The Tale of Terror eBook

Edith Birkhead
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 261 pages of information about The Tale of Terror.
“Slender saplings of ash waved over the deserted door cases, where at the transforming hour of twilight, the superstitious eye might mistake them for spectres of some early possessor of the castle, restless from guilt, or of some sufferer persevering for vengeance.”

Mrs. Radcliffe’s style compares favourably with that of many of her contemporaries, with that of Mrs. Roche, for instance, who wrote The Children of the Abbey and an array of other forgotten romances, but she is too fond of long, imperfectly balanced sentences, with as many awkward twists and turns as the winding stairways of her ancient turrets.  Nobody in the novels, except the talkative, comic servant, who is meant to be vulgar and ridiculous, ever condescends to use colloquial speech.  Even in moments of extreme peril the heroines are very choice in their diction.  Dialogue in Mrs. Radcliffe’s world is as stilted and unnatural as that of prim, old-fashioned school books.  In her earliest novel she uses very little conversation, clearly finding the indirect form of narrative easier.  Sometimes, in the more highly wrought passages of description, she slips unawares into a more daring phrase, e.g. in Udolpho, the track of blood “glared” upon the stairs, where the word suggests not the actual appearance of the bloodstain, but rather its effect on Emily’s inflamed and disordered imagination.  Dickens might have chosen the word deliberately in this connection, but he would have used it, not once, but several times to ensure his result and to emphasise the impression.  This is not Mrs. Radcliffe’s way.  Her attention to style is mainly subconscious, her chief interest being in situation.  Her descriptions of scenery have often been praised.  Crabb Robinson declared in his diary that he preferred them to those of Waverley.  When Byron visited Venice he found no better words to describe its beauty than those of Mrs. Radcliffe, who had never seen it: 

  “I saw from out the wave her structures rise
  As from the stroke of an enchanted wand.”

In 1794 Mrs. Radcliffe and her husband made a journey through Holland and West Germany, of which she wrote an account, including with it observations made during a tour of the English Lakes.  All her novels, except The Italian and Gaston de Blondeville, had been written before she went abroad, and in describing foreign scenery she relied on her imagination, aided perhaps by pictures and descriptions as well as by her recollections of English mountains and lakes.  The attempt to blend into a single picture a landscape actually seen and a landscape only known at second-hand may perhaps account for the lack of distinctness in her pictures.  Her descriptions of scenery are elaborate, and often prolix, but it is often difficult to form a clear image of the scene.  In her novels she cares for landscape only as an effective background, and paints with the broad, careless sweep of the theatrical scene-painter.  In the Journeys, where she depicts scenery for its own sake, her delineation is more definite and distinct.  She reveals an unusual feeling for colour and for the lights and tones of a changing sea or sky: 

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The Tale of Terror from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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