Examples of Word-painting from Ann Radliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance (1794)

Ann Radcliffe seemed have invented the technique of proto-cinematic — or narrative — description called word-painting. In the following passages from the Oxford University Press two-volume edition The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, note how she first creates a center of perception or narrative eye and then moves it in such a way as to pan across the narrated scene. In particular, note how she establishes place and direction:

On the pleasant banks of the Garonne, in the province of Gascony, stood, in the year 1584, the chateau of Monsieur St. Aubert. From its windows were seen the pastoral landscapes of Guienne and Gascony, stretching along the river, gay with luxuriant woods and vines, and plantations of olives. To the south, the view was bounded by the majestic Pyrenées, whose summits, veiled in clouds, or exhibiting awful forms, seen, and lost again, as the partial vapours rolled along, were sometimes barren, and gleamed through the blue tinge of air, and sometimes frowned with forests of gloomy pine, that swept downwards to their base. These tremendous precipices were contrasted by the soft green of the pastures and woods that hung upon their skirts; among whose flocks, and herds, and simple cottage, the eye, after having scaled the cliffs above, delighted to repose. To the north, and to the east, the plains of Guienne and Languedoc were lost in the mist of distance; on the west, Gascony was bounded by the waters of Biscay. (II, 1; emphasis added)

Note, too, in this paragraph of early Romantic prose major traces of eighteenth-century century prose style: elaborate parallel clauses, explicit contrast to opposition between them, and sentence rhythm that owes a lot to the couplets of Pope and Dryden.

Notice in the following passage how Radcliffe uses her heroine, Emily, as a center of perception:

On the edge of tremendous precipices, and within the hollow of the cliffs, below which the clouds often floated, were seen villages, spires, and convent towers; while green pastures and vineyards spread their hues at the feet of perpendicular rocks of marble, or of granite, whose points, tufted with alpine shrubs, or exhibiting only massy crags, rose above each other, till they terminated in the snow-topt mountain, whence the torrent fell, that thundered along the valley. . . . Emily, often as she travelled among the clouds, watched in silent awe their billowy surges rolling below; sometimes, wholly closing upon the scene, they appeared like a world of chaos, and, at others, spreading thinly, they opened and admitted partial catches of the landscape — the torrent, whose astounding roar had never failed, tumbling down the rocky chasm, huge cliffs white with snow, or the dark summits of the pine forests, that stretched mid-way down the mountains. But who may describe her rapture, when, having passed through a sea of vapour, she caught a first sight of Italy; when, from the ridge of one of those tremendous precipices that hand upon Mount Cenis and guard the entrance of that enchanting country, she looked through the lower clouds, and, as they floated away, she saw the grassy vales of Piedmont at her feet, and, beyond, the plains of Lombardy extending to the farthest distance, at which appeared, on the faint horizon, the doubtful towers of Turin? (II, 164 — 165)

Although Radcliffe does employ some passive verb forms, she makes great use of active verbs and other words to create a kinetic effect in her movemented prose. Some of the crucial words and phrases here include "surges rolling," "closing," and "tumbling." What other words provide the passages characteristic movement?


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Last modified 7 September 2007