because he’s making it about five times harder for her and it’s all very traumatic but she is unswayed. He also kicks back into creepy mode but this time gets a well-deserved come-uppance. One day, as he marauds around her gardens at night, he gets mistaken for a poacher and shot. He doesn’t die though so Emily still has to marry him. There’s some sort of rapprochement at the end but honestly there is literally no reason to marry that utterly useless man. There’s a perfectly acceptable secondary hero – Du Pont – who is very up for marrying Emily and treats her with a respect and courtesy that Valancourt wouldn’t understand if you spent the better part of your life explaining it to him. There’s also, of course, the far more attractive proposition represented by Ludovico, the servant, who rescues everyone all the time. We’ll need to wait a good while though for that sort of Lady Chatterley action.
There you have it! The definitive list of the most useless heroes in Radcliffe. I’m open to commentary or disagreement but Valancourt stays where he is. I often wonder if the contemporary readers found him in any way attractive. I hope not. I have to think that everyone had a secret crush on Montoni (evil but charismatic), Du Pont (if you really must favour a hero of sensibility at least pick the least annoying one in the room) or Ludovico (the renaissance hero – brave, musical, intelligent, actually useful, doesn’t feel the need to lecture you on your aesthetic taste…)
It’s a sad sad day when Valancourt’s your best option.