Title: The Mysteries of Udolpho
Author: Ann Radcliffe
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link
I first learned of The Mysteries of Udolpho when I read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, a Gothic satire that describes the horrors of the black veil and Regency-era teenagers obsessed with this book. Catherine Morland was so taken by it that she began imagining all sorts of horrible happenings around her, only to realize that the world was not so bleak and villainous. I avoided reading it myself for such a long time mostly because of how ridiculous Jane Austen made it seem, but I think, upon finishing it and thinking about Austen’s gentle satire, that she enjoyed it too. Even Austen’s hero, Henry Tilney, had good things to say about it.
Ann Radcliffe had a big following among Romantic poets. John Keats called her “Mother Radcliffe”, and, with the gratuitous descriptions of scenery, it did not take long to realize why. If, like me, you enjoy that sort of thing, you are in for a treat, but it can be off-putting to a modern reader. The introduction to my edition was extremely helpful in approaching the book. It advised taking the long descriptions as a sort of meditation and to view the commas (so many commas!) as pacing as if the words were read aloud.
Emily St. Aubert begins the story living a secluded but very happy life with her parents in the French countryside during the 16th century. Radcliffe places an emphasis on country values versus city values. The St. Auberts do not care for riches or status, and instead value a simple life amid beautiful scenery, filled with quiet moments with loved ones. After her mother’s death, Emily travels to a warmer climate with her father for the sake of his health. During their journey, they meet the Chevalier Valancourt, of whom, Monsieur St. Aubert thinks approvingly, “This young man has never been at Paris.” The three travel together for some time, sharing an appreciation of nature and talking of books and common interests.
This cannot last, however. When Monsieur St. Aubert dies, he leaves Emily to the care of his sister, Madame Cheron. Madame Cheron does not have any patience for the newly-orphaned Emily, does not sympathize with her sensibility, and wants Emily to marry purely to better her aunt’s social standing. Emily is reunited with Valancourt, then cruelly separated from him when Madame Cheron marries Signor Montoni. She and Emily go with Montoni to Italy and eventually to his home, the Castle Udolpho. Once Emily and her aunt reach Udolpho, the plot begins to pick up. I could finally understand why Henry Tilney stole the book and would not wait for his sister Eleanor to continue reading aloud with her.
This book is filled with secrets, from the infamous black veil to the letters Emily’s father asks her to burn. Our heroine sometimes reacts with strength to the challenges she faces, but she also tends to faint a lot and then forget the horrid thing she saw. The frustrated reader then has to wait hundreds of pages to find out what is behind the black veil, though whatever it was is so awful that Emily will not go near the room again. The plot meanders at times and could use a good editor, but when it is gripping, it is truly so, and I found myself losing track of time during particularly exciting passages.
Reading it will enhance my appreciation during my next re-read of Northanger Abbey, but I hesitate to recommend it. If you have an interest in Gothic or Romantic literature, it may be for you. However, it requires a great time commitment and patience to make it through what may be, to some readers, tedious descriptions of scenery and frustration with the long intervals between introducing and revealing the secrets of Udolpho.