Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe, was written in 1794. However, the book is set in the late seventeenth century. This novel is often called the first gothic novel. I found it to be a fun and entertaining story.


Emily St. Aubert is a young French girl raised in the countryside. She is close to her father, Monsieur St. Aubert, who is philosophical, wise and kind. While on a trip they meet a young man, Sue Valancourt Brown. Valancourt is a kindred spirit to Emily and her father as he who appreciates beauty and virtue in the same ways that they do. Emily and he begin to fall in love. 

When Emily’s father dies, Emily is placed under the guardianship of her aunt Madame Cheron and her husband Montoni. Madame Cheron is self-centered and controlling, and she scorns nature and the ethical, virtue-based belief system that Emily values. Montoni is amoral, scheming and eventually shows himself to be a violent criminal. Much of the plot involves itself in Madame Cheron and Montoni trying to separate Emily from Valancourt and attempting to marry her off to vacuous noblemen, while at the same time scheming to steal Emily’s estate. Emily is dragged to Venice and eventually to Udolpho, a castle that Montoni owns in the Italian Mountains. 

There is more to the plot as Emily eventually escapes Udolpho and encounters new but related mysteries and drama in both France and Italy. My version of this book was over 700 pages long so there is a lot of plot contained in its pages. 

This book is full of grandiose descriptions. Sometimes these descriptions go on for pages and pages. Natural landscapes are described in detail and their beauty extolled. There is a connection between these descriptions and the book’s themes of spiritual fulfillment and natural beauty. The city of Venice is described as an almost magical place filled with palaces and gondoliers that fill the scene with lights and music. The segment of the book that takes place in the castle is full of passages that occur at night, describing the labyrinth of rooms, passages, stairways, etc. 

The descriptions of Castle Udolpho, as well as several other castle-like structures, are also well written and atmospheric. One gets the impression that the interiors of these buildings are enormous. Many words are devoted to describing passages, staircases, tombs, etc. These passages give the book a kind of atmospheric, spooky and fun feel. This work seems to have been very influential on centuries of gothic stories and films.

The characters are generally not complex. Emily and her father and are virtuous, kind and wise. Valancourt shows a few flaws that are, at the most, minor. Montoni, his cohorts and various other characters are villainous, self-centered and uncaring.

This book is far from perfect. The number of “mysteries” multiplies so much and is left to sit for so many hundreds of pages that I lost interest in finding the answers to some. Parts of the book are overdramatic and silly. Valancourt in particular, though virtuous, is wildly melodramatic. However, these over-the-top aspects are sometimes humorous and enjoyable. The story includes a fair number of tangential episodes that add little value, so the length of the book seems excessive. In the end, however, the fun and originality of the novel outweighed all of these negatives for me. 

The story sets up several contrasts. Emily’s father has “disengaged himself from the world” to live a rural and peaceful life. This is also true of several other sympathetic characters in the narrative. Folks who have separated themselves from worldly society are noble and calm. In contrast, those engaged with the world act malevolently. There is also an interesting contrast between art and the beauty of nature, 

At one point Emily compares an opera performance to an ocean scene that she recently viewed, 

“It was near midnight before they withdrew to the opera, where Emily was not so charmed but that, when she remembered the scene she had just quitted, she felt how infinitely inferior all the splendour of art is to the sublimity of nature. Her heart was not now affected, tears of admiration did not start to her eyes, as when she viewed the vast expanse of ocean, the grandeur of the heavens, and listened to the rolling waters, and to the faint music that, at intervals, mingled with their roar. Remembering these, the scene before her faded into insignificance. “

The book is also full of picturesque passages describing the grandeur of forests, mountains, rivers, oceans, etc. The narrative champions the natural world and couples nature with virtue.

One of the reasons that I read this book was that I have read that it is parodied in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the last Austen novel that I have not yet read. I wanted to read this work first. 

Though not a brilliant work, this is certainly worth the read. This novel is fun and atmospheric. It was also very influential on centuries of literature and film that came after. Though not complex, the characters are enjoyable to read about. In the end, this work was a very pleasant reading experience. 


36 comments:

A Lady said...

I read this one in a single night (well, most of it) during one of those 24-hour readathons. It should not have scared me, but 3a reading somehow made it spooky, ha ha! :D

Sharon Wilfong said...

Simply fantastic review, Brian.

I have never heard of Radcliff or this book before. Some of it, such as the young lady being whisked away to a remote place, sounds similar to the Grey Woman by Elizabeth Gaskell.

I have a hard time with too much detail, however. What you found atmospheric and picturesque I would probably find a bit of a slog. I think it is because I'm not visual so it's work for me to make up a composite of a scene when there are too many details.

Your review certainly made the book sound interesting and maybe one day I will give it a go.

Have a good week.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,
I am not familiar with this early gothic novel. Thank you for sharing your honest thoughts about it. Too much description/detail can be tedious to read, but it sounds like this was not the case here, and that it served a purpose. Excellent commentary!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon - When I read your commentary on The Grey Lady I thought about this book. It really sounds similar.

A lot of online reviews of this book include complaints about too many descriptions. It is a long book. I think that some of the episodes could have been cut.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi A Lady - It sounds like that was some reading session! Parts of the book were very atmospheric and in some ways chilling.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. I was good with th descriptions but I thought that the book could be cut on other ways.

Mudpuddle said...

i really liked this book; although i admit after several hundred pages my brain began buzzing a little with all the superlatives and extrapolations piled up on top of each other... actually i went on to read a couple more of hers which i also enjoyed... "A Romance in the Forest", 'The Italian", and something else which i can't remember... but she has a grace and an elegant style that go a long ways with me...
great post, Brian: it's what i would have said if i had the ability which i don't...

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Mudpuddle. I think that you should start a blog! Radcliffe really had a distinctive prose style. I have no doubt that other Radcliffe books were also entertaining.

JacquiWine said...

I really enjoyed another of her novels, A Sicilian Romance, when I read it a few years ago. It was gloriously over the top and very entertaining - a most enjoyable read. I like the sound of this one too.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Great commentary and the thing about many 700 page books (even some classics) is that they could benefit by editing. Ann Radcliffe though must have been some writer because after I read your review I googled and it turns out she influenced Edgar Allen Poe and Fydor Dostoyevsky was a fan.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - The over the top nature is part of the fun with Radcliffe. Her other books also sound fun.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - This book really could have used editing. I see how she influenced Poe in her spooky descriptions. I am surprised to hear that Dostoyevsky liked her work.

JaneGS said...

I enjoyed Udolpho so much more than I expected. Like you, I was motivated to read it in order to better appreciate the satire in Northanger Abbey. I really enjoyed her descriptions of nature and Venice, though they did go on for too long at times. I ended up admiring Emily--she's a good heroine.

HKatz said...

I'd like to read Northanger Abbey at one point - and I know I'd probably appreciate it more if I read this first, but I'm not drawn to this book. Your review is excellent, but also confirms to me that several hundred pages of a sometimes melodramatic gothic novel isn't something I'm eager to read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - The books was simply enjoyable. I actually would not have cut back on the descriptions. Some of the episodes seemed unnecessary however.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila - It is certainly a flawed book. And it really is not for everyone.

James said...

Thanks for the great review. I think you identified the best aspects of this book, especially its originality. I found the length somewhat daunting and the book's main drawback.

baili said...

Reminded me " lOTS of Wordsworth" here,describing magically the beauty of nature is one of his special characteristics!

I mesmerized by the way you shared the authority of writer over the portraying the landscapes and all other natural phenomenon.
I can read it just to get lost in those enchanting descriptions .

Story sounds simple yet interesting. but skill of laying the natural beauty before the eyes of readers seem cOMPELLING!

Again remarkable review Brain!

thecuecard said...

Over 700 pages and I don't recall if I've ever heard of Ann Radcliffe though she sounds quite influential for her day. I like that she champions the natural world -- perhaps she was part of the romantic movement? I look forward to hearing how Austen parodies her book. Nice work getting thru it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James - It was indeed long. And it felt long!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili - There is something special about nature descriptions in the hands of the right author. And The descriptions in this book are special.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - This book was long but mostly fun. This book fits firmly into the category of romantic literature. I am in the middle of Northanger Abby right now. It is also fun.

Maria Behar said...

OUTSTANDING commentary as usual, Brian!

I have heard of this novel, but only through Wikipedia, when I was looking up the Gothic genre once. I had NO idea it was THAT long! Although I do enjoy reading descriptive passages, and getting an atmospheric feel, when reading a novel, it sure sounds like this one has far too many such passages.

I noticed that you kept using the word "fun" in this review. I had always thought this novel was scary. But perhaps the "scariness" is so over the top that it becomes funny. If so, I guess I cold read it. However, SEVEN HUNDRED pages does sound daunting! Lol.

If I do decide to read this book, I'll probably check it out of the library, as I have a feeling I might not like it. I need to visit Wikipedia again, in order to refresh my memory regarding the plot.

Thanks for your insightful thoughts!! Hope you're having a GREAT Sunday!! <3 :)

So many books, so little time said...

Brilliant review as always Brian, don't think this one would be for me though xxx

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria. The spooky passages are very lighthearted so the book is not really scary.

I believe that would like the plot and characters of this book. But it was so long. I think the book's length was its biggest problem. I liked the descriptions but I thought that there were plot developments that should have been cut out.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lainy. The book's flaws make it not for everyone.

Tracy Terry said...

Wow! The first Gothic novel ... that is quite a claim to fame. Definitely one for my Wanna Read list, thanks Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I would love to now what you thought if you read this.

Caroline said...

I've read a few reviews of this and it always sounded fun. I wanted to read it after I read Northanger Abbey . It was my first Austen but the only one I didn't particularly like. I'd be interested to see what you think of it. I suppose you'll pick it up soon.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I have just finished Northanger Abbey. I will be posting about it in a few weeks.

Richard said...

I think I might have read part of this decades ago, but it's been so long I can't remember if that actually happened or if I'd only wanted to read it at that time. Still holding out hope that I might visit/revisit "Udolpho" one of these days; it's infamous for its flaws as a shaggy dog story, but I'm encouraged that you found it atmosphere and entertaining all the same. Nothing wrong with that!

Richard said...

* "atmospheric"

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - I love the term and the idea behind "Shaggy Dog Story". It really was a fun book.

Carol said...

I've been looking for a book in the Gothic genre of the Back to the Classics Challenge & wondered about this one. I just checked and saw that it is over 600 pages in length & as I wasn't that fussed on Northanger Abbey I don't know if this one would be a good pick. Enjoyed your review, as always.
Do you have any suggestions for a medium length Gothic book??

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Carol - This was indeed a long one. I think that this was the only Gothic novel that I ever read so I am not a good person to ask for recommendations. I just finished Nothanger Abby. While I liked it I think that it was my least favorite Jane Austen book. I will be posting commentary on it soon.

Carol said...

🙂