Saturday, March 23, 2024

Mirror of Holland

This morning I walked along our local canal, with bright sunny weather creating reflections of the barges and bridges, the buildings of Hoxton and Haggerston, a few trees and many joggers pounding down the path. This evening I watched Mirror of Holland, made up entirely of shots of canal reflections, which won the short film Palme d'Or in 1951. It begins with the windmill below and a young lad who bends down to see the image the 'right way round' - the rest of the film continues in this way, with the reflections turned into water-blurred moving images of farms, gabled houses, a church tower, locks and canal boats. The director Bert Haanstra went on to make many other documentary films - his other big success was based on another reflective medium, Glass (1958).

Mirror of Holland put me in mind of Haanstra's Dutch contemporary M.C. Escher, whose compositions like Puddle and Three Worlds are interested in how water can contain a landscape. There are some abstract moments in the film that look like Escher's Rippled Surface which also dates from 1950. Of course there are reflections in Dutch Golden Age paintings too and you could probably make a version of Haanstra's film by montaging these together - the example below is in Jan Van de Heyden's Country House on the Vliet near Delft (1665). 

Friday, March 15, 2024

The purple glow of evening

Carl Gustav Carus, Woman on a Balcony, 1824
(used as the cover for OUP edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho).

The Mysteries of Udolpho is one of those famous novels like Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein that I've read with certain prior expectations, only to be surprised by how much else there is beyond the story I imagined it would be. One reason is that, like many people, I came to Ann Radcliffe's Gothic bestseller with a caricature in mind, formed by Jane Austen's parody Northanger Abbey (a book I quoted here back in 2008). But it is also a novel designed to frustrate your expectations, with slow sections and plot digressions that must be read before its numerous mysteries are explained. The obvious reaction on putting it down is that this 670 page novel could have been an exciting 200 page story if it had stuck to the Castle of Udolpho and not allowed its heroine an anticlimactic and relatively easy escape from the villain Montoni. But if you are interested in landscape and the way it was appreciated there is much of interest before and after Emily is incarcerated in the Apennines.

Ann Radcliffe's reference points are the standard ones in Britain at the time:

  • The Mysteries of Udolpho is greatly influenced by Edmund Burke's theory of the Sublime and the term itself is frequently used. Descriptions of mountain landscapes, the great gloomy castle and Montoni's fierce face are clearly designed to evoke feelings of delightful terror. 
  • The perilous paths Emily travels are straight out of Salvator Rosa. Banditti and murderous armed men are not just figments of her imagination. The novel is set in the sixteenth century but a 'scene of barrenness' interrupted by 'the spreading branches of the larch and cedar, which threw their gloom over the cliff, or athwart the torrent that rolled in the vale' was 'such a scene as Salvator would have chosen, had he then existed'.
  • The novel's chapters begin with quotations from poets and it is no surprise to see James Thomson's The Seasons featuring along with Shakespeare, Milton and others. Verse epigraphs are still standard practice (Thomas Halliday uses them effectively in his recent book on prehistoric landscapes, Otherlands) but Radcliffe pioneered this technique. 

Like other writers from the Romantic period, Radcliffe's way of viewing nature was influenced by William Gilpin and she had followed him to the Lake District in search of picturesque scenery. Her heroine meets and falls in love with a free-spirited young chevalier encountered while he is on the kind of walking tour alone in the mountains that Coleridge and Wordsworth would later enjoy. As the OUP edition's editor Bonamy Dobrée says in his notes 'it is surely no accident that Radcliffe's villains do not care for landscape'. 

Because Radcliffe had never at this stage set foot in the south of France or Italy, her descriptive passages are based on those of travel writers like Hester Thrale. Some readers might dislike the idea of landscape imagined from a distance and through the prism of other books in this way, but there are moments where The Mysteries of Udolpho reminded me of the dream-like journeys I have praised here before in books by Kafka and Eichendorff. Radcliffe's vision of Venice, with its unintentional anachronisms, is as unreal as Kafka's New York and Eichendorff's Rome, but it has a poetic quality that would appeal to Byron. 

Terry Castle, in her introduction to the OUP edition, describes the early part of the novel as a 'bizarre quasi-travelogue' where 'the narrative repeatedly dissolves into extended diffuse, often phantasmagoric descriptions of landscape'. And she quotes the passage, below, saying that at moments like this the novel 'seems hypnotized by the possibility of not becoming a Gothic novel - of remaining instead in a world of beautiful unfolding description. Transported by the hallucinatory 'charms' of nature, Emily and her friends may in turn remind us of moon-walkers, travelling in endless slow motion through a mauve-tinted dusk.'

It was evening when they descended the lower alps, that bind Rousillon, and form a majestic barrier round that charming country, leaving it open only on the east to the Mediterranean. The gay tints of cultivation once more beautified the landscape; for the lowlands were coloured with the richest hues, which a luxuriant climate, and an industrious people can awaken into life. Groves of orange and lemon perfumed the air, their ripe fruit glowing among the foliage; while, sloping to the plains, extensive vineyards spread their treasures. Beyond these, woods and pastures, and mingled towns and hamlets stretched towards the sea, on whose bright surface gleamed many a distant sail; while, over the whole scene, was diffused the purple glow of evening.