A Modern Reader’s Frustrations With The Mysteries of Udolpho

I’d been excited to read Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) since I first came up with my Classics Club Book List a few years ago. I haven’t read much Gothic fiction, but when I do I tend to enjoy it. And I knew this was one of the main inspirations for Jane Austen’s Gothic satire, Northanger Abbey (and you know how much I love Austen), so of course I was intrigued. Strangely, what surprised me most about Radcliffe’s most famous “classic work of Gothic fiction” is how much of it isn’t very Gothic at all.

The book is 223 years old, but still … spoiler warning.

The Mysteries of Udolpho opens with a pastoral travelog detailing the main character, Emily St. Aubert, and her father’s journey through picturesque Italy. There are a couple scenes with a harrowing flavor in the first of four volumes, but not many. Even after Emily’s father dies and she goes to live with her aunt in volume 2 there’s very little about the novel that feels “Gothic.” The setting isn’t gloomy, decaying, or haunted. There aren’t any supernatural elements. And there are only a few hints at a larger mystery. The heroine is a damsel and she’s in a bit of distress, but not much yet. The only hallmark of Gothic fiction that you see from start to finish in this novel is a focus on intense emotions (you know, the sort that inspire fainting fits and romantic swoons).

A Modern Reader's Frustrations With The Mysteries of Udolpho | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Emily is a master of fainting. Graphic from “How to tell you’re reading a Gothic novel

The novel becomes recognizably Gothic only after we arrive at the Castle Udolpho on page 226 (out of 672 in the edition I read). And now, suddenly, it’s very Gothic. We have a creepy house that becomes almost a character in its own right. We have mysterious rooms, whispered histories of possible murder, unbridled villains (who still manage not to physically harm the heroine), secret passageways, dead bodies, and rumors of ghosts.

This was my favorite part of the novel because it’s what I’d been expecting. But it doesn’t last even half the book, since Emily escapes on page 451 and has no further contact with the villain, Montoni, who conveniently dies off-page before making any further trouble. It’s also a hallmark of Radcliffe’s writings that she leaves nothing with a supernatural hint unexplained, so before the story ends all the ghosts, murders, and mysteries are explained in such a mundane or outlandish fashion that it robs the story of a spine-tingling emotional pay-off.

For example, in the Blake Veil incident Emily lifts a curtain and swoons because what she saw behind it was so dreadful. That happens shortly after arriving at Udopho, but it isn’t until the end of the novel that readers learn she thought she saw the body of a murdered woman. Emily is left under that illusion. For us, Radcliffe explained that it was actually a wax figure molded to resemble a decaying corpse that a previous owner of Udolpho was assigned to look at every day as penance to remind him of his mortality. He put it in his will that all future owners of Udolpho should do the same or forfeit a good chunk of their land to the church, but they just hung a curtain over it ans locked the room. Mystery solved! (though honestly the idea that Montoni left a murder victim in the room would have been less fantastic).

A Modern Reader's Frustrations With The Mysteries of Udolpho | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Illustration from The Mysteries of Udolpho
(1806 edition)

I haven’t mentioned the romance yet because honestly there isn’t much to tell. Valancourt is a character throughout most of the novel but he doesn’t really do much. He befriends Emily and her father then spends most of his time after the father’s death moping around Emily’s home hoping she’ll step into the garden so he can declare his passionate love for her. While she’s in Udolpho he’s in Paris ruining his reputation. And when she returns, they get so tangled in miscommunication that they almost don’t get married. I found the romance incredibly frustrating because they were always so emotional that they wouldn’t just talk with each other.

In case it’s not clear by now, I didn’t really like this book. If you want to give Radcliffe a try I’d recommend The Romance of the Forest (which I read in college for my research project). It’s much shorter and, in my opinion, a more enjoyable read. So why was The Mysteries of Udolpho a best-seller in it’s day and now Radcliffe’s most famous work?

Perhaps the answer lies in an observation made in the introduction to my Oxford World’s Classic’s edition. This intro points out that while Radcliffe rationalizes the supernatural in the outside world of her novel, she “presents the mind itself as a kind of supernatural entity.” It is the characters’ perceptions of what is going on in the world around them that adds a magical, mysterious flavor to the story. Radcliffe gave the novel’s first readers “a fantasy about the mind itself” being haunted.

For modern readers this idea isn’t anything new. We live in a post-Freud world where we’re accustomed to thinking of our minds as having layers that we don’t fully understand and reading stories that explore how a character’s psyche unravels under stress. But for Radcliffe’s readers it was a new kind of thrilling, escapist reading even when the plot was a mess. The way she accomplished this psychological character exploration isn’t what we’re used to today and it feels sloppy to me an I suspect other modern readers. I usually find 18th and 19th century literature very accessible, but in this case I just couldn’t connect with the story.A Modern Reader's Frustrations With The Mysteries of Udolpho | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Click here to get a copy of The Mysteries of Udolpho. Please note that this is an affiliate link. This means that, at no additional cost to you, I will receive a commission if you click on the link and make a purchase.

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2 thoughts on “A Modern Reader’s Frustrations With The Mysteries of Udolpho

  • You said you haven’t read much but are there any other gothic 18th and 19th century novels would you recommend?

    I used to struggle with classic literature because my ADHD wouldn’t allow me to focus but since joining Audible I’ve found audiobooks make them much more accessible. I have since read The Picture of Dorian Gray and Frankenstein, though I didn’t like Frankenstein as much as I thought I would because of all the emotion. Dorian was great. I wasn’t too sure about trying Dracula because I don’t usually care for vampire stories.

    I only heard of Radcliffe because of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which is a fantasy that is set in her time period, and they make some jokes about her novels. I was thinking of trying one, but perhaps her novels are only jokes in JSMN because they are as you describe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you want to try a Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest is much shorter and (I thought) more enjoyable than Udolpho but it will still give you a good idea of what makes her writing style unique. It’s not as well known, though, so might be harder to find an audio version.

      I can’t think of any other Gothic novels I’d recommend, but for short stories you might like Edgar Allan Poe. I haven’t read many of his writings, but stories like “Fall of the House of Usher” have that Gothic feel.

      Liked by 1 person

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