The Mysteries of Udolpho

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741

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...

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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 intervenes.

Bibliography:

Castle, Terry. “The Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho.” In The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature, edited by Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown. New York: Methuen, 1987. Examines the neglected segments of The Mysteries of Udolpho and asserts that the supernatural is “rerouted” rather than explained.

Fawcett, Mary Laughlin. “Udolpho’s Primal Mystery.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 23, no. 3 (1983): 481-494. Provides a psychoanalytic approach to the novel.

Freeman, R. Austin. Introduction to The Mysteries of Udolpho. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1931. Dismisses Radcliffe’s anachronisms and inaccuracies as irrelevant, claiming that The Mysteries of Udolpho’s merits are elsewhere. Whereas Samuel Taylor Coleridge had faulted Radcliffe for explaining all the mysteries, Freeman shows that The Mysteries of Udolpho anticipates the convention of the novel and satisfies readers with those explanations.

Graham, Kenneth W. “Emily’s Demon-Lover: The Gothic Revolution and The Mysteries of Udolpho.” In Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, edited by Kenneth W. Graham. New York: AMS Press, 1989. Places Radcliffe’s works in the historical moment of revolution.

Howells, Coral Ann. Love, Mystery, and Misery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction. London: Athlone Press, 1978. Analyzes Emily St. Aubert as a character through whom Radcliffe experiments with subjectivity and points of view.

Kiely, Robert. The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. Kiely observes innovative aspects in the character of Emily St. Aubert, including the fact that she is aware of her own thinking and that she is astute rather than helpless in finding her way in her gothic situation.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women: The Great Writers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976. A groundbreaking work that begins to delineate a female literary tradition. Moers discusses how Radcliffe used the gothic novel to explore the nature of heroinism. Compares her to Fanny Burney.

Roberts, Bette B. “The Horrid Novels: The Mysteries of Udolpho and Northanger Abbey.” In Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, edited by Kenneth W. Graham. New York: AMS Press, 1989. Challenges conventional notions of Jane Austen’s evaluation of Radcliffe’s art by examining Austen’s treatment in Northanger Abbey of both Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho and other contemporary “horrids.”

Smith, Nelson. “Sense, Sensibility, and Ann Radcliffe.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 13, no. 4 (1973): 577-590. Shows The Mysteries of Udolpho to be an attack on eighteenth century “sensibility.”

Spender, Dale. “Ann Radcliffe and the Gothic.” In Mothers of the Novel: One Hundred Good Women Writers Before Jane Austen. London: Pandora Books, 1986. A defense of a female literary tradition. Discusses Radcliffe in historical context, including mention of female writers who influenced her.

Todd, Janet. The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing, and Fiction, 1600-1800. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Discusses female authorship by the signs it creates to identify itself. Suggests that Radcliffe maintains the image of female gentility, the lady, in her life and works.

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