The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne

by Ann Radcliffe

A Review

‘They pursued their journey over the wilds, and towards the close of day approached the ruins of an abbey, whose broken arches and lonely towers arose in gloomy grandeur through the obscurity of evening.’

In Ann Radcliffe’s work, it seems to me, there is an unspoken debt to Horace Walpole. His famous novel of 1764, The Castle of Otranto, set the scene for the gothic fiction which was to populate the next literary century. However, it was with Radcliffe that the genre truly emerged in its most romantic form.

In The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, she is not at her best, and far from her novelistic maturity. It is full of cultural and topographical errors. Set in the Highlands of Scotland, it imposes a character on that country which is at odds with the reality of the period and people. Ann spent most of her life in the south of England, and the reader might conclude (and no offence is intended) an imaginary English perspective on her setting. Her protagonists’ titles – earl, count, countess, baron etc – are very un-Scottish and at times confusing. The coincidences of the plot come suddenly and unexpectedly rather than being subtle or well-crafted.

Those criticisms apart, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne is a good story. Radcliffe was a mistress of the English language and, though quaint, her prose is both beautifully and gloomily descriptive of mountain and moor. She evokes pleasure, terror and suspense with equal colour. Of course, there is much languishing, swooning, weeping and sighing, especially among the female characters, but that is to be expected in romantic fiction of the period.

‘He had now opened the partition, and was entering the room, when by the faint gleam which the fire threw across the apartment, he perceived indistinctly the figure of a man, and in the same instant heard the sound of approaching armour.’

Two Highland noblemen, most likely clan chiefs in reality than an earl and a baron, are bitter, feuding enemies. Malcolm of Dunbayne has killed Osbert’s father. The former is a tyrant, an unpopular one who has usurped power. Osbert of Athlin is a dutiful son who respects his mother Matilda’s wish to refrain from exacting revenge on the neighbouring chieftain. Osbert’s sister Mary falls in love with Alleyn, a loyal clansman, but the latter is of too lowly birth (it is supposed) for there to be an acceptable match.

Additional competition for Alleyn comes from a stranger, the Count, survivor of a shipwreck on the stormy coast who is rescued by Osbert’s people and welcomed at Athlin. A passionate man, he too would have Mary, and is prepared to go to great lengths to win her.

Inevitably, Osbert is provoked into action. His attempt to seize Dunbayne Castle fails and he is captured. While a prisoner under sentence of death, he finds a secret passageway which leads him to the chamber of Laura and her mother, the Baroness. They are as much prisoners as he, though lodged in better quarters. Osbert falls in love with Laura.

As the story unfolds, we learn that the Baroness and Laura are Swiss nobility whose lands have been seized by Malcolm. As this is an 18th century romance, everything works out in the end. Osbert marries Laura, and Alleyn, who turns out to be noble after all, weds Mary.

‘[Osbert’s] heart swelled to avenge the repeated injuries of his family, and he secretly resolved to challenge the enemy to single combat.’

The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne was Radcliffe’s first novel. It wasn’t a bestseller and did not establish her reputation. It was only with The Mysteries of Udolpho that she became one of the most popular writers of the period. Among her admirers were Austen, Scott and Poe, in whose novels traces of the gothic tradition may be found. for example, in Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Traces of Radcliffe can also be seen in the later works of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker.

Ann Radcliffe’s books are not among the most popular classics today. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss her as ‘old-fashioned’, simply because her writing emphasises ‘telling’ a story and not ‘showing’ character. Modern writers of gothic and horror fiction can learn much from her handling of atmosphere, as well as her imaginative conjuring of place and scene.

Terror is characterized by … indeterminacy in its treatment of potentially horrible events; it is this indeterminacy that leads the reader toward the sublime. Horror, in contrast, nearly annihilates the reader’s responsive capacity with its unambiguous displays of atrocity.’ [Ann Radcliffe, On the Supernatural in Poetry, 1826]


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