These days, most people who know about Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho know about it because Catherine Morland read it and Jane Austen parodied it in Northanger Abbey. However, back when it hit the streets for the first time in May of 1794, it was a blockbuster…I like to think of it as the Twilight of its day.
If you are only going to read one Gothic novel, to see what all the fuss was about, read Udolpho. Unlike most of the others in the genre, it is truly suspenseful (you only find out what’s behind all the mysteries in the story in the last couple of chapters and the romantic dilemma is only resolved in the final few pages). Though not really terrifying, it is remarkably readable and I found it extremely fun.
I was warned of the lengthy descriptions of exotic locales, but I enjoyed visiting Venice, Tuscany, Provence, and the Apennines and Alps circa 1581 circa Radcliffe’s mind. She actually never visited most of the places she wrote about, and only visited France once. Her descriptions are the stuff that dreams and legends are made of and seem so familiar and right and romantic and thrilling to those of use who are experienced armchair travelers.
I was also warned of the melodramatic plot lines, and these are there in spades, but are a great deal of fun of you let your imagination get the better of you. Emily St. Aubert, the heroine who seems more like a Rousseau-educated English lass than a late Renaissance French mademoiselle, is a plucky, perfect specimen who cries buckets, faints at crucial moments (e.g., just after lifting the black veil, which means we don’t learn what is behind it for another 300 pages), and could give Marianne Dashwood instruction in sensibility and Elinor Dashwood pointers on rationality. The hero of the story, Valancourt, is a bit one-dimensional—we only hear about his depraved behavior in Paris but don’t get to witness it—and the villain, Monsieur Montoni, is wonderfully wicked and amoral but no match for our girl.
In thinking about the story, I think Radcliffe did a much better job with her female characters than the male ones. Madome Montoni, Emily’s foolish aunt who plays a reasonably good wicked stepmother for much of the time, has a somewhat interesting character, as does Signora Laurentini. The men are more static—either good or evil, with the exception of Valancourt, whose fortunes exemplify the moral lesson of the story, as expressed in the second-to-last paragraph of the novel:
…though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!
One unexpected aspect of the book is the poetry that Radcliffe inserts throughout the story. It shouldn’t have surprised me because the full title of the novel is The Mysteries of Udolpho, A Romance; Interspersed with some Pieces of Poetry. Emily is quite good at composing quite lengthy poems, usually when she stumbles upon a particularly gorgeous vista or after a particularly wrenching experience. I confess that I read very few of these, but I imagine Radcliffe’s original readers soaked them up before plunging ahead with the story, which does move at a pretty brisk clip.
I am not going to review the plot here as it would take a short novel to simply recap all of Emily’s adventures, but suffice it to say that there are castles, banditti, pirates, dungeons, secret passages, convents, nuns, ghosts, skeletons, poisonings, sword fights, abductions, storms, inheritances, deaths, confessions, and true love. What more could you ask for?
Finally, if you do take the plunge and decide to read this definitive Gothic novel, make sure you read the Penguin edition. The Introduction by Jacqueline Howard, which I scanned before and read after reading the novel, is absolutely first rate.