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The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (thoughts)

April 10, 2013

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
Back in 2008, some bloggers organised a read-a-long of Northanger Abbey and The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, which I intended to join but then ended up not doing. Some of the bloggers didn’t get along with the Radcliffe at all, and based on that I just assumed I wouldn’t like her either. But then last week, inspired by Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing, and wanting an older book that had ‘large than life’ aspects to it, I decided it was time to give the mother of gothic lit a try.

And it turns out, I loved it! Emily, the heroine, is far from the simpering, hysterical, over-imaginative girl I expected. Instead, she firmly resists superstitions, looking for a rational explanation behind ghostly stories, uses all of the limited means at her disposal to protect herself in a dangerous situation, and stands firmly behind her principals, even when they require her to make heart-wrenching decisions. I also adored her love of nature and beauty, which provided her some consolation in her troubles and myself many landscape descriptions that brought the scenery to life before my eyes. I do appreciate a novelist with a strong sense of place, and Radcliffe’s own love for nature (and trees!) shines through. I was more than a little amused by Emily’s habit of composing poetry, which I’ll interpret generously as Radcliffe purposefully making unsophisticated in line with Emily’s own nature. But then, I’m older than Emily and haven’t quite forgotten my adolescent poet self! ;) I suppose some would call her a bit prim, with her concern for ethics, and almost impossibly regular kindness, which she shoes even to people who have treated her horribly, but she was far sturdier than, say, a Victorian angel of the house.

All in all, Emily and I got along excellently, and her adventures kept me turning the pages. I love that Radcliffe grounded the horror and danger of the novel not in the supernatural but in the very precariousness of a woman’s position at the time. Emily, as a minor, is of course subject to her guardian’s wishes, but her aunt, a noblewoman of considerable means, is only independent so long as she remains unmarried. Radcliffe paints a vivid picture of how the power granted every man (both in the earlier time the novel is set and Radcliffe’s own time) resulted in women entirely at the mercy of a man’s character. Emily’s father, a wise, gentle, generous scholar, makes her childhood a rich and peaceful one, and she and her mother are perfectly happy in the dependency. He is not given to tyrannies, petty or otherwise, which makes them fortunate. But as Emily, and the reader, learn after his death, there are all kinds of men in the world, and their power is independent of any morality. The plotting, with a variety of fun subplots that keep the reader guessing and even subvert expectations, is masterfully done: entertaining, witty, and suspenseful all at once.

In case you can’t guess, I highly recommend The Mysteries of Udolpho! Written in 1794, in many ways it feels fresher and more modern than the Victorians I’ve read. Any one who loves Wilkie Collins will find much to delight themselves in Ann Radcliffe, to whom he clearly owes a great literary debt. But I also think those who don’t get along as well with nineteenth century lit should give the eighteenth century a go; the style is so much more exuberant it’s almost impossible not to be won over. Novels were a new form then, and that comes across in the playfulness and authorial enjoyment. No worldly ennui here, just delightful story telling and vivid characters who are bursting with life.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2013 6:06 pm

    I haven’t yet read this despite my fascination for these kind of stories. I think that perhaps I also had the idea that Emily would be tiresome. But after reading Sir Charles Grandison I’ve developed a taste for literature from the late 1700’s — like you mention, it feels fresh and modern! I think I might have to give this a go, as I was planning on rereading Northanger Abbey soon for its references to Sir Charles G, which I didn’t catch the first time around (years ago!)

  2. April 10, 2013 6:17 pm

    Oh yay, I’m glad you liked this! I’ve been meaning to read it for years and keep forgetting or not doing it. I had some of the same concerns about it that it sounds like you had so it is good to know they are (mostly) baseless.

  3. Jennifer permalink
    April 10, 2013 6:32 pm

    I love Northanger Abbey, but I’ve been hesitant about reading Udolpho due to the rather lackluster reviews I’ve come across. After reading your review, however, I’m willing to give the book a shot!

  4. April 10, 2013 7:01 pm

    been meaning to read this for forever!

  5. April 10, 2013 8:17 pm

    For the past few days I’ve actually thought about reading this book (though I don’t have a copy yet). I first heard about it when I was reading Northanger Abbey, since NA seemed to be making fun of the gothic genre. I always thought it was a romance though… Is it?

  6. April 10, 2013 8:24 pm

    I will definitely add this to my to-read list. Thanks!

  7. Alex in Leeds permalink
    April 11, 2013 6:09 am

    I’d definitely agree that if the 19th century doesn’t fit a reader the 18th century might be a better, quirkier literary hunting ground. I still have to read the Russ, it’s been on my wishlist for far, far too long. Will have to buy a copy on payday. :)

  8. April 11, 2013 7:32 am

    Looks really interesting-never considered reading it, even after I read NA- thanks!

  9. April 11, 2013 1:50 pm

    Since surprising the heck out of myself by falling in love with Northanger Abbey, I’ve wanted to read this…but well those “classics” fears die hard. :P I honestly think you may have just given me the courage I need with this post though. You really made it sound positively delightful!

  10. April 11, 2013 2:28 pm

    I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed this! I love Ann Radcliffe’s writing, though a lot of people seem to be put off by the long descriptive passages, which I can understand. If you want to try another of her books I would recommend The Italian as I thought it was even better than this one!

  11. April 13, 2013 10:44 am

    One of these days, I’m going to revisit this book. I read it in a class in college, so it’s sort of muddled up in my memory with a bunch of other similar books. Although I think I prefer the Victorian sensation novels, I did have a good time with the one Radcliffe novel (Romance of the Forest) that I read a few years ago, so I’m sure I’d enjoy some of her others.

  12. April 13, 2013 2:38 pm

    I didn’t really like Northanger Abbey but when I was younger I adored this book of her short stories (whose name I shamefully don’t remember) so I really ought to revisit Ann Radcliffe.

  13. April 13, 2013 6:57 pm

    I’ve yet to read any Radcliffe, but this sounds far better than any of the early Gothic novels I’ve read to date. Emily sounds more my cup of tea than the heroines I’ve come across (I wanted to subtitle Castle of Wolfenbach “She Fainted (Again)”), so perhaps I should make Udolpho my next Gothic novel attempt.

  14. April 14, 2013 4:13 am

    I first read The Mysteries of Udolpho many years ago, and loved it then, but it has faded somewhat from my memory- you make me want to re-read it : )

  15. April 14, 2013 11:55 am

    What an excellent and thoughtful review, Eva! I thought I had read this one, but I think I read The Monk instead at university. It was over 20 years ago, so some of the title I think I’ve read I end up having not… this goes onto my reading list right away. It sounds awesome, and a good forerunner to all the gothics I did read in my teens. lol

  16. Vipula permalink
    April 17, 2013 5:39 pm

    First of all, a fantastic and engaging review. And the fact that this book has been referenced in so many other of my favorite books..its high time I got around to reading it

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