Radcliffe and Wordsworth: Nature, Travel, and Memory

Cindy Chopoidalo

In preparation for my presentation on the character of M. St. Aubert in Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, I examined various passages from the novel's first few chapters which described St. Aubert's responses to nature in terms of the picturesque, the sublime, and sensibility. One passage which especially attracted my attention, but which ultimately fell outside the coverage of our group's presentation, is Radcliffe's account of St. Aubert's feelings about the "small estate in Gascony" (Radcliffe 6) where he and his family lived:

To this spot he had been attached from his infancy. He had often made excursions to it when he was a boy, and the impressions of delight given to his mind . . . had not been obliterated by succeeding circumstances. The green pastures along which he had so often bounded in the exultation of health, and youthful freedom - the woods, under whose refreshing shade he had first indulged that pensive melancholy . . . the wild walks of the mountains, the river, on whose waves he had floated, and the distant plains, which seemed boundless as his early hopes - were never after remembered by St. Aubert but with enthusiasm and regret. (Radcliffe 6)

This passage was interesting to me because many of the travel writings we have read so far tend to focus more on the travellers' immediate responses to relatively new and unfamiliar environments which they are visiting for the first time, rather than on a return to a familiar place or the memories evoked by those familiar places. However, St. Aubert's emotional responses to familiar places - as well as his responses to less familiar places he sees on his travels - form a significant part of his character, as demonstrated in his conversation with M. Quesnel about the "noble chestnut, which has flourished for centuries, the glory of the estate!" (Radcliffe 16). St. Aubert's arguments in favour of retaining the old tree on his family's estate, which Quesnel now owns, are based on "times and feelings as old-fashioned as the taste that would spare that venerable tree" (Radcliffe 16) which are incomprehensible to Quesnel, who does not share St. Aubert's reverence for the property - indeed, he regards it only as property to be done with as he wishes.

The old tree continues to evoke memories of earlier and happier times for St. Aubert when he visits Quesnel again after the death of Mme. St. Aubert - the meeting at which we are first introduced to Signor Montoni - and, as the visit concludes, Radcliffe points out that "Emily observed, that he was more than unusually silent and dejected on the way home; but she considered this to be the effect of his visit to a place which spoke so eloquently of former times, nor suspected that he had a cause of grief which he concealed from her" (26). Upon reading this passage, and comparing it with the passages I have mentioned above, I was reminded of Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey, which also deals with the memories evoked by a return to a particular place; and, much like St. Aubert's memories of his childhood home, Wordsworth's memories of his first trip to the Wye valley, as outlined in the poem, may also be described, in Radcliffe's words, as a combination of "enthusiasm and regret" (6), though not always for the same reasons as Radcliffe ascribes to St. Aubert.

Like St. Aubert in The Mysteries of Udolpho, Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey draws upon the memories of his earlier journey to evoke feelings "Of unremembered pleasure" (line 32) and to bring himself closer to God and nature, "A motion and a spirit that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things" (lines 101-103; cf. Radcliffe 38). However, for Wordsworth, the return to the Wye valley after "five summers, with the length / Of five long winters!" (lines 1-2) not only brings back memories of his earlier visit but also provides new memories, preserved in the form of the poem, which he hopes will provide "life and food / For future years" (lines 65-66). Wordsworth's combination of "enthusiasm and regret" (Radcliffe 6) in Tintern Abbey comes from his memories of the circumstances under which he made the original journey in 1793, contrasted with his realization that he now looks upon the countryside in a different way than he did then: "not as in the hour / Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes / The still, sad music of humanity" (lines 91-92).

Both St. Aubert and Wordsworth make their journeys in the company of a loved one - for St. Aubert it is his daughter Emily; for Wordsworth it is his sister Dorothy - and both seek to pass on to these loved ones the lessons they have learned from their experiences. During their journey to Beaujeu in the company of Valancourt, St. Aubert tells Emily that "the memory of those we love - of times forever past! in such an hour as this steals upon the mind, like a strain of distant music in the stillness of night; - all tender and harmonious as this landscape, sleeping in the mellow moonlight" (Radcliffe 47). Similarly, Wordsworth addresses Dorothy directly in the last part of Tintern Abbey, hoping that she will remember "these steep woods and lofty cliffs / And this green pastoral landscape, were to me / More dear, both for themselves, and for thy sake" (lines 158-160).

Reading The Mysteries of Udolpho and Tintern Abbey with an eye for their respective authors' treatments of travel and memory reminded me of some of my personal experiences travelling and the memories that these experiences have evoked for me. For many years, my family would drive through Alberta and British Columbia, for anywhere from ten days to three weeks, during the summer. On the shorter trips we travel through the mountain parks on the Alberta-British Columbia border, but on longer trips we have sometimes gone all the way to Victoria and back to Edmonton. We made these journeys every summer until 1998, and then resumed our annual trips in 2003 after five years - something of which I was reminded by reading the opening lines of Tintern Abbey. Since we returned to many of the same places nearly every year on our journeys, they have become familiar to me - to the point that I have sometimes wished for the opportunity to visit someplace less familiar, money and time permitting. However, no matter how many times we have driven through the mountains, I still often find myself feeling the sense of awe and wonder that the writers we have studied so far have expressed in their accounts of their own travels. On our more recent trips of the last two summers, I found myself comparing the landscapes through which we travelled to the way I remembered them when we had been there before - in a similar manner to the way in which Wordsworth does this in Tintern Abbey. As well, though on the more recent trips I have been more acutely aware of the ways in which my relationships with my family have changed over the years - perhaps a side effect of travelling with three other people in a small space for a period of ten days - it is still easy for me to sympathize with Radcliffe's evocation of "the memory of those we love . . . all tender and harmonious as this landscape" (47).

Works Cited

Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. 1794. Ed. Jacqueline Howard. London: Penguin, 2001.

Wordsworth, William. "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, 13 July 1798." 1798. Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. 265-269.