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).
 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
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