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...
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