The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, by Ann Radcliffe – A Review

The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, by Ann Radcliffe (2008)Guest review by Br. Paul Byrd, OP

A deranged nun cloistered away in a convent hidden in the forests of southern France tells the story of when she used to be a beautiful, love-crazed noblewoman, the climax of which is her confession to persuading a married man to poison his wife—and that is just one of the many bizarre twists of Ann Radcliffe’s exciting classic Gothic tale, The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance,¹ the novel that inspired Jane Austen’s Gothic parody Northanger Abbey. It was because of Austen’s praise of Radcliffe’s novel, that I purchased Udolpho as summer reading—and how could I not, when sensible Mr. Tilney had this to say of it:

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days — my hair standing on end the whole time” (Ch. 14).

Udolpho is the story of the worst year in Emily St. Aubert’s life. Her mother dies, then her father dies, and she ends up in the care of an aunt with about as much sympathy and tenderness as the hideous Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park. This same aunt blocks Emily’s marriage plans to Valancourt, the man she loves, and takes her to Italy to live under the power of the tyrannical Montoni, the handsome fiend the aunt has just married. The narrator says, “As the carriage-wheels rolled heavily under the portcullis, Emily’s heart sunk, and she seemed, as if she was going into her prison; the gloomy court, into which she passed, served to confirm the idea, and her imagination, ever awake to circumstance, suggested even more terrors, than her reason could justify” (210). In fact, Emily’s fears are quite justifiable. While some of the subsequent terrors, seemingly supernatural, are eventually explained, the real dangers are horrific enough. Indeed, one of the most frightening scenes has nothing to do with ghostly apparitions, mysterious voices, veiled images, and haunting music—Radcliffe’s favorite tricks—rather it has to do with two drunken men chasing after Emily through the dark passages of the castle, competing to get to her first (398).

Not surprising, the vulnerability of women is a major theme of Udolpho—a theme cleverly symbolized by a bedroom door that cannot be locked from the inside (217-218). Radcliffe exposes not only the violence of men against women, but also the social system that limited women’s decision-making power over their own futures. There is no better symbol of this than the tragic character of the marchioness, forced by her father to marry a man she did not love for the sake of money, only to be poisoned by that same man when she was falsely suspected of committing adultery (606-607). In contrast, the strength of women is also highlighted in the novel, mainly through the portrayal of women as virtuous, rational human beings, as with Emily and several of the female side characters, such as the nuns and the female servants who care for Emily. Even the two villainous female characters—Laurentini di Udolpho and Madame Montoni—have conversions. Indeed, the former  exclaims: “What are riches—grandeur—health itself, to the luxury of a pure conscience, the health of the soul; and what sufferings or poverty, disappointment, despair—to the anguish of an afflicted one!” (596).

The above points to the most important theme of the novel, virtue rewarded, a common religious theme in novels of the Georgian Era. Udolpho is an important historical text, precisely because of the way it handles the subject of religion. Although the novel is set in 1584, in Catholic France and Italy, it has tale-tell signs of Eighteenth Century anti-Catholic British prejudice. Catholic devotions are frequently labeled superstitious (29-30, 84, and 194), and the regulated life of monks and nuns is condemned by one character as pretentious and stifling to real prayer (436, 439). There are also interesting touches of Rationalism’s emphasis on self-control (7, 539, 596), typical of the Anglicanism of Radcliffe’s time, and Romanticism’s emphasis on the power of nature to help the human person experience transcendence (8, 224, 436), a combination which reminds one of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.

Some of the less brilliant elements to the novel include the interspersion of poetry throughout the story, the interruption of the central plot by subplots, and the flatness of the characters, even the heroine. The mixing of poetry with prose in Udolpho is distracting, especially since the quality of it is not as high as that of the prose. The subplots, while tied in with the main plot eventually, are rather fantastic in subject and action. That said, they help sustain the agonizing pace that Radcliffe establishes from the beginning. These stories are designed to tantalize the reader’s imagination and keep the pages turning, which they do quite well, but they nevertheless seem to derail the main storyline. As for flatness in characters, that may be allowed for minor characters, but when the entire cast is flat, there is a problem. Even Emily, with all her tears, sighs, fainting spells, and prayers, lacks depth and development—though she is not without her moments of triumph, particularly in the wonderfully written scene in which she defends herself against Montoni when the latter attempts to bully her into a marriage with an Italian nobleman she despises (183-191).

At times, Udolpho is grossly melodramatic and sentimental, overly and simplistically pious; but despite these limitations and failings, Radcliffe’s novel is a wonderfully entertaining story, vividly described, with a roller-coaster plot that keeps the reader on the edge—a mix of the real and the imagined, with characters you love to hate, and others you would hate to see lose—all of which makes Radcliffe the rightful mother of a genre of literature that encompasses works ranging from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.  And lest we forget, Udolpho is also an interesting piece of Christian art, designed, like a parable, to teach its readers a simple biblical premise: “though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain…innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!” (620).

[1] Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, by Ann Radcliffe
Oxford University Press, USA (2008)
Trade paperback (736) pages
ISBN: 978-0199537419

Grand Giveaway

Enter a chance to win a copy of Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, by Ann Radcliffe by leaving a comment stating what intrigues you about this Gothic novel, or why you would take Henry Tilney’s excellent advice (or Br. Paul’s) and read it. Deadline to comment is midnight PT, Wednesday, August 17th, 2011. Winner to be announced on Thursday, August 18th, 2011. Shipment to US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck!

Br. Paul Byrd, OP is a solemnly professed friar of the Dominican Order of Preachers. Originally from Covington, KY, he earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Thomas More College and his master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology. In the fall of 2011, he will begin classes in the masters of writing and publishing program at DePaul University in Chicago, IL.  He is the author of the Dominican Cooperator Blog

© 2007 – 2011 Br. Paul Byrd, Austenprose

31 thoughts on “The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, by Ann Radcliffe – A Review

  1. A great review, Laurel Ann. I have yet to read this classic, and have been postponing it, thinking it might be too melodramatic for my taste… but I suppose that knowing this book is important for any fan of Jane Austen and Northanger Abbey in particular.

    How would you describe the style of writing in this novel? It was written at around the same time when Jane Austen began to write, so would you say that her prose resembles that of Jane Austen, with its slightly archaic language?

    Like

      • Hello, Anna,

        To answer your question, Radcliffe’s writing style resembles Austen’s in that it is very similiar to modern English, with a few archaic structure features and the occassional use of words or phrases that are uncommon to us or have slightly different meanings now.

        Her style is radically different from Austen’s, in that Radcliffe tends to spend a great deal of time painting the scene for her reader. Radcliffe loved nature, so the reader will hear much about trees and mountains and rivers, etc. Radcliffe also, as referenced in my review, talks much more freely about religion and emotion, which is why her novel feels pious and sentimental at times–not enough, however, to force me to stop reading, although there were several frustrating moments when I found myself exclaiming, “Oh brother!” or “give me a break!”–emotions I never experience with Austen.

        I look forward to reading more from Radcliffe’s canon.
        Br. Paul, OP~

        Like

  2. Br. Paul’s review helps us Jane-ites better understand the religious and rational strands of thought that led to both Udolpho and Northanger Abbey. If I recall correctly, Abbeys were the homes of Catholic nuns and monks that were closed by the British when they adopted Anglicanism, so knowing more about Udolpho from the perspective of a Dominican brother really adds to my understanding of both texts. Thank you and good luck with your continued studies! Melinda

    Like

  3. Since I began devouring Regency literature about 3 years ago, there have been too many references to THIS work to ignore it any further. Your enlightening historical background analysis has only hastened my desire to crack this book and read for myself. (precisely what a good review should do!) Having read Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson, I foresee I will discover in Udolpho faint similiarities to Richardson’s own melodramatic/sentimental style and the suppressive treatmet of women during that time period. Thank you, Brother Paul, for accelerating my curiosity.

    Like

  4. I have actually read most of Radcliffe’s novel and Udolpho was my first. I really think that Brother Paul has highlighted the aspects of this novel and subsequently Radcliffe’s other works. Radcliffe had a knack for highlighting the femmine aspect and in fact she was quite against the servitude of women as can be seen in her works.

    As a side note, of all of Radcliffe’s novels only one featured the genuine supernatural, Gaston de Blondeville, which was published posthumously.

    Like

  5. I haven’t been able to locate this novel in our local library and am unsure of whether it is worth the purchase. I am, however, a little more intrigued after reading a modern review. BTW, has anyone read Romance of the Forest from EMMA?

    Like

  6. Yet another addition to my To Be Read list…I confess a love for the melodramatic, and this fits that description to a T. What a lovely review by Bro. Paul!

    Like

  7. The two themes about the vulnerability and the strengths of women might make a very good discussion about how things have changed or not changed in some ways.
    I must admit I have never read any of Ann Radcliffe’s books but might do one day.
    The religious themes would be interesting to explore.

    Like

  8. Northanger Abbey inspired me to read this too! I was a little bored by the endless landscape descriptions but the story was fun and creepy and suspenseful! I liked it enough to read The Italian and Romance of the Forest! The lasting benefit has been an increased appreciation of the Tour de France (and the landscape, go figure!).

    Like

  9. i would take Tilney’s advice and read this with pleasure for the very quote with which Br Byrd has ended his excellent review. believing, with the author and Br Byrd, the “simple biblical premise: “though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain…innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!” (620).”
    looking fwd to it “) thank you!

    Like

  10. Ooh, Udolpho! Ever since reading Austen’s “Northanger Abbey”, I’ve kind of fallen in love with Gothic fiction, even taking a course in college that was all about women writers of Gothic fiction. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, we read Radcliffe’s “The Italian” and not “Udolpho.” I did (and still do) want to read “Udolpho”, however I don’t own a copy nor does my local library have a copy and thus it keeps getting pushed down further and further on my “to read” list. I always feel like a bit of a liar when I say I love Gothic fiction, having never read “Udolpho”; after reading this review, my appetite has been re-whetted!

    Like

  11. I’ve read other reviews where this book is described as hard to get through because of the poetry/prose mix and the meandering plot line. After reading Br. Paul’s review I would like to read the book. It seems there would be enough mystery to keep one intrigued throughout the story.

    Like

  12. I fell in love with Radcliffe and read Udolpho, The Romance of the Forest, and The Italian in senior year of college and what attracted me to her wasn’t just her brilliant way with terror (as opposed to horror in Lewis’s The Monk), but something simple: she wasn’t on any reading lists. I found her rich, rewarding, riveting, and reading her was a bit of a rebellion.

    I think Radcliffe deserves all those “r’s”–don’t you?

    Like

  13. Hang on a minute FHC,

    “And lest we forget, Udolpho is also an interesting piece of Christian art, designed, like a parable, to teach its readers a simple biblical premise: “though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain…innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!” (620).”

    Well yes that might be the intention and belief of the writer, Ann Radcliffe living in the period she lived but it is a rather simplistic statement. It portrays things as black and white. It’s rather unchristian to wish anybody ,”punishment certain.” here’s another biblical quote, “he who casts the first stone,” and “”Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

    Like

    • I didn’t take the quote as a wishing of punishment on anyone, more like ‘what goes around, comes around.’ People who make doing rotten things a way of life usually end up facing bad things (corrupt businessmen or sleazy politicians come to mind).

      Like

      • I believe I understand what your concerns are from your stated objections, but I politely disagree. Radcliffe’s view isn’t passé Christianity, it is a living thought firmly rooted in scripture. The particular passage I had in mind when I called her conclusion “biblical” was Psalm 37 which opens: “Do not fret because of the wicked;/do not envy those who do evil:/for they wither quickly like grass/and fade like the green of the fields.” The Psalm goes on to explain this theme further, and several of the psalms have this message. The celebration of the triumph of good over evil permeates Jewish and Christian scripture—for example, in narratives like Esther, Tobit, and Judith—and in much of the literature produced by Christian cultures, especially genres like sci-fi and fantasy where the depiction of the battle between good and evil is so blatantly played out—think Harry Potter.

        That said, there is a very real tension in the Judeo-Christian scriptures rooted in “mercy” and “justice”. It is not wrong, for example, for a Christian to rejoice in the punishment of the wicked, precisely because in the school of justice, people deserve to be punished for wrong doing. The school of mercy recognizes this, but also hopes that the individual, through punishment, comes to be reconciled. A wonderful illustration of this is the novel The Color Purple. It would be absurd for someone to read the first part of that book and not want the character Mister to be punished. Yet, the author, Alice Walker, takes us one step further and shows us that it is even better to have the wicked character come through the punishment to repentance. But he had to be punished to get there, and he was better for it, and, of course, he deserved it. Acknowledging that is not unchristian. Indeed, there is a real sense that what one is really rejoicing in is not the punishment of the wicked, but the victory of goodness.

        Of course, when one wants to discuss Christian teaching, there is no better source for insight than Jesus, as you showed in your two quotes. In the Gospels we find a Jesus who perfectly marries the two schools of justice and mercy. You cannot read the Gospels and think that Jesus did not believe that people who do wicked things should not be punished, for even while he did everything he could to open the way for repentance, it is clear that people are still free to reject moral living, and, as a consequence, merit punishment. Think of the line, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:12) that directly refers to, without embarrassment, the punishment of people who did wicked things and never repented. Think, also, of Jesus’ explanation of the Last Judgment when the wicked will be told “You that are accursed depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…” (Matt 25:42). The judgment here is unlike the judgment referred to in the two quotes you used, in the sense that what Jesus was addressing in your two quotes was self-righteous judgment of one’s neighbors. That’s not at all the kind of judgment examined in Radcliffe’s Udolpho , Rowling’s Harry Potter, or Walker’s The Color Purple. Their’s has to do with the cosmic reality of good vs. evil—the fact that evil really does exist; it really can try to break the human soul; and it must be fought against—and when it has lost, the good have every right to rejoice. The kind of judgment you’re referring to is precisely the kind that Jane Austen examines, exposes, and condemns in her novels—judgment built on hypocrisy and hatred that works against the good of the soul.

        Just to conclude, the statement was simple, but I do not think it was simplistic, and I think Radcliffe’s moral was thoroughly main-line Christian—although, people from other faiths or no-faiths can also relate to her message. Also, a Christian thinker who illustrates what I have been talking about above in much greater richness and depth is C. S. Lewis in his little work: Reflections on the Psalms. He is comfortable about discussing his Christian discomfort with the themes of judgment and punishment in the Psalms, and gives insights into how a Christian might interpret those messages.

        Thank you for your challenge. It is hard to explain everything in the constraints of a book review, so I appreciate your concerns.
        Br. Paul, OP

        Like

  14. I think he said it best by saying this, “At times, Udolpho is grossly melodramatic and sentimental, overly and simplistically pious; but despite these limitations and failings, Radcliffe’s novel is a wonderfully entertaining story, vividly described, with a roller-coaster plot that keeps the reader on the edge—a mix of the real and the imagined, with characters you love to hate, and others you would hate to see lose” How can a true Janeite ignore Udolpho after JA’s and Br. Paul’s endorsements!

    Like

  15. I think the line about the door being locked from the outside only symbolizes the life of women until the mid 20th Century. I find reading some early novels to be claustrophobic or even P&P when Jane cannot write to Bingley asking for an explanation for his hasty departure from Hertfordshire. Excellent analysis. Thank you.

    Like

  16. I have heard so much about this novel but I have yet to read it. And since Mr. Tilney recommends it, how can I resist!!

    Like

  17. Ever since I first read Northanger Abbey I have wanted to read this amazing book that causes dreams and fantasies galore! And if Mr. Tilney himself recommends it on top of all that – wow! It must be one amazing read :)

    Like

  18. I have read “Udolpho” many times and part of the joy is simply finding a copy hence why I suppose I need to get my own. It’s always amazing to me that the book is not more prominent being mentioned in Austen and also heralded as a gothic classic. Every time I read it, I simply imagine Austen delighting in it and it’s irresistible terror. Sharing another book with Austen-priceless. No wonder Mr. Tilney recommends it so.

    Like

  19. I’ve heard so much about this book from Jane Austen’s book, and I was so interested, but haven’t had the chance to read it yet. I want to read the books Jane Austen read, to see what influenced her the most.

    Like

  20. I love how Mr. Tilney (a fictional character) comments on a book–I don’t know why that intrigues me, but it does, and since I find his opinion so amazing, I’m sure I’ll agree with him again! :)

    Like

  21. Pingback: Giveaway Winner Announced for The Mysteries of Udolpho « Austenprose – A Jane Austen Blog

Comments are closed.