The Sinister Fascination and the Challenges of the Gothic Black Veil

Susanne Schwertfeger

Susanne Schwertfeger

At the time the Gothic novel grew popular, it also became common practice to furnish its publications with images. Not only because of the technical developments in the field of the letterpress, but also due to an increasingly literate public and a growing competitive market that provided the audience with reading matter, frontispieces and illustrations which were now an aspect of marketing.

Illustrations were deployed as special features to advertise book series, moreover, the names of well-known illustrators/artists proved to be an additional drawing point (Maidment, 2008, p 234; Houfe, 1998, p 315).

However, the most beloved form of the genre, the explained Gothic (Castle, 1987) — as brought to maturity by Ann Ward Radcliffe (1764–1823) with its narrative technique of repeated suspense — posed a specific problem for publishers and illustrators of such works: the Gothic novel’s attraction to a large extent stemmed from those exact figures and scenes of suspense which made them a predestined motif for a possible illustration as a selling point — while at the same time, both the characters in the diegesis and the readers were for most of the story unaware of the true nature of the phenomena and were to be kept in this state of suspense until the close of the narrative.

The illustrators, therefore, had to develop strategies in visual narration that, on the one hand, would generate interest in the story based on the seemingly supernatural episodes and, on the other, would not spoil the mystery.

In order to analyse those strategies of avoiding such spoilers in the enclosed images, this paper compares various illustrations of Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novel ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794) from a Visual Studies perspective. Here, different artists struggled with the depiction of the episode of Emily St. Aubert’s attempts to lift the infamous black veil and its translation from text to image: (the question is) which pictorial means were used to evoke the atmosphere of the situation and how could such a shift in perspective be executed?

Ann Radcliffe used techniques such as “delays, interruptions, and slumps in the narrative flow” (Schwarz, 2001, p 54) to build up the suspense and to (further) conceal the true cause of these phenomena which filled her characters with terror.

The episode of the veiled picture, therefore, is particularly suitable as the object of research for it not only “became an icon in early Gothic fiction, […] and it is the most famous instance of Radcliffe’s mastery of suspense and its emotional heightening” (Voller, 2006, p 53), but its popularity also generated a range of illustrations: the scene was the most frequently chosen one as a frontispiece or plate for the various illustrated editions of ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho.’

Each of those printed veil images worked as a suggestion for a scene selection and its pictorial solution for the successors. It also contributed to the canonisation of the scene as the significant agent of the story in the perception of the audience.

‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ was Ann Radcliffe’s penultimate novel. Once again, she expanded the features of the Gothic, introduced by Horace Walpole for example, by focusing on the feelings of suspense and terror. It contains several classic elements of the Gothic genre, such as the Byronic villain Signor Montoni, who keeps his newlywed wife and her niece, the young heroine Emily St. Aubert, captive in his decaying castle in the Apennine Mountains.

Radcliffe employs the interplay between veiling and unveiling as a device of suspense and terror: locked doors and unexplored passages stimulate the imagination; faces and objects are hidden behind veils and escape identification. As a character shaped by sentiment and whose behaviour — following the ideas of the Sublime and the Picturesque — is focused on perception by the “hungry eye” (Gilpin, 1748, p 54), it is this deprivation that challenges Emily the most (Kosofsky Sedgwick: 1981).

In Udolpho, the concept of veiling culminates in the black curtain that is located in one of the rooms of the castle. During her wanderings through the labyrinthine corridors, Emily and the servant Annette come across a large picture frame, which is the only one veiled in the gallery. Annette explains that the silk curtain hides a painting that came into the possession of Montoni under mysterious circumstances, and although nobody has seen it, “there is something very dreadful belonging to it” (Radcliffe, 1799: 2: 188). Already the unique feature of being under wraps and excluded from the viewer’s gaze provides the object with a mysterious aura which is nurtured by the sinister allusions of the servant.

This of course, challenges the heroine and, throughout the story, Emily makes numerous attempts to lift this veil and to catch a glimpse of what it conceals. On the first occasion, the scared Annette thwarts this endeavour by running off with the only lamp forcing Emily to abort her mission and follow her. But the thought of the mystery which lies behind the veil keeps her tempted, and she decides to examine the object on her own.

“As she passed through the chambers, that led to this, she found herself somewhat agitated; its connection with the late lady of the castle, and the conversation of Annette, together with the circumstance of the veil, throwing a mystery over the subject, that excited a faint degree of terror. But a terror of this nature, as it occupies and expands the mind, and elevates it to high expectation, is purely sublime, and leads us, by a kind of fascination, to seek even the object, from which we appear to shrink.” (Radcliffe, 1799: 2: 231)

This passage not only anticipates the thoughts on the definition and distinction between terror and horror from Radcliffe’s article ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ from 1826 (Clery and Miles, 2000, p 168)3 but at the same time explains the fascinating appeal that the mysteries of the castle of Udolpho have for Emily. This sense is transferred to the reader and continuously builds up the suspense and the desire to know what is behind the curtain.

However, despite Emily finding the courage to lift the veil, there is no release or suspense for the reader. The author does not provide an explanatory description of what the heroine sees. Instead, the narrator changes the perspective by describing the heroine’s physical reaction to the situation:

“Emily passed on with faltering steps, and having paused a moment at the door, before she attempted to open it, she then hastily entered the chamber, and went towards the picture, which appeared to be enclosed in a frame of uncommon size, that hung in a dark part of the room. She paused again, and then, with a timid hand, lifted the veil; but instantly let it fall—perceiving that what it had concealed was no picture, and, before she could leave the chamber, she dropped senseless on the floor.” (Radcliffe, 1799: 1: 404)

The reader witnesses the “appropriate” physical and psychic reaction of a sensitive and cultivated young woman in the light of what literally seems too horrid to describe. The mystery of what lies behind the veil stays intact.

At this point of the narration, the curtain itself becomes a pain fear stimulus (Krohne, 1976 p 31) and subsequently, any veil-like image or even the mention of a veil causes Emily to shudder in terror, even after finally having managed to escape Udolpho. Through such a transition of fear and the conditioning of the reader to such stimuli:

“[…] the anxiety situation becomes concrete and is no longer indefinite; fear is directed towards this precise object. Once this anxiety trigger is established, it fulfils its function without the appearance of the supernatural. Thereby, it is a novelty deployed by Radcliffe so that fear can also be initiated without the situation becoming threatening through this consistency of depiction.” (Behnke, 2002, p 80)

Ann Radcliffe manages to infuse objects in the narrative with meaning, which results in a transmission of fear. Instead of the supernatural entities, the regular and ordinary objects become triggers of fear. In the narrative, Emily is sure that those objects which appear mysterious hold a piece of the puzzle in understanding what is going on in the castle and how to escape to safety. Therefore, she repeatedly confronts herself with those objects and situations instead of choosing the strategy of avoidance (Hassenstein, 1978, p 214), which acts as a narrative trope for the reader to feel empathy for Emily and “the presented media contents are experienced as suspenseful” (Wirtz, 2014, p 105).

Ann Radcliffe’s writing technique builds this sensation of the veil and its perception in the text which engages the reader over the course of the story. However, illustrators that chose the episode as the lead feature of a frontispiece or as one scene in a restricted number of plates had limited space and different means to engage the viewer and, respectively, the reader.

Because illustration was still a minor part of book production and considered only additional groundwork to the text, few documents exist which illustrate the exact interaction between the author, the publisher, the designer and the engraver. Besides a limited number of artists who made names for themselves, some illustrators can only be identified today by their signatures on the plates.

The majority of the designers and engravers of the illustrations remain unknown due to missing records and documents. While some factors such as the number and type of illustration (frontispiece, plate, title-page vignette, etc.) were preset by the format, most of the artistic decisions were most likely ceded to the artist (Hodnett, 1982, p 7) and therefore depended, amongst other things, on his or her knowledge of the story and imaginative and artistic skills.

These features, of course, came with a price tag and might not even have been necessary for the eye of every publisher. A solid performance in producing a universally applicable landscape scenery or the depiction of a supernatural scene as, for example, the invocation of the devil from Matthew Gregory Lewis’ ‘The Monk,’ were often considered as sufficient, and straight to the point. However, the task of translating the complex nature of Ann Radcliffe’s episode of the veiled picture or even in adapting an existing illustration of it required different strategies from the artists.

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