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.