From the back cover:
‘Her present life appeared like the dream of a distempered imagination, or like one of those frightful fictions, in which the wild genius of the poets sometimes delighted. Reflection brought only regret, and anticipation terror.’
Such is the state of mind of Ann Radcliffe’s orphaned heroine Emily St. Aubert, who 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.
Wikipedia says it best: “The Mysteries of Udolpho is a quintessential Gothic romance, replete with incidents of physical and psychological terror; remote, crumbling castles; seemingly supernatural events; a brooding, scheming villain; and a persecuted heroine.”
As the novel begins, Emily St. Aubert lives with her parents on a small estate in Gascony in France, where they dwell happily disengaged from the world and enjoy hanging out together amongst nature, thinking virtuous thoughts, and composing insipid poetry. These tranquil days come to an end when Emily’s mother dies of an illness. When her father soon after contracts it himself, they embark on a journey to the seaside where his health might be restored. Ultimately, he too passes away, but not before meeting and approving of Valancourt, a noble young man who develops a fancy for Emily.
After her father’s death, Emily is delivered into the custody of her aunt, Madame Cheron, an odious social climber who derives much enjoyment from the “exercise of petty tyranny” and refuses to consent to an engagement between Valancourt and her niece until she learns he has some wealthy relations. Meanwhile, the flattering advances of an Italian named Montoni secure him Madame Cheron’s hand in marriage, and soon the family is whisked off to Venice, where Emily pines away for Valancourt and composes more shitty poems. Eventually it becomes clear that Montoni hasn’t much money and is connected with some shady people, and the family dashes off once again, this time to the gloomy and isolated castle known as Udolpho.
At Udolpho, Emily is assigned a room to which a secret passageway connects, hears ghostly voices, spies apparitions on the parapet outside her window, and lifts a black veil on the wall in a secluded chamber to reveal a scene of such horror that she faints for the fourth out of what will be a total of eleven times. Montoni pressures Emily to marry a wealthy count, but she refuses to give her consent. After enduring threats and trickery on this point and others, Emily escapes in an anti-climactic fashion and returns to France with the intention of joining a convent. Ultimately, Emily and Valancourt reunite and there is much angst about the life of dissipation he led in Paris. Their storyline ends in a predictable fashion, but a few of the other small, lingering mysteries offer surprises.
While I can by no means claim that The Mysteries of Udolpho is a good book, it’s nonetheless an entertaining one. Though it has many flaws at which one might enjoy snickering, the depiction of Udolpho is a vivid one; I’m sure most readers, like me, find the middle section of the book to be most interesting because of the castle setting. I also appreciate that Valancourt is not depicted as the perfect hero, but is often hot-tempered and impulsive. Still, problems are abundant, and I shan’t shirk from enumerating them.
Firstly, and most significantly, Emily is fairly annoying. She’s sweet, graceful, pretty, skilled in the elegant arts, and keenly aware of propriety. This means she doesn’t actually do very much. She seeks to embody “the placid melancholy of a spirit injured, yet resigned,” which means she’ll suffer the horrible behavior of her aunt and Montoni to a highly frustrating degree, or permit misunderstandings to linger when some very basic explanation would clear up the matter. She occasionally shows some backbone and pride, but is equally likely to demonstrate incredible stupidity, like when she’s unable to tell the difference between the corpse of a strange man and that of her presumed-dead aunt. (If you believe this sight makes her faint, award yourself a cookie.)
Secondly, the writing is annoying. I’ve read classics before and am accustomed to there being more commas present than I would deem necessary today, but The Mysteries of Udolpho is positively inundated with them. Here’s a particularly egregious example:
As she walked round it, she passed a door, that was not quite shut, and, perceiving, that it was not the one, through which she entered, she brought the light forward to discover whither it led.
There is also a great deal of weeping and trembling going on. I consulted an e-book edition and, in a total of 831 pages, the word “tears” is used 199 times. “Trembling” yields 89 results. Assuming that each usage of “tears” is the only one on a page, that means that for nearly 25% of the book, someone is crying!
Lastly, I didn’t find The Mysteries of Udolpho to be at all spooky. “Atmospheric” is about as far as I would go in that direction, though I did enjoy the way Emily’s imprudently chatty maid, Annette, freaks out over various creepy circumstances. More than a horror novel or ghost story, the book reads as a kind of moral lesson, best summed up by Radcliffe herself in the novel’s penultimate paragraph:
O! useful may it be to have shewn, that, though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!
In the end, I’m glad to have read The Mysteries of Udolpho, particularly because I’ll now be able to understand the references made to it in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. And I admit I had fun counting how many times Emily faints.