Christmas Day, Kent, 1976
On the frozen fields of Romney Marsh stands New Hall; silent, lifeless, deserted. In it's grounds lies an unexpected Christmas offering: a corpse, frozen into the ice of a horse pond.
It falls to the Reverend Hardcastle, justice of the peace at St Mary in the Marsh, to investigate. But with the victim's identity unknown, no murder weapon and no known motive, it seems like an impossible task. Working along with this trusted friend, Amelia Chaytor, and new arrival Captain Edward Austen, Hardcastle soon discovers there is more to the mystery than there first appeared.
With the arrival of an American family torn apart by war and desperate to reclaim their ancestral home, a French spy returning to the scene of his crimes, ancient loyalties and new vengeance combine to make Hardcastle and Mrs Chaytor's attempts to discover the secret of New Hall all the more dangerous.
Sounds fantastic doesn't it! I am just about to start reading it this evening so shall share my review with you as soon as I can. A.J. Mackenzie is the pseudonym of Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, a collaborative Anglo-Canadian husband-and-wife duo; they have kindly written a piece for the blog tour discussing Ann Radcliffe and the rise of the gothic novel:
Search through the lists of ‘great authors’ in the English canon, and you will not find her name. But in the 1790s, Ann Radcliffe was the best-paid author in Britain, and the hottest thing in fiction writing. Publishers scrambled to attract her attention. She was the J.K. Rowling of her day.
The foundation text of Gothic fiction is Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764. Walpole broke away from the established, highly formal canon of literary fiction and concentrated on story-telling. Atmospheres were dark, gloomy and deliberately scary. Clara Reeve, another early writer, often added supernatural elements such as ghosts. There was sometimes a pretence that these were actually tales written in earlier times, ‘rediscovered’; Walpole, for example, claimed that The Castle of Otranto was written in medieval Italian, and he had merely translated it.
Successful though Walpole and Reeve were, they were nothing next to Ann Radcliff. Her breakthrough novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, pulls out all the stops. It is a gloriously rich, extremely long, preposterously spooky story about mysterious goings on in a castle in Italy. Critics derided it as rubbish. But the public loved it. In the 1790s, an author would count himself fortunate to earn £10 from a book. Robinsons the publisher paid Miss Radcliffe £500 for The Mysteries of Udolpho, and her later books sold for still more.
And the critics were wrong. In many ways, The Mysteries of Udolpho was in advance of its time. The hero, Emily, is a woman; more than that, a strong, forthright, active woman who takes on the sinister forces in the castle of Udolpho and comes out a winner. And Radcliffe also knew quite a lot about the new and emerging discipline of psychology. She gets inside her character’s heads and explains their feelings and motivations in a way that not many eighteenth-century writers did.
Even more important has been her influence. Ann Redcliffe knew both Jane Austen and Charles Dickens when they were young. Miss Austen was unimpressed – her own first novel, Northanger Abbey, was an attempt to take the mickey out of the entire genre – but Dickens adopted some of that dark brooding tone into his own writing. Miss Haversham could have stepped straight out of the pages of The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker were all influenced by Ann Radcliffe, and from them the modern genre of horror was born, continuing down through Hammer Horror films to present day writers such as Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz. Crime fiction, too, owes her a great deal. Many of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories have a gothic element, and The Hound of the Baskervilles, with its dark fogbound moor, creepy houses and satanic great dog again reflects the atmosphere of The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Come down to the present day, and ‘noir’ fiction authors, whether they know it or not, owe a great debt to Ann Radcliffe. Conventions have changed; modern books are much more violent and gruesome and have considerably more sex. Somehow, we doubt that would have bothered Miss Radcliffe. Had she been born today, she would be writing ‘noir’; and, probably topping the best-seller lists.
Calpurnia Vane, whom we introduce in The Body in the Ice, is unashamedly modelled – in her career, not her personality – on Ann Radcliffe. Mrs Vane is our own salute to an often overlooked heroine. We are happy to acknowledge her influence.
Make sure you check out the other blogs on the tour, The Body in The Ice is available now!