The Mysteries of Udolpho

by Ann Radcliffe

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Ann Radcliffe combines elements of the sentimental novel, the horror novel, and the picturesque to crystallize what others such as Horace Walpole in The Castle of Otranto (1764) had begun: When she pictures for the reader Emily St. Aubert, awe-struck and terrified before the moldering, imposing ruin of Udolpho into which she will be taken and imprisoned by the evil Montoni, she sets what for the next two centuries will be the dominant image of gothic literature: a beautiful young woman powerless before a malevolent male will and imprisoned in a ruined edifice.

In The Mysteries of Udolpho, Radcliffe refines and transforms the eighteenth century aesthetic and thematic uses of sentiment and sensibility. Emily is perhaps too good, and, understanding this, her father tries to train her not to give in to her sensibilities (as other heroines of the eighteenth century would) and offers her some deathbed advice that looms over the entire narrative: She must overcome her over-refined sensibilities, which can make her fearful and faint, prone to flights of terrifying imagination, and incapable of living a good life. Instead, she must act in accordance with the principles of sound reason. In this struggle, she is most interesting as an emblem of the conflict between reason and imagination in the eighteenth century. To overcome her own sensibilities is Emily’s real challenge, and in this characterization, Radcliffe has created a work of sustaining interest.

In a time during which “taste” demanded the arousal of emotions, Radcliffe provided a respectable literary form in which to channel the demands of the age. Emily is always proper in her behavior, always reminded of propriety by her aunt, and always properly clothed. Even when Count Morano steals into her room at night to abduct her, she happens to be fully dressed. Yet Radcliffe’s propriety extends further. Radcliffe explains all seemingly supernatural occurrences, a technique for which she has been both praised and blamed. The effect of this, however, is to give Emily what she seeks: a rational, ordered universe, free from evil influence, free from chaos and superstition. Emily, unlike most gothic heroines, is ultimately allowed to live in the light of day.

In the Radcliffean gothic, virtue is rewarded, the supernatural is explained, and good triumphs over evil. In fact, for all Montoni’s menacing and threatening behaviors, he really executes only one act of pure evil, and that is his imprisonment and isolation of Madame Montoni, leading to her death. Had this not been included in The Mysteries of Udolpho, the work might be seen purely as a story of a young woman’s overactive imagination, but Montoni does not merely threaten—he kills, and his capacity to kill validates Emily’s propensity to be terrified. Madame Montoni’s death also focuses on another thematic concern: property. Montoni wants property and will kill to get it. Madame Montoni opposes him because, cruel as she has been in the past to her niece, she wants to transmit her property to her and not to her abusive husband. She dies to accomplish this. Emily has promised her father never to sell her property, and she endures imprisonment and the threat of death to keep it. Valancourt is not his family’s eldest son, so the Duvarney estates do not descend to him; this causes Emily’s aunt to want a better-placed suitor for Emily, which desire, in essence, gives rise to the action of the story.

Radcliffe creates a reliable narrator who reports in detail not only the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist but also the details of Emily’s sensory experiences—from the pleasure taken in a view of sunlight to the frisson felt in an unlit passageway—as well as her self-reflections. The reader experiences through Emily’s sensibilities the sublime terrors of a gothic underworld, engages with Emily in a battle against those terrors imposed by an overactive imagination, calculates with her to escape the real threats in the darkness, and emerges with her into the light. At the end of the novel, she is once again in control of her own life, her own property, and the workings of her own mind.

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Critical Evaluation