Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 9, 2010

The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), by Ann Radcliffe

Ann Radcliffe (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

I hesitated about blogging this one, in case it frightens away my readers… but then I thought it was only fair to warn you about it. If, like me, you pay desultory attention to the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die you too might get sucked into reading The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe.

I grew up on reading The Classics, and I studied some of them in (undergraduate) depth at university.  I think today’s young people are deprived if they don’t get an introduction to these books at school because they are the bedrock of my love of reading.   But The Mysteries of Udolpho is one that had escaped my attention until I was looking for something to read on the Kindle on the plane home to Oz – let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t come across it first all those years ago…I might well have taken up rock-climbing or tatting instead of reading in my spare time.

I can’t do better than to quote ‘Elizabeth’ from Good Reads who advises these pre-requisites to enjoy this book:

1. Have a long held belief that you are missing some of Jane Austen’s jokes in Northanger Abbey.
2. Have read The Castle of Otranto A Gothic Story or a similar. It helps if you’ve studied early Gothic literature as well. 
3. Go with your hopeless romantic streak and indulge in many solitary walks, poetry-writing hours, and sighing with dejection over the loss of a recent love (this is to put you in the mood). 
4. Pretend you don’t notice when Radcliffe mentions cafés serving coffee in Venice, literate servants, and pistols (the story is set in 1584). 
5. Look up the word melancholy in a good dictionary and get familiar with the many nuanced variations of its meaning.  

Melancholy is right: my goodness, the heroine does a lot of weeping – and she even passes up a nicely cooked pheasant out of grief – what a waste!  But ‘Elizabeth’ has omitted to mention that one also needs a high tolerance for

  1. Excruciating passionate compositions from the beleaguered heroine.  Visit one of those Publish Your Poetry Here sites and you will get some idea though you will most likely escape the ‘merry swain’, the ‘thymy gales’ and ‘the fern crown’d nymphs of lake or brook’.  (Mind you, you have to admire the fortitude of a heroine who can set herself to writing poetry when she has been despatched into the care of brigands who (she thinks) plan to murder her. I’m also impressed by Emily’s forethought in taking her books with her when she sets out to be murdered.  I hope I would have remembered to do that too, because, my goodness, it does help when your life is in grave peril to have a nice book to read. )
  2. ‘Padding’  to rival the most loquacious of authors.  The heroine (Emily) and her father St Aubert set out on an ill-advised journey around the Pyrenees in France where they are forever in peril of not finding a bed for the night or even worse *shock horror* having to bed down in a *gasp* peasant’s cottage. So each day of these meanderings provides Radcliffe with opportunities to share her exhaustive (and exhausting) knowledge of the scenery, the flora, the butterflies et al. These are impressive since Radcliffe did not apparently ever visit most of them, but they can be skipped without any apparent impact on the plot.


When Emily’s parent dies (of melancholy) the heroine’s memories of these places (and everywhere else they’ve ever been) provide countless opportunities for paroxysms of weeping over many days and weeks. These do not result (as such excess would with you or me) in a swollen nose and bloodshot eyes and damp disgusting hankies but rather make her more lovely than ever.

Ah, those 19th century* young ladies, they sure knew how to do self-indulgent emotions!  There was no rushing off to work or to the supermarket to be done, so they could just moon about while the servants did the washing and plucked the pheasants – and there was nearly always a man handy when they fainted with the emotion of it all …

The Mysteries of Udolpho is 19th century chick-lit: soppy romance with a stern dose of didacticism.  So why is it recommended by 1001 Books?     Because it is considered the archetypal Gothic novel.  It has a virtuous heroine, and all its supernatural features can be traced back to natural causes, (even if some of them are pretty lame).   Jane Austen poked fun at it in Northanger Abbey because of its excesses – a parody which guaranteed The Mysteries of Udolpho a place in fiction which it might otherwise not have today.

This is what 1001 Books has to say about it:

…where [Radcliffe] really succeeds is in the creation of a likeable and strong heroine.  Although rarely considered a feminist, Radcliffe conveys a significant underlying message about the importance of female independence.  Despite her apparent weakness and the extremity of her fears, Emily ultimately defeats Montoni through the strength of her own free will and her moral integrity.  The Mysteries of Udolpho offers not just the supernatural horrors created by the imagination; the true horror that Emily must face is the dark side of human nature, a more potent terror than anything conjured by the mind. (p74)

Needless to say, I don’t find this a very convincing argument for investing much time on reading the book, but Radcliffe had so many twists and turns in her absurd plot that I read on merely to discover how she could extricate herself from the mess.

Someone asked me the other day, what’s gothic fiction?  Wikipedia says it’s a genre that combines horror and romance, and it’s characterised by

  • depiction of extreme emotion, (Emily’s ecstatic grief, she wallows in it after her father’s death);
  • the thrills of fearfulness  and awe inherent in the sublime, (Emily’s predilection for late night walks alone in the dark so that she can frighten herself with spooky sounds and possibly have an encounter with a ghost or a bandit; also her transports of delight over Italian music);
  • a quest for atmosphere (the interminable descriptive passages celebrating isolation, vulnerability, the enormity of the rural landscape, looming mountains, melancholy nightingales, crumbling Gothic buildings representing decay etc); and
  • (most importantly) a focus on terror,  (both psychological and physical), (bad things that happen to Emily which I discuss below so don’t read on if you intend to ignore my advice and go on to read this book. )

Gothic fiction features mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses and Gothic architecture, castles, darkness, death, decay, doubles, madness, secrets, and hereditary curses.  There is an abundance of all of these features in The Mysteries of Udolpho, and it also employs what Wikipedia calls the stock characters of Gothic fiction i.e. the persecuted maiden (Emily), a Byronic hero (the elusive Valancourt who has lost his fortune – and Emily needs one), and an evil villain (Count Morano, whose villany is not considered a liability in the marriage market.   Alas for  Emily her plans to marry Valancourt are thwarted when it is decided to marry her off  to this brigand (a) to solve the financial woes of his friend Montoni (the husband of Emily’s mean, selfish and shallow aunt, Madame Cheron, who (b) wants to be rid of the burden of being Emily’s guardian).

On a Kindle, you have to read about 20% of this very long book before these more interesting characters emerge.  After the journey that orphans Emily she has to go off with the aunt and live the high life (parties, balls, wear elegant clothing) but Emily is too good for such dissolute vulgarity and spends a lot of time being shocked and dismayed by how shallow her aunt is.  She is especially indignant about her aunt’s accusations that she is harbouring an affection for an unsuitable suitor.  (She is, it’s Valancourt, and he commits grave social sins – such as visiting when she’s alone after her father died  (servants in the house don’t count as people)  and turning up without an invitation at Aunt Charon’s place. )

As with Emily, Valancourt’s fortune depends on getting an inheritance from a barren aunt,  so there is an on-again/off again engagement until the aunts perceive that there are better, more secure, investments in the offing.  Emily is carted off to Italy to ensure that there is no mischief between the lovers, and again the servants have lots of hankies to  wash.  If you’ve read your Shakespeare, you know that there is corruption and vice ahead, because their destination is not the simple homely rustic charms of France that so enraptured Emily and her father, but rather *gasp* Venice, home of venality and wickedness, and Italy is in a ‘convulsed state’ politically to boot!

The intrepid travellers plunge into their journey through a war-ravaged landscape but escape unscathed.  This is because the aunt’s new (and not-to-be-trusted) husband is an Italian and therefore sneaky.  He unsportingly dons and doffs military colours to manoeuvre between military engagements and bring the party safely to his (decaying) mansion on the Grand Canal.    (Here I am reminded of Enid Blyton’s predilection for assigning Italian or Spanish background to all her sneaks and thieves, a fate she does not usually inflict on the French.  Why is that??)

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Before long before the dastardly plot unfolds.  Emily’s best friend in her travails is her lute, and the wicked Count Moroni plays it too.  Besieged by his suit, Emily longs to be at Montoni’s mysterious Castle Udolpho and heavyweight hints remind the reader about the mysterious deathbed promises that she had to make to her father about the fate of the family château.  Of course things go from bad to worse when it turns out that Moroni doesn’t have the money that Montoni hoped he had.  (Montoni is remarkably lax about researching the financial status of those he would have rescue him from his debts.  First he marries Madame Cheron only to find out she hasn’t got enough, and then Emily’s would-be bridegroom hasn’t got enough either.  This is careless, when you are a villain.)

The castle is ‘silent, lonely and sublime’ .  Emily feels as if she is going into a prison when the portcullis is raised; inside it is gloomy and desolate and full of foreboding.   (As are Radcliffe’s 21st century readers, though perhaps not as she intended them to be.)  Crumbling battlements have despatched the faithful retainer’s wife (when a bit of the roof fell on her head) and some of the castle  is in such disrepair that we know that a perilous chase is in store.

In the castle there are enough towers and turrets and winding passages for Emily to (a) wander about in her imprisonment, encountering al kinds of intimations of horror and (b) to be confined to her room without anyone being anywhere near her to offer help.  It takes days for her to find her dying aunt locked up in the east wing  but at least by now Emily has given up much of the weeping in favour of catastrophising the situation.  This is partly due to the ministrations of the faithful Annette, (who should have been the heroine IMO because although terrified by superstitious belief and burdened by the need to gossip about castle secrets and the perfidy of her master,  Annette is resourceful, faithful and fond of Emily).  But she was only a servant, and servants can’t be heroines.

Thwarted in his love, Moroni tries to kidnap Emily twice, but it’s not on, of course, because Emily is virtuous.  Here she is,  in a desolate castle, surrounded by men who will stop at nothing to get their hands on her estates, but her virtue is safe.  The nearest she gets to sexual assault is when one of the brigands tries to kiss her hand. It must have been very reassuring to Ann Radcliffe’s readers to know that all men are really gentlemen after all.

Well, after some stout resistance, Emily finally caves into Montoni and signs over her estates to him, but oh fiendish! he doesn’t release her after all.  No, he sends her off into the wastelands in the care of Ugo to be murdered (she thinks), and then when the siege from which he unaccountably wished to protect her is over, she is brought back to the castle.  This episode would seem to have no relevance except that it allows a lute to be heard in the distance, and oh joy! it is playing a French song!

Is it Valancourt? Well, no it’s not, it’s Du Pont, another suitor, a nice one though, who accepts that Emily’s heart belongs to Another, (although melancholy about it, of course).  He is also Montoni’s prisoner (from the siege) but he manages to orchestrate a daring escape.  Annette and her lover Ludovico come along too, which is nice because it shows that some Italians can be trusted after all.  Off they go,  Emily recovering sufficiently from her travails to buy a hat en route. (As you do.  It can be hot in Tuscany and a girl must mind her complexion.)  They don’t seem to have the lute, but they do take a trombone with which Ludovico stands guard while they rest.

Actually, it’s not just the hat which shows that Emily is belatedly becoming street-smart.  She is also prudent enough to keep quiet about Valancourt so as not to provoke jealousy in his rival, now her protector.  They have long conversations in which Du Pont explains the natural causes of the groans and spooky sounds and ethereal figures on the ramparts that so terrified the castle’s inhabitants – it was he! Annette and Ludovico keep apart (as befits their station in life) but presumably not so far away as to compromise Emily’s virtue.  (Don’t forget, this was an era when to stay out with a man unchaperoned after dark  meant ruin for a woman.  If the cad wouldn’t marry her, it was off to the convent!)

Anyway, the party sets off for Marseille, and the story switches to – oh no! another decaying Gothic castle – and it’s the one that was uninhabited and caused much paternal melancholy when St Aubert and Emily were on their journey together!  This one has just been inherited by the Count de Villefort and his tiresome second wife who hates the countryside,  her sweet step-daughter the Lady Blanche (who writes poetry too, alas) and her brother Henri.  Blanche’s beauty is such that she’s been shut up in a convent to assuage the jealousy of the Countess  but for reasons unexplained the Count decides to let her out when they remove to the countryside from Paris.  Here too there is a faithful servant, Dorothee, who suffers from terrors and superstitions…

Lo! there is a mighty storm – and guess who is washed up on the shore? Emily, Du Pont, Annette and Ludovic, that’s who, and so it is that Emily is persuaded not to go into the convent as a boarder until she can be reunited with Valancourt, because Blanche talks her out of it.   Blanche also seems to be a handy candidate for Du Pont’s affections but that’s a red herring as we shall see…

Radclifffe then goes into overdrive, padding out the timing of Dorothee’s revelations about the Marchioness de Villefort, (whose picture Emily had mysteriously found amongst her father’s possessions) so that there can be an ecstatic reunion with Valancourt first. All should be well, but no, the Count takes it on himself to give Emily some fatherly advice: there are revelations about Valancourt’s behaviour in Paris – gambling and the loss of his fortune –  which renders him most unsuitable.  And not just that, the Count reluctantly reveals – he was twice imprisoned for debt and rescued from it by his fancy woman! Poor Emily, after all she went through to try to keep her estates so that they could marry, and now she has to give him his marching orders!

She cheers up when Dorothee takes her up to the mysterious rooms of the dead Marchioness, especially when she spies the lute, but readers must beware here for there are more red herrings to muddle up the plot.  A suitor then turns up for Blanche, leaving Du Pont without a prospect again, and Emily writes more melancholy poetry out in the grounds by herself.  Spooky occurrences in the room of the Marchioness prompt even the Count to take them seriously insofar as he sets Ludovico to spend the night there to prove that there are no ghosts.  But he mysteriously disappears without trace leaving the castle with a serious servant problem because staff don’t care to work in a place that is haunted.

I am seriously tempted to explain the denouement, but had better not because students apparently have to study this stuff at university. (Whatever for? And at the expense of which other book, eh?) I wouldn’t want them to stumble across anything that saved them from having to read the book right through to its daft ending.  There’s quite enough cheat-sheets online without me contributing to it.   Suffice to say that all ends happily after for the Good and Noble, and the Evil Ones get their just desserts.

Read it at your peril!

Author: Ann Radcliffe
Title: The Mysteries of Udolpho
Publisher:  Dodo Press
Source: Free download

* PS 10.11.10 Elizabeth from Good Reads has pointed out that this book was written in the 18th century, not the 19th, and yes, she’s right, and I made that call after dithering for a bit over what century to assign poor Emily to.  I mean, the book is set in the late 16th century, and Radcliffe published it in 1794,  very close to the turn of the century.  Northanger Abbey, which references it, was written 1788-9 and hit the shelves in 1803.  Emily feels more like a 19th century heroine, and Radcliffe’s style is more 19th century than 18th or so it seems to me.  The turn of a century is after all an artificial construct  in the sense that there’s no meaningful difference between a book written in 1799 and one written in 1801 in terms of period style.  In the end I decided to fudge it and assign her to the 19th century because to call her 18th century might conjure up those very early works of that century which very few people read today.


  1. Very useful, as I wanted to read it since I understood it influenced Jane Austen. And I love Jane Austen.

    According to what you describe, I’m sure I won’t like it, I just can’t stand characters which break into tears at any moment and pull their hair by the root in despair.

    Thanks for the warning.


  2. I think I’m going to have to read Northanger Abbey again, while this is fresh in my mind…


  3. Thanks for this wonderful review Lisa. I’ve been curious about this book since I read Northanger Abbey, but suspected that I may have a reaction similar to yours.


  4. This was brilliant. I meet pre-requisite #1 and have always wondered … I will wonder no more and spend my time reading other, better books!


  5. I won’t be picking this one up. Thanks for doing the heavy work. I do hope the airline supplied a stream of treats that eased the reading experience. Probably not, however.


    • You won’t hear a word against Singapore Airlines from me, Kevin! Excellent service, more leg-room, endless patience with the badly-behaved children, *and* the food and treats are edible. (You can even have a Singapore Sling at no cost in economy.) We had a better flight home in SA Economy class than we did in Qantas Premium Economy class to London, and we won’t be wasting our frequent flyer points on that again!
      The difference is the service. Qantas staff make you feel like serving you is an interruption to their raucous conversations in the galley (and you get no sleep if your seat’s nearby); Singapore Airlines staff make you feel as if they get pleasure out of anticipating your every need.


  6. I write about dusty winds, not thymy gales, but reading about a book like this always brings to mind the section of Huck Finn where Twain makes fun of the weepy school of writing.


  7. You sold me – I won’t be reading this book. My one experience following ‘1001 Books to Read Before you Die” was Paolo Coelho’s “The Devil and Miss Pym” which was one of the worst books I’ve read in recent years.


  8. Louise, Laura, Tony – I have achieved my mission! And Shelley – you be careful with those dusty winds now!


  9. Must say I have never felt the desire to read these Gothic novels despite my love of Austen … my group here did decide to read a gothic novel each a few years ago but I think I somehow managed to miss that bit of homework. I figure I’ve read enough excerpts to know what I need to know. And, anyhow, Austen wasn’t so much spoofing Gothic novels and readers of Gothic novels and I think anyone who has a basic understanding of “gothic” will get it when they read NA. Still, do read it again soon and let us know what you think.


  10. Oh, Sue, I’m shocked. Fancy not doing your homework….


  11. Feet of clay! But then, you see, I’m a librarian not a teacher so I don’t have quite the same standard to uphold! I also didn’t quite manage to read the Georgette Heyer for the last meeting. I tried, really I did, but I couldn’t get past the first page.


    • I loved Georgette Heyer when I was a teenager…but suspect that she’s not really for grown-ups. What did your group think?


  12. […] remains in control of it.  As readers will know if they read my review of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, I tend to read the gothic novel with a sceptical eye, but I couldn’t fault the plotting and […]


  13. I did find myself wondering frequently why Emily never had red puffy eyes and a runny nose from all that weeping. Also, how did she not have dark circles under her eyes from staying up so very late at night, often until dawn, and then rising early the next day? I concluded early really meant sometime before noon. And yup, even though the story is set in the past, it had nothing historical about it except in name.


    • You know, I rather like that definition of ‘early’. I wonder if I could get away with that at work….


  14. This is a tremendous review. Wish I’d known about the advice from Elizabeth and you before embarking on reading this. My heart goes out to you at the thought of you settling down for a good read on such a long flight only to be confronted with a tedious book


    • It was my own fault. For a long time I stuck to reading penny Vincenzi novels on long haul flights. They’re long, and they’re easy reading, and since they’re all basically the same novel it doesn’t matter if you drift off to sleep every now and again. The only downside is that they’re heavy and with everyone so careful about security, you can’t just dump it in the airport on your way out!


  15. Great stuff, Lisa! No need to pretend you liked a farrago. Thanks for giving me the link to this post; it’s of great help in organising my thoughts about Wilkie Collins, an heir of the gothic authors like Radcliffe.


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