No redemption in The Mysteries of Udolpho

When I wrote about The Mysteries of Udolpho for the Classics Circuit I did not have the time to give it the week of blogging I easily could have—I would say “the week of blogging it deserved,” but who can make such judgments? But I do want to go back to it this week as I do something of a grab-bag, just to touch on the one subject that interested and intrigued me most.

Much of the conflict in The Mysteries of Udolpho rests on misunderstandings. Radcliffe often uses this fairly easy device to set up Emily St. Aubert for ever more hardship. Here, after her aunt (her guardian) has married Signor Montoni, Emilyi goes into his office to discuss with him the fact that another uncle (M. Quesnel) has let her home to rent without consulting her first, in his capacity as her lawyer:

‘I have just been writing to Mons. Quesnel,’ said he when Emily appeared, ‘in reply to the letter I received from him a few days ago, and I wished to talk to you upon a subject that occupied part of it.’

‘I also wished to speak with you on this topic, sir,’ said Emily.

‘It is a subject of some interest to you, undoubtedly,’ rejoined Montoni, ‘and I think you must see it in the light that I do; indeed it will not bear any other. I trust you will agree with me, that any objection founded on sentiment, as they call it, ought to yield to circumstances of solid advantage.’

‘Granting this, sir,’ replied Emily, modestly, ‘those of humanity ought surely to be attended to. But I fear it is now too late to deliberate upon this plan, and I must regret, that it is no longer in my power to reject it.’

‘It is too late,’ said Montoni, ‘but since it is so, I am pleased to observe, that you submit to reason and necessity without indulging useless complaint. I applaud this conduct exceedingly, the more, perhaps, since it discovers a strength of mind seldom observable in your sex.’

Montoni is not talking about her estate; he is talking about a marriage plan which he and M. Quesnel have already agreed upon for Emily. When she talks about “humanity,” she refers not to the idea of her marrying for love (because she does have a lover, whom Montoni has driven away), but about making sure her former housekeeper has a pension. And if at first this seems too easy for Radcliffe to get away with, cheaply creating a dramatic scene on gondolas when Emily is later hit on by her alleged fiancé, at least Montoni has done it on purpose—he has set Emily up, using her own trusting nature and lack of questions to make her look like a liar and a fool later on. Nice guy, Montoni.

But the point is: it creates a misunderstanding, which is later resolved by explanation. Once it’s clear to all the parties involved what’s happened, it’s clear that Emily is no coquette accepting and then rejecting proposals. What’s intriguing is that all the serious conflict in the novel is resolved in this way.

For example, toward the end of the book the hints mount that Emily is not who she thinks she is—that her father impregnated another woman, and that the mother she grew up with was only a step-mother. This would cast a strange light on the beginning of the novel, and an impossible stain on the character of Emily’s father, which is what has sustained her goodness all these hundreds of pages. So it turns out that he was not the woman’s lover but her brother, and that she was never pregnant at all; it was only rumors. Emily’s maternity is just what we thought it was, and the characters of her father and herself remain spotless.

The same thing happens with Valancourt, Emily’s lover. Finally, it appears they will get together after her virtual abduction into Italy and rescue back to France. But it comes to light that while she was away, Valancourt fell prey to a life of gambling and various other activities that actually landed him in prison for a time. Learning of his debauchery, Emily breaks of all relations, insisting even to herself that she cannot love a man she cannot admire. He seems to admit his wrongdoings by asking her for forgiveness and trying to prove he is a changed man, but there is nothing that can redeem him for her. Emily learns even that Valancourt has been supporting her old housekeeper all this time, but still it is not enough to make her think again about marrying him.

There is, quite simply, no hope of redemption. As the Count, the friend who warns Emily of Valancourt’s wrongdoing, explains:

‘We all know how fascinating the vice of gaming is, and how difficult it is, also, to conquer habit; the Chevalier might, perhaps, reform for a while, but he would soon relapse into dissipation—for I fear, not only the bonds of habit would be powerful, but that his morals are corrupted.’

It may be stressfull or surprising for the contemporary reader; the forgiveness and redemption we might normally expect do not come. Instead we get—the resolution of a misunderstanding! Valancourt was not corrupted after all! The Count’s information was faulty, and when Valancourt admitted what a sinner her was, he had know idea what a sinner Emily thought he was. And now everyone can live happily ever after.

It seems strangely, to me, un-Christian for a novel to behave this way. I am not sure that is right, but in any case, it struck me.

6 comments to No redemption in The Mysteries of Udolpho

  • This kind of convenient misunderstanding-based plotting drives my partner David absolutely up the wall; he thinks of it as “sitcom plotting.” I recall encountering a lot of it in my 18th century British lit class – like, in Evelina when her suitor sees her walking in the public garden with two prostitutes, and draws wrong conclusions that last the rest of the book. I remember being pretty impressed with Mansfield Park the first time I read it, that Henry Crawford’s bad behavior is never explained away (and indeed, he doesn’t even get to reform himself successfully).

  • I do not agree that Henry Crawford’s bad behavior is never explained. The explanation is that he is a bad person, and was raised badly. The latter might cause the former, or merely reinforce it.

  • @Tom It’s explained, but not explained away. We don’t get the sit-commy resolution my partner objects to, where everyone’s like “No no, it was all a misunderstanding!”

  • I see. Right, definitely not a misunderstanding. I am amazed to see people claim that they wish Fanny would have married Crawford.

  • I actually like this kind of plotting, although I do think it’s “unsophisticated,” let’s say. It’s fun—sitcoms are fun too, at least if they’re well-written. There are better and worse versions of literary misunderstandings. But it’s an easy thing to grate on people.

    Unfortunately, I really don’t remember Crawford…oh, right, him. People are upset that Fanny doesn’t marry him? How bizarre.

  • The sexy bad boy thing. Totally blows out the ethics of the actual novel, but probably does work better as a modern romance.

    Very true about the plotting. The difference between ingenious plotting and contrived plotting can be very thin.