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.

Completed: Castle of Wolfenbach

Castle of Wolfenbach
Eliza Parsons
1793, England
Folio Press edition: London, 1968

The clock from the old castle had just gone eight when the peaceful inhabitants of a neighbouring cottage, on the skirts of the wood, were about to seek that repose which labour had rendered necessary, and minds blest with innocence and tranquillity assured them the enjoyment of. The evening was cold and tempestuous, the rain poured in torrents, and the distant thunders rolled with tremendous noise round the adjacent mountains, whilst the pale lightning added horrors to the scene.

So begins Castle of Wolfenbach, on a “dark and stormy night.” Abandoned castles, damsels in distress, kidnappings, murders, lost children, despair—it has everything one could want in an early Gothic romance except the desolate and rugged landscapes favored by later Romantics. Indeed, description is scarce, as Parsons was seemingly more concerned with telling a fast-paced dramatic tale—nay, melodramatic tale—than with her settings. Melodrama certainly reigned supreme, with our heroine and one of her earliest protectors falling pray to their emotions on seemingly near a once-a-page basis. Halfway through this brief novel, I began to feel that a more apt title (for the titular Castle made but a brief appearance) would have been She Fainted (Again). Marketing doubtless determined Castle of Wolfenbach would sell more copies.

Although the plot is almost ridiculous to the point of farcical, I did find it ridiculously fun, even prompting audible laughter at times. Admittedly, this was for the silliness of the prose or the excessive sentiments of the characters rather than any wit in the plot itself. Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe, I’m sure, were more impressed by the danger the innocent Matilda found herself in than I, 21st century reader that I am: I was never in doubt of the outcome.

Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”

“Have you, indeed! How glad I am! — What are they all?”

“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”

“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”

“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them…”

(Northanger Abbey)

I mention the Misses Morland and Thorpe, creatures of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, because it is only thanks to the Austen work that I discovered the earlier novel. Both Miss Morland and Thorpe are avid readers of the sensational works of the day, and while the Radcliffe remained well-known, it wasn’t until the 20th century that scholars realized a list of seven obscure works, of which Castle of Wolfenbach is one, were actual novels of the era. I only learned this history earlier this year, and knew as soon as the present Classics Circuit Gothic Literature tour was announced I would have to read one of the “Northanger Horrid Novels” as they are now known.

There is plenty for the 21st century reader to critique: the aforementioned excess of fainting, the implausibility of the plot, the moralizing (too much for those extremely allergic to moralizing, but easily ignorable in the context of the story—although I did find it a bit more hammered home at the end), the stereotyped characters—innocent damsels, valiant heroes, dastardly villains. (Only one character, a minor personage who could almost have been omitted from the story, showed any evidence of a rounded character.) My absolute favorite element however was Pasons’ fondness for the semi-colon; I found sentences with as many as five of these joining independent clauses together. Surprisingly, this did nothing to affect the readability of the work. I merely found it an amusing style. (And yes, I was very tempted to string the last three sentences together in imitation.)

Despite any criticisms to be found, it is as I noted an enjoyable (and fast) read. I envision Parsons as perhaps a Dan Brown or Brad Meltzer of her day, the writer of fast-paced suspense thrillers that are a joy to read but forgotten as the years pass. I am curious  to read the remainder of the “Northanger Horrids” and will doubtless be returning to them down the road.

Read as part of the October 2011 Gothic Lit Classics Circuit tour. My first! Find other tour participants here.

Castle of Wolfenbach also qualifies as my second R.I.P. read of the season—I’ve successfully completed Peril the Second!