Book Review – The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

the mysteries of udolphoTitle: The Mysteries of Udolpho
Author: Ann Radcliffe
Genre: Gothic fiction
2008 (1794)
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 693
Started: 2nd January 2016
Completed: 15th February 2016
Rating: 4/5
Summary: `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. Rreflections brought only regret, and anticipation terror.’

Such is the state of mind in which Emily St. Aubuert – the orphaned heroine of Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 gothic Classic, The Mysteries of Udolpho – finds herself after Count Montoni, her evil guardian, imprisions her in his gloomy medieval fortress in the Appenines. 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. – Amazon

a sicilian romanceThe Mysteries of Udolpho was best-selling novel in its day. Originally published in 4 volumes in 1794 this novel was highly influential and it inspired writers of 18th and 19th century Gothic horror. The Mysteries of Udolpho remains one of the most important and widely read Gothic horror novels in the history of British and European fiction.

The ItalianAnn Radcliffe was a very famous writer in her time and she wrote six novels and a book of poetry. Her other novels are The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, A Sicilian Romance, The Romance of the Forest, The Italian, and Gaston de Blondeville. I haven’t read any of these but I’d like to.

The Mysteries of Udolpho is central to the plot of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and that shows Radcliffe’s influence over other writers.

The Mysteries of Udolpho is beautifully written and sections of the description of sublime nature are amazing. The writing is just amazing and it’s one of the best features of the novel. One of my favourite sections is:

“The deepest shade of twilight did not send him from his favourite plane-tree. He loved the soothing hour, when the last tints of light die away; when the stars, one by one, tremble through aether, and are reflected on the dark mirror of the waters; that hour, which, of all others, inspires the mind with pensive tenderness, and often elevates it to sublime contemplation. When the moon shed her soft rays among the foliage, he still lingered, and his pastoral supper of cream and fruits was often spread beneath it. Then, on the stillness of night, came the song of the nightingale, breathing sweetness, and awakening melancholy.” – page 4

The main plot is also very good. Count Montoni forcing Emily and her aunt to move away from their home, into a dark and dangerous castle, in order to trick them out of their fortune is the main plot of the novel and its played out very well. Inheritance is a major theme of Gothic novels and there are always references to the ‘mortmain’ and literal dead hands. The Mysteries of Udolpho is no exception as inheritance plays a huge part in the plot. The subtitle of this novel is A Romance and that’s exactly what this novel is. The romance between Emily and Valancourt faces so many obstacles, including Valancourt’s own behaviour when Emily moves away, and the romance contrasts the darkness of the Gothic sections.

I really like most of the characters in this novel. Their characteristics are very typical of Gothic novels and The Mysteries of Udolpho features a Gothic Heroine, a Gothic Hero, and a Gothic Villain.

Emily is a Gothic Heroine. She’s young, beautiful, and has an excess of sensibility. The novel shows how she learns to control her sensibility and it tests her mortality. Emily does swoon and faint rather often in the book but in the end she chooses her own husband and becomes independent.

Emily’s lover, Valancourt, is technically a Gothic Hero. I actually don’t believe that Valancourt is a Gothic Hero because he’s not present for Emily’s struggles. Instead he starts drinking and gambling and meeting with bad company. He’s not heroic at all until the end of the novel where he once again becomes worth of Emily and her love.

Montoni is a typical Gothic Villain and I love him. He’s such a fantastic character. He marries Emily’s aunt for her money and forces both Emily and her aunt to move to a new country. He represents a patriarchal system and he believes that he is so powerful that the law cannot touch him. Montoni imprisons his wife and her niece until Madame Cheron, Emily’s aunt, dies. He then turns his awful attention to Emily who stays strong against him. Eventually, we learn Montoni’s secrets and justice is delivered to him. He’s just such a wonderful character.

This novel is far too long in my opinion. A description of a forest can span several pages and while the writing is beautiful it’s also very boring. I understand that the Sublime was an important part of literature in this era but it’s just tiresome. I wish this book was 400 pages long instead of a torturous 693 pages. Everyone is my class at university agreed that it was just too long and very slow to get into the action of the novel.

Finally, the only other aspect of this novel that I didn’t like was its confusing nature. The last volume seemed like a different story completely and it didn’t belong with the Gothic novel I was reading. I understand that a Romance needs a happy ending but it was just so out of place. I didn’t like it at all. The whole idea of Chateau-le-Blanc is meant to contrast the Castle of Udolpho but I just didn’t understand the need to introduce Lady Blanche and the other characters. However, once scene featuring Lady Blanche did inspire a beautiful painting by Nathaniel Grogan.

Overall, The Mysteries of Udolpho is an iconic Gothic novel which everyone who is interest in this genre and era of literature should read. I enjoyed it a lot but it’s far too long for me. I think I would have given it 4.5 stars out of 5 if it had been shorter.

I would recommend it but only read it if you have the patience for such a long, descriptive novel. I think that if you’re very interested in Gothic fiction then it’s a must read because of how iconic it is. It’s a great example of this genre and it cannot be ignored.




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