The Mysteries of Udolpho
Ann Radcliffe’s “The Mysteries of Udolpho” is touted as THE gothic novel to read, containing ghosts and old castles and mysterious murders. Sounds juicy and true enough, the story has all these elements, but not in that undiluted form we are used to expect in our time.
For the first third of this tome of a book (my version counted 672 pages), this resembled a romantic novella from a Readers Digest. Wholesome romantic fantasies in beautiful settings. Okay, there are parents that die, but even that is very pretty. A voyage through the mountains is mainly a highly detailed and sentimental description of the scenery and how it resonates the feelings of the characters.
We hear of Emily, a young French woman of the lower nobility and how she makes a journey from Gascony to Languedoc to improve the health of her father. On the way they befriend the young chevalier, Valancourt and a romance blossom. Emily’s father does not get better, but dies near the haunted castle of Chateau le-Blanc. Left on her own Emily falls under the guardianship of her aunt, Madame Cheron. She is not exactly a pleasant woman and when she marries the mysterious Montoni, Emily must go with them to Italy, far away from her Valancourt.
In Italy she becomes the de-facto prisoner of Montoni in a dilapidated castle, Udolpho, in the Apennines and this is where the novel turns gothic. Montoni is a mobster and an opportunist who seeks to achieve wealth and power through dominance and underhanded villainy. Emily’s part in his schemes is to be married away for his personal winning, a fate Emily consider too horrible to contemplate. Emily also fears for her life, but mostly for her virginity and then there are the ghosts in the castle…
“The Mysteries of Udolpho” is apparently often being considers a flawed, maybe even laughable novel. Radcliffe is good at building up tension, when she finally gets to that point, but her resolutions are terrible. There are several convoluted mysteries in the story. Supernatural, criminal or otherwise. They tend to scare or confuse Emily or her impressionable maid, Annette, but they almost uniformly deflate when they get resolved. Sometime revealed in an off-hand way, there is always a prosaic, even boring, explanation and Emily usually get out of her trouble surprisingly easy and with little or no effort. Her major quality being her ability to faint from fear and to be modest when tempted.
It is also obvious this is a story from Radcliffe’s fantasy. It is deeply anachronistic, the geography is all wrong and the men and women are cliché characters from a teenage girl’s day-dream. It is often difficult not to roll the eyes and groan. Yet, in the build-up phase there are these moments of brilliance that makes it worthwhile to read this book. The riddles are really quite impressive. So much more disappointing is it when they deflate in the resolution.
I am probably of the wrong gender for this novel, and I certainly belong to the wrong century. It is very possible a female reader two hundred years ago would find this a masterpiece and I could also see this be made into a telenovela. For me though it is merely okay and certainly way too long.