The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

The Mysteries of Udolpho
Ann Radcliffe
England, 1794

The dawn, which softened the scenery with its peculiar grey tint, now dispersed, and Emily watched the progress of the day, first trembling on the tops of the highest cliffs, then touching them with splendid light, while their sides and the vale below were still wrapt in dewy mist. Meanwhile, the sullen grey of the eastern clouds began to blush, then to redden, and then to glow with a thousand colours, till the golden light darted over all the air, touched the lower points of the mountain’s brow, and glanced in long sloping beams upon the valley and its stream. All nature seems to have awakened from death into life; the spirit of St. Aubert was renovated. His heart was full; he wept, and his thoughts ascended to the Great Creator. (37, Volume 1, Chapter 4)

I sat down to The Mysteries of Udolpho expecting one thing but getting another.  Knowing it to be advertised as a “Gothic novel,” and having read others in the genre from around the same  era (The Castle of Otranto and Castle of Wolfenbach), I was anticipating something more fast-paced, silly, and perhaps containing actual supernatural elements. True, it remains within many of the Gothic tropes (innocent and vulnerable young heroine, remote locales, a dilapidated Gothic castle, a brooding villain), but it also explains away any seemingly supernatural elements and leans heavily on the Romantic side of its personality with the Natural World becoming almost a character in its own right. In short, it reminds me more of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein than Horace Walpole’s Otranto, a comparison I had not anticipated.

I also had reason to expect it to be more “horrid”–and more of a 20th century style thriller–because of Jane Austen. Namely, Northanger Abbey. Any number of Gothic novels are referenced in Austen’s early novel, but Udolpho looms larger than the others, as Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Moreland discuss it avidly, with Isabelle vowing not to reveal the mystery of the “black veil” for anything in the world. But it was not Northanger Abbey I thought of as I read Udolopho. It was Sense and Sensibility. Yes, Northanger Abbey is known as a parody of Udolpho (and other Gothic novels). But the concerns of Sense and Sensibility, the tension between the Romantic natures and feelings (sensibility) of Marianne and the good sense and reasoning of Elinor, are reflected throughout Udolpho. In some ways, the entire novel is an argument in favor of tempering (or overwhelming) one’s sensibility with good sense, and heroine Emily St. Aubert is seemingly an amalgamation of the two Dashwood sisters. She aspires to the sense of Elinor while her nature inclines her to the sensibility of Marianne. But to read it thus is to go backwards. No, Radcliffe came before Austen, so it is Elinor and Marianne that appear distilled from Emily, two characters of an argument that was clearly already in progress a decade before Sense and Sensibility was published.

“All excess is vicious; even that sorrow, which is amiable in its origin, becomes a selfish and unjust passion, if indulged at the expence of our duties–by our duties I mean what we owe to ourselves, as well as to others. The indulgence of excessive grief enervates the mind, and almost incapacitates it for again partaking of those various innocent enjoyments which a benevolent God designed to be the sun-shine of our lives. My dear Emily, recollect and practise the precepts I have so often given you, and which your own experience has so often shewn you to be wise.” (St. Aubert, Volume 1, Chapter 2)

Although the 21st century reader may be at times pressed to sympathize with Emily’s plight (I may have thought “can’t she grow a spine already!” at one particular moment of exasperation), the reader realizes that Emily is continually–and as the novel progresses, more often successfully–endeavoring to live by her father’s teachings to moderate her passions, to have strength of character. This strength of character, glimpsed even early, proves essential to Emily’s ultimate fate.

“Never, till this evening did I know what true devotion is; for, never before did I see the sun sink below the vast earth! To-morrow, for the first time in my life, I will see it rise. O, who would live in Paris, to look upon black walls and dirty streets, when, in the country, they might gaze on the blue heavens, and all the green earth!” (Blanche, Volume 3, Chapter 10)

But Radcliffe and Austen, though writing in overlapping eras, are writing from different perspectives. I have never once thought of Austen as a Romantic writer. Radcliffe clearly is. Nature and setting are of supreme importance. The isolation of location is, of course, essential to the plot points. But nature is also used to illuminate character. The “good” characters, that is those we should root for and sympathize with, are all drawn to nature, and appreciate its wonders and beauties, even in the most (naturally) dangerous locales, while the “bad” characters (okay, fine, some of these characters actually are reprehensible or evil people–but not all of them) tend to disregard the natural world, or see it as an inconvenience. A retreat in the country = good; a sojourn in the big city = bad. An interesting dichotomy, and perhaps the defining characteristic of Romanticism.

Thanks to Cleo at Classical Carousel for hosting the readalong! I would not have picked up The Mysteries of Udolpho nearly as soon as I did were it not for her. Much enjoyed. Though now I find myself with a strange hankering for more Austen?

I read  The Mysteries of Udolpho as part of a readalong, as part of my “Sensation!” project list, for “Written by a Woman” for Back to the Classics and “Over 500 pages” for Reading the Classics.