The Mysteries of Udolpho

As promised, here is a retro review of The Mysteries of Udolpho from July 31, 2006.

Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe, 1794.Mysteries of Udolpho

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.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

The Monk

In 2006, I decided to read the works referenced in H. P. Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature.

I did make it through most of the Gothic novels he mentioned except for the American gothic novels of Charles Brockden Brown. I didn’t review most of them though you will get a review of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho at some point.

I did read the notorious William Beckford’s Vathek. Unfortunately, when I was in Bath, England, I didn’t get a chance to see his architectural folly Lansdown Tower.

And I agree with Lovecraft that Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer is the best of the Gothic novels he covers. (Though, from Lovecraft’s letters,  he doesn’t seem to have actually been able to get his hands on the whole novel, just excerpts.) You won’t be getting a review of it from me though.

As for the rest of the weird fiction Lovecraft mentioned, I’ve read a surprisingly large amount of it under the impetus of the Deep Ones reading group, part of LibraryThing’s The Weird Tradition discussion group.

 A retro review from June 5, 2006 . . .

Review: The Monk, Matthew Lewis, 1796.Monk

It’s no coincidence that the opening epigraph of Lewis’ one and only novel is from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Both works have pillars of public moral rectitude collapsing after encountering their first major temptation of carnality. Monk Ambrosio figures in for a penny, in for a pound, and starts the slide from mere sex to murder, incest, despair, and damnation.

Lewis’ streamlined prose abandons the detailed descriptions of Gothic architecture and Alpine vistas favored by his model Ann Radcliffe. And, in a plot of not two but four frustrated lovers, he crams many a gruesome incident and image. No Radcliffean rationalism for Lewis. Despite frequent criticms of the superstition of Spain during the Inquistion, this plot revels in the supernatural with curses, ghosts, Bleeding Nuns, Wandering Jews, and the Prince of Demons himself.

Yet, despite the melodrama, there is an air of psychological realism in how Monk Ambrosio rationalizes his escalation of evil. Perhaps more disturbing is the mind of Matilda, his first lover, and her willingness to advise and aid his evil even after he has sexually spurned her. Continue reading “The Monk”