The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (thoughts)
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.