The Mysteries of Udolpho

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Mrs. Radcliffe was the first important novelist of terror, but her fiction is less sensational than that of later Gothic writers. She employs the same devices (characters trapped in remote locales, threatened with physical violence, prey to fears of the unknown and of mysterious events) but focuses on the heroine’s shifting emotions. Often in danger but seldom in dire peril, heroine (and reader) share thrilling adventures that always end well.

Orphaned at eighteen, Emily St. Aubert lives with her aunt and plans to wed Valancourt. When her aunt marries Montoni, Emily’s engagement is abruptly broken.

Montoni carries aunt and niece to the ancient mountain fortress of Udolpho. He intends to force both women to surrender their fortunes to him. Udolpho becomes a place of terror, full of strange sights, eerie sounds, and threatening events. After her aunt disappears and is reported to be dead in a dungeon, Emily accedes to Montoni’s demands.

Finally rescued, Emily lives with friends at Villefort chateau, a structure as isolated and mysterious as Udolpho. Again strange events unfold, including Valancourt’s apparent addiction to gambling.

All ends happily, however. The authorities arrest Montoni and return Emily’s deeds. The Villefort mysteries are solved. Valancourt explains his erratic behavior, enabling Emily to marry him.

Radcliffe rationally explains all the terrifying and mystifying events that befall Emily but not until her heroine experiences the accompanying emotions. Radcliffe depicts the course of the heroine’s psychology: the original tranquillity disturbed by something unexpected, the curiosity growing into anxiety and fear, the momentary terror when doom seems inevitable, and the flood of relief when Providence, hero, or novelist...

(The entire section is 741 words.)