Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1423
Christmas Eve of 1764 saw the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, a story of supernatural terror set in a vaguely medieval past and complete with a gloomy castle, knights both chivalrous and wicked, and virtuous fair maidens in distress—the first English gothic novel. During the preceding summer, while Walpole was transforming a nightmarish dream into a gothic novel at Strawberry Hill, Ann Ward was born in London. By the time she married the law student William Radcliffe twenty-three years later, the era of the gothic novel was under way, having begun to flourish with Clara Reeve’s professed imitation of The Castle of Otranto in The Old English Baron (1777). Ann Radcliffe, born in the same year as the genre itself, was to be supreme among the gothic novelists, whose works were so popular in the last decades of the eighteenth century.
Apart from one posthumously published novel, Radcliffe’s total output as a novelist consists of five immensely successful gothic novels. The Mysteries of Udolpho was her fourth and most popular. Anna Laetitia Barbauld in her preface to this novel for British Novelists (1810) notes that a “greater distinction is due to those which stand at the head of a class,” and she asserts that “such are undoubtedly the novels of Mrs. Radcliffe.” This estimate continues to be valid.
Radcliffe, however, might have been relegated entirely to the pages of literary history had it not been for Jane Austen’s delightful burlesque of gothic novels, Northanger Abbey (1818), in which a sentimental heroine under the inspiration of The Mysteries of Udolpho fancies herself involved in gothic adventures. Through the exaggerated sentiment of her heroine, Austen ridicules a major element in gothic novels in general—sensibility. A reliance on feeling, in contradiction to the dominant rationalism of the eighteenth century, the cult of sensibility was nonetheless a vital part of the age. Individuals of sensibility were peculiarly receptive to the simple joys of country life, to the sublime and beautiful aspects of nature, and above all, to benevolence; their own depth of feeling compelled sympathy, and it was considered proper to manifest sensibility through such traits as a readiness to weep or faint and a touch of melancholia.
In The Mysteries of Udolpho, the good characters are endowed with sensibility, the bad are not. Emily St. Aubert, her father, and her lover, Valancourt, are exemplars of a highly refined capacity for feeling. St. Aubert scorns worldly ambition and is retired from the world, represented by the city of Paris, to his rural estate, La Vallée, where his days are spent in literary, musical, and botanical pursuits; these pleasures are heightened by a pensive melancholy. The villainous Montoni, by contrast, loves power, and he responds to the idea of any daring exploit with eyes that appear to gleam instantaneously with fire. At home in cities, with their atmosphere of fashionable dissipation and political intrigue, he thrives in the solitary Castle of Udolpho only when he has made it a bustling military fortress. Cold, haughty, and brooding, he is—unlike the ingenuous St. Aubert—adept at dissimulation.
Much of Emily’s anguish is caused by the lack of sensibility in Montoni’s world; her own ingenuousness and benevolence is misinterpreted as mere policy, spurring her enemies to further mischief. Emily’s sensibility, however, sometimes functions as an effective defense, for her profuse tears and spells of fainting postpone immediate confrontations. Sometimes, too, sensibility assists discovery, as when Emily, shutting herself away to read, play her lute, sketch, or simply meditate and gaze rapturously upon the landscape at hand, could become vulnerable to mystery.
In this novel, the conventionally spurious medieval setting serves well the solitude of sensibility and gives scope for a range of feelings as the heroine is forced to travel about France and Italy; inhabit gloomy, ruined castles; and encounter chevaliers, noble ladies, courtesans, mercenary soldiers, bandits, peasants, monks, nuns, war, and murder. She encounters deaths by poisoning, stiletto, sword, torture, pistol, and cannon fire. Emily’s wide-ranging adventures in a remote, dark age are the fit trials of her sensibility, foreshadowed in her dying father’s lecture on the danger of uncontrolled sensibility; and if later readers are overwhelmed by evidence of her frequent trembling, weeping, and fainting, Emily herself is more conscious of her constant endeavor to be resolute, her ultimate survival with honor unscathed being sufficient proof of her strength of sensibility.
Although Austen ridicules excessive sensibility, she also allows Henry Tilney, her spokesperson for reason in Northanger Abbey, to praise Radcliffe’s novel, however facetiously, by claiming that he could hardly put down The Mysteries of Udolpho once he had begun reading it, and had finished the novel, hair standing on end, in two days. Henry’s count of two entire days accurately indicates average reading time; even more important, his appreciation of the suspense that is maintained throughout the book pays tribute to Radcliffe’s narrative powers.
The essential quality that sustains gothic suspense is a pervasive sense of the irrational elements in life. Emily herself provides the appropriate image when she describes her life as appearing to be like the dream of a distempered imagination. Although basically a straightforward, chronological narrative, The Mysteries of Udolpho seems timeless and dreamlike, the sweeping length of the story suggesting the cinematic technique of slow-motion photography. The novel accomplishes shifts in scenery with the rapidity peculiar to dreams: Now Emily is in Leghorn; now she is in a ship tossed amid white foam in a dark and stormy sea, incredibly, upon the very shores where lies the mysterious Chateau-le-Blanc. Written in the generalizing poetic diction of the eighteenth century, the vast amount of scenic description contributes to the unreal atmosphere and is suggestive of a dream world where forms are vague and time and space ignore ordinary delimitations. Therefore, the Castle of Udolpho seems limitless in size; its actual shape and substance, typically viewed in the solemn evening dusk, seems indefinite, gloomy, and sublime with clustered towers. Other scenes call up boundless space, as in the recurrent images of blue-tinged views of distant mountaintops.
The repetitive pattern of Emily’s adventures is also dreamlike: She is repeatedly trapped in a room with no light, and again and again she flees down dark, labyrinthine passages or seemingly endless staircases. People who are rationally assumed to be far away suddenly materialize, often in shadowy forms; their features are obscure and are known to Emily only intuitively. Disembodied voices and music from unseen instruments are commonplace. Continually beset with a dread of undefined evil, she recurrently experiences a paralysis of body and will before an imminent yet concealed danger.
In post-Freudian times, readers detect the realm of the subconscious emerging in Emily’s nightmare world, not only in the repetitious, dreamlike patterns but also in the very nature of her predicament—that of the pure, innocent “orphan child” whose physical attractions precipitate sword fights, subject her to would-be rapists who pursue her down the dark corridors, and render her helpless before the cold, cruel Montoni, whose preposterous depravity holds for her the fascination of the abomination.
Radcliffe, however, is too much a part of the Age of Reason to permit irrationality to rule. Emily is preserved by her innate strength of sensibility from assaults on her person and her mind. In all of her melancholy meditations, once her ordeal has ended, she is never required to wonder why Montoni appealed to her as he did when he was triumphant, bold, spirited, and commanding. Instead, her mind dismisses him as one who was insignificant, and she settles down to a secure life with Valancourt, a candid and openhanded man. In her retirement to La Vallée, Emily may never be able to avoid counterparts of Madame Montoni, whose fashionable repartee recalls the comedy of manners in which Austen was to excel, but she will be safe from such men as Montoni.
In the spirit of reason, the author also banishes the mystery of the supernatural happenings that provide so much suspense. Every inexplicable occurrence finally has its rational explanation. Some critics have complained, with some justice, about the protracted suspense and the high expectations that defuse Radcliffe’s increment of horrors and nebulous challenges to the imagination. Nevertheless, when a reader, like Henry Tilney, has kept pace with this lengthy novel, the impression of Emily St. Aubert’s nightmare world is more vivid than the skepticism of reason that explains away all the dark secrets. Ultimately, the vague shapings of the imagination triumph.