The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Many years ago I read Northanger Abbey, one of the few Jane Austen novels I really enjoyed, and other than various literary history and criticism that has touched on Ann Radcliffe, that remained my main source of knowledge of her works until I finally made my own way through The Mysteries of Udolpho. And, dear reader, as they say, what I found rather surprised me.

I had been expecting, and perhaps wrongly, an absurdly over-the-top story of gothic horrors with an absurdly fainting-prone heroine, and certainly a tale of passion. My memory of the über-Romantic travel writing that takes up much of the beginning (and middle, and end) of the book supported that, and I didn’t think this was supposed to be very respectable. Important, maybe, published as it was in 1794 and therefore relevant to the history of the English novel, but more trash than treasure.

Emily St. Aubert, the heroine of the novel, does get in her fair share of fainting, but she’s got a head on her shoulders. Her mother dies by the second chapter, and her father lasts a while longer to instruct her in being sensible, moderate, and almost stoic. Although when he dies he must leave her with a frivolous sister for the year or so until she comes of age, he has prepared her well to deal with the world on her own.

It turns out that that world, however, is a bit over-the-top. Emily goes around expecting to encounter our world, the real one, where superstition is almost always wrong, most people are not out to kidnap you, and there’s no monster hiding under the bed. She talks herself down from her fears, and while her troubles in love (and the decease of her parents) often send her into tears and melancholy, she has nothing of the drama queen about her. Unfortunately, supernatural things do seem to happen, people do want to kidnap her, and there are some things pretty close to monsters hiding in various holes and even in some beds. Her aunt marries a murderer who takes them away to an obviously haunted castle outside Venice, holding them prisoner in an attempt to embezzle their property, for goodness’ sake. Well, property, that’s something at least—there are also more notably supernatural occurrences, for example the totally inexplicable disappearance of the servant Ludovico from an allegedly haunted wing of another castle, this one in Langedoc.

But Radcliffe needs Emily and her father to be right about the world and the propriety of conduct within it; Emily’s rationality, judgment, and moderation must be vindicated. This means the gears of plot grind away, explaining every mystery encountered—sometimes not for 600 pages or so, but explaining it nonetheless. And some of these explanations, naturally, are quite out there—after all, how do you get Ludovico out of that chamber and out of the entire countryside without stretching credulity? The far-fetched, though not the supernatural, is totally within bounds here, and Radcliffe is masterful at plotting out a million twists and turns and mysteries to get in the way of Emily’s happiness while finally working to reinforce it.

Certain things are less skillful, or simply less modern, than others. The final tale of the Signora Laurentini is so close (though contrary) to Emily’s own it is surely a bit explicit for 21st-century tastes. And the sheer number of Emily’s trials (though not so much their length, about a year) is a bit exhausting. But this book is an entertainment! Poems, songs, dozens of characters, more than its fair share of real action, plus, of course, love—everything is here, and it takes over 600 pages to fit in by design: this thing could keep you occupied for a while.

And it may do for me. This post is my contributions to this month’s Classics Circuit, but there are a few points I would like to return to if time permits. I’m on my way to spend the rest of the week in the (relative) countryside, sans internet (but avec iPhone), and hope to write a flood of posts on this, War and Peace, and Elective Affinities for my return. But don’t talk to me about 1Q84 until next week! It’s sitting here in front of me but I cannot bring it; I have too many other things to do!

6 comments to The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

  • Wonderful post, Nicole, proof of which is that I’m even more uncertain about how much I want to read this thing given the time investment required and the somewhat limited payoff(s). But it is “important” and “an entertainment” to boot as you say, so maybe in 2013 as I gaze into my crystal ball…

  • I’m feeling the pull toward 1Q84 despite my determination not to read it while it’s hot. I’m also looking forward to your thoughts on ‘Elective Affinities,’ which is not what I anticipated.

  • I skipped over Radcliffe, assuming she was basically – what word do I want? – godawful, but no?

    I feel like the only person on the internet – I mean the part I frequent, the part worth frequenting – who is not tempted by 1Q84. I do not know why, or why not. I will find out soon enough, as everyone reads writes and raves.

  • Richard—I wouldn’t sneeze at the time investment. But I don’t think it’s something to write off either. And there are always times when one wants to be holed up with a real long solid plotty thing. You know, like we are right now, only with something much more serious.

    Anthony—I’ve spent so many years as a Murakami fan, it’s very weird for me that he’s now popular (in the US). I sort of sympathize, but I’ve been going far too long reading his work as soon as it’s been out in English. I’m completely shocked at myself for waiting now.

    Tom—Does appreciationism ever make you wonder if you’ve lost all sense of taste? It does me sometimes. But I don’t thing it’s godawful. Emily’s poetry might be (is it really so wrong to skim the nature poems written by a young female character in a book like this?), but no. It’s not brilliant, but I’m starting to feel she’s been a bit short-changed. For the combination of enjoyment and instructiveness, I put this ahead of Evelina and Pamela. It may also be slightly sillier than them, but you know what? There are worse things.

  • Does appreciationism ever make you wonder if you’ve lost all sense of taste?


    That only parts are godawful seems reasonable. Slightly sillier than Pamela sounds like a fair comparison, too – that is a dang silly book.

  • I’m not sure I can handle gothic novels as such but I’m glad to hear it wasn’t quite as overly dramatic as you’d feared. Maybe someday I’ll give it a try.