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A large portion of the beginning of The Mysteries of Udolpho is taken up with Emily and her father traveling through the Pyrenees of France. It seems on nearly every page there are comments on the “sublime charms of nature” with long descriptions on the craggy mountains, the deep valleys, rushing torrents, and the quality of the light. In fact, there is so much of this I began to think Radcliffe was up to something. So it wasn’t long before I found myself borrowing a copy of Edmund Burke’s Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful. And now this early sentence in the book makes so much more sense:

This landscape with the surrounding alps did, indeed, present a perfect picture of the lovely and the sublime, of ‘beauty sleeping in the lap of horror.’

I have vague recollections of reading Burke back in college as part of a class in literary theory but my memory has been wiped out to save myself from the trauma that was Hegel, Lacan, Derrida, and Kristeva. Poor Burke never had a chance. Since he is associated in my mind with that class I assumed he was going to be hard going and I’d be scratching my head. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Burke is so very concerned with everyone understanding him that large portions of the essay are given over to explaining his words. I appreciated his precision to a point, after that point I found myself muttering, okay okay, can we just move on? All that to say that if you ever feel inspired to read Burke, you don’t need to worry about not “getting him” because if this essay were a math problem, he’d be getting full credit for showing his work so his readers can follow along with his arguments and not be left in doubt.

If you are like me you equate sublime with beautiful, maybe not every day beautiful but startlingly beautiful, the kind of beauty that moves you to tears. But no, beauty and the sublime have nothing to do with each other. Beauty, you see, inspires pleasure and love in the beholder. It is sunshine and rainbows.

The sublime? It is composed of delight derived from terror, pain, distress and danger. It is a feeling far more intense and elevated than mere beauty. The sublime, according to Burke, is the “strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling.” This is because pain, the root of the sublime, is more powerful than pleasure.

Now the pain Burke refers to is not necessarily physical pain caused from tumbling over a cliff while hiking in the mountains in search of the sublime. It is a physical pain but more of one caused by extreme emotion than a broken leg. It’s a hurts so good kind of pain caused by an “unnatural tension of the nerves.”

What elements go into producing the sublime? Burke is kind enough to explain each one in great detail but I will spare you and just list out a few for you:

  • Obscurity. This is because you can’t see something clearly and so you are thrown into a state of fear and uncertainty. Obscurity can be caused by darkness or fog, or lots of trees.
  • Power. Anything powerful is dangerous and potentially destructive and terrifying. Like a king or a bull or flash flood or God.
  • Vastness. As in size. This can be a tall mountain or a deep valley or great plain, lake or ocean. Infinity is also a source of the sublime. Think of the size of the universe and your mind will likely be filled with a sort of delightful horror as you try and fail find the edges.
  • Magnificence. As in a great profusion of things as in the stars in the night sky or millions of buffalo on the Great Plains before settlers killed them all.
  • Color. Pink is not the color of the sublime. The sublime is not cheerful. The color of the sublime is dark and gloomy, a cloudy sky not a clear blue one, dark brown jagged rocks not a gentle verdant slope.

Can you kind of see a little how Emily and her father’s travels through the mountains was so sublime? And why Radcliffe might want all that in a gothic novel? Because the whole point of a gothic novel is horror (and romance) and since the source of the sublime is terror, perfect combination, right? Radcliffe didn’t write a book based in the supernatural so she pulls much of her gothic horror in early on by using the sublime. We don’t feel it like the readers in 1794 would have, but no doubt much of the scenic descriptions would have been terrifying.

Also of note is that Radcliffe uses the sublime to clue us in to who the good and bad characters are. The good ones all experience the sublime at one time or other while out in nature. The bad characters, not one has a sublime experience. They are too small-minded and petty and the sublime scene that moves Emily so produces nothing but boredom to those who are not good.

That is a bit of what Radcliffe is about with so much mention of what is sublime. While it gets a bit repetitive for a modern reader, she wasn’t just rambling on and on to add padding to the story. Instead, the sublime is an integral part of her approach to the gothic, at least in this novel. I’ve not read any of her others so I can’t say whether it holds true for them. Perhaps next RIP Challenge I will read Romance of the Forest and find out.

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