Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mysteries of Udolpho--the Twilight of Its Day

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.


  1. This sounds like a wonderful read. I'm putting it on the TBR.

  2. Interesting...I've often wondered about this novel. I'd also like to read some of the short stories by Louisa May Alcott (in her gothic style). This novel reminds me of the plots of the stories that Jo March was always scribbling!

  3. Definitely the Twilight of its day! I re-read a few months ago (my third time through, which I think gets me a medal or something) and it occurred to me that though Emily is kind of an annoying Mary Sue, and despite the melodrama and didacticism, Emily really does get to have some thrilling adventures. I could really understand why a sheltered country girl like Catherine Morland got so caught up in it, and let her imagination run away with her.

    I have the Oxford World's Classics edition with an intro by Terry Castle, and she makes some interesting comparisons with NA (particularly Henri and Blanche de Villefort/Henry and Eleanor Tilney).

  4. Lovely pictures in your blog, Jane. Who are they by?

  5. @Caroline

    The first of the three paintings is Harlech Castle, which I found here: http://kithnkin.com/gallery.html

    The second is by Samuel Palmer: A dream in the Appenine, c.1864. Tate Gallery, London.

    The third is Richmond Castle, by W.Stuart Lloyd, 1875-1929).

  6. You've sold me! I've always wondered about this one since I first read Northanger Abbey. Sounds like a fun change of pace for me.

  7. Fascinating - it's one of those books that have been in the back of my mind since reading Northanger Abbey (I read that at school, so that is eons ago). I'm definitely on the lookout for it now.

  8. Thanks for the excellent review, Jane, I'm certainly tempted to read it - it'll be added to my ever-growing 'to read' pile. Maybe I'll appreciate Northanger Abbey more if I read it - at the moment it stands as my least favourite Austen novel. Which is a shame because the first half of the book is excellent and such wonderful descriptions of Catherine's feelings about all of her new friends, her terror and boredom on her outing with boorish John Thorpe and the whole scene in Bath - it just goes downhill when it gets to the eponymous Abbey.

  9. This has been on my wishlist for years. I really need to get to it sooner than later. I've been craving a good sensational read!

  10. Great review! I definitely think I need to coax my book group into reading this.

  11. As always, I loved reading everyone's comments. I'm particularly interested in the parallel Mags pointed out between Udolpho's Henri and Blanche de Villefort and Austen's Henry and Eleanor Tilney--I can definitely see it...now!