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!