As promised, here is a retro review of The Mysteries of Udolpho from July 31, 2006.
Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe, 1794.
Accomplished, refined, and beautiful, our heroine Emily St. Aubert finds herself orphaned, her finances in doubt, and surrounded by uncaring, vacuous, and social climbing relatives. Refusing to marry her true love Valancourt, she accompanies her aunt to Italy. There, they both become the prisoners of the sinister Count Montoni.
His Castle Udolpho has all the stock trappings of the Gothic: the medieval architecture, the heavy tapesteries, the veiled and oddly familiar portraits, requisite secret passages, horrible sights in the dungeons, mysterious apparitions, hinted murders, and ghostly voices. Through it all, Emily finds time to write a fair amount of poetry. (It’s not for nothing the novel’s subtitle is “A Romance Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry”.)
Radcliffe was one of the most influential Gothic writers, and this 1794 work is generally regarded as her best.
Is it worth reading today solely on its own merits? Not quite. Radcliffe’s story is too long, her reveries over landscape wearisome. There is a flavor of earnest moral instruction as Emily not only struggles to master her emotions, but Radcliffe, in her contrived solutions to supernatural mysteries, is intent on stamping out the unreasonableness of superstition.
Yet, there is not just great sentiment but psychological insight too. And the ending is surprising despite the inevitable familiarity of many of the story’s trappings.
Matthew Lewis’ The Monk is much more fun, a distillation of much of Radcliffe’s images and tropes into a delightfully lurid and supernatural plot. (To extend Stephen King’s metaphor that the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto was the genre’s Elvis Presley and Lewis’ novel its Sex Pistols, one is tempted to say this is its prog rock.) But students of the genre and the novel in general will want to read one of the most popular Gothics and study Radcliffe’s technique — including her somewhat clumsy backstory passages.
Finally, it would be a mistake to leave the impression this is just a novel of fear and anxiety. The love between Valancourt and Emily makes this a romance in every sense of the word.