From Collins to Braddon to Radcliffe to Walpole


I love the way Wikipedia and public domain ebooks have taken surfing to a whole new level. A random thought can lead to a month of reading material. I no longer need to be content with hunting down summaries and snippets, then deciding if a bigger investment is needed. Instead, I can just download whole tomes and read as much or little as my interest merits.

I finally finished The Lady in White last week. It’s been on my to-be-read list for about five years. It took me four years to get the book, then another year to pick it up and read it. This weekend, I read the introduction and all the other related material that came with my spiffy edition. Lo and behold, I had just read my second sensation novel. Who knew there was a literary movement that happened entirely during the 1860s and 1870s in Victorian England? Just take Gothic story elements and put them into what, at the time these books were written, was a contemporary setting. It sounds a bit like the paranormal romance or urban fantasy of its day.

This all led to my next discovery: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, first published in 1862. It’s one of those titles that seems familiar, but I had never placed the book in any context, nor imagined that it was a wild success in its own time, nor thought that it’s the product of a highly prolific author. Braddon apparently wrote 75 novels. She scribbled out 14 of them before the typewriter was even invented.

Then Wikipedia led me to its more elaborate entry for the Gothic fiction. I downloaded two books here. The first is The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe from 1794. This is apparently the quintessential Gothic romance, complete with swooning damsels and never-ending landscape descriptions. The second is The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole which was first published in 1764. This is billed as the book that started Gothic romance. Walpole claimed that the story was a translation of a work by an Italian author, who later turned out to be as fictional as the rest of the book, but it does still make for an amusing–if not quite true–introduction.

It’s this last book that caught my attention for now. It’s amusing, though perhaps not in ways intended. It’s the literary equivalent of bad acting, yet still groundbreaking. All around, it was a great afternoon of not just researching these books, but getting to dive into their full text… a few seconds after discovering them. Collins led to Braddon led to Radcliffe led to Walpole. It might be three years before I finish all these books, if that ever happens, but with paper I’d still be debating which one–if any–I should buy first.

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