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.

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!