The Mysteries of Udolpho Analysis

Ann Ward

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Mysteries of Udolpho is the story of a young woman who survives the terrors of life as an unprotected orphan subject to the control of an avaricious aunt and her archvillain husband in Italy and the south of France. The Mysteries of Udolpho takes place in a pseudo-medieval world, a world in which strange music floats on the midnight air, half-seen forms walk through unlit corridors, and danger threatens the heroine at every turn.

One year under legal age, Emily cannot control her own property or her own movements, and she cannot marry the man she loves. Her father extracts a deathbed promise from her that no matter what happens, she will never sell her family home at La Vallée. Her aunt’s property will by law descend to Emily. Montoni’s desire is to force both Emily and Madame Montoni to sign their property over to him. They refuse. Madame Montoni pays for this with her life; Emily holds out until she can no longer. When Montoni is later arrested, the authorities return to her her own estate as well as that of her aunt.

Emily falls in love early on with Valancourt, but their marriage is delayed until the end of the narrative for a variety of reasons. Her aunt disapproves of the courtship because she wishes Emily to marry someone of station—not for Emily’s happiness, but to add to her own position in the world. Madame hastily marries Montoni, who packs up his household in the middle of the night, including his...

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The Mysteries of Udolpho Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

La Vallee

La Vallee (lah vah-YAY). Château in the Languedoc region of France, home to the St. Aubert family. The château is part of a larger family estate which, since childhood, has held fondly nostalgic associations for Monsieur St. Aubert. Once a cottage, the château has been renovated and expanded to harmonize with the surrounding rural landscape. The interior is furnished in “chaste simplicity,” with simple furniture and a library filled with good books. Its attached greenhouse supports St. Aubert’s interest in botany and bespeaks his sympathy with nature. Ann Radcliffe portrays the château as a place of comfort, tranquillity, and spiritual fulfillment.

La Vallee is a physical symbol of the domestic virtues practiced by the St. Aubert family. Its ideal character as a pastoral retreat is emphasized by its contrast with the adjoining estate, which St. Aubert sold to Monsieur Quesnel to settle his father’s debts. Quesnel prefers the city life of Paris to life in the country, and his proposed extravagant renovations, which will entail destroying the natural beauty of the grounds and planting foliage incongruously out of step with the setting, affirm the insensitivity of those not attuned to nature.

For Emily St. Aubert, La Vallee is a reservoir for memories of the last happy days spent with her family. The château symbolizes an innocence that is threatened when her guardian, the villainous Count Montoni, schemes to sell it and pay off his debts.


*Languedoc (lang-gah-DAHK). Mostly wild region in southern France, favored by St. Aubert and Emily. Its vivid colors and breathtaking vistas give rise to spiritual thoughts and veneration of the Great Creator by those sensitive to its sublime beauty. Throughout the novel, Radcliffe contrasts the wholesomeness of...

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The Mysteries of Udolpho Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Mysteries of Udolpho, perhaps more than any other novel, is the prototype for what has come to be seen as a specifically female genre: the gothic romance. The heroine is transformed from the typical sentimental heroine of the eighteenth century—such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740-1741) and Clarissa (1749) and Charlotte Smith’s heroines—and is someone of extremely refined sensibilities. She is a rational person who takes control of her own life as soon as circumstances permit. In effecting this change, Radcliffe helped make possible a different kind of female protagonist. The heroine ceases to be merely a victim, as is Antonia in Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796).

In contrast to the world of gothic literature written by men, the focus in The Mysteries of Udolpho is on the heroine; the threat is mainly imprisonment and powerlessness, rarely rape, and never incest. The supernatural never actually appears, and all is rationally explained; the heroine triumphs, not the villain. Emily ends up with what she wants: the man of her dreams returned with her to their Eden of innocence at La Vallée.

For the most part, Radcliffe elicited praise from the major writers of her era. Among the most widely read and repeatedly published novels in the nineteenth century, The Mysteries of Udolpho was also translated and imitated on the continent. It holds a significant position in the history of women’s literature. Its predecessors are Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753) and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). Radcliffe was significantly influenced by Clara Reeve’s Old English Baron (1777) and the gothic novels of Harriet and Sophia Lee.

The Mysteries of Udolpho is not merely another “shilling shocker.” It represents a significant change in the direction of the novel, specifically through the character of Emily, and it provides an aesthetically respectable prototype for the elevation of the tale of terror.

The gothic romance continues as a genre in the nineteenth century. It evolves through such works as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) into the twentieth century, with such novels as Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), but it devolves into mass-market formula fiction with none of the cultural resonances found in the works of Ann Radcliffe. The implications of the formula gothic as a “female” genre, now written and read mostly by women, are currently being studied.

The Mysteries of Udolpho Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Castle, Terry. “The Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho.” In The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature, edited by Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown. New York: Methuen, 1987. Examines the neglected segments of The Mysteries of Udolpho and asserts that the supernatural is “rerouted” rather than explained.

Fawcett, Mary Laughlin. “Udolpho’s Primal Mystery.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 23, no. 3 (1983): 481-494. Provides a psychoanalytic approach to the novel.

Freeman, R. Austin. Introduction to The Mysteries of Udolpho. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1931. Dismisses Radcliffe’s anachronisms and inaccuracies as irrelevant, claiming that The Mysteries of Udolpho’s merits are elsewhere. Whereas Samuel Taylor Coleridge had faulted Radcliffe for explaining all the mysteries, Freeman shows that The Mysteries of Udolpho anticipates the convention of the novel and satisfies readers with those explanations.

Graham, Kenneth W. “Emily’s Demon-Lover: The Gothic Revolution and The Mysteries of Udolpho.” In Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, edited by Kenneth W. Graham. New York: AMS Press, 1989. Places Radcliffe’s works in the historical moment of revolution.


(The entire section is 467 words.)