Ann Radcliffe's orphaned heroine Emily St. Aubert finds herself imprisoned in her evil guardian Count Montoni's gloomy medieval fortress in the remote Apennines. Terror is the order of the day inside the walls of Udolpho, as Emily struggles against Montoni's rapacious schemes and the threat of her own psychological disintegration. A best-seller in its day and a potent influence on Sade, Poe, and other purveyors of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Gothic horror, The Mysteries of Udolpho remains one of the most important works in the history of European fiction. --from publisher description
The frequent, and sometimes beautiful, descriptive passages concerning the Gascony countryside, the Pyrenees, the Alps, were interrupted, invariably, by a black, cloud, of no-see-um, commas that bit me repeatedly - b,z,b,z,z,z ,z, z,z z,z,z,.
Then too, I stumbled time after time over the syntax - most often a log of a preposition a ",that," or a ",which," "therefore"; or appositive phrase. For example,
"Annette obeyed, and Emily returned to the agonizing considerations, that had assailed her before, but which she, at length, endeavored to soothe by a new remark. If the stranger was Valancourt, it was certain he had to come alone, and it appeared, therefore, that he had been able to quit the gardens, without assistance; a circumstance which did not seem probable, had his wound been dangerous."
Again, to use an Alaskan image, from a different season, the experience was like following a footpath through a winter wonderland but where the snow had melted and refrozen, so that every third or fourth step, one's contemplation of the scenery was disturbed by one's foot breaking through the crust.
I would rather have watched the movie - if only there were a movie. If only Stanley Kubrick had chosen to make a film of Udolpho instead of Thackeray's Barry Lyndon. The same techniques he used in the latter - of natural but dimmer lighting indoors and sweeping vistas outdoors - would have been well suited to the strength's of Radcliffe's visual imagination. Further, Kubrick's touch with villainy, and dread, would have served him well in depicting Count Montoni, the interior of the Castle of Udolpho, and the scene of Ludovico's disappearance.
The narrative is engaging and moves apace, the characters do unfold, the scenery is lush, the chateau and castle are creepy...but you do have to hack and hack and hack to clear away the brush. What's left is a Romantic, gothic tale - with a dash of feminism - about a young woman's perils and obstacles in obtaining the property and love she deserves.
And I almost forgot to mention - the gratuitous and random interjections of poetry. Well, to continue with the fishing trip analogy, they're a bit like the off-color jokes of a guide/pilot - sometimes perfect, sometimes boring, and sometimes embarrassing.
Lots of gothic delights to be had (or at least to roll your eyes at). It almost seems to me like Radcliffe might be having a little fun with the gothic tropes here, and she has some excellent set-piece scenes that work really nicely.
Odd? Yes. Long? Yes. Silly, at times? Yes. Worth it? You bet.
Fans of Austen, especially Northanger Abbey, will find that familiarity with Udolpho provides a greater richness to Austen's novels. But more than that, Udolpho gives insight to 18th century thought regarding Deism, Sensibility, Benevolence, patriarchy, feminism &c &c and it comments upon philosophy that came out of the Enlightenment, such as Rousseau's idea that man is naturally good (as compared to Locke's statement that man is naturally wicked).
Beyond the academic worth, I still think the Mysteries of Udolpho is fantastic and it is something that I'm glad to have read and will likely find myself reading again in the future.
Ever since I first read Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, I've wanted to read The Mysteries of Udolpho, the book Northanger's heroine, Catherine Morland, found so fascinating. But, I've spent years putting off reading Radcliffe's most well-known work because I'd heard it's long and boring and because it was published in the 18th century and I wasn't sure I'd be able to understand it; basically I was scared.
Then before rereading Northanger Abbey earlier this year I decided I was going to try and read an 18th century gothic novel. I picked The Castle of Otranto by Hugh Walpole because it was the shortest and surprised myself by quite enjoying it. I decided this meant there might be hope I could read Udolpho and provided myself with the Oxford World’s Classics edition from the library.
I found this book a lot more enjoyable than I expected to. I can understand why people find it boring and silly; there are a lot of passages describing the beautiful scenery of the south of France and Italy where the story is set, Radcliffe writes in very long sentences, the characters will randomly compose poetry which Radcliffe includes in the text and the heroine faints a lot. It took me quite a while to get used to Radcliffe’s prose and I found I needed to read this book at a much slower pace than usual to appreciate it but once I’d managed to adjust to this I took a great deal of pleasure in this dreamlike tale.
Several aspects of the book surprised me. The first was that the heroine, Emily St Aubert, is a real heroine, not a pathetic girly-girl despite the number of times she faints. Although essentially a demure heroine, Emily’s struggle against her evil guardian is something she is left to cope with on her own; orphaned, separated from her fiancé, with only a maid who is almost Shakespearean in her loquaciousness to support her, and she is successful in this lone struggle. Yes, in her final escape from the castle she is assisted by a man, but in my eyes, by that point, the battle has already been won.
Secondly, one of the things Radcliffe seems to be trying to get across with this book is the idea that self-restraint should be exercised over one’s emotions rather than giving them free rein. This doesn’t mean that she thinks emotions are bad, her long descriptions of the scenery are, after all, trying to evoke emotions of awe and wonder in the reader, she does seem concerned that sensibility can be dangerous if encouraged to excess. This made me wonder how much of Jane Austen’s parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey was at least in part, a parody on the public reaction to Radcliffe’s book rather than the book itself. If Catherine Morland had read Udolpho more carefully she would have known not to encourage her sensibilities and the embarrassing scene with Henry in his mother’s room could have been avoided.
A note on the Oxford World’s Classics edition: I found the notes in this edition really very helpful as in addition to explaining any 18th century words or phrases a 21st century reader would be unfamiliar with; they also gave a lot of background to the areas of 18th century philosophy and thinking which Radcliffe was drawing on. The introduction by Terry Castle was also very good but, like most introductions, I wouldn’t recommend reading it until after you’ve finished the book.
This novel is not for the faint of heart. And I don't mean that the subject matter is particularly terrifying. Instead, if you pick up this book, be prepared for a novel that is very much of its period. It is a Gothic novel with the biggest capital G you can imagine. There are tragic deaths all over the place, murders, possible ghosts, a heightened romance that is constantly under threat, and Emily only managed to make it through a single chapter without crying once. With all of that going on, I did enjoy it and all of its very conventional genre conventions. This is not my first Radcliffe novel nor will it be my last. And I'm pleased that I now know exactly what is lurking behind the black veil that Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe spend so much time discussing in Northanger Abbey.
His Castle Udolpho has all the stock trappings of the Gothic: the medieval architecture, the heavy tapesteries, the veiled and oddly familiar portraits, requisite secret passages, horrible sights in the dungeons, mysterious apparitions, hinted murders, and ghostly voices. Through it all, Emily finds time to write a fair amount of poetry. (It's not for nothing the novel's subtitle is "A Romance Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry".)
Radcliffe was one of the most influential Gothic writers, and this 1794 work is generally regarded as her best.
Is it worth reading today solely on its own merits? Not quite. Radcliffe's story is too long, her reveries over landscape wearisome. There is a flavor of earnest moral instruction as Emily not only struggles to master her emotions, but Radcliffe, in her contrived solutions to supernatural mysteries, is intent on stamping out the unreasonableness of superstition.
Yet, there is not just great sentiment but psychological insight too. And the ending is surprising despite the inevitable familiarity of many of the story's trappings.
Matthew Lewis _The Monk_ is much more fun, a distillation of much of Radcliffe's images and tropes into a delightfully lurid and supernatural plot. (To extend Stephen King's metaphor that the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole's _The Castle of Otranto_ was the genre's Elvis Presley and Lewis' novel its Sex Pistols, one is tempted to say this is its prog rock.) But students of the genre and the novel in general will want to read one of the most popular Gothics and study Radcliffe's technique -- including her somewhat clumsy backstory passages.
Finally, it would be a mistake to leave the impression this is just a novel of fear and anxiety. The love between Valancourt and Emily makes this a romance in every sense of the word.
Ann Radcliffe's "The Mysteries of Udolpho" has all that in spades. The unfortunate heroine Emily St. Aubert struggles to keep her emotions in check as she is essentially imprisoned in the Gothic castle of Udolpho by the dastardly Montoni. Cue plenty of weeping and fainting as events unfold at the creepy castle.
Going in, you should know that Radcliffe's book is a Gothic romance -- so there are plenty of overwrought scenes and vivid (often delicious) descriptions of the landscape that serve as a precursor to the emotions evoked in the following chapters. Yet, the story itself (especially volumes two and three) is not only compelling, but at times is sublime.
I'm told (by a friend who is an English professor) that Udolpho was the Harlequin romance of its day -- all of the famous literati were secretly reading it but unwilling to admit it. I can completely understand why, as the book, written in 1794, is still readable and enjoyable even today.
1005 The Mysteries of Udolpho Volume Two, by Ann Radcliffe (read 21 Apr 1969) I finished the second volume of this two-volume work on 21 April 1969. Written in the 1790's, it is quite a story. Slow-moving, inartful, it yet caught me up. Emily St. Aubert, a fainty girl of 20, is taken by her mean aunt to an Italian castle, Udolpho, where she had various scary adventures. She finally escapes fairly easily, and the rest of the book traces the difficulty of Valancourt--abandoned, rejected, but then triumphant. Sir Walter Scott does all this much, much better. Is it worthwhile to read more of these early Gothic novels? [I must have concluded it was not, since I don't recall reading any others.]
'Besides, my dear sire, poverty cannot deprive us of intellectual delights. It cannot deprive you of the comfort of affording me examples of fortitude and benevolence; nor me of the delight of consoling a beloved parent. It cannot deaden our taste for the grand, and the beautiful, or deny us the means of indulging it; for the scenes of nature – those sublime spectacles, so infinitely superior to all artificial luxuries! are open to enjoyment of the poor, as well as the rich. [...] We retain, then, the sublime luxuries of nature, and lose only the frivolous ones of art.' (59-60)
I read this book in search of pre-1882 fictional female scientists. Emily St Aubert approximates one in some ways-- she is trained in reason, and she is able to control her emotions better than many of the men she encounters, she looks at plants-- but as I believe the above quotation shows, she is not one. Emily enjoys grand vistas, and her father is a botanist, but neither of them study nature in the way that we would now call scientifically. They appreciate it aesthetically; they are not out there to objectively analyze it, or to catalogue it in that way a Victorian might. Similarly, Emily might have a handle on her emotions, but it's not because of any kind of scientific training, more a general kind of intellectual training. Now, I think all of this derives from the same Age of Enlightenment set of values that, at the time The Mysteries of Udolpho was written, was giving birth to what we now call science, but it is not quite the same thing as science, and so therefore Emily is no scientist or woman of science; perhaps her father is a naturalist at best.
Also, can I say that I have now read two of Ann Radcliffe's Gothic novels, and both were exceedingly dull? I know the past is another country and all, that's what I've devoted my life to explicating, but how anyone found this book suspenseful is beyond me. The occasional snatch of spooky music is not enough to carry one through hundreds of pages of tedium before someone finally gets probably murdered over three hundred pages in. By that point, the eternally virtuous Emily had caused me to completely check out. I did dutifully plow through to the end, but by the end, the skimming was highly aggressive.
Still, you cannot appreciate Northanger Abbey if you have not read this book. Emily is 100 times more plucky than flighty Catherine Morland - but by no means as interesting.
Very lengthy book with scenery described in agonizing detail - oddly characters descriptions are limited or nonexistent. I agree with other reviewers that the main character and other women in the novel are prone to weeping for hours on end or fainting. So much so, that you want to say "buck up and get on with it." I stayed with it and enjoyed the ending which was less scenery descriptive and more action driven.
I did however find the final explanation of the mysteries satisfying, and the desire to find out the truth certainly kept me reading to the end. I also liked some of the characters; Annette was particularly vivid and Ludovico was perhaps the actual hero of the tale.
I don't think I'll read any more of Radcliffe's works, and while I'm glad I did try this one, will most certainly not read it again!
This is a rag to riches tale for the poor orphaned Emily and also for her penniless and somewhat weak Valancourt.
The audio read by Karen Cass is excellent. She is really great with voices for the various characters.
Point of interest, this story has a prominent role in Northanger Abbey