After the death of his wife, Monsieur St. Aubert, a French aristocrat, takes his daughter on a trip in the Pyrenees. High on a mountain road, the St. Auberts meet a young nobleman dressed in hunting clothes. He is Valancourt, the younger son of a family with which Monsieur St. Aubert is acquainted. Joining the St. Auberts on their journey, the young man soon falls in love with eighteen-year-old Emily St. Aubert, and the girl feels that she, too, might lose her heart to him.
St. Aubert becomes gravely ill and dies in a cottage near the Chateau-le-Blanc, ancestral seat of the noble Villeroi family. After her father’s burial at the nearby convent of St. Clair, Emily returns to her home at La Vallée and, as her father had requested, promptly burns some mysterious letters. She finds a miniature portrait of a beautiful unknown woman among the letters. Since she was not told to destroy the portrait, she takes it with her when she leaves La Vallée to stay with her aunt in Toulouse.
Valancourt follows Emily to Toulouse to press his suit. After some remonstrance, the aunt gives her permission for the young couple to marry. A few days before the ceremony, the aunt herself marries Signor Montoni, a sinister Italian, who immediately forbids Emily’s nuptials. To make his refusal doubly positive, he takes Emily and her aunt to his mansion in Venice.
There, Emily and Madame Montoni are in unhappy circumstances, for it soon becomes apparent that Montoni has married to secure the estates of his new wife and her niece for himself. When he tries to force Emily to marry a Venetian nobleman, Count Morano, Emily is in despair. On the night before the wedding, Montoni suddenly orders his household to pack and leave for his castle at Udolpho, high in the Apennines.
When the party arrives at Udolpho, Montoni immediately begins repairing the fortifications of the castle. Emily does not like the dark, cold castle from which the previous owner, Lady Laurentini, had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Superstitious servants claim that apparitions flitted about the halls and galleries of the ancient fortress.
Shortly after Montoni and his household have settled there, Count Morano attempts to kidnap Emily. Foiled by Montoni, who wounded him severely in a sword fight, Morano threatens revenge. A few days later, Montoni tries to force his wife to sign over her estates to him. When she refuses, he locks her up in a tower of the castle. Emily tries to visit her aunt that night. Terrified to find fresh blood on the tower stairs, she concludes that her aunt has been murdered.
Ghostly sounds and shadows about Udolpho begin to make everyone uneasy. Even Montoni, who had organized a band of marauders to terrorize and pillage the neighborhood, begins to believe the castle is haunted. Emily hears that several hostages have been taken. She is sure that Valancourt is a prisoner, for she has heard someone singing a song he had taught her, and one night a mysterious shadow calls her by name. Her life is tormented by Montoni’s threats that unless she sign away her estates to him she will suffer the same fate as her aunt. As Emily discovers from her maid, her aunt had not been murdered except indirectly, for she had died after becoming very ill from the harsh treatment. She had been buried in the chapel of the castle.
Morano makes another attempt to steal Emily away from the castle, this time with her assistance, as she is now afraid for her life. Montoni and his men,...
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however, discover the attempt in time to seize the abductors outside the castle walls. Shortly afterward, Montoni sends Emily away after forcing her to sign the papers that give him control of her estates in France. At first, she thinks she is being sent to her death, but Montoni sends her to a cottage in Tuscany because he had heard that Venetian authorities are sending a small army to attack Udolpho and seize him and his bandits after the villas of several rich Venetians had been robbed.
When Emily returns to the castle, she sees evidence of a terrible battle. Emily’s maid and Ludovico, another servant, disclose to Emily that a prisoner who knows her is in the dungeons below. Emily immediately guesses that it is Valancourt, and she makes arrangements to escape with him. The prisoner, however, is Monsieur Du Pont, an old friend of her father. Emily, Monsieur Du Pont, the girl’s maid, and Ludovico make their escape and reach Leghorn safely. There they take a ship for France. Then a great storm drives the ship ashore, close to the Chateau-le-Blanc, near which Emily’s father had been buried.
Emily and her friends are rescued by Monsieur Villefort and his family. The Villeforts had inherited the chateau and are now attempting to live in it, although it is in disrepair and said to be haunted. While at the chateau, Emily decides to spend several days at the convent where her father is buried. There she finds a nun who closely resembles the mysteriously missing Lady Laurentini, whose portrait Emily had seen at the castle of Udolpho.
When Emily returns to the chateau, she finds it in a state of turmoil; weird noises seem to come from the apartments of the former mistress of the chateau. Ludovico volunteers to spend a night in the apartment. Although all the windows and doors are locked, he is not in the rooms the next morning. When the old caretaker tells Emily this news, she notices the miniature portrait that Emily had found at La Vallée. The miniature, says the servant, is a portrait of her former mistress, the Marquise de Villeroi. She also points out that Emily closely resembles the portrait.
Valancourt reappears and once again makes plans to marry Emily, but Monsieur Villefort tells her of gambling debts the young man had incurred and of the wild life he had led in Paris while she was a prisoner in Italy. Emily thereupon refuses to marry him and returns in distress to her home at La Vallée, where she learns that Montoni has been captured by the Venetian authorities. Because he had secured the deeds to her lands by criminal means, the court restored them to her. She is once again a young woman of wealth and position.
While Emily is at La Vallée, the Villefort family makes a trip high into the Pyrenees to hunt. They are almost captured by bandits, but Ludovico, who had inexplicably disappeared from the chateau, rescues them. He had been kidnapped by smugglers who used the vaults of the chateau to store their treasure. He disclosed that the noises in the chateau were caused by the outlaws in an effort to frighten away the rightful owners.
When she hears this, Emily returns to the chateau to see her friends. While there, she again visits the convent of St. Clair. The nun whom she had seen before, and who resembles the former mistress of Udolpho, is taken mortally ill while Emily is at the convent. On her deathbed, the nun confesses that she is Lady Laurentini, who had left Udolpho to go to her former lover, the Marquis de Villeroi. Finding him married to Monsieur St. Aubert’s sister, she ensnared him once more and made him an accomplice in her plot to poison his wife. When the marquis, overcome by remorse, fled to a distant country and died there, she had retired to the convent to expiate her sins.
Emily’s happiness is complete when Monsieur Du Pont, who had escaped with her from Udolpho, proves that Valancourt had gambled only to secure money to aid some friends who were on the brink of misfortune. Reunited, they are married and leave for La Vallée, where they live a happy, tranquil life in contrast to the many strange adventures that had separated them for so long.