Ann Radcliffe & John Muir: Authors & Naturalists

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; — I remember finishing it in two days — my hair standing on end the whole time. –     Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Two days!

It’s taking me a bit longer than two days to read The Mysteries of Udolpho (and all its 1,180 pages). I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if a young Jane Austen did in fact finish the book within two days. She certainly liked it enough to include Catherine Morland’s high recommendation within the pages of Northanger Abbey (“But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”).

I do! How could anyone not like Udolpho? Or rather, how could any environmentalist not like Udolpho?

Honesty, who can describe a landscape more beautifully or hypnotically than Ann Radcliffe:

…the mournful sighing of the breeze, as it waved the high pines above, and its softer whispers among the osiers, that bowed upon the banks below, was a kind of music more unison with her feelings. It did not vibrate on the chords of unhappy memory, but was soothing to the heart as the voice of Pity. She continued to muse, unconscious of the gloom of evening, and that the sun’s last light trembled on the heights above.  – Udolpho


The words, however, seemed so familiar when I read them. Or is it that the words themselves are not familiar, but the experience?

I found myself this week — while deep into the sublime prose of Ann Radcliffe — in search of an old book of essays by John Muir (an author and early advocate for environmental awareness within the United States).

As I read his book, Wilderness Essays, I couldn’t help but feel a connection between the two authors:

Instead of the music of the wind among the spruce-tops and the tinkling of the waterfalls, your ears will be filled with the oaths and groans of these poor, deluded, self-burdened men. Keep close to Nature’s heart, yourself; and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean from the earth-stains of this sordid, gold-seeking crowd in God’s pure air. – Alaska Days with John Muir

In his essay, Twenty Hill Hollow, in which he describes the splendor of California’s wilderness, I had to ask myself, “I wonder if Muir reveled in the pages of The Mysteries of Udolpho as Catherine Morland (or rather, Jane Austen as Catherine is a fictional character) did?”

The sunshine for a whole summer seemed condensed into the chambers of that one glowing day.  Every trace of dimness had been washed from the sky; the mountains were dusted and wiped clean with clouds – Pacheco Peak and Mount Diablo, and the waved blue wall between; the grand Sierra stood along the plain, colored in four horizontal bands:  – the lowest, rose purple; the next higher, dark purple; the next, blue; and, above all, the white row of summits pointing to the heavens.  – Wilderness Essays, John Muir

There is a kinship, a brotherhood and sisterhood, within the appreciation of an exquisite sunset. It’s what makes us all press “post” after snapping a photo on the beach to share with our friends on Facebook.

We know that others will connect with pure beauty. Natural and free beauty.

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Psalm 19.1

John Muir sums it up eloquently:

To lovers of the wild, these mountains are not a hundred miles away.  Their spiritual power and the goodness of the sky make them near, as a circle of friends. 

…Presently you lose consciousness of your own separate existence:  you blend with the landscape, and become part and parcel of nature. 

I’m appreciating Ann Radcliffe’s words this month as I read The Mysteries of Udolpho. But, I’m also making sure I spend as little time as possible indoors in order to take advantage of the season. Like Emily in Udolpho, I love long walks. I have plans to visit the beach this week in order feel the sun’s radiant summer warmth and to take special notice of what I often take for granted — whether it be a blue sky, a cool breeze, or a glorious sunset.

I will notice each and appreciate it.


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