Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Genre: Gothic romance
Pages: 650
Published: 1794

"'But my dearest Catherine, what have you been doing with yourself all this morning?--Have you gone on with Udolpho?'

'Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil....I am delighted with the book!  I should like to spend my whole life in reading it.  I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world.'  

--Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I had wanted to read The Mysteries of Udolpho for a long time, ever since reading the passages in Northanger Abbey where Catherine and her ridiculous friend Isabella discuss how perfectly scary it is.  I tried for the first time nearly a year ago, but was unable to make it past the first hundred pages.  My initial impression was that the book was hopelessly dull and long-winded.  Radcliffe spends pages describing the picturesque landscapes which Emily and her father experience during an extended journey by carriage.  Very little of importance happens in those first hundred pages.  Emily herself is a somewhat dull protagonist, not exactly unlikable but so stiff and formal and helpless as to be irritating at times.

Now, having said all that...

I was not so put off by Udolpho that I didn't eventually return to it.  I sensed that maybe it had not been the right moment to read this book.  I tried again a couple of weeks ago, taking the book along on a long road trip so that, I thought triumphantly, I would be forced to read it out of sheer boredom!  As it turned out, I need not have worried.  During my second (and successful) reading of The Mysteries of Udolpho, I am happy to report that I found my inner Catherine Morland.  After those uninspiring first hundred pages, I became swept up by this sentimental story and very invested in finding out what horrible fates or happy endings might befall the characters.  Far from having to force myself to read it, I could barely put Udolpho down!  Once I stopped inwardly scoffing so much at the more wooden dialogue or rolling my eyes at the lengthy descriptions of scenery or Radcliffe's poems extolling the virtues of nature (inserted liberally throughout the book, even during otherwise frightening or suspenseful parts), I began to understand why this Gothic romance was heralded as such a thrilling sensation, a bestseller of its day.

The setting is sixteenth-century Europe and the premise is classically Gothic.  Teenage Emily St. Aubert has to leave her peaceful family home in the French countryside after her beloved parents die.  After enduring another painful separation from her beloved Valancourt, who would marry her if her aunt allowed it, Emily is forced to leave France and everything that she knows.  She must move with her aunt and her aunt's sinister new husband, a certain Montini, to Montini's isolated Italian castle, which appears to be haunted by at least one mysterious ghost, if not several.  In addition, Emily's captivating beauty and youthful innocence are such that nearly every man she encounters seems to want to marry or kidnap her.  She is subjected to the unwanted attentions of several remarkably persistent suitors and, at the castle of Udolpho, surrounded by bandits, Venetian prostitutes, and cavaliers who have turned to banditry to make a living.

Emily's chamber at Udolpho is down the corridor from a room which all the servants are terrified of, a room from which she thinks she can sometimes hear beautiful music being played.  In one corner of Emily's room is a sinister old door which leads down an unknown passage and which might permit anyone to force their way into her chamber as she sleeps at night.  And then there is the infamous black veil, the black veil which hangs over something extraordinarily gruesome, something utterly horrid... er, what is it? Emily faints not once but twice after having pulled back the veil and seen what lies behind it, but Radcliffe does not tell us what it was that terrified her heroine until nearly the end of the book!  I found this strange and very vexing, because like Catherine in Northanger Abbey I felt I had to know what was behind that veil.  Reading about Udolpho did give me a strong desire to visit some ruins and castles in the Gothic style, though not to spend the night in one of them!

Emily's guardian Signor Montini is no guardian at all, but rather wants to steal Emily's family fortune, and vows that he will torture or kill the young heiress if she does not sign over her estates to him.

Emily, while a rather uninteresting heroine in some respects and never what one might call "strong," nevertheless does have a strong response to Montini's demands:

"'You may find, perhaps, Signor,' said Emily, with mild dignity, 'that the strength of my mind is equal to the justice of my cause; and that I can endure with fortitude, when it is in resistance of oppression.'

'You speak like a heroine,' said Montini, contemptuously; 'we shall see whether you can suffer like one.'"

I liked Montini's sinister threat there!  It made my inner Catherine Morland gasp, 'Oh my, what next?'

Emily is the quintessential Gothic heroine who would inspire many others in the next century of literature, and she certainly does suffer in each setting she encounters (though the book is called The Mysteries of Udolpho, there are also a number of scenes in Venice, southern France, and at a monastery among other places).  She is oppressed and punished for her attempts to lead the sort of moral life she thinks her mother and father would have wanted for her, separated from the only person in the world who loves her (Valancourt), and mistreated by the people on whom she is legally dependent.

The theme of the importance of fortitude and inner strength resonates throughout the book.  Another reoccurring theme is the superiority of the life of the mind and the quiet admiration of nature over the corrupting influences of the city, material wealth, and vice which have made Madame Cheron (Emily's aunt) so frivolous and Montini so vicious.  Emily's father, a gentle and intellectual nobleman who gave up his life at Paris and other European capitals to retire to his country estate with his family, instills a love for nature in Emily, a love which is shared by her beloved Valancourt:

"'These scenes,' said Valancourt, at length, 'soften the heart, like the notes of sweet music, and inspire that delicious melancholy which no person, who had felt it once, would resign for the gayest pleasures.  They waken our best and purest feelings, disposing us to benevolence, pity, and friendship.'"

Landscape with Travelers by Salvator Rosa
 While I found Radcliffe's nature poetry to be mediocre and rather intrusive upon the story,  I did appreciate some of her scenery descriptions and I concur with Emily that nature and simple pleasures such as friendship, family, and good books are some of the greatest things in life, far superior to those material and industrialized things touted by some as indispensable.  I understood where Radcliffe was coming from and felt that this book helped me to better understand the times in which she wrote.

This was during the Industrial Revolution in England.  As cities and their populations expanded and industry grew, many people saw cities as centers of vice and inhumanity and longed for simpler times in the countryside before the time of enclosure and the building of railways.  The nostalgia for "medieval times" is far from new, but was a key part of Romanticism.  Like other British Romantic writers and artists, Radcliffe was enamored of landscape paintings like those of Salvator Rosa.  Salvator painted nature at its most gorgeous but, like Radcliffe, he also liked to create some seriously creepy scenes!  This beauty at right is entitled "Witches at Their Incantations."  It reminds me of some of Goya's darker paintings.

This combination of strong admiration for nature and fear of primeval darkness, barbarities of antiquity, and/or the supernatural is very evident in Udolpho.  At one point Emily comes across an old instrument of torture and, imagining the gruesome work it might have done in the not so distant past, she swoons.

Did I mention that Emily faints quite a lot?  I think everyone who has heard of Udolpho knows that the heroine faints all the time, and I did start the book knowing that much.  While she may be strong in fortitude and resistant to oppression, she is depicted as physically frail and easily overwhelmed.  I took the liberty of counting how many times Emily faints in the book, and I came up with eleven.  (I saw another reviewer on Goodreads said it was ten times, but I think they must have overlooked one scene where Emily fainted and then immediately fainted again upon reviving.)
Three Panel Review of Udolpho by Kate Beaton

While the fainting is a bit silly, Emily is somewhat justified in that she does end up in some truly harrowing situations.  The suspense  as Emily approaches the dreaded black veil or goes to plead with Montini on the behalf of her aunt is palpable, and once again I had difficulty putting the book down after I got through the first hundred pages. 

I was less thrilled with the last fourth or so of the book, which introduces many new characters all at once and contains a very silly plot twist, along with a pointless subplot about some secondary characters' adventures in a cave filled with bandits.  However, I did not find my attention lagging!  Another pet peeve is that we do not find out the fates of all of the characters, a few of whom disappear from the pages entirely.  Certain things are inconsistent; certain plot revelations are disappointing and others seem too incredible.

I did end up really enjoying Udolpho, though, and am very glad that I finally read it.  I would recommend to it any fan of Jane Austen and Northanger Abbey, which parodies many elements of this book, but also to anyone interested in the Gothic genre.  I am feeling brave enough to add Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest to my to-read list and I may even try another of her bestsellers, The Italian.  What did Ann Radcliffe have against Italians, anyway?

This book is

verbose                    melodramatic              suspenseful         chilling

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