On Gothic Romance

I have only several minutes ago finished reading Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest, a novel that is almost the stereotype of the Gothic Romance, complete with sublime landscapes, ruinous buildings, secret chambers, hidden crimes, mistaken identities, impossible coincidences, and sentimental speeches.  It is daytime television drama, only set in period costume and mixed liberally with murder mystery, romantic poetry, and horror. It is, in other words, Gothic Romance, and I love it.

My opinion is not universally shared, however, and there are those who claim to see some inconsistency between my dislike of genre fiction in general and my enjoyment of this quintessentially generic form in particular.  How, they ask, can I defend a plot in which the poor and abandoned heroine finds first that she has a Marquise for a suitor, then that this Marquise is married and is intent on ruining her honour, then that he is her illegitimate father and is intent on killing her to protect his wife’s honour, and finally that he is her Uncle and is intent on killing her to conceal the fact that he has already killed her true father.  How can I defend a prose style that, without the slightest trace of irony, uses the words ‘profound’, ‘inspired’, ‘awe’, heightened’, ‘sublimity, and ‘exquisite’ in the same sentence.  How can I defend characters who seem continually to be fainting, suffering heart palpitations, falling into fevers, composing poetry, and uttering emotional declarations at the slightest provocation.

The answer is that I can not defend these things, and that I have not even the inclination to do so.  I am certainly aware of them, and I often pass over the poetry and the extended descriptive sections because of them, but I would much prefer to wallow in this sentimentalism than to defend it.  So much of what I read operates in the modes of irony, sarcasm, and cynicism, that the chief benefits of Gothic Romance to me are precisely this supreme earnestness and idealism, as ridiculous as they often appear.  From the moment that I was introduced to the genre, through Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, it is this sincerity that has recommended it to me, and I find myself returning to it now and again, though I have no defence for my indulgence.

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