Ann Radcliffe “The Mysteries of Udolpho” – book review

I’d been planning to read The Mysteries of Udolpho ever since I had first read Northanger Abbey. I bought myself a copy on a trip to my beloved Oxford Blackwell and it had been waiting on my shelf patiently for a few years now. It’s quite a chunky book. 

The novel is set in 16th century France and Italy –  with a an 18th-century English twist. The characters drink coffee and discuss the behaviour of “Frenchmen” with a curiously foreign perspective.  The heroine, Emily St. Aubert, is brought up in an idyllic villa in the French countryside by her loving parents. She plays her lute, draws sketches for amusement and occasionally writes poetry. One can imagine Elizabeth Bennett raising her eyebrows.

On a trip to the mountains with her father, Emily encounters a dashing young gentleman known by the name of Valancourt. He gets accidentally shot in the arm because Emily’s father mistakes him for a robber. Undeterred by this inauspicious start, Valancourt establishes himself as Emily’s admirer. 

After the death of Emily’s father Valancourt proposes, but as she is a terribly sensible young lady, she refuses him – unless the person who will be nominated for her guardian will consent. 

Unfortunately for Valancourt, Emily is placed under the guardianship of her aunt, Madame Cheron, who develops a rapid dislike to him. For a while, it looks like Madame Cheron might be made to see reason. However, Emily’s aunt soon falls under the spell of the mysterious Montoni – who marries her for her money. Emily and her aunt are whisked away to Venice. 

Valancourt suggests that he and Emily should elope, but because she is a terribly sensible young lady (yes, there is a pattern here) she refuses, saying that they should wait till she is of age.  This is more or less 200 pages in. 

Finally, after a short stay in Venice, count Montoni moves his wife and his ward to the castle of Udolpho, which he inherited from a woman who disappeared in the very mysterious circumstances…

Now the proper gothic novel fun begins, with the famous “black veil” and many ghostly noises. 

That said, The Mysteries of Udolpho are nowhere near as extravagant as something like the Castle of Otranto. Instead, the mysteries the heroine encounters often have a distinct Scooby Doo ring to them. The mystery might not be as mysterious as you imagine, when you calm down and have a little think about it. 

Radcliffe is interested interest in the ‘terror’ aroused by an indistinct idea in a person’s mind. Emily’s mind often dwells on moments in her past, or images that she has seen.

Radcliffe is fascinated by how the human imagination is taken up by a subject – this is clearly visible the plot devices she uses to entrance her readers. She knows exactly what not to describe in order to keep your attention fixed.  Even her descriptions of the mountains leave just enough room to be embellished by the reader’s imagination. What is even more remarkable is that Radcliffe at the time of writing The Mysteries of Udolpho had not been to the places she was describing. Instead, she made use of travel journals to build her detailed landcapes.

The romance in Mysteries of Udolpho is less awe-inspiring. Emily’s love interest, Valancourt, is quite underwhelming. I was expecting some heroic action, but instead, he just sort of sits still in the background, waiting for Emily to be miraculously delivered to him. Poor Emily manages to be terrified in two different gothic residences, and Valancourt is never around to do anything about it. 

I did enjoy The Mysteries of Udolpho, even though at times it felt a bit long. I’d certainly be happy to read another Radcliffe novel as a holiday read. 

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