Monday, April 26, 2010

Story Throwdown: Mysteries of Udolpho vs. To the Lighthouse vs. The Thirteenth Tale

It turns out that I was reading three very different books simultaneously last week, and this enabled me to think about fiction, storytelling, and the way the novel has evolved.

Last week I finished up and posted on Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho.

On Saturday, I finished listening to Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

On Sunday, I finished reading Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale.

Udolpho was plot, plot, plot with little character development--despite having an omniscient narrator, we didn't know or need to know much about what was going on inside the heroine's head beyond whether she was happy, sad, fearful, hopeful, pensive, frustrated, or grateful. The story was not about what she was thinking or feeling, but what was happening to her.

To the Lighthouse couldn't have been more different. Very little happened, and what did happen did so so far off-stage that it's safe to say that there was really no plot. Instead, the reader spent the entire novel burrowed deep in the various character's random thoughts, knowing no more about why characters were thinking something than they did themselves. The story was not about what happened in this family and in this house and to this family and to this house, but what people thought about what was happening, minute by mind-numbing minute.

The Thirteenth Tale was an interesting combination of the two approaches to fiction, and as the most recently published of the three, this makes sense. Like Udolpho, the whole point of The Thirteenth Tale is to discover what is "true" in the story--for the reader to learn what lies behind the mysteries that bedevil the heroines, although it's hard to come up with two more different heroines than Emily St. Aubert from Udolpho and Margaret Lea from The Thirteenth Tale. Unlike Udolpho, ninety-nine percent of the action takes place in Margaret's head as she listens to Vida Winter tell her the story of her life and sorts through what is true and what is misleading or only a half-truth.

I enjoyed all three books, but in, as you might expect, widely different ways. Udolpho was fun in and of itself, and interesting in its relation to Austen, the development of the novel, and the development of Gothic as a genre. It was the easiest of the three to read, despite being written over two hundred years ago.

To the Lighthouse was the most work to finish. Sometimes I wonder if I would have stuck with it had I been reading it instead of listening to it. Virginia Woolf and I have a complicated relationship. I read The Waves in college and was thankful to get through it--I don't even remember whether I had to write a paper on it. Suffice it to say, she was not one of "my" authors that I was tested on in order to get my B.A. in English. I tried reading A Room's of One's Own about six months ago on my Kindle app on my iPhone. I thought it well-written but dull after awhile. Maybe it was the format, maybe it was my mood.

I enjoyed the artistry of To the Lighthouse--the repetition of phrases, the structure of the two main parts and the bridge in the middle, the fluidity of the symbolism of the journey to the lighthouse. I liked Mrs. Ramsay a lot. I loved the way the book ended with Lily Briscoe finally finishing her painting:
With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.

This might actually be one of the best endings I've read since The Great Gatsby, and not just because I was happy to actually get to the ending. The biggest problem I have with To the Lighthousee is that I don't feel richer for having read it. Maybe it's because I've read other "modern" novels and so that format, while it might have been groundbreaking in 1927, didn't startle me with its innovation. Unlike Udolpho, it is a tough book to appreciate in context.

The Thirteenth Tale is definitely in the Gothic tradition--the recurrence of Jane Eyre in the story says it all--and comes complete with blind alleys, disguised characters, innately evil tendencies in certain characters and innately good tendencies in others, ghosts, skeletons, crumbling houses, crumbling families, and a generally dark and creepy tone. The heroine is a mousy bookseller, as opposed to a mousy governess, who happens to write good author profiles and so gets tapped on the shoulder to write the autobiography of a dying author of bestsellers. Turns out the mousy bookseller, Margaret Lea, has secrets of her own that she discovers and deals with in the course of the story.

I liked The Thirteenth Tale. It is well-written and well-crafted, but almost too well-crafted, almost too tight. I tend to like books that are more organic--that take on a life of their own. I got the feeling that Setterfield kept her story under strict control--she would have to in order to get all the loose ends to line up at the end into a cohesive whole.

I earmarked a number of pages because they contained a passage or a phrase worked for me at the time...few jumped out again when I reviewed them for this post. However, this one did, from the chapter entitled "The Inheritance," in which Vida Winter tells Margaret that she knows that Margaret has her own story to tell, should she choose to, going on to observe that:
...silence is not a natural environment for stories. They need words. Without them they grow pale, sicken and die. And then they haunt you.

I like this idea because it resonates with what I believe about people and writers and stories and storytellers and truth in storytelling. Apart from Setterfield's way with words and fascinatingly unbelieveable macabre story, I ended up liking The Thirteenth Tale because it is about writers and writing and books and stories and what they mean to me.

Now that I have cleaned my plate, so to speak, I need to catch up with The Woman in White. I have fallen about a month behind in the weekly installments that are being emailed out, marking the 150th anniversary of its debut, then it's on to Sanditon and Wolf Hall. I wonder what parallels I will find between them?


  1. Extremely interesting, as usual Jane. I haven't read The Thirteenth Tale and know nothing about it. But your analysis/comparison of gothic Udolpho and modern interior monologue in Virginia Woolf is something I have to cope with often in my job. Like you I find them both interesting to study, link and contextualize, but they are not my cup of tea if I wish to read for pleasure.
    Three books in a week? Good pace!

  2. I've read To the Lighthouse and The Thirteeenth Tale and I would never have thought of comparing the two, but of course they do have similarities even though they are so different. I much preferred To the Lighthouse. Maybe I was expecting too much from The Thirteenth Tale but I found it disappointing, after a good beginning it became too drawn out , I thought. All those loose ends that needed pulling together were too much for me - or it was my mood. I have no inclination to read it again, whereas To the Lighthouse stands up well for a re-read (I've read it twice). Woolf's writing style pulls me in.

  3. Such an interesting and thought provoking post - thanks indeed for sharing with us. I enjoy To the Lighthouse - but it is a shock in story telling, I don't know if you can even call it storytelling in fact.

    Happy Tuesday


  4. I read A Room of One's Own decades ago - a 'worthy' book, but have never been tempted to tackle To The Lighthouse - one of my schoolfriends had to study it for A Level English and hated it. Can't say I'm a big Virginia Woolf fan. But you're right that unless they're thrillers, many/most modern books are usually a combination of external events and the characters' thoughts about those events (or in the case of Dan Brown - characters complex thoughts about secret codes whilst being chased by a knife wielding mad monk - most real people's thoughts wouldn't get past Help! Keep Running!)

  5. Fun post! I like seeing common threads through very different books, and I tend to read widely different books at once, so sometimes those connections are a bit odd. I really enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale. Like you, I feel that Woolf just isn't really for me. I read To the Lighthouse a few months ago and while I could appreciate the writing, I just didn't enjoy it. I have Udolpho, which I picked up because of Northanger Abbey, but it looks intimidating so I haven't read it yet. It's interesting that you said it was the easiest of the three to read, so maybe I'll pick it up soon. Maybe on one of the many stormy days we usually have in OK during May.

  6. I have loved reading everyone's comments about the three books I finished last week (I never claimed to have read all three in one week!). Woolf seems to challenge a lot of people, though there are definitely some diehard fans out there as well.

    Tracy - I loved your comment about Dan Brown stories--I though the same think whilst listening to The Da Vinci Code. :)

  7. Well, Dan has to get all of that complex exposition in somewhere, I guess, Jane! And talking of Dan Brown, have you ever read Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco? now that's the antidote to The Da Vinci Code - I seem to be on a mission to persuade as many people as possible to read it :)