The Mysteries of Udolpho

by Ann Radcliffe

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge (essay date 1794)

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SOURCE: Critical Review, August, 1794, pp. 361-72.

[In the following essay, Coleridge notes the weaknesses of The Mysteries of Udolpho, including its repetitive descriptions, flat characterizations, and anticlimactic conclusion.]

… In this contest of curiosity on one side, and invention on the other, Mrs. Radcliffe has certainly the advantage. She delights in concealing her plan with the most artificial contrivance, and seems to amuse herself with saying, at every turn and doubling of the story, “Now you think you have me, but I shall take care to disappoint you.” This method is, however, liable to the following inconvenience, that in the search of what is new, an author is apt to forget what is natural; and, in rejecting the more obvious conclusions, to take those which are less satisfactory. The trite and the extravagant are the Scylla and Charybdis of writers who deal in fiction. With regard to the work before us, while we acknowledge the extraordinary powers of Mrs. Radcliffe, some readers will be inclined to doubt whether they have been exerted in the present work with equal effect as in the Romance of the Forest.—Four volumes cannot depend entirely on terrific incidents and intricacy of story. They require character, unity of design, a delineation of the scenes of real life, and the variety of well supported contrast. The Mysteries of Udolpho are indeed relieved by much elegant description and picturesque scenery; but in the descriptions there is too much of sameness: the pine and the larch tree wave, and the full moon pours its lustre through almost every chapter, Curiosity is raised oftener than it is gratified; or rather, it is raised so high that no adequate gratification can be given it; the interest is completely dissolved when once the adventure is finished, and the reader, when he is got to the end of the work, looks about in vain for the spell which had bound him so strongly to it. There are other little defects, which impartiality obliges us to notice. The manners do not sufficiently correspond with the æra the author has chosen; which is the latter end of the sixteenth century. There is, perhaps, no direct anachronism, but the style of accomplishments given to the heroine, a country young lady, brought up on the banks of the Garonne; the mention of botany; of little circles of infidelity, & c. give so much the air of modern manners, as is not counterbalanced by Gothic arches and antique furniture. It is possible that the manners of different ages may not differ so much as we are apt to imagine, and more than probable that we are generally wrong when we attempt to delineate any but our own; but there is at least a style of manners which our imagination has appropriated to each period, and which, like the costume of theatrical dress, is not departed from without hurting the feelings.—The character of Annette, a talkative waiting-maid, is much worn, and that of the aunt, madame Cheron, is too low and selfish to excite any degree of interest, or justify the dangers her niece exposes herself to for her sake. We must likewise observe, that the adventures do not sufficiently point to one centre. …

If, in consequence of the criticisms impartiality has obliged us to make upon this novel, the author should feel disposed to ask us, Who will write a better? we boldly answer her, Yourself; when no longer disposed to sacrifice excellence to quantity, and lengthen out a story for the sake of filling an additional volume.


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The Mysteries of Udolpho Ann Radcliffe

The following entry presents criticism of Radcliffe's novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). For information on Radcliffe's complete career, see NCLC, Volumes 6 and 55.

Although several novels published before The Mysteries of Udolpho fall into what is considered the gothic genre, many critics consider Radcliffe the founder of the gothic novel. The Mysteries of Udolpho includes all of the classic gothic elements, including a haunted castle, a troubled heroine, a mysterious and menacing male figure, and hidden secrets of the past. Extremely popular when it was first published in four volumes in 1794, the work made Radcliffe famous throughout Europe.

Biographical Information

Born July 9, 1764, Ann Ward was the daughter of William and Ann Oates Ward. Her father held a modest occupation as a haberdasher, but her extended family included well-known scholars and physicians. Growing up a very shy and reticent young woman in Bath, she led a sheltered life but had a great love for literature and nature. She gradually developed a heightened romantic sensibility and an interest for the supernatural. On January 15, 1787, she married William Radcliffe, a student at Oxford, and the couple moved to London, where, according to all accounts, they lived happily.

Finding herself among literary circles in London, Radcliffe was stimulated enough to try her hand at writing, and she quickly established herself as an author with extraordinary powers of description. By the time she had published The Romance of the Forest in 1791, her reputation was established. Despite being acknowledged as an adept writer, the 500 pounds she received for The Mysteries of Udolpho surprised the literary world, it would have been a handsome sum for a male writer, let alone a woman of the late eighteenth century. Interestingly, although the novel includes many descriptions of Italy and other foreign locales, it was not until the work was actually being printed that Radcliffe left England for the first time in her life, traveling to the Continent with her husband and visiting Holland and Germany. Her descriptions of foreign landscapes in Udolpho, therefore, come exclusively from her reading and her appreciation of art.

After writing a half dozen novels, Radcliffe's literary output slowed, though she continued to write some poetry. By 1813, Radcliffe's health began to wane. A longtime asthma sufferer, she moved to Ramsgate in 1822 for the sea air. However, she passed away on February 7, 1823, when the inflammation reached her brain.

Plot and Major Characters

Set in the sixteenth century, The Mysteries of Udolpho opens in the idyllic setting of Emily St. Aubert's home in La Vallee, where she lives with her parents. The happiness of this life is quickly dissipated, however, when her mother dies. She moves to the Pyrenees with her father, and there meets and falls in love with Valancourt. However, her father soon falls ill, too, and upon his deathbed commands Emily to burn a number of letters and documents, strictly forbidding her to read any of them. After he dies, Emily dutifully burns the letters, but she accidentally chances to read a passage from one of them. Although the content of the letter is never revealed to the reader, the passage she reads, which apparently refers to a woman whom her father had once loved, deeply disturbs Emily.

With her parents gone, Emily goes to live with her aunt, Madame Cheron. Cheron is a vain, selfish, and unpleasant woman, but more unpleasant and menacing still is her suitor, the villainous Montoni, who has squandered his own money and is in league with a group of bandits. Cheron marries Montoni, though it is clear he is only interested in her estates. Valancourt has followed Emily to her aunt's home in Toulouse, and, at first, is given permission by Montoni to marry Emily. However, Montoni changes his mind and sends Valancourt away. Montoni takes Emily and his wife to Udolpho, a castle in the Italian Apennines. Here, he tries to force one of his associates, Count Morano, upon Emily, who resists his proposals. Montoni then tries to force Emily's aunt to give him all her property. When she refuses, he locks her away in a secluded room where he neglects and eventually starves her to death. Meanwhile, Montoni also pursues Emily for her money and land. During her stay at Udolpho, many bizarre and seemingly supernatural occurrences frighten Emily.

Emily manages to escape from Udolpho. However, she is shipwrecked on the French coast, where she is rescued by the Count de Villefort, who takes her to live with his family in the chateau he has inherited from the Villerois. The chateau is near the convent where her father's grave is located, and Emily spends some time there. Back at the chateau, Emily experiences other frightening sights. When one of the servants, Ludovico, bravely spends the night there to prove that there are no ghosts, he disappears the next day. Soon, Emily also finds out that she bears a striking resemblance to the Marchioness de Villeroi.

Vallancourt appears once again, but Emily rejects him this time because she has heard that he engaged in gambling and other poor behavior while he was in Paris. She returns to La Vallee to learn that the lands Montoni has stolen from her have been returned to her possession and that Montoni is now in jail. Ludovico is also rediscovered. He had been taken by bandits, who had been using part of the chateau to hide their ill-gotten booty. It is discovered that it was the bandits who had been haunting the chateau to scare away anyone who might discover them and their secret. Emily further learns that the rumors about her love, Vallancourt, were untrue, and the couple marries and lives happily at La Vallee.

Major Themes

The most prominent theme in The Mysteries of Udolpho is the triumph of virtue over villainy: a characteristic of all the novels by Radcliffe, who was a devout Christian. Montoni, who squanders his fortunes and turns to illegal and deadly means to win them back, is eventually imprisoned, while Emily, though she endures many trying adventures, maintains her moral principles and eventually finds happiness. Related to this theme is the importance of balance and moderation, which Emily's father teaches her. It is when Emily allows herself to go to emotional extremes, becoming imbalanced, that she suffers most. Also present in the story is Emily's search for truth and need to uncover the secrets at Udolpho and the Villeroi chateau. Another theme is the inescapable past. Many of the characters are haunted by their past, as Emily is; although the mysteries of Udolpho are eventually resolved, there is still a sense of an inescapable haunting that follows the characters.

Critical Reception

The Mysteries of Udolpho was both an extremely popular novel and a critically praised one when it was first published and for many years after. Readers heartily enjoyed Radcliffe's gift for description and her deftness at building dramatic tension throughout the story. She was acknowledged by critics of her time as the queen of the gothic novel, and she was also considered to be a pioneer of the romantic movement. With her popularity, however, also came a wide array of imitators who shamelessly—and often poorly—copied her style, plots, and characters to the verge of plagiarism. It was because of these lesser writers that Radcliffe's novel often suffered by association. Her work was sometimes satirized, too, most famously in Jane Austen's 1818 novel, Northanger Abbey.

Not all of Radcliffe's contemporary critics lauded Udolpho, however. Some reviewers noted that there were a number of flaws in the work. The most disturbing of these, even for general readers, was Radcliffe's insistence on explaining away the apparently supernatural events with logical, quotidian causes. And, even though she explains these events, her explanations sometimes fall short; there is a sense that the author is merely teasing the audience with hints of supernatural spirits that are not really there. One recent critic, Terry Castle, however, notes that the supernatural is not so much explained as it is transferred to Emily's everyday life, where she is later “haunted” by the presence of her dead parents in La Vallee. Other complaints include the work's anachronisms (many of the settings are distinctly eighteenth-century in nature, although the novel is supposedly set in the sixteenth century), flat characterization, and improbable turns in plotting. Emily has been particularly criticized for her repeated fainting spells that occur at the slightest provocation, her exaggerated imagination that leads her to quickly conclude that something ordinary is supernatural, and her heightened “sensibility” that makes her a character whofeels but rarely thinks. The poetry that Radcliffe wrote for her story and interspersed throughout its pages is also criticized for being distracting and unnecessary by some, and of poor quality by others.

Recent critics analyze Udolpho from feminist and psychological standpoints and offer more serious considerations of Emily's character. The book has also been considered in terms of its sensual subtext and Emily's growing sense of her sexuality. In this new light, Udolpho has gained greater appreciation among modern literary pundits.

William Enfield (essay date 1794)

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SOURCE: Monthly Review, November, 1794, pp. 278-83.

[In the following excerpt, Enfield reviews The Mysteries of Udolpho and praises Radcliffe's writing style, including her descriptions and characterization.]

If the merit of fictitious narratives may be estimated by their power of pleasing, Mrs. Radcliffe's romances will be entitled to rank highly in the scale of literary excellence. There are, we believe, few readers of novels who have not been delighted with her Romance of the Forest; and we incur little risque in predicting that the Mysteries of Udolpho will be perused with equal pleasure.

The works of this ingenious writer not only possess, in common with many other productions of the same class, the agreeable qualities of correctness of sentiment and elegance of style, but are also distinguished by a rich vein of invention, which supplies an endless variety of incidents to fill the imagination of the reader; by an admirable ingenuity of contrivance to awaken his curiosity, and to bind him in the chains of suspence; and by a vigour of conception and a delicacy of feeling which are capable of producing the strongest sympathetic emotions, whether of pity or terror. Both these passions are excited in the present romance, but chiefly the latter; and we admire the enchanting power with which the author at her pleasure seizes and detains them. We are no less pleased with the proofs of sound judgment, which appear in the selection of proper circumstances to produce a distinct and full exhibition, before the reader's fancy, both of persons and events; and, still more, in the care which has been taken to preserve his mind in one uniform tone of sentiment, by presenting to it a long continued train of scenes and incidents, which harmonize with each other.

Through the whole of the first volume, the emotions which the writer intends to excite are entirely of the tender kind. Emily, the heroine of the tale, early becomes familiar with sorrow, through the death of her parents; yet not before the reader is made acquainted with their characters and manners, and has accompanied them through a number of interesting circumstances, sufficient to dispose him to the exercise of tender sympathy. At the same time, her heart receives, by slow and imperceptible degrees, the soft impressions of love; and the reader is permitted, without the introduction of any dissonant feelings, to enjoy the luxury of observing the rise and progress of this passion, and of sympathising with the lovers in every diversity of sentiment, which an uncommon vicissitude of events could produce; till, at last, Emily is separated from her Valancourt, to experience a sad variety of woe. With the interesting narrative of this volume, are frequently interwoven descriptions of nature in the rich and beautiful country of the South of France, which are perfectly in unison with the story; at the same time that they display, in a favourable light, the writer's powers of fancy and of language, and afford no small addition to the reader's gratification. …

Something of the marvellous is introduced in the first volume, sufficient to throw an interesting air of mystery over the story; and the reader feels the pleasing agitation of uncertainty concerning several circumstances, of which the writer has had the address not to give a glance of explanation till toward the close of the work. In the remaining volumes, however, her genius is employed to raise up forms which chill the soul with horror. …

Without introducing into her narrative any thing really supernatural, Mrs. Radcliffe has contrived to produce as powerful an effect as if the invisible world had been obedient to her magic spell; and the reader experiences in perfection the strange luxury of artificial terror, without being obliged for a moment to hoodwink his reason, or to yield to the weakness of superstitious credulity. We shall not forestall his pleasure by detailing the particulars: but we will not hesitate to say, in general, that, within the limits of nature and probability, a story so well contrived to hold curiosity in pleasing suspence, and at the same time to agitate the soul with strong emotions of sympathetic terror, has seldom been produced.

Another part of the merit of this novel must not be overlooked. The characters are drawn with uncommon distinctness, propriety, and boldness. Emily, the principal female character, being naturally possessed of delicate sensibility and warm affection, is early warned by her father against indulging the pride of fine feelings—(the romantic error of amiable minds)—and is taught that the strength of fortitude is more valuable than the grace of sensibility. Hence she acquires a habit of self command, which gives a mild dignity to her manners, and a steady firmness to her conduct. She is patient under authority, without tameness or cunning. Desirous, in the first place, of her own approbation, she is equally unaffected by the praise and the censure of fools. In love, she is tender and ardent without weakness, and constant notwithstanding every inducement, from interest or terror, to abandon the object of her affection. Good sense effectually fortifies her against superstitious fear; and a noble integrity and sublime piety support her in the midst of terrors and dangers. In the character and fortunes of Emily's aunt, Madame Cheron, to whom her sufferings are solely owing, is exhibited an example of the mischief which silly pride brings on itself and others. Dazzled with shew, she wants the sense both to discern merit and to detect imposture: supercilious in her condescension, and ostentatious in her pity, she inflicts cruel wounds without intention; she admires and despises by turns, and equally without reason: she neither bears injuries with meekness nor resents them with dignity; and her exasperated pride vents itself in feeble lamentation, and prevents her from using the necessary means for her safety, till at length it exposes her to cruel insults, and precipitates her destruction.—Montoni, her second husband, is an Italian of strong talents, but of an abandoned character and desperate fortune: he is unprincipled, dauntless, and enterprising; reserved through pride and discontent, deep craft conceals all his plans: wild and various in his passions, yet capable of making them all bend to his interest, he is the cause of cruel wretchedness and infinite terror to those who are under his power. Some gleams of comic humour play through the gloom of the story, in the character and conversation of the faithful servant Annette, who has an insuperable propensity to credulity, and an irresistible impulse to communication: but whose naïveté, simple honesty, and affection, render her character interesting. Several other portraits are drawn with equal strength. …

The numerous mysteries of the plot are fully disclosed in the conclusion, and the reader is perfectly satisfied at finding villainy punished, and steady virtue and persevering affection rewarded. If there be any part of the story which lies open to material objection, it is that which makes Valancourt, Emily's lover, fall into disgraceful indiscretions during her absence, and into a temporary alienation of affection. …

The embellishments of the work are highly finished. The descriptions are rich, glowing, and varied: they discover a vigorous imagination, and an uncommon command of language; and many of them would furnish admirable subjects for the pencil of the painter. If the reader, in the eagerness of curiosity, should be tempted to pass over any of them for the sake of proceeding more rapidly with the story, he will do both himself and the author injustice. They recur, however, too frequently; and, consequently, a similarity of expression is often perceptible. Several of the pieces of poetry are elegant performances, but they would have appeared with more advantage as a separate publication. …

Principal Works

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The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne: A Highland Story (novel) 1789

A Sicilian Romance (novel) 1790

The Romance of the Forest: Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry (novel) 1791

The Mysteries of Udolpho, A Romance; Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry (novel) 1794

A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794, through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany, with a Return Down the Rhine; To Which Are Added Observations During a Tour to the Lakes of Lancashire, Westmoreland, and Cumberland (travel essays) 1795

The Italian, or The Confessional of the Black Penitents. A Romance (novel) 1797

Gaston de Blondevill, or The Court of Henry III. Keeping Festival in Ardenne, A Romance. St. Alban's Abbey, A Metrical Tale; With Some Poetical Pieces. To Which Is Prefixed a Memoir of the Author (novel) 1826

Mary Poovey (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: “Ideology and ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho,”’ in Criticism, Vol. 21, No. 4, Fall, 1979, pp. 307-30.

[In the following essay, Poovey explains the class values system of nineteenth-century English culture and how Udolpho, though it is set in the sixteenth century, actually reflects the class morality of the author's times. Poovey goes on to note that Radcliffe's insights into the coming rise in feminine values are not followed through to their logical conclusion because of the author's faithfulness to the old status quo.]


The system of “values, ideas and images” which cemented the position of the upper middle class within the social and political hierarchy of eighteenth-century England—and which perpetuated an illusion of power for that class even after the foundations of paternalism began to erode—was based on what eighteenth-century poets and philosophers called the “sentimental virtues.”1 “Sentimentalism,” with its close kin “sensibility,” was the ideology generalized from the theories of such eighteenth-century moral philosophers as David Hume and Adam Smith. Adapting Shaftesbury's theory of an innate moral faculty, Hume and Smith proposed that moral action was based on man's characteristic sympathetic response and, ultimately, that virtue was desirable because it advanced one's own welfare and gratified the desire for approval. In the course of the century, the values associated with this theory were used by the bourgeoisie to ennoble and justify almost all facets of behavior: aesthetic, ethical, economic, and political. Together, the theorists of sentimentalism projected a mythical society in which individual desires and collective needs participated in perfect reciprocity, where “natural” inequality was sanctioned because the poor and dependent automatically benefited from the unforced benevolence of the “well-bred gentleman.” But during the last decades of the century, the contradictions between these myths of the patronage system and actual economic and political conditions began to surface with increasing and alarming speed, and, as a result, the contradictions in the ideological cement itself became increasingly apparent. From the minor crowd disturbances at Tyburn to the mob action of the Gordon riots in 1780 was a short but profoundly significant step, an undeniable sign that the ideology of sensibility did not accurately account for all of English society; for as social unrest became more frequent, the dependent masses no longer seemed “naturally” the grateful wards their governors had imagined, or at least desired.2 Paradoxically, however, the ideology of sensibility itself contributed to this challenge from below: not only did sensibility lack theories to explain such social unrest, but its paradigms actually sanctioned the bourgeois individualism which increasingly exacerbated it.

A study of the ideology of sensibility, its power and its gradual decline, is essential to our understanding of one underprivileged subgroup within the dominant class.3 For with the gradual erosion of paternalism and the simultaneous, rapid growth of agrarian, then industrial capitalism, “the Third Estate of the Third Estate,” as one French pamphleteer called women, also began to experience a loosening of the mortar which had solidified its place within the traditional order. The challenge posed to sensibility, in fact, had a profounder significance for women than for any other group. For although the ideology rationalized the economic and political powerlessness of women, it also constituted the basis for their peculiar but undeniable power. In the course of the eighteenth century, sentimental virtues were increasingly identified as feminine virtues, until, by the end of the century, authors of conduct books for “women of rank and fortune” consistently described women's “natural” characteristics as a variation of sentimentalism: “the most amiable tendencies and affections implanted in human nature, of modesty, of delicacy, of sympathizing sensibility, of prompt active benevolence, of warmth and tenderness of attachment.”4 According to Rousseau and his numerous followers, these feminine qualities compensated for the “inequality of man-made laws” by assigning women very specific social responsibilities, and thereby assuring them of very specific powers.5 The anonymous conduct book writer already quoted describes women's unique contributions to social stability and happiness as follows:

First. In contributing daily and hourly to the comfort of husbands, of parents, of brothers and sisters, and of other relations and connections, in the intercourse of domestic life, under every vicissitude of sickness and health, of joy and affliction.

Secondly. In forming and improving the general manners, dispositions, and conduct of the other sex, by society and example.

Thirdly. In modelling the human mind during the early stages of its growth, and fixing, while it is yet ductile, its growing principle of action; children of either sex being, in general, under maternal tuition during their childhood, and girls until they become women.6

From our perspective, we can see that the most crucial “power” of middle class women actually resided in their ability to preserve in the home the sentimental values and behavior traditionally associated with paternalistic society—even as developments in the “real world,” made up of marketplace and mob, challenged those values and that behavior.7 By providing men a retreat from “the sordid occupations and degrading profits of trade,”8 an arena where feminine charm could momentarily humanize the aggressive, individualistic energies necessary to material success, women were able to perpetuate the comforting illusion that the harmonious world some poets already viewed with nostalgia was not, in fact, yet lost. Not incidentally, however, by keeping the theatre of humane values separate from materialistic activity, this illusion inadvertently contributed to the eventual success of the marketplace values it appeared to counteract.

It is not surprising that at the end of the eighteenth century the debate about woman's proper place and her peculiar power intensified, for as the paternalistic system began to lose its hegemony, women sensed the imminent destruction of both their dependent status and their power. Their response, predictably, was a deeply divided one. Mary Wollstonecraft, insisting that women's dependence was not “natural” but acquired, exhorted her sisters to protect themselves against the threat she already perceived by learning new habits of genuine strength:

I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonomous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.9

In reply, Hannah More reasserted Rousseau's argument from innate characteristics. The “original marks of difference stamped by the hand of the Creator,” More reminded women, dictated their “natural,” their “proper,” and therefore their “right” place, and to defy this order would not only pervert the natural law but invite absolute powerlessness.

Is it not then more wise as well as more honorable to move contentedly in the plain path which Providence has obviously marked out to the sex, and in which custom has for the most part rationally confirmed them, rather than to stray awkwardly, unbecomingly, and unsuccessfully, in a forbidden road? to be the lawful possessors of a lesser domestic territory, rather than the turbulent usurpers of a wider foreign empire? to be good originals, rather than bad imitators? to be the best thing of one's kind, rather than an inferior thing even if it were of an higher kind? to be excellent women rather than indifferent men?10

Mary Wollstonecraft and Hannah More, in their polemical zest, take extreme and particularly clear positions. In the fiction written (and read) during this period by middle class women, these two antithetical attitudes more frequently lie side by side, causing competing tendencies which rupture the bland optimism their narrators assert. The novels of Ann Radcliffe, “the Great Enchantress,” provide a particularly good example of the tensions the challenge to paternalism and its values caused such women, for in her romances Radcliffe investigates specifically the paradoxical role sensibility plays in simultaneously restricting women and providing them power and an arena for action. Moreover, in the process of her investigation, Radcliffe uncovers the root cause of the late eighteenth-century ideological turmoil, the economic aggressiveness currently victimizing defenseless women of sensibility. But despite her penetrating insight, Radcliffe does not abandon sentimental values; instead, she retreats from the terrifying implications of her discovery and simply dismisses the threat sentimentalism cannot combat. Rather than proposing an alternative to paternalistic society and its values, she merely reasserts an idealized—and insulated—paternalism and relegates the issues she cannot resolve to the background of her narrative. Thus, in Radcliffe's romances, we have an excellent example of an ideology in practice, a testing of its images and values by one member of that class which had most at stake in it. In the tonal and structural dissonances, the competing ideas which characterize even Radcliffe's most successful novel, we see the conflicts within the ideology realized—acted out, as it were, in one woman's attempt to imaginatively resolve the instability that threatened her. And in her return to the very values she has questioned, we see the way in which her investment in these values delimited the range of her response.

“Sensibility” and “sentiments” were understood in the eighteenth century to be the products of that innate moral faculty Shaftesbury postulated in his Characteristics (1711). During most of the century, “sensibility” embraced both consciousness—the ability to feel strongly—and conscience—the capacity for rational feeling.11 The values associated with sensibility were therefore moral (benevolence, generosity) as well as aesthetic (sensitivity, responsiveness), and the interdependence of these categories helps explain how sensibility could constitute the foundation for an ethical as well as an aesthetic theory: virtue was held to be its own reward because generous behavior automatically returned aesthetic pleasure. Shaftesbury's proposal that man possessed “natural affections,” that his benevolence was innate, was one of many attempts to answer that persistent eighteenth-century question of how legitimate self-interest could be linked to the desire for social good. But while the proposals of several of Shaftesbury's early followers, most notably Francis Hutcheson and Alexander Gerard, continue his emphasis that the moral gesture was simply a natural response of an innate faculty, other moral theorists subjected this moral sense to a more searching analysis. In particular, David Hume, in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740), and Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), advanced explanations that prepared the way for more secular and less disinterested theories of man's generosity.

David Hume, for example, makes sympathy the basis for all moral responses, but he goes on to explain that sympathy causes pleasure because through it we perceive how the “good of mankind” advances our own welfare. According to Hume, sympathy

produces our sentiment of morals in all the artificial virtues. From thence we may presume, that it also gives rise to many of the other virtues; and that qualities acquire our approbation, because of their tendency to the good of mankind. … We have no such extensive concern for society but from sympathy; and consequently, 'tis that principle, which takes us so far out of ourselves, as to give us the same pleasure or uneasiness in the characters of others, as if they had a tendency to our own advantage or loss.12

Hume openly acknowledges that “men are, in a great measure, govern'd by interest, and that even when they extend their concern beyond themselves, 'tis not to any great distance.”13 Only the knowledge that one's individual interest will ultimately be advanced by justice causes man to desire government and practice self-control. Hume, in other words, does not assume that man is naturally benevolent—only that his natural self-interest can be turned to benevolence as sympathy convinces him that his welfare is intimately connected with others'.14

Adam Smith agrees with Hume's notion that sympathy is the basis of moral action, but in expanding this idea to claim that all desires originate in the desire for sympathy itself, Smith suggests the extent to which the values of sensibility can be made to accommodate the practices of marketplace competition. For Smith insists that even ambition and the desire for “place” spring from man's “regard to the sentiments of mankind,” his desire “to be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation.”15

It is the vanity, not the ease, or the pleasure, which interests us. But vanity is always founded upon the belief of our being the object of attention and approbation. The rich man glories in his riches, because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world, and that mankind are disposed to go along with him in all those aggreable emotions with which the advantages of his situation so readily inspire him. At the thought of this his heart seems to swell and dilate itself within him, and he is fonder of his wealth, upon this account, than for all the other advantages it procures him.16

Although Smith postulates an internal “impartial spectator” to assure the morality of man's actions, in claiming that man's fundamental desire urges him to improve his material well-being, Smith anchors the rationale for laissez-faire competition in the theory of moral sentiments itself. In his Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith extends this assumption to its logical conclusion, for his explanation that individual and national enrichment stroll hand-in-hand in the healthy glow of unregulated competition suggests that in a free market economy many men simply strive simultaneously, “naturally,” for the essentially non-economic goal of universal respect.17

Eighteenth-century poetic formulations of the sentimental virtues almost always deny this hospitality to material desire or individualistic competition. But with the wisdom of hindsight, we can see that the ideology of sensibility helped underwrite both laissez-faire capitalism and the self-regulating society the English bourgeoisie desired. Its explanation of human behavior legitimized the bourgeoisie's desire for a weak central government, while its hierarchy of values helped control potentially disruptive religious and political differences. Moreover, as Albert Kuhn has suggested, the man who cultivated sentimental virtues within his position of power also created the impression of aristocratic grace: “he who acquired it [sensibility] was enobled, and was enobling in his society.”18 We should not forget, of course, that these values also promoted very real beneficial effects: in advocating humanitarian treatment of the poor, a liberal attitude toward the American revolution, and compassion for enslaved Negroes, sensibility contributed to most of the genuinely liberal accomplishments of the period. But sentimental values provided only the rationale, never the power for social or political action. Sentimental virtues, which Edmund Burke called the “softer virtues,” may have helped control or humanize aggression and energy, but by definition, the genuine creature of sensibility was self-effacing and could only influence action indirectly. Thus, however “amiable,” the true practitioner of sensibility was essentially passive, dependent, inferior. In fact, cultivating sensibility without an underlying foundation of political or economic power effectively contributed to keep its practitioner weak.19

Because women were considered the primary vessels of the sentimental virtues, and because these virtues constituted virtually their only source of social power, women's prescriptive literature generally assumed a cautionary tone, advocating acceptance of limitations but celebrating the indirect power of influence and love. In her poem “Sensibility” (1782), for example, Hannah More voiced many of the feminine commonplaces, assuring her readers that self-denial itself was a significant social contribution.

To bless mankind with tides of flowing wealth,
With rank to grace them, or to crown with health,
Our little lot denies; yet lib'ral still,
Heaven gives its counterpoise to every ill;
Nor let us murmer at our stinted powers,
When kindness, love, and concord may be ours.
The mild forbearance at a brother's fault,
The angry word suppress'd, the taunting thought;
Subduing and subdued, the petty strife,
Which clouds the colour of domestic life;
The sober comfort, all the peace which springs
From the large aggregate of little things;
On these small cares of daughter, wife, or friend,
The almost sacred joys of home depend:
There, Sensibility, thou best may'st reign,
Home is thy true legitimate domain.(20)

More's climactic celebration of the home points up that characteristic tendency, increasingly prevalent in the last decades of the century, to relegate sentimental virtues to the “woman's sphere.” There, these virtues could still exercise their ameliorative effect, as women provided a calm, still center to the otherwise turbulent life of the enterprising bread-winner, and preserved the valuable illusion of stability and continuity even after political and social turmoil undermined that ideal. A woman might be forbidden to own property in her own right, to sue for divorce, or even to visit her children in the wake of a separation, but in the home she embodied and superintended the sentimental virtues and thus the values of a social system already under fire.

In England as abroad, the event which brought the basic assumptions of the sentimental ideology into the range of conservative critics was not increased capitalistic activity or even mob unrest but the outbreak of the French Revolution.21 While Thomas Paine, spokesman for those liberal political theories of enlightenment reason so dependent upon the assumptions of sensibility, returned to the argument for “natural” virtue to justify “natural rights,”22 Edmund Burke exposed the contradiction always implicit in the marriage of laissez-faire economics with sentimental morality. Although Burke was primarily arguing against unrestrained reason, in his discussion of the consequences of misplaced confidence in man's nature, he also pointed out that the self-interest the moral philosophers had already acknowledged as compatible with benevolence could easily become that “lust of selfish will” which was currently threatening Church property and social stability. One of Burke's many telling insights was that if one accepts the possibility that virtue is not disinterested, the sentimental rationalization collapses from within. “Self-love and Social” are not necessarily the same in the absence of external regulation; the goal of material well-being may be cloaked with a rationale based on sympathy, but the means of acquiring it and its social consequences may be neither virtuous, benevolent, nor humane.

Burke does not abandon the sentimental virtues; he simply insists that sentiments, like reason, must be regulated by an external authority. Man's natural self-interest must be closely governed by those “just principles” institutionalized in “civil society” so that this sentiment will not erupt into passionate, materialistic desire. According to Burke, only government can protect men—and women—from what he believes would be the inevitable, terrifying result of unregulated feeling: “a revolution in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions.” Burke's dramatic presentation of the French Queen, “the morning-star” of sentimental virtues, roused from her bed, forced “to fly almost naked” from the poignards of “cruel ruffians and assassins,” is his nightmare of the social consequences of sensibility loosed, allowed to grow into avaricious passion.23


The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) may be seen as a middle class woman's version of Burke's revealing nightmare. Like Burke, Radcliffe perceives the viper of passion sensibility nurses within its breast; remarkably, she even recognizes its economic component. But seeing the crisis in “sentiments, manners, and moral opinions” from inside, as it were, from the perspective of its most likely victim, Radcliffe presents a very different vision of the causes and consequences of Burke's idealized feminine terror. Dramatizing the internal instability of sentimentalism as well as its vulnerability to avarice, Radcliffe explores in detail a woman's psychological responses to the enemy sensibility has bred. But rather than proposing, as Burke does, a paradigm of institutional control, Radcliffe focuses on the moment at which the institutional and familial guardians of paternalistic society simply disappear. And in the wake of that disappearance she sees, clearly if reluctantly, the viper of unleashed passion emerge.

Even though Radcliffe claims that The Mysteries of Udolpho is set in sixteenth-century France, the psychological situation she dramatizes belongs to late eighteenth-century England and to the ideological complexities I have been describing. Only distancing the story, in fact, permits Radcliffe to unmask the implicit threat sensibility poses without challenging its contemporary importance. For, even the limited arena of power sensibility provides women is too valuable for Radcliffe to jeopardize. Thus, by distancing the story Radcliffe prepares from the beginning to displace the threat, to return the sentimental virtues to their admittedly embattled throne.

In The Mysteries, sensibility first helps to establish the stability of that ideal, paternalistic society described in Volume One. There, within a series of protective enclosures—the chateau of La Vallée and her father's care—Emily St. Aubert is able to cultivate, then indulge sentimental virtues—a quick responsiveness to nature and an unreflecting generosity to others. Radcliffe clearly believes that these virtues are valuable, for, initially at least, she sets them up as a counter to that lust for material gain threatening both Emily's society and her own. In Volume One, Radcliffe explicitly establishes an opposition between sentimental virtues—“tenderness, simplicity, and truth”—and their materialistic counterparts—“selfishness, dissipation, and insincerity.” Only by exercising the first can one earn the true “luxury” of aesthetic gratification, as the chevalier Valancourt learns when he donates his last coins to the poor. Valancourt's enrichment is immediate: “his gay spirits danced with pleasure; every object around him appeared more interesting, or beautiful, than before.”24 Beside this, Radcliffe suggests, the “frivolous” pleasures of material wealth are artificial, cold, and unsatisfying.

In her descriptions of sensibility, Radcliffe preserves the marriage of ethical and aesthetic components we saw in earlier theories: “Virtue and taste are nearly the same,” Emily's father explains, “for virtue is little more than active taste, and the most delicate affection of each combine in real love” (I, v, 49-50). But aesthetic rewards automatically follow virtuous actions only as long as sensibility operates in an environment regulated by a moral authority. Emily's youthful pleasures and Valancourt's aesthetic delight are possible only in the gentle French countryside, where “the sublime luxuries” of God's natural world always greet the questing heart. In order to be effective, sensibility needs some such external governance, for, as Radcliffe is quick to note, sensibility itself is inherently unstable: it is susceptible to “excess.” And “all excess is vicious,” as St. Aubert warns Emily.25 St. Aubert's dying words convey his deep suspicion of indulged sensibility:

“Above all, my dear Emily … do not indulge in the pride of fine feeling, the romantic error of amiable minds. Those, who really possess sensibility, ought early to be taught, that it is a dangerous quality, which is continually extracting the excess of misery, or delight, from every surrounding circumstance. And, since, in our passage through this world, painful circumstances occur more frequently than pleasing ones, and since our sense of evil is, I fear, more acute than our sense of good, we become the victims of our feelings, unless we can in some degree command them.”

(I, vii, 79-80)

The “painful circumstances” St. Aubert describes are those anarchic situations beyond the purview of paternalistic guardians, where the feeling heart is exposed to the tyranny of others or the riot of its own excess. Emily St. Aubert soon experiences both of these dilemmas, for, when her father dies, she is exiled from her protected childhood home and taken to the city, where there is no moral protector. Instead, Emily is placed in the custody of her aunt and Signor Montoni, Italian incarnation of excess itself. Subjected to Montoni's unprincipled tyranny, Emily learns the terrible meaning of her father's words: without external protection the creature of sensibility has no power over herself or others. In the avaricious anarchy of Montoni's circle, feelings do not become principles, and thus the sentimental heroine is helpless before both real and imaginary villains.

Radcliffe's twofold critique of sensibility achieves its clearest articulation in the episodes that take place within Montoni's decaying Alpine retreat, the castle of Udolpho. Udolpho is the sinister inverse of La Vallée, an enclosure whose boundaries oppress rather than protect, a prison which shelters hatred rather than love, a bastille which excludes both law and moral nature itself. Within Udolpho Emily is totally helpless: Montoni dictates her confinement and her virtual isolation. But the external tyranny is, on the surface at least, less oppressive than the terror generated by Emily's own undisciplined imagination. There is, as time will tell, nothing supernatural in Udolpho's winding corridors, but there are evil agents; and Emily's overly sensitive imagination, deprived of external guides, all too readily converts the unnatural into the supernatural. Thus Radcliffe's first critique of sensibility focuses squarely on the imagination itself.

For Radcliffe, as for Adam Smith, the imagination is the faculty responsible for the aesthetic—and thus the ethical—response of sensibility. A capacious faculty, the imagination prompts the feeling heart to project itself into another's situation; by transforming the beneficiary's gratitude into the benefactor's pleasure, the imagination therefore presides over that reciprocity between virtuous actions and aesthetic rewards we have already seen. But Radcliffe insists that the imagination may also be the principle agent in victimizing its vessel, for the imagination is not inherently moral; it is merely susceptible. Only as long as Emily is protected by a moral environment can her imagination receive the divine benefits embodied in the natural world.26 And only as long as her own feelings are calm can she trust her imagination even to extend itself outward toward that comforting landscape. Within Udolpho, Emily is persecuted by “those mysterious workings, that rouse the elements of man's nature into tempest” (II, xi, 329), and consequently her senses become “dead” to the awe-inspiring scenery outside the castle. Repeatedly during her imprisonment Emily laments the “irresistible force of circumstances over the taste and powers of the mind” (III, v, 383). In “painful circumstances” such as these, a cruel new reciprocity is established: the imagination turns back upon itself and exudes demons which feed its own excess.

The interior of Udolpho is a maze of dimly lit corridors, murky recesses, and obscure stairways. This darkness only exacerbates Emily's condition, for Udolpho's gloom completely baffles perception. In such complete obscurity the imagination is cut loose from all governing images, moral or otherwise. Aroused yet unguided, its innate susceptibility becomes an aggressive force, rushing to fill the void with its own projected images, creating, in effect, an external “reality” as idiosyncratic as the psyche itself. Just beyond the responsiveness of feeling, Radcliffe warns, there lurks this completely amoral, uncontrollable force: “the wild energy of passion, inflaming imagination, bearing down the barriers of reason and living in a world of its own” (II, xi, 329).

Like many women novelists of this period, Radcliffe is using the spectral arena of the Gothic castle to dramatize the eruption of psychic material ordinarily controlled by the inhibitions of bourgeois society.27 It is revealing that Radcliffe explicitly links this “energy” with “passion,” for Emily's response, like those of her numerous sisters, enacts what we now think of as the see-saw of liberated desire and repression. Vacillating between curiosity and fear, Emily is bold enough to explore the castle's darkest recesses, but when she imagines a corpse “crimsoned with human blood,” she retreats from confrontation by fainting. Again, she boldly lifts the forbidding veil of an ominous painting, but falls senseless to the floor before she can identify its contents. Within Udolpho, desire wrestles with dread, even though the heroine is too discreet to recognize the sexual component of her energy.

Radcliffe, however, does acknowledge the kinship between imaginative responsiveness and sexual desire. Through the character of Sister Agnes, Radcliffe suggests that, given slightly different circumstances, Emily's intense susceptibility could have taken a more destructive incarnation. Because Agnes is rumored to be Emily's real mother, her anguished cry implicates her astonished listener:

“Sister! beware of the first indulgence of the passions; beware of the first! Their course, if not checked then, is rapid—their force is uncontroulable—they lead us we know not whither—they lead us perhaps to the commission of crimes, for which whole years of prayer and penitence cannot atone!—Such may be the force of even a single passion, that it overcomes every other, and sears up every other approach to the heart. Possessing us like a fiend, it leads us on to the acts of a fiend, making us insensible to pity and to conscience.”

(IV, xvi, 646)

The crime of Sister Agnes, born the Lady Laurentini, was giving in to passion, agreeing to become the mistress of the Marquis de Villeroi. In Radcliffe's world, the devastation Agnes describes inevitably follows such liberation of feminine feeling, for, as Patricia Meyer Spacks has noted, “to submit to passion means to abandon the controls by which women even more than men—given their social conditions—must live.”28 Abandoning the “controls,” those moral feelings internalized as “principles,” catapults a woman into the anarchy of sexual desire and tears from her the last remnants of her social power, even her identity. This, then, is at the heart of Radcliffe's critique of sensibility's affinity to “excess”: the amoral energy beyond responsiveness is the “fiend” of sexual desire, whose crimes neither prayers nor regrets can undo.

Despite her undeniable responsiveness, however, Emily's curiosity never becomes full-fledged sexual desire—largely because Radcliffe presides over her situation. For Radcliffe does not stop with uncovering the internal instability of sensibility; beyond a woman's natural susceptibility to passion Radcliffe intuits an even more threatening fiend. Sensibility is dangerous, as Emily's hysteria shows, because it encourages imaginative and libidinal excesses; but its more telling liability resides in its inability to resist the masculine version of desire—the lust of unregulated avarice.29

For most of the two central volumes of The Mysteries, Emily's external circumstances are almost completely controlled by Montoni. The Italian has the power to tyrannize her helpless virtue because his position is protected by law and, more importantly, because his energy is a purely aggressive force, immune to the socializing reciprocity of sensibility.

Delighting in the tumult and in the struggles of life, he was equally a stranger to pity and to fear; his very courage was a sort of animal ferocity; not the noble impulse of a principle, such as inspirits the mind against the oppressor, in the cause of the oppressed; but a constitutional hardiness of nerve, that cannot feel, and that, therefore, cannot fear.

(III, ii, 358)

Montoni's calculating passion is the most powerful force Radcliffe dramatizes in The Mysteries, for his purely materialistic appetite scorns the aesthetic rewards of sensibility. Through her depiction of Montoni and in the network of economic themes centering on him, Radcliffe delivers her second, and most telling, critique of sensibility: this is the viper its assumptions have allowed—the masculine passion of unregulated, individualistic, avaricious desire. This monster operates wholly outside the moral universe, and sensibility's amiable “principles” will never take root in its icy heart. The surfacing of this force as a figure in Radcliffe's fiction attests to her remarkable ability to penetrate the surface of the sentimental ideology, to see through to its economic base. Yet even as she unmasks the hideous incarnation of capitalistic energy she returns to the very values she has just proved inadequate. For Radcliffe can imagine no force apart from sensibility's feminine principles to control this masculine force.

In what Robert Kiely has called “the male world of Udolpho,”30 the most significant confrontation is that between Emily's sentimental virtues and Montoni's materialistic desire. Money, in fact, lurks behind every turn of The Mysteries' plot. Emily's hysteria within Udolpho is ultimately a consequence of her legal dependence on Montoni; as an orphan, she is penniless and powerless; as a female she has no legal rights. Her immediate poverty, however, will soon be replaced by comparative wealth, for upon coming of age Emily stands to inherit several valuable estates in Gascony. This situation—not sexual desire—motivates Montoni's original interest in Emily: as an imminent heiress, Emily is a potentially valuable commodity on the marriage market, and, quite simply, Montoni needs Emily's estates to pay off his gambling debts. Emily is shocked to learn the truth from Count Morano, her would-be purchaser: “‘You hear, that Montoni is a villain,’ exclaimed Morano with vehemence,—‘a villain who would have sold you to my love! … Emily! he has no principle, when interest, or ambition leads’” (II, vi, 262). Morano himself, although he seems to Emily to pose a sexual threat, is also motivated by materialistic desire. “A man of ruined fortune,” Morano has plotted to defraud Montoni of Emily's estates. In fact, it was the discovery of this design that prompted Montoni to imprison Emily in Udolpho in the first place (II, vii, 273-74).

In a society in which a single woman's value is intimately tied to both sexual purity and endowed property, the consequences of sexual and economic exploitation are effectively identical: either would curtail Emily's chance of attaining social identity through the only avenue open to her—marriage. But Radcliffe depicts masculine avarice as more powerful than lust because she recognizes that the “unfeeling” energy Montoni embodies is actually a denial of feeling. It therefore threatens to undermine the entire system of social values that protects the vulnerable woman.31 Montoni's passion “entirely supplie[s] the place of principles” (III, viii, 435), and once such feminine, sentimental principles as sensitivity, responsiveness, decorum and generosity are no longer also considered “manly” there will be no governing code to socialize aggressive energy. Radcliffe diagrams this lesson explicitly in Valancourt's experience in Paris. There, despondent over his separation from Emily, the susceptible young man falls prey to the charms of salons and the temptations of the gaming table. Artificial beauties and the lure of a quick fortune conspire “to dazzle his imagination, and re-animate his spirits,” and the passion he develops for gambling displaces his feeling for Emily, leads him into debt, and culminates in imprisonment. Only when incarcerated—protected, that is, from his own passion—can Valancourt benefit from Emily's socializing image:

In the solitude of his prison, Valancourt had leisure for reflection, and cause for repentance; here, too, the image of Emily, which, amidst the dissipation of the city had been obscured, but never obliterated from his heart, revived with all the charms of innocence and beauty, to reproach him for having sacrificed his happiness and debased his talents by pursuits, which his nobler faculties would formerly have taught him to consider were as tasteless as they were degrading.

(IV, xv, 652)

If Valancourt's passion had been left to pursue its natural course, the chevalier's “nobler faculties” would presumably have become as unresponsive as Montoni's. And without “taste” to principle his behavior, Valancourt's desire for Emily would hardly have remained virtuous. In this lesson, Radcliffe implies that the feminine values of sensibility could socialize masculine energy—if there were some sure way to enforce them, if, in other words, there were some authority strong enough to keep masculine energy from becoming Montoni's fatal power.


The “solution” Radcliffe offers in Valancourt's story obviously does not resolve the problem of Montoni or his materialistic desire. For the sentimental ideology, delegating responsibility for moral action to the individual's own aesthetic taste, provides for no institutional watchman to discipline the “unprincipled” man. In fact, the absence of this provision virtually invites such calculating fiends to prey on sensibility's defenseless creatures. But even more frightening is the possibility that, in yoking self-interest to the desire for sympathy, sensibility has actually assisted in the birth of this beast. Hydra-like, its antithesis emerges from the sentimental ideology, promising to devour it as it grows.

Radcliffe's insight that economic forces underlie the challenge to feminine values is, therefore, potentially subversive to those values themselves. But Radcliffe does not pursue this insight to its logical conclusion. For, although by the 1790's the social and ideological revolution Burke had feared was clearly underway, compelling Radcliffe to respond to sensibility's limitations, the attendant possibility of complete social and ethical chaos was simply too disturbing for Radcliffe—or her largely middle class female audience—to confront.32 Rather than sacrifice the sentimental virtues, therefore, Radcliffe tries to manage these anxieties by imaginatively insulating the ideology's feminine virtues from the masculine threat of material self-interest. Radcliffe insists, first of all, that, despite all evidence, passion can be governed by principles. And, in order to insure their victory, she simply abolishes the “painful circumstances” that undermined their power. By taking Emily out of Udolpho, restoring her to nature's inspiring influence and to a moral, paternalistic society, Radcliffe is able to substitute ethical dilemmas for the unresolvable threat of avarice and to return the plot complication to a harmless encounter between virtue and error. Radcliffe's strategies are conspicuous, and more than anything, they call attention to the difficulties materialism posed for sentimental values, but her very insistence attests to her investment in saving the sentimental ideology from itself.

The first of these substitutions occurs even before Emily is liberated from Udolpho. Having imagined that the recurring sound of a French ballad must mean that Valancourt is imprisoned in the castle, Emily is shocked senseless to discover that the hidden singer, into whose arms she has thrown herself, is a complete stranger. This dilemma, of course, is one which sentimental principles can resolve. Upon regaining consciousness, Emily assures Monsieur du Pont that she mistook him for someone else and appeals to his virtue to pardon her indecorous behavior. Emily is correct in judging du Pont to be a harmless creature of sensibility like herself. Du Pont is so responsive, in fact, that his impassioned apology brings Montoni's ruffians crashing into their secluded hiding place.

Emily escapes from Udolpho with surprisingly little trouble, given Montoni's previous absolute power. But she must still endure two important dilemmas which take the place of and, by implication, are meant to resolve the anxieties generated within Udolpho. First, rumors of Valancourt's behavior in Paris endanger Emily's future happiness; then the suggestion that her beloved father might have nursed an illicit affection threatens to undermine the authority of her cherished sentimental education. Radcliffe invests these possibilities with enormous thematic and emotional significance, for Valancourt's passion for gambling and St. Aubert's promiscuity seem to be embryonic versions of the destructive energy Montoni embodies. By dramatizing the socialization of passion—or denying its presence altogether—in these good characters, Radcliffe simultaneously constructs a model of how excess can be contained and attempts to negate those disturbing suggestions Montoni aroused.

Valancourt's rehabilitation, which I have already described, demonstrates Radcliffe's strategy most clearly. By permitting him to be infected by and then cured of the same “unnatural,” avaricious passion that characterizes Montoni, Radcliffe offers the possibility that this disruptive force can be controlled—if it could remain sufficiently responsive to the aesthetically gratifying principles of feminine virtue. With some kind of infallible external control, perhaps even the male, possessed of the more dangerous energy, could be taught to internalize virtue, to attune his desires to the principles dictated by his “nobler faculties.”

Neither Emily nor the reader learns of Valancourt's reformation until very late in the narrative, however, for Radcliffe uses this uncertainty to demonstrate the wisdom of St. Aubert. Emily believes Valancourt has fallen; therefore she must choose between the restraint advocated by her father and the special pleading of her own desire. When she resolutely follows her father's advice, subduing her implicitly sexual passion by means of principled feeling, she proves herself capable of managing her own sensibility—in such strictly benign circumstances, of course. Radcliffe immediately rewards Emily with both the “rational happiness” of marriage and the knowledge that St. Aubert's loved one was, appropriately, his own sister.

Radcliffe completes her strategy of substitution by sustaining the mystery of Valancourt's fall and the identity of St. Aubert's other love for almost 500 pages. Just as the perceptual obscurity of Udolpho jeopardized Emily's self-command, so the opaqueness of ignorance threatens her ethical security. By having Emily overcome the second trial, Radcliffe attempts to eradicate the ominous implications of the first. Radcliffe's notorious revelations contribute to this same strategy: just as time can erase the apparent moral failings of Valancourt and St. Aubert, so the narrator can provide natural explanations for most of Udolpho's apparently supernatural horrors. Even if these explanations do not successfully offset the anxieties Udolpho and Montoni originally generated, Radcliffe clearly wants to create the effect of having resolved the ideological complexities by working through the less intractible, newly centered moral problems. Radcliffe disposes of the remaining loose ends with equal ease: Montoni is arrested and dies in prison, mysteriously and offstage (presumably, a victim of evil's natural attribution), Emily regains her father's and her aunt's estates, Valancourt's brother gives him entail to his family's “rich domain,” and Udolpho passes into the possession of a female relative—thus, we assume, into socializing control.

Not surprisingly, the new order ushered in at the end of the romance simply restores the traditional, paternalistic community of Emily's childhood, with the social contract of marriage now presiding in St. Aubert's place. Marriage sanctifies and socializes the desires of Emily and Valancourt and they retire to Emily's reclaimed ancestral estate, to bask happily ever after in the glow of virtue rewarded. The undisputed possession of property protects them from the temptations of avaricious desire, and perfect reciprocity is reestablished between the aesthetic charms of moral nature and the ethical responses of a sympathetic, but principled heart. Those subversive traces of sexual and materialistic passion engendered in Udolpho might almost vanish in the mist of this protective, pastoral harmony. In the last paragraphs of the novel, Radcliffe cannot help but applaud her artful contrivance:

O! how joyful it is to tell of happiness, such as that of Valancourt and Emily; to relate, that, after suffering under the oppression of the vicious and the disdain of the weak, they were, at length, restored to each other—to the beloved landscapes of their native country,—to the securest felicity of this life, that of aspiring to moral and labouring for intellectual improvement—to the pleasures of an enlightened society, and to the exercise of the benevolence, which had always animated their hearts; while the bowers of La Vallée became, once more, the retreat of goodness, wisdom and domestic blessedness!

(IV, xix, 672)

The aura of fantasy that enchants this final arrangement suggests that it does not constitute a convincing solution to the problem of how virtue is to be protected from internal or external threats. Radcliffe dramatizes no “enlightened society” to offset the power of Montoni's tyranny, she has emphatically shown this harmony not to be “secure,” and the retreat to the domestic comforts of La Vallée hardly illuminates the darkness of the castle Emily has left behind. The anxieties generated by Montoni's avarice simply continue to haunt the formulaic resolution Radcliffe asserts. Having admitted the genuine spectre of aggressive, individualistic energy into her fiction, Radcliffe cannot effectively disarm its threat. Having uncovered the material forces which actually endanger the sentimental ideology, she cannot successfully contain their subversive threats without abandoning those sentimental values she cherishes. The dissatisfaction registered by generations of readers testifies to the discrepancy between the complexities Radcliffe has raised and the simplistic solution she proposes. “Curiosity,” as Coleridge remarked of The Mysteries, “is raised oftener than it is gratified; or rather, it is raised so high that no adequate gratification can be given it.”33

One point still needs to be made. For despite the fact that Radcliffe dramatizes, in no uncertain terms, the inherent liabilities of the sentimental ideology, she nevertheless suggests that there is a positive as well as a defensive reason for preserving feminine values. Even at the moment of Emily's greatest victimage, within the oppressive walls of Udolpho, Radcliffe attributes to her a very real—if indirect—power. Much of the interest of the romance centers, in fact, on how Emily will be able to exercise this power given the extremity of her “painful circumstances.”34 Radcliffe postpones Emily's marriage to Valancourt, promised early in Volume One, not primarily so that the young chevalier can prove himself or make his fortune, but so that the young woman can have an opportunity to test her power, to enjoy an intense (if harrowing) adventure before settling into her “proper sphere.” Udolpho obviously poses unexpected psychological complexities for Emily, but it also offers her this chance to exercise an ingenuity which the rules of propriety will soon deny her. Exploring the labyrinthine corridors virtually at will, penetrating into secret passageways and eavesdropping on Montoni's midnight revels, Emily answers the Italian's blatant bravado with a quiet resourcefulness that eventually enables her to elude him. Even at her moment of greatest danger, when Montoni demands the transfer of her ancestral estates, the girl demonstrates a remarkable power in denying him his desires. The roots of her strength lie in that particularly feminine gesture of passive aggression, but Montoni's frustration is no less for the delicacy of his antagonist.

Thus we can see in The Mysteries that Radcliffe affirms the sentimental values at least partly because they do provide women power, even if it is only the indirect or negative power of influence and resistance. By elevating women's dependent position, their victimage, to the status of myth, Radcliffe is even able to suggest a degree of heroism in these gestures. Emily's ability to frustrate Montoni's designs at least retards, if not actually undermines, his triumph, and in so doing she proves an important agent in protecting—in the fiction—the status quo against the threat of encroaching materialism. But, significantly, Radcliffe allows Emily such extraordinary power only within Udolpho. After her escape Emily returns to a more typical position of dependence, ward first of du Pont, then of the father-surrogate Count de Villefort, then of the exonerated Valancourt. In the realm of bandetti and political intrigue outside the castle men once more take the initiative, and the tension and complexity of the narrative diminish proportionately. Like Emily, Radcliffe is only willing to elaborate the feminine potential for power within definite bounds; only the extremity of Udolpho's oppression sanctions such unorthodox fantasies of resistance become heroism. Radcliffe's final moralistic apologia returns her romantic dreams to their appropriate, humble proportion:

And, if the weak hand, that has recorded this tale, has, by its scenes, beguiled the mourner of one hour of sorrow, or, by its moral, taught him to sustain it—the effort, however humble, has not been vain, nor is the writer unrewarded.

(III, xviii, 672)

The legacy Ann Radcliffe bequeathes us is neither a singleminded call to abandon the sentimental values nor a wholehearted endorsement of them. Rather, hers is a complex, even contradictory response which reveals, most significantly, the power of sentimentalism and the competing tendencies within the ideology. Her romance reminds us that sensibility was not just a minor literary movement but a set of values and images which legitimized economic and political behavior as well; and that it, like any system of values, was never monolithic but harbored, even nurtured, its ideological opposite. As the foundation for the decidedly ambiguous power granted women in the late eighteenth century and as one theory hospitable to capitalism before its triumph, sensibility deserves more careful attention than it has yet received.

Radcliffe's romance also reminds us that all art—even specifically non-political art—constitutes a response to material conditions and the systems of ideas they generate. The Mysteries of Udolpho is, on the surface, merely an escapist fantasy, providing vicarious thrills for thousands of homebound, altogether proper ladies. But these fantasies announce the frustrations and desires of an important social group at an important historical moment. Responding to the threat revolutionary turmoil posed to sentimentalism, Radcliffe sees to the heart of the sentimental code by which she lives; she sees its price and its rewards; she sees its bitter economic root and its beautiful flowering in feminine virtue. Even her refusal to explore the implications of her insight is an important aspect of her response, for it tells of the shelter sentimental values offered their middle class proponents. The Mysteries of Udolpho reminds us, in short, that the imagination's response to reality involves testing, rejecting, and affirming values; and that in the process of creating meaning it may offer insights into changes deep in the social system itself.


  1. My use of “ideology” as a lived system of values follows the definition provided by Terry Eagleton in Marxism and Literary Criticism (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1976), pp. 16-17. “Ideology is not in the first place a set of doctrines; it signifies the way men live out their roles in class-society, the values, ideas and images which tie them to their social functions and so prevent them from a true knowledge of society as a whole.” In this sense, an ideology is largely class-specific, although even the dominant ideology must contain values or images meaningful to other classes if it is to retain its power. See also Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 55-71, for a discussion of the history, ambiguities, and limitations of this term. Following Williams' critique of critics' tendency to limit ideology to separable concepts, I try here to show how, even for its proponents, ideology necessarily involves a process of producing meaning, the lived experience of testing, rejecting and affirming that system of values which defines one's position within a culture.

  2. For discussions of the social turmoil of the late eighteenth century and the ongoing resistance of urban and rural poor to the values of paternalism, see Douglas Hay, “Property, Authority, and Criminal Law,” Peter Linebaugh, “The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons,” and E. P. Thompson, “The Crime of Anonymity,” in Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England, ed. Hay et al. (New York: Random House, 1975; Pantheon Books), pp. 17-118, 255-308. For a discussion of the challenge posed to paternalism by the development of a class society, see Harold Perkin, The Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969; paper edition, 1972), pp. 176-217.

  3. Although some of the values and attitudes of middle and upper middle class women were emulated by lower classes, my discussion of the values of sensibility is confined to those middle class women who largely made up the female reading public.

  4. The Female Aegis, Or, the Duties of Woman from Childhood to Old Age, and in Most Situations of Life, Exemplified (London: Sampson Low, 1798; rpt. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1974), p. 9.

  5. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, trans. Barbara Foxley (1762; New York: Dutton, 1911), p. 324.

  6. Female Aegis, pp. 3-4.

  7. See Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman's Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 64-74.

  8. Female Aegis, p. 30.

  9. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792; New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1967), p. 34.

  10. Hannah More, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education with a View of the Principles and Conduct Prevalent among Women of Rank and Fortune, 2 vols. (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1799), 2: 23.

  11. In his Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), Raymond Williams explains that the word sensibility was, throughout the eighteenth century, informed by its root affiliation with sensible and that it was closely associated with both sentimental and sentiments. “The significant development in ‘sense’ was the extension from a process to a particular kind of product: ‘sense’ as good sense, good judgment, from which the predominant modern meaning of sensible was to be derived. … Sensibility in its C 18 uses ranged from a use much like that of modern ‘awareness’ (not only ‘consciousness’ but ‘conscience’) to a strong form of what the word appears literally to mean, the ability to feel. … The association [of sentimental] with sensibility was then close: a conscious openness to feelings, and also a conscious consumption of feelings.” See Keywords, pp. 235-38. I use sensibility and sentimentalism interchangeably.

  12. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Ernest C. Mossner (1739 and 1740; Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1969), pp. 628-29, 630.

  13. Treatise, pp. 385-86.

  14. “In the execution and decision of justice, men acquire a security against each others weakness and passion, as well as against their own, and under shelter of the governors, begin to taste at ease the sweets of society and mutual assistance.” Treatise, p. 589.

  15. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments; or, An Essay Towards an Analysis of the Principles by Which Men Naturally Judge Concerning the Conduct and Character, First of Their Neighbours, and Afterwards of Themselves (1759; London: Henry G. Bohn, 1861), pp. 70-72.

  16. Moral Sentiments, p. 71.

  17. See Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests, Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 100-13.

  18. Albert J. Kuhn, “Introduction” to Three Sentimental Novels (New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, Inc., 1970), p. vi.

  19. When Edmund Burke discusses the “softer virtues” (“easiness of temper, compassion, kindness and liberality”), he makes it clear that these qualities, though more “amiable,” are “inferior in dignity” to the “sublime” virtues such as “fortitude, justice, wisdom, and the like.” See A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757; Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1968), pp. 110-11. It is also clear from Burke's entire discussion of the “beautiful” that he associates these charming but decidedly inferior virtues with women and womanly behavior. A man could also cultivate sentimental virtues and sensibility (as Valancourt and du Pont do) but, as Sterne's Yorick proves, that man will incur feminine weakness and vulnerability along with feminine feeling.

  20. Hannah More, “Sensibility: An Epistle to the Honorable Mrs. Boscawen,” in The Works of Hannah More, 7 vols. (London: H. Fisher, R. Fisher, & P. Jackson, 1834), 5: 338-39.

  21. This fact helps explain why most critics of the sentimental ideology, as Burke, for example, did not turn their critique of liberal politics to economic laissez-faire activities at home. Burke, in fact, supported liberal economic policies in England. See his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity (1795).

  22. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France and Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man (1790; 1791; Garden City: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1973), p. 350.

  23. Reflections, pp. 84-89, 111.

  24. Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry, ed. Bonamy Dobrée (1794; London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), I, v, 53. All future references to this edition will be cited in the text by volume, book, and page numbers.

  25. A common adage, even in the last decade of the century. Cf. Burke, “No excess is good.” Reflections, p. 179.

  26. Before entering Udolpho, Emily's experiences with nature are decidedly religious. For example: “From the consideration of His works, her mind arose to the adoration of the Deity, in His goodness and power; wherever she turned her view, whether on the sleeping earth, or to the vast regions of space, glowing with worlds beyond the reach of human thought, the sublimity of God, and the majesty of His presence appeared. Her eyes were filled with tears of awful love and admiration; and she felt that pure devotion, superior to all the distinctions of human system, which lifts the soul above this world, and seems to expand it into a nobler nature; such devotion as can, perhaps, only be experienced, when the mind, rescued, for a moment, from the humbleness of earthly considerations, aspires to contemplate His power in the sublimity of His works, and His goodness in the infinity of His blessings.” Mysteries, I, iv, 47-48.

  27. See especially Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 72-78, and Norman N. Holland and Leona F. Sherman, “Gothic Possibilities,” New Literary History, 8 (1977), 279-94.

  28. Patricia Meyer Spacks, Imagining a Self: Autobiography and Novel in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1976), p. 85.

  29. Nelson C. Smith, in his article “Sense, Sensibility and Ann Radcliffe,” (Studies in English Literature, 13 [1973], 577), also observes that Radcliffe was critical of sensibility, “Far from being an advocate of sensibility, she, like Jane Austen two decades later, shows its weakness and flaws.” But Smith, and most of the critics who have followed him, asserts that the cure for indulged sensibility is simply a “return to reason.” Radcliffe's insight that sensibility is intimately connected to sexual and avaricious passion clearly makes such a solution, while attractive, impossible.

  30. The Romantic Novel, p. 75.

  31. It is interesting to note here the reversal in priorities that has occurred since Richardson's Clarissa. In the earlier novel, the threat to Clarissa's virginity was foregrounded and the economic “rape” by the aristocrat Lovelace was subordinated. Richardson's Christian plot focuses specifically on the spiritual dimension of the heroine's physical fall. For Radcliffe, on the other hand, otherworldly consolation is intimately linked to earthly conditions; without sufficient money to protect herself, Emily's physical integrity would always be in danger. Thus Radcliffe foregrounds the economic threat as endangering both sexual and spiritual security.

  32. Radcliffe's was not, of course, the only possible fictional response to this situation. Other middle class women novelists, most notably Mary Wollstonecraft, explicitly repudiated both the sentimental ideology and the emergent capitalism that threatened it. But we should remember that Radcliffe's romances found a much larger audience than did Wollstonecraft's Maria or Mary—no doubt because Radcliffe voiced the fears and fantasies of a majority of the female reading public.

  33. S. T. Coleridge, “Review of The Mysteries of Udolpho, A Romance,” in Coleridge's Miscellaneous Criticism, ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1936), p. 357.

  34. Robert Kiely also discusses this point. See The Romantic Novel, p. 73.

Further Reading

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Murray, E. B. Ann Radcliffe. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1972, 178 p.

Overviews Radcliffe's life and major works, and evaluates her influence upon the literary world.


Arnold, Ellen. “Deconstructing the Patriarchal Palace: Ann Radcliffe's Poetry in The Mysteries of Udolpho.Women and Language 19, No. 2 (Fall 1996): 21-29.

Analyzes the verses written by Radcliffe for The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Benedict, Barbara M. “Pictures of Conformity: Sentiment and Structure in Ann Radcliffe's Style.” Philological Quarterly 68, No. 3 (Summer 1989): 363-77.

Argues that Radcliffe's narrative style and plot structure emphasize the importance of the characters perceiving the world in a correct and moral manner.

Bernstein, Stephen. “Form and Ideology in the Gothic Novel.” Essays in Literature 18, No. 2 (Fall 1991): 151-65.

Studies the plot structures and thematic concerns of various gothic novels, from The Castle of Otranto to Melmoth the Wanderer.

Christensen, Merton A. “Udolpho, Horrid Mysteries, and Coleridge's Machinery of the Imagination,” in Wordsworth Circle 2, No. 4 (Autumn 1971): 153-59.

Notes that the ideals of the imagination are similar in both gothic novels and the poetry of Coleridge, but that the expression of these ideals is somewhat muddied by the literary devices employed in the gothic.

Cottom, Daniel. “The Figure in the Landscape,” in his The Civilized Imagination: A Study of Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, and Sir Walter Scott. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Discusses the importance of landscape in Radcliffe's writing.

Drew, Lorna. “The Emily Connection: Ann Radcliffe, L. M. Montgomery and ‘The Female Gothic,”’ in Canadian Children's Literature 77, No21:1 (Spring 1995): 19-32.

Traces the similarities in the female characters' personal journeys in Radcliffe and Montgomery's novels.

Fleenor, Julian E., ed. The Female Gothic. London: Eden Press, 1983. 311 p.

Collection of essays studying gothic novels that is organized by themes, including mystique, madness, sexuality and terror, and maternity.

Holland, Norman N., and Leona F. Sherman. “Gothic Possibilities,” in Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts, edited by Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. 306 p.

Examines the criteria that makes a novel fall into the “gothic” genre, finding that it is more than surface elements, such as foreboding castles, that classify a gothic novel.

Howells, Coral Ann. “The Pleasure of the Woman's Text: Ann Radcliffe's Subtle Transgressions in The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian.” In Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, edited by Kenneth W. Graham, pp. 151-61. New York: AMS Press, 1989.

Maintains that when the reader exaomines particular passages in Udolpho and The Italian that don't fit the rest of the narratives well, a pattern evolves involving transgressions and the appropriateness of women's feelings.

Kostelnick, Charles. “From Picturesque View to Picturesque Vision: William Gilpin and Ann Radcliffe,” in Mosaic 18, No. 3 (Summer 1985): 31-48.

Consideration of the importance of landscapes and nature in Radcliffe's novel and William Gilpin's essays on travel.

Schroeder, Natalie. “The Mysteries of Udolpho and Clermont: The Radcliffean Encroachment on the Art of Regina Maria Roche,” in Studies in the Novel 12, No. 2 (Summer 1980): 131-43.

Examines how Radcliffe's popular novel overshadowed that of Roche's.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofski, “The Character in the Veil: Imagery of the Surface in the Gothic Novel,” in PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association] 96, No. 2 (March 1981): 255-70.

Examines the imagery in Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, and M. G. Lewis's The Monk.

Winter, K. J. “Sexual/Textual Politics of Terror: Writing and Rewriting the Gothic Genre in the 1790s,” in Misogyny in Literature: An Essay Collection, edited by Katherine Anne Ackley. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992. 393 p.

Discusses the violence against women in many of the gothic novels of the late eighteenth century.

Additional coverage of Radcliffe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 39 and 178.

Howard Anderson (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: “Gothic Heroes” in The English Hero, 1660-1800, edited by Robert Folkenflik, University of Delaware Press, 1982, pp. 205-21.

[In the following essay, Anderson analyzes the male characters in Udolpho and measures their complexity and traits versus the men in such works as Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, Matthew G. Lewis's The Monk, and Radcliffe's own The Italian.]

The Mysteries of Udolpho … is in my opinion one of the most interesting Books that ever have been published. I would advise you to read it by all means, … and when you read it, tell me whether you think there is any resemblance between the character given of Montoni in the seventeenth chapter of the second volume, and my own. I confess, that it struck me, and as He is the Villain of the Tale, I did not feel much flattered by the likeness.”1 The intensity of M. G. Lewis's response to Mrs. Radcliffe's novel is well known; still, we can assume he is more playful than serious in urging upon his mother the congruity of his own identity and Montoni's.2 The passage (written by the man soon to become Monk Lewis, the artist inseparable from his creation) amounts almost to a prescient parody of the readiness to merge all gothic novels into The Gothic Novel, to fuse every gothic hero in The Gothic Hero.3

This impulse is the less surprising since many novelists in the last years of the eighteenth century drew at random on the characteristics of Manfred, Montoni, Ambrosio, and Schedoni to formulate their own recipes for the mass production of excitement. The lines of distinction get blurred not only between Montoni and Ambrosio, but between one gothic work and another. But while the male protagonists that Walpole and Radcliffe and Lewis create do of course have qualities in common, including at times an ability to induce excitement, their differences should receive as much attention as their similarities. The differences that seem to me most worth exploring determine the varying ways in which the men in these novels approach being protagonists of education novels: what sort of change, or development, or learning is possible for men in these books? This subject can make most sense when it includes recognition of the fact that what constitutes “men” is divided, fragmented, split among different characters (usually a young man and a mature one) in terms that seem at first mutually exclusive. And finally, what change we see—whether it amounts to permanent growth or mere inconsistency—will depend upon the writer's methods of presenting character.

When Ann Radcliffe looks at men in The Mysteries of Udolpho, she sees stability. Emily St. Aubert starts out rather too susceptible to indulgence in “the pride of fine feeling, the romantic error of amiable minds”; her experience at Udolpho and Chateau le Blanc provides for careful articulation of her progress to mental and emotional discipline.4 No such development is observable in either Valancourt or Montoni. Radcliffe's approach to both men is pictorial. We first encounter Valancourt as a figure in a mountain scene, and though an account of his imminent change and development seems promised, what finally is provided is summary, and in any case the change turns out to have been illusory. Montoni is a part of the rugged terrain and brooding castle from which he emerges. Both men remain essentially a part of a landscape in which only the sensibility of a young woman moves.

The intentions of Walpole and Lewis are quite different. Their men are characterized by neither the unchanging integrity of Emily's lover nor the monolithic malignity of her enemy. Montoni does indeed occasionally allow a moment's weakness to cross his visage, but for Walpole's Manfred and Lewis's Ambrosio (and for Raymond, as well) such inconsistency is a central fact of character. Equally important, these men are presented to us from the inside and are undergoing experience which—whether they learn anything from it or not—is meant to leave them decisively different by the time their stories end.

Such a vision of masculine possibility as embodied in Manfred was insufficient to challenge Ann Radcliffe, but Ambrosio stirred her to respond. When she turned to imagining Vivaldi and Schedoni in The Italian, it was with a willingness to incorporate into her pictorial vision an articulation of inner forces that she had earlier preferred (or been able?) only to suggest. To read these four novels in the context of one another is to find them marked by opposing conceptions of the nature and possibilities of men—conceptions that manifest themselves in essentially different modes of characterization.


Walpole's The Castle of Otranto is often referred to as a blueprint from which later gothic works derive their plans; its subtitle, “A Gothic Story,” invites such a conclusion. The hero-villain, Manfred, in particular, along with the castle itself, play roles whose power is felt in many later novels. And no wonder: compared to any of his novelistic predecessors, Manfred is a dangerous hero whom we encounter as mysterious. Or better, as strange. For Manfred's behavior from the first is not so much brooding and inscrutable as it is erratic, irrational, unexpected. The opening of the novel places him in a domestic scene whose interruption by a supernatural surprise leads to responses on Manfred's part that no one—least of all his bewildered family—is prepared for. When his son is crushed by the giant helmet, the servants convey “the disfigured corpse into the hall, without receiving the least direction from Manfred. As little was he attentive to the ladies who remained in the chapel: on the contrary, without mentioning the unhappy princesses his wife and daughter, the first sounds that dropped from Manfred's lips were, Take care of the lady Isabella.”5 Daunted, but determined to be (as usually expected) of service, his wife and daughter keep trying to comfort him, not comprehending that Conrad—formerly the apple of his eye—has been replaced by a new set of concerns.

Not entirely new: Walpole does assert that in fact Manfred's interest all along has been in the dynasty, rather than in its individual components. But the point still holds; Manfred continues to appear not so much passionately determined as frantically active. Having decided to marry Isabella and produce another heir to Otranto (even though it means all the awkwardness of a divorce), he lets her slip out of his hands and out of the castle. Next he is uncertain what to do about Theodore: he is furious at him for helping Isabella escape, but he can't help admiring his courage in admitting it (p. 30). And for every reference to Manfred's cruelty and his steely courage, there is another to his shame at his conduct, his sliding back to soft feelings for his wife, and to his “heart capable of being touched” (see pp. 34, 24, 62, 35, 55, 81).

These inconsistencies seem to be signs of Walpole's effort to make Manfred a complex figure, dangerous but not unadmirable. That objective is apparent in a passage early in the novel where he is described as being “not one of those savage tyrants who wanton in cruelty unprovoked. … his temper … was naturally humane; and his virtues were always ready to operate, when his passion did not obscure his reason.” Manfred's characterization does become a little richer through the placement of this passage in a context where his virtues appear to be very close to those of the young Theodore, who is his more consistently noble rival and enemy through the story. But while linking Manfred and Theodore does result in ennobling the villain, it also tends to demystify his nature: “the circumstances of fortune had given an asperity to his temper, which was naturally humane” (p. 30).

As the plot thickens, Manfred becomes more erratic: “Ashamed of his inhuman treatment of a princess, who returned every injury with new marks of tenderness and duty, he felt returning love forcing itself into his eyes—but not less ashamed of feeling remorse towards one, against whom he was inwardly meditating a yet more bitter outrage, he curbed the yearnings of his heart, and did not dare to lean even towards pity. The next transition of his soul was to exquisite villainy” (p. 35). He is particularly unimposing when we find him asking for pity from Frederic and his knights. He weeps, and then—inventing a figure of rhetoric somewhere between a whine and a sacrilegious boast—tells them that in him they see “a man of many sorrows.”6 He again edges toward the absurd after the banquet scene when we find him “flushed with wine and love” (p. 103).

Manfred's unsteady behavior does not finally invest him with complexity enough to tease us out of thought, as Walpole seems to have intended. Rather, for all Walpole's attempt at a terrifying exploration of the dark cavern of his hero's mind, what Manfred has of impressiveness abides in what Maurice Lévy calls “l'énergie farouche et aveugle.”7 It is his energy that holds our attention and makes it impossible quite to condescend to him—not the turnings of his mind or the richness of what he learns from his experience. The Castle of Otranto conforms to what Misao Miyoshi defines as the gothic dualism: remorse following passion.8 But though that rhythm provides a link between this book and some very great education novels, what Manfred discovers about himself and what he makes of the discovery does not matter much. The Castle of Otranto points the way to a gothic hero fully psychologized and fully transformed by his experience, but it was not a way that Walpole was himself able to take.


Ann Radcliffe did not for a long time take that direction, either, though her reasons may have been more fully a matter of choice than were Walpole's. It is not surprising that she stayed in closer touch with the minds of women than of men; she looks out at the heroes and villains of her early novels from inside the consciousness of her heroine. To speak of The Mysteries of Udolpho as representative of her early practice, Montoni's terrifying power lies precisely in his impenetrability, and Valancourt's only interestingly ambiguous behavior is presented in a summary report that turns out to be false.

The stress on the “manliness” of their appearance as each is introduced implies what the presentations of the two very different men have in common.9 Valancourt is exemplary in his manners, habits, and sentiments, he reads the right books (p. 35), and he has the right feelings about scenery: “a frank and generous nature, full of ardour, highly susceptible of whatever is grand and beautiful, but impetuous, wild, and somewhat romantic. Valancourt had known little of the world. His perceptions were clear, and his feelings just; his indignation of an unworthy, or his admiration of a generous action, were expressed in terms of equal vehemence. St. Aubert smiled at his warmth, but seldom checked it, and often repeated to himself, ‘This young man has never been at Paris’” (p. 41). The stultifying generalizations in the description make us pay attention to St. Aubert's particularizing comment, and indeed it is repeated often enough to build our interest and our hopes concerning what Valancourt will learn about himself (and what we will learn about him) when he finally does get from the provinces to the city.

But Valancourt is not destined to be Julien Sorel. Radcliffe plays with the theme that was to preoccupy the great novelists of the nineteenth century as she allows an acquaintance of Valancourt's to recount to Emily a sordid story of her lover's fall into betrayal and dishonor in Paris. But the account is merely a synopsis (and edited, at that, for the heroine's ears), briefly told, from the point of view of a remote observer. And in the end it turns out not to be true. Insofar as we see inside Valancourt at all, he remains simple—divided only by the most conventional and perfunctorily stated conflicts: he could not come to Udolpho to help Emily because of duty to his regiment (p. 292). His stay at Paris has presumably taught him that La Vallée is a better place to live, but compared with Emily's painful progress toward that truth, his is unconvincing—or better, unrealized.

Montoni is more fully developed, but we have even less privileged access to his mind. If Valancourt really requires fuller inner treatment to make him an adequate counterpart to Emily (whose imagination, stimulated by Udolpho, will find him at best merely soothing), Montoni maintains himself sufficiently by what appears on his exterior: “A man about forty, of an uncommonly handsome person, with features manly and expressive, but whose countenance exhibited, upon the whole, more of the haughtiness of command, and the quickness of discernment than of any other character” (p. 23). This is how he is first described, and while the passage contains what can be called psychological description, it is characteristic of Radcliffe's representation of her central male figure in stressing the look that implies certain dominant inner qualities. She presents throughout what is essentially a portrait of Montoni. Another early passage defines Emily's response to him as the result of what she discerns in his appearance: “His visage was long, and rather narrow, yet he was called handsome; and it was, perhaps, the spirit and vigour of his soul, sparkling through his features, that triumphed for him. Emily felt admiration, but not the admiration that leads to esteem; for it was mixed with a degree of fear she knew not exactly wherefore” (p. 122).

That fear is rightly understood by most readers to be sexual, but it is important that it is sexual at a remove: nothing we see of Montoni suggests simple lust. His motive, in fact, is defined as greed, and he is sexually predatory toward Emily only to the extent that she is a pawn to be traded for property. This has the effect of making him the more sinister; being the only man at Udolpho (among the socially acceptable) who does not have more immediate designs on the heroine clearly places him out of the common run of humanity. The Byzantine convolutions of his sexuality give him depths that mere greed would not have. Beyond that, greed—or ambition, or any of the associated general terms with which Radcliffe begins to get at Montoni's motivation—is not enough to describe the depths so formidably suggested in the scenes where she captures his restlessness and his arrogance. The restlessness is perhaps best caught in the passage about his gambling that Lewis referred to in his letter to his mother (see n. 1). His vigorous arrogance is here: “Montoni displayed his conscious superiority, by that decisive look and manner, which always accompanied the vigour of his thought, and to which most of his companions submitted, as to a power, that they had no right to question” (p. 288). And these expressive attitudes elicit the response we share with Emily: “O could I know … what passes in that mind; could I know the thoughts, that are known there, I should no longer be condemned to this torturing suspense” (p. 243).

There are very few instances in which “what passes in that mind” is described, and even fewer that reveal ambiguous feelings; there is one, however—when Montoni feels pity for Emily and then shame for having felt it (p. 366). But the depths implied by his peculiar heroic stance are sufficiently frightening—he does not have to be complicated as well. If he is in this monolithic sense a simple character, so also his experience is simple in that so far as we know he never changes, discovers nothing. Montoni's end is conveyed in a description even more disappointingly brief than the story of Valancourt's days in Paris: he is arrested, poisoned—it is all done in a few sentences (pp. 521-22, 569). If, as Victor Brombert suggests, heroic experience measures freedom and morality,10 that measurement is registered entirely in its ostensible victim—Emily—who thereby becomes the beneficiary of her suffering. Montoni sees nothing at the end that he did not see at the beginning. Compared to Emily, both he and Valancourt are people to whom nothing ever happens—a form of self-victimization that Henry James takes up without entirely intending to in Gilbert Osmond, and which he treats directly in The Beast in the Jungle and The Jolly Corner. Miyoshi's gothic dualism of passion and remorse is absent from this book. Valancourt sheds some tears when he fears he has acted unworthily, but they turn out to have been unnecessary. For Montoni—who had refused to feel pity, and who disputed about Hannibal while ignoring the sublime Alps—there are no tears.


Ambrosio and Raymond in The Monk are a pair quite different from the others. They are young—there is no such thing as established character in The Monk—and the experience of both is distinctly and specifically educational. For the first time we have men who indeed measure freedom and morality, and to a considerable extent, register what they have seen. When we discover at the end that there has been all along a blood relation between the two, the fact serves to suggest that their common problems extend roots into their common past.

Those common problems are sexual in their origins; Lewis's heroes suffer as fully and directly for their sexuality as did Radcliffe's heroines, though of course differently. And what they undergo comes with corresponding directness. The narrative of Ambrosio's story stays very close to his consciousness, tracing its turnings attentively; and Raymond's long account of his love affair is told in the first person. The effects are not pictorial as in Radcliffe, but psychological, and the psychological interest is furthered by unprecedented attention to the formative forces at work in Ambrosio's early life. No earlier novelist, not even Richardson, had traced the causes of his hero's perversity as Lewis does.

In fact, it may come as a surprise to find that in a novel usually considered richly realistic, Richardson had provided only the sketchiest outline of the origins of Lovelace's demonic feelings toward women. And if we are accustomed to thinking of gothic novels as “romances” and of gothic heroes as Northrop Frye's “stylized figures which expand into psychological archetypes,”11 we will be even more surprised to find how much Lewis has to say about how Ambrosio came to be the kind of person he is. The destructively adulatory attention that Ambrosio gets from his fellow monks is often touched on early in the book, but it is when he has fallen for the first time into the ready arms of Matilda—and is about to embark on his self-consuming search for ultimate sexual satisfaction—that Lewis provides a detailed account of what the monastery has done to pervert Ambrosio's originally noble nature:

Had his Youth been passed in the world, He would have shown himself possessed of many brilliant and manly qualities. He was naturally enterprizing, firm, and fearless: He had a Warrior's heart, and He might have shone with splendour at the head of an Army. There was no want of generosity in his nature. … His abilities were quick and shining, and his judgment vast, solid, and decisive. With such qualifications, He would have been an ornament to his Country: That He possessed them, He had given proofs in his earliest infancy, and his Parents had beheld his dawning virtues with the fondest delight and admiration. Unfortunately, while yet a child He was deprived of those Parents. … The Abbot, a very Monk, used all his endeavours to persuade the Boy, that happiness existed not without the walls of a Convent. He succeeded fully … his Instructors carefully repressed those virtues, whose grandeur and disinterestedness were ill-suited to the Cloister. Instead of universal benevolence, He adopted a selfish particularity for his own particular establishment: He was taught to consider compassion for the errors of others as a crime of the blackest dye: The noble frankness of his temper was exchanged for servile humility; and in order to break his natural spirit, the Monks terrified his young mind, by placing before him all the horrors with which Superstition could furnish them: They painted to him the torments of the Damned in colours the most dark, terrible, and fantastic, and threatened him at the slightest fault with eternal perdition. … While the Monks were busied in rooting out his virtues, and narrowing his sentiments, they allowed every vice which had fallen to his share, to arrive at full perfection. He was suffered to be proud, vain, ambitious, and disdainful: He was jealous of his Equals, and despised all merit but his own: He was implacable when offended, and cruel in his revenge.12

Lewis may owe something to Godwin in this passage, but neither Walpole nor Radcliffe had gone into detail about the social forces that could help account for their villains. Neither goes further than to assume the enormous influence of social ambition in the lives of men. Lewis particularizes what society has done to Ambrosio, describing his education as a trap constructed to separate him from all that was best in his potential; the confining monastery becomes the apt symbol of one side of himself erected to imprison another aspect of his being.

Most important, Lewis reveals the extent to which Ambrosio has incorporated the values inculcated by his education. Alien as monastic standards are to what he was originally, Ambrosio has absorbed them so fully that they are now a great part of him; he is in fact the head of the monastery, its chief embodiment.13 It is precisely because Ambrosio cannot reject the standards of the monastery that the ensuing explosion in his personality occurs. In Manfred and Montoni, the individual will chains itself to the past in the unquestioning service of social prestige and power. Lewis's contribution is to put the service very much into question, but it is no less enslaving for that. Ambrosio at thirty suddenly glimpses the ecstatic possibilities of individual fulfillment through sexual experience. But, unable to imagine foregoing the status and respect attendant on his position in his world, he cannot even want to break free. His terrible self-destruction is not caused by revolt against the established order; indeed it may be said to happen because he does not revolt enough. The sexual insatiability at the center of his rapid downward spiral in the second half of the book results from the inadequacy of sexual pleasure to assuage the guilt created by tension between his lives of license and of order. This is only another way of describing the tension between his attempts to live in a new world and an old at once. We are told repeatedly that the Monk's need for the respect of his community grows in proportion to his failure to deserve it,14 and his sense of that failure leads him to the pursuit of stronger, more intense, and violent anodynes. Artaud's perception that Ambrosio's essential engagement is in an attempt to break the physical and moral boundaries to “le mouvement naturel de l'amour”15 needs to be adjusted by the recognition that he does not attempt to break, but rather to circumvent, the perverse cultural boundaries upon which much of his identity continues to depend.

There is no suggestion in the novel that Ambrosio's psychic dilemma could be solved by revolt or escape. The tedious, touching story that Elvira tells about her attempt with her husband (Ambrosio's father, though we may not yet know it) to avoid the wrath of his own aristocratic father suggests in fact the impossibility of simply replacing old worlds with new ones. Gonzalvo had married beneath him, against his father's will; when the two escape to Cuba, their love, strong as it is, proves insufficient to supply the place that the old land had occupied in Gonzalvo's life. The poem he wrote to express his unhappiness (“The Exile”)16 is nearly unreadable, but it summarizes Lewis's message on the limitations of trying to find freedom by running away. The novel's long subplot centering on Raymond de las Cisternas reinforces the same theme in rich psychological detail.

Raymond's grand tour through France and Germany parallels Ambrosio's encounter with the social world; each constitutes in its own way the last step in the education of the young man. If the Grand Tour was classically intended to allow investigation of foreign courts, Raymond's is a good deal more a sentimental journey; like Ambrosio's his education as an adult really begins when he encounters a woman. It is important that she is an old woman—too old to interest him, anyway, though not too old to be herself interested. Before his story ends he discovers that he must deal not only with this unappealing lady, but with one who has been around much, much longer. In fact, Raymond's heroic task is precisely Ambrosio's: he must recognize that the most apparently free and individual human impulses have lines of liaison with other people and with the past; he has to reconcile his spontaneous acts with the world of which he is a part. Raymond finally survives this test as Ambrosio does not, but in the process he is driven to the edge of madness and of death.

When Raymond chivalrously saves the Baroness Lindenberg from murderous robbers, the lady falls in love with him, invites him to her castle in Bavaria, and despite the fact that she is married begins a vigorous courtship that he is too naive to comprehend. When he does wake up, he is in love with the baroness's young niece and assumes that a polite explanation of his feelings will suffice to extricate him from the older woman's unwanted embrace. He is wrong, of course: her feelings have been engaged and are by now under neither his control nor her own. She will not agree to let him marry Agnes, and to elude her two optimistic young people decide to harness local superstition. Agnes will dress in the costume of the Bleeding Nun who is said to have haunted the castle for a hundred years, and when the terrified gate keeper opens to let the “ghost” out, she and Raymond will elope together in his waiting carriage.

The results are predictable: the real ghost joins Raymond in the carriage, gathering him in an embrace even harder to break than the baroness's. What follows is a tale of psychological possession—of his long and laborious effort to rid himself of her haunting presence, to reunite himself with Agnes, and later still to redeem Agnes from the ghastly vault in which she is buried alive. Its interest lies in the suggestiveness of its description of the reasons why autonomous and spontaneous expression of sexual passion is impossible in the world of The Monk. The Bleeding Nun, who gets a grip on Raymond when he tries to love where he pleases, turns out herself to have been a woman whose unbridled sexual passions led to murders, and finally to her own. This embodiment of carnal violence—the convent could not hold her long—had been, furthermore, a member of Raymond's own family; the same blood flows in their veins (and hence, not incidentally, in Ambrosio's). It is only by locating her unburied corpse and carrying it to burial in their family vault that Raymond can exorcise her haunting presence. Until he performs that symbolic act of reconciliation between her violent individualism and her family he languishes nervous, sleepless, unmanned.

Having done so, he locates Agnes, and though she has by now taken the veil at her family's insistence, he manages a fatal meeting with her in the convent garden that results in her pregnancy. What the Bleeding Nun has taught about the dangers of attempting sexual freedom is then repeated as another bitter old woman—this time the convent's mother superior—prevents the fulfillment of Raymond's love by consigning Agnes to a living death in a subterranean cell. Raymond's agitation when he cannot find her, followed by another long bout of hysterical illness, leads him again near madness and death. At the very least, we can say that the two assertions of his sexuality lead to paralysis from which he is saved only by sheerly fortuitous turns of events. Miyoshi's gothic dualism of passion and remorse reaches its apogee in The Monk: both Ambrosio and Raymond exemplify fully this fluctuation of feeling. It is represented in each in such careful and prolonged detail as to constitute the rhythm of the book. Furthermore, the careful attention on the one hand to nuances of feeling, and on the other to the placement of these passions in a context of both environment and heredity, make Lewis's heroes the richest embodiments of a kind of heroism whose origin Maurice Lévy traces to the novels of Sophia Lee—a hero “sensible et malheureux, victime à la fois de ses passions et du Destin.”17


The rhythm of Radcliffe's The Italian is very different: it ends with the wedding of Vivaldi and Ellena, where there is no expression of that regret for what has been lost that pervades the long-delayed weddings in The Monk. Furthermore, Schedoni counters Ambrosio's “dread” of death by taking his into his own hands: he poisons himself, and his last expression is a shriek of exultation. Yet to read The Italian is to know that The Monk was the most interesting book Ann Radcliffe read after she had finished writing The Mysteries of Udolpho. In Vivaldi and Schedoni she manages, without at all abandoning the striking visual presentation of her heroes, to combine with it greater psychological range and complexity. These two characters are larger than Radcliffe's other men because she imagines much more their inner experience, she allows that inner experience more contradiction and reversal (if not permanent change), and—particularly in their long mutual confrontation with the Inquisition—she endows the two men with characteristics that link them, hero and villain, in ways that are both admirable and human.

It is a new departure of real importance for Radcliffe to begin her narrative with an exploration of her hero; it is even more important that as the book continues we remain as often with Vivaldi or Schedoni as with Ellena. Vivaldi is described as partaking of the characteristics of his parents, and though he is nobly devoid of their more serious limitations, the ambiguities of his nature are sufficient to provide a real basis for his later problems in achieving that marriage which he considers his “most sacred right”:18 “his pride was as noble and generous as that of the Marchese; but he had somewhat of the fiery passions of the Marchesa, without any of her craft, her duplicity, or vindictive thirst for revenge. Frank in his temper, ingenuous in his sentiments, quickly offended, but easily appeased; irritated by any appearance of disrespect, but melted by a concession, a high sense of honor rendered him no more jealous of offence, than a delicate humanity made him ready for reconciliation, and anxious to spare the feelings of others” (p. 8).

It is exactly Vivaldi's high sense of his own honor that makes him so determined to marry as he chooses, and it is his quickness to take offense that fixes the indomitable Schedoni as his most dangerous opponent in accomplishing that end. In setting himself in opposition to the idea that “you belong to your family, not your family to you” (p. 30), Vivaldi aligns himself with the assertive individuals that Lewis's heroes try to be, far more than with Radcliffe's passive Valancourt. And like Ambrosio and Raymond, he is sometimes inconsistent and self-indulgent. His romantic propensity to find pleasure in fanciful superstition makes him rather like an early Radcliffe heroine, and its effects are double-edged: his curiosity about the supernatural is an element of his sensitivity and openness to experience, but it contributes to his being locked up at Paluzzo while Ellena is being carried away to a mountain convent (p. 78).

Vivaldi comes to life, then, as something more than a “manly figure” like Valancourt, lending human interest to a sublime mountain landscape. But though in the end he confronts the villain of the piece (as Valancourt never does) and contributes importantly to his destruction, Vivaldi is otherwise no match for Schedoni. The book contains two extended descriptions of the villain's character and his past (pp. 34-35, 226-28). The first, while more detailed than anything comparable in The Mysteries of Udolpho, carries on brilliantly Radcliffe's visual artistry: the evocation of depths through description of surfaces is epitomized in Schedoni's face, which “bore the traces of many passions.” The second passage provides the historical information that culminates in Schedoni's choosing to transform his identity from aristocrat to monk, summed up in his taking a new name. And there are innumerable other passages that provide on the one hand the suggestive hieroglyphs of Schedoni's character (the description of his cell is one sort of example) and on the other analysis of his inner feelings and motives (e.g., pp. 102, 52).

But the novel's greatest accomplishment lies in the portrait—visual and psychological—of its evil genius, first as he awes the heroine by his mysterious appearance on the barren shores of the Adriatic, and then late at night, when he stalks the confines of her room, struggling to prepare himself to kill her (pp. 220-40). Caught between rocks and waves, we see Schedoni through Ellena's terrified eyes; she is both terrified and confused—for he appears apparently from nowhere, and then, when she appeals for help to the monk, she is confounded by his aloofness and hostility. It is a stunning nightmare scene that would be sufficient in itself to explain the attraction the gothic novel has had for the surrealists. In it, Schedoni lives fully as an ambiguous nature—the dangerous religious—observed.

The interior scene is quite different. We follow Schedoni to the small upper room where Ellena is asleep (the description is heavy with Othello), and we follow his mind as it discovers “an emotion new and surprising” that he tries vainly to suppress so that he can get on with the business at hand (p. 228). “Had it been possible to shut out consciousness, he would have done so,” but his consciousness grinds on, pushing him to discoveries and awarenesses altogether unlike anything Radcliffe had imagined for Montoni (p. 225). Schedoni's misgivings, his strange forebodings, his unaccustomed paralysis, culminate in the discovery that he has in fact almost killed his own daughter. It does not, I think, finally matter that he is mistaken—she is only his niece—nor that after being so thoroughly shaken he shortly returns to his old ambitions, only now with the aim of ensuring Ellena's marriage to the wonderfully eligible Vivaldi, rather than preventing the match. It is less important that he is very soon again “willing to subject himself to any meanness however vicious, rather than forego the favorite ambition” (p. 251). The fact remains that he has been shaken: Schedoni is a greater novelistic achievement than Montoni because we have been there when something happened to him and have been convinced of it with him. In these scenes on the stormy Adriatic he is at once an austere force of nature and a vulnerable human being.

His appearance before the Inquisition manifests the same combination of superiority and victimization in the face of powers beyond even his own. None of these scenes rises to the dramatic or visual power of those by the shore, but Radcliffe's description of Schedoni being hounded and trapped while at the same time taking command of his own fate (and being certain to bring his betrayer down with him) is not radically anticlimactic. Most important, her attribution of some of the same characteristics to both Schedoni and Vivaldi as they face the relentless Inquisition has the effect of making each seem an instance of the same humanity: where Vivaldi displays “grandeur of mind,” Schedoni remains “firm and even tranquil, and his air dignified” (pp. 305, 355). And certainly Ann Radcliffe is showing Monk Lewis how a man should die when she allows Schedoni even at the last to conquer “for a moment, corporeal suffering,” and speak for himself in firm tones (p. 404).

Surely it is better, then, not to let the fact that all of these writers divide their masculine worlds among roughly similar casts of characters lead us to ignore what individuates those characters. Walpole, Radcliffe, and Lewis have in common a view of the past as possessing and imprisoning good and bad “heroes” alike. “Are there really ghosts?” asks Francis Russell Hart in his valuable essay on gothic characterization, and he replies that the answer of the gothic as a genre is that “We are ghosts.”19 The past lives on, paradoxically and terribly, in a whole range of men who try precisely to free themselves from it, to assume individual freedom. Yet, again, each character is related to that haunting past in his own way, and their common effort to transcend it should not prevent attention to Walpole's, Radcliffe's, and Lewis's ways of realizing the terrors that haunted English literature through a revolutionary generation, and which survive into our own.


  1. Lewis F. Peck, A Life of Mathew G. Lewis (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961), pp. 208-9. The passage from The Mysteries of Udolpho is as follows:

    Montoni had been otherwise engaged: his soul was little susceptible of light pleasures. He delighted in the energies of the passions: the difficulties and tempests of life, which wreck the happiness of others, roused and strengthened all the powers of his mind, and afforded him the highest enjoyments, of which his nature was capable. Without some object of strong interest, life was to him little more than a sleep: and, when pursuits of real interest failed, he substituted artificial ones, till habit changed their nature, and they ceased to be unreal. Of this kind was the habit of gaming, which he had adopted, first, for the purpose of relieving him from the languor of inaction, but had since pursued with the ardour of passion. In this occupation he had passed the night with Cavigni and a party of young men, who had more money than rank, and more vice than either. Montoni despised the greater part for the inferiority of their talents, rather than for their vicious inclinations. Among these, however, were some of superior abilities, and a few whom Montoni admitted to his intimacy, but even towards these he still preserved a decisive and haughty air, which, while it imposed submission on weak and timid minds, roused the fierce hatred of strong ones. He had, of course, many and bitter enemies; but the rancour of their hatred proved the degree of his power; and, as power was his chief aim, he gloried more in such hatred, than it was possible he could in being esteemed. A feeling so tempered as that of esteem, he despised, and would have despised himself also had he thought himself capable of being flattered by it.

    Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, ed. Bonamy Dobrée (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 182.

    The passage occurs in vol. 2, ch. 3, which in the first edition is misnumbered XVII—hence Lewis's reference.

  2. His mother may have been best prepared to find her son in Montoni's substitution of “artificial” pleasures when “pursuits of real interest failed.” She had already had several of what would prove an endless stream of letters from country house parties.

  3. Devendra P. Varma, The Gothic Flame (London: Arthur Barker, 1957), p. 215, distinguishes the genealogies of three types of gothic villain, and Maurice Lévy's Le RomanGothiqueAnglais, 1764-1820 (Toulouse: Association des publications de la Faculté des lettres et sciences humaines, 1968), is often very good in describing the strongest traits of the villains of the writers studied.

  4. Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 79.

  5. Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, ed. W. S. Lewis (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 17. Further page citations are in the text.

  6. This scene, verging on the comic, is the best example in The Castle of Otranto of the gothic hero as false-rhetorician, with borrowings from Mark Antony and Satan. It can be compared with Ambrosio's efforts to seduce Antonia in The Monk, which also comes close to being funny through the obvious artifice of the argument.

  7. Léay, Led RomanGothicAngles, p. 101.

  8. Missy Miyoshi, The Divided Self: A Perspective on the Literature of the Victorians (New York: New York University Press, 1969), p. 53.

  9. Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, pp. 23, 31. Further page citations are in the text.

  10. Victor Brombert, “The Idea of the Hero,” in The Hero in Literature, ed. Brombert (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, 1969), p. 13.

  11. Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957) p. 304.

  12. Matthew G. Lewis, The Monk, ed. Howard Anderson (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 236-37.

  13. When we realize that the monastery is itself geographically and socially at the center of the city, we must see its values as epitomizing those of the larger culture; it is important to notice the parallel between Ambrosio's sadistic destruction of Antonia in the vaults and the populace's treatment of the nuns and the mother superior, which takes place at the same time in the streets above.

  14. The parallel with Falkland in Caleb Williams is particularly apparent here.

  15. Cited by Lévy, Le RomanGothiqueAnglais, p. 365.

  16. Lewis, The Monk, pp. 215-17.

  17. Lévy, Le RomanGothiqueAnglais, p. 183.

  18. Ann Radcliffe, The Italian, ed. Frederick Garber (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 40. Further page citations are in the text.

  19. Francis Russell Hart, “The Experience of Character in the English Gothic Novel,” in Experience in the Novel, ed. Roy Harvey Pearce (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), p. 99.

Mary Laughlin Fawcett (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5901

SOURCE: “Udolpho's Primal Mystery,” in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1983, pp. 481-94.

[In the following essay, Fawcett explores the underlying sexual themes in The Mysteries of Udolpho, and theorizes that gothic novels can be seen not just as escapist literature but, when viewed psychoanalytically, as symbolic explorations into thoughts and desires that are suppressed within the mind.]

The eternal gates terrific porter lifted the northern bar:
Thel enter'd in & saw the secrets of the land unknown;
She saw the couches of the dead, & where the fibrous roots
Of every heart on earth infixes deep its restless twists:
A land of sorrows & of tears where never smile was seen.

The Book of Thel, IV, 1-5

In Ann Radcliffe's novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, a daughter wishes to know the secrets of her father's past and to understand events which occurred twenty years ago, at the time of her own birth, but which her father has, on his deathbed, forbidden her to search out. Curiosity and taboo, desire and restraint—we readers are drawn into a magic circle of deathbeds and birth anxieties. Mrs. Radcliffe hints at a truth, at a scene to be re-animated; Emily St. Aubert, her main character, looks repeatedly at scenes which remind us of obsessional neurotic dreams, dreams which a psychoanalytic patient might have in order to screen the primal scene, the child's vision of the sexual act between the parents, proleptically that act at which the child was engendered.1 Readers who become involved in Mrs. Radcliffe's fiction are drawn into this search for the primal scene, and many readers have testified to the compelling power of the novel's pursuit—structure. As an early reviewer said of another of Mrs. Radcliffe's novels, it “engages the attention strongly, and interests the feelings very powerfully.”2 Leslie Fiedler recognizes that this engagement is essentially sexual:

The primary meaning of the gothic romance, then, lies in its substitution of terror for love as a central theme of fiction. The titillation of sex denied, it offers its readers a vicarious participation in a flirtation with death—approach and retreat, approach and retreat, the fatal orgasm eternally mounting and eternally checked.3

We feel that we may be granted a sight of some kind, so we keep reading and Emily keeps looking. This source of narrative interest may speak especially to women, whether of Mrs. Radcliffe's time or our own, because it promises to reveal, through suggestion and imagery, some of the facts of sexual life, and to re-create, through Emily's desire to “see” the place of her own engendering, some of women's psychic states.

Gothic fiction used to be regarded primarily as a symptom of degenerated taste and a longing to escape from everyday reality.4 Increasingly now, critics are thinking of it as a kind of psychoanalysis. They use the rich material within the narratives to show how the genre of the gothic embodies the unconscious yearnings of characters and readers. As Fiedler says, the terror in such works as The Castle of Otranto is not less true than it seems, but more true, since the imagery of such fictions (for example, the maiden fleeing endlessly through a hostile landscape) is the imagery of our dreams and our repressed guilts and fears.5 Tzvetan Todorov says that the supernatural in fantastic works of literature (under which rubric the gothic novel falls) provides the reader with a sense of “pan-determinism,” just as does the technique of Freudian dream-analysis. These fictions allow writer and reader to sneak subversive themes past both society and their own superegos. Todorov claims that psychoanalysis “has replaced (and thereby made useless) the literature of the fantastic.”6 The aim of psychoanalysis is to make clear the reasons for the symptoms of an individual's disturbance; if a literary work is like a person, the critic may perform such an analysis for it, too.

Beyond such practical psychoanalysis of each work, the critic must also discuss the truth of the symbology discovered. That is, we need to look at what the novel is openly and secretly telling us about its world. Emily discovers scenes which match her need; she also discovers, as I hope to show, scenes which body forth the condition of sexuality in the world of the 1790s. A parallel contemporary perspective on this condition can be found in passages from Blake. One can hardly imagine a meeting between Mrs. Radcliffe and Blake, but in 1794 she had published The Mysteries of Udolpho, and he had completed The Book of Thel, The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Their ideas seem diametrically opposed. St. Aubert, Emily's father and the moral arbiter of the novel, declares “All excess is vicious”; Blake answers that “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”7 Yet the novel oddly but indirectly affirms Blake's verdict that contemporary love is sick, crippled by contention between desire and restraint, both murdered and murderous.


When Blake's Thel “saw the couches of the dead,” the source of the heart's “restless twists,” at the end of The Book of Thel, she asked the question which Emily asks throughout the novel: “Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?” The Mysteries of Udolpho is made up of a repetitive series of revelations, veils (or curtains) pulled aside, and beds, especially death beds, questioned for meaning. The bedroom is the novel's dreamlike center. Whatever chateau or palazzo Emily enters, we readers soon find ourselves in some bedroom, usually dark, with heavy furniture and ancient hangings. Maria Edgeworth gently mocked this focal point in her description of a hotel-room in Bruges: “It was so large and dark that I could scarcely see the low bed in a recess … covered with a dark quilt. I am sure Mrs. Radcliffe might have kept her heroine wandering about this room for six good pages.”8 The bed, the recess, and the veil are all here. If Emily goes to the window to look at the view, the scenery often reinforces the sense of sexual duality: she sees mountains on one side and fruited plains on the other, or a rampart walk on the left and sun-illumined hills on the right.9 A reader of this novel will easily remember, or confuse, ramparts, walls, galleries, turrets, wings, passages, and staircases surrounding the crucial bedroom with its veiled recess. Emily spends nights not sleeping, but wondering, in anxious and wakeful anticipation of something as yet unknown. The bed itself is thus a locus of questioning anxiety, as well as a thing to be searched out and seen; it is a powerful central symbol.

When we turn to the human setting, we ask ourselves what Emily can learn about the primal scene and about sexual relations in general by observing married people—people of the age to have, not merely to look towards or back to, sexual experience. We notice immediately that Emily's parents are the only happy couple in a well-populated novel, and that the St. Auberts are not seen in their private apartments or anywhere near a bed; they are placed in the countryside, in favorite “retreats,” or at their fishing cottage. Neither parent is robust or vital; the wisdom of both is the wisdom of weakness and restraint. Mme. St. Aubert, the only biological mother in a novel filled with abbesses, aunts, mistresses, and stepmothers, dies of a lingering fever by the end of the first chapter. “The progress of this disorder was marked, on the side of Madame St. Aubert, by patient suffering, and subjected wishes.”10 Her father, also, is a figure in retreat, although it takes him longer to succumb. We first see him despondent over the future destruction of trees on his former estate, a destruction which he is helpless to prevent. Later he languishes on Emily's hands during an abortive trip to recover his health, and he dies of the same wasting fever after thinking himself ruined. “St. Aubert lingered till about three o'clock … and, thus gradually sinking into death, he expired without a struggle, or a sigh” (p. 82).

The resignation and passivity of this one “happy” couple is strongly contrasted with the conflicts within other married couples. Each time Emily or the reader is admitted, actually or vicariously, into the private apartments of married people, she finds open anger or wasting silence. When Emily's aunt marries the infamous Montoni, the quarrels begin soon after a brief period of disappointment and coolness. Montoni has sexual experience and energy, but he withholds himself from his wife and directs his aggression into his condottiere schemes, sitting up late with his warrior vassals. In bedroom scenes overheard by Emily and by Annette, the maid, he threatens his wife with deprivation unless she signs over her settlements to him.11 Rather than sign over what is rightfully hers, Mme. Montoni dies, partly of starvation and partly of a fever. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this situation—and a modern reader may feel that Mme. Montoni is not accorded dignity enough in this novel (since she is a stupid woman, she resists him for the wrong reason)—the marriage seems founded on deprivation and fever, and consummated only in her death.

We see another couple, newly married, disintegrate into stifled conflict when the second plot-line introduces the marriage of the Marchioness de Villeroi (Emily's other aunt) and the Marquis. Each of them has an outside attachment. The (good) wife was really, virtuously in love elsewhere, but has given up her lover to marry her father's choice. The (bad) husband has a distempered Italian mistress, whom he has deceived and abandoned and by whom he is in turn deceived into murdering his wife. Through the words of Dorothee, the servant, we “see” them in privacy—the modesty, grace, and humility of the wife and the “gloomy and fretful” jealousy of her husband (p. 524). We especially “see” the mixture of realization and horror on the face of the Marquis when he hears his wife has been poisoned. If this is, as I think, a vision of sexual knowledge, it is a gnosis of violation. Once again marriage is consummated in death. Mme. Montoni, with her unfeeling pride and stupidity, and the Marchioness, her eyes mildly raised to heaven, present themselves to us much more vividly than Emily's own mother, as two versions of the effect sexual experience has on women. Though neither woman is Emily's mother, both are, during this narrative, paradoxically both newly married and old enough to be her mother. The men react in turn with war schemes or settled melancholy, that is, with aggression or passivity.


Admitted to the private apartments, then the inner chamber, then the veiled, recessed bed itself, what privileged sight does Emily see? She looks upon a corpse, in fact, upon several corpses. “Within, appeared a pale and emaciated face. She … shuddered as she took up the skeleton hand, that lay stretched upon the quilt; then let it drop, and then viewed the face with a long, unsettled gaze” (p. 364). Mme. Montoni is still alive at this time, and she lingers for another chapter, never revealing exactly “what had reduced her to this present deplorable state” (p. 365). After Montoni abandoned her, she caught a raging fever, perhaps a more virulent strain than the one which killed the St. Auberts. Mme. Montoni dies, it seems, of the consequences of female passion, as a warning to the woman who chooses the wrong husband.

This vision of the actual corpse on the bed is anticipated by two other recess-visions and followed by still a third, all with remarkably similar content. When the mysterious Barnardine leads Emily through a portal (into a literally sub-liminal experience) and locks her in a disused torture chamber, Emily imagines the poor wretch who might have starved to death fastened to that chair in that room. She imagines deprivation, but she sees violation. Drawing aside a bed curtain in order to find a place to sit, she sees

a corpse, stretched on a kind of low couch … the features, deformed by death, were ghastly and horrible, and more than one livid wound appeared in the face. Emily, bending over the body, gazed, for a moment, with an eager, frenzied eye.

(p. 348)

Death in the chamber can come in two ways, by starvation (in imagination) and by blows (to the real body); we may be tempted to call these the female and the male possibilities. Emily's “eager” look does not disclose the corpse's identity; she releases the curtain before she can “know” the sight completely. For not very probable reasons, the sight of this corpse must be kept secret; it is seen but not known or told. Emily's personality, while itself changeless, is filling up with more and more sights, and they are discharged less and less often. She becomes, as I hope to indicate later, a kind of romantic nature-lover, almost pure eye-ball.

The other recess-vision is held within her even longer; further knowledge of it is withheld from the reader for over three hundred pages. Emily is curious about the “picture” behind the veil; because it is reported to depict Signora Laurentini, the mysterious former owner of Udolpho who left the castle to Montoni after her disappearance twenty years ago (again, at the time of Emily's birth). Emily and the servants imagine Montoni has had her murdered. Drawn by curiosity, Emily stands in front of this massive object. The action which follows her “high expectation” of this sight is curiously muted and suppressed: “She paused again, and then, with a timid hand, lifted the veil; but instantly let it fall—perceiving that what it had concealed was no picture” (pp. 248-49). The thing she sees, about which we are not told, is, she thinks, not art but reality, not a representation which would call for her sympathy but an actuality which calls for identification. This object, when it is finally revealed to us, is in fact mid-way between art and reality, and closely akin to the bed-room corpse revelations. Behind the black veil is “a recess of the wall” containing “a human figure of ghastly paleness, stretched at its length … the face appeared partly decayed and disfigured by worms” (p. 662). The lifted veil again reveals a bedroom of death, a scene thought to have come from the period of her birth. Actually this is a wax figure, a grisly memento mori. The more Emily investigates her origins, the more such mementi she comes upon in the form of progressive, replicated corpses.

One further instance of this primal discovery will suffice to show that the “horrors” spaced throughout the novel seem to replicate themselves, seem, as in a recurring dream or a hall of mirrors, to force Emily to see the same thing each time, in each chateau. In the Count's chateau, Emily, accompanied by the garrulous Dorothée, goes into the bedroom of the Marchioness who died twenty years ago. There, her things are set out in Miss Havisham-like clutter and stasis. Dorothée throws the Marchioness's black veil over Emily, who disengages herself from it. They proceed to the bed—the object of their visit, and almost their reverence. There they see the black pall over the bed shake; then “the apparition of a human countenance rose above it.” The two run out “as fast as their trembling limbs would bear them” (p. 536). The bed of death, which ought to memorialize the past, now appears still alive, perhaps still copulating, and able to transfer its shakings to their trembling limbs.

Each of these bed-manifestations is finally explained in the style of rationalized gothic.12 But even the explanations add something to the mystery and complexity of the image itself, since in each case the horrible sight has, for Emily, a profound sexual ambiguity. Emily apparently thinks the hacked corpse of one of Montoni's male soldiers is the body of her aunt. She thinks the “picture” is the body of Signora Laurentini, but it is presumably male since it was made for an early lord of the line. The Marchioness's bed with its rising countenance proves to be the trick of smugglers who, we later hear, are particularly masculine, rough and evil-looking. All of Emily's “mistakes” about the sexual identities of the corpse figures indicate the real content of these visions: behind the veil is an image of the generating marriage bed of her parents, of the violence and “death” of the sexual act. The single image is composed of two sexes, the beast with two backs. The contorted, wounded, or gnawed faces are like faces in orgasm.

To complete our primal picture, there are two other recess-visions to consider, this time of living people. Emily “sees” the Marchioness through the reminiscences of the servant Dorothée, who saw her in the oriel the night she died. Now, “in this closet … a robe and several articles of her dress were scattered … as if they had just been thrown off” (p. 533). Then, “the tears fell upon her cheeks, while she sung a vesper hymn. … She had been at prayers, I fancy, for there was the book open on the table beside her—aye, and there it lies open still!” (pp. 534-35). The past and the present are simultaneously alive in this description; the one evokes the other. This picture of the Marchioness in despair in a recess recalls to us Emily's sight of her father, early in the novel. Through “panes of glass … of a closet-door,” she has seen the figure of her father looking over some papers “with a look so solemn … which was mingled with a certain wild expression, that partook … of horror.” He considers a picture (of the Marchioness, we learn later), then prays silently: “When he rose, a ghastly paleness was on his countenance” (p. 26). Emily is spying, out of a concern for his health, but also, as the narrator tells us, out of a “mixture of curiosity and tenderness” (p. 26). It is this combination of motives which suggests the unconscious component, her desire to piece out the primal scene.

If, taking liberties with Mrs. Radcliffe's sequence, we conflate these two scenes, we may recapture something of the scene Emily almost “sees” throughout the novel. A woman is ready for sex, unveiled before a man, her clothes “scattered.” The man's expression partakes of “horror”; “When he rose, a ghastly [ghostlike, deathlike] paleness was on his countenance.” The combined scene behind the veil suggests the woman's passion and its continuance, its ever-open posture, together with the man's horror of that too-great need. We may think of Blake's tautological little poem, and how far it is from Mrs. Radcliffe's primal scene:

What is it men in women do require
The lineaments of Gratified Desire
What is it women do in men require
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

(p. 466)

The “lineaments” of these corpse images complete the picture of sexual wounding, deprivation, and mutual disappointment. In this novel what is dead comes to life again; what is over, starts over again. The plot itself mirrors this sexual discontinuity. As Fiedler says: “the middle of Mrs. Radcliffe's books seem in their compulsive repetitiveness a self-duplicating nightmare from which it is impossible to wake.”13 The central act represented is stymied in a cycle of need and despair—female openness and male horror. Through the texture of the plot, readers may feel implicated in this act, and even part of the cycle.14


The veiled content of this primal scene, the passionate woman and the exhausted man, illuminates, I think, some aspects of both the novel's characterization and its moral. The novel educates its women readers to the dangers of too-great sexual energy and desire. For example, the women who surround Emily are a gratuitously unpleasant breed; they want too much, and, even worse, are proud of their desires. Mme. Quesnel, an Italian heiress, wishes to “excite” envy by describing “the splendour of the balls, banquets, and processions … in honour of the nuptials of the Duke de Joyeuse.”15 The Countess of Villefort, step-mother of Blanche, “could occasionally throw into [her manners] an affectation of spirits, which seemed to triumph over every person” (p. 500). Valancourt, the hero (or “male ingenue”),16 nearly falls prey to one of these women, a Countess whose “wit prolonged the triumph of [her beauty's] reign” (p. 293). Emily's aunt is the most notable proof that women of some sexual experience become insatiable, almost inhuman. She “expatiated on the splendour of her house, [and] told of the numerous parties she entertained” (p. 118). There is a strong sexual undercurrent in these entertainings and prolongings; these women are voracious and insatiable, and they stare out at us from the novel, replicating the author's demand that we learn to fear our own desires. Emily's aunt “knew nothing of the conduct of a mind, that fears to trust its own powers” (p. 118). And yet, such portraits, heavily drawn as they are, may allow the female reader to recognize something of herself in them.

In the primal scene, the partner of this gaping, insatiable woman is the pale, exhausted man; accordingly, Emily's father articulates the moral burden of the novel. After his two sons die, St. Aubert turns his attention to his remaining child: “While he watched the unfolding of her infant character, with anxious fondness, he endeavoured, with unremitting effort, to counteract those traits in her disposition, which might hereafter lead her from happiness” (p. 5). Thus the father sets himself against the daughter's openness, her “unfolding,” her high “degree of susceptibility” (p. 5). He sets himself, in fact, against the distinctive quality of her character. After the death of Mme. St. Aubert, he chastises Emily's grief:

I have endeavoured to teach you, from your earliest youth, the duty of self-command; … as it preserves us in the various and dangerous temptations … [and] as it limits the indulgences which are termed virtuous, yet which, extended beyond a certain boundary, are vicious, for their consequence is evil. All excess is vicious.

(p. 20)

His “endeavours” already sound weary and exhausted, she is so easily “led” “beyond” his boundaries. What is true for grief could very well be true for love, since women's sexual response is, strictly speaking, unnecessary to the sexual act. Emily is like Oothoon, “open to joy and to delight,” while St. Aubert is like Theotormon, who “sits / Upon the margind ocean conversing with shadows dire” (Visions of the Daughters of Albion, plate 6, line 22; plate 8, lines 11-12). In a curious way, St. Aubert would agree with Blake: “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”

Thus, the novel opposes the restraint of the father to the passion of the daughter.17 Their differing experiences in nature are evidence of this struggle. Both love nature. Emily's is the new love of landscape, as we can hear in her question to her father:

But hark! here comes the sweeping sound over the wood-tops;—now it dies away. … Now the breeze swells again. It is like the voice of some supernatural being—… Ah! what light is yonder? … it gleams again, near the root of that large chestnut: look, sir!

(p. 15)

Her enthusiasm is not only for the isolated beautiful moment, but for its recurrence, its again-ness. She likes what sweeps and dies away and swells again; the effects she admires in nature have the rhythm of female orgasm. Her father's reaction is to deflate and miniaturize her enthusiasm. He sees a glow-worm where she feels divinity, and he “gaily” invites her to step further and see fairies. On their ill-starred trip for his health, he botanizes over “curious plants,” while she wanders “wrapt in high enthusiasm … listening in deep silence to the lonely murmur of the woods” (p. 37). The cadence is Wordsworthian. Thus, he implicitly corrects her; by a concentration on the singular and the minute, he de-sexualizes experience in nature.

Her father's view of nature is fanciful; hers is imaginative. The two stances might almost be said to stand for or anticipate Coleridge's categories of Fancy and Imagination (here, the secondary Imagination). St. Aubert sees fairies; Coleridge says that “the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.”18 Emily “loved … still more the mountain's stupendous recesses” (p. 6); her imagination is, in Coleridge's terms, “essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.” She eagerly looks out to nature's recesses, just as she looks into the corpse-bed recesses.19 In looking behind the veil, her mind goes beyond the objects she sees; her imagination, in Coleridge's words, “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates” the actual fixed and dead objects, “in order to recreate” them in the primal scene she discovers. For Coleridge, the Imagination “struggles to idealize and to unify.”20 As we have seen, Emily's visions of the bed constitute a unity. Further, she does idealize what she sees. Her visions are both “ideal” and “idle” (Mrs. Radcliffe's spelling varies)21idle in that her conclusions are mistaken and finally irrelevant to the plot, but ideal in that her visions pertain to a conception in her mind. As in a recurring dream, the corpse visions open her mind to its own powers and images; over the real bodies lies the ideal unity of her vision.


Thus we have the paradox of the seeker who looks out only to find what is inside herself—in this novel, the fresh, virginal young woman who repeatedly finds wounded and rotting corpses. Emily is especially prone to that “love, so natural to the human mind, of whatever is able to distend its faculties with wonder and astonishment” (p. 549).22 “Distend” has an unpleasantly full sound here, reminding us of a kind of pregnancy of mind, following a desire to be filled, to take in sights, to have knowledge. The suggestion of multiplicity, of openness, againness, and repetition is muted but present in this passage, too. The idle terror is void, empty, insubstantial, and needs to be filled. The experience which Emily, and to some extent also the reader of this very long novel, undergoes throughout is an opening, a filling, almost a cramming. The narrator explains this human need in more attractive language, when describing why Emily draws the veil to see the “picture” of Laurentini, even though the prospect terrifies her: “But a terror of this nature, as it occupies and expands the mind, and elevates it to high expectation, is purely sublime, and leads us, by a kind of fascination, to seek even the object from which we appear to shrink” (p. 248). The aesthetic has come full circle here, as language used about sublime experience in nature is a prelude to the revelation of the primal corpse-scene.23 This language could also be applied to a woman's wooing posture in a society which overtly denies her a direct sexual expression: a “high expectation” coming from a “kind of fascination“makes women “seek even the object from which [they must] appear to shrink.”

Emily is an aching center, unchanging; she seeks and finds only to seek again. The narrator occasionally interjects explanations, but for the most part remains an absolutely unselfconscious window onto an unselfconscious character. Thus with a peculiar vividness the scenes are conveyed directly into the minds and even the viscera of readers. To end this endless process, the author calls on marriage.24 Emily's curiosity is superficially satisfied, and she marries the re-validated Valancourt; morality and moralizing triumph over gnosis. But ominously, they marry under banners representing the “exploits of Charlemagne” in subduing the Saracens: “here, were seen the Saracens, with their horrible visors, advancing to battle; and there, were displayed the wild solemnities of incantation, and the necromantic feats … before the Emperor” (pp. 670-71). The marriage takes place under the aegis of continuing conflict between reason and restraint (Charlemagne) and magic and desire (the Saracens). The war is not won or lost; it is stopped, in an ending which illustrates the Blakean process of atrophy:

Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.

And being restrained it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.

(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, pl. 5)

Emily, her sexual gnosis incomplete, retreats into marriage, her desire already, on the last pages, becoming a shadow of itself. In Blake's work, Thel flees backward into the vales of Har; Emily returns to “the pleasant shades” of La Vallée, her childhood home (p. 671). Both of these retreats, both shadowy valleys, signify failure of gnosis. But before each young woman retires, she has seen a vision which continues to bear meaning for the reader:

She saw the couches of the dead, & where the fibrous roots of every heart on earth infixes deep its restless twists: A land of sorrows & of tears where never smile was seen.

Emily's and Thel's twin corpse-visions give out the secrets of sexual love; in this world, sexual relations are wounded or murdered, and female sexual needs will not be satisfied. This much the corpse in the veiled recess tells us. On the “couches of the dead,” the heart still twists restlessly. Mrs. Radcliffe's imagery of the corpse in the recessed bed, and its implied message, is even stronger than the imagery of the diseased bed which Blake uses in The Songs of Experience:

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.


  1. Compare, for example, Freud's analysis of the Wolfman's recurring dream in “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis,” Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, trans. James Strachey, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), 17: esp. pp. 29-47.

  2. From the Critical Review notice of The Romance of the Forest, quoted in Dan J. McNutt, The Eighteenth-Century Gothic Novel: An Annotated Bibliography (Kent, England: William Dawson and Sons, 1975), p. 216.

  3. Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, rev. edn. (New York: Stein and Day, 1966), p. 134.

  4. See, for instance, James R. Foster, History of the Pre-Romantic Novel in England (New York: Modern Language Association, 1949), p. 262, or Lowry Nelson, Jr., “Night Thoughts on the Gothic Novel,” YR [The Yale Review] 52 (December 1962):238.

  5. Fiedler, Love and Death, p. 140.

  6. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve Univ., 1973), pp. 160-61. Of the two psychoanalytic critics who have written at length on this novel, one, Leona Sherman, psychoanalyzes Emily, and the other, Pierre Arnaud, psychoanalyzes Mrs. Radcliffe. Both approaches are risky and suffer alternately from too much or too little information, but Arnaud is more daring and sounds right more often. Leona Sherman, “Ann Radcliffe and the Gothic Romance” (Ph.D. diss., SUNY at Buffalo, 1975), Pierre Arnaud, Ann Radcliffe et le Fantastique: Essai de Psychobiographie (Paris: Aubrier Montaigne, 1976). I propose an analysis of the novel's central actions, or, to put it another way, of the novel's process and its effect on the reader.

  7. The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman and Harold Bloom (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965), p. 35. All references in the text are to plate and line numbers in this edition. Blake used the trappings of gothic prose fiction in “Fair Elenor,” from “Poetical Sketches” of 1783—a fleeing heroine, a tower, “dreary vaults,” a mysterious object wrapped in a gory napkin, and a talking severed head. These were uncongenial atmospherics, but one may catch echoes of gothic themes in Blake's concern with polarized states of innocence and experience and in his depictions of repressive and imprisoning father figures, such as Urizen and Nobodaddy. David Punter, in The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions (London: Longman, 1980), pp. 99-104, discusses Blake's political use of gothic themes. See also Kathleen Raine, Blake and Tradition, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), 1:34.

  8. Quoted in Aline Grant, Ann Radcliffe: A Biography (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1951), p. 145. For a fine discussion of the permutations of veil imagery, see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “The Character of the Veil,” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association] 96 (March 1981):255-70.

  9. Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), p. 67.

  10. Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, ed. Bonamy Dobrée (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), p. 19. All references in the text are to this edition.

  11. For an excellent discussion of the “economic base” of the novel, see Mary Poovey, “Ideology in The Mysteries of Udolpho,Criticism 21 (Fall 1979):307-30.

  12. The explanations at the end are like “reverse incantations,” J. M. S. Tompkins, The Popular Novel in England, 1700-1800 (London: Constable, 1932), p. 262.

  13. Fiedler, Love and Death, p. 127.

  14. The repetition of this scene is the distinctive note of this novel, I believe. Many discussions of gothic novels concentrate on generic connections between works; the best such discussion is in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (1976; rpt. New York: Arno Press, 1980), ch. 1. However, such generic continuities may mask significant differences between works. Udolpho has one repeated action, while Matthew Lewis's The Monk, like a pornographic fiction, reveals a series of different, progressively more “unspeakable” scenes. In Mrs. Radcliffe's fiction we see one thing, the same thing, over and over; in Lewis's, we see something new and more horrible each time. Udolpho tends to “double situations and repeat motives,” while Lewis wishes to “thrill” the mind. J. M. S. Tompkins, Ann Radcliffe and Her Influence on Later Writers (1921; rpt. New York: Arno Press, 1980), pp. 25 and 133. David Punter's Literature of Terror, pp. 87-97, contains a brilliant analysis of the different author/reader relationships Radcliffe and Lewis establish.

  15. The feminine ending of this Duke's name is intriguing, suggesting that in his marriage he is to be enjoyed. I am reminded of the current vogue in French feminist criticism of the noun jouissance with its multiple meanings. See Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language, trans. Gora, Jardine, and Roudiez (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1980), pp. x, 15-16, and 164.

  16. Judith Wilt, Ghosts of the Gothic (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980), p. 27, invents this delightful phrase.

  17. Patricia Spacks notes that, in general, women novelists often convey simultaneously “the energy of impulse as well as of repression,” Imagining a Self (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1976), p. 63.

  18. Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross, 2 vols. (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1907), 1: ch. xiii, 202.

  19. For a related discussion of the issues of identity, body image, and vacancy (or recess), see Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 150-51.

  20. Robert D. Hume, “Gothic Versus Romantic,” PMLA 84 (March 1969):284, treats this distinction differently.

  21. See, for instance, pp. 255 and 548.

  22. In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen also shows that the mind is in love with terror. Catherine Morland “has been craving to be frightened”; her curiosity is called an “infatuation” (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1972), ch. 25, p. 201.

  23. On the language of the sublime, see Samuel Holt Monk's chapter on Burke. Later, Monk says that “the relationship between the Radcliffean heroine and nature consists of a sort of emotional coquetry,” The Sublime (1935; rpt. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1960), p. 220.

  24. The ending has “a specially female melancholy and weariness,” says Ellen Moers, Literary Women (New York: Doubleday, 1976), p. 140. Pierre Fauchery says that this happy ending is a substitute for the tragic ending we have the right to expect. La Destinée Féminine dans le Roman Européen du Dix-Huitième Siècle (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1972), p. 764.

Jean H. Hagstrum (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2771

SOURCE: “Pictures to the Heart: The Psychological Picturesque in Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho,” in Greene Centennial Studies: Essays Presented to Donald Greene in the Centennial Year of the University of Southern California, University Press of Virginia, 1984, pp. 434-41.

[In the following essay, Hagstrum considers Radcliffe's Udolpho as a “pictorialist” novel, declaring that the author deftly balances the narrative between the sublimes of beauty and terror with the result being an analogous exploration of Emily's burgeoning sensuality.]

The term pictorial is often used as a synonym for graphic, visual, scenic, or sensuous. In his analysis of renditions of reality in Western literature, Erich Auerbach is concerned with the pictorial in this sense, making it the source of important literary value. Failure for him is to be “dry and unvisualized,” while success lies in being sensory and pictorial. To write with circumstantial detail is to write “plastically”; the graphic manner floods a work with “a clear and equal light,” leaving nothing mysterious in the background.1 What Auerbach praises is the ancient rhetorical value called enargeia—that is, clarity, palpability, a living daylight freshness and fullness of vivid detail.2

For many works in the Western tradition the term pictorial as defined is not adequate to the visual richness and variety that one finds; and one must have resort to the ungainly but useful word pictorialist, which evokes the tradition of literary pictorialism and such specific conventions as the description of an art object real or imaginary; the “quotation” of particular works of graphic art or the reflection of easily identifiable schools of art; ways of seeing trained by visual models in tapestry, sculpture, painting, or the cinema; methods of proceeding and ordering that suggest spatial rather than temporal art. For almost two millennia now—from Homer to Yeats—these Sister Arts conventions have persisted in poetry, providing even within the visual matrix abundant opportunity for imitation and adaptation, convention and revolt.3

Pictorialist novels also exist. These have not been much studied, except in notable isolated instances, and little has been said about the tradition, if one in fact exists apart from that associated with the ancient admonition ut pictura poesis. The Pilgrim's Progress of antiquity, the Tablet (or Tabula) of Cebes of Thebes, is pictorialist in the sense that it begins by introducing the reader to an allegorical picture and proceeds by describing its every section and detail.4 Similarly, Longus' Daphnis and Chloe presents at the outset a large landscape painting from which the action of the novel seems to derive.5 In the New Arcadia Sidney's vision of persons and scenes is stylized into picture and statue, and the action often proceeds in a series of tableaux. In the prose of Laurence Sterne the “attitude” of an individual character is likewise often statuesque or pictorial, sometimes suggesting a specific source in the visual arts: “My father instantly exchanged the attitude he was in, for that in which Socrates is so finely painted by Raffael in his school of Athens.6 In The Marble Faun Hawthorne loads every rift with iconic ore: the faun itself by Praxiteles, the statue of the pope in Perugia, and paintings by Guido Reni—all of them symbolic equivalents of human characters or the chief purveyors of meaning and value.7 George Eliot's novels form a tissue of traditional pictorialist conventions as these had been modified by Hazlitt and the Romantics—traditions that she in her turn adapted to her needs as a Victorian author.8 Henry James often disposes his scenes like pictures in a gallery or tapestries on a wall, and in Chapter xxx of the Ambassadors Strether, on an excursion into the French countryside, enters, as it were, a canvas of Lambinet; and the ensuing scene is composed as a series of impressionist paintings.9 Some of the outdoor scenes of Women in Love suggest, as Lawrence says, the picnics of Watteau and also, as he does not say, the ferns, fronds, and petals on water of Claude Monet. Finally, Nathanael West makes a painting by one of his characters, Tod's apocalyptic Burning of Los Angeles, central to the meaning and movement of The Day of the Locust. The painting appears at the Day-of-Wrath climax as well as at the beginning, and not only frames the action but insinuates it.10

To this partial list of pictorialist novels must be added Mrs. Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), a work which marked the apogee of the romantic gothic novel and which held the throbbing attention of more than one generation of young readers.11 About the picture making in this novel two essential points need to be made. The first is that to Radcliffe's pictorialism the then fashionable contemporary term picturesque can be applied. The other is that, by subtle but persistent metaphorical substitutions, Radcliffe extends her pictures into the heart and spirit of man—an extension that Longus, other writers of Greek romance, Sidney, and writers in the tradition of emblematic and allegorical visualization were unable to make. Hence the phrase of the title of this paper: “the psychological picturesque.”

The picturesque anticipated Ann Radcliffe by only a few years; but when it came into her hands, it bore the weighty sanctions of Edmund Burke, of some of the greatest landscapists of Western culture, of exciting novelistic experiments, and of a contemporary set of enthusiastic aestheticians. The story has often been told of how various ingredients came together to form the pre-Romantic picturesque: the grand sublime of terror that Burke had distinguished from the soft beauty of tenderness, the savage and irregular landscapes of Salvator that contrasted with the delicate landscapes of Claude, the obsessive love of Alpine scenery, and a quickened appreciation of Oriental and Hebrew imagery.12 Radcliffe's rendition of the historical picturesque is precise and nuanced. She understands both the sublime of religious awe and the sublime of natural fear in the presence of physical danger. And her beauty has all the largeness of Claude's vistas in tender lights and the intimacies of cottage and fishing hut expressed by contemporary water colorists—a beauty that soothes the mind and ministers to the affectionate sensibilities. To the Salvatorian sublime and Claudian beauty only a few more pictorial strains need to be added for a full understanding of Radcliffe's picturesque: the fluttering and exotic beauty of Guardi's and Canaletto's Venice; the Magnasco-like chiaroscuro of the gypsy scenes; the disturbing effect of Piranesi's grotesquely imagined interiors in the dark corridors, grating gates, and blood-stained steps of French and Italian castles; and the traces of the “dark pencil” of Domenichino, whom the author invokes by name, on the dark, torch-lit chapel interior where the mild face of a venerable monk, his features revealed by his pulled-back cowl, contrasts with the fierce features and wild dress of the condottieri.

These are the colors of Mrs. Radcliffe's pictorial palette, which brought her the rewards of immediate fame. This “great impresario of beauty, wonder, and terror”13 riveted the attention of her own and succeeding generations of readers. Sir Walter Scott reports that “the volumes flew, and were sometimes torn from hand to hand,”14 and Joseph Warton was surely not the only one whom the Mysteries of Udolpho kept from sleep.15 How shall one explain the spell of this “enchantress”?16 Surely it was not only the imagined danger of distant places that thrilled her readers. Nor, it seems, would the pictorialist skill alone—what Cazamian praises as the variety, the wealth of coloring, and the charm of her pictures, a talent hitherto unequaled in the English novel17—have fastened the reader to those many pages of extended description that our own age finds languid. Nor could it have been the supernatural, which the author almost always in the course of the novel explains in natural terms once an educated character has had time to get in all the facts and refute the ignorant servants. The appeal must have lain in the immediate and intimate suggestiveness, for Mrs. Radcliffe was one of the most richly nuanced authors ever to have unfolded a slow-moving plot through several volumes.

Many critics have made hints about the hints of Mrs. Radcliffe, implying that her many-layered suggestiveness has its roots deep in our nature and arouses resonances of feeling much deeper than superficial titillation. Catherine Morland turns from immediate concerns in Bath to “the luxury of a raised, restless, and frightened imagination over the pages of Udolpho,”18 and these strong and weighty adjectives of Jane Austen should give pause to those who think that Northanger Abbey merely makes fun of Mrs. Radcliffe's melodrama. Others have noted that Mrs. Radcliffe's heroines have an almost morbid craving for fear and that her adventures have a dreamlike quality that reveals a mind tremblingly alive to imaginative fear.19 Even within the novel there is some awareness that an emotional life quickened by the picturesque can be dangerous. Emily's father warns her that excessive sensibility is to be feared, and Mrs. Radcliffe, who believed that terror can be wholesome and “expand the soul and awaken the faculties,” was careful, like Coleridge after her, to keep terror from becoming an annihilating, freezing horror.20

Where shall we locate the fear and terror of her novel, emotions which can, as Hazlitt says, make “the nerves thrill with fond hopes and fears” and which witness to a power of evocation greater than that of any of her countrymen?21 It should be located in that part of the civilized psyche where sexual love and sexual encounters are anticipated but never formulated in direct and unequivocal terms or images. To accept this view one must be sympathetic to the notion that profoundly suggestive pictures can be socially or morally acceptable substitutes for forbidden feelings or wishes. Literature of course abounds in examples of pictures as substitutes for real people or for real experience. In Sidney's New Arcadia they often take the place of a person, of a loved and lost husband or friend,22 as is also true in Chekhov's “The Bear,” in which a grieving Russian lady caresses her late husband's portrait.

Mrs. Radcliffe's substitutions are less for what is loved and lost than for what is loved and hoped for. Her heroines usually dally with larger pictures than miniatures, but the suggestions are insistent that the sublime-beautiful landscapes are an anticipation of the rewards that came to Pygmalion, who embraced his statue. The bedchambers, often in an older and isolated part of the castle, with secret entrances, sliding panels, steps leading to deep unexplored recesses, have overtones of sexual danger which, had these been totally displeasing, would have made all life and motion cease. “To the warm imagination, the forms,” to quote Mrs. Radcliffe's own language, “which float half-veiled in darkness afford a higher delight than the most distinct scenery the Sun can show.”23 Such a statement, taken alone, reformulates one quality in the Burkean sublime. But, placed in a Radcliffian context of “warm imagination,” that “half-veiled delight” may sometimes be viewed as being as impatient of the “Busie old foole, unruly Sunne” as ever Jack Donne was—and for Donne's reasons.

Mrs. Radcliffe was much more than a formulary novelist illustrating Burke's distinction between the sublime and the beautiful24 and merely alternating between Salvatorian danger and Claudian repose.25 Although she does provide these fashionable alternations, she essentially unites what Burke and his followers had put asunder. Extremes do not always meet, of course, and it would do the melodrama disservice if on one level we did not keep the black villainous Italians, the Montonis and the Orsinos, worlds apart from the good white French, the St. Auberts and the Villerois. But the really interesting zone in the Mysteries of Udolpho is that protoerogenous zone where terror and delectation meet, namely, the heart of the heroine. Sensibility is the historical word for the inward psychological response to the external picturesque of interreacting terror and beauty—a word that Jane Austen uses unmistakably for sexual love.26

Radcliffe almost, in fact, makes explicit the association of pictorialized landscape and love-experience. Valancourt, Emily's lover, first flits unseen but not unnoticed (as poet, lute player, and harmless thief) in a favorite setting near the family home on the edge of the Pyrenees. On the first journey he materializes mysteriously on the road and accompanies the party, it now being perfectly clear that the taste for wild sublimity is a shared one. Even in the sinister abode of the evil Montoni in the Apennines the love-feelings are by no means dissipated, since that formidable pile possesses the “gothic greatness” of a “gloomy and sublime object” and produces “melancholy awe” in Emily—precisely the emotion that Emily shares with her lover, a sure sign that they belong together.27 After the return to France, Valancourt appears in a delicious southern French vintage; and again, near the climax at the place of first meeting, his mysterious presence is felt and stirs deep chords of fear as well as trembling anticipation. (For one thing his identity is not at once known: is he a robber or the lover or possibly, in a psychophysical sense, both?) It is the cumulative effect of just such juxtapositions as these that make one feel that the sensuous in Mrs. Radcliffe is also the sensual, or at least anticipates the sensual. The sublime-beautiful, dangerous-safe, savage-mild, wild-cultivated alternations and fusions of the pictures suggest love-play and love-experience—an earnest of the full physical and sexual inheritance that physical union will bring.

Prose fiction has often, to use Johnson's phrase, created “pictures to the mind.”28 The ethical and moral emblems of Mrs. Radcliffe are conventional and superficial, but those of Sidney, Richardson, and others are weighty and impressive, whether they are the ideal representations of la belle nature or the grotesque of evil and distorted nature. Verbal pictures have also been—particularly in the romances—supernatural or magical or superstitious, but Radcliffe tends to explain them away. Even deeper than either the ethical or the religious, the moral or the mysterious, are the psychological pictures, pictures to the heart, dreamlike pictures that arise from the inner man and either disturb or animate the conventions. The nerve of Mrs. Radcliffe's literary eye extends deep within her being, with the result that the mountain ways of Gascony and the winding corridors of a castle in the Apennines carry their suggestions to the untrodden passes of the human heart and body.


  1. Mimesis (Princeton, 1968), pp. 26, 27, 46.

  2. Jean H. Hagstrum, The Sister Arts (Chicago, 1958), Index, s.v. Enargeia.

  3. See ibid. in general.

  4. Ibid., pp. 33-34.

  5. See Preface, anon. trans. (London, 1719).

  6. Tristram Shandy, IV.vii. See William V. Holtz, Image and Immortality (Providence, 1970), a study of Sterne and painting.

  7. See Judith Kaufman Budz, “Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Visual Arts,” Diss., Northwestern, 1973.

  8. See Hugh Witemeyer, George Eliot and the Visual Arts (New Haven, 1979) and my review in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 34(1979), 217-20.

  9. Viola H. Winner, Henry James and the Visual Arts (Charlottesville, 1970), pp. 74-77.

  10. Donald T. Torchiana, “The Day of the Locust: The Painter's Eye,” in Nathanael West: The Cheaters and the Cheated, ed. David Madden (De Land, Fla., 1973), pp. 249-82.

  11. James R. Foster, History of the Pre-Romantic Novel in England (New York, 1949), p. 263.

  12. Christopher Hussey, The Picturesque (London, 1927).

  13. Foster, p. 262.

  14. Quoted by Devendra Varma, The Gothic Flame (London, 1957) p. 94.

  15. Ibid., p. 94.

  16. De Quincey's word, quoted by Bonamy Dobrée, ed., The Mysteries of Udolpho (London, 1966), p. x.

  17. Emile Legouis and Louis Cazamian, A History of English Literature (New York, 1935), p. 970.

  18. Northanger Abbey, Ch. vii.

  19. Foster, p. 265; Varma, p. 86.

  20. Dobrée, p. xi.

  21. Varma, p. 128.

  22. See New Arcadia, Vol. I, Bk. II, passim.

  23. Varma, p. 103.

  24. Malcolm Ware, Sublimity in the Novels of Ann Radcliffe (Upsala, 1963). For a sensitive discussion of Radcliffe and the Sublime, see Samuel H. Monk, The Sublime (Ann Arbor, 1960), pp. 217-20.

  25. See Elizabeth Manwaring, Italian Landscape in Eighteenth Century England (New York, 1925), pp. 212-18. Manwaring perceives that Mrs. Radcliffe's “most characteristic scenes are composed of a union of the savage and the soft, Salvator and Claude” (p. 217).

  26. Catherine Morland “had reached the age of seventeen, without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility; without having inspired one real passion.” (Northanger Abbey, Chap. i). See also my Sex and Sensibility: Ideal and Erotic Love from Milton to Mozart (Chicago, 1980), pp. 268-74.

  27. Mysteries (London, 1794), II, 170-71. The passages most clearly illustrating the union of expectant love with picture or landscape occur on the following pages of the first edition, cited here: I, 26, 89, 277; II, 10 (love is banished by mountains here), 170, 189 f, 210, 212, 220, 230; III, 101-2, 336-38, 350, 358; IV, passim, but esp. 189 ff., 226 ff., 409 ff.

  28. Donald Greene, “Pictures to the Mind,” in Johnson, Boswell, and Their Circle: Essays Presented to L.F. Powell (Oxford, 1965), pp. 137-58.

April London (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Ann Radcliffe in Context: Marking the Boundaries of The Mysteries of Udolpho,” in Eighteenth Century Life, Vol. 10, No. 1, January, 1986, pp. 35-46.

[In the following essay, London explains how plot structure and characterization uphold moral and social principles in such works as Henry Fielding's Tom Jones and Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho.]

At the end of Tom Jones Fielding's narrator assures the continued happiness of the eponymous hero by ascribing to him the qualities of “Discretion” and “Prudence.”1 Discretion and Prudence are called into play here to reinforce the conjunction of the epistemological and ethical with the material reality of the estate Tom Jones has inherited. Only enclosed within the boundaries of this estate can be consciously limit possibility to accord with the desirable consonance of providence and prudence. The boundaries of the estate, in other words, image the reconciliation of self and social wisdom and thus impose an integrity of meaning which conforms to Fielding's preference for the truth of design over the sprawl of undifferentiated experience. That preference for order over anarchy is, of course, common to numerous writers throughout the century. But changing political and cultural realities put increasing pressure on the concept of exclusion, and on its narrative representation, the estate. Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho stands in a particularly interesting relation to the extremes of Fielding's circumspection on the one hand, and the romantic extension of a Frankenstein or Wuthering Heights on the other. Overtly committed to defending a version of the Augustan ideal, her fiction nevertheless reveals itself as a product of historical and literary developments which disallowed that ideal. An analysis of these contrary impulses helps to explain the failure of gothic to reconcile desired permanence with inevitable change.

Tom Jones is itself, as Martin Battestin reminds us, “at once the last and the consummate literary achievement of England's Augustan age.”2 Even within Fielding's own corpus, the dissolution of the ideal he charts in Tom Jones is apparent. From its emblematic status as a positive goal in Joseph Andrews, the estate is slightly modified in Tom Jones to comply with the hero's final and deliberate withdrawal from the arena of much of the novel's action, and then more dramatically in Amelia to underline the concluding imposition, rather than discovery, of a measure of satisfactory order. In assuming Squire Western's “Family Seat, and the greater Part of his Estate,” and in yielding to “continual Conversation” with Allworthy and “Union with the lovely and virtuous Sophia” (p. 981), Tom Jones affirms the final meshing of the social and personal meanings of “estate”: worldly success here naturally follows Tom's restoration to his just estate as an Allworthy relative capable of discretion and prudence. Amelia, however, begins to upset the convention of retirement as a resolution of private and public imperatives by making the Booths' final happiness dependent upon a fortuitous acquisition of tainted wealth, wealth which has previously been the source only of corruption. In the novels of sensibility which succeeded Fielding's, this tenuous balance of private and public finally yields to the priority of individual feeling. Instead of boundaries and comprehensive analogic orders we find in such typical narratives as Mackenzie's Man of Feeling (1771) a morass of social inequities and miseries. Given that the narrative is literally self-consuming, it is no longer possible to suggest as Fielding does that the order realized in fiction is metaphysical fact. Instead, the novel obscures analogic relations through a continuous process of displacement and dissolution initiated by the physical artifact of the text: that mouldering manuscript of the ghost's attempt to recapture a past that itself forms a chronicle of deprivation and lost innocence. Accidently rescued from a heap of broken stones—all that remains of Harley's pathetic attempt to recover order through the construction of a miniature estate for Old Edwards—it testifies to the breaking of all ideals. With the integrity of reciprocal class relations fragmented by the power of money, temporal continuity here reduces to Cowper's “clock of history” in “Yardley Oak”:

Change is the diet, on which all subsist
Created changeable, and change at last
Destroys them.(3)

Driven from the contingency of an infected present, the hero of sensibility reverts to an ideal historical construct, fixing meaning in a golden past.

The antithetical structures of Fielding and Mackenzie—Fielding, analogic and relational; Mackenzie, metaphoric and sensible—intriguingly re-surface in the rhetoric of late eighteenth-century conservatives and radicals. The narrative expression of sentimental feeling had, however, undermined its social validity through its association of value with lost time. The radicals, in naming this capacity for sympathetic affinity “reason,” reformulated the golden past by looping it forward to a future period in which a perfect society would ultimately emerge. As Joseph Priestley says in An Essay on First Principles of Government (1768): “whatever was the beginning of this world, the end will be glorious and paradisaical, beyond what our imagination can now conceive.4 But as the millenarian strain suggests, the position demanded that the concepts of society and government be evaluatively re-interpreted. As early as 1776 Thomas Paine's Common Sense had inscribed the division: society based on affection, would found the new order of reason and oust government, the perpetrator of distinction and separation.5

The stridency of these radical calls for reform provoked an inclusive conservative ideology which answered point for point the arguments of the opposition. Underlying this programmatic complexity, however, was a single informing principle: the notion of property. The primacy of the concept of property in part derived from the conservatives' sceptical reading of human nature. Edmund Burke thus frames his reading of character in terms of an inherent predilection toward formlessness, aesthetically coded in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful as our attraction to sublimity, and politically formulated in Reflections on the Revolution in France as tyranny or its logical opposite, anarchy. Both aesthetic and political interpretations assume that this formlessness follows inevitably from a self-referential mode of perception. What Burke does, in other words, is use the radicals' own identification of reason with individualism as a weapon against their vision of future perfection. Semantically, he reduces their philosophy to the status of romantic metaphor: the emergence of a third term—a supposedly perfect egalitarian future—which to him would necessarily destroy the existing and essential hierarchy that places reason over passion, judgment over intuition, and society over the individual.

His own defense of English constitutional policy turns instead upon a “philosophic analogy”6 in which state and estate are seen as reciprocally confirming. Conventionally (as we see in Tom Jones and a host of popular narratives) the individual estate appealed to the civic state for ratification as a system of order. Burke not only retains this analogic defense of private property but further asserts that the state itself rests its claim to authority on the principle of entailed inheritance: “we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our privileges, in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives” (p. 31). In his recourse to property as the foundation of the state the notion of temporal continuity plays a key role: “a nation is not an idea only of local extent, and individual momentary aggregation, but it is an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers, and in space.”7 This extension in time accords with an analogous extension from smaller to greater orders. The perpetuation of property in families, Burke thus maintains, “tends the most to the perpetuation of society itself” (p. 49). In the end, government and society, by virtue of the interdependence of domestic and political, are seen as intimately allied and mutually confirming. Against the radicals' program of a future bliss which rejects history in favor of progress, the conservatives assert the claims of continuity, stability, and permanence.

But property not only sanctions existing social and governmental hierarchies, it also serves to define character. Here again Burke's writings offer a definitive statement of conservative ideology:

The most poor, illiterate and uninformed creatures upon earth are judges of a practical oppression. It is a matter of feeling; and as such persons generally have felt most of it, and are not of an overlively sensibility, they are the best judges of it. But for the real cause or the appropriate remedy, they ought never to be called into council about the one or the other. They ought to be totally shut out; because their reason is weak; because, when once aroused, their passions are ungoverned; because they want information; because the smallness of the property, which individually they possess, renders them less attentive to the measures they adopt in affairs of moment.8

The assumption underlying this passage—that property confers character—was widely accepted throughout the century. It forms part of an associative complex of beliefs that worked, as Burke's statement suggests, to ratify the existing order. Briefly stated, property was held to assure the virtues of independence and leisure sufficient to the creation of a moral personality. The patriot citizen expressed these virtues in the political realm through his devotion to the public good. This landed disinterestedness defines itself against the emergent capitalist structure of the monied interest, identified with the instability of moveable goods, the hysteria of investment in a paper economy, and the self-seeking of political faction.9

The semantic shift in the meaning of “propriety” further evidences the relation of property to character. The now accepted definition of “conformity with good manners or polite usage” did not in fact appear until the time of Burney's Cecilia (1782); Hobbes, for example, uses “propriety” and “property” as equivalent terms in Leviathan (1651). Where a distinction is made, propriety simply refers to appropriateness to circumstances. Burke's assumption in the passage quoted above is that this perception of appropriateness depends on the possession of judgment, a quality he explicitly denies the unenfranchised. Lacking property, the lower classes necessarily lack propriety. For the good of society they must therefore unthinkingly respect tradition, accept inequality as their lot, and as creatures governed by feeling expect to “be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection” (p. 57). For Burke, of course, such subjugation had an intrinsic social value since it “kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.” His famous encomium on the “age of chivalry” thus assumes that the ideal order prompts an atavistic attachment to what he terms a “sensibility of principle,” a sensibility inherent in an upper class and consolidated by a static concept of the self. The ruling class, rendered inviolate by its adherence to this “chastity of honour,” thus elicits from its inferiors the constant of “dignified obedience” (p. 73). These abstract virtues, rooted in the solidity of property and its concomitant propriety, formerly secured an order which was self-sustaining and of comprehensive utility. Burke characteristically evokes the dissolution of chivalry through images which sink this high abstraction to a sensory morass. Speaking of “our civil troubles in England” he lashes out at those “men who helped to subvert that throne to which they owed, some of them, their existence, others all that power which they employed to ruin their benefactor”:

Confounded by the complication of distempered passions, their reason is disturbed; their views become vast and perplexed; to others inexplicable; to themselves uncertain. They find, on all sides, bounds to their unprincipled ambition in any fixed order of things. But in the fog and haze of confusion all is enlarged, and appears without any limit.

(p. 45)

The leveling fog of uncertainty, cutting across class boundaries, has its roots in the glorification of subjectivity. The radicals' assumption of a universal capacity for thought would thus in practice inevitably be expressed as the collective anarchy of irresponsible individuals acting out momentary feelings.

Radcliffe's conservatism is clearly similar in order and intensity to Burke's, relating property to propriety in its ideological formulations and “sensibility of principle” to an entrenched class structure in its assumptions about fictional character. But her attempt to inscribe these values of temporal continuity and permanence in narrative form posed special problems. Neither Fielding nor Mackenzie could serve here as adequate models since both located their fictions within frames of reference inimical to the conservative endorsement of the status quo. Mackenzie's naive historicism, dismissive of the present, disallowed the role of prescription, while his advocacy of unmediated feeling denied the authority of reason. Conversely, while Fielding's thought corresponded to Burkean distinction, his confident allusions to Providence as the avatar of meaning seemed an outmoded Augustanism. In order to satisfy the demands of fictional contingency without contravening doctrinal permanence Radcliffe therefore modifies Fielding's referential order. Instead of appealing to Providence to dissolve what had appeared irreconcilable conflict, she encloses within her fiction both the exemplars of value and their precisely matched antagonists. At the most basic level, then, the text witnesses a struggle for supremacy between inverted orders, each carrying a specific burden of ideological intent. The structure of the novel—harmony disrupted and then restored—suggests Radcliffe's unequivocal commitment to the triumph of conservative principles. But, as we shall see, at certain key moments in the text, specifically in the episodes concerning Montoni, the evils of individual wilfulness acquire a power which radically threatens those principles.

The grounds of conflict emerge early in the novel through the use of property as an evaluative gauge of male character. In his attachment to La Valée, St. Aubert realizes the intimate correspondence between moral worth and respect for tradition and the sanctity of place. His brother-in-law, M. Quesnel, introduced in the first chapter as an antithetical type to St. Aubert, is in perpetual transit between country and city; “unplaced,” he typifies the commercially orientated and therefore ethically bankrupt. Radcliffe enforces the distinction between the two through pointed contrasts encompassing virtually every aspect of their lives. Each is systematically called to the bar and qualitatively compared on the grounds of marriage, taste, judgment and intelligence; M. Quesnel is invariably found to be the crass inferior. Propriety, the contrast finally suggests, is sustained through active commitment to property; simple possession of estates indicates nothing.10 St. Aubert's retrospective glance at his own past, suggests that the source of his mature relation to property lies in a youthful enthusiasm for nature. The key to the distinction between the two men and to the comprehensive values accorded to each emerges again in the reflection prompted by the “romantic picture of felicity” (p. 49) that Emily and her lover Valancourt present to the father:

The world … ridicules a passion which it seldom feels; its scenes, and its interests, distract the mind, deprave the taste, corrupt the heart, and love cannot exist in a heart that has lost the meek dignity of innocence. Virtue and taste are nearly the same, for virtue is little more than active taste, and the most delicate affections of each combine in real love. How then are we to look for love in great cities, where selfishness, dissipation, and insincerity supply the place of tenderness, simplicity and truth?

(pp. 49-50)

This near identification of virtue and taste, conventional in eighteenth-century aesthetic theory, echoes Burke's “Introduction to Taste” in Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful:

On the whole it appears to me, that what is called Taste, in its most general acceptation, is not a simple idea, but is partly made up of a perception of the primary pleasures of sense, of the secondary pleasures of the imagination, and of the conclusions of the reasoning faculty, concerning the various relations of these, and concerning the human passions, manners and actions.11

The hierarchy of faculties here, advancing from sense, to imagination, to reason, complements Radcliffe's characterization of Valancourt and his development into a fit partner for Emily St. Aubert. Valancourt's enthusiastic response to natural beauty allies him with the youthful St. Aubert and indicates his innate propensity to virtue. But, in accordance with the terms of Burke's model, this virtue must be strengthened by the conditioning of imagination “within the province of the judgment, which is improved by attention and the habit of reasoning” (Philosophical Enquiry, p. 29). When virtue and taste finally merge with judgment, Valancourt's singular emoting on the beauties of nature will be converted into a quality which signals his participation in an inclusive social ideal. That quality—propriety—is achieved when Valancourt moves from his initial aesthetic appreciation of landscape to a tenurial relation with the estate, the socialized image of landscape.

By contrast, the propriety of female description demands that the principles of real property be rendered psychologically. In counselling his daughter St. Aubert therefore transcribes his code of action into a code of behavior which advocates internalized boundaries: “self-command,” he asserts is necessary, since it “limits the indulgences which are termed virtuous, yet which, extended beyond a certain boundary, are vicious, for their consequence is evil” (p. 20). Eagerly embracing this sentiment, Emily can declaim after the loss of their estates the substantial virtue of propriety over property: “poverty cannot deprive us of intellectual delights. It cannot deprive you of the comfort of affording me examples of fortitude and benevolence; nor me of the delight of consoling a beloved parent. It cannot deaden our taste for the grand, and the beautiful. … We retain, then, the sublime luxuries of nature, and lose only the frivolous ones of art” (p. 60). But as the succeeding adventures abundantly prove, alienated propriety offers no defense against acquisitive evil. Female integrity, Radcliffe seems to suggest, depends upon the interdependence of property and propriety, a necessary relation which she emphasizes by invoking a further distinction between imagination and reason. Her argument against imagination proceeds along two fronts: it is a faculty not subject to any external check, and it is not rooted in any concrete form of differentiation, as opposed to reason whose operations replicate those of real property, i.e., defining, delimiting, ordering. Reason and imagination are, in other words, key terms in a political dialectic which conservative ideologists figured as an endless struggle between rational hierarchy and the natural (or innate) tendency of the human mind to anarchy. Radcliffe's adaptation of these terms can be seen in her treatment of propriety which, when divorced from property, has qualities that skirt dangerously close to the imagination's sanction of individual will. Only when it is buttressed by truly substantial property and reason, does propriety avoid this radical taint.

The enclosed world of La Vallée initially serves as a material figure of such rational virtue, unobtrusively accommodating domestic and social in a whole which is at once functional and aesthetic. To convey this contextual order, Radcliffe employs the metonymic “eye” favored by early eighteenth-century landscape poets. From the chateau, “the eye, after having scaled the cliffs above, delighted to repose” (p. 1); “from the windows the eye caught, beneath the spreading branches, the gay and luxuriant landscape stretching to the west” (p. 3); “upon the little lawn that surrounded the house, the eye was led between groves of almond, palm-trees, flowering-ash, and myrtle, to the distant landscape” (p. 3). The chateau, symbol of domesticity, is the first vantage from which we survey the surroundings. In what had become a conventional trope of the contemporary novel,12 we are then moved out of the house into the landscape:

Above the woods, that screened this glen, rose the lofty summits of the Pyrenées, which often burst boldly on the eye through the glades below. … Emerging from the deep recesses of the woods, the glade opened to the distant landscape, where the rich pastures and vine-covered slopes of Gascony gradually declined to the plains; and there; on the winding shores of the Garonne, groves, and hamlets, and villas—their outlines softened by distance, melted from the eye into one rich harmonious tint.

(pp. 6-7)

Here extended vision is not simply an aesthetic ideal, but a functional one, as the prospective view incorporates evidence of husbandry: rich pastures, vine-covered slopes, valleys and plains. The nexus in this progression from domestic to agricultural is the peasant, described in terms which mirror the universal order which the estate symbolizes:

The peasants of this gay climate were often seen on an evening, when the day's labour was done, dancing in groups on the margin of the river. Their sprightly melodies, debonnaire steps, the fanciful figure of their dances … gave a character to the scene entirely French.

(pp. 3-4)

The representation of communal values in the figure of the dance completes the image of the estate as a contained world animated by the interplay of nature and art. But this description occurs, of course, at the beginning rather than the end of the novel and consequently helps differentiate the relative commitment of father and daughter. To St. Aubert, schooled in the ways of the world, La Vallée is an achieved ideal; to Emily, it simply marks the limits of her experience. As with each of Radcliffe's heroines, then, her innocence must be tested; she must be brought to a full and conscious recognition of the meaning of property.

Exiled from La Vallée, Emily thus finds the boundaries between self and other constantly shifting, becoming indistinct, and occasionally, as in her first glimpse of Udolpho, suffering complete obliteration: “Silent, lonely and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign” (p. 227). The castle is here personified as dark and monstrous in proportion to Emily's own less sure grasp of her selfhood. During her captivity in Udolpho the sense of impending fatality again emerges through the projection of her exacerbated sensibility on to the surroundings. But the environs do not threaten through any intrinsic quality; instead they reflect her failure to contain her terror and distinguish fact from fantasy. The enemy, in other words, lies within and later is implicitly identified as the imagination. We are initially told that “hers was a silent anguish, weeping, yet enduring; not the wild energy of passion, inflaming imagination, bearing down the barriers of reason and living in a world of its own” (p. 329). Reason here serves as a desirable barrier or medial point between the world outside and self-consumption—like the walls of the estate it marks out proper limitations which ensure a balance between participation and detachment. Yet shortly after she succumbs to imagination as a “superstitious dread stole over her” (p. 330). Radcliffe immediately proffers extenuating conditions: “human reason cannot establish her laws on subjects, lost in the obscurity of imagination, any more than the eye can ascertain the form of objects, that only glimmer through the dimness of night” (p. 330). The choice of physiological analogy suggests not only that this ascendancy of imagination is ‘natural’ but also that its formlessness ultimately defeats reason. In a later reversion to the dark and obscure power of imagination, spatial metaphors again predominate: “She blamed herself for suffering her romantic imagination to carry her so far beyond the bounds of probability, and determined to endeavour to check its rapid flights, lest they should sometimes extend into madness” (p. 342). Both passages play against the model of perception figured as ideal in the novel's opening chapter. Imagination is limitless extension, unbounded by (natural) horizon or (mental) “barriers” of rationality.

In the conservative, comic novel of the eighteenth century imagination and feeling are also the special province of the female—Lydia Melford in Smollett's Humphry Clinker is just one among many heroines whose skittish or susceptible natures are smoothed into complacency by marriage with a rational partner. Emily St. Aubert's “romantic imagination” offers a variation on this theme of an inherent and dangerous female sensibility which can be made subservient to the higher principle of reason only through the active influence of the male. At Udolpho she has been removed by death from her father, whose monitory presence at the beginning of the novel encouraged self-command, and by design from Valancourt to whom she will finally be restored. Her lapses into singular terror while at Udolpho, then, are a function of sex conspiring with circumstance and do not disturb Radcliffe's central contention that the interrelation of property and propriety, vested in the male, ensures social stability.

The correlative to the association of female with imagination is, of course, male with reason and, again, the eighteenth-century novel offers a wealth of characters who prosper by adhering to this second norm and a number who are damned for their deviation from it. Among the latter are Lovelace in Richardson's Clarissa and Booth, before his eleventh-hour conversion, in Amelia. Both of these characters elect to deny their proper role as agents of reason and instead adhere to alternated codes, Lovelace to that of the rake, and Booth to that of the freethinker. Montoni seems at first to be another of this type, but in his case special conditions prevail which make him not only an exceptional eighteenth-century villain but also a precursor of the romantic hero. For Montoni does not deny right reason in favor of an alternate code of belief or action which the author can then reveal to be fallacious, as rakishness is in Clarissa or free-thinking is in Amelia. Instead, his denial is a pure expression of will which, functioning as an active and autonomous force, has the capacity to subvert the lynchpin of Radcliffe's conservatism, the prescriptive authority of reason. When Emily asks Montoni, “by what right he exerted this unlimited authority over her?” his answer—“By what right … by the right of my will” (p. 216)—at once asserts his ascendancy and mocks the terms of her question. Recognizing no boundaries, Montoni's power is indeed unlimited; “right” and “just authority” have at a stroke been rendered meaningless. His henchman Bertrand offers a further instructive parable of the rules governing this radical voluntarism:

if a fellow has got possession of property, which I think ought to be mine, why I may wait, till I starve, perhaps, before the law will give it me, and then, after all, the judge may say—the estate is his. What is to be done then?—Why the case is plain enough, I must take it at last.

(p. 404)

Tyrannical will, unchecked by self-regulation, possesses a supreme authority which human laws cannot begin to limit: neither propriety nor property can escape its depredations. This, it seems, is the lesson Emily is in the process of learning at Udolpho when, after her aunt's death, she and Montoni struggle over the lands left to her by Mme Cheron.

The use of contested property as the grounds of conflict is ironically apposite. The novel has to this point forwarded property and propriety as terms which have both a reciprocal integrity and a capacity to ensure order. The initial stages of the contest seem to vindicate Emily's faith in this construct of values, as the higher claim of her personal and social right to the estate seems to quell Montoni's naked assertation of power. His declaration that “his will was justice and … she should find it law” (p. 380) is thus countered with “mild dignity” by her assertation “that the strength of my mind is equal to the justice of my cause. … I can endure with fortitude, when it is in the resistance of oppression” (p. 381). While Montoni denies the conceptual validity of “justice” and “law,” Emily restores to these words an objective significance: they are the social imperatives which guarantee her right to her property and bolster the “strength of mind” and “fortitude” necessary to assert that right. She, in effect, acts as a true Lockean, assuming that society originates in, and is sustained by, a contract to protect property. Montoni, however, not only nullifies the contract by his refusal to accede to the terms of civility, he also denies the elementary relation between principle and possession by reducing female propriety to the conditions of real property. Recognizing that “strength of mind” and “fortitude” are, for the female character, inextricably bound to chastity of person, he threatens possession of her body as a means of securing possession of her lands. Accosted by one of his henchmen, Emily realizes

that Montoni had already commenced his scheme of vengeance, by withdrawing from her his protection, and she repented of the rashness, that had made her brave the power of such a man. To retain the estates seemed to be now utterly impossible, and to preserve her life, perhaps her honour, she resolved, if she should escape the horrors of this night, to give up all claims to the estates, on the morrow, provided Montoni would suffer her to depart from Udolpho.

(p. 385)

That it is in fact her honor for which she fears becomes clear when the relinquishing of the titles is deferred to allow for yet another attempt on her virtue. Following Montoni's “open declaration” (p. 346) that his protection and her release from Udolpho are conditional on her giving up the estates, she signs the papers only to discover that she has been deceived in the promise of freedom:

Montoni smiled. “It was necessary to deceive you,” said he—“there was no other way of making you act reasonably; you shall go, but it must not be at present. I must first secure these estates by possession: when that is done, you may return to France if you will.”

The deliberate villainy, with which he had violated the solemn engagement he had just entered into, shocked Emily as much, as the certainty, that she had made a fruitless sacrifice, and must still remain his prisoner.

(p. 436)

That Montoni must “secure these estates by possession” is an ironic twist of the knife that has already pinioned his victim; Emily signs the papers to avoid “tenancy” of her person only to discover that tenancy of her lands sanctions Montoni's claim to them. The language of “violation” and “sacrifice” further suggests the degree to which female self and real property have been made subject to the same territorial law. Emily's faith in a social contract that protects both her propriety and her property now seems credulous, for Montoni has triumphed by manipulating the very conventions that she assumed safeguarded her. This becomes clearer when one examines the paradoxical similarities between Montoni's course of action and Burke's political philosophy. In his recourse to property as the basis of the state. Burke asserted prescription as the “first principle of law and natural justice.” That same law of prescription presumably vindicates Montoni's claim, since the coercive measures taken to secure Emily's signature are nowhere mentioned as debarring him from her estate.

Radcliffe, of course, does not pursue these implications; in fact, she obscures them. Montoni's ignominous death off-stage, while the reader's attention is directed toward the final episodes of Emily's history, is part of a process by which the author attempts to deflate his villainous power and to suggest that he has been defeated, however indirectly, by the forces of passive virtue. This diminishment of Montoni is also accomplished by the counterpointing of his ascendancy against alternate configurations which work finally to suggest that the novel's closing restoration of order follows a natural, rather than fictively contrived, pattern. One of these alternate relationships involves an implicit comparison both of the female characters who own land—Emily, Mme Cheron, Laurentini—and of their abilities to enjoy that possession, abilities gauged by the test of decorum. Having infringed the code of female behavior through the prior sin of sexual indiscretion, Mme Cheron loses her life to her male equivalent in lawlessness, Montoni. Laurentini's narrative extends the catalogue of vice by linking vengeful murder to licentiousness. But it is not simply their violent ends which mark their distinction from Emily; more significant is the fact that although they retain a technical right to their property, their impropriety determines that they are denied both its privileges and those of marriage. Emily's fortunate retention of propriety, by contrast, leads directly to that reward for female innocence, the recovery of the estate in the form of marriage. With Valancourt's restoration to virtue—he has, like Tom Jones, involved himself only in venial sins—the circle seems complete. Emily assumes her proper place in the hierarchy by becoming another's property, and together they affirm their commitment to prescriptive title by purchasing from Quesnel the “ancient domain of her father” (p. 672).

This concluding harmony completes the pattern set in the La Vallée section of the novel and so imposes a symmetry that tends to overshadow the Udolpho adventures. St. Aubert's protection of Emily is now assumed by Valancourt, the lands which were lost are restored, and with this restoration Emily again enjoys the coincidence of property and propriety formerly experienced before her father's death. More importantly, by focusing in the final volume on the specific issue of female propriety and its rewards, Radcliffe is able to resolve certain of the problems raised in the middle sections of the novel in terms that do not threaten conservative doctrine. It was suggested, for example, at Udolpho that imagination (or anarchy) could potentially defeat reason (or order). But in the controlled male world of the novel's ending, the explanation of the events which provoked Emily's “superstitious terror” emphasizes her credulity; the implication is that female susceptibilities have an anarchic power only when removed from the curb of male reason.

Emily St. Aubert, then, is at once the specific character whose innocence is rewarded and a representative figure of an order renewed by overcoming threatened chaos. Throughout the novel Radcliffe, in attempting to clarify and strengthen conservative values, uses the affective image of the victimized female in a way reminiscent of Burke's iconic glorification of Marie Antoinette in Reflections on the Revolution in France. The difference between the two figures, of course, is that Emily survives. Her survival, the novel's ending suggests, is the natural expression of her virtue: goodness and innocence do triumph; but in fact it owes much more to Radcliffe's peculiar shift of focus which magically dispells the power of Montoni by the expedient of his fortunate death, thus allowing a new cast of characters who uphold the status quo to dominate the final volume. Radcliffe's encomiastic portrait of concluding harmony is accomplished, in other words, by a closural sleight of hand which contravenes the implicit meaning of the novel's psychological and political insights. Following from the precepts of the text, as opposed to its ending, individual will still retains the ability to destroy collective reason. Only with the romantic novel will this power be acknowledged through such heirs of Montoni as Frankenstein, the satanic Wringhim, and Heathcliff, figures who act out the chaos that Radcliffe here circumvents.


  1. Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, intro. Martin C. Battestin, ed. Fredson Bowers, 2 vols. (Middletown: Wesleyan Univ., 1975), 2:981.

  2. The Providence of Wit (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), p. 141.

  3. Ll. 72-74, in The Poetical Works of William Cowper, ed. H.S. Milford (London: Oxford Univ., 1934), p. 411.

  4. Quoted in H. T. Dickinson, Liberty and Property: Political Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Britain (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977), p. 201.

  5. “Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one …,” Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Philip S. Foner, 2 vols. (N.Y.: Citadel, 1945), 1:4.

  6. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1910; rpt. London: Dent, 1971), p. 32.

  7. Works (London: Rivington, 1803-27), 10:97.

  8. Quoted in Dickinson, p. 303.

  9. See J. G. A. Pocock, “The Mobility of Property and the Rise of Eighteenth-Century Sociology” in Theories of Property: Aristotle to the Present, ed. Anthony Parel and Thomas Flanagan (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier Univ., 1979), pp. 141-66.

  10. A similar point is made later in the novel when Montoni reveals to Emily that her signing over of her aunt's property will not suffice; he must inhabit his late wife's estates in order to assure his title to them. See Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, ed. Bonamy Dobrée, notes by Frederick Garber (London: Oxford Univ., 1970), p. 436.

  11. (Menston: Scolar, 1970), pp. 30-31. For a succinct discussion of the sources of this truism, see Henry Fielding, Amelia, ed. Martin C. Battestin (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983) p. 394, n. 2.

  12. See, e.g., Sarah Scott, A Description of Millennium Hall and the Adjacent Country (London: 1762), pp. 14-15.

Rhoda L. Flaxman (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3972

SOURCE: “Radcliffe's Dual Modes of Vision,” in Fetter'd or Free? British Women Novelists, 1670-1815, edited by Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski, Ohio University Press, 1986, pp. 124-33.

[In the following essay, Flaxman declares that critics need to recognize Radcliffe's work as innovative for its time, emphasizing the author's descriptive skills and highlighting her particular techniques in painting a scene.]

The new scholarship on women has extended our sense of the novel tradition by bringing hitherto neglected works by women to the attention of critics. Although Ann Radcliffe's work has never been completely neglected, reassessment reveals her importance as a formal innovator in the history of the English novel. Often she is praised for her attention to setting and story and for softening and romanticizing the conventional Gothic novel's atmosphere from horrific effects to merely terrifying ones. But she has never been recognized sufficiently for establishing a new descriptive mode and technique for the novel. In so doing, she effectively expands the novel's rhetorical possibilities.

Radcliffe was one of the first English novelists to elevate extended, visually oriented landscape description—previously nearly the exclusive province of poetry—to a position of prominence in English fiction. In addition to establishing a new subject—subsequently developed by writers as diverse as Scott, Ruskin, Dickens, Hardy, Lawrence and Woolf—she was the first to apply a genuinely cinematic technique to these descriptions. This technique, which I have labeled cinematic word-painting, refers to landscape descriptions that borrow pictorial techniques from the visual arts, with one significant addition. From the visual arts word-painting adapts framing devices, a consistent visual perspective, and compositional strategies, such as attention to volume, mass, the contrast between light and dark, and careful application of coloristic effects. In addition, the mode relies on a narrator/viewer who scans visual data according to a coherent point-of-view allowing the reader to visualize the general compositional configurations as if through a camera eye. This cinematic technique renders a spatially coherent landscape and gives the illusion of kinesis that emerges from a clear spatial progression from foreground to background, much as a modern camera zooms over a scene. Obviously, Radcliffe knew nothing of modern cinematography, but her technique for capturing landscape in language closely resembles filmic “visualization through perspective” that combines object and seer.1

Although cinematic word-paintings often appear to “freeze” narrative progression, the viewer's metaphorical journey through a landscape represents kinesis within stasis and may amend Ephraim Lessing's famous distinction between poetry and painting.2 It also allows novelists to integrate description with narration by relating the object being observed to qualities of the viewer or its mood to anticipations of future events. Although Radcliffe rarely achieves such a symbolic interchange of significance—indeed, she was relatively uninterested in these relationships—her landscape description sometimes achieves the effect of a “narrative of landscape.” Such a technique implies progression from one element to another focused through the unique consciousness of a particular spectator and, echoing the form of narrative itself, may represent one of English fiction's first dramatizations of the visual imagination itself.

The “dual modes of vision” to which this essay's title refers acknowledges that Radcliffe only rarely achieves the consistency and kinetic effectiveness of a genuine word-painting. In her most famous work. The Mysteries of Udolpho, for example, descriptions mostly adhere to conventional stylistic eighteenth-century modes. Radcliffe's dominant descriptive mode presents static “catalogues” of elements in a landscape that are described in generalized, abstract terms and ordinarily rely heavily on contemporary formulas for the obligatory balancing of the sublime with the beautiful. The opening paragraph of the novel exemplifies such an approach.

On the pleasant banks of the Garonne, in the Province of Gascony, stood, in the year 1584, the chateau of Monsieur St. Aubert. From its windows were seen the pastoral landscapes of Guienne and Gascony, stretching along the river, gay with luxurient woods and vines, and plantations of olives. To the south, the view was bounded by the majestic Pyrennees [sic], whose summits, veiled in clouds, or exhibiting awful forms, seen, and lost again, as the partial vapours rolled along, were sometimes barren, and gleamed through the blue tinge of air, and sometimes frowned with forests of gloomy pine, that swept downward to their base. These tremendous precipices were contrasted by the soft green of the pastures and woods that hung upon their skirts; among whose flocks, and herds, and simple cottages, the eye, after having scaled the cliffs above, delighted to repose. To the north, and to the east, the plains of Guienne and Languedoc were lost in the mist of distance; on the west Gascony was bounded by the waters of Biscay.3

A disembodied voice opens the novel by enumerating elements characteristic of pastoral scene: gently winding river, noble mansion, cultivated slopes, and flocks grazing on soft, green mountain pastures near the cottages of simple peasants. The identity of the observer is not important, and our ability to visualize the scene is hampered by the illogical perspective and the inert passivity of the language. Although there is a faint attempt to move our mental eye from the chateau to the Pyrenees to the south and then to north, east, and west in turn, it is impossible to understand how the observer can describe the chateau and the view from its windows simultaneously. The passive voice allows no rhythmic enlivening of the stilted, choppy phrases that build complex, often confusing, sentences. Verbs, adjectives, and adverbs lack specificity and color, but all elements contribute to depicting a natural landscape of peace and harmony between human beings and nature where “the eye after having scaled the cliffs above, delighted to repose” at an appropriately moderate mid-height.

The passage, though inert, introduces two favorite Radcliffian framing devices borrowed from the visual arts. We often find the heroine, Emily St. Aubert, gazing through a window onto a beautiful scene. This window helps to limit and organize what the observer sees; in addition, as in the passage above, a line of trees, a body of water, or the horizon line demarcates the farthest limit of her vision.

Radcliffe's dominant descriptive mode is characterized by descriptions of beautiful landscapes expressed in generalized diction that fails to capture their uniqueness. Her cinematic word-paintings, however, contrast vividly with the technique illustrated above. Her imagination, when thoroughly aroused by her concept of sublime landscape, struggles to free itself from generalized description to achieve an almost scientific particularity of observation. Not only does she include acute visual detail in such passages, but she also works out a kinetic technique to make the reader believe she or he sees the wild scenes she so obviously loved. Interestingly, Radcliffe's word-paintings represent the only places in The Mysteries of Udolpho where I sense the presence of a unique, impassioned voice. It is clearly the voice of Radcliffe herself.

There are five major word-paintings in Udolpho inserted among long narrative passages and briefer descriptive ones.4 Their distribution may be structurally significant, for one important word-painting appears in each volume of the novel except for volume 3. A major cluster of extended landscape descriptions occurs in volume 2 and visualizes the heroine's journey through the Alps to Italy, her first brief look at Venice, and her journey through the Apennines to the Castle of Udolpho, a climactic moment in the complex plotting of the work. Through a close reading of the journey to Udolpho itself, I hope to demonstrate my claim for Radcliffe: that, although we might consider her “fetter'd” by the formulaic plots, characters, and themes of the Gothic tradition, she felt relatively freer than her male counterparts to explore the unknown territory of the cinematic word-painting and to contribute an innovative subject and technique to the English novel.

A brief sketch of the three major settings for Emily St. Aubert's literal and symbolic journey toward knowledge and happiness orients us to the complicated plot of The Mysteries of Udolpho. The novel begins in La Vallée, Emily's childhood home, where Emily lives harmoniously with nature in a version of the pastoral ideal, and no terrifying mysteries intrude. Although the author pays lip service to its picturesque beauties, the second major setting, the forbidding Castle of Udolpho, set amid the splendor and sublimity of the Alps, is the one that fully arouses the author's powers of description. This setting also provides the context for Emily's most lurid trials at the hands of the villainous Montoni. In the third setting, Chateau-le-Beau, Emily encounters her most sophisticated test, for she is required to discriminate between subtle manifestations of good and evil as the pastoral and gothic, the rational and irrational intermingle. Once Emily has learned to separate reality from illusion, her education is complete and her reward is marriage to the pallid, imperfect, but nonetheless lovable Valancourt.

At La Vallée the mountains and cliffs, safely remote, rim the horizon, providing a useful contrast with the cultivated valley. The light in this valley is clear, bright, and gay, permeated by soft greens and blues. But, as the recently orphaned Emily, her aunt, and the menacing Montoni (her aunt's new husband), journey through the Alps toward Montoni's castle, the landscape changes dramatically, as do the organizing mode of perception and the general level of intensity in the language. Here, finally, Radcliffe's writing achieves the sweep and vivid detail of a cinematic word painting that distinguishes this mode from the static catalogue this essay previously examined.

The passage beginning “at length, they reached a little plain, where the drivers stopped to rest the mules” organizes the dramatic ascent of the Alps as a progression through vistas—framed “scenes”—that provide suspense as Emily and her group near their destination. The journey gives Radcliffe the opportunity to describe visual elements that almost always appear as part of a Radcliffian landscape of the sublime and that clearly excite her imagination in a way entirely different from landscapes merely beautiful. The pictorial motifs might well remind us of a canvas by Rosa, Claude, or Poussin, whose paintings provided Radcliffe's only idea of how the Alps looked at the time she was writing The Mysteries of Udolpho. The cult of the picturesque dictated recurrent elements in Radcliffe's descriptions such as forbidding precipices, gnarled trees abutting tortuous narrow paths into high mountains, and the pastoral landscape stretching into the mists below. Often—though not in the passage before us—other sense impressions augment the visual, such as the perfume of flowers or the faint sounds of lute, oboe, or violin music wafting up from some unknown source. This characteristic merging of sense impressions to heighten the moment's emotion anticipates a favorite strategy of Romantic poets.

As the little group of travelers ascends, we are treated to magnificent panoramas that dramatize the landscape by a frequent reiteration of contrasts between heights and depths, and between sheltered and expansive spaces. In the first paragraph of the word-painting, the stilted abstract language of La Vallée suddenly gives way to more colorful and precise adjectives, adverbs, and verbs, a more coherent point-of-view, and a livelier sense of rhythm and movement.

Beyond the amphitheatre of mountains, that stretched below, whose tops appeared as numerous, almost, as the waves of the sea, and whose feet were concealed by the forests—extended the Campagna of Italy, where cities and rivers, and woods and all the glow of cultivation were mingled in gay confusion.

(p. 225)

Opening the description from the foreground anchor of the little band of travelers and their mules to the vista below, we understand the reference to the “immensity of nature” because the narrator describes, progressively, the foreground figures, mountain tops below them, forests at mountain base and, beyond the mountains, the countryside of Italy laid out in bird's-eye view. The little word painting sweeps us along with its vivid, active verbs (stretch, mingle, bound, pour) in the sentence that follows. The rhythms of the syntax echo the necessary quickness of the eye in taking in such a breathtaking varied scene.

In spite of the series of visually confusing figurative clichés in which the mountains are described simultaneously as amphitheatre, ocean waves, and feet, Radcliffe's intention here is both bold and original. She is trying to write movement into a progressive description, first, of ranges of mountains, then their tops (like waves) and, finally their bases in forests. Her similes may trip her up, but the excitement and intensity of the writing is palpable! Three bodies of water frame the vista and contribute a further sense of motion to the scene. We are able to visualize how elements in this sublime landscape interrelate as the “camera eye” sweeps the scene. Radcliffe has applied an essentially cinematic technique to landscape descriptions here.

Repetition of the transitional phrase “at length” in the several preceding paragraphs constitutes a rather clumsy attempt to signal the passage of time. Both travelers and the reader enter a seemingly timeless realm as they ascend the Alps, for time and space seem to expand endlessly in the gradually multiplying vistas that unfold before our eyes. Unfortunately, the narrator's excitement about the scene fails to animate the heroine, whose loneliness only increases with the sublimity of the landscape.

As the party climbs higher into the Alps, and ever closer to the Castle of Udolpho, the description becomes progressively more exciting, vivid, and dramatic. It is a dangerous ascent, and clearly represents the approach of an important test in Emily's symbolic journey toward maturity. The second paragraph contains some of the most particularized descriptive writing in this word-painting, for here, at last, Radcliffe allows the magnificence of the scene to unroll before us, unimpeded by the balancing of the pastoral. Contrast between enclosed and expansive space again accentuates and dramatizes the progress through the very heart of the Apennines—a scene inherently dramatic.

First we see very little, other than the narrow pass that surrounds us, its wild overhanging cliffs, and gnarled, windswept oak clinging stubbornly to rock inimical to human intrusion. This narrow entry only intensifies the sense of freedom when daylight returns with the long perspective of mountain range and rolling mist, “a scene as wild as any the travellers had yet passed” (p. 225). Radcliffe's use of the word “perspective” here indicates she is thinking like a painter as well as a writer.

The alternation between the specificity of foreground details and dramatic background vistas, between darkness and light, enhances that very sense of movement and rhythm that characterizes Radcliffe's very best word-paintings:

Still vast pine-forests hung upon their base, and crowned the ridgy precipice, that rose perpendicularly from the vale, while above, the rolling mists caught the sunbeams, and touched their cliffs with all the magical colouring of light and shade. The scene seemed perpetually changing, and its features to assume new forms, as the winding road brought them to the eye in different attitudes; while the shifting vapours, now partially concealing their minuter beauties, and now illuminating them with the splendid tints, assisted the illusions of the sight.

(p. 226)

Here Radcliffe's language captures the visual excitement of forms that shift rapidly with the changing perspectives of the eye as it moves across a landscape. The specificity of diction reflects an active creative engagement with wild nature—words such as impending, hung, rose, rolling, shifting—that emphasize motion and drama. Although the final phrase of this passage reminds us that Radcliffe ordinarily prefers suggestive, rather than explicit descriptive language, the vivid particularity in her successful word-paintings represents an opposing aesthetic tendency.

As if to frame and contain the wild energy of this writing, the passage continues with two brief paragraphs that return us—in one case, in mid-sentence—to the sentimental “sweet picture of repose” that recalls the pastoral opening of the novel.

But, not content to rest on the “green delights” of the pastoral, “smiling amid surrounding horror,” the narrator quickly turns her discriminating eye back to the landscape that thrills her. The pace and vividness move quickly toward the climax both of the descriptive writing and of Emily's journey. The novel's title reminds us that we are approaching the structural center of the work at last. A fully realized cinematic panorama represents the climax of this word-painting as well.

Towards the close of day, the road wound into a deep valley. Mountains, whose shaggy steeps appeared to be inaccessible, almost surrounded it. To the east, a vista opened, that exhibited the Apennines in their darkest horrors; and the long perspective of retiring summits, rising over each other, their ridges clothed with pines, exhibited a stronger image of grandeur, than any that Emily had yet seen.

(p. 226)

In her eagerness to help us visualize precisely how Emily moves through this dramatic landscape toward the castle of Udolpho, Radcliffe jams both light effects and compositional placement into a single long sentence. One feels her again straining to encapsulate motion in the essentially static medium of language.

The sun had just sunk below the top of the mountains she was descending, whose long shadow stretched athwart the valley, but his sloping rays, shooting through an opening of the cliffs, touched with a yellow gleam the summits of the forest, that hung upon the opposite steeps, and streamed in full splendor upon the towers and battlements of a castle, that spread its extensive ramparts along the brow of a precipice above. The splendour of these illuminated objects was heightened by the contrasted shade, which involved the valley below.

“There,” said Montoni, speaking for the first time in several hours, “is Udolpho.”

(p. 227)

Montoni's announcement accentuates the importance of this moment, and light—particularly vivid here—dramatizes the contrast with encroaching darkness as the sun sinks behind the mountains and the landscape chills. At such moments, Radcliffe's evocations of the precise look of light on landscape are far superior to those of James Thomson, whose passages from The Seasons receive the greater critical praise. Radcliffe shares a fondness for setting climactic events at twilight with Victorian poets such as Wordsworth, Tennyson, Rossetti, and Swinburne. At the transitional moments of dusk or dawn strange visions sometimes occur, realities are blurred, and irrational fears may conquer rational thought. Twilight increases suspense and lends an air of drama to things seen.

The transitional nature of this moment between day and night provides a fitting context for the discovery of the castle, seen in all its picturesque and lurid detail. As Emily gazes “with melancholy awe” at Udolpho, the sloping rays of the sun shoot through, touch, and stream with splendor dramatically in contrast to the encroaching shadows of night. A moment of stasis allows Radcliffe to describe with care how the rays of the setting sun gradually travel up the castle wall to battlements and clustering towers, leaving behind “a melancholy purple tint.” The “darkest horrors” of the Apennines—in the language of the Burkean sublime—and the darkening landscape foreshadow Emily's quasi-imprisonment in the sinister castle that hangs above her. Sublime and imposing mountains which have thrilled and terrified the narrator—if not Emily—find ominous echo in the castle—“silent, lonely, and sublime”—fitting emblem of the inscrutable and defiant Montoni.

Our example of word-painting—Radcliffe's second mode of vision—ends with the ascent of the carriages, but here ascent is simultaneously a descent into darkness, cruelty, superstition, and terror. Significantly, when Emily, at the chapter's end, sits at the window of her new home, all is “sunk in darkness” (p. 229); she can discern nothing. The next step in her education will depend on her learning how to see and to interpret both visual and psychological realities at Udolpho.

Radcliffe's Gothic narratives overwhelmingly participate in the eighteenth-century aesthetic preference for balance and moderation, for limiting the ecstasies and perils of the sublime with the orderliness of the beautiful. But, occasionally, as I hope I have demonstrated, when her imagination is completely aroused, she reaches for a proto-Romantic descriptive technique, where the emotions of the narrator—if not the heroine—color the reporting of precise visual detail. At such moments, Radcliffe abandons generalized description in favor of an aesthetic of particularity and passion and brings her framed landscapes to life through a cinematic technique. The new cinematic approach described here dramatizes a landscape as a kind of journey of exploration anchored by a precisely placed perceiving figure who is often part of the foreground of the scene.

For the most part, Radcliffe's word-paintings lack the interchange of significance with character, action and theme, highly metaphoric in nature, to which post-Modernist readers are accustomed. The description of the arrival at Udolpho, however, is one passage where extended visually oriented material cooperates with narrative to contribute structural coherence to a climax in the novel. Though the writer is uninterested in linking the thing seen with the emotions of the heroine, Radcliffe's landscape visions express the narrator's interest in capturing the visual sublime in a verbal medium, though the elaborateness of the description itself is not balanced by a similar weight in the writing of the narrative sections.

Radcliffe's word-paintings are among the most daring and innovative in the history of English literature, for she was one of the first to see the possibilities for a dramatized descriptive mode that accurately captures the look of a particular landscape. Radcliffe often struggles to find specific descriptive language to express her vision. At times of transport, she abandons conventional personification in order to suggest important new possibilities for using a cinematic narrative technique within landscape description, such as when she describes what she imagines the sublime features of wild mountains to be.

With Radcliffe's word-paintings, one begins to discern an interplay between narrative and descriptive modes that was to lead to a kind of blending of the genres of prose and poetry by the end of the nineteenth century. The primitive relationship between narration and description in Radcliffe's fiction establishes a base-line with which to compare later attempts to fuse or intermingle story and scenery in English fiction. Word-painting, beginning in the Gothic novel as an interruption in narrative flow, gradually invades the story in subsequent fiction, becoming inseparable from it, and alters the nature of narrative and the form of nineteenth-century fiction as it moves toward the more fused symbolic techniques of writers like Dickens, Hardy, and Virginia Woolf. The narrative of landscape contributes significantly to the development of so-called hybrid literary works of the late Victorian period.

In addition, word-painting may contribute to the attrition of narrative that is such a prominent feature of some recent phenomenological and “poetic” fictions that seem to have abandoned “story” altogether in favor of a dramatized descriptive mode, one that has taken narrative movement into itself. Radcliffe's word-paintings, in this sense, serve as forerunner to the prose-poems of Virginia Woolf, and the contemporary antistories of Robbe-Grillet, Barth, Pynchon, and Coover. Her interest in wordpaintings—Radcliffe's second mode of vision—signals one of her most important contributions to the evolving forms of English fiction. Therefore, although one might see her as “fetter'd” by some eighteenth-century novelistic conventions, occasionally Radcliffe achieves a passionately emotive, sensual descriptive mode that demonstrates her freedom to explore new content and new techniques for fiction.


  1. Alan Spiegel, Fiction and the Camera Eye: Visual Consciousness in Film and the Modern Novel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1976), 33.

  2. Word-painting, which often appears to move verbal art into the realm of the spatial rather than the temporal, may be one element that blurs Lessing's famous distinction between poetry as exclusively a temporal and kinetic art and painting as exclusively a spatial and static one. See Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laokoön, ed. Dorothy Reich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965).

  3. Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 1. The first edition was 1794. All subsequent quotations from Radcliffe are drawn from this, the authoritative modern edition.

  4. Word-paintings are found on pp. 1-5, 175-76, 224-28, 263-70, and 596-604 of the authoritative Oxford edition.

Terry Castle (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11801

SOURCE: “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, Methuen, 1987, pp. 231-53.

[In the following essay, Castle points out that although critics of Udolpho usually focus on the gothic episodes of the novel that occur at the castle, the events in the other sections of the book also deserve attention for their fantastical undertones and preoccupation with death and the dead.]

Friends came to be possessed like objects, while inanimate objects were desired like living beings.

Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death (606)1


When it is not treated as a joke, Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) is primarily remembered today for its most striking formal device—the much-maligned “explained supernatural.” Scott, we may recall, was one of the first to blame Radcliffe for supplying anticlimactic “rational” explanations for the various eerie and uncanny events in her novels, and in Lives of Eminent Novelists (1824) chastized her for not “boldly avowing the use of supernatural machinery” in her greatest fiction.2 Jane Austen's satiric depredations in Northanger Abbey are even better known.3 But modern critics have been similarly put out—that is, when they have bothered to write about Radcliffe at all. “A stupid convention,” says Montague Summers of her admittedly intrusive rationalizations. “The vice of her method,” writes another. A few hapless defenders merely compound the damage: “the poor lady's romances,” wrote Andrew Lang, “would have been excluded from families, if she had not provided normal explanations of her groans, moans, voices, lights, and wandering figures.”4Requiescat in pace.

It has always been easy, of course, to patronize Ann Radcliffe. No English writer of such historic importance and diverse influence has been so often trivialized by her critics. Granted, we have the occasional arch excurses on selected Radcliffean topoi—the Villain, the Fainting Heroine (with her much-vaunted Sensibility), the Scenery. But the point of such commentary is usually to demonstrate the superiority of the critic to this notoriously “silly” writer and to have done with Radcliffe as quickly as possible. Even among admirers of Gothic fiction, the clumsy device of the “explained supernatural” is often taken as the final proof of Radcliffe's irretrievable ineptitude and bathos. By way of a formula, the author herself is explained away.

Which is not to say that the formula is entirely misleading. Blatantly supernatural-seeming events are “explained” in Udolpho, and sometimes most awkwardly. Mysterious musical sounds, groans emanating from walls, the sudden movement of a supposedly dead body: however strained, rational explanations for such phenomena are inevitably forthcoming. At numerous points in the fiction, moreover, Radcliffe self-consciously condemns what she calls “superstition.” Not for her those primitive ancestral spirits described by Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals, who come back to earth to terrify, cajole, or exact various pious sacrifices from the living. Nor, despite occasional hesitations, has she any residual faith in the more benign ghosts of popular Christianity. St. Aubert, the father of the heroine in Udolpho, admits at one point to a hope that “disembodied spirits watch over the friends they have loved” (67), but later in the novel, when the enlightened Count de Villefort argues against the reality of specters, Radcliffe resolutely endorses his position, noting that “the Count had much the superiority of the Baron in point of argument” (549).5 In this denial of the traditional spirit-world, The Mysteries of Udolpho, like the Gothic in general, anticipates the thoroughly God-abandoned forms of modern literature.

Yet already we oversimplify perhaps, for the very concept of the “explained supernatural” depends upon a highly selective—indeed schematic—vision of the novel. We “read,” it seems, only part of The Mysteries of Udolpho: the famous part. As any survey of Udolpho scholarship will show, modern critics devote themselves almost without exception solely to those episodes in the novel involving the villainous Montoni and the castle of Udolpho—even though these make up barely a third of the narrative. Of the dreamlike wanderings of Emily St. Aubert and her father through the Pyrenees (which alone take up nearly one hundred pages at the outset of the work), of St. Aubert's drawn-out death scene and Emily's sojourn in a convent, of Emily's bizarre relationship with her lover Valancourt, of the episodes with Madame Cheron at Tholouse and Venice, of the lengthy post-Udolpho sections involving Du Pont, Blanche, the Marchioness de Villeroi and the Count de Villefort, we have heard little or nothing.

The crude focus on the so-called Gothic core of The Mysteries of Udolpho has been achieved by repressing, so to speak, the bulk of Radcliffe's narrative. Many modern critics implicitly treat the fictional world as though it were composed of two ontologically distinct realms—one extra-ordinary, irrational, irruptive, and charismatic (that of Montoni and Udolpho), the other ordinary, domestic, and uninteresting (the supposedly more “familiar” frame-world of La Vallée and the St. Aubert family). Emily, it is often argued, is temporarily caught up in the irrational Udolpho-world, and there subjected to much emotional dislocation, but returns safely to ordinary life in the end. Commentators differ, to be sure, over what exactly the irrationalism of Udolpho consists in, some claiming that the castle is in fact a violent realm of moral and political chaos, while others, more psychologically inclined, argue that its terrors are merely notional, the result of the heroine's supercharged sensibility. The assertion that Emily develops and learns to control her “hysteria” in the course of her ordeal is a common didactic embellishment in the latter sort of reading. Seldom at issue in any of these accounts, however, is the two-world distinction itself (with its normal/abnormal, rational/irrational, ordinary/extra-ordinary oppositions) or the implicit assumption that certain parts of Udolpho are intrinsically more interesting and worthy of discussion than others. This tendency toward bifurcation, it is worth noting, has reappeared even in the otherwise revisionist readings of the novel recently offered by feminist critics.6

But what happens if we reject such reductive impulses and try to read all of the fiction before us? For one thing, the supposedly ordinary parts of Udolpho may begin to look increasingly peculiar. Take, for example, the ostensibly normalizing ending. Montoni is dead, the putative terrors of Udolpho past, and Emily St. Aubert has been joyfully reunited with her lost lover Valancourt. Yet Radcliffe's language here, as elsewhere, remains oddly preternatural. Emily and Valancourt marry in an “enchanted palace,” the Count de Villefort's castle at Chateau-le-Blanc, under sumptuous banners “which had long slept in dust.” So exquisite is the ceremony Annette the servant is moved to exclaim that “the fairies themselves, at their nightly revels in this old hall, could display nothing finer,” while Dorothée, the old housekeeper, observes wistfully that “the castle looked as it was wont to do in the time of her youth.” The newlyweds proceed, as though entranced, to Emily's beloved childhood home at La Vallée. There, in the picturesque spot “so long inhabited” by her deceased parents, Monsieur and Madame St. Aubert, “the pleasant shades welcomed them with a thousand tender and affecting remembrances.” Emily wanders through her parents' “favourite haunts” in pensive slow motion, her happiness heightened “by considering, that it would have been worthy of their approbation, could they have witnessed it.” Bemused by souvenirs of the past, she and her lover seat themselves beneath a plane tree on the terrace, in a spot “sacred to the memory of St. Aubert,” and vow to imitate his benevolence (671).

The mood of hypnotic, sweetish melancholy carries over into the last sentence of the novel, where Radcliffe addresses an ideal reader, likewise haunted by personal history:

And, if the weak hand, that has recorded this tale, has, by its scenes beguiled the mourner of one hour of sorrow, or, by its moral, taught him to sustain it—the effort, however humble, has not been vain, nor is the writer unrewarded.


Enchantments, shades, haunts, sacred spots, the revivification (through memory) of a dead father, a perpetually mourning reader: the scene is tremulous with hidden presences. Not, again, the vulgar apparitions of folk superstition—the ghosts entertained here are subjective, delicately emotional in origin, the subtle protrusions of a yearning heart. No egregiously Gothic scenery obtrudes; we are still ostensibly in the ordinary world. But the scene is haunted nonetheless, as Radcliffe's oddly hinting figures of speech suggest. Home itself has become uncanny, a realm of apophrades. To be “at home” is to be possessed by memory, to dwell with spirits of the dead.

These passages epitomize a phenomenon in Radcliffe we might call the supernaturalization of everyday life. Old-fashioned ghosts, it is true, have disappeared from the fictional world, but a new kind of apparition takes their place. To be a Radcliffean hero or heroine in one sense means just this: to be “haunted,” to find oneself obsessed by spectral images of those one loves. One sees in the mind's eye those who are absent; one if befriended and consoled by phantoms of the beloved. Radcliffe makes it clear how such phantasmata arise. They are the products of refined sentiment, the characteristic projections of a feeling heart. To be haunted, according to the novel's romantic myth, is to display one's powers of sympathetic imagination; the cruel and the dull have no such hallucinations. Those who love, by definition, are open to the spirit of the other.

The “ghost” may be of someone living or dead. Mourners, not surprisingly, are particularly prone to such mental visions. Early in the novel, for instance, Emily's father, St. Aubert, is reluctant to leave his estate, even for his health, because the continuing “presence” of his dead wife has “sanctified every surrounding scene” (22). The old peasant La Voisin, likewise bereaved, can “sometimes almost fancy” he sees his dead wife “of a still moonlight, walking among these shades she loved so well” (67). After St. Aubert dies and Emily has held a vigil over his corpse, her fancy is “haunted” by his living image: “She thought she saw her father approaching her with a benign countenance; then, smiling mournfully and pointing upwards, his lips moved, but instead of words, she heard sweet music borne on the distant air, and presently saw his features glow with the mild rapture of a superior being” (83). Entering his room when she returns to La Vallée, “the idea of him rose so distinctly to her mind, that she almost fancied she saw him before her” (95). When she and Valancourt sit in the garden, she finds her father's image “in every landscape” (106).

But lovers—those who mourn, as it were, for the living—are subject to similar experiences. The orphaned Emily, about to be carried off by her aunt to Tholouse, having bid a sad farewell to Valancourt in the garden at La Vallée, senses a mysterious presence at large in the shades around her:

As her eyes wandered over the landscape she thought she perceived a person emerge from the groves, and pass slowly along a moon-light alley that led between them; but the distance and the imperfect light would not suffer her to judge with any degree of certainty whether this was fancy or reality.


A haunted lover can do nothing, it seems, but haunt the haunts of the other. To love in the novel is to become ghostly oneself. When Valancourt, defying Madame Montoni's prohibition against meeting Emily, finds his way back to her, he exclaims, “I do then see you once again, and hear again, the sound of that voice! I have haunted this place—these gardens, for many—many nights, with a faint, very faint hope of seeing you” (152). Near the end of the novel, after Emily rejects him for supposed debaucheries, he makes obsessive “mournful wanderings” around her fateful garden: “the vision he had seen [of Emily] haunted his mind; he became more wretched than before, and the only solace of his sorrow was to return in the silence of the night; to follow the paths which he believed her steps had pressed, during the day; and, to watch round the habitation where she reposed” (627).

Such porous lovers, to be sure, may sometimes be mistaken for the cruder, traditional kind of specter. But the lover's ghostliness is somehow more febrile and insistent. Emotionally speaking, it is not susceptible to exorcism. When Emily's gallant suitor Du Pont, the Valancourt-surrogate who appears in the midsection of the novel, traverses the battlements at Udolpho in the hope of seeing her, he is immediately mistaken by the castle guards (who seem to have read Hamlet) for an authentic apparition. He obliges by making eerie sounds, and creates enough apprehension to continue his lovesick “hauntings” indefinitely (459). Similarly, at the end of the fiction, when Emily is brooding once again over the absent Valancourt, her servant Annette suddenly bursts in crying, “I have seen his ghost, madam, I have seen his ghost!” Hearing her garbled story about the arrival of a stranger, Emily, in an acute access of yearning, assumes the “ghost” must be Valancourt (629). It is in fact Ludovico, Annette's own lover, who disappeared earlier from a supposedly haunted room at Chateau-le-Blanc and is presumed dead. Annette's own joy at seeing him, we note, “could not have been more extravagant, had he arisen from the grave” (630). Whoever he is, wherever he is, the lover is always a revenant.

Already, given what we might call Radcliffe's persistently spectralized language, one cannot merely say with aplomb that the supernatural is “explained” in The Mysteries of Udolpho. To speak only of the rationalization of the Gothic mode is to miss one of Radcliffe's most provocative rhetorical gestures. The supernatural is not so much explained in Udolpho as it is displaced. It is diverted—rerouted, so to speak, into the realm of the everyday. Even as the old-time spirit world is demystified, the supposedly ordinary secular world is metaphorically suffused with a new spiritual aura.


Why this pattern of displacement? And why have modern readers so often been impervious to it? The questions are deceptively simple, yet they bear profoundly both on the reception of the novel and the history of Western consciousness. The Mysteries of Udolpho became one of the charismatic texts of late eighteenth-century European culture (a fact all too easily forgotten) not merely because it gratified a passing taste for things Gothic—many contemporary works did this—but because it articulated a new and momentous perception of human experience. Like Rousseau's Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse or Goethe's Werther, which shared a similar shaping influence on contemporary psychic life, the novel owed its vast popularity across Europe to its encompassing emotional power—its paradigmatic role in what one writer has called “the fabrication of romantic sensitivity.”7Udolpho was more than simply fashionable; it encapsulated new structures of feeling, a new model of human relations, a new phenomenology of self and other.

We often sum up such developments, of course, with the phrase romantic individualism. In what follows I will argue that a crucial feature of the new sensibility of the late eighteenth century was, quite literally, a growing sense of the ghostliness of other people. In the moment of romantic self-absorption, the other was indeed reduced to a phantom—a purely mental effect, an image, as it were, on the screen of consciousness itself. The corporeality of the other—his or her actual life in the world—became strangely insubstantial and indistinct: what mattered was the mental picture, the ghost, the haunting image.

The twentieth century, I hope to show, has completely naturalized this historic shift toward the phantasmatic. We are used to the metaphor of the haunted consciousness—indeed hardly recognize it as metaphoric. Often enough, we speak colloquially of being haunted by memories or pursued by images of people inside our heads. In moments of solitude or distress, we may even seek out such “phantoms” for companionship and solace. Not coincidentally, the most influential of modern theories of the mind—psychoanalysis—has internalized the ghost-seeing metaphor: the Freudian account of psychic events, as I will suggest in my conclusion, is as suffused with crypto-supernaturalism as Radcliffe's. Yet this concern with so-called mental apparitions, and the sense we have come to share, thanks to Sigmund Freud, of their potentially daemonic hold over us, is itself the historic product of late eighteenth-century romantic sensibility. Radcliffe's novel remains one of the first and greatest evocations of this new cognitive dispensation—of a new collective absorption in the increasingly vivid, if also hallucinatory, contents of the mind itself. We feel at home in Radcliffe's spectralized landscape, for its ghosts are our own—the symptomatic projections of modern psychic life.

How to recognize that which has become too much a part of us? A series of vignettes, extracted, again, from the supposedly banal parts of the novel, will help to focus our attention on the historical phenomenon I am calling the spectralization of the other: this new obsession with the internalized images of other people. I present these Radcliffean “souvenirs of the other” in a somewhat paradoxical form in order to bring out both the uncanniness of the fictional world and its oddly familiar emotional logic:

  1. To think of the other is to see him. Whenever Emily St. Aubert thinks about her lover, Valancourt, he suddenly appears. This is especially likely to occur even when she (and the reader) have been led to assume he is far away. After Emily's first engagement to Valancourt is broken off by Madame Cheron (later Madame Montoni), Emily is beset by a painful “remembrance of her lover” and fantasies a clandestine reunion: “As she repeated the words—‘should we ever meet again!’—she shrunk as if this was a circumstance, which had never before occurred to her, and tears came to her eyes, which she hastily dried, for she heard footsteps approaching, and the door of the pavilion open, and, on turning, she saw—Valancourt” (127). Later, after escaping from Udolpho, Emily walks in the woods at Chateau-le-Blanc and broods about the time when her father was alive and she had just met Valancourt. Then: “She thought she heard Valancourt speak! It was, indeed, he!” (501).
  2. The other is always present—especially when absent. The familiar “objects of former times,” pressing upon one's notice, writes Radcliffe, make departed loved ones “present” again in memory (92). Hats, books, chairs, rooms, pets, miniatures, gardens, mountains, graves—all possess this affecting metonymic power. Pieces of furniture in the study of the dead St. Aubert bring his “image” forcibly into his daughter's mind (94-98). Elsewhere at La Vallée, Emily finds that her parents seem “to live again” in the various objects in their rooms (591). Picturesque landscapes (La Vallée, the Pyrenees, Languedoc, Chateau-le-Blanc) provoke visions of the person with whom one first saw them (92, 97, 116, 163, 490). Valancourt, as he is about to leave Emily at one point, says to her that they will “meet … in thought” by gazing at the sunset at the same time of day (163). Similarly, by retracing a page in one of Valancourt's books, and “dwelling on the passages, which he had admired,” Emily is able to summon her absent lover “to her presence” again (58). His “vacant chair” prompts an image of him sitting beside her (521), while the garden, with “the very plants, which Valancourt so carefully reared,” supplies further remembrances (583). Graves and grave monuments are obviously the most fascinating and paradoxical relics of the other, for even as they officially confirm absence (and indeed take on all the displaced pathos of the corpse), they also evoke powerful “living” images of the person they memorialize. Forcing herself after an “hour of melancholy indulgence” to leave the site of St. Aubert's grave, Emily remains “attached” to the place in her thoughts, “and for the sacred spot, where her father's remains were interred, she seemed to feel all those tender affections which we conceive for home” (91).
  3. Every other looks like every other other. Characters in Udolpho mirror, or blur into one another. Following the death of her father, Emily is comforted by a friar “whose mild benevolence of manners bore some resemblance to those of St. Aubert” (82). The Count de Villefort's benign presence recalls “most powerfully to her mind the idea of her late father” (492). Emily and Annette repeatedly confuse Du Pont with Valancourt (439-40); Valancourt and Montoni also get mixed up. In Italy Emily gazes at someone she believes to be Montoni who turns out, on second glance, to be her lover (145). But even Emily herself looks like Valancourt. His countenance is the “mirror” in which she sees “her own emotions reflected” (127). She, in turn, also looks like the deceased Marchioness of Villeroi. Dorothée comments on Emily's resemblance to “the late Marchioness” (491). The dying nun Agnes is maddened by it: “it is her very self! Oh! there is all that fascination in her look, which proved my destruction!” (644). This persistent deindividuation of other people produces numerous dreamlike effects throughout the novel. Characters seem uncannily to resemble or to replace previous characters, sometimes in pairs. Even as they assume quasi-parental control over the heroine, M. and Mme. Montoni become, in the mind of the reader, strangely “like” a new and demonic version of M. and Mme. St. Aubert. The Count and Countess de Villefort are a later transformation of the Montoni pair—and of M. and Mme. St. Aubert. Du Pont, of course, is virtually indistinguishable from Valancourt for several chapters. Blanche de Villefort is a kind of replacement-Emily, and her relations with her father replicate those of the heroine and St. Aubert, just as the Chateau-le-Blanc episodes recombine elements from the La Vallée and Udolpho episodes, and so on. The principle of déjà vu dominates both the structure of human relations in Udolpho and the phenomenology of reading.

One is always free, of course, to describe such peculiarly overdetermined effects in purely formal terms. Tzvetan Todorov, for example, would undoubtedly treat this mass of anecdotal material as a series of generic cues—evidence of the fantastic nature of Radcliffe's text. The defining principle of the fantastic work, he posits in The Fantastic, is that “the transition from mind to matter has become possible.8 Ordinary distinctions between fantasy and reality, mind and matter, subject and object, break down. The boundary between psychic experience and the physical world collapses, and “the idea becomes a matter of perception.” “The rational schema,” he writes,

represents the human being as a subject entering into relations with other persons or with things that remain external to him, and which have the status of objects. The literature of the fantastic disturbs this abrupt separation. We hear music, but there is no longer an instrument external to the hearer and producing sounds, on the one hand, and on the other the listener himself. … We look at an object—but there is no longer any frontier between the object, with its shapes and colors, and the observer. … For two people to understand one another, it is no longer necessary that they speak: each can become the other and know what the other is thinking.9

The fantastic universe, he concludes—with a nod to Jean Piaget—is like that of the newborn infant or psychotic. Self and other are not properly distinguished; everything merges—inside and outside, cause and effect, mind and universe—in a vertiginous scene of “cosmic fusion.”10

Radcliffe's fictional world might be described as fantastic in this sense. The mysterious power of loved ones to arrive at the very moment one thinks of them, or else to “appear” when one contemplates the objects with which they are associated—such events blur the line between objective and subjective experience. Magical reunion is possible. Thoughts shape reality. In such instances Radcliffe indeed creates a narrative simulacrum of that sense of omnipotence briefly experienced, according to D. W. Winnicott, in our infancy: wishes seem to come true; the hidden desires of the subject appear to take precedence over logic or natural probability.11

But the fantastic nature of Radcliffe's ontology is also manifest, one might argue, in the peculiar resemblances that obtain between characters in her novel. When everyone looks like everyone else, the limit between mind and world is again profoundly undermined, for such obsessive replication can only occur, we assume, in a universe dominated by phantasmatic imperatives. Mirroring occurs in a world already stylized, so to speak, by the unconscious. Freud makes this point in his famous essay “The Uncanny” in which he takes the proliferation of doubles in E. T. A. Hoffmann's “The Sandman” as proof that the reader is in fact experiencing events from the perspective of the deranged and hallucinating hero.12 And once more, infantile psychic life provides the appropriate analogy. For we can indeed imagine, if not recollect, a stage in our early development at which we did not fully distinguish individuals from one another, or recognize other people as wholly separate beings. Our powers of physiognomic comparison must have once been quite crude, and our sense of the difference between the faces we observed somewhat precarious. Everybody did look like everybody else at one period in our lives. That various forms of literature, and the Gothic and romance in particular, atavistically dramatize this primal stage in human awareness, is an idea implicit, though not fully articulated, in the recent work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.13

The formalist description, however, can only go so far. As the psychoanalytic gloss already intimates, the Todorovian notion of ontological transgression—this breakdown of limits between mind and matter—invites historicization. By invoking Freud or Piaget, we add one kind of diachronic dimension: fantastic works like Udolpho, we imply, return us symbolically to an earlier stage of consciousness, a prior moment in the history of the individual psyche. But we still do not contend with larger shifts in human consciousness itself. Todorov himself makes only a few comments on the place of fantastic themes in the changing psychic history of the West.

For this kind of analysis we must turn elsewhere, though one of Todorov's own remarks will again prove suggestive. He cites the following passage from Freud—

A young woman who was in love with her brother-in-law, and whose sister was dying, was horrified by the thought: “Now he is free and we can be married!” The instantaneous forgetting of this thought permitted the initiation of the process of repression which led to hysterical disturbances. Nonetheless it is interesting to see, in just such a case, how neurosis tends to resolve the conflict. It takes into account the change in reality by repressing the satisfaction of the impulse, in this case, the love for the brother-in-law. A psychotic reaction would have denied the fact that the sister was dying.

And in the last sentence he uncovers one of the central themes of the fantastic: “To think that someone is not dead—to desire it on one hand and to perceive this same fact in reality on the other—are two phases of one and the same movement, and the transition between them is achieved without difficulty.”14 Only the thinnest line separates the experience of wishing for (or fearing) the return of the dead and actually seeing them return. Fantastic works, he argues, repeatedly cross it. Here indeed is the ultimate fantasy of mind over matter.

Just such a fantasy—of a breakdown of the limit between life and death—lies at the heart of Radcliffe's novel and underwrites her vision of experience. To put it quite simply, there is an impinging confusion in Udolpho over who is dead and who is alive. The ambiguity is conveyed by the very language of the novel: in the moment of Radcliffean reverie as we have seen, the dead seem to “live” again, while conversely, the living “haunt” the mind's eye in the manner of ghosts. Life and death—at least in the realm of the psyche—have become peculiarly indistinguishable. Yet it is precisely this essentially fantastic ambiguity that is most in need of historical analysis. Why should it be in a work of the late eighteenth century, especially, that the imaginative boundary between life and death should suddenly become so obscure?


The work of the French historian Philippe Ariès provides, to my mind, the most useful insight into this problem, for he, more than any other recent writer, has speculated on the complex symbolic relationship between life and death in the popular consciousness of recent centuries Ariès's magisterial L'Homme devant la mort, published in 1977 and translated into English as The Hour of Our Death in 1981, is a study of changing attitudes toward death and dying in European culture since the Middle Ages. I cannot do justice here, obviously, to the grand scale of Ariès's project, or to his richly idiosyncratic, even lyrical response to this profound intellectual theme. Let me focus instead merely on one thread of his argument—his assertion that new and increasingly repressive emotional attitudes toward death in the late eighteenth century constituted a major “revolution in feeling” with far-reaching social and philosophic consequences (471). If Ariès is correct, Radcliffe's spectralized sense of the other may be understood as an aspect of a much larger cognitive revolution in Western culture.

In brief, Ariès's hypothesis is this—that in contrast with earlier periods such as the Middle Ages, when physical mortality was generally accepted as an organic, integral and centrally meaningful facet of human existence, late eighteenth-century Western culture was characterized by growing dissociation from corporeal reality, and a new and unprecedented antipathy toward death in all its aspects. Changing affectional patterns, the breakdown of communal social life, and the increasingly individualistic and secular nature of modern experience played an important role, Ariès argues, in engendering this new spirit of alienation. The twentieth century, he claims, has inherited the post-Enlightenment attitude. Through a complex process of displacement, he claims, Western civilization has repressed the body and its exigencies; in the face of death, it retreats into anxious mystification and denial.

Ariès finds, in essence, a new spiritualization of human experience beginning in the late eighteenth century. His evidence for such a shift is twofold. A break with traditional patterns was first apparent, he suggests, in the practical sphere, in the period's obsession with what he calls the “beautiful death”—its concern with hiding or denying the physical signs of mortality and decay. Where death was once a public spectacle of considerable magnitude, it now became primarily a private event, witnessed only by one's closest relations. The cosmetic preservation of the corpse took on a new emotional urgency: the arts of embalming and even mummification (one thinks of Bentham's corpse) became common practices among all but the very lowest classes. Funerals were carried out more and more discreetly. And in contrast with the relaxed practice of earlier centuries, the dead were increasingly segregated from the living. Cemeteries were removed from their once-central locations in cities and towns to outlying areas, and their necrological functions obscured. The romantic “garden of remembrance,” with its idealizing statuary, landscaped walks and prospects, was a quintessentially eighteenth-century invention.15

Just such an urge toward mystification, we note, may be allegorized at various points in Udolpho. It is interesting to find, for example, how many moments in the novel traditionally adduced by critics as classically “Radcliffean” have to do with supposed deaths that have not really taken place, or with corpses that turn out not to be corpses after all. Radcliffe often flirts with an image of physical dissolution, then undoes it. Thus Emily at Udolpho, thinking she has found the dead body of her aunt, follows a trail of blood toward a horrible “something” that turns out to be a pile of old clothes (323). An open grave in the castle crypt is empty (345). A body suddenly jerking under a pall on a bed in the abandoned apartments of the dead Marchioness of Villeroi is found to be a pirate who has hidden there and frightens off intruders in this manner (634). And most strikingly of course, the famous terrifying object under the black veil that Emily thinks is the “murdered body of the lady Laurentini” (248) is a piece of trompe l'oeil: an old wax effigy of a decomposing body “dressed in the habiliments of the grave,” formerly used as a memento mori (662). While such moments provide an undeniable frisson, they also hint at new taboos. Uneasy fascination gives way before the comforting final illusion that there is no such thing as a real corpse. (Radcliffe delicately refers to the memento mori as an example of that “fierce severity, which monkish superstition has sometimes inflicted on mankind” [662]). If we are now inclined to recoil from Radcliffe's ambiguous thanatological artifacts, or indulge in nervous laughter over the “morbid” or “macabre” nature of Gothic literature in general, our responses, if Ariès is correct, merely indicate how much further the process of repression has advanced in our own day.16

But the most important sign of shifting sensibilities in the period, according to Ariès, is the emergence of a “romantic cult of the dead”—a growing subjective fascination with idealized images of the deceased. Older ideas of the afterlife—those of the Middle Ages, for example—had not typically emphasized the possibility of meeting one's family and friends after death. Death meant rupture, a falling asleep, or a falling away into “the peace that passeth understanding.” In the era of romantic individualism, however, the theme of sentimental reunion became paramount. The coming together of husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, or parents and children after death, the blissful renewal of domestic life in a new “home” in the hereafter became staple images in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century popular belief. Consolatory literature, grave inscriptions and monuments, and the keeping of mementos of the dead all bespoke the new fantasy of continuity, while a host of theories, not necessarily theological in origin, regarding the eternal life of disembodied spirits reinforced popular emotion. Death was no longer ugly or frightening, supposedly, because its physical separations were only temporary. Much of nineteenth-century spiritualism, Ariès argues, was simply an extenuation of the notion that the familiar souls of the dead continued to dwell in a nearby invisible realm, invited communication with the living, and awaited a happy future meeting with those who had mourned them in this life (432-60).

He attributes this new and fantastical mode of belief to changing patterns in family structure and the historic transformation of affectional relationships:

The various beliefs in a future life or in the life of memory are in fact so many responses to the impossibility of accepting the death of a loved one. …

In our former, traditional societies affectivity was distributed among a greater number of individuals rather than limited to the members of the conjugal family. It was extended to ever-widening circles, and diluted. Moreover, it was not wholly invested; people retained a residue of affectivity, which was released according to the accidents of life, either as affection or as its opposite, aggression.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, however, affectivity was, from childhood, entirely concentrated on a few individuals, who became exceptional, irreplaceable, and inseparable.


The underlying dream, of course, was that the precious dead were not really dead. He calls this hope the “great religious fact of the whole contemporary era” and notes its continued survival in the late twentieth century, despite all the incursions of “industrial rationalism.” Even in the secular societies of the modern West, interviews with the dying and the recently bereaved reveal the same vestigial hope of an afterlife, “which is not so much the heavenly home as the earthly home saved from the menace of time, a home in which the expectations of eschatology are mingled with the realities of memory” (471). There, all shall be united “with those whom they have never ceased to love” (661).17

A poignant fantasy indeed—but what is perhaps most interesting here is not so much the emotional content per se, but the connection between this affective content and a new kind of introspection. What Ariès's work suggests, it seems to me, is not just a new response to death, but a new mode of thought altogether—a kind of thinking dominated by nostalgic mental images. The fear of death in the modern era prompts an obsessional return to the world of memory—where the dead continue to “live.” But so gratifying are the mind's consoling inner pictures, one becomes more and more transfixed by them—lost, as it were, in contemplation itself. One enters a world of romantic reverie.

Certainly, returning to Radcliffe, we sense both a new anxiety about death, and a new reactive absorption in mental pictures. Radcliffe is fixated, first of all, on the idea of reunion, and dramatizes the romantic fantasy of futurity more explicitly than any previous novelist. Of course dreams of posthumous intimacy had appeared before in eighteenth-century fiction: in Richardson's Clarissa, Anna Howe's affirmation, while grieving over Clarissa's coffin, that they will “meet and rejoice together where no villainous Lovelaces, no hard-hearted relations, will ever shock our innocence, or ruffle our felicity!” anticipates the new sentimental model.18

What is new in Radcliffe, however, is the fervor with which the finality of death is denied. Continuity is all. Thus the dying St. Aubert discoursing on the afterlife with the noble peasant La Voisin:

‘But you believe, sir [says La Voisin], that we shall meet in another world the relations we have loved in this; I must believe this.’ ‘Then do believe it,’ replied St. Aubert, ‘severe, indeed, would be the pangs of separation, if we believed it to be eternal. Look up, my dear Emily, we shall meet again!’ He lifted his eyes toward heaven, and a gleam of moonlight which fell upon his countenance, discovered peace and resignation, stealing on the lines of sorrow.


Later, after her father dies, Emily is comforted by the thought that he indeed “lives” still, invisible yet otherwise unchanged, in a nearby spiritual realm: “‘In the sight of God,’ said Emily, ‘my dear father now exists, as truly as he yesterday existed to me; it is to me only that he is dead; to God and to himself he yet lives!”’ (82) Gazing on his corpse (“never till now seen otherwise than animated”), she fantasizes for a dizzying moment that she sees “the beloved countenance still susceptible,” and soon after has the first of those uncanny mental images of her father's living form (83). His convent tomb rapidly becomes the inviting “home” to which she is repeatedly drawn, and La Vallée—the counter-Udolpho—the privileged site around which his presence seems palpably to linger.19

Nature itself becomes a mere screen—the sublime backdrop against which the potent fancies of mourning are played out. The vast peaks of the Pyrenees, the picturesque valleys of Gascony and Languedoc, even the rocky scenes around Udolpho—all become part of the same elegiac landscape: the zone of reverie itself. Nature in Udolpho sets the stage for phantasmagoric dramas of memory (“‘There, too, is Gascony … O my father,—my mother!”’ [580]) or falls away against a fantastic mental picture of the blissful life to come: “She … fixed her eyes on the heaven, whose blue unclouded concave was studded thick with stars, the worlds, perhaps, of spirits, unsphered of mortal mould. As her eyes wandered along the boundless aether, her thoughts rose, as before, toward the sublimity of the Deity, and to the contemplation of futurity” (72). In either case, the emptiness of the world is filled: “How often did she wish to express to him the new emotions which this astonishing scenery awakened, and that he could partake of them! Sometimes too she endeavoured to anticipate his remarks, and almost imagined him present” (163). One is put in mind here of that patient of Freud's, mentioned in the case history of Schreber, who having “lost his father at a very early age, was always seeking to rediscover him in what was grand and sublime in nature.”20


What Radcliffe articulates so powerfully, as our detour through Ariès helps us to see, is not just the late eighteenth century's growing fear of death, but the way in which this fear was bound up with a new, all-consuming and increasingly irrational cognitive practice. In the Radcliffean thanatopia, immediate sensory experience gives way, necessarily, to an absorption in illusion—an obsessional concentration on nostalgic images of the dead. Yet these recollected “presences,” it turns out, are paradoxically more real, more palpable-seeming, than any object of sense. No external scene, not even the most horrid or riotous, can undermine this absorbing faith in the phantasmatic. Even the castle of Udolpho, where every hallway is plunged in gore, is but the deceptive “vision of a necromancer” and yields before the mind's “fairy scenes of unfading happiness” (444). Unpleasant realities cannot compete with the marvelous projections of memory, love, and desire.

Which is not to say that people in previous epochs had been unaware of, or uninterested in, the mysterious “images” and “pictures” of the mind. Aristotle spoke of phantasmata, and Aquinas of the “corporeal similitudes” present to the memory.21 In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, mental imagery played an important part in the devotional practices of Christianity. Employing the traditional mnemonic techniques known as the “arts of memory,” for example, one might contemplate a certain complex mental image—a house, say, with many adjoining rooms—as a way of remembering an associated sequence of spiritual disciplines or sacred themes.22 And needless to say, though in a somewhat different register, poets and mythographers had invoked the “shapes of fancy” for centuries before The Mysteries of Udolpho.

What emerges so distinctively with Radcliffe in the late eighteenth century, however, is an unprecedented sense of the subjective importance—the ontological weight, if you will—of these phantasmatic inner “pictures.” In earlier times, mental simulacra, especially images of other people, had been clearly distinguished as such—as fanciful, nostalgic, or unreal. (An exception, of course, were the ambiguous visionary phenomena known as ghosts or specters. These uncanny entities were felt to exist outside the self, as real—if not material—objects of sense.)23 At the end of the eighteenth century, however, through a complex process of historical change, phantasmatic objects had come to seem increasingly real: even more real at times than the material world from which they presumably derived. Powerful new fears prompted this valorization of illusion. Above all, as Ariès suggests, a growing cultural anxiety regarding the fate of the body after death conditioned an unprecedented collective flight into fantastic ideation.

Early eighteenth-century popular epistemology, to be sure, had prepared the ground for this conceptual shift. John Locke, interestingly enough, had hinted at the uncanny “life” of mental images in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In the section “Of Retention” (II.x), we may recall, he set out to describe in mechanistic terms the mind's curious ability to bring back into view those sensory impressions “which, after imprinting, have disappeared, or have been, as it were, laid out of sight.” Locke's would-be scientific description of the memory is everywhere confused, however, by an imagery of supernatural reanimation. The mind, he asserts several times, has the power to “revive” its old impressions—i.e., to give back life to the dead. Revived ideas reappear in the mind like revenants:

This further it is to be observed, concerning ideas lodged in the memory, and upon occasion revived by the mind, that they are not only (as the word revive imports) none of them new ones, but also that the mind takes notice of them as of a former impression, and renews its acquaintance with them, as with ideas it had known before.

These strangely “lively” images are in turn bound up with the life of the mind itself. A sad contingency, Locke is forced to admit, is that our ideas can “decay” in times of illness, and crumble like forgotten monuments: “the flames of a fever in a few days calcine all those images to dust and confusion, which seemed to be as lasting as if graved in marble.” But elsewhere he celebrates the mind as a kind of magical daemon or demiurge—one that infuses life, brings back the dead, paints “anew on itself” things that are “actually nowhere.”24

Writers on the imagination—Burke, Hartley, Baillie, and Blair (and after them Wordsworth, Blake, and Coleridge)—took up the transcendental implications of Lockean theory in various programmatic ways throughout the century.25 But it was Radcliffe, without question, who gave the supernaturalized model of mental experience its most charismatic popular brief. She injected the Lockean metaphor of mental reanimation with a rapturous emotional reality. In the ardent, delirious world of Udolpho, the “soaring mind” indeed makes dead things live again, including dead people. Like a new and potent deity, it turns absence into presence, rupture into reunion, sorrow into bliss—aspiring in the end to “that Great First Cause, which pervades and governs all being” (114).

One can speculate, of course, on the wishful content in this new-style devotionalism: to undo the death of another by meditating on his visionary form is also a compelling way of negating one's own death. Romantic mourning gave pleasure, one suspects, precisely because it entailed a magical sense of the continuity and stability of the “I” that mourned. To “see” the dead live again is to know that one too will live forever. Thus at times Radcliffe hints at a peculiar satisfaction to be found in grief. The vision of life-in-death is so beautiful one wants to grieve forever. In the final paragraph of Udolpho, for example, when she hopes that her fiction will help the mourner to “sustain” his sorrow, the subtle ambiguity of the verb suggests the underlying appeal of the new immortalizing habit of thought. Lugeo ergo sum: I mourn, therefore, I am.26

That this supernaturalization of the mind should occur precisely when the traditional supernatural realm was elsewhere being explained away should not surprise us. According to the Freudian principle, what the mind rejects in one form may return to haunt it in another. A predictable inversion has taken place in The Mysteries of Udolpho: what once was real (the supernatural) has become unreal; what once was unreal (the imagery of the mind) has become real. In the very process of reversal, however, the two realms are confused; the archaic language of the supernatural contaminates the new language of mental experience. Ghosts and specters retain their ambiguous grip on the human imagination; they simply migrate into the space of the mind.

The Radcliffean model of mourning nonetheless presents certain problems. The constant denial of physical death results, paradoxically, in an indifference toward life itself. Common sense suggests as much: if one engages in the kind of obsessional reflection that Radcliffe seems to advocate—a thinking dominated by a preoccupation with the notion that the dead are not really dead (because, after all, one can still “see” them)—the real distinction between life and death will ultimately become irrelevant. If the dead appear to be alive in the mind, how does one distinguish between them and one's mental images of the living? Is such a distinction necessary? For, if seeing the dead in visionary form is more comforting than seeing them in the flesh, doesn't it pay to think of the living in this way too? The emotional conviction that the dead “live” in the mind can easily grow into a sense that the living “live” there too—i.e., that one's mental images of other people are more real in some sense, and far more satisfying, than any unmediated confrontation with them could ever be. One can control one's images of other people; their very stability and changelessness seem to offer a powerful antidote to fear. In the end one begins to mourn the living as well as the dead—to “see” them too—but only in this spectral and immutable form. Life and death merge in the static landscape of the mind.

I spoke at the outset of a new sense of the ghostliness of other people emerging in the late eighteenth century. I meant this in two senses. First, as we have seen, the “ghost” of the dead or absent person, conceived as a kind of visionary image or presence in the mind, takes on a new and compelling subjective reality. In the moment of romantic absorption, one is conscious of the other as a kind of mental phantom, an idée fixe, a source of sublime and life-sustaining emotion. But this subjective valorization of the phantasmatic has a profound effect on actual human relations. Real human beings become ghostly too—but in an antithetical sense, in the sense that they suddenly seem insubstantial and unreal.27 The terrible irony—indeed the pathology—of the romantic vision is that even as other people come to hold a new and fascinating eminence in the mind, they cease to matter as individuals in the flesh. One no longer desires to experience flesh at all, for this is precisely what has become so problematic. The direct corporeal experience of other people, what Locke called “bare naked perception”—seeing, touching, smelling, tasting, hearing the other—has become emotionally intolerable, thanks to the new and overwhelming fear of loss and separation. Real people, needless to say, change, decay, and ultimately die before our eyes. The successful denial of mortality thus requires a new spectralized mode of perception, in which one sees through the real person, as it were, towards a perfect and unchanging spiritual essence. Safely subsumed in this ghostly form, the other can be appropriated, held close, and cherished forever in the ecstatic confines of the imagination.

We have seen certain consequences of this cognitive reorientation in the mummified emotional world of Udolpho. Absence is preferable to presence. (An absent loved one, after all, can be present in the mind. One is not distracted by his actual presence.) The dead are more interesting than the living. (If the dead are alive in Udolpho, the living might as well as dead.) Objects are more compelling than people. (Objects evoke memories; people disturb them.) But most unsettlingly perhaps, living individuals—as opposed to the visionary forms of the mind—are curiously inconsequential. A new indeterminacy enters into human relationships. Is so and so who he claims to be? He looks like St. Aubert. He makes me see the ghost of St. Aubert; I must really be with St. Aubert. Other people seem bizarrely amorphous—lacking in specificity. Anyone can summon up the image of another. Everyone reminds us of someone else.

It's an interesting question, of course, whether the habit of seeing those who aren't there, once firmly established, can ever be broken. No one, certainly, seems able to give it up in Udolpho. For Radcliffe's heroes and heroines, visionary experience of this kind has become indistinguishable from consciousness itself. The issue persists, however, as a historical problem. For once mental images have been linked with powerful subjective fantasies, such as the wish for immortality, can their strange hold on us ever be weakened? Put most bluntly, do we not continue to exhibit the fantastic, nostalgic, and deeply alienating absorption in phantasmatic objects dramatized in Radcliffe's novel?

That we take for granted the uncanny Radcliffean metaphor of the haunted consciousness is one proof, it seems to me, that the romantic habit of thought has not gone away. Indeed the preference for the phantasmatic may have strengthened its grip on Western consciousness over the past two centuries. Even more than Radcliffe and her contemporaries, we seek to deny our own corporeality and the corporeality of others; even more deeply than they, we have come to cherish the life of the mind over life itself. What The Mysteries of Udolpho shows so plainly—could we begin to acknowledge it—is the denatured state of our own awareness: our antipathy toward the body and its contingencies, our rejection of the present, our fixation on the past (or yearnings for an idealized future), our longing for simulacra and nostalgic fantasy. We are all in love with what isn't there.

The reader may object that the kind of illusionism that Radcliffe advocates is clearly an aberration: we all know that our mental fabrications are not “real,” and have a name for what happens when we lose this knowledge: psychosis. Yet, as the history of attitudes toward death suggests, it is precisely the distinction between so-called normal and psychotic patterns of belief that has become increasingly confused since the eighteenth century. The everyday has come to seem fantastic; and the fantastic more and more real.

In a much longer study, it would be possible to document the growth of this psychic confusion in more detail. Nineteenth-century romanticism, for example, undoubtedly owes much to the new belief in the reality of mental objects. Indeed, the celebrated romantic concept of the creative imagination is itself a displaced affirmation of faith in “life” of one's mental perceptions. Certain tendencies in nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophical thought may likewise arise out of a similar emotional shift toward the phantasmatic. In particular the rise of modern skepticism—and the fact that we have come to speculate about the nature of reality with an urgency and insistence unknown to our forebears—may paradoxically have resulted from a subliminal faith in the reality of thoughts: for only when mental phenomena assume a powerful and disorienting emotional presence does the boundary between mind and world in turn become a pressing, philosophical problem. Finally, any study of the spectralizing habit in modern times would have to take into consideration what might be called its technological embodiment: our compulsive need, since the mid-nineteenth century, to invent machines that mimic and reinforce the image-producing powers of consciousness. Only out of a deep preference for the phantoms of the mind, perhaps, have we felt impelled to find mechanical techniques for remaking the world itself in spectral form. Photography was the first great breakthrough—a way of possessing material objects in a strangely decorporealized yet also supernaturally vivid form. But still more bizarre forms of spectral representation have appeared in the twentieth century—the moving pictures of cinematography and television, and recently, the eerie, three-dimensional phantasmata of holography:28


In lieu of any such extended investigation, however, let me conclude with some remarks that may point up in a more suggestive way the preeminence of the spectralizing habit in modern Western consciousness. Apart from that of Ann Radcliffe, the most important ghost haunting this essay has perhaps been that of Sigmund Freud, whose description of psychic experience and the uncanny offers an interesting perspective on the theme of the supernatural in The Mysteries of Udolpho. And yet to think of Freud and the invention of psychoanalysis is to see what one might call the Radcliffean paradox inscribed in a new form. Freud, of course, like Radcliffe, often felt compelled to explain the supernatural. The following passage from The Interpretation of Dreams is as complacent (and amusing) a rationalization as anything to be found in Udolpho:

Robbers, burglars, and ghosts, of whom some people feel frightened before going to bed, and who sometimes pursue their victims after they are asleep, all originate from one and the same class of infantile reminiscence. They are the nocturnal visitors who rouse children and take them up to prevent their wetting the bed, or lift the bedclothes to make sure where they have put their hands in their sleep. Analyses of some of these anxiety-dreams have made it possible for me to identify these nocturnal visitors more precisely. In every case the robbers stood for the sleeper's father, whereas the ghosts corresponded to female figures in white nightgowns.29

Ghosts, for Freud, have ceased to exist anywhere but in the mind: they are representatives (in white nightgowns) of “infantile reminiscence”—visitants from the realm of unconscious memory and fantasy. The psychoanalyst supposedly has the power to raise these troubling specters—yet in a controlled fashion—and exorcise them. In the course of the therapeutic process, Freud observed, the analyst “conjures into existence a piece of real life,” calling up those shapes from the “psychical underworld” that have begun to obsess or disturb the patient.30 These figures carry with them all the frightening “power of hallucination,” but can ultimately be laid to rest by the skillful clinician.31

Or can they? The crucial stage in Freudian analysis is the moment of transference—when the analyst himself suddenly appears before the patient as a ghost: “the return, the reincarnation, of some important figure out of his childhood or past.”32 At this stage the patient experiences a near-total “recoil from reality” and responds to the analyst as a “re-animated” form of the “infantile image.”33 It is up to the analyst to draw the patient out of his “menacing illusion” and show him that “what he takes to be real new life is a reflection of the past.”34

There is a tremendous paradox, however, in the central Freudian notion that by calling up ghosts one will learn, so to speak, to let go of them. Psychoanalysis proposes that we dwell upon what isn't there, the life of fantasy, precisely as a way of freeing ourselves from it. Yet can such a liberation ever really take place? Freud himself, it turns out, was often strangely uncertain whether the process of transference could ever be completely resolved, and sometimes hinted that for certain patients the spectral forms of the past might continue to haunt them indefinitely.35 In his most pessimistic statement on the matter, the essay “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” written late in his career, he even began to entertain the notion that the idea of a “natural end” to analysis might itself be an illusion and “the permanent settlement of an instinctual demand” an impossible task.36

The problem, of course, is that even as it tries to undo it, psychoanalysis recreates the habit of romantic spectralization in a new and intensified form. Freud's goal was to help his patients escape the sense of being “possessed” by the past—yet his very method involves an almost Radcliffean absorption in the phantasmatic. One denies ghosts by raising them up, frees oneself of one's memories by remembering, escapes the feeling of neurotic derealization by plunging into an unreal reverie. That such a paradoxical process should inspire mixed results should not surprise us. Seen in historical terms, as an offshoot of the radically introspective habit of mind initiated in the late eighteenth century, psychoanalysis seems both the most poignant critique of romantic consciousness to date, and its richest and most perverse elaboration.

It may be that any attempt to domesticate the daemonic element in human life will inevitably result in its recurrence in a more intense and chronic form. Ann Radcliffe, as we have seen, dismissed at a blow the age-old vagaries of Western superstition, and sought, in The Mysteries of Udolpho, to create a new human landscape: one in which no primitive spirits harassed the unwary, and no horror—even that of death itself—could disrupt the rational pleasures of the soul. Yet, as would be the case with Freud later, this urge toward exorcism created its own recoil effect, a return of irrationality where it was least expected—in the midst of ordinary life itself. This effect, even now, is difficult to acknowledge. No wonder we prefer to reduce Radcliffe to banalities; to see the full depth of illusion in her work would be to acknowledge our own predicament. Ann Radcliffe explained many things, but she also saw ghosts, and in these we too, perhaps, continue to believe.


  1. Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), p. 606. All citations are from this translation; parenthetical notation refers to page numbers in this edition.

  2. Sir Walter Scott, Lives of Eminent Novelists and Dramatists (London: Frederick Warne, 1887), p. 568.

  3. Because Austen made it so difficult to take certain aspects of Udolpho seriously, modern critics have often refused to take any aspect of the novel seriously. Certainly Radcliffe can be vulgar in the extreme, but her impact on the modern life of the emotions cannot be dismissed. It is one aim of the present essay to read Radcliffe against the current Austenian caricature, and to restore to view the powerful current of feeling in her work, however awkwardly or crudely this feeling is expressed.

  4. See Montague Summers, The Gothic Quest: A History of the Gothic Novel (New York: Russell & Russell, 1964), p. 139; J.M.S. Tompkins, The Popular Novel in England 1770-1800 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961), p. 261; and Andrew Lang, Adventures Among Books (London: Longman's, Green & Co., 1905), p. 127.

  5. All citations are from the World's Classics edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho, ed. Bonamy Dobrée, notes by Frederick Garber (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966). Parenthetical notation refers to page numbers in this edition.

  6. See, for example, Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 78; and among psychoanalytic and feminist critics, Norman Holland and Leona Sherman, “Gothic Possibilities,” New Literary History 8 (1976-77): 279-94; Claire Kahane, “The Gothic Mirror,” in The (M)Other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation, ed. Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengnether (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 334-51; Mary Poovey, “Ideology and ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho,’” Criticism 21 (Fall 1979): 307-30; and Cynthia Griffin Wolff, “The Radcliffean Gothic Model: A Form for Feminine Sexuality,” Modern Language Studies 9 (1979): 98-113.

  7. See Robert Darnton, “Readers Respond to Rousseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensitivity,” in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Random House, 1985), pp. 215-56. On Udolpho's contemporary appeal, see J.M.S. Tompkins, Ann Radcliffe and Her Influence on later Writers (New York: Arno Press, 1980) and the Dobrée introduction to the Oxford edition.

  8. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 114.

  9. Todorov, The Fantastic, pp. 116-17.

  10. Todorov, The Fantastic, p. 118.

  11. D.W. Winnicott, Home is Where We Start From: Essays by a Psychoanalyst, ed. Clare Winnicott, Ray Shepherd, and Madeleine Davis (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986), p. 30.

  12. Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny” (1919), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), XVII. 218-52.

  13. In “Imagery of the Surface in the Gothic Novel” (PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association] 96 [March 1981]: 255-70), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick suggests that Gothic fiction typically presents “a (novelistic) world of faces where the diacritical code is poor”—i.e., where the differences between characters' physiognomies are so slight as to challenge the “fiction of presence” the novel also tries to ensure. One effect of this impoverished physiognomic code, she writes, is to create “unbounded confusions of identity along a few diacritical axes: any furrowed man will be confusable with any other furrowed man (Schedoni with Zampari with Zeluca, for example), and so forth” (p. 263). Sedgwick's rigorously poststructuralist perspective forbids her to interpret this phenomenon in any psychological sense (she treats it instead as a formal convention—part of the play of the “surface” in Gothic fiction), but a fruitful connection might nonetheless be made, following the developmental model of Freud and Piaget, between such “confusability” and the early stages of cognitive perception in the human infant.

  14. Todorov, The Fantastic, p. 148.

  15. See Ariès, Hour of Our Death, chaps. 10 and 11, esp. pp. 409-11 and 475-99. On the relocation of cemeteries see also Richard A. Etlin, The Architecture of Death: The Transformation of the Cemetery in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985).

  16. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (New York: Arno, 1980), takes modern critics like Lowry Nelson and Robert Heilman to task for speaking of the sinister ambiance of Gothic fiction as “mere decor,” “stage-set,” “claptrap,” and so on. In so doing, she argues, they fail to see that objects such as bloodstained veils, burial crypts, and open graves actually serve complex formal functions in the fictions in which they appear. While this is certainly true, Sedgwick misses a more obvious point: that the twentieth-century urge to trivialize may have something to do with the fact that the typical Gothic setting foregrounds precisely those artifacts—tombs, corpses, shrouds and so on—that modern society now views with particular fear and revulsion. The very assertion that such details are silly or melodramatic—or even as Sedgwick herself puts it, merely “formal” elements—suggests something of the extreme emotional defensiveness that the death-obsessed Gothic milieu now inspires. We have accustomed ourselves to finding hidden sexual plots in Gothic fiction (and indeed delight in them); we have still not reconciled ourselves, however, to its far more obvious concern with death and dissolution.

  17. Ariès's description of romantic mourning, it should be noted, is very close indeed to the picture of chronic or disordered mourning familiar to modern psychology. Freud spoke of the inability to let go of mental images of a dead loved one (“loss of interest in the outside world—in so far as it does not recall the dead one”) as one of the classic symptoms of normal grief in his famous essay “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917). He also noted, however, that this obsessional state might be unnaturally prolonged if the mourner possessed strongly ambivalent feelings toward the dead loved one. Modern clinicians, notably in Britain, have enlarged on this Freudian notion of chronic grief in a number of recent case studies. See in particular Geoffrey Gorer's Death, Grief and Mourning in Contemporary Britain (London: Tavistock Publications, 1965) and John Bowlby's magisterial Attachment and Loss (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 3 vols.

  18. Samuel Richardson, Clarissa: or, the History of a Young Lady, ed. Angus Ross (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985), p. 1403. Compare also Tony Tanner's comments on the theme of sentimental reunion in Rousseau in Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), pp. 144-46.

  19. Emily St. Aubert's sensation that her father's corpse still moves resembles the fantasy frequently held by children faced with death—i.e., that the dead body can somehow be made to move again. Likewise, the vision of the tomb as a home is also close to the projections of young children, who as Bowlby points out, often believe that by dying themselves they can be reunited with a dead parent. See Loss: Sadness and Depression (Vol. 1 of Attachment and Loss), pp. 274 and 354-58.

  20. Sigmund Freud, “Psychoanalytic Notes Upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia” (1911), in Three Case Histories, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963), p. 155. For a further development of the notion that the cultivation of sublime emotion can be a paradoxical psychic mechanism for obviating loss or threats to the self, see Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 17-18, 137-45, and 157-58; and Neil Hertz, “The Notion of Blockage in the Literature of the Sublime,” in The End of the Line (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), pp. 40-60.

  21. On Aquinian notions of mental imagery see Jonathan D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (New York: Viking Penguin, 1984), p. 13.

  22. See Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (New York: Penguin Books, 1969); and Spence, Memory Palace, pp. 1-23.

  23. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), p. 587.

  24. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. and abr. A.D. Woozley (London: Wm. Collins Sons, 1964), pp. 123, 125, and 124-25.

  25. See M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), pp. 62-63; and Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime, pp. 17-19.

  26. Burke, as Radcliffe probably knew, also wrote of the curious satisfaction to be found in grief: “The person who grieves, suffers his passion to grow upon him; he indulges it, he loves it: but this never happens in the case of actual pain, which no man ever willingly endured for any considerable time.” And Burke too connected this pleasure with certain self-affirming mental operations: “It is the nature of grief to keep its object perpetually in its eye, to present it in its most pleasurable views, to repeat all the circumstances that attend it, even to the last minuteness …” See Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. J.T. Boulton (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1958), p. 37.

  27. I purposefully echo the title of Fredric Bogel's Literature and Insubstantiality in Later Eighteenth-Century England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984). This rich discussion of “the perception of insubstantiality” in later eighteenth-century English literature relates in interesting ways to the concerns of the present essay.

  28. Iconic images have always been used to inspire visions of the dead or absent. What have changed are the forms of commemorative imagery and the technological means by which such images are produced. In Udolpho characters habitually use small painted portraits of loved ones to evoke nostalgic thoughts: Du Pont steals a miniature picture of Emily and uses it throughout the novel as a sentimental aide-mémoire; St. Aubert keeps a miniature of his dead sister for a similar purpose; the nun Agnes has yet another miniature of the same woman, with whom she is obsessed. Because of its size and portability, the miniature had become the natural accessory to romantic mourning by the late eighteenth century: a talismanic device, so to speak, through which one might enter the idealizing space of the memory. As the capacity for image-reproduction improved in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the invention of photography and similar processes, so undoubtedly was the spectralizing habit itself reinforced. What I am suggesting, however, is that the preference for mental imagery may in some sense have preceded and conditioned this new technology: that the very pattern of human invention was determined by preexisting emotional needs. On the role of commemorative objects in modern bourgeois culture, see also Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984).

  29. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey (New York: Avon Books, 1965), p. 439.

  30. The phrase “a conjuring into existence of a piece of real life” is from the essay “Recollection, Repetition and Working Through” (1914), trans. Joan Rivière, in Therapy and Technique, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963), p. 162. Freud also uses the conjuring metaphor at several points in “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” (1937), reprinted in the Rieff volume. The phrase “psychical underworld” is from this last essay, p. 249.

  31. Freud, “Dynamics of the Transference” (1912), trans. Joan Rivière, in Therapy and Technique, p. 114.

  32. Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1949), p. 31.

  33. Freud, “Dynamics of the Transference,” pp. 108-9.

  34. Freud, Outline of Psychoanalysis, p. 34.

  35. See Freud, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” on “the still unresolved residues of transference,” pp. 236-38.

  36. Freud, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” p. 242.

D. L. Macdonald (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4049

SOURCE: “Bathos and Repetition: The Uncanny in Radcliffe,” in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 197-204.

[In the following essay, Macdonald studies Radcliffe's use of repetition and her protagonist's reactions to fantastical occurrences as evidence that the author overly-explains and rationalizes supernatural episodes.]

The defining characteristic of the fantastic as a literary genre, according to Tzvetan Todorov, is the hesitation or uncertainty it produces in the reader (and sometimes in the characters) as to the fictional reality of supernatural phenomena. The genre thus defined is extremely small: usually the supernatural events are either explained away, so that the fantastic becomes merely uncanny, or verified, so that it becomes marvelous (Todorov 25).

Richard Howard translates Todorov's étrange as uncanny because Todorov himself invokes Freud's conception of the unheimlich, though he notes that “there is not an entire coincidence between Freud's use of the term and [his] own” (Todorov 47). Indeed, in the lexicographic section of his paper on “The ‘Uncanny,’” Freud suggests a number of French equivalents for unheimlich, including inquiétant, sinistre, lugubre, and mal à son aise, but not étrange (Freud 17: 221). Much of Freud's paper, moreover, is devoted to considering whether the uncanny might not be equivalent to what Todorov calls the fantastic—whether it depends on the “intellectual uncertainty” (17: 221) the writer creates “by not letting us know … whether he is taking us into the real world or into a purely fantastic [or, as Todorov would say, marvelous] one of his own creation” (17: 230), by “keep[ing] us in the dark for a long time about the precise nature of the presuppositions on which the world he writes about is based, or … cunningly and ingeniously avoid[ing] any definite information on the point to the last” (17: 251). His conclusion that this almost never happens, so that the uncanny cannot depend on it, is not so far from Todorov's contention that the pure fantastic almost always gives way to the uncanny or the marvelous.

Todorov's distinction between the uncanny and the marvelous corresponds directly to a distinction already drawn in the Romantic period, between the explained and the unexplained supernatural (Todorov 41-42). Ann Radcliffe was considered the foremost exponent of the former Gothic mode, as M.G. Lewis was of the latter.

In Radcliffe's most famous novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), as in almost all her other works, the fantastic events are ultimately all explained away as merely uncanny. They are also comparatively few to begin with. The mysterious music heard in the woods near Chateau-le-Blanc turns out to be the “only amusement” of the demented Sister Agnes Laurentini, whose physician has recommended it “as the only means of soothing her distempered fancy”; its uncanny loveliness is accounted for by her being Italian (661). The similar music heard at Udolpho, the appearances on the battlements, and the voice which twice interrupts Montoni, all turn out to be produced by the imprisoned Monsieur Du Pont, singing to while away the time, walking on the battlements for fresh air and exercise, and speaking from secret passages to confound his captors. The occurrences in and around the bedroom of the deceased Marchioness de Villeroi at Chateau-le-Blanc—the face in her bed, which frightens Emily and Dorothée when they first enter her room; the apparition on the landing, which terrifies a servant, and the disappearance of Ludovico, who has volunteered to spend a night in the room to prove it is not haunted—turn out to be the work of pirates, who have made the chateau appear to be haunted so that they can store their treasure there without fear of detection.

Some of these explanations do not occur for hundreds of pages after the events they explain, but the events themselves are always undercut on their first occurrence. The story of the music at Chateau-le-Blanc immediately strikes Emily as a “ridiculous superstition” (68), though it soon makes her shrink with “superstitious dread” (71), and, after the death of her father, chills her with “superstitious awe” (84). The music at Udolpho, largely because it reminds her of the earlier music, again inspires “superstitious dread” (330). The apparition on the battlements makes “the terrors of superstition” pervade her mind (371). The apparition in the bed at Chateau-le-Blanc “affect[s] Emily's imagination with a superstitious awe” (537). These are all the judgements not only of Emily but of the omniscient narrator, who also informs the reader that the disappearance of Ludovico has nothing to do with spirits, except that “the mystery, … by exciting awe and curiosity, reduced the mind to a state of sensibility, which rendered it more liable to the influence of superstition in general” (562). A superstition is by definition untrue; by immediately characterizing all these terrors as superstitious, the narrator makes it impossible for the reader (if not for the characters) even to hesitate over the question of the reality of the supernatural. The fantastic, in Todorov's sense, is strictly excluded from Radcliffe; it would be more appropriate to employ her own terminology and speak of the mysterious: the narrator's repeated assurances that Emily's terrors and confusions are superstitious do still leave something to be explained.

Most of Radcliffe's readers have found that the explanations, when they come, have a bathetic rather than a satisfying effect. In his Idée sur les romans (1800), Sade juxtaposed the opposite but equal aesthetic disadvantages of the explained and unexplained supernatural—of the uncanny and the marvelous, in Todorov's terms: once the supernatural has been invoked, it is necessary “either to explain away [développer] all the magic elements, and from then on to be interesting no longer, or never raise the curtain [lever le rideau], and there you are in the most horrible unreality” (Fairclough 14). Radcliffe's problem, of course, is the former: a ghost, however thoroughly called into question, is more interesting (at least, according to the hierarchy of interests the novel takes for granted) than a pirate or a demented nun.

The novel, in fact, foregrounds its own bathetic structure. Just as its mysteries are accompanied by assurances of their speciousness, so its explanations are accompanied by acknowledgements of their bathos. One of the first mysteries of the novel, and one of the most quickly explained, is an apparition in St. Aubert's study after his death; it turns out to be the family dog (95-96). No explicit acknowledgement of the bathos seems necessary here. Later, summing up her experiences at Udolpho, Emily smiles ironically and says: “I perceive … that all old mansions are haunted; I am lately come from a place of wonders; but unluckily, since I left it, I have heard almost all of them explained” (491). At this point, the mysteries of Chateau-le-Blanc have not yet been explained; when they are,

Emily could not forbear smiling at this explanation of the deception, which had given her so much superstitious terror, and was surprised, that she could have suffered herself to be thus alarmed, till she considered, that, when the mind has once begun to yield to the weakness of superstition, trifles impress it with the force of conviction.


The bathos is clearly satiric—just as clearly as in Northanger Abbey—and the satire reinforces the novel's didacticism. It is “a state of sensibility,” the narrator says which renders the mind liable to the influence of superstition (562), and St. Aubert's deathed speech to his daughter is above all a warning against “the dangers of sensibility” (79-80). As David Durant points out, Emily's experiences simply confirm her father's advice—so conclusively, and the household she and Valancourt finally establish reconstitutes her father's household so thoroughly, that the novel is circular (Durant 525-26). This is one reason why it can be so long: since Emily learns nothing she does not already know from her experiences, there is no reason for them not to repeat themselves over and over—as they do (Freud 18: 18). Since nothing is happening in the novel, there is no reason for it ever to stop. (The other main reason for its length is its extensive use of the rhetoric of the sublime, which intensifies, by contrast, the bathos of the narrative.)

The novel's use of bathos extends beyond the treatment of superstition. Many of the examples of it, moreover, are repeated. On their excursion in the Pyrenees, St. Aubert and Emily think they are being attacked by banditti; St. Aubert shoots one of them, who turns out to be Valancourt. Over five hundred pages later, back at La Vallée, the unfortunate Valancourt is mistaken for a robber, and shot, again.

Soon after the first shooting of Valancourt, the travelers see approaching what appears to be a band of smugglers, and are apprehensive about the encounter; it is a band of smugglers, but they have already been apprehended by the authorities and are on their way to prison under guard. Later, at Udolpho, Emily is alarmed by the approach of a troop of condottieri, who pass the castle without displaying the least interest in it.

At Udolpho, Emily is terrified by a noise at her door in the middle of the night; it turns out to be only Annette, who has fainted because she thinks she has seen a ghost, which turns out to be Montoni's outlawed friend Orsino. At Chateau-le-Blanc, Emily is terrified again by a noise at her door in the middle of the night; it turns out to be one of the Count's servants, who has fainted because she thinks she has seen a ghost, which turns out to be one of the pirates.

A whole series of bathetic events is associated with Emily's fear of Count Morano. Awakened in the middle of the night in Montoni's palazzo in Venice, Emily is afraid that Montoni is about to force her to marry Morano; in fact, he is only about to take her to Udolpho. She assumes that the purpose of the trip is to allow a secret wedding, and on the morning after her arrival, when Annette asks her to guess who else has shown up at the castle, she immediately guesses that it is Morano, and almost faints; it turns out to be only Ludovico, a character whom neither Emily nor the reader has even met. When Morano finally does show up at Udolpho, and even penetrates into Emily's bedroom at night, Montoni actually intervenes to save his niece. The incident is repeated when Morano tries to have Emily kidnapped by Barnardine the porter.

The whole series is repeated, or mirrored, in the events associated with Emily's belief that Valancourt is also a prisoner at Udolpho. When she hears Du Pont sing the song she once heard in her parents' fishing-house at La Vallée, Emily assumes he must be Valancourt, although she has never heard Valancourt sing and had not met Valancourt when she heard the song in the fishing-house. (It turns out, of course, to have been Du Pont singing in the fishing-house too.) When Annette later hears the singing, she agrees that it must be Valancourt, although she has never heard him sing either. The concurrence of so consistently deluded a character is virtually enough to discredit the belief all by itself: it is the dramatic equivalent of the narrator's warning term superstitious. The didactic point of the mirroring seems to be that wishful thinking and fearful thinking are equally doomed to disappointment. (The two are not so different, since superstition is not only an effect of ignorance, fatigue, and harassment, but also an expression of “that love, so natural to the human mind, of whatever is able to distend its faculties with wonder and astonishment” [549].)

The hesitation that Todorov considers essential to the fantastic is simply, as Christine Brooke-Rose points out, the reader's (or a character's) response to some ambiguity, and the use of ambiguity in the fantastic does not differ significantly from its use in other narrative contexts (Brooke-Rose 65). Radcliffe's use of the fantastic or mysterious is placed in a larger context not only of bathos, but also of ambiguity. Yet another matching pair of incidents thematizes the reader's response to ambiguity, as Poe does later (though more spectacularly and less bathetically) in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (Todorov 47-48). At Udolpho, Annette is telling Emily the story of how Caterina, the caretaker's wife, was frightened by strange noises in the castle, when she herself is so frightened by strange noises that she has to stop. They turn out to be made by Caterina, who has come to fetch Annette for Madame Montoni. In the Marchioness's apartment at Chateau-le-Blanc, Ludovico sits up late reading a ghost story while waiting to disappear. Like his lover Annette, he is repeatedly interrupted by strange noises which mysteriously match the supernatural noises within his story, but which turn out to be natural, and external to the chateau as well as to the story: they are caused by the wind whistling round the chateau and shaking the casements.

Other uses of ambiguity are less trivial. Near the beginning of the novel, Emily and Montoni have a whole conversation, and Emily even writes a postscript to a letter, in which she thinks she is referring to renting La Vallée and he thinks (or pretends to think) she is referring to marrying Morano. The ambiguity arises from the high-minded generalities in which Emily habitually expresses herself (195-96). Near the end of the novel, Emily confronts Valancourt with the reports she has heard of his conduct in Paris; or, to be precise, she declines to do so: the reports, “Being such as Emily could not name to the Chevalier, he had no opportunity of refuting them; and, when he confessed himself to be unworthy of her esteem, he little suspected, that he was confirming to her the most dreadful calumnies” (653). The ambiguity in this case arises from the difficulty of speaking about the unspeakable.

The unspeakable is also involved in the two major mysteries of the novel. On his deathbed, St. Aubert asks his daughter to burn some of his papers without examining them; taking them from their hiding-place, however, she absent-mindedly glances over them and reads “a sentence of dreadful import” (103). Even the narrator never says what it is, but it is enough to make Emily wonder (though only momentarily) whether she should investigate further at the cost of disobeying her father's solemn injunction and breaking her own solemn promise. At Udolpho, Emily is intrigued by the mystery of the picture behind the black veil, which even the loquacious Annette finds almost unspeakable (233). Emily lifts the veil, finds “that what it had concealed was no picture,” and faints (248-49). This mystery, unlike that of the dreadful sentence, is cleared up, but not for over four hundred pages. In the meantime, the two unspeakable mysteries are brought together in Emily's memory. In a conversation with Dorothée at Chateau-le-Blanc,

she remembered the spectacle she had witnessed in a chamber of Udolpho, and, by an odd kind of coincidence, the alarming words, that had accidentally met her eye in the MS. papers, which she had destroyed, in obedience to the command of her father; and she shuddered at the meaning they seemed to impart, almost as much as at the horrible appearance, disclosed by the black veil.


These two unspeakable mysteries, unlike the novel's other mysteries, are not even speciously supernatural; nevertheless, they not only dominate but sum up the effects of all the others. The lifting of the veil becomes a symbol of Radcliffe's explanations (Sade accordingly uses the terms développer and lever le rideau). The reading of the dreadful sentence stands neatly for the reading of the novel itself.

The mystery of the dreadful sentence has something to do with a woman whom Emily's father once loved. By the time she comes to associate it with the mystery of the veil, Emily has begun to suspect that this woman, the Marchioness, may be her mother; or, to be precise, she would have begun to suspect it if the suspicion had not been unspeakable and even unthinkable:

Her faith in St. Aubert's principles would scarcely allow her to suspect that he had acted dishonourably; and she felt such reluctance to believe herself the daughter of any other, than her, whom she had always considered and loved as a mother, that she would hardly admit such a circumstance to be possible.


(The novel is surprisingly frank about its own repressions.) In short, the sentence is part of what Mary Laughlin Fawcett has called “Udolpho's Primal Mystery”: not only a sexual secret but the secret of Emily's own conception.

The mystery of the veil is equally primal. When Emily first lifts the veil, she sees (as we eventually learn) a horrible waxwork,

a human figure of ghastly paleness, stretched at its length, and dressed in the habiliments of the grave. What added to the horror of the spectacle, was, that the face appeared partly decayed and disfigured by worms, which were visible on the features and hands.


Later, searching for Madame Montoni, she finds herself in a disused torture chamber where “a dark curtain, … descending from the ceiling to the floor, was drawn along the whole side of the chamber.” It reminds her (as well as the reader) of “the terrible spectacle her daring hand had formerly unveiled,” but she draws the curtain anyway, and discovers “a corpse, stretched on a kind of low couch, which was crimsoned with human blood, as was the floor beneath. The features, deformed by death, were ghastly and horrible, and more than one livid wound appeared in the face” (348). She faints again, as she had when she lifted the veil. Later still, she enters the room where her aunt has been imprisoned, draws the bed curtains, and discovers Madame Montoni, pale, emaciated as a skeleton, and on the point of death. Later still, in the bedroom of her other aunt, the Marchioness, she sees the black bedspread “violently agitated,” and a face appears above it (536). Emily and Dorothée flee in terror. In each case Emily has intruded into a forbidden room and drawn a curtain to look at a bed. In one, she sees what she takes for an apparition of the woman whom she so conspicuously declines to suspect is her mother; in another, she really sees Madame Montoni, who really is a substitute for her mother, though a ludicrously inadequate one. The first body is being attacked by phallic worms; the second is soaked with hymeneal blood and gaping with vaginal wounds; the last bed is still disturbed by the violent agitations of copulation (Fawcett 487-88).

Leslie Fiedler sees the substitution of death for sex as the defining characteristic of the gothic (Fiedler 134; Fawcett 482). Todorov sees in the eroticism of the fantastic a progression from promiscuity through perversion to sadism and necrophilia, though he curiously declines to postulate a meaning or theoretical rationale for this progression, contenting himself with an associative empirical presentation (Todorov 124-39). Radcliffe's novel abundantly illustrates the substitution of death for sex, and also provides a meaning for such a substitution: the child stumbling on the primal scene typically mistakes it for a scene of violence (Freud 17: 45 and n.).

Radcliffe's child, however, also makes another mistake, or rather (as one might expect) a whole series of mistakes, which reveals a curious defect in Radcliffe's presentation of the primal scene. With one exception, Emily is always wrong about the gender of the figure in the bed: the waxwork represents the dead body of a Marquis of Udolpho, but she takes it for that of Signora Laurentini; the corpse in the torture chamber is that of a soldier, but she takes it for that of her aunt; the face in the Marchioness's bed is that of a pirate, but she takes it for an apparition of the Marchioness herself. And there is always only one figure in the bed. Fawcett sees this as an image of sexual union, an androgynous figure, a beast with two backs (Fawcett 487-88). To me it looks more like a denial of the reality of the primal scene, parallel to the novel's denial of the reality of the supernatural, and consistent with its generally bathetic method. (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, similarly, argues that the unveiling is always the voiding of an expectation [Sedgwick 258]. And Hillis Miller redefines Freud's conception to suggest that the real source of the uncanny is the suspicion that there may not be “any secret at all hidden in the depths” [Miller 69].)

Emily never has to learn that women do get into bed with men and that things happen to them there. It is not clear that she learns there is a difference between men and women (Valancourt does not seem to be the man to teach her). In the exceptional case of Madame Montoni, there really is a woman in the bed, and she really is the victim of the violence of her husband, but it is a disembodied, asexual violence: Montoni has been neglecting and starving her, not assaulting her.

The revelation that the Marchioness was St. Aubert's sister rather than his lover has the same effect. Pierre Arnaud sees in it a suggestion of incest (Arnaud 182-84). I see an opportunity for Radcliffe to deny that there is a sexual element in the passionate love and sorrow Emily has witnessed in her father—an opportunity, in short, to write a novel of education in which her heroine starts out with nothing to learn, a novel of maturation in which her heroine ends up as innocent, and as infantile, as she began.

The marvelous, Todorov argues, refers the fantastic “to an unknown phenomenon, never seen as yet, still to come—hence to a future”; the uncanny reduces it, as in Radcliffe, “to known facts, to a previous experience, and thereby to the past” (Todorov 42). This is the conservatism that David Durant sees in Radcliffe's use of bathos. The repetition that is the formal consequence of bathos suggests a more radical conservatism, one that Fiedler hints at in his definition of the Gothic. He sees in Radcliffe's works the “compulsive repetitiveness [of] a self-duplicating nightmare from which it is impossible to wake” (Fiedler 127). The repetition compulsion is a manifestation of “the conservative nature of the instincts,” which strive to return to “an old state of things, an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or other departed” (Freud 18: 38). The origin Emily seeks and finds—over and over again, in all those bedrooms—is not the sexual origin of her own life, but the origin of all life in inanimate matter. To say that the veil conceals nothing is to say that it conceals death; Radcliffe's denial of Eros is an affirmation of Thanatos.

Thus a reading of one novel, an exercise in what Todorov calls interpretation, can supplement what he calls poetics, by suggesting a rationale (for the treatment of eroticism in the fantastic) which his poetics omitted to make explicit; the two activities, as he concedes, are never entirely distinct (Todorov 141). It does so, moreover, by effacing the analogous distinction between what he calls the semantic and syntactical aspects of the fantastic—by finding thematic significance (an affirmation of Thanatos) in a purely formal characteristic like repetition (Todorov 33).

Works Cited

Arnaud, Pierre. Ann Radcliffe et le fantastique: Essai de psychobiographie. Paris: Aubier Montaigne, 1976.

Brooke-Rose, Christine. A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Durant, David. “Ann Radcliffe and the Conservative Gothic.” Studies in English Literature 22 (1982): 519-30.

Fairclough, Peter, ed. Three Gothic Novels. Introd. Mario Praz. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968.

Fawcett, Mary Laughlin. “Udolpho's Primal Mystery.” Studies in English Literature 23 (1983): 481-94.

Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. Rev. ed. New York: Stein and Day, 1966.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. James Strachey et al. 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74.

Miller J. Hillis. Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1982.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Ed., Bonamy Dobree. Notes, Frederick Garber. The World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “The Character in the Veil: Imagery of the Surface in the Gothic Novel.” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association] 96 (1981): 255-70.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve UP, 1973.

Kenneth W. Graham (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “Emily's Demon-Lover: The Gothic Revolution and The Mysteries of Udolpho,” in Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, edited by Kenneth W. Graham, AMS Press, 1989, pp. 163-70.

[In the following essay, Graham discusses the narrative pace of Udolpho and how it works to build suspense in a storyline that contains very little actual action.]

In a metaphor that Ann Radcliffe probably and perhaps rightly would have found lacking in taste, Robert Scholes compares the act of fiction with the act of sex:

For what connects fiction … with sex is the fundamental orgastic rhythm of tumescence and detumescence, of tension and resolution, of intensification to the point of climax and consummation. In the sophisticated forms of fiction, as in the sophisticated practice of sex, much of the art consists of delaying climax within the framework of desire in order to prolong the pleasurable act itself.1

Although the quotation is taken from a discussion of John Fowles' The Magus, it shows a startling aptness to Mrs. Radcliffe's fictional method which is to draw out a situation longer than seems possible by delaying the climax. The amplitude of her accomplishment becomes apparent when one measures the majesty of the three to four bulky volumes that comprise each of her novels against the modest paragraph that could contain a just summary of her plot. That so much impends in Ann Radcliffe's fictions and so little happens is surely evidence of an astonishing degree of narrative sophistication.

It is precisely in the attenuation of threatening situations that Mrs. Radcliffe's chief success and chief fascination as a writer of Gothic romances lie. Her employment of suspense entraps her readers in a mounting rhythm of excitement and irresolution as terror succeeds terror, while the climax, a total and satisfying release from tension, is continually promised and continually postponed. Because the terrors themselves derive intensity from vague threatenings of moral dissolution, a sexual metaphor for the rhythm of tension and intermission seems an appropriate one. Thus her narrative method, approximating that described by Scholes, operates through delaying climax within a framework of both fear and desire.

That she employed such a method, and repeated it in most of her romances, suggests that Mrs. Radcliffe was addressing her narratives to a human psychology more complex than those of the reductionist theories current in eighteenth-century Britain from Locke's tabula rasa2 to Hartley's materialist associationism. To direct, as I think she does, a significant overtone of her narratives at pre-rational levels of human consciousness is to commit something of a revolutionary act. While it may appear absurd (and, indeed, ill-bred) to argue an affinity between the refined Mrs. Radcliffe and the sans-culottes who stormed the Bastille, it is fruitful to consider the Marquis de Sade's observation that the Gothic novel was an inevitable result of the revolutionary shocks that all Europe was feeling during these revolutionary times.3 For Sade, what links the Gothic novel to the revolution is its willingness to extend the boundaries that convention ascribes to the concept of human nature, its willingness to call for the aid of hell to present the whole truth of human depravity. Those impending calamities on which Mrs. Radcliffe's narratives focus such lingering attention are the product of an imagination prepared to acknowledge the diabolical. When Dr. Johnson dismissed the poems of Ossian with the declaration: “Sir, a man might write such stuff for ever, if he would abandon his mind to it,”4 he was voicing a traditional ethical distrust of the unregulated imagination, a fear of the monsters the abandoned mind might spawn. Ann Radcliffe's are the novels of a respectable woman. They manifest an apparent capitulation to all the restraints, decorums and tyrannies of late eighteenth-century conventionalities in erotic and ethical matters. Yet she overcame many restrictions with subtle audacity: her narratives insinuate the dissolution of the very conventionalities they uphold. They continually anticipate perils, contemplate imminent assaults on the social order in the crimes of murder, incest and rape, and thus extend an imaginative validity to evil in its most vicious forms. To recall Dr. Johnson's warnings in Rambler No. 4 against the romance for its “wild strain of imagination,” its heating the mind “with incredibilities,” its creation of men “splendidly wicked” whose “resemblance ought no more to be preserved, than the art of murdering without pain,”5 and to note how her romances return repeatedly to situations in which moral values seem threatened by splendidly wicked men is to perceive how wholeheartedly Ann Radcliffe had embraced a revolutionary aesthetic.

The Mysteries of Udolpho is vitally revolutionary in a manner that the marquis would approve and Dr. Johnson might well protest. The momentum of the account builds towards a situation rich in imaginative possibility that Mrs. Radcliffe hastens to establish and labours to prolong: the maiden is in perilous proximity to the villain in the castle and the hero is locked out. It is one of those situations that we have come to recognize as typically, even archetypically, Gothic. The castle, its centrality underlined in the very title of Mrs. Radcliffe's romance, is prison-like in its function of keeping people in and out. But it is more intricate than a prison or bastion: it is described as “a strange, rambling place.”6 Emily is “perplexed by the numerous turnings”; “she feared to open one of the many doors that offered”; she “began to fear that she might … lose herself in the intricacies of the castle” (I 262). Such passages show Radcliffe's Gothic castle to be a kind of labyrinth and a labyrinth is, of course, a place of peril and misdirection where a monster lurks and where the maiden may be held in bondage. Versions of the labyrinth that resound through Cretan legend, Sleeping Beauty's wall of thorns and Brünhilde's wall of fire point to contrasting interpretations: it is a place of sterility from which the hero's rescue of his bride betokens a return of fruitfulness to the wasteland, or it is a place of fearful virility in which the demon-lover has entrapped the enthralled maiden. In the Gothic novel the second emphasis predominates: the monster in the labyrinth is Manfred in his castle, looking to beget an heir to Otranto upon the frightened Isabella; it is Ambrosio in the catacombs, holding Antonia in thrall to his lust; and, of course, it is Montoni, whose ominous presence forms the forefront of Emily's anxious apprehensions. The allure of the Gothic situation lies chiefly in the vulnerability of the maiden to the dark designs and unpredictable violence of the Gothic villain.

The Montoni that emerges from Mrs. Radcliffe's narrative is a potentially-explosive force of obscure purposes who smoulders in the shadows of his castle like a monster in its labyrinth. She makes him alien to the novel's system of values. He is cruel, unresponsive to domesticity and indifferent to the picturesque, yet he is handsome: his eyes are somber and sparkling and his features “manly and expressive.” Radcliffe underlines his sexual attractiveness with repeated references to his terrible energies, desperate temper and vigorous passion. Each turn of the page threatens to reveal a feudal noble of barely-bridled sensuality, l'homme fatal, the enslaver of woman, a perilously absorbing mixture of Don Juan and Bluebeard.

As is usual with Radcliffe, the illusion is more potent than the reality. Viewed objectively, Montoni's life forms a pattern of unfulfillment. He gambles in casinos but loses. He is ambitious to be a military leader but becomes only a robber captain, one whose capture is perfunctory when the narrative has no further use for him. Despite his displays of passion and energy, he lacks sexual drive. He marries Mme. Charon to obtain her money; yet he does not see through her pretensions of wealth, nor does he make sure of what fortune she has before he marries her. Since Mme. Charon has neither wit nor beauty with which to beguile him, his lack of judgment in these matters is astonishing. After marriage he grumbles, blusters and threatens in order to obtain her property. He does not succeed and after Mme. Charon's death he has to make Emily the target of blusterings and threatenings, with similar unsuccess. To sustain the role given him, Ann Radcliffe made Montoni surprisingly impotent.

When we seek the source of the lasting impression of Montoni as the smouldering, passionate demon-lover, we discover the figure to be almost wholly the creation of Emily, the chaste, pure maiden. At an early meeting “Emily felt admiration, but … it was mixed with a degree of fear she know not exactly wherefore” (I 23). When through marriage Montoni becomes head of her family, Emily watches him eagerly, trying to fathom from his gloomy features the thoughts concealed beneath. “Emily observed these written characters of his thought with deep interest and not without some degree of awe, when she considered that she was entirely in his power” (I 195). We might assume this last reflection to be accompanied by a frisson of anxious apprehension. Emily's mind dwells on Montoni, creates of him a figure of Burkean sublimity that both attracts and repels her. He frightens and fascinates her because he undermines her notions of patriarchy and domesticity. Her father had been a man of feeling; Montoni is a man of action and cruelty. His “stern manners” contrast with “the tenderness and affection to which she had been accustomed till she lost her parents” (I 239). He disorients her and threatens her conditionings. Domesticity and filial affection become disturbingly intermingled in her mind with vague shadowings of slavery and incest. She is agitated by his presence: “… Montoni is coming himself to seek me! In the present state of his mind, his purpose must be desperate” (II 100). Montoni represents a vital disorder foreign to Emily's values and she exaggerates his power and makes of him an erotic fantasy based on terror.7 Consciously Emily fears and deplores Montoni, yet his presence lingers in her mind as if her spirit is reaching out after him, longing for the unspeakable fulfillment that he represents.

Emily's irrational attraction to Montoni reflects one facet of Mrs. Radcliffe's awareness of the potency of that central Gothic situation that brings together maiden, villain and castle over which her narrative lingers with such unconscionable sophistication. As Mrs. Radcliffe seems to have been aware, the ambivalence of Emily's love-hate attitude to her demon-lover reflects the ambivalence of her century towards the unregulated imagination. Mrs. Radcliffe may have held the belief with Dr. Johnson that “he that thinks reasonably must think morally”8 but her works manifest a stronger interest in the statement's corollary about the irrational and the immoral. In the inclination of her narratives to contemplate human kinship with mystery and human fascination with evil, Mrs. Radcliffe seems to reveal an attitude that has more in common with the Marquis de Sade than with Dr. Johnson. Sade's own attraction to the Gothic novel is connected to a similar willingness to suspend ethical concerns in order to contemplate the perils of the maiden perplexed in a Gothic labyrinth where each turning may carry her into the clutches of the monster. Such willingness means for Sade a shadowing forth of his own revolutionary credo that the unnatural is natural. What is revolutionary about the Gothic novel in general and The Mysteries of Udolpho in particular is an assumed license to contemplate levels of human thought and behaviour hitherto almost ignored in literature of the eighteenth century. In Emily's disconcerted mind are opposed versions of reality. One is a comforting world of pastoral domesticity and sensibility centered on two almost interchangeable male figures, her father St. Aubert and her lover Valancourt. They inhabit the providential and ordered world that begins the novel

On the pleasant banks of the Garonne … stood … that chateau of Monsieur St. Aubert. From its windows were seen the pastoral landscapes of Guienne and Gascony, stretching along the river, gay with luxuriant woods and vines, and plantations of olives.

(I, 1)

and ends it:

Oh! how joyful it is to tell of happiness such as that of Valancourt and Emily; to relate that … they were at length restored to each other—to the beloved landscape of their native country—to the securest felicity of this life … while the bowers of La Vallée became once more the retreat of goodness, wisdom, and domestic blessedness!

(II, 344)

The other world flourishes in the secret inner spaces of Emily's nervous apprehensions; it is the disordered and labyrinthine world of barely-controlled passion and energy centred on the male figure of Montoni. The demonic world looms in the body of the narrative. Ann Radcliffe is careful to emphasize that this world is an aberration, yet her narrative lingers there. Her imagination abides unjustifiably long in conditions of ambivalence, where, at least aesthetically, the rational is not superior to the irrational, the moral to the immoral, the providential to the demonic. When considering the Gothic in a revolutionary perspective, it is easy to underestimate Ann Radcliffe's achievement. Compared to the projections of fragmented psychologies in Godwin's Caleb Williams and the audacious portrayals of living evil in works of Beckford and Lewis, Radcliffe's hintings and suggestings may appear unduly hesitant. In the tension between conventional sanctities and the desire to transgress limits, the sanctities are explicitly dominant and the woman wailing for her demon lover remains well beneath the levels of Emily's consciousness. That woman's existence is never acknowledged yet her presence is felt as Emily is haunted by apprehensions both supernatural and sexual. Ann Radcliffe's art lies in the careful balancing of the explicit and the implicit that permits her to be revolutionary without ceasing to be conventional. Triumphantly, her art leaves the unspeakable unspoken.


  1. Robert Scholes, “The Orgastic Fiction of John Fowles.” The Hollins Critic, VI, 5 (December, 1969), 1.

  2. Indeed, Locke's tabula rasa theory, by cutting man off from his unconscious, gave impetus to a general rejection of the total psyche in eighteenth-century psychological theory.

  3. “… il devenait le fruit indispensable des secousses révolutionnaires dont l'Europe entière se ressentait.” Marquis de Sade, “Idée sur les Romans” in Les Crimes de L'Amour, Oevres Complètes, vol. 10 (Paris: Au Cercle du Livre Précieux, 1966), p. 15.

  4. Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, 6 vols. (New York: Harper & Brothers, n.d.), IV, 211.

  5. Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, No. 4 in Selected Writings, ed. R.T. Davies (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965), 76-79.

  6. Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, 2 vols. (London: J.M. Dent, 1931; rpt. 1962), I, 234. Subsequent citations from the novel will be taken from this edition and page references enclosed within parentheses and inserted in the text.

  7. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. J.T. Boulton (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), pp. 86, 65.

  8. Samuel Johnson, “Preface to Shakespeare,” Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), vol. VII of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, p. 71.

Donald Williams Bruce (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Ann Radcliffe and the Extended Imagination,” in Contemporary Review, Vol. 258, No. 1505, June, 1991, pp. 300-308.

[In the following essay, Bruce reviews the theme of the love of liberty in Udolpho, as well as the love of nature, and compares these ideas with some of Radcliffe's other works, including The Italian and The Romance in the Forest.]

‘You, who are so young, have you reason for sorrow?’, Emily St. Aubert is asked at the end of The Mysteries of Udolpho (chapter 38). Emily, the heroine of the book, has every right to answer, ‘Yes’. She has, in a short time, lost both her parents. Her marriage to the exquisite Chevalier de Valancourt has been broken off. There is no end to her troubles. Used though she is to freedom, and rejoicing in it, she is subjected to a series of ever more constricting imprisonments: first in the manor house in Toulouse belonging to her aunt, Mme. Chéron, who becomes her guardian after the death of her father; then, when that silly aunt marries the bandit-chief Montoni, in his palazzo in Venice; afterwards in Montoni's Apennine fortress, the Castle of Udolpho, a place of threats, spectacles and events all equally hideous; again in a cottage in Tuscany, watched over by a pair of Montoni's ruffians; finally, after her aunt has died from privation and disappointment, in still closer duress in Udolpho, until she asserts her own will and resolution, and breaks free, only to be shipwrecked on the coast of Languedoc. She is saved from the wreck to be told stories of Valancourt's depravities in Paris, to which she too credulously, and to her own injury, listens.

It is a vivid tale, located in Italy and the south of France, and invented by a tiny invalid recluse, the whole span of whose travels lay between Westmorland and the Upper Rhine. The author contemplated the Pyrenees and the Apennines from her residences in the flatlands of Chiswick, Lambeth and Lower Belgravia.

The only child of parents who had moved from Chesterfield to London to set up a small haberdashery in East Holborn, Ann Radcliffe was born in 1764, the year in which the first ‘Gothick’ novel, Walpole's Castle of Otranto, was published.1 When their daughter was seven years old they moved once more, in order to manage Josiah Wedgwood's china-shop in Bath. During the following fifteen years she often stayed in Chiswick with her uncle, a retired Liverpool merchant of bookish tastes. Although shy and no conversationalist herself, Ann Radcliffe heard plenty of literary talk there, which encouraged her in her copious solitary reading of Shakespeare, Milton and her favourite landscape-poets of the eighteenth century, such as James Thomson, an inhabitant of nearby Richmond. At the age of twenty-three she married William Radcliffe, who had drifted into literary hackwork from his study of law in the Inner Temple.2 They settled in Lambeth, then a rural suburb, where during eight years of hectic production she wrote five novels which were admired by contemporaries as diverse as Scott, Keats and Byron. The last three published in her lifetime are once more in print: the enchanting and enchanted Romance of the Forest; the intricately cohesive Mysteries of Udolpho; and The Italian, her most concentrated novel, and widely regarded as her masterpiece. She wrote one more novel but would not publish it, withdrawing instead into her new house near the mews of Buckingham Palace and the seclusion she preferred.3 Her experiences were scarcely more adventurous than those of Jane Austen, but how she used them for an imaginative leap!

She heightens the scenery of the Lake District, which she knew, in her descriptions of the Alps, which she did not:

patches of young verdure, fragrant shrubs and flowers, looked gaily among the rocks, often fringing their brows, or hanging in tufts from their broken sides; and the buds of the oak and mountain ash were expanding into foliage

(M.U., chapter 14).

She contrives a landscape from atlases, travellers' stories, guide books, ecological studies and pictorial records; from the same exact researches as those of that other master of detail loaded with suspense, Georges Simenon. The story of The Romance of the Forest is adapted from an eighteenth-century collection of famous French trials. She studied Italian scenery through Mannerist paintings. ‘The scene,’ she declares at one point, ‘was such as only the dark pencil of a Domenichino, perhaps, could have done justice to’ (M.U., chapter 30). She is painstaking in her investigations. She explores even the botany and geology of the Mediterranean coast. The Comte de Villefort, lost with his party in the Pyrenees during a thunderstorm, absurdly entertains his companions with a lecture on the minerals and fossils of those mountains (M.U., chapter 50).

Ann Radcliffe's informed imagination often transcends actual experience, as in her descriptions of Venice, which she had never seen:

The rising dawn now enlightened the mountain tops of Fruili; but their lower sides, and the distant waves that rolled at their feet, were still in deep shadow. Emily, sunk in tranquil melancholy, watched the strengthening light spreading upon the ocean, showing progressively Venice with her islets, and the shores of Italy, along which boats with their pointed lateen sails began to move

(M.U., chapter 18).

Under her unremitting inward gaze Venice and its straits become a seascape as timeless as those of Claude Lorrain.

How different from Jane Austen, who would not locate Persuasion in Northampton until her sister Cassandra had verified that there were hedgerows there! Ann Radcliffe worked like Gainsborough, who often painted his landscapes from stones, small scraps of vegetation and pieces of looking-glass arranged in candlelight, and in his visionary recollection, upon a table-top; or Degas, who once used a crumpled handkerchief as the model for a cloud. The inner supposition was everything. Ann Radcliffe did not emulate Turner, who once tied himself to a mast in order to record a snow-storm. She is by no means a camera. A fog from the Thames permeates the trees of her Apennines:

The sun had now set some time; heavy clouds, whose lower skirts were tinged with sulphurous crimson, lingered in the west, and threw a reddish tint upon the pine forests

(M.U., chapter 31).

Re-arranged scenes, re-arranged experiences! Ann Radcliffe does make mistakes. She moves the Pyrenees east and the Apennines north. The Mysteries is set in the sixteenth century, yet the manners, speech and decorums of the characters belong to the reign of George III. The Romance of the Forest is a tale of the early seventeenth century: the heroine, Adeline, shudders at the notion of meeting a young man alone in the forest, although she is in the greatest danger, from which he can rescue her, and she knows him well. When he does not arrive in time for the appointment, her pride is offended and she leaves the place ‘with disgust and self-accusation’ (R.F., chapter 7). These are the sentiments of Richardson rather than those of Shakespeare. For all that, the topographer of the sea-coast of Bohemia would hardly have accused her of inaccuracy. What did it matter? In spite of her careful studies, she was not recording history but a subjective fantasy, lit and darkened by her personal magic, although assigned to a past age.

But one must grumble a little. The plot of The Mysteries of Udolpho, although Emily is forever on the move, is static in effect, possibly because of the frequent descriptive passages, which sometimes achieve almost the shock of poetry but are sometimes repetitious and flat; and because of the sameness of the events, sensational though they are. It does not hasten forward to one main action but cranks along, through a green uniformity of forests and precipices, from one singular experience to another. Emily jogs along on her mule, brooding on the majesty of the Pyrenees, and her father is taken ill and dies. On she plods. She reflects on the grandeur of the Apennine heights, although Ann Radcliffe herself described the main road in Arundel as ‘fearfully steep’ and became giddy whilst climbing the belfry at Utrecht.4

Sublime though the scenery is, before long Emily is shut up in a bandits' fortress. Later her friend, Blanche de Villefort, so close to Emily in her character that she could be called another Emily, takes her place as the she-protagonist of the novel. Blanche in turn ambles through the Pyrenees, praising their glories, and is captured by bandits too. Ann Radcliffe heightens their wanderings with the mysteries of her title, mysteries not only at Udolpho but also all over southern France and northern Italy: in Emily's own Gascon chateau, and around the convent of Ste Claire in Languedoc and within the nearby manor house.

There are hints of ‘dreadful import’, spates of spectral music, a ghastly sight behind curtains at Udolpho—a disembodied voice as well—and phantoms in a locked bedroom at the Comte de Villefort's mansion. There are false clues which lead to ‘misleading conjectures’, as Ann Radcliffe calls them and mockingly encourages. She teases her readers by referring to her mysteries again and again. She alludes to the shocking sight behind the curtains seven times in the course of the novel. Then, at last, she provides a rational explanation for everything that has taken place; which is no less than Jane Austen does in her tart satire on Ann Radcliffe's novels in Northanger Abbey. The ghosts in the bedchamber are robbers from a secret tunnel. The figure behind the curtains is a waxwork memento mori. The explanations are not always convincing. Emily's succession of calamities is likewise too protracted for ready belief or, at times, patience. Ann Radcliffe's quotation from Shakespeare as the epigraph of Chapter 33 may occasionally be applied to herself:

I play the torturer, by small and small,
To lengthen out the worst that may be spoken.

The story of The Mysteries of Udolpho is less gripping than that of The Italian, but its purpose is less to unfold a tale than to present a theme. That theme is the love of liberty. In The Mysteries of Udolpho liberty is infringed by physical confinement, by misplaced sensibility, by superstition and female subservience. The shipwreck, an instance of the turbulence of Nature which Emily so much admires, but is happily rescued from, is the turning point of the novel. Emily is restored to her original freedom, but not completely. She is still under the moral duress of her rescuer, the Comte de Villefort, a rationalist who sits up reading Tacitus whilst awaiting the appearance of a supposed ghost; but the Count is far from rational in turning Emily against her intended husband, Valancourt, on the strength of unchecked rumours. He devastates her with a recital of hearsay exaggerations about Valancourt's nights out in Paris, and luridly affirms that Valancourt has joined a set of men ‘who live by plunder, and pass their lives in continual debauchery’ (M.U., chapter 38). Valancourt, admittedly a figure of mist, gauze and tinsel, like the heroes of so many romantic novels, is at least guiltless of the depravities Villefort accuses him of, and later proves the best of husbands to Emily. ‘Is this the wisdom of men,’ Ann Radcliffe implies, ‘to whom we are so obedient?’.

To Villefort's soft tyranny Emily equally softly submits, just as she did to that of her father, a foolish old gentleman who lost them both on a crazy journey along obscure tracks across the Lower Pyrenees when the straightforward roads were well-known to him. He carelessly shoots Valancourt because he looks like a bandit; he impoverishes Emily by his impulsive trust in the banker Motteville; he finally places her in the care of her wilful aunt, Mme Chéron. He ruins himself and nearly ruins his daughter.

Throughout, Emily submits to male dominance: ‘the haughtiness of command and the quickness of discernment’ which awes her when she encounters Montoni (M.U., chapter 2). He is haughty, in fact, because never opposed, and quick only to discern slavish female subterfuges. She mistakes his brutality for courage: ‘the difficulties and tempests of life, which wreck the happiness of others, roused and strengthened all the powers of his mind’ (M.U., chapter 16). To contest Montoni's will, Emily decides, ‘would not be fortitude, but rashness’ (M.U., chapter 33). Like the Marquis de Montalt in The Romance of the Forest, Montoni is seemingly all-powerful, his decisions sealed against any appeal. Only when Montoni tries to frighten her out of the estate she has inherited from her aunt does Emily discover that his ferocity and resolution are no more than a blind for his greed. After that discovery, Emily makes a firm and successful bid to escape from Udolpho, although to lapse into a milder subservience to the Comte de Villefort, who reminds her, anachronistic eighteenth-century savant as he is in this tale set at the time of the Spanish Armada, of her father.

At the head of Chapter Six of The Mysteries of Udolpho Ann Radcliffe quotes her beloved Thomson, whose joy in landscape she shared:

I care not, Fortune! what you me deny;
You cannot rob me of free Nature's grace,
You cannot shut the windows of the sky.

Blanche de Villefort, fresh from her convent school, voices the sense of open-air liberation which is so strongly felt by Emily and her suitor Valancourt. ‘If you could know what pleasure I feel in wandering here at liberty, and in seeing the sky and the fields and the woods all round me!’, Blanche exclaims (M.U., chapter 37). Perhaps Ann Radcliffe smiles a little at the elation of Blanche, just released from school, but Blanche's sentiments are basically her own, derived in part from Rousseau, whose Reveries of a Solitary Walker had recently been translated into English. Nature is a restorative to Adeline too, in The Romance of the Forest:

The balmy freshness of the air, which breathed the first pure essence of vegetation … revived Adeline, and inspired her with life and health. As she inhaled the breeze, her strength seemed to return, and, as her eyes wandered through the romantic glades that opened into the forest, her heart was gladdened

(R.F., chapter 1).

As Emily leaves the opera-house in Venice, she reflects on ‘how infinitely inferior all the splendour of art is to the sublimity of nature’ (M.U., chapter 16). Emily's father, M. de St. Aubert, likewise rejoices in landscape, especially after a grave illness:

The refreshing pleasure from the first view of nature, after the pain of illness and the confinement of a sick chamber, is above the conception, as well as the descriptions, of those in health

(M.U., chapter 1).

Ann Radcliffe, who was afflicted with a severe asthma, could speak feelingly about that.

In most of her misadventures, Emily is partly the victim of that late eighteenth-century malady, an over-acute sensibility. She seldom meets Valancourt, or parts from him, except in tears. Sometimes they weep in unison (M.U., chapter 6). She induces and protracts her emotions. Moved by a premonition of the death of her father, she leans from a window in ‘contemplation of Futurity’:

Elevated and enwrapped, while her eyes were often wet with tears of sublime devotion and solemn awe, she continued at the casement till the gloom of midnight hung over the earth

(M.U., chapter 6).

Emily weeps much and sleeps little, as do most of Ann Radcliffe's heroines. Adeline's nights in The Romance of the Forest are mostly wakeful: ‘Adeline's thoughts were too busy to suffer her to repose, and … she indulged the sorrow which reflection brought’ (R.F., chapter 4). One of Ann Radcliffe's loveliest passages recounts how Adeline, after a restless night, rises at dawn, surrounded by beauty difficult for her not to heed:

The faint light of day now trembled through the clouds, and, gradually spreading from the horizon, announced the rising sun … and the fresh gale came scented with the breath of flowers, whose tints glowed more vivid through the dewdrops that hung on their leaves

(R.F., chapter 5).

A Keatsian landscape!

Most of Emily's adventures take place at night. There is a strongly morbid constituent in her sensibility. Although still depressed by hearing of the scandals about Valancourt, she feels a ‘thrilling curiosity’ to see the deathbed of the Marquise de Villeroi. Her ‘solemn emotions’ are ‘in unison with the present tone of her mind, depressed by severe disappointment’:

Cheerful objects rather added to, than removed this depression; but perhaps she yielded too much to her melancholy inclination

(M.U., chapter 41).

Emily, shaky and easily afeared, but with remarkable powers of recovery, goes out of her way to seek danger. Like Blanche de Villefort, she loves to be out in a thunderstorm. She listens with ‘a gloomy pleasure’ to the thunder in the distance and rejoices in ‘the arrowy lightnings’ (M.U., chapter 29). Jane Austen's heroines would have been afraid of wet shoes. At Udolpho, Emily ‘would lean on the wall of the terrace and, shuddering, measure with her eye the precipice below till the dark summits of the woods arrested it’ (M.U., chapter 19). Fear merely incites her curiosity. Locked up in a room in the castle, Emily is dismayed to find that the room has a second, unlocked door, which she tries to secure by placing a chair against it. A blast of wind swings the door inwards, and the chair with it, to reveal a secret stairway:

She took the lamp to the top of the steps, and stood hesitating whether to go down; but the profound stillness and the gloom of the place awed her: and determined to inquire further when daylight might assist the search, she closed the door, and placed against it a stronger guard

(M.U., chapter 18).

Similarly, the inquisitiveness of Adeline in The Romance of the Forest generally overcomes her timidity. Hidden in a room in a ruined abbey, she discovers, by the light of ‘a shattered casement placed high from the floor’, a second door behind a billowing tapestry, and then a third door. After ‘some moments of hesitation’ she ‘gained courage, and determined to pursue the inquiry.’ She determines, ‘I will, at least, see to what that door leads’. Beyond the door she finds a rusty dagger and an indecipherable manuscript (R.F., chapter 8). Here we perceive three elements in Ann Radcliffe's fascination: surprise, foreboding and a riddle.

These doors blown in the wind typify Ann Radcliffe's passion for Nature, even at its most violent. In The Mysteries of Udolpho she prefers the natural life to the man-made life; admittedly a preference common amongst the writers of the late eighteenth century. It is a novel about escape from human enclosures. As in Smollett's representation of London in Roderick Random and Humphry Clinker, great cities are seen as centres of corruption. The highest praise Emily's father can offer Valancourt is, ‘This young man has never been at Paris’ (M.U., chapter 4). It is little wonder that Emily, a thoroughly proper girl influenced by her father's mistrust of the big city, credits the Comte de Villefort's gossip to the extent of ending her engagement to Valancourt when Valancourt does go to Paris. ‘Why was I forced to Paris,’ exclaims Valancourt, weeping, ‘and why did I yield to allurements which were to make me despicable for ever?’ (M.U., chapter 39). When at last Valancourt is vindicated from the spiteful inventions about his conduct there, and Emily, convinced of his rectitude of character, consents to marry him, they retire into the guileless countryside. Emily's old peasant housekeeper concludes, in her rural simplicity, ‘To see how some people fling away their happiness, then cry and lament about it, just as if it was not their own doing, and as if there were more pleasure in wailing and weeping than in being at peace!’ (M.U., chapter 52).

The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents is not primarily a thematic novel in the manner of The Mysteries of Udolpho, although the outcry against the coercion of women persists alongside an exposition of the inhumane divisions caused by social class. The heroine, Ellena, is less subservient to men than imperilled by them and in their stranglehold; although a woman, the heartless Marchesa, directs the men. From the tightening grip Ellena makes spirited attempts to extricate herself, aided by her suitor, Vicentio di Vivaldi—a flat character but more active than Valancourt, who never comes near the Castle of Udolpho. Ellena, constantly in danger in her struggle for survival, has no leisure to develop her sensibilities as Emily does, and the rush of dangers gives Ann Radcliffe no time to explore her personality as closely as that of Emily. Ellena remains blank, ingenuous and neutral: a good schoolgirl.

The deepest and the dominating character in The Italian is the monk Schedoni, who wolfishly abuses his priestly authority. That is not to say that Ann Radcliffe is an Evangelical bigot: she makes Vivaldi shed tears of relief at the justice of the Roman Inquisition during the middle of the eighteenth century, the period in which the novel is set (Ital., volume 3, chapter 7). Schedoni, mistrusted even by his fellow monks, is more ferocious than Montoni, who at least stops short of murder. Schedoni, morally contorted and inwardly tormented, is a more intricate character than that gluttonous, conceited autocrat. Ellena is threatened by Schedoni in dire reality, whereas Emily only thinks she is by Montoni. The Italian is a sterner, barer tale than The Mysteries of Udolpho but all the more forceful for that.

Ann Radcliffe, guide-book at her elbow, plunges into The Italian with an anecdote about some English tourists who visit the convent church of the Order of the Black Penitents in Naples and witness the frenzy of an assassin who has sought sanctuary there. Schedoni too, likewise an assassin—a fratricide, in fact—is a wretched being, cast out by God and Man for his persisting crimes. Having taken refuge in the Order of the Black Penitents, he becomes confessor to Vivaldi's mother, with whom, in the hope of ecclesiastical advancement, he conspires to prevent Vivaldi's marriage to the apparently low-born Ellena.

Schedoni abducts her and shuts her up in a remote convent, where she meets a motherly nun called Sister Olivia, who is later revealed to be indeed Ellena's mother, the former Contessa di Bruno. It is a short spell of tenderness in Ellena's harsh world. Ann Radcliffe is at her best in her tense account of Ellena's escape from the convent, although Ellena has Adeline-like misgivings about the propriety of escaping in the sole company of Vivaldi. Her misgivings are curtailed when she is swiftly recouped by Schedoni, who is about to murder her on the orders of the Marchesa di Vivaldi when he finds evidence, misleading in fact, that she is his own daughter. By this time the affair has come to the notice of the Inquisition in Rome, before which both Vivaldi and Schedoni appear. Schedoni, betrayed by his confessor and his own confederates, poisons himself. Ellena, proved to be the daughter of the brother Schedoni murdered, the true Conte di Bruno, is now acceptable to Vivaldi's family, and he is allowed to marry her without more ado.

The sombre narrative frees Ann Radcliffe's descriptive powers to the full. She is able to depict the dark and silent vastness of the Roman Inquisition's dungeons, of which she certainly had no experience, where Vivaldi is imprisoned. Without speaking, two men dressed in black unbar his cell and advance upon him. They take him down to a large hall, ‘and thence through an avenue, and down a long flight of stairs, that led to subterranean chambers: His conductors did not utter a syllable during the whole progress’ (Ital., volume 3, chapter 5). Contrary to his expectations, he is being led not to a torture-chamber but to a court of justice, before which he is acquitted: another ‘misleading conjecture’.

The straightforwardness, by Ann Radcliffe's standards, of the narrative allows her room to explore the troubled character of Schedoni, terrific but terrified, determined in his ends but irresolute in his means, self-destructively destructive. To his fellow monks his lofty bearing betrays ‘the gloomy pride of a disappointed man’ instead of the ambition of a noble mind. ‘There was something terrible in his air,’ Ann Radcliffe remarks, ‘something almost superhuman.’ Schedoni clearly owes something to the Satan of Milton, one of her favourite poets:

His cowl, too, as it threw a shade over the livid features of his face, increased its severe character, and gave an effect to his large melancholy eye, which approached to horror. His was not the melancholy of a sensible and wounded heart, but apparently that of a gloomy and ferocious disposition

(Ital., volume I, chapter 2).

His eyes, staring from a face scored with many extinguished passions, ‘were so piercing that they seemed to penetrate, at a single glance, into the hearts of men, and to read their most secret thoughts; few persons could support their scrutiny, or even endure to meet them twice’ (Ital., volume I, chapter 2).

Schedoni is as ruthless with himself as he is with others until at last, like the Marquis de Montalt in The Romance of the Forest, he is cornered by the law. When Schedoni's associates turn against him and give their evidence to the Roman Inquisition, he is unmoved even by the certainty of being sentenced to death: ‘and when the dreadful sentence of the law was pronounced, it made no visible impression on his mind’ (Ital., volume III, chapter 8). Before poisoning himself, to avoid what he calls ‘an ignominious death’, Schedoni takes care also to poison his accomplice and betrayer, Father Nicola.

At only one point in the story does Schedoni's fixity of purpose weaken: when he is about to murder Ellena at the instigation of the Marchesa di Vivaldi, whose patronage has restored his respectability, and even given him spiritual authority after his earlier degradation. Faced with Schedoni, Ellena is up against dangers and perplexities more urgent than those of Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho. Taking his dagger, although with shaking hands, Schedoni mounts the stairs to plunge it into her. What a difference between his slaughtering crudity here and his smooth hauteur in Naples!

Schedoni and his underlings, having kidnapped Ellena, drag her across the plains of southern Italy to the Adriatic coast where, in a disused villa owned by the marchesa, he is to carry out the marchesa's ‘baleful resolutions’:

It seemed highly improbable that the Marchesa di Vivaldi had sent her here merely for imprisonment … not for long imprisonment but for death

(Ital., volume II, chapter 7).

Secular influence and a vitiated priesthood combine to destroy the guiltless Ellena. Schedoni hopes to rise from her gore to an incense-clouded dignity.

Terrified, Ellena tries to escape along the beach to a fishing village in the distance. Up and down the sands Schedoni stalks her. Comforted by his monk's habit, under which he carries a knife, Ellena takes hope: ‘It is probably as much his wish, as it is his duty, to succour the unfortunate.’ To her plea for help he replies, ‘Poor insect! Who would wish to crush thee?’. He speaks to her as something less than human, but the answer to his question is that he means to crush her. To move forward from that distressing seashore to the actual atrocity: as Schedoni uncovers Ellena's bosom to twist his dagger in, he discovers, on a chain about her neck, a miniature portrait in his own image. Schedoni finds his resemblance on the trembling form which he, himself trembling, intends to stab: a token of kinship? As Ann Radcliffe's favourite Milton asked in Paradise Lost: ‘Of whom such massacre / Make they but of their brethren, men of men?’ (P.L. XI 679). Schedoni shares her humanity as well as her ancestors.

It may be asked why Ann Radcliffe, withdrawn, ailing and seldom leaving her house, where she was imprisoned more direly than any of her heroines by her asthma, was so busy writing stories about captive maidens in intemperate regions she had never visited. There may be something Godwinian in Ann Radcliffe's reading of history. In his Enquiry concerning Political Justice of 1793, Godwin distinguishes between private reason, or self-aggrandisement; and public reason, which subordinates private reason to political justice. Without public reason, the rulers of feudal times were, in the words of William Hazlitt, ‘speedily converted into hordes of barbarians and banditti.’5 Hazlitt cites the opening of Sir Walter Scott's Quentin Durward, a tale of the late fifteenth century, when, Scott writes, ‘in Auvergne alone there were three hundred nobles whose most ordinary actions were robbery, rape and murder.’ Although Ann Radcliffe's heroines escape the hazards of the ancient times which her admirer Scott deplored whilst recording them, she was, like Hazlitt, glad to live in the same age as Scott, when public justice restricted the private will of such polished banditti as the Marquis de Montalt, Signor Montoni and the Marchesa di Vivaldi.


  1. Aline Grant. Ann Radcliffe, Denver, 1951, p.12.

  2. ibid, pp.38-43.

  3. ibid, p.77.

  4. ibid, pp.68 & 100.

  5. William Hazlitt. The Spirit of the Age, ed. E. D. Mackerness, 1969, p.44.

The texts cited are those of the first editions of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797) and the revised fourth edition of The Romance of the Forest (1794), which are accurately reproduced in The World's Classics series issued by the Oxford University Press, 1979-86.

Patricia Whiting (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7232

SOURCE: “Literal and Literary Representations of the Family in The Mysteries of Udolpho,” in Eighteenth Century Fiction, Vol. 8, No. 4, July, 1996, pp. 485-501.

[In the following essay, Whiting investigates the theme of family by analyzing the different types of families that Emily experiences in Udolpho.]

From its publication, critical response to The Mysteries of Udolpho has been lively and mixed, particularly to the novel's explicable and explained supernatural, its long scenic descriptions, its anachronisms, and its mediocre poetry.1 In our own century, beginning most forcefully with Wylie Sypher's discussion of its relentless and almost defining ambiguity,2 critics have often been uneasy with the novel's seeming generic, political, and philosophical contradictions. The present essay attempts to explain a seemingly arbitrary episode in the novel, the adventure that befalls Count De Villefort, his daughter Blanche, and her fiancé St Foix during their return to Chateau-le-Blanc. This episode, involving one of the most fully elaborated characters in the novel, is both contained within its own chapter3 and also curiously without closure. But even critics focusing on aspects of family relations have almost universally ignored it.4 I will argue that, although the episode makes little narrative sense in terms of Emily's plot per se, in terms of the novel as a whole, it comments conclusively on an eighteenth-century vision of the family that Radcliffe, like other late eighteenth-century women writers, endorsed and wished to promote.

To make sense of this incident, we must work backwards, through Radcliffe's unusually detailed description of the domestic life in Chateau-le-Blanc, to the singularity with which she attends to family in general. Radcliffe presents the family in four distinct versions, three of which are self-consciously fictionalized. The first is the idealized family that nurtures the daughter, Emily St Aubert, from which she is abruptly expelled and to which she is eventually returned as wife. The second, a nightmarish perversion, is the family of Emily's guardian aunt Madame Cheron and the dark and predatory Montoni. Third is the family as an imaginary entity, a spectral phenomenon fabricated by Emily at Udolpho. The fourth representation, with which this essay is concerned, is Emily's second surrogate family, the De Villeforts, which claims a realism denied the other three. The multiple representations are valuable for their potential “to de-familiarize our unthinking assumptions about the family.”5 Taken as a discrete segment, however, the episode, particularly in light of the minute attention paid to the Count's character and the descriptions of family life at the Chateau, presents an image of the family ideologically consistent with other conservative endorsements in the Revolutionary decade. It is also marked by a desire to represent women paradoxically, as capable, intelligent, and influential, yet also passive and subordinate in accordance with late eighteenth-century norms of female behaviour.

The Count's adventure begins by mirroring the Languedoc journey of St Aubert, Emily, and Valancourt and ends by mirroring Emily's imprisonment at and escape from Udolpho. The effect of the incident is to remove the idealized family from the romanticized context of La Vallé and to put it as a unit through a trial in the harsh realities of the lawless and amoral world of the bandits' stronghold. The Count's adventure is comparable to the trial at Udolpho, which Emily as an individual undergoes in fact and imagination: both are shadowed by the events of the French Revolution. The successful outcome of the De Villeforts' trial establishes the family as a viable, though vulnerable, social unit, able to sustain a way of life in a menacing world. The strength of this family offers a rational and bourgeois corrective to the novel's other, opposing representations of the family.


The St Aubert family of the opening chapter is an ideal model of the modern affective family whose completeness and self-sufficiency is emphasized by the isolation of La Vallée.6 The cement that holds the St Auberts together is love and shared sensibility; the attractions and dangers of sensibility are St Aubert's primary legacy to his daughter. In one of the novel's most quoted passages, the dying St Aubert applies his earlier maxim, “All excess is vicious,” to sensibility, warning Emily that like all unrestrained passions and emotions, immoderate sensibility would victimize and debilitate, rather than support and dignify her. But, although St Aubert promotes moderation, he is quick to distinguish it from apathy. In his last long speech, he seems to retreat even further from a blanket condemnation of sensibility, finally ascribing to it a positive connotation: sensibility is vindicated when it issues in action. St Aubert's dictum anticipates the narrative situation in which sensibility will be subjected to the demands of others, demands that allow female action because of their extraordinary nature.

These speeches rephearse anti-Jacobin ambivalence about sensibility: at once condemned because of its association with uncontrolled passion, self-indulgence, and public and private evil, and co-opted because of its persuasive rhetorical power and potential for public and private good. On one level, the remainder of Udolpho is concerned with how Emily carries out her father's seemingly contradictory deathbed wish by performing an animated balancing act between the conflicting claims of intuition, imagination, and rationality, employing all and privileging none. Her strategy is the female version of the masculine dialectic enabled by the competing claims of the active and the contemplative life. This manoeuvre is mirrored in the narrative; although, ultimately, the book sides with rationality, an important space is left open for the free play of imagination and intuition.

The effectiveness of St Aubert's warning, however, is undermined by his own death from what appears to be at least in part an excess of grief over the loss of his wife. In the same way that his inability to moderate his sensibility results in his death, St Aubert's failure to balance the claims of the active and the contemplative life (through his complete renunciation of all that is worldly and his retirement to La Vallée) results in the failure of his business affairs. Both events have obvious implications for Emily's plot, leaving her both parentless and impoverished. They also signal trouble in paradise for the Edenic family, showing the inability of the familial pastoral ideal to afford dependable sustenance and its inadequacy as a guide to action, not only for daughters but for fathers.

Historically, the power of the family is in large part derived from its “naturalization” as a biologically determined given. As such, the family “is imbued with a unique social and moral force, since it is seen as the embodiment of general human values rather than the conventions of a particular society.”7 If what is being naturalized in Udolpho is a vision of the family as the arbiter of morality for relations with the outside world, together with a complementary vision of the family as a unit that provides protection for its members from the outside world, the idyllic, biologically uncorrupted St Aubert family will not serve as a model.

Nor, obviously, will Emily's surrogate family, which consists of her vain and shallow aunt and Madame Cheron's new and haughty husband, to whose castle in Italy Emily has suddenly and unexpectedly fled. David Punter's characterization of the structural description of life at Udolpho as “a grotesquely exaggerated but thoroughly recognizable picture of eighteenth-century bourgeois domestic life” is significant.8 The perversion of life at Udolpho resonates in all areas of family experience. The “voluntary” containment of women within the home is replaced by Emily's literal imprisonment. The warmth and affections of the St Auberts are replaced by the unwarranted and bizarre abusiveness of Madame Cheron and Montoni. The rituals that govern the courtship of Emily and Valancourt are revoked in favour of earlier contractual or fiscal dispositions of women by men, a retreat that appears to be not only sinister but barbaric, a perversion of the past that works against its glorification elsewhere in the novel. The communal nature of family life is replaced by Emily's literal and emotional isolation. Above all, the rational order of existence is replaced by the irrational world of Emily's imagination, activated by the tyranny of actual circumstance and by the loss of her family. The tyranny and anarchy of experience at Udolpho reflect not only the Burkean fear of tyranny and anarchy in the political realm, but also the analogous conservative fear of tyranny and anarchy in the domestic realm.9

Both tyranny and anarchy at Udolpho result from a loss of self-command. The tyranny of Emily's guardians is authorized by law (since Emily has not reached the age of majority) and by the universal acceptance of family hierarchy, in which male authority demands filial obedience. Madame Cheron poses no positive menace, but Montoni presents real threats, from the proposed forced marriage to Morano, to the coercive measures by which he tries to force Emily to sign over her property. Neither threat materializes, any more than Emily's ghosts materialize, but their insubstantiality does not diminish their enormous power or the terror that they provoke in both Emily and the reader. In part, the terror is derived from the older patriarchal structure of the family: Montoni's threats are couched in terms of prescriptions for Emily's behaviour which are themselves travesties of St Aubert's fatherly advice. But the terror also arises from the suspicion that tyrannical will, “unchecked by self-regulation, possesses a supreme authority which human laws cannot begin to limit; neither propriety nor property can escape its depredations.”10 The moral and political implications of Montoni's threats, originating in the absence of self-command, reinforce the central message of the novel and secure it to the conservative ethos of the 1790s.

Similarly, the anarchic potential of Emily's imagination is the result of her own partial or temporary lapses of self-command in the realm of sensibility. Anarchic potential manifests itself negatively, in the supernatural explanations that Emily accepts or assumes in her decoding of the mysteries of Udolpho, and that Ann Radcliffe meticulously explains away. Imaginative power, however, also manifests itself positively, through what Terry Castle has called the “supernaturalization of everyday life.”11 Everyday life is, of course, constituted in family relations, and Emily is not the only character to have a spectral family. The dying Madame St Aubert expresses “the firm hope of meeting in a future world the friends she left in this,” and she cannot completely hide “her sorrow at this temporary separation” (p. 19). The peasant La Voisin, who charms and shelters St Aubert and Emily, declares, “I trust that whenever I die I shall go to heaven, where my poor wife is gone before me. I can sometimes almost fancy I see her of a still moonlight night, walking among these shades she loved so well” (p. 67). Following Philippe Ariès, Castle writes of this “romantic cult of death”: “In the era of romantic individualism … the theme of sentimental reunion [of family members] became paramount. The coming together of husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, or parents and children after death, the blissful renewal of domestic life in a new ‘home’ in the hereafter became staple images in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century popular belief.”12 Again and again at Udolpho, Emily recreates her parents and Valancourt (for, as Castle also notes, ghosts may be the spirits of persons living or dead). From her spectralized family she gains fortitude—the particular form of female passivity demanded by her circumstances. But no ghostly presence can release Emily from the threatened effects of Montoni's real tyranny or free her from the confines of a material Udolpho.


These literary representations of the family in The Mysteries of Udolpho—the idealized pastoral family, the inverted demonized family, and the imaginary spectral family—have in common their service to the novel's conservative impulses and a fundamental unreality. However, the representation of the De Villefort family goes beyond the narrative function of resituating Emily in the rational world. The De Villeforts, despite their rationality, their aristocratic dignity, and their narrative convenience, constitute a flesh-and-blood family, with both strengths and warts. In this “realist” version of the family, reproduced generically in a temporary movement away from romance, Radcliffe privileges the likely in human relations over the illusory in imagination. Although the De Villeforts' correspondences to the members of Emily's “other” families are unmistakable, their relationship and what happens to them are a temporary departure from the Gothic. Radcliffe's brief but significant incursion into realist territory ratifies the bourgeois family by establishing its viability in an uncertain and unstable world, where the dangers are real, the stakes are absolute, and aristocratic birth is no proof against calamity. We might speculate that such ratification has a biographical origin. Ann Radcliffe was a product of the middle class, and her exposure to its realities is evidenced by her participation in its processes, whether direct, through her own industriousness and commercial success, or vicarious, through the lives of her merchant father and her journalist husband. Ambivalently, the ratification reflects both the conservative concerns of the revolutionary decade and bourgeois convictions that challenge aristocratic assumptions about honour, worth, and efficacy. The Count's party is saved not through but in spite of its aristocratic status—the incident presents a vision of the family whose strength is not derived from the accident of birth, but from values inherent in the bourgeois family itself.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the family had become an emblem and facilitator of middle-class hegemony. In English Gothic fiction of the 1790s, representations of the family serve as metaphor and barometer, both denoting and measuring the widespread restiveness of the period. Stephen Bernstein has written that in its late eighteenth-century capacity as agent of social regulation and surveillance the family serves a dual function as the crucible for the moral development of its members and the conduit of morality to the outside world.13 But if its political function can be tidily summarized, the constituent elements of the late eighteenth-century family were contradictory. In fact, the Protestant bourgeois family retained features endemic to a kinship system, including a healthy interest in furthering family status and power through politically and economically advantageous marriages, while it exhibited the characteristics of the sentimental family promoted by such writers as Locke and Rousseau, in which members were bound by ties of affection and in which the interests of one member were the interests of all. Egalitarian elements of Puritan marriage, such as the assumed spiritual and intellectual equality of husband and wife, were intermingled with notions promoted by the popular cult of sensibility, which maintained that romantic love was the only proper basis for marriage. Conservative writers such as Edmund Burke and Hannah More sought to stabilize these disparate elements through representations of the family as a symbol of order and continuity in a potentially lawless world. Ann Radcliffe also drew on conservative symbolism, not only politically but also narratively, to balance the three highly fictionalized and literary representations of family in The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Women had lost ground in their move to establish female spheres of authority in the post-Restoration private realm and, to a lesser extent, in the public realm. At the close of the century, paradoxically in very public and lucrative ways, Ann Radcliffe and Hannah More sought to establish female authority permanently in the domestic realm. Their version of female authority implied a moral superiority over men, but without altering the traditional hierarchies of the family. In this way, a balance between women and men, especially in the areas of child-rearing and moral influence, might be achieved. Egalitarianism in the home (an insistence on recognition of and respect for female domestic contributions) resided in the value of the separate duties of women and men rather than in a shift in traditional notions of sexual difference, such as those demanded by Mary Wollstonecraft's more radical feminism.

That Ann Radcliffe, the author of best-selling Gothic novels and travel books, should wish to participate in public debates over social issues is not as out of character as might first appear. In both The Romance of the Forest and The Italian, Radcliffe reveals a sophisticated knowledge of and interest in legal and political processes, and her preoccupation with family relations is manifest in all her fiction. According to Davidoff and Hall, the family loomed large as a subject for debate in a variety of publications directed at the middle classes. Not only the influential Evangelical writers William Cowper and Hannah More, but also “a host of minor writers, pre-eminently women … explored the ways in which [emergent domestic and sexual values] could be translated into the daily practice of the home, whether in nursery or kitchen.”14 The importance of the novel in this and other ideological processes has recently been much discussed. “The novel is neither a playful caprice of the imagination, divorced from any bearings in the ‘real,’ nor merely the mirror reflection of society. There is a process of mutual interaction and reconfirmation between text and history, and the image in the mirror constitutes and confirms the idea of human subjectivity in an interactional process.”15 In the eighteenth century, writers such as Clara Reeve had actively sought to distinguish the novel from romance precisely on the basis that readers might benefit from the novel's ability to identify issues and influence opinion. That Hannah More, whose mistrust of most fiction is legendary, realized the novel's influence is evident in the publication of her own didactic novel, Cœlebs in Search of a Wife. And the debate continues. Ruth Perry has recently put the case for the importance of literary sources, including fiction, for a much-needed revisionist history of the family: “Analyzed as a social practice within a market economy, literature consists of what people in a given period want to read about—constructed in familiar forms and conventions, consistent with other agents that socialize and constitute them as subjects within that culture. According to this way of thinking, art converts social consciousness into formal tropes that derive from lived experience but are not reducible to it.”16 Although it would be foolish to insist categorically that Ann Radcliffe had the reciprocity of life and art in mind when she wrote the Count De Villefort section of The Mysteries of Udolpho, I am suggesting that the passage joins the period's discourse of the family and the place of females in it, through a departure from the Gothic interiority of Emily's and St Aubert's worlds to an engagement with the exteriority of the De Villeforts' family relations.

The De Villefort family is neither completely good nor completely bad. Notably, the Countess is not the passive and obedient wife of the idealized family; instead, she is dissatisfied, articulate, and unrepentant, unwilling to give up town life, resentful of the Count's decision to occupy Chateau-le-Blanc—and by extrapolation, resentful of his power to enjoin her compliance. She is in violation of every precept of proper female domestic behaviour, openly critical of the Count, given over to “the luxuries of ennui” and to sentimental novels, vain, and more or less indifferent to her role as stepmother of the Count's children (p. 476). However, she is also not the despised and dismissed Madame Montoni, whose sharp tongue and opinionated single-mindedness she shares. Instead, the Countess retains a structural importance in the family; she speaks with some authority, and her opinions are heard and acknowledged, if not always appreciated. At the family outing to the sea, she displays a conciliatory side of her nature, wanting to “recover the Count's good opinion,” at which she succeeds (p. 481). Radcliffe treats the Countess with more humour than censure, and her reluctance to pass judgment on this transgressive female is supported by the Count's reaction to his wife's lapses in taste and manners. He is much annoyed with her description of the country around Chateau-le-Blanc as “a scene of savage nature” and her implied criticism of his ancestors' handiwork (p. 471). But on the outing, he is happy to see her happy, and he rewards her by agreeing with her plans for the pavilion. Though not extensive, the glimpse that the reader is given of the marriage of the Count and Countess is less stylized and more revealing than that of either the St Auberts or the Montonis. The De Villefort marriage manages to encompass irritation and appeasement, wilfulness and tractability, control and compromise, on the parts of both partners. The Count confesses to Emily that his true love was his first wife, but the Count has not died of grief. Instead, he has remarried a self-centred and beautiful woman and lives a domestic life that is messy but redeemable. There is a matter-of-factness here, a sense of what really constitutes the relations of two imperfect human individuals, that is not found elsewhere in Radcliffe's work; it does not suggest reductively that the family is a safe haven in a heartless world, but that the family is large enough to contain the contradictions inherent in its composition.

The son Henri, neither a copy nor a stark inversion of his father, is a bored and slightly spoiled young man whose courage, when called upon, will suffice. He is distinguished by the trust that the Count places in him, not only by sharing the watch in the chamber, but more significantly, by sharing with him the secret of what happens there and enjoining him to strict silence on the matter. In contrast to the callousness with which Mazzini throws his son into the dungeon in A Sicilian Romance or the absolute obedience that the Marchese expects from Vivaldi in The Italian, Count De Villefort's confidence in the essential trustworthiness of Henri, notwithstanding his feckless behaviour in Paris, may reflect a shift in the configuration of father-son relations, from traditional patriarchal authority to a more fraternal patriarchy, a phenomenon that has been discussed at length by both Carole Pateman and Lynn Hunt.17 The family also includes Mademoiselle Bearn, an unmarried outsider unconnected to the family by blood, marriage, marriage potential, or servitude.18 In fact, of all the members of the Count's household, only the servant Dorothée can be said to typify the family relations presented elsewhere in Radcliffe's work.

Blanche, in many respects typical of Radcliffe heroines, is a mirror image of Emily, although she is more animated and adventurous than her counterpart. Leaving the convent for Chateau-le-Blanc, which symbolizes the world where “nothing but pleasure and goodness reigned,” Blanche expresses her enthusiasm at “the prospect of novelty and freedom now before her” (p. 466). On her journey home, she experiences “inexpressible delight” (p. 467), and, unabashedly romantic, associates her first views of the chateau with knights in black armour and damsels in distress. A rustling in the hall of the chateau reveals Blanche's susceptibility to imaginative terror, but this is momentary; matter-of-factly, “ashamed of her ridiculous apprehensions, she recollected courage enough to demand who was there” (pp. 472-73). When a gloomy walk on the grounds of the chateau alters her “gay spirits” from enthusiasm to “pensive complacency,” a mere view of the Mediterranean restores them to “exquisite delight” (pp. 476-77). Up close, the sea frightens Blanche, but “by a strong effort … she so far overcame her fears as to follow her father into the boat” where, once at sea, “an emotion of sublimest rapture struggled to overcome a sense of personal danger” (p. 480). Blanche succeeds in subduing her fears: “a delightful tranquility stole over her mind, and held her in silence; and she was too happy even to remember the convent, or her former sorrows, as subjects of comparison with her present felicity” (p. 481). Blanche's openness to experience and her inclination towards the positive not only differentiate her temperamentally from Emily, but also predispose her to act in certain ways when she and her family are in real danger from banditti.

Not incidentally, the family member on whom Radcliffe focuses most of her attention is the Count. His character is more fully drawn than those of other family members, and it is drawn almost entirely in relation to others. His relation to the dead St Aubert, however, is marked by significant differences. He shares St Aubert's preference for the country over the city, but he does not retire to Chateau-le-Blanc in the same spirit of retirement as St Aubert withdraws to La Vallée. He shares St Aubert's sensibility to the beauties of nature, but while St Aubert's sensibility remains fixed in time, the Count's is subject to the vicissitudes of age. In contrast to St Aubert's advice to Emily to be moderate in sensibility, the Count counsels Emily to be prudent in her worldly affairs, specifically in her proposed marriage to Vallancourt.

The conservative and the progressive senses of honour and virtue are united in the Count. His aristocratic position confers authority on his benevolent wisdom, but his bourgeois attitude towards his property also confers credibility on his aristocratic background. In his altercation with the Countess, the Count's relation to his property is associated rather harmlessly with the past when he defends Chateau-le-Blanc on ancestral grounds. His proprietary interest is more significant in light of the fact that it conflates the widespread eighteenth-century notion that property confers character19 and the bourgeois notion that tasteful improvement of property was central to the identification of a true gentleman—a major arena for the struggle for social, economic, and political hegemony. Thus, at the family outing, the Count “surveyed [the scene] with the pride of conscious property, as well as with the eye of taste” (p. 481). It is property, and the Count's proper relationship to it, and not merely birth, that distinguish between the Count's aristocracy and Morano's, which emblematizes the progressive critique of a decadent male aristocracy.

If the Count embodies the conservative faith in the “potential, wisdom and power of the upper classes,”20 Radcliffe does not, like More and Burke, retain a reductive conservative view of the family as symbolic of all that is continuous, changeless, and safe.21 Nor, in a period in which the notion of the benevolent family man—the good father—looms large, does Radcliffe configure the Count as perfect. Neither the idealized father nor the stylized villain of Radcliffe's other fictional families, the Count is an example of a good person who can be wrong and whose wrongheadedness may have serious consequences, as when he accepts false reports about Vallancourt, or misjudges the situation at the bandits' stronghold. His fallibility, however, does not render the Count dismissable. As Kim Ian Michasiw has observed, “for Radcliffe, the power of the father is never specious. It derives from the institution of the family and, however weak or criminal the individual father might be, he draws real power from the symbolic Father for whom he stands.”22 Thus supported, the Count's subject position as father, husband, and father-surrogate reveals how family life is the sphere in which honour and virtue become lived experience. In this sense, the Count's aristocracy has less to do class or with family romance than with Radcliffe's universalizing of “proper” family relations, a concept that crosses class lines, starting in the middle and working out in both directions.


But the De Villefort family, even with its ordinariness and disharmony revealed, is still contained within the domestic space of Chateau-le-Blanc. Radcliffe questions the viability of the family unit outside its natural surroundings by removing the Count, Blanche, and St Foix from the relative safety of home and setting them down, lost, at night, in an impending storm, in the wilds of the Pyrenees. The Count's journey begins as a replication of the Pyrenean journey of St Aubert, Emily, and eventually, Valancourt, with pastoral, beautiful, and sublime elements. The travellers exhibit the characteristics of their counterparts: the Count expresses true sensibility through his love of the pastoral and his disgust with the worldly; his interest in natural history corresponds to St Aubert's interest in botany. Blanche shares Emily's enthusiastic appreciation of the beautiful and her apprehension about the sublime, and like Emily, she is an attentive listener to the discourse of her father and her lover. The established relations of Blanche and St Foix are in contrast to the uncertain and unspecified relations of Emily and Valancourt in their corresponding moments, an important distinction that reinforces St Foix's familial relation to the De Villeforts.

On the journey, the response to the mere suggestion of banditti and wolves, evoked by travellers' stories, is described and experienced in the individual, emotional terms of Blanche's fear. However, the real, physical danger of a chasm that must be crossed by means of a pine bridge, “from which to fall was to die,” provokes a collective, conventional, and active response. Blanche stands “trembling on the brink,” until, preceded by St Foix and supported by the Count (that is, contained within the family), she crosses the bridge to safety (p. 603). Later, when Blanche is “almost sinking beneath the pressure of anxiety, fatigue and apprehension,” the united efforts of the Count and St Foix are joined to support her spirits (p. 604).

The supposed safety of the opposite side of the chasm is immediately thrown into doubt. The Count assumes that a distant structure is a watchtower—at one time a symbol of community defence and, at another, a symbol of the pastoral, a shelter for hunters and shepherds—and his reassurances to Blanche rely on such favourable connotations. The structure, however, is a ruined fortress, associated by both the reader and the travellers, through Emily's experience, with isolation, oppression, irrationality, and evil. In the face of the potential or imaginary threat of the castle, Radcliffe returns to the strategy of individual response, particularly that of the Count, who, “as he stood surveying it, was somewhat surprised, that it had been suffered, ancient as it was, to sink into ruins, and its present lonely and deserted air excited in his breast emotions of melancholy awe” (p. 606). It is not his proprietary interest but his emotions that cause him to hesitate before knocking at the gate, “for its wild aspect had somewhat shaken his former resolution” (p. 607). The real threat of the storm, however, overrides the Count's fear, caution, and suspicions, as well as Blanche's intuitive response to “quit the place” (p. 608). Once inside, the threat remains uncertain and nonspecific, and the response to it is individual and emotional. In the presence of his hosts, the Count experiences “anxiety” and “mistrust,” even as he tries to perform the duties of the gracious guest and grateful traveller. The threat becomes specific and imminent when Blanche is accidentally separated from the others and overhears the bandits' plans to murder her whole party.

The orientation of the response to the real threat from the bandits, although presented for a time from Blanche's limited point of view, is not individual but collective. Though terrified, Blanche's instinctive decision to warn her family is not confounded by passive fortitude or by a code of proper female conduct, but by circumstance: she trips on a step and is found out. Female terror is seen to provoke action, and she responds with shrieks and screams to finding herself alone with murderous bandits. She willingly gives up her possessions, even the miniature of St Foix, with high sentimental value, asking in return only that she be restored to her family. When St Foix appears, covered in blood and pursued by villains, Blanche faints, but rouses herself, and “by a sudden effort of horror,” moves to where he lies wounded; again, terror is seen to be a goad to female action (p. 615). An important difference between Emily's and Blanche's responses is that between terror experienced inside or outside the context of family life. Emily's own boldest incursions into the labyrinths of Udolpho are made in search of her aunt. A woman may override the demands of passivity, in order to respond to the prior claim of mutual family protection.23 Although female agency in a family cause is hardly radical feminism, it must be remembered that in the 1790s, “With the elevation of the close-knit family unit to symbolic status, as the corner-stone of the social edifice, the very topic of feminine independence … became virtually taboo.”24 Radcliffe's insistence on the necessity of female action in service to the family is also evident in The Italian, in which Ellena embroiders silks which are in turn sold by the nuns to rich ladies. Here, Ellena, like Radcliffe herself, conceals her industry from the world, and while she does not “glory in the dignity of virtuous independence,”25 she takes a private pride in her contribution to her aunt's household.

During the crisis, the Count and St Foix again share a common purpose: to restore Blanche to their protection. When the servant Ludovico, missing and presumed dead, finds the party, the Count is not fretting over his capture, his misjudgment, the certain loss of his property, or the likely loss of his life. Rather, the Count is “alarmed at the absence of the Lady Blanche” (p. 634). When he finds her, she runs to his arms, “while he, letting fall the bloody sword he held, pressed her to his bosom in a transport of gratitude and joy” (p. 616). In the interrelated terms of family and class relations, the symbolism of dropping the bloody sword in order to embrace the daughter cannot be missed. The significance is not limited to a reversal of masculine sensibility, from the heroic to the affectionate; it extends to a broader shift in the concept of honour. The Count's action neatly and effectively replaces the male configuration of sexuality, sword, and aristocracy with the middle-class internalization of honour in the chastity of the female body.26

Nevertheless, the shift in male sensibility is not to be ignored. In her discussion of “the daughter's plot” in Radcliffe's novels, Spacks has noted that such plots not only ascribe value to female attributes, but also serve to demystify the authority of the father.27 In the episode in which the Count finds Blanche, what occurs is not so much demystification or subversion of paternal authority as a shift in terms, to an adoption of female values by a father whose fundamental authority goes unchallenged. There is no implied feminization or cowardice in the Count's rejection of the sword; Radcliffe is careful to keep masculinity at the level of action, thereby differentiating her own version of reformed masculinity from those of the period's most influential commentators on the new domestic man—Hannah More, for whom his defining features are religion and reason, or William Cowper, for whom the defining feature is complete withdrawal into the contemplative life.

That the family is rescued by Ludovico is coincidental, though narratively convenient; Ludovico's abduction from the haunted chamber facilitates not only the Count's rescue, but also the unravelling of the pirates' plot and the solution to the mystery of Chateau-le-Blanc. The likelihood of Ludovico's imprisonment in the very castle at whose gate the Count accidentally arrives in the middle of a stormy night is not great. Yet the rescue by Ludovico makes far more sense than the rescue of Emily by an unknown and undreamt-of longtime admirer, Du Pont. This satisfies the generic demands of romance; the Count's rescue by Ludovico satisfies the structural demands of domestic order. If the highest form of service is the giving of life, either by the giving up of one's own or by the preservation of another's, Ludovico proves himself the worthiest of servants. Although the figure of the servant who rescues his master is not unique to Radcliffe or the Gothic, and although I do not want to overstress the domestic nature of the rescue, in comparison with Emily's romantic rescue by Du Pont, the rescue of the De Villefort family by one of its own underscores the strength and resourcefulness of the family unit in its negotiations with a threatening world.

It might be argued that generically the De Villefort episode can be read as pure romance, rather than the “realist” reading that I am suggesting. Yet it can also be argued that the lack of closure at the end of the chapter has the double effect of undercutting a purely romance reading and of contributing to Radcliffe's serious statement on the late eighteenth-century family. Deborah Ross has agreed with other writers on the Gothic that “closure is as basic to romance as adventure is, especially as romance was understood in the eighteenth century.”28 In a novel in which foreclosure on the supernatural amounts to an obsession and in which the ending is so closed as to come full circle, with the heroine and her husband taking the place of her dead parents, the ending of the De Villefort episode is unique: “Ludovico was going to obey him, when suddenly they heard the echo of a pistol-shot, from the way they had passed, and they rose in alarm, hastily to pursue their route” (p. 618). Although it would be cavalier to suggest that its lack of closure represents Radcliffe's serious and intentional nod at the realist novel, the narrative inconclusiveness of the incident does have this effect: it portrays the family unit as ever-vulnerable to threats from the outside world.

What makes the De Villeforts a “modern” nuclear family is not consanguinity, the twentieth-century tie, but relations—relations of people and of property. David Durant has argued that in Radcliffe, family represents the antithesis of chaos, and that “the world outside the family is utterly perverse in its villainy.”29 I argue that the inclusion of the De Villefort episode signals Radcliffe's qualification of this position. Through the Count and his family, Radcliffe seems to imply that the world cannot so easily be avoided, that the family after all exists in the world and is subject to its dangers as well as its pleasures. Furthermore, the incident, owing to the Count's mistaken privileging of rational judgment over intuition, challenges the infallibility of the rational and insists upon the necessity and usefulness of the irrational, both imagination and instinct: for truly prudent conduct in the affairs of life, the promptings of imagination and instinct are ignored at one's peril.


  1. Deborah Rogers, ed., The Critical Response to Ann Radcliffe (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. xxx-xxxiii.

  2. Wylie Sypher, “Social Ambiguity in a Gothic Novel,” Partisan Review 12 (1945), 50-60.

  3. Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, ed. Bonamy Dobrée (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), vol. 4, chap. 12 (pp. 596-618). References are to this edition.

  4. For example, Sypher limits mention of the Count to the family's outing before the storm and, noting the pastoral setting, locates the De Villeforts unproblematically in the area of the pastoral (p. 58). For E.B. Murray the Count exists only to further Emily's and Ludovico's stories: see Ann Radcliffe (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972), pp. 124-28. Kate Ferguson Ellis, who, in her discussion of The Romance of the Forest, treats Adeline's surrogate, La Luc, at some length, does not allude to the Count in her discussion of Udolpho, even though she writes extensively of family relations in the novel and even though the Count's story is far more discrete, individualized, and detailed than the parable of La Luc: see The Contested Castle (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989), pp. 107-24.

  5. Ruth Perry, “De-Familiarizing the Family; or, Writing Family History from Literary Sources,” Modern Language Quarterly 55 (1994), 420.

  6. I avoid the term “nuclear family” because of a possible confusion between family as a system of extended kinship relations whose binding features were status and power and which was a product of a feudal economy, and family as a fundamentally biological unit whose binding features were affection and mutuality and which evolved with the rise of individualism and of capitalism. Historians such as Bernice Gottlieb have demonstrated the inaccuracy of such an opposition by showing that both forms of the family have existed side by side since the Middle Ages. See Bernice Gottlieb, The Family in the Western World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 13. In Udolpho, Radcliffe is promoting a system of Protestant bourgeois values, rather than validating an emergent family form.

  7. Michele Barrett and Mary McIntosh, The Anti-Social Family (London: Verso, 1982), p. 27. For a discussion of the interrelations between family, state, and economics in the historical construction of the “natural” bourgeois family, see Linda J. Nicholson, Gender and History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 105-30.

  8. David Punter, “Social Relations of Gothic Fiction,” Romanticism and Ideology, ed. David Aers, Jonathan Cook, and David Punter (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 115.

  9. Edmund Burke himself made explicit the analogue between family and state in his argument for adherence to the “natural” conduct of the state through the judicious retention of the past: “In this choice of inheritance we have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood; binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties; adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections; keeping inseparable, and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities, our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars.” Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Conor Cruise O'Brien (London: Penguin, 1986), p. 120. In Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, 2 vols (New York: Garland Publishing, 1974), Hannah More, writing of the domestic sphere, draws a parallel between family and state in her argument for mutual dependence as the cement that secures the union of both (2:170).

  10. April London, “Ann Radcliffe in Context: Marking the Boundaries of The Mysteries of Udolpho,Eighteenth-Century Life 10 (1986), 43.

  11. Terry Castle, “The Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho,The New Eighteenth Century, ed. Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown (New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 234.

  12. Castle, p. 243.

  13. Stephen Bernstein, “Form and Ideology in the Gothic Novel,” Essays in Literature 18 (1991), 159.

  14. Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 149.

  15. Christine Van Boheemen, The Novel as Family Romance: Language, Gender, and Authority from Fielding to Joyce (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), p. 44.

  16. Perry, pp. 424-25.

  17. Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988); and Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

  18. Davidoff and Hall explain the function of resident outsiders in this way: “Inclusion of relationships further from the nuclear core helped to create the dense network which gave security to individuals. Large numbers within each family, combined with flexible boundaries, contributed to cohesion of the group as a whole, as well as defusing potential conflict from intense intra-family attachments” (pp. 321-22).

  19. London, p. 38.

  20. Davidoff and Hall, p. 169.

  21. Mary Poovey has written that “Rather than proposing an alternative to paternalistic society and its values, [Radcliffe] merely reasserts an idealized—and insulated—paternalism and relegates the issues she cannot resolve to the background of her narrative.” “Ideology and ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho,” Criticism 21 (1979), 311. I obviously disagree.

  22. Kim Ian Michasiw, “Ann Radcliffe and the Terrors of Power,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 6 (1994), 336.

  23. This passage aptly illustrates Patricia Meyer Spacks's observation that in Radcliffe “the notion that affiliative as well as aggressive feeling generates force.” Desire and Truth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 161.

  24. Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 94.

  25. Ann Radcliffe, The Italian, ed. Frederick Garber (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 9.

  26. For a comprehensive discussion of this shift, see Michael McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel 1600-1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), pp. 157-58.

  27. Spacks, p. 161.

  28. Deborah Ross, The Excellence of Falsehood: Romance, Realism, and Women's Contribution to the Novel (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1991), p. 146.

  29. David Durant, “Ann Radcliffe and the Conservative Gothic,” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 22 (1982), 525.

Terry Castle (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7969

SOURCE: Introduction to The Mysteries of Udolpho, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. vii-xxvi.

[In the following essay, Castle, while agreeing with other critical assessments that Radcliffe's work is erratic and seriously flawed, argues that the novel should not be dismissed completely because Udolpho has a definite emotional power that the unprejudiced reader can learn to appreciate.]

Perhaps no work in the history of English fiction has been more often caricatured—trivialized, misread, remade as hearsay—than Ann Radcliffe's late eighteenth-century Gothic classic The Mysteries of Udolpho. Some readers, indeed, will know Radcliffe's novel only as hearsay: as that delightfully ‘horrid’ book—full of castles and crypts and murdered wives—pressed upon Catherine Morland, the gullible young heroine of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1817), by her Bath friend Isabella Thorpe. After consuming the book in a great voluptuous binge, the impressionable Catherine begins to see the everyday world around her as a kind of Gothic stage-set against which friends and acquaintances metamorphose—absurdly—into outsized Radcliffean villains and victims. The results are amusing: Northanger Abbey remains one of the great spoofs on reading-as-hallucination. But Udolpho itself is mere pretext—the intertextual cliché, or thing already known, upon which Austen builds her chic comedy of misapprehension.

How well do we really know The Mysteries of Udolpho? We may be able to recite the familiar commonplaces: that it is the greatest (or at least most famous) of Gothic romances; that it has an archetypal ‘Gothic villain’ (the nasty Montoni); that it is loaded with exotic scenery; that its heroine, a victim of ‘sensibility’, faints a lot. We may even venture the opinion that it is a bit of a ‘silly’ book too—or at least so everyone says. Yet even while reciting, the conscientious reader—anyone who reads what Radcliffe really wrote—must feel a twinge of bad faith. For none of the clichés quite seems to get at it: at the sheer capacious strangeness of the work before us. Udolpho has a way of escaping critical formulas: it is always bigger and baggier and more uncanny than one thought it was. No trite summing-up can capture the novel's dreamy, surreal flow of incident, the odd, mediumistic shifts through space and time, the often bewildering vagaries in Radcliffe's handling of plot, character, and scene. To say what Udolpho ‘is’ is inevitably to reduce it.

Consider the very notion that it is a ‘Gothic’ fiction. If by ‘Gothic’ we mean that The Mysteries of Udolpho caters in parts to a decadent late-eighteenth-century taste for things gloomy, macabre, and medieval, then Gothic it certainly is. Horace Walpole had ushered the Gothic craze into England thirty years earlier with The Castle of Otranto (1764), a short and often campy tale of usurpation, incest, and accidental child-murder in twelfth-century Sicily. While seeming thin to most modern readers, Walpole's dire little Italian romance undoubtedly impressed Radcliffe greatly. In the second volume of Udolpho, when the rapacious brigand chieftain Montoni threatens Emily St Aubert, his beautiful orphaned niece, with ‘remorseless vengeance’ for refusing to sign over to him the Gascon estates she has inherited from her father, the exorbitantly melodramatic situation is straight out of Otranto's overheated pages. Likewise, the grim castle in the Apennines in which Emily is held captive—full of dungeons and crypts, blood-spattered walls, and dank, labyrinthine passageways—is a crumbling medieval fortress in the Walpolean mode.

Indeed in the crucial matter of architecture Radcliffe might be said to improve upon the prototype. While fearsome to its inhabitants, Otranto's eponymous castle is a curiously indistinct and unmemorable edifice, a mere cardboard surround for the novel's frenetic, artificial chain of action. The Castle of Udolpho, however, is a full-blown Gothic pile, glowering, savage, and immense—as the heroine discovers on glimpsing it first from afar:

Emily gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle, which she understood to be Montoni's; for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. As she gazed, the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin vapour crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipped with splendour. From those too, the rays soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign.

(pp. 226-7)

With so glorious and horrible a structure as part of the fictional landscape, it is no wonder that so many of Udolpho's readers have seen the various events taking place in and around the castle—the terrorizing of Emily by assorted ruffians, the cruel torment of her aunt, who is tricked into marriage with Montoni and ends up as his starving victim, or the celebrated episode of the black veil, in which Emily, exploring a mysterious abandoned chamber, discovers under a veil something too ‘ghastly’ to be described (pp. 248-9)—as the defining events of the novel itself.

And yet to label The Mysteries of Udolpho ‘Gothic’ and leave it at that would be a mistake. Great swatches of the text—too much of it to ignore—have little to do with Montoni or his villainies. As the first-time reader will discover, the heroine doesn't even hear about Udolpho, let alone pass through its hoary precincts, for almost two hundred pages, a good third of the way into the novel. Instead, Radcliffe devotes her entire first volume to a bizarre quasi-travelogue: the fantastically elaborated account of a ‘tour’ that Emily and her father, the noble but ailing St Aubert, take through Languedoc and the Pyrenees. While important events in the plot transpire in the course of these somewhat dreamlike wanderings—Emily meets the handsome huntsman, Valancourt, with whom she will fall in love, St Aubert eventually dies and is buried at the convent of St Clair—the narrative repeatedly dissolves into extended, diffuse, often phantasmagoric descriptions of landscape:

It was evening when they descended the lower alps, that bind Rousillon, and form a majestic barrier round that charming country, leaving it only on the east to the Mediterranean. The gay tints of cultivation once more beautified the landscape; for the lowlands were covered with the richest hues, which a luxuriant climate, and an industrious people can awaken into life. Groves of lemon and orange perfumed the air, their ripe fruit glowing among the foliage; while, sloping to the plains, extensive vineyards spread their treasures. Beyond these, woods and pastures, and mingled towns and hamlets stretched towards the sea, on whose bright surface gleamed many a distant sail; while, over the whole scene, was diffused the purple glow of evening.

(p. 55)

At moments like this (and there are many) the novel seems hypnotized by the possibility of not becoming a Gothic novel—of remaining instead in a world of beautiful, unfolding description. Transported by the hallucinatory ‘charms’ of nature, Emily and her friends may in turn remind us of moon-walkers, travelling in endless slow motion through a mauve-tinted dusk.

When Montoni appears on the scene near the end of Volume 1 and takes Emily and her aunt (whom he has just married) to Venice, the sense of psychic digression—of the novel refusing to become itself—persists. Radcliffe's images of the city, to which Byron would pay homage in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, shimmer, it is true, in visionary light:

Nothing could exceed Emily's admiration on her first view of Venice, with its islets, palaces, and towers rising out of the sea, whose clear surface reflected the tremulous picture in all its colours. The sun, sinking in the west, tinted the waves and the lofty mountains of Friuli, which skirt the northern shores of the Adriatic, with a saffron glow, while on the marble porticos and colonnades of St. Mark were thrown the rich lights and shades of evening. As they glided on, the grander features of this city appeared more distinctly: its terraces, crowned with airy yet majestic fabrics, touched, as they now were, with the splendour of the setting sun, appeared as if they had been called up from the ocean by the wand of an enchanter, rather than reared by mortal hands.

(pp. 174-5)

Yet as we float with Emily and her party down the Grand Canal, past gleaming Palladian villas and gay masqueraders disporting on balconies, we are far from any realm of medieval horrors. Though Udolpho is set in 1584, blatant anachronisms abound here—from the laughing revellers ‘drinking coffee’ at open-air cafés to the glittering ‘casinos’ to which Montoni and his henchmen retire during their sojourn in the city. These anachronisms can be explained: never having visited Venice (or any other of the exotic places depicted in her novel), Radcliffe was forced to rely for local colour on contemporary travel-books such as Hester Thrale Piozzi's Observations and Reflections made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy and Germany (1789). What she ends up giving us is the elegant Venice of Canaletto and Goldoni. But the explanation cannot alter one's sense of a generic violation. When Emily is shown delicately imbibing ‘collations of fruits and ice’ and hearkening with pleasure to the canzonetti of passing gondoliers, the novel seems perversely anti-Gothic in mode: luminous, neoclassical, even oddly comic, as in the scenes between her and an Italian would-be suitor, the lute-plucking Count Morano.

Even in the Udolpho section itself, the novel is not always as ‘Gothic’ as it might be. True, the castle is a place of bloodshed and mayhem—Montoni is waging a war against rival robber bands and faces a constant threat of rebellion among his own forces—but Emily's own physical safety, paradoxically, is never really in question. Although she fears sexual violation or worse at his hands, Montoni's interest in her is more economic than libidinous: he simply wants her money. Even then, he seems too preoccupied with his own affairs to give her much thought. (She is left alone in her room in the castle for pages and pages.) When he does fix his attention on her, he functions more as protector than ravisher. Twice he rescues her from potential kidnappers, the spurned Count Morano (pp. 266-7) and the ‘ruffianly’ porter Barnardine (pp. 348-9). And towards the end of the Udolpho sojourn, he actually sends her out of the castle for her own well-being. While he and his troops clash with rampaging condottieri Emily is happily ensconced (as if on a Club Med vacation) in a pleasant Tuscan cottage near the Mediterranean coast, surrounded by woods and vineyards and purling streams (p. 413). So amusingly incongruous is this interlude (Radcliffe spends two whole chapters on it), it is no wonder that critics have never known what to make of it.

A similar point might be made about the long concluding section of the novel. If in its first two thirds Udolpho seems not always to know it is a Gothic novel, in its last third—after Emily escapes (rather easily and anticlimatically) from Montoni and his minions and finds safety at Chateau-le-Blanc, the estate of the benevolent Count De Villefort—it seems to forget it ever was one. ‘Gothic’ passages can of course be found here, the most famous being when Emily and Dorothée, the count's ancient housekeeper, venture into an unused bedchamber in which the château's former mistress, the Marchioness of Villeroi, died some years before. Seeing a pall on the bed appear to move by itself and ‘the apparition of a human countenance’ rising above it, the two women flee in terror, thinking the room haunted (pp. 535-6). Only later will it be revealed—after the servant Ludovico mysteriously disappears from the same room, only to appear again unharmed a week or two later—that pirates have been using the room (which has a secret tunnel to the outside) as a storage place for smuggled goods. In a classic instance of the Radcliffean ‘explained supernatural’, Emily learns that it was these same pirates, pretending to be ghosts, who moved the pall to frighten her and Dorothée away (p. 633).

Yet here too Radcliffe contradicts stereotypes—by shifting towards outright satire. At times it is almost as if she were trying to write in advance of Austen her own version of Northanger Abbey. Despite its ‘haunted’ chamber, Chateau-le-Blanc turns out to be more English-Neoclassical than Gothic-Hideous in style; though it has an ancient turret and a Gothic wing, the greater part of it is ‘light and airy’ like a Georgian country house (p. 472). And Henri and Blanche De Villefort, the count's grown-up children, curiously prefigure Henry and Eleanor Tilney, the witty brother and sister who befriend the credulous Catherine Morland in Austen's novel. Like his Tilney namesake, Henri de Villefort has the teasing manner we associate with Austen heroes; and Blanche, who has just left a convent, is firmly opposed to ‘monkish’ gloom and doom. When Mademoiselle Bearn, a fashionable visitor from Paris, jokingly says to her, after Blanche absents herself a while from company, that she had begun to wonder if ‘the giant of this enchanted castle, or the ghost, which, no doubt, haunts it, had conveyed you through a trap-door into some subterranean vault, whence you was never to return,’ Blanche and Henri banter in reply, and Henri caps their dialogue with a typically Tilneyish gallantry:

‘No,’ replied Blanche, laughingly, ‘you seem to love adventures so well, that I leave them for you to achieve.’

‘Well, I am willing to achieve them, provided I am allowed to describe them.’

‘My dear Mademoiselle Bearn,’ said Henri, as he met her at the door of the parlour, ‘no ghost of these days would be so savage as to impose silence on you. Our ghosts are more civilized than to condemn a lady to a purgatory severer even, than their own, be it what it may.’

(p. 473)

One might object that Henri and Blanche remain undeveloped as characters and disappear altogether when Radcliffe turns to resolving Emily's tangled love-affair with the long-lost Valancourt in Udolpho's final chapters. But their chaffing presence is symptomatic of larger incoherencies of style and tone. In moments such as the foregoing—or indeed when the somewhat ridiculous truth emerges about the not-very-frightening pirates in the ‘haunted room’—Radcliffe seems not only to repudiate the label ‘Gothic novelist’ but to anticipate, peculiarly, her most famous lampooner.

Other Udolpho clichés are equally problematic. Virtually anything one might say about the work—down to its most basic textual features—can be countered. The book is its own antithesis; the clichés fail to hold. Witness its curious formal oscillations between prose and poetry. We typically classify The Mysteries of Udolpho as a novel, of course, because it is long and in prose. Or is it? A more poetry-ridden kind of prose can scarcely be imagined. Radcliffe regularly begins each chapter with a formal poetic epigraph—usually a chunk from Shakespeare or Milton or a mid-eighteenth-century poet such as Thomson, Beattie, or Blair. In turn, her characters write poems, which are then inserted more or less gratuitously into the narrative. (The 25-stanza poem ‘The Sea-Nymph’, supposedly composed by Emily while floating in a gondola down the Grand Canal (pp. 179-81), is a typical specimen.) And, perhaps most interestingly, the third-person narrator sometimes uses poetic epithets to lend fervour to her own omniscient utterances:

The solitary life, which Emily had led of late, and the melancholy subjects, on which she had suffered her thoughts to dwell, had rendered her at times sensible to the ‘thick-coming fancies’ of a mind greatly enervated.

(p. 102)

Yet, why remove her from the castle, where deeds of darkness had, she feared, been often executed with secrecy?—from chambers, perhaps

With many a foul, and midnight murder stain'd.

(p. 407)

This ‘sampling’ of the poetic is unquestionably of literary-historical significance. Radcliffe is the first important English novelist to use poetic epigraphs, interpolated poems, and poetic fragments decoratively, as it were, for their suggestive or mood-enhancing effects. (Matthew Lewis, Sir Walter Scott, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and countless minor novelists of the nineteenth century would follow in her stead.) The phenomenon says a great deal about the new preeminence of the novel genre at the end of the eighteenth century. Mikhail Bakhtin has suggested that since its beginnings the novel's great power as a literary form has been its uncanny ability to ‘incorporate’—and thus render obsolete or superfluous—other kinds of writing through citation. The Radcliffean use of epigraphs illustrates the process perfectly. By compulsively excerpting from Shakespeare, Milton, and the rest, Radcliffe invests her narrative with a kind of supplemental ‘poetic’ authority—often to the point of thematic overkill. (By Volume 2, Chapter 3, we already know that Montoni is wicked and devious: the prefatory epigraph here from Julius Caesar—describing a similarly scheming Cassius—simply reinforces the point.) But the obsessional work of cutting and pasting also enacts, in the most literal way possible, the generic annexation of the poetic by the novelistic. When Shakespeare, Gray, or Il Penseroso is reduced to a sound-bite, a tiny mood-setting fragment within a great wash of prose narrative, the impinging obsolescence of the poetic—its loss of cultural relevance—is palpably if paradoxically confirmed.

For the reader, however, the effect of such sampling is to turn the fiction into a disconcerting textual hybrid. We are constantly forced to switch gears as we read; to adjust our concentration; to decide, indeed, how much of the work before us we will try to absorb. Do we read or skip Radcliffe's poetical interpolations? Some readers, eager for the illusion of a continuously unfolding story, will bypass them altogether—more or less guiltily. But even with rampant skipping, the sense of interrupted flow, of having to respond subliminally to constant changes in textual format, persists. The experience of cognitive dissonance may be frequent enough—and severe enough—to make us question at times whether we are reading a ‘novel’ at all. When Radcliffe cuts away from the intensifying psychic conflict between Emily and Montoni in Volume 2, for example, to inflict upon us Emily's irrelevant verses on ‘Ilion's plains, where once the warrior bled’ (‘Stanzas’, pp. 206-8), the sense of formal instability is overpowering.

When it comes to technique—Radcliffe's handling of point of view, narrative tempo, and so on—the standard formulas fail yet again. Udolpho is often described as a psychological fiction, with Emily's ‘sensibility’—her ‘maturing’ response to the world—a central and compelling focus. We see things from her vantage-point, supposedly, and feel along with her as she comes to understand events and the motivations of others. This might be true, were she more consistently the novel's presiding consciousness. But she is not. She is absent from long stretches of narrative—most disconcertingly in some of the Chateau-le-Blanc scenes. And even when she is there, she is not always ‘there’. Radcliffe often switches away from her viewpoint abruptly—as when we jump between paragraphs from Emily's thoughts to Valancourt's or Montoni's (pp. 116, 189). The craziest of these jumps is when Radcliffe moves from Emily's point of view to nobody's point of view in the celebrated incident of the black veil:

Emily passed on with faltering steps, and having paused a moment at the door, before she attempted to open it, she then hastily entered the chamber, and went towards the picture, which appeared to be enclosed in a frame of uncommon size, that hung in a dark part of the room. She paused again, and then, with a timid hand, lifted the veil; but instantly let it fall—perceiving that what it had concealed was no picture, and, before she could leave the chamber, she dropped senseless on the floor.

(pp. 248-9)

Apart from leaving the reader with the sense of being cheated—what Emily sees here will not be revealed for four hundred more pages—the episode epitomizes her lack of epistemological authority. We may learn what is under the veil (a waxwork figure), but Emily remains permanently under the delusion that she has seen a corpse. With so much information withheld from her—she will also remain in the dark about many of Montoni's crimes and the exact nature of Valancourt's doings in Paris—it is difficult to see how she ‘develops’ as a character at all. Psychically speaking, she remains a cipher.

The fictional tempo is likewise far less consistent than it is made out to be. Udolpho is typically characterized as slow-going—no doubt because Radcliffe so often ‘stops’ the action, as we have seen, to indulge in extravagant pictorialism. She undoubtedly sought by such passages to achieve in prose the same visionary effects she admired in the works of the seventeenth-century landscape painters Salvator Rosa, Claude, and Poussin. As Sir Walter Scott wrote in his commentary on Radcliffe in Lives of Eminent Novelists and Dramatists (1824), her landscapes resemble ‘splendid and beautiful fancy-picture[s]’.1 Even when not depicting nature—as in the scene below of Madame Montoni's creepy nocturnal burial in the crypt at Udolpho—she is inclined to bring the plot to a standstill when a chance for a striking tableau presents itself:

At the moment, in which they let down the body into the earth, the scene was such as only the dark pencil of a Domenichino, perhaps, could have done justice to. The fierce features and wild dress of the condottieri, bending with their torches over the grave, into which the corpse was descending, were contrasted by the venerable figure of the monk, wrapt in long black garments, his cowl thrown back from his pale face, on which the light gleaming strongly shewed the lines of affliction softened by piety, and the few grey locks, which time had spared on his temples: while, beside him, stood the softer form of Emily, who leaned for support upon Annette; her face half averted, and shaded by a thin veil, that fell over her figure; and her mild and beautiful countenance fixed in grief so solemn as admitted not of tears, while she thus saw committed untimely to the earth her last relative and friend.

(pp. 377-8)

The effect is one of suspended animation—of bodies frozen in painterly attitudes.

Elsewhere Radcliffe's characters seem to get stuck in a sort of narrative Möbius strip, inside which they can only perform the same repetitive gestures over and over. The analogy here may be with the obsessional ‘standing in place’ found in opera. When Emily and Valancourt have to separate at the end of Volume 1, for example, but cannot bring themselves to make the move, they indeed resemble lovers in Italian grand opera, planted in position, unable to do anything but repeat their stylized addios for close to three pages (pp. 158-60). As in operatic representation, the effect of stasis can only be broken, it seems, by a sudden exaggerated movement: after one last embrace, Valancourt abruptly ‘hastens’ away, stage left, while Emily runs off in the opposite direction. One can almost see the end-of-act curtain coming down.

And yet, precisely at those times when one would most expect a set piece—some grand painterly tableau or operatic show-stopper—Radcliffe unaccountably hurries on by. Then her narrative rushes forward, helter-skelter, as if to make up for its previous moments of dawdling. Emily's daring escape from Udolpho, for example (pp. 450-1), the sort of episode a Hugo or Dumas would have lingered over for pages, building up excitement through a series of increasingly suspense-laden vignettes, is over almost before one realizes it has begun. Similarly, when Emily and her rescuers, having made it in the space of a few sentences to the coast of France, seem about to perish in a shipwreck (Blanche, at Chateau-le-Blanc, watches their vessel ‘labouring’ helplessly in a terrible storm) … nothing happens. A couple of flares are sent up, the ship anchors safely, and Emily is soon conversing happily with the Count De Villefort (p. 487). (No doubt recognizing the missed opportunity here, the Irish novelist Charles Maturin would open his own Gothic masterwork of 1820, Melmoth the Wanderer, with a stupendous Caspar Friedrich-like shipwreck scene.) Perhaps most surprising of all, given the highly theatrical death-bed scenes staged elsewhere in her fiction, the death of Montoni by poison happens off-stage and only warrants a sentence or two, as if Radcliffe had become bored with her own villain (p. 569).

When it comes to Udolpho's themes—the novel's underlying structure of meaning—similar paradoxes prevail. Since the nineteenth century critics have labelled Radcliffe's fiction a romance—that is, a work with little or no connection to ‘real life’. Not for Radcliffe, wrote Scott, the stark moral and psychological realism of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa; her characters ‘belong rather to romance than to real life’.2 Comparing Udolpho disparagingly with Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1860), Henry James found Radcliffe's far-flung settings and exotic situations painfully irrelevant to modern experience:

To Mr. Collins belongs the credit of having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors. This innovation gave a new impetus to the literature of horrors. It was fatal to the authority of Mrs. Radcliffe and her everlasting castle in the Apennines. What are the Apennines to us, or we to the Apennines? Instead of the terrors of ‘Udolpho,’ we were treated to the terrors of the cheerful countryhouse and the busy London lodgings. And there is no doubt that these were infinitely the more terrible. Mrs. Radcliffe's mysteries were romances pure and simple; while those of Mr. Wilkie Collins were stern reality.3

James too invoked the genius of Richardson: The Woman in White ‘is a kind of nineteenth-century version of “Clarissa Harlowe”.’4 The Apennines could not compete.

Yet even such eminently forceful pronouncements might be countered. For all of its romantic ambience, The Mysteries of Udolpho also has moments of surprising naturalism. Some of these, it is true, have only a fugitive or tangential relationship to the plot, as when Emily, St Aubert, and Valancourt, searching for a night's lodging during their travels through Languedoc, enter some miserable peasant cottages and are appalled by what they find:

In several, which they entered, ignorance, poverty, and mirth seemed equally to prevail; and the owners eyed St. Aubert with a mixture of curiosity and timidity. Nothing like a bed could be found, and [Valancourt] had ceased to enquire for one, when Emily joined him, who observed the languor of her father's countenance, and lamented, that he had taken a road so ill provided with the comforts necessary for an invalid. Other cottages, which they examined, seemed somewhat less savage than the former, consisting of two rooms, if such they could be called; the first of these occupied by mules and pigs, the second by the family, which generally consisted of six or eight children, with their parents, who slept on beds of skins and dried beech leaves, spread upon a mud floor. Here, light was admitted, and smoke discharged, through an aperture in the roof; and here the scent of spirits (for the travelling smugglers, who haunted the Pyrenées, had made this rude people familiar with the use of liquors) was generally perceptible enough.

(p. 33)

This glimpse of peasant squalor contrasts sharply with the images of happy rustics dancing ‘picturesquely’ found elsewhere in the fiction (e.g. pp. 3-4, 65, and 97). One has the sense of Radcliffe describing something she has actually seen—in England. And for a sentence or two she veers toward the bleak social vision we associate with Elizabeth Gaskell or Hardy. Yet the description remains unintegrated—a fleeting disquiet in an otherwise Arcadian scene.

Later in the novel Radcliffe incorporates realistic elements with greater success—notably in the rendering of the fraught economic relationship between Emily and her jailer-guardians, the Montonis. Interestingly, especially given Scott's and James's suggestions to the contrary, Emily St Aubert's situation in the middle part of Udolpho in some ways exactly mirrors the harsh scenario at the heart of Richardson's Clarissa. Just as Richardson's heroine is abused—grotesquely—for refusing to marry the rich yet odious suitor her avaricious parents have picked out for her, so Emily too is tormented by ‘parents’ who seek to sell her off to the highest bidder. When Montoni tries to bully Emily into marriage with one of his allies and Madame Montoni assails her with cruel insults (pp. 204, 218) they behave exactly like Richardson's depraved Harlowes. The scenes with Madame Montoni are particularly disturbing in this regard, since the older woman is, after all, Emily's closest blood relation. One of Radcliffe's darkest and most Richardsonian insights is that kinship does not guarantee loving feeling: the same family may breed both saints and monsters. Madame Montoni, nightmarishly, is the benevolent D'Aubert's sister, yet she is also Emily's most sadistic tormentor. Udolpho may be far from social realism, yet as recent feminist critiques of the novel have shown, it is not pure romance either.5 In the unsentimental handling of Emily's powerlessness within the ‘family’ unit in which she finds herself, Radcliffe shows a paradoxical affinity with more engaged female novelists of the later eighteenth century: Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, even the fiercely unromantic Mary Wollstonecraft.

On the question, finally, of Radcliffe's overall artistic achievement—a curate's egg if ever there was one—the clichés are once again misleading. The general consensus among twentieth-century critics, of course, is that Udolpho is ‘bad’ and fully deserving of Austen's satire. At times one may feel this is so. The book is undoubtedly too long, feeble in characterization, and often lacking in moral or intellectual gravitas. It is full of absurdities and logical solecisms—as when Radcliffe seems to forget momentarily that all her characters (apart from Montoni) are meant to be French and not English. When Emily and her father happen to meet some unusually ‘polite’ French peasants while travelling through Languedoc, she feels obliged to remind us that ‘St. Aubert was himself a Frenchman; he therefore was not surprised at French courtesy’ (p. 66). Occasionally Radcliffe makes bloopers of exquisite absurdity. Finding some ‘letters engraved on the stone postern’ while walking near Chateau-le-Blanc, Emily recognizes in them the familiar ‘hand-writing’ of Valancourt, who has inscribed a melancholy poem (p. 538). Perhaps in a Cocteau film (Beauty and the Beast?) one can imagine letters carved in stone that resemble someone's handwriting, but here one can only commiserate with Valancourt over what must have been an agonizing case of writer's cramp.

But Radcliffe is hardly the laughing-stock her harshest critics make her seem. The distinction is there and it is real. She is a meticulous stylist; even Austen may have learned how to write a sentence (or two) from her.

When [Madame Clairval] gave her approbation to Valancourt's marriage, it was in the belief, that Emily would be the heiress of Madame Montoni's fortune; and, though, upon the nuptials of the latter, when she perceived the fallacy of this expectation, her conscience had withheld her from adopting any measure to prevent the union, her benevolence was not sufficiently active to impel her towards any step, that might now promote it. She was, on the contrary, secretly pleased, that Valancourt was released from an engagement, which she considered to be as inferior, in point of fortune, to his merit, as his alliance was thought by Montoni to be humiliating to the beauty of Emily; and though her pride was wounded by this rejection of a member of her family, she disdained to shew resentment otherwise, than by silence.

(p. 148)

She can create moments of considerable drama, particularly between female characters. The scenes between Emily and Madame Montoni are brilliantly handled; likewise the episode near the end of the novel in which Emily encounters the raving ‘Sister Agnes’, onetime mistress of Udolpho and lover of Montoni (pp. 643-9). In the protracted sequence at Chateau-le-Blanc in which Emily and Dorothée enter the apartments of the deceased Marchioness of Villeroi—the overwrought Dorothée stopping at one point to throw the dead woman's veil over Emily (‘“I thought,” added she, “how like you would look to my dear mistress in that veil;—may your life, ma'mselle, be a happier one than hers!”’)—Radcliffe achieves an atmosphere of oppressive, almost Hitchcockian horror (pp. 532-6).

And her descriptive fluency can still amaze, as in the following mountain prospect:

Emily, often as she travelled among the clouds, watched in silent awe their billowy surges rolling below; sometimes, wholly closing upon the scene, they appeared like a world of chaos, and, at others, spreading thinly, they opened and admitted partial catches of the landscape—the torrent, whose astounding roar had never failed, tumbling down the rocky chasm, huge cliffs white with snow, or the dark summits of the pine forests, that stretched mid-way down the mountains.

(p. 165)

As Emily makes her descent through a swirling ‘sea of vapour’, Radcliffe seems to anticipate, vertiginously, the (Olympian or phobic) view of the modern-day aeroplane passenger.

Yet if Udolpho resists encapsulation in so many ways, then what can we say of it? I have characterized it as an unstable, erratic work, resistant to critical labels, but does that mean that we can say nothing about its overall effect or emotional power? Few late-eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century readers would have thought so. Along with Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Radcliffe's book was one of the most celebrated and influential European fictions of its epoch. The novel brought its author £500 (an unheard-of sum at the time) and went through countless editions well into the later nineteenth century. Naysayers like Austen notwithstanding, the majority of contemporary readers found The Mysteries of Udolpho an absorbing, even mind-altering experience, and its author an ‘enchantress’ of the highest order. In Literary Hours (1800), Nathan Drake described Radcliffe as ‘the Shakespeare of Romance writers’. And Sir Walter Scott concurred: she was a ‘mighty magician’—‘the first poetess of romantic fiction’. For Keats she was simply ‘Mother Radcliffe’.6

What accounted for Udolpho's extraordinary appeal? A clue may lie in the key word of its title: mysteries. Radcliffe, one might argue, was a purveyor of mysteries—but of a new kind, adapted for a secular age. Her book itself is a kind of mystery-machine, of course, full of local puzzles and conundrums. Who has stolen the miniature of Emily in the book's opening chapters? What is in her dead father's secret papers? Who walks the ramparts at night under her window at Udolpho? What is under the black veil? What has happened to Montoni's one-time lover, the mysterious Signora Laurentini? And so on and so on. For much of the novel, as the uncertainties pile up, we are indeed Mother Radcliffe's children: lost in a cloud of unknowing.

But the ‘mysteries’ permeating Udolpho are not simply the mysteries of plot. In highlighting the mysterious—inevitably associated for her with the uncanny powers of the human mind—Radcliffe sought to do more than merely excite readerly curiosity. She wished to reawaken in her readers a sense of the numinous—of invisible forces at work in the world. The Enlightenment, arguably, had done much to eradicate such feeling. By rationalizing human experience to an unprecedented degree, science and sceptical philosophy together had rendered certain old-style ‘mysteries’ nearly obsolete. The history of English usage suggests as much. Before the eighteenth century, the word ‘mystery’ had an almost exclusively religious, indeed Christian, meaning. In the Middle Ages, for example, one spoke of ‘the mysteries of faith’, referring to those elements of Christian doctrine—such as the Trinity, Original Sin, and the Incarnation—beyond the power of human reason to comprehend. Similarly, a ‘mystery play’ was a work dealing with crucial events in the life of Christ, typically his miracles and the Resurrection. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, not only was orthodox religious belief under threat from many sources, the traditional focus on divine mysteries was itself weakening. It is surely significant that one of the most influential English theological works of the early eighteenth century was John Toland's pointedly titled Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), a paradoxical effort to reconcile Christianity with scientific and other strands of sceptical thought by explaining away various miraculous episodes recounted in the Scriptures.

Though nostalgic about traditional religious belief—at times to the point of kitsch—Radcliffe was aware of its decaying emotional relevance in an increasingly secularized world. Indeed throughout Udolpho, even as she relentlessly draws upon Christian (and especially Catholic) symbolism, one has the sense of its having been ‘emptied out’—divested of its uniquely numinous aura. Christian icons serve a largely decorative or aesthetic function in the novel. Thus when Emily and her father encounter ‘a monumental cross’ atop a cliffe while travelling through Languedoc they regard it merely as one ‘terrific sight’ among many—part of the general sublimity of the landscape. It inspires no spiritual reflections: indeed the susceptible Emily immediately imagines it ‘the very haunt of banditti’, and almost expects ‘to see them stealing out from some hollow cave to look for their prey’ (p. 54). Similarly, the numerous monks and nuns who pop up in the novel function more as picturesque adjuncts to the action than as emblems of religious authority. Their main purpose seems to be to supply the eerie unseen chanting that so often accompanies Emily's sentimental or erotic reveries.

For Radcliffe, as for her contemporaries Wordsworth and Blake, the new mysteries are those of the imagination. ‘Thought’ itself is that sublime power, which like a ‘Great First Cause’ allows us to ascend to ‘those unnumbered worlds, that lie scattered in the depths of aether, thousands of them hid from human eyes, and almost beyond the flight of human fancy’ (p. 114). The phantasmagoric reveries of Udolpho's heroine are exemplary in this regard: we are constantly seeing Emily lost in ‘pensive visions’, haunted by ‘charming recollections’, or given over to ‘melancholy imaginings’. Consciousness itself, endlessly making and unmaking the world, is the uncanny thing—the source of all joy, terror, and wonderment.

This may seem paradoxical, given that Radcliffe is known as a rationalist of a sort. It is true that she is unfailingly condescending towards what she refers to in Udolpho as ‘vulgar superstition’—the bugaboo of lesser minds. There are no actual supernatural forces at work in her fiction; indeed, she goes to great lengths to show that characters who believe that there are (like the servant Annette, for example, who thinks that when her lover Ludovico vanishes from the ‘haunted’ room at Chateau-le-Blanc he has been carried off by evil spirits) are foolishly mistaken. For each apparently marvellous event in the novel—every moving shroud, weird knocking, or spectral figure glimpsed from afar—some non-supernatural explanation is ultimately forthcoming.

These explanations have often been seen as anticlimactic. ‘A principal characteristic of Mrs Radcliffe's romances’, wrote Scott, ‘is the rule that … all the circumstances of her narrative, however mysterious, and apparently superhuman, were to be accounted for on natural principles, at the winding up of the story. It must be allowed, that this has not been done with uniform success, and that the author has been occasionally more successful in exciting interest and apprehensions, than in giving either interest or dignity of explanation to the means she has made use of.’ Most readers experienced ‘disappointment and displeasure’, he wagered, when they read for the first time ‘the unsatisfactory solution of the mysteries of the black pall and the wax figure, which has been adjourned from chapter to chapter, like something suppressed, because too horrible for the ear’.7 As charismatic an imaginist as Radcliffe was, he thought she might have done better to avow ‘boldly’ the use of supernatural machinery, like her predecessor Walpole.

Such criticisms are just. Radcliffe's supposedly ‘rational’ explanations are at times almost more implausible than the supernatural explanations they are meant to displace. In the episode of Ludovico and the supposedly haunted room, for example, a kind of gothicized rewrite of the story of Christ's disappearance from the tomb after the crucifixion, we may feel Ludovico's fantastic tale of pirates and secret passageways to be as ‘miraculous’ as any spirit-raising. Tellingly, when he reappears before Emily and Annette after his rescue, like Christ before Mary and Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection (Luke 16: 1-13), Annette's joy at seeing him, writes Radcliffe, ‘could not have been more extravagant, had he arisen from the grave’ (p. 630).

But to dwell overmuch on the clumsy device of the ‘explained supernatural’ is to miss a more fundamental point: that Radcliffe represents the human mind itself as a kind of supernatural entity. If ghosts and spectres are resolutely excluded from the plane of action, they reappear—metaphorically at least—in the visionary fancies of the novel's exemplary characters. Indeed, to be a Radcliffean hero or heroine in one sense means just this: to be ‘haunted’ by the spectral mental images of those one loves. One sees in the mind's eye those who are absent; one is befriended and consoled by ‘phantoms’ of the beloved. Radcliffe makes it clear how such phantasmata arise: they are the products of refined sentiment, the characteristic projections of a feeling heart. To be haunted, according to the novel's romantic myth, is to display one's powers of sympathetic imagination. The cruel and the dull (such as Montoni or his ruffians) have no such hallucinations; but those who love, like Emily, Valancourt, or St Aubert, are possessed—quite literally—by the spirit of the other.

Examples of this supernaturalization of mental space are everywhere in Udolpho, and indeed give the book much of its surreal character. Thanks to the imagination's uncanny alchemy, the ‘familiar objects of former times’ have the power to make dead or departed loved ones seem ‘present’ again in thought. Thus St Aubert, early in the novel, is reluctant to leave his home at La Vallée because ‘every surrounding scene’ prompts phantasmatic visions of his dead wife (p. 22). Retracing a page in one of Valancourt's books and ‘dwelling on the passages, which he had admired’, Emily is able to summon her lost lover ‘to her presence’ again (p. 58). Pieces of furniture in the study of the dead St Aubert at La Vallée bring his ‘image’ into his daughter's mind, almost as if he were standing there (pp. 94-8). And Valancourt, having been reunited with Emily at the end of the novel, then temporarily banished once again from her presence, finds that ‘her image, her look, the tones of her voice, all dwelt on his fancy, as powerfully as they had late appeared to his senses’ (p. 628).

Above all, befitting a work in which landscape plays so large a role, the scenes of nature are supremely affecting in this regard. Separated from Valancourt by the Montonis, Emily meets him again ‘in thought’ by watching the sun set over mountain crags at an agreed-upon time of day (pp. 163-4). The vast ‘chain of the Pyrenées’ stretching toward Gascony transports her with visions of her lost parents: ‘“O my father,—my mother!”’ (p. 580). And at the end of the novel she is convinced that they ‘live again’ in the gardens and woodlands around La Vallée: ‘as she walked beneath the groves, which her father had planted, and where she had so often sauntered in affectionate conversation with him, his countenance, his smile, even the accents of his voice, returned with exactness to her fancy, and her heart melted to the tender recollections’ (p. 592). One is put in mind of that patient of Freud's, mentioned in the case history of Dr Schreber, who having ‘lost his father at a very early age, was always seeking to rediscover him in what was grand and sublime in nature’.8

In part if not wholly, Udolpho's exorbitant popularity among eighteenth- and nineteenth-century readers seems to have derived from this profoundly magical rendering of human consciousness. By giving themselves up to the nostalgic reveries of its characters, Radcliffe's readers also gave themselves up to a fantasy about mind itself: that by its godlike powers of spiritual transformation, the imagination itself might assuage longing, provide consolation, and reinfuse everyday life with mysterious and fantastic beauty. In the increasingly unromantic world of post-Enlightenment culture, such dreams, as even Scott was forced to acknowledge, could be cathartic indeed:

When a family was numerous, the volumes always flew, and were sometimes torn, from hand to hand, and the complaints of those whose studies were thus interrupted, were a general tribute to the genius of the author. Another might be found of a different and higher description, in the dwelling of the lonely invalid, or unregarded votary of celibacy, who was bewitched away from a sense of solitude, of indisposition, of the neglect of the world, or of secret sorrow, by the potent charm of this mighty enchantress.9

The effect of a work like Udolpho, he ventured, might be fittingly compared with the use of opiates—‘baneful, when habitually and constantly resorted to, but of the most blessed power in those moments of pain and languor, when the whole head is sore, and the whole heart sick’.

Few readers today, perhaps, will find The Mysteries of Udolpho as therapeutic as Scott and his contemporaries did. We have other opiates nowadays, even for the unregarded votaries of celibacy. Some readers—put off outright by Udolpho's artificial conventions, local incoherencies, and languorous challenge to recuperation—will undoubtedly prefer Prozac to this most intransigent of eighteenth-century best sellers. Art is long and life is short and Udolpho is long indeed. Even taking into account Radcliffe's historic displacement of supernatural ‘mysteries’ into human psychology, a lot of the book's original emotional force has dissipated. Thanks to Freud (who knew his Gothic fiction) most of us are accustomed to the idea of the mind as spectropia, full of importuning, uncanny presences. Radcliffe's revolutionary representation of human consciousness has lost its power to entrance, in part because it is now so familiar: we have all become believers in the ‘haunted’ contents of the human psyche.

Must we then go back to our caricatures? Perhaps not, if we refuse to be overset, like Emily St Aubert in one of her swoons, by the moment-to-moment oddities of the fictional world awaiting us. For the reader willing to enter into Radcliffe's novel with an open, relaxed, even labile attitude—with some of that curious ‘pensiveness’ of approach Radcliffe elsewhere praises in her heroine—something of the work's original effect must still come across. There is too much in Udolpho that is interesting, even hypnotic, for this not to be so. Like a long and complex dream—the kind in which pleasure and apprehension are so closely intermingled as to become indistinguishable—the book repays imaginative introspection. Read in such a mood, as a strange survival out of that reverie we call the past, The Mysteries of Udolpho reveals itself in turn as permanently and deeply avant-garde.


  1. Sir Walter Scott, Lives of Eminent Novelists and Dramatists, rev. edn. (London and New York: Frederick Warne and Co., 1887), 573.

  2. Lives of Eminent Novelists and Dramatists, 564.

  3. Henry James, ‘Mary Elizabeth Braddon’, cited in Leon Edel (ed.), Literary Criticism: American Writers, English Writers (New York: The Library of America, 1984), 742.

  4. Ibid.

  5. See, for example, Claudia Johnson's insightful reading of Udolpho in Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s—Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

  6. See Nathan Drake, Literary Hours, or Sketches Critical and Narrative, 2nd edn. (1800; repr. New York, 1970), i. 273; Scott, Lives of Eminent Novelists, 553, 565; and The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), ii. 62.

  7. Scott, Lives of Eminent Novelists, 568-9.

  8. Sigmund Freud, ‘Psychoanalytic Notes Upon an Autobiographical Account of Paranoia’ (1911), in Three Case Histories, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 155.

  9. Scott, Lives of Eminent Novelists, 555.

Scott MacKenzie (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10065

SOURCE: “Ann Radcliffe's Gothic Narrative and the Readers at Home,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1999, pp. 409-31.

[In the following essay, MacKenzie discusses Radcliffe's Gothic style and its effects on the eighteenth-century public mind.]

Many trips to Scotland are undoubtedly projected and executed, and many unfortunate connections formed, from the influence which novels gain over the mind.

—Catherine MacAulay, Letters on Education


During much the same period that the French Revolution horrified the public imagination of England, the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe terrified English private imaginations. As Edmund Burke and others fought Jacobin sentiments (and lack of sentiment) in the political theater, Radcliffe claimed an altogether easier conquest of the hearth. Her novels are Gothic—really the apogee of the form's early ascendancy—but they are also domestic; home is ever-present, ever-discussed, ever-sought. Home is also the cover to which Radcliffe's obscure life in letters has generally been critically consigned. Bonamy Dobree's introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho says simply, “she never entered the literary life, preferring to live quietly at home, writing by the fireside, not enjoying very good health.”1 The scene described is a commonplace, a default visioning of the publicly invisible domesticity Radcliffe herself helped invent.2 Aline Grant, in her 1951 biography, feels licensed to embroider, as it were: “waiting for William's return in these long evening hours, with all her household duties done and complete freedom from interruption assured, Ann began beguiling the time with putting down on paper some of the romantic scenes on which her imagination loved to dwell.”3

Grant and Dobree are heirs to the critical tradition which has identified, in uncritical fashion, both the Gothic and domestic strands of later-eighteenth-century novel discourse with a sphere of English public life separated from the realm of politics and enclosed upon a gendered bourgeois privacy. Gothic fiction was representative of the coincidence between feminized, formally chaotic fantasy and the woman's world of domesticity which lacked most kinds of classical formal unity or structure save the boundaries which sealed it off from the masculine territories of commercial and political endeavor. Gothic art (especially Radcliffean “women's Gothic fiction”) and the private home shared the distinction of definition by negation. Reading Radcliffe has forever been an exegesis of domesticity, registering the tremors from across the channel as faintly felt behind closed doors. She has been given custody of the flip side of public life during the revolution decade.4 And, of course, Gothic fiction and private domesticity shared not just a homology in the rhetorics of their respective ideologues, but often enough the ideologues themselves, whose numbers include Maria Edgeworth, Catherine MacAulay, Elizabeth Montagu, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Mary Wollstonecraft and, I hope to demonstrate, Ann Radcliffe.

Within the carefully patrolled—though not hermetically sealed—confines of discussions on Gothic fiction, domesticity, education, sentiment and other feminized topoi, a politics was assembled whose voices were no less published and circulated than those speaking on matters germane to public politics. In truth, the development of middle-class domesticity was constitutive of political discourse, and productive of oppositions within political discourse. Domesticity remains, nonetheless, definitionally outside the national political sphere. Harriet Guest speaks of a “redefinition of the boundaries between public and private, to describe the opposition between the public and commercial world outside and the domestic sphere it is imagined to enclose, so that the power of private and commercial wealth gains an audible voice in the real, manly world of politics.”5 Home, on the other hand, is not in the same way constrained, because a collateral shift in the structures of British nationality at the end of the eighteenth century brought about a more directly instrumental identification between home in its private bourgeois practice and in its national guise. Such is indicated by the twist in the etymology of the word “home” which occurred late in the eighteenth century, enabling it to mean not just a country of nativity or residence, but England above all other countries. Native English speakers not native to England practiced this semantic finesse right across the arc of Empire; the 1892 Australian National Dictionary features this exemplum of “home”: “All good Australians hope to go to England when they die. Not only does everybody, now-a-days, go ‘home’ when able to do so, but many stay there.”6

The later eighteenth century is also the period in which the first English-speaking nation that was not England began making claims on the word “home” as a national honorific. Thomas Paine fell to battle with Edmund Burke over the proper means by which domestic and familial relations could be used to figure socio-political relations.7 In 1782, the two Principal Secretaries of State were renamed the Home and Foreign Secretaries and a decade later the French Revolution became the occasion for unprecedented restriction of foreign entrance, residence, property, commerce and correspondence in England.8 The figural proximity of nation home and private home was resolutely fixed in Britain during the revolutionary decade and the Napoleonic wars, “a contest not for the ordinary objects of warfare, but for the salvation of all that is dear to Britons, of their ancient renown, their present rights, their social and domestic blessings, their very existence as a nation.”9 Home, in this sense, comes to circumscribe the sphere of classical politics, and private domesticity underpins a public figuration. That public figuration, in both Burke's and Paine's contrary visions, yokes private and public security and prosperity to one another.

In architectural theory and practice, the classicist “authority of the chaste design of universal truth” (Guest, p. 130) was also subject to circumscription by strains of Gothic art. James Malton, for instance, published fourteen designs for rural habitations in a “regular gradation, from a peasant's simple hut, to habitation worthy of a gentleman of fortune.”10 Richard Elsam complained, “would our English students, before they make the tour to Rome, bestow only a little pains to make themselves acquainted with these admirable [Gothic] relics, the treasure of their own country, it would certainly enable them to speak of it with pleasure abroad, and to practise it hereafter with better founded confidence at home” (p. 17). And John Wood, the architect associated with the great buildings of Bath, wrote of the “Delphick Temple in Greece; a temple, my lord, of British institution as I shall hereafter make appear to you by the most irrefragable circumstances.”11 The continental tour, the Italian academies, and the prescriptivity of classicism were by no means abandoned, but the homeliness of native British Gothic art was being groomed, with the aid of picturesque tourism's love for the rough and broken, to adorn the home and seat of empire.

Private homes themselves were increasingly guardians of an immanent British cultural frame, and novelists were busy establishing their art form as the only possible medium through which living domesticity could be represented. It is not my intention here simply to turn the domesticity/politics schema inside out. Home does not occlude or smother political discourse, nor does the nascent angel of the household lay hands on the scepter of power. What Edmund Burke records as the simultaneous feminine beauty and masculine sublimity of the nation finds its best expression in the public figuration of home. It is a figuration that partakes of the figural logic David Hume applied to abstract thought: “abstract ideas are therefore in themselves individual, however they may become general in their representation. The image in our minds is only that of a particular object, the application of it in our reason be the same as if it were universal.”12 The universal particularity of home provides a mechanism to transform authority into systemic surveillance and regulation, and to make a public totality of myriad private ambitions and sentiments.

To the particular cultural gravity accruing upon home, novels added a commerce, an economy of publication and dissemination within the non-public domestic sphere. Home is where Radcliffe's novels were created. Home was also their destination and a limit-site for their reception. Their passage through the literary marketplace and circulating libraries was simply the most economic route from the Ward Radcliffe fireside to other firesides and a reading constituency that was assumed to be female. Home surrounded the scene of female reading and writing, a scene repeated many times within Radcliffe's novels. It is this scene that will form the central trope of my essay. By way of defining it, I will refer to the work of an earlier artist: two paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby, both painted in the 1760s. The paintings are adaptations of a genre critics have deemed Candlelights (a scene illuminated by a single candle or comparably limited source of light) to scenes of women reading and writing.13 A number of Wright's works in that decade eschewed the specificity of portraits to depict scenes whose focus is domesticity rather than a named patron and family at home. This approach in itself was hardly brand new, but the kind of domesticity composed was. The light source at the heart of Wright's paintings is invariably concealed. As an actual center, the candle is a deferred presence. Both Benedict Nicolson and Ronald Paulson view these illuminating devices as a kind of secularized miracle, “a modern equivalent of the supernatural, a substitute or displacement for a nativity or some other transcendent event.”14 The home, in the midst of science and public economies, contains a transformative power which is not transparent to public knowledge, but authorizes it and gives impetus to its agency.

Wright actually painted four of the reading-women candlelights. Three of them have a young woman holding a letter which hides the candle she reads by. Each of these three women is also observed by a man. The fourth painting shows an older woman reading a letter, which may well be addressed, to the young woman who sits by. Such scenes are very familiar to readers of Radcliffe, and indeed of most domestic fiction writers from the eighteenth century. I am most interested by the two Wright paintings which were done for sale (the others are part of a set of four panels inset above doors in Radburne Hall): A Girl Reading a letter by Candlelight, with a Young Man peering over her shoulder and A Girl reading a letter, with an Old Man reading over her shoulder. In the former, the reader has written, “Dere Jack” at the head of a blank sheet that will presumably be her reply, and the latter also shows pen and paper at the ready. Of the commentaries I have read on these paintings, none suggests that there may be a phantasmatic, or perhaps broadly figural, aspect to the scenes depicted. Yet the reading girls do not show any sign of acknowledging the men who stand over and behind them. Transposed to a Radcliffe narrative, it would be almost impossible not to see the male watchers as at least partly phantasmatic—spectralized in Terry Castle's phrasing.15 Commentators agree that the letters and just-begun replies indicate that romantic correspondence is occupying the subjects' engrossed gazes. These connotations, together with the postulate of candle as secular miracle, lead me to read the paintings as allegorizing a paternalistic and heteroerotic surveillance that encloses the reading girls and even imperils them at the same time as it seems to license them. Wright's scenes are saturated by the genres of candlelight painting and romantic correspondence; the lower right corner of the earlier painting is occupied by a book open to its title page, “The Art or Guide of Writing a Letter.” This saturation then extends itself to meet the moment in patriarchal domesticity at which young women are evacuated as subjects by their value as exchangeable objects. The as-yet-blank replies, the translucence (and flammability) of the letters to the candles, the men's surveillance, and the girls' vulnerable positions all bespeak a permeability in young women. Because this permeability sets the stage for the possibility of seduction, it also dictates the possibility of violation. Confinement and pursuit are characteristic features of both sanctioned and perverse sexual bargaining. Hence this scene's other possibility, a legitimate love match, makes a well-lit scene of domesticity the counterpoint to the fraught, ambiguous gloom of Wright's scene of reading. The equivocal peril contrived by these paintings is, nonetheless, normative; it literalizes the crisis through which young women must pass in the exchange between father and husband, while also justifying the need for that exchange. Between the havens of paternal supervision and marital unity (modes of masculine presence which fulfill or seal up the single woman's permeability) comes a moment at which the structures of familial domesticity are obscured and paternalistic surveillance loses its coherence to ambivalence.

It is not inconsequential that these paintings are effectively fictions—which is to say without specific referents—because the interface they hint at between artistic genre and social economies owes much to novels.16 The gaps of signification here, of which the unseen text and unwritten responses are the most obvious, are places in which narrative is invoked. Though novelistic narrative does not intervene as such in the paintings, they must be understood as already shot through with the same structuring logics upon which text narratives are built. That there is no articulated story to the paintings is not important; the stories are written elsewhere and they meet actual marriage economies by means of genre, which establishes itself here as the token of marketability. I am suggesting that the paintings seek to operate in the sphere of commerce by captivating public viewership through a condensation of another kind of commercial practice—the marriage market—with aesthetic sensation. Artistic production, like architecture and tourism, serves its own commodification by simultaneously concealing and displaying the very processes in which it takes part.17 I will contend that novelistic narrative learns to perform the same kinds of condensations as the ones Wright's paintings emblematize.18 And more than condensation, the rhetorical core of Radcliffe's narratives has a profile that resembles money-based transaction. The Radcliffean transaction is one narrative for another.


Ann Radcliffe crystallizes in her works a powerful addition to the technical repertoire of English novels. The technique for which I am giving her credit is a careful incorporation of lacunae: hidden and missing elements which both drive the narrative, and determine its overall shape. The Radcliffean narrative is one which deliberately sets up its first reading as qualitatively different from any subsequent re-readings. In effect, the impetus which carries a reading forward, calling the reader on to the end, is one explicitly based on revelations and clarifications. Cannon Schmitt, writing about The Italian, notes this: “the reader's position with regard to these hints replicates, in a mise en abime, that of the heroine herself: for the reader and heroine alike, each new bit of evidence, each new piece of suggestive information demands interpretive attention.”19 As Walter Scott puts it, Radcliffe taught novelists “to break off the narrative, when it seemed at the point of becoming most interesting—to extinguish a lamp just when a parchment containing some hideous secret ought to have been read—to exhibit shadowy forms and half-heard sounds of woe.”20 In Radcliffe's most commercially successful novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, names, identities, proprieties of conduct, trajectories of desire, and relationships shift and change, are lost and concealed. All are crucial to the protagonist's negotiation of her perils and are also necessary to readerly recognition of development. A second or later reading is one which short-circuits the effects of Radcliffe's narrative by recognizing in advance who and what will fill the text's lacunae. Earlier practitioners of Gothic fiction had introduced the lacuna as a feature of the incomplete antique manuscripts which frame the authorial mask, “editor.” Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764), Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron (1777), Sophia Lee's The Recess (1785) and William Beckford's Vathek (1786) all submit themselves to their readers as narratives reconstructed from found and fragmented manuscripts. But none of these works develops the lacuna into a propulsive narrative tactic the way Radcliffe's novels do. I don't think Radcliffe's work prototypifies the novel of suspense in English so much as it adds a set of apparatus to fiction narrative which will later be commandeered by suspense fiction.

I likewise do not suggest that The Mysteries of Udolpho has anything resembling a surprise ending. In fact, it is remarkable how efficiently the mechanisms and conventions of marriage plot come to look, in this novel, like a kind of homing instinct. Tying marital knots is a compulsory ritual in Radcliffe resolutions, but the establishment of a happy home receives investment that consumes marriage. Home is, above all, the narrative's destination.21 Momentum is generated by collapsing and reforming genealogies and identities. Extrinsic identity, the naming of others, is given palpable influence over the form and integrity of the protagonist's subjectivity. Radcliffe's innovation is to synchronize her plotted lacunae, sometimes literal gaps in writing, sometimes figural gaps in knowledge, with the overall structure of the narrative and the self-realization of its heroine. Mysterious tunes, words, and figures, gaps in a manuscript, mistaken resemblances and so on, have equivalent spaces in the novel, spaces that will be filled in later, with direct consequences for its heroine, Emily St. Aubert. The blank pages and undefined identities seen in Wright of Derby's paintings are brought to the forefront and made dynamic. In a novel as long as The Mysteries of Udolpho, the explanations are intricate, to say the least. For instance, Agnes the dying nun whom Emily encounters after her flight from Udolpho Castle turns out to be Laurentini, the lover of the Marquis de Villeroi who had married and murdered the sister of Emily's father, St. Aubert, all of which serves to release Emily from the fear that she is an illegitimate product of adultery.

Radcliffe's deliberately fissured narrative style is important because of its capacity to accommodate nominally separate discursive spheres within its figural range. The spaces opened by her lacunae multiply the valences of the narrative so that political, national, and oppositional voices can be heard playing through it. What I am calling lacunae should not be understood as spaces that are simply empty. They are spaces which signify doubly and more than doubly. Pierre Macherey has this to say:

The mystery novel, as it is practised by Mrs Radcliffe, seems to be the product of two different movements: the one establishes the mystery while the other dispels it. The ambiguity of the narrative derives from the fact that these two movements are not, properly speaking successive … but are inextricably simultaneous.22

At the same location—which is a location though it cannot actually be located—the text falls silent and confesses everything. Radcliffe's lacunae are always doubled. They are both gaps—epistemological blanks—and effervescences of too much meaning—providing multiple and unstable narrative possibilities. A missing or misplaced identity is an assurance that many identities are capable of occupying the space available. A recurrent device is the mysterious figure which hugs the shadows and vanishes without revealing either identity, or indeed earthly embodiment. Once in a while a lurking figure will be found; for example, “springing towards the bed, Emily discovered—Count Morano!” (Udolpho, p. 261). Morano is one of Emily's unwanted and improper suitors. His late-night visit to her bedroom is, needless to say, unwelcome, and demonstrates a dictate of Gothic propriety: those who are not who (or where) they ought to be, are not who they ought to be. While his conduct lies under suspicion, Emily's true love, Valancourt, is repeatedly troubled with the epithet, “he was no longer the same Valancourt” (p. 581). He becomes a lacuna: “Valancourt seemed to be annihilated, and her soul sickened at the blank that remained.”

The term aporia offers a partial alternative to my definition of lacuna. As a rhetorical figure marking hesitation and, more so in the French, a point of inarticulable contradiction, an aporia is what a lacuna opens when it calls a halt to the onward rush of narrative. Lacunae always make a metaphor of doubt about how to proceed, by pushing the interruption of reading against the spatio-temporal edict for forward movement. A lacuna is itself a non-figure which accommodates the intervention of figures, including aporias. Reading is suspended in a lacuna, its temporality is withdrawn and the scene of reading is hypostatized for a moment, like Wright of Derby's scenes, before writing or reading has taken place. Reading, however, goes on elsewhere and the echoes of other readings and other voices ring through Radcliffe's lacunae. The impossibility of signification in a non-signifying space is mingled with a space in which signification is unrestrained, undivided and unaddressed. Jacques Derrida finds such a polymodal discourse instigated by the aporia itself: “a plural logic of the aporia thus takes shape. It appears to be paradoxical enough so that the partitioning among multiple figures of aporia does not oppose figures to each other, but instead installs the haunting of the one figure in the other.”23

The veiled-corpse encounter Emily has during her incarceration at Udolpho Castle is perhaps the most clear cut—not to say authorially intrusive—case in all of Radcliffe's novels of the strategic lacuna.24 It does not have an immediately apparent effect on our understanding of Emily's genealogy. It does, however, speak very much to the relational dynamic (a dynamic of identifications) between author, heroine and reader which Radcliffe takes such care to build. It occurs, appropriately, when reading fails to divert Emily from thoughts of her misfortunes and she decides to explore the castle, particularly to look at the picture behind a veil which she had passed by earlier. It is, however, not a picture that the veil hides. Radcliffe leads us towards the unveiling:

[Emily] found herself somewhat agitated … the circumstance of the veil, throwing a mystery over the subject that excited a faint degree of terror. But a terror of this nature, as it occupies and expands the mind, and elevates it to high expectation, is purely sublime, and leads us, by a kind of fascination, to seek even the object, from which we appear to shrink.

(p. 248)25

She writes here, as much about the reading impulses of her audience as about the trepidation of Emily. We walk in step with Emily, at once towards and away from that which will dissolve our subjective connection to her. The veil's secret is something which will break our sympathetic engagement and split us in two: a reader and a text, or a spectator and a spectacle. Radcliffe's appropriation of the first person plural is a momentary capture of the screen of subjectivity. We are, for want of a better word, interpellated by our reading. Our subjectivity is projected onto the page and made obedient to the narrative's structuring imperatives. The scene of reading is extended beyond the frame to present us to ourselves under the figural gaze of an agency, in command of the practice of reading, which exceeds us. And our access—even equivalence—to Emily's subjectivity will be momentarily objectified and taken away from us.

This dividing of reader from text takes place in the next paragraph, when Emily lifts the veil, “but instantly let it fall—perceiving that what it has concealed was no picture, and, before she could leave the chamber, she dropped senseless to the floor” (p. 249). The object behind the veil cannot be screened. It does not behave like an object at all: it cannot be represented, but nor can it be set aside. Instead, it deprives Emily of consciousness altogether. Her recovery depends on a willful forgetting or dropping of the veil within herself: at dinner the next day, “the horror of the chamber rushed on her mind. Several times … she feared, that illness would betray her emotions, and compel her to leave the room; but the strength of her resolution remedied the weakness of her frame.” She is resisting a spectacularization of herself. There is no question of Emily portraying the horrifying sight behind the veil for others. All she can do is fortify herself against waves of assailing affect. And as Radcliffe breaches the decorum of her narrative's apparent omniscience to conceal what is seen from the reader, she seems to confirm the figurative priority of Emily's subjectivity over the reader's own. Readers share the perils and benefits of the scene of reading with Emily to an extent that is carefully controlled and patrolled.

Of course, privileged access to Emily's consciousness does not actually subsume her status as, at all times, a spectacle in the novel. But the purpose of a gesture such as the unrepresentable sight is to assure us that to some degree Emily's imaginative relationship to her milieu overrules our own. Although we are never in danger of being literally exposed as spectacles to the text's spectator, the “circumstance of the veil” is a revelation that, in the moment of exposure to the horrific, we are as vulnerable to loss of self as she is. Opening the veil allows Radcliffe to catch us in an instant of not being ourselves. Our imitation of Emily's consciousness exposes us to the danger of self-loss. We are made suddenly aware that the text is an object that we treat as a subject with a kind of ontological priority over ourselves. In the act of reading we are only subjects at its behest, other to its command of imaginative investment, and specimens of the object-ness of the word “reader.”26 Derrida, speaking again of aporias, says “we are exposed … in our absolute and absolutely naked uniqueness, that is to say, disarmed, delivered to the other, incapable even of sheltering ourselves behind what could still protect the interiority of a secret” (p. 12). In another sense we are serialized and generified, made to seem a homology for every other reader in every other home, always haunted by a phantasmatic onlooker who has a paternalistic interest in what we read.

Even as she steps into the narrative to withhold from us its most powerful affective encounter, Radcliffe makes certain that we will retain that encounter and look for signposts to lead us back to the veiled recess. This promised return is the lacuna's current operating within the text. The second reading is an unveiling of the first reading. It is very close to the end of the novel when Radcliffe finally deals with the rent Emily's sighting has torn in the narrative. The solution to this problem is not simply a subsequent filling-in of the gap, because this, like other lacunae, is not an empty space. Emily does not get up pluck enough to revisit the sight. Instead, it is disinvested of its horror by a confinement to mere representation:

Emily, it may be recollected, had, after the first glance, let the veil drop, and her terror had prevented her from ever after provoking a renewal of such suffering. Had she dared to look again, her delusion and her fears would have vanished together, and she would have perceived that the figure before her was not human, but formed of wax.

(Udolpho, p. 662)

In effect, we read a re-reading. This re-reading draws audience and heroine back together; “on such an object, it will readily be believed, … no person could endure to look twice” (p. 662). The re-reading proves that the first reading was misinformed. Rather than re-reading, it might as well be called a re-writing. Like some kind of vanishing ink, the narrative has outlined, erased and reinscribed a portion of itself. And our investment of readerly interest, even labor (if the implications of serial readership are given full play)27 has generated surplus value in the form of a second narrative free of charge.

A first reading in Radcliffe is not only affectively, but also congnitively different from later readings. The sense that a first reading might have a particular structural difference from later readings seems characteristic of the responses to novels generated in the literary debates of the late eighteenth century. Maria Edgeworth, in her Letters for Literary Ladies, writes, “Is there any pathetic writer in the world who could move you as much at the ‘twentieth reading’ as at the first? … do not let life become as tedious as a twice told tale.”28 Prior literary forms, it will be assumed, were not bound by such restrictions. Frances Burney, for instance, deprecates her own novel, The Wanderer, when her protagonist pauses from her peregrinations to kill a little time with a volume of The Guardian and finds, “in the lively instruction, the chaste morality, and the exquisite humor of Addison, an enjoyment no repetition can cloy.”29 The conciliatory tone Walter Scott adopts towards Radcliffe in his “Prefatory Memoir” has a limited scope: “when some inadequate cause is assigned for a strong emotion; the reader feels tricked, and like a child who has seen the scenes of a theatre too nearly, the idea of paste-board, cords and pullies, destroys for ever the illusion with which they were first seen from the proper point of view” (qtd. in Rogers, p. 123). Scott is indeed an adherent to the first reading school, asserting, “the interest terminates on the first reading of [Radcliffe's] volumes, and cannot, so far as it rests upon a high degree of excitation, be recalled upon a second perusal” (qtd. in Rogers, p. 122). Although these are the grounds upon which Radcliffe's art was condemned by her early-nineteenth-century detractors, there is no doubt she makes a virtue of these and other perceived betrayals of the novelist's craft.

The second reading—that which is provided in the novel's resolving chapters—introduces stable subjectivity, but does it by sorting through the extra-subjective clauses in the heroine's contract with sociality. The specifically textual lacunae are erased so the heroine may be a lacuna only unto herself. The full coherence of her subjectivity is not made present to us; that is the limit which ends narrative, the closure into which the novel vanishes. Such is the contract that we make with the novel. Lacunae are the principle which has allowed us participation in the heroine's consciousness. Reader meets heroine at the scene of reading. Both are occupied with the task of sorting through questions which will determine not just who the heroine is, but on what grounds she will function as a subject. In general terms the reader can be said to have genre as a guide to this process; for the heroine, something more like the proprieties of the marriage market are her guide. In either case narrative drive is towards the point at which narrative itself becomes superfluous. The external and internal conditions of reading the novel, like the external and internal conditions of the heroine's subjectivity, can only be separated at the moment the novel is put down. As long as we participate in the narrative we are always figures of the novel's readerly economies as much as the novel is the apparatus of our readerly pleasure.

Lost in the unhomely world, Emily is a metonymy for the reader:30 Radcliffe is able to name reader and heroine as “us” “terror … leads us, by a kind of fascination, to seek even the object, from which we appear to shrink” (Udolpho, p. 248). She is also an empty sign, overwhelmed by her surroundings: “horror occupied her mind, and excluded for a time, all sense of past, and dread of future misfortune” (p. 249). Emily moves as though she were a pronoun, doubling herself around a loss/misplacement and a fulfillment/address. The operation of pronouns becomes a syntactic figure of sorts for the traces of narrative lacunae in the very words that fill the book. Syntactically speaking, the pronoun's nominal emptiness is the function which guarantees that it has the potential to find its way, accidentally, ambiguously or otherwise, to a noun. Pronouns, too, are lacunae, never as empty as their syntactic function suggests, only looking for a home. And the same kind of function motivates the narrative's homing instinct, though its legitimation is derived from elsewhere. Udolpho's continuing impetus is gathered from the demand Emily is made unwillingly—and as far as she is able, unconsciously—to signify: that she become legible. And that means she must attach herself, or be attached, to a propositional content of some kind. Until she has secured her identity and her sentimental attachments, however, propositions are the last thing she wants to entertain.

Her stubborn resistance to legibility is explained by her status as an unmarried woman. Comfortable inclusion in narrativity, even in a simple sentence, comes to require that she be at least directed towards some other state or person. Early in the novel she discovers a love sonnet written on the wainscot of her father's fishing house. Its author is unknown and “these lines were not inscribed to any person; Emily therefore could not apply them to herself, though she was undoubtedly the nymph of these shades” (p. 7). Later, in the midst of negotiations over her fate, in which she wants no part, Emily's recalcitrance causes words to fail:

“Charming Emily!” exclaimed the Count in an impassioned tone, “let not resentment make you unjust; let me not suffer for the offence of Montoni!—Revoke—”

“Offence!” interrupted Montoni—“Count, this language is ridiculous, this submission is childish!—speak as becomes a man, not as the slave of a petty tyrant.”

“You distract me, Signor; suffer me to plead my own cause; you have already proved insufficient to it.”

“All conversation on this subject, sir,” said Emily, “is worse than useless …”

(p. 200)

During the sequences of Montoni's attempt to unite Emily with Count Morano there is, ostensibly, a discourse revolving around Emily's desire: “‘Why seek to throw me again into the perplexities of doubt, by teaching your eyes to contradict the kindness of your late declaration?”’ asks Morano (p. 198).31 Morano and Montoni try to read Emily by treating her visible affect as a signifier of her desire (that is to say orientation towards marriage). The syntax of this reading is dictated by her condition as an unmarried woman facing the marriage offer which would attach her as pronoun to a proper noun. This syntax is inescapable; it is part of the deeper syntax of the narrative, so Emily tries to prevent the reading by refusing to offer signification: “All conversation … is worse than useless.” But because Montoni and Morano already read her singleness as an unfixed need to be married, her attempts to contradict this reading are taken to be duplicity. The scene of reading is invoked in the attempted seduction and in moments like this the lacuna Emily embodies begins to pose a threat even to the primary villain. Montoni and Morano are fighting over who is to occupy the paternal position in the figural reading scene and none of the three wants to be the feminized figure caught in the gaze. The danger femininity holds for Gothic masculinity is its capacity to unseat paternity (actual and figural); the exchangeability and marriageability of Emily may be ruined by slippages of identity,32 or her own resistance, and this in turn subjects her guardians and suitors to threats of death or dishonor.

Let me emphasize again that the dangers and evasions here are characteristic of a first reading. Emily's perceived duplicity is predicated on an implicit demand for a second reading, a revision. In one sense the content of that second reading is (or would be) Emily's true feelings or, more practically speaking, her rewriting of her feelings to accord with Morano's demand: that she agree to rewrite her name as Morano. In another sense the second reading owed by Emily's duplicity is the narrative's pull towards the right renaming. Since first readings in and of Radcliffe tend to be mistaken, the Morano seduction can easily be seen as a rehearsal for the correct seduction which will conclude Emily's adventures. Her discomfort here is not so much with the accusation of duplicity itself; it is with the fact that she cannot but be duplicitous. She does not wish to read or be read until all the documents, including herself, are settled and fully revised. Reading would be better reserved, in other words, until she is sure she is at home. Unfortunately, it is only by reading back along the trail of misreadings that she can find her way home.

The single woman is a difficult double, a “petty tyrant” and a mere object of exchange: “‘this is too much!’ suddenly exclaimed the Count; ‘Signior Montoni, you treat me ill; it is from you I shall look for explanation”’ (p. 201, my emphasis). Despite the currency of Emily's surmised passions, both she and her would-be procurers constantly try to exclude them from the issue. To an accusation of duplicity, Emily replies, “[I] can claim no merit in such conduct, for I have had nothing to conceal” (p. 199). Montoni, however, restates her illegibility as opaque, rather than empty: “the wiles of a female heart are unsearchable.” These are the Scylla and Charybdis that Emily's suitors are set up to navigate: either she is empty of passion, or unmanageably full of it. Radcliffe's prescription for home-making seems compromised by its equivocation over the role of paternalism. If the figure who looks over the shoulder of the heroine is as likely to be a malevolent villain as a kindly father, the propriety of the sexual and domestic contract he sponsors becomes difficult to endorse. With reference to the scene of female reading I described above, the heroine's decision about whether to accept the virtuousness of the proposition before her and the interested man behind her can reliably be confirmed by little outside her own consciousness. By extension, the reader of the novel must be subject to the same kind of danger: that the narrative she reads has only its own eloquence to argue for its suitability as material for a young consumer. And eloquence is, of course, one of the allurements that lead virtue to its undoing.


Radcliffe seems well aware of the dilemma posed by reading's capacity to delude, even disgrace. The novel is littered with signposts warning of the perils to which unsupervised reading can expose a young, unmarried woman. Emily's father gives her directions, shortly before his death, to find a “packet of written papers” hidden in their home at La Vallee. These she “must burn—and, solemnly I command you, without examining them” (p. 78). She has already accidentally caught sight of her father in his closet, “seated at a small table, with papers before him, some of which he was reading with deep attention and interest, during which he often wept and sobbed aloud” (p. 26). This scene, in passing, exemplifies the daughter's/single woman's capacity to reciprocate the peril which the scene of reading visits upon her. Emily burns the letters as she is instructed, but unthinkingly reads a part of them, “unconscious, that she was transgressing her father's strict injunction, till a sentence of dreadful import awakened her attention and her memory together” (p. 103). We are never told directly what this sentence is. At the end of the novel the content of the letters is only summarized and, like the figure behind the veil, its dreadful import is revoked. Emily's revelation is not shared with us, only its effect: “so powerfully had they affected her, that she even could not resolve to destroy the papers immediately; and the more she dwelt on the circumstances, the more it inflamed her imagination.” Instead of burning the letters, she sets herself imaginatively on fire.

The letters get burned soon afterwards, but this prohibited reading act has unwittingly helped push Emily into the vortex of familial uncertainty and homelessness. It has also set off an affective reaction, an “enervation” of mind that was already growing amid grief and solitude: “it was lamentable, that her excellent understanding should have yielded, even for a moment, to the reveries of superstition, or rather to those starts of imagination, which deceive the senses into what can be called nothing less than momentary madness” (p. 102). Such reactions are exactly what St. Aubert has warned Emily against, at great length, when he tells her: “all excess is vicious; even that sorrow, which is amiable in its origin, becomes a selfish and unjust passion, if indulged at the expense of our duties … The indulgence of excessive grief enervates the mind, and almost incapacitates it” (p. 20).33

Radcliffe's warnings begin to sound very much like the ones being trumpeted in contemporary tracts about women's education and reading-habits. A survey of late-eighteenth-century treatises shows that the burgeoning novel industry was the focus for much anxious ink-spilling. Compare the quotes above with this from Mary Wollstonecraft:

These are the women who are amused by the reveries of the stupid novelists, who, knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious scenes, all retained in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste and draw the heart aside from its daily duties. I do not mention the understanding, because never having been exercised, its slumbering energies remain inactive.34

Maria Edgeworth ventriloquizes a “Gentleman to his Friend” advising on women who read too much:

I should not expect that my house affairs would be with haste dispatched by a Desdemona weeping over some unvarnished tale, petrified by some history of horrors … I have heard that if these sublime geniusses are wakened from their reveries by the appulse of external circumstances, they start and exhibit all the perturbation and amazement of cataleptic patients.

(Letters for Literary Ladies, pp. 36-37)

Hannah More, a solid anti-feminist, writes in her Strictures on Female Education:

There is to woman a Christian use to be made of sober studies; while books of an opposite cast, however unexceptionable they may be sometimes found in point of expression, however free from evil in its more gross and palpable shapes, yet by their very nature and constitution they excite a spirit of relaxation, by exhibiting scenes and ideas which soften the mind and set the fancy at work; … and nourish a vain and visionary indolence which lays the mind open to error and the heart to seduction.35

No author with an opinion on young women seems willing to offer more than an equivocal defense of the novel. Other kinds of reading also require strict supervision. Wrong or excessive reading calls up metaphors of many different kinds: from softening or hardening; to relaxation or stimulation; to opening or closing; to swelling or shrinking; to corruption, “fatal poison,”36 and the “unspeakably perverting and inflammatory.”37 Radcliffe's mobilization of the registers of debate on women's reading within her narratives goes right to the heart of her heroines' dilemmas about reading and being read. There is certainly a parallel dilemma in the case of a novelist who works anti-novelistic discourse into her novels. Witness the decadent behavior of Countess de Villefort: “while she reclined on a sofa, and, casting her eyes over the ocean, … indulged in the luxuries of ennui, her companion read aloud a sentimental novel, on some fashionable system of philosophy, for the Countess was herself somewhat of a philosopher, especially as to infidelity” (Udolpho, p. 476). This scene, on the face of it, is an anti-Jacobin moment. Yet it is also a moment of Jacobin-sounding anti-decadence. If there are certain common resonances in discussions of novel-reading across the 1790s' political divides, they would seem to be grist for Radcliffe, who throws the factions all in together. She solicits this kind of contradiction, invoking every kind of reading-phobia even as she hones a narrative technique that aims for the maximum possible enticement-value. The seduction-and-prohibition interface she constructs with her audience is an analog for the punitive prurience with which she chases around her heroines. Reader and heroine alike are invited to confront closed-in mysteries, then rebuffed by failures of cognition. Finally in her novels' conclusions we are presented with catalogues of our persistent misreadings.

There is, it turns out, little to guarantee the propriety of reading Radcliffe novels. The revision which juxtaposes good seductions, genealogies and readings with the bad ones implies the value of interpretive skill. But it is still genre and the market that win in the end; hence the complaint voiced in the Artist in June, 1807: “[addicted readers] admire one novel because it puts them in mind of another … By them is it required that a novel should be like a novel.”38 Exposure as a spectacle in the hot seat of the scene of reading is the moment of risk that Radcliffe demands of her readers. As Peter de Bolla says, the late-eighteenth century's theory of reading, “in its exclusion of the aberrant feminized reading of novels, can be seen as producing the very possibility of its negation, of setting out the territory upon which a feminized subjectivity could be mapped” (p. 267). If we take Wright's scenes as emblematic, pathologized male surveillance of a female reader can hardly be distinguished from benign male control over a wife or daughter's indulgence of her subjectivity in a book.

To complete a novel without losing oneself appears to be much like passing through the marriage market. And yet a happy loss of self is the reward which counterbalances the fear of dissolution prompted by novels and performed by Radcliffe. At the other end of the Gothic tunnel is a promise of unmediated connection, identity without need of external identification—a self-dissolution. After her father's death, Emily visits his grave, “a plain marble, bearing little more than his name and the date of his birth and death” (Udolpho, p. 91). This basic reading act is tantalizing, drawing her towards a place where she can be entirely at one with what she reads, occupying and occupied: “the memory of the dead, and the kindness of the living attached her to the place; and for the sacred spot, where her father's remains were interred, she seemed to feel all those tender affections which we conceive for home.” Observe that Radcliffe slips a first-person plural pronoun into the mix. This is not just an acknowledgment of audience, but a signpost pointing towards the moment when this story's single woman can allow herself to become multiple, or rather, incorporated.

Resolution in Udolpho turns out to be bought by all of Emily's brushes with self-dissolution through dangerous reading. Her eventual benign self-dissolution into the joyous haunts of home has been prepared by her training in self-enclosure. Instead of enclosing her subjectivity, she will enclose a home. Since the revision of lacunae has demonstrated her central role in the disposal of most all her relatives and acquaintances, home and those who are admitted to it are dissolved into her as much as she into them. By resisting the possibility of becoming lost in catastrophic misreading, she learns, with help of course, to reserve herself as the model for a community of perfect sociality where there is no longer any call for interpretive decision and therefore no need for her to be captured by the scene of reading. Home is the key lacuna. For most of the novel it is unlocatable, barred by all the narrative's other lacunae. In resolution its fullness is recovered, and at the same time set beyond the reach of narrative. Ideal domesticity is unspeaking and perfectly articulated. Radcliffe's closure retains the sway of lacunae by turning us out into the marketplace of genre. Here is the receipt for our transaction with the novel. We have acted as proxies for the reader who protects and approves Emily's education into plenitude. Our less-risky imitation of her reading has brought us the correspondingly less-fulfilling reward of completion, and, it may be assumed, a return to the circulating marketplace of the book trade. There we may again indulge the fantasy of endangerment parlayed into bliss, as though we have discovered it for ourselves and for the first time.

The logic of resolution is not just covertly analogous to that of market exchange; the homology is on display. Emily's exposure to the outdoors and the unhome is entirely commensurate with the book's passage through the channels of capital. Reading the novel washes away the taint of monetary circulation and grubby laboring hands but incorporates the lessons of the market into the sentiment which takes its place: “the retrospect of all the dangers and misfortunes they had each encountered, since last [Emily and Valancourt] sat together … exalted the sense of their present felicity” (Udolpho, p. 671). Their reward is precisely the value accrued upon labors undertaken. Closure in domestic novels of the last part of the eighteenth century affords, and aspires to be, the closest possible thing to a definitional testimony to home. The paradox of home, a space in which motion/circulation and stillness/solidity become inseparable instead of undecidable, is the promise of what will be confirmed the moment reading leaves off in The Mysteries of Udolpho. The benevolent, unchanging, yet always prospering economy that home is measured against in the conclusion of the English eighteenth century is not representable, nor is it necessarily inhabitable, but becomes most actual at the intersection between reading and putting the novel down. This is not to say that the marriage and home-coming resolution of a novel is exactly the same as the return to domestic surroundings implied by the scene of reading. Nor is it to say the reverse—merely that the novel and its reader are in irreconcilably different worlds. The point is, nowhere does home come more clearly into focus than when it straddles the end of representation and the fresh beginning of social labor.

The space of home is a space between novels and domestic or extra-domestic enterprise. As The Mysteries of Udolpho is finished (this is how the figuration of home worked), its benediction absorbed, and preparation is made to return it to the circulating library and to exchange it for another novel during the course of a day's duties or endeavors, the perfectly real structure of home is articulated. An economy of loss, completion and renunciation meets and becomes one with an economy of return, expansion, and renewal. Every home is fixed by this epistemic format; it is homologous to every other home, but also entirely unique, private and unrepresentable. As a result, home is neither endangered by the temptations and depredations of an under-regulated market, nor frozen in a sameness that will not register profit, growth and improvement. It is not inflated by the sentiments and panegyrics of novelists, nor is it trampled and soiled by the repetitive labors of daily existence. And it is the particular strategy of novelists like Radcliffe to present home as a something manifested through the representations they withhold. They declare home theirs to bestow by means of the refusal to actually bring it into the light—to unveil it, as it were.

O! how joyful it is to tell of happiness, such as that of Valancourt and Emily; to relate, that, after suffering under the oppression of the vicious and the disdain of the weak, they were, at length, restored to each other—to the beloved landscapes of their native country,—to the securest felicity of this life, that of aspiring to moral and labouring for intellectual improvement—to the pleasures of enlightened society, and to the exercise of the benevolence which had always animated their hearts; while the bowers of La Vallee became, once more, the retreat of goodness, wisdom and domestic blessedness!

(Udolpho, p. 672)

This third to last sentence of Radcliffe's novel is a tableau vivant, and it comes (as tableaux vivants do) by way of lowering the curtain. It only hints in freeze frame at the narrative which might follow, and at the same time forbids or renounces that narrative. The return “to the pleasures of enlightened society, and to the exercise of the benevolence which had always animated their hearts,” is work to be done in closing the book and honoring its enumeration of the qualities of home.


  1. Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, edited by Bonamy Dobree (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), p. ix. Subsequent references will be indicated parenthetically in the text.

  2. For examples of full discussions of the relationships between novels and the expansion of middle-class domesticity in the late-English eighteenth century, see Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987); Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984); Edward Copeland, Women Writing About Money: Women's Fiction in England, 1790-1820, Cambridge Studies in Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995); Catherine Gallagher, Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

  3. Aline Grant, Ann Radcliffe (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1951), p. 46.

  4. Nancy Armstrong has this to say: “novels helped to transform the household into what might be called the ‘counterimage’ of the modern marketplace, an apolitical realm of culture within the culture as a whole” (p. 48).

  5. Harriet Guest, “The Wanton Muse: Politics and Gender in Gothic Theory After 1760,” in Beyond Romanticism: New Approaches to Texts and Contexts, 1780-1832, ed. Stephen Copley and John Whale (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 118-39.

  6. Quoted in Angela Woollacott, “‘All this is the Empire I told myself’: Australian Women's Voyages ‘Home’ and the Articulation of Colonial Whiteness,” American Historical Review 102 (October 1997): 1004, n.6. The semantic lifetime of this oddly pluralized signifier may well prove to be a pretty close match for the living memory of British empire; it is now passing, rather gracelessly, out of the language.

  7. “We have,” says Mr. Burke, “given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood; binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties; adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections; keeping inseparable, and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities, our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars.” Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), p. 34.

    No, we have not, replies Mr. Paine, we have failed to install a system of property distribution compatible with general comfort and security of living. The “unnatural law of primogeniture” has ensured that “the peer and the beggar are often of the same family. One extreme produces the other: to make one rich the other must be made poor.” Thomas Paine, Rights of Man (New York: Penguin, 1984), p. 257.

  8. Mary Favret discusses some of these laws in Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics and the Fiction of Letters, Cambridge Studies in Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), p. 79.

  9. This particular example of the defence of the hearth rationale comes, oddly enough, from Richard Elsam's An Essay on Rural Architecture (London: E. Lawrence, 1803), p. 46.

  10. James Malton, An Essay on British Cottage Architecture (London: Hookham and Carpenter, 1798), p. 3.

  11. John Wood, Choir Gaure, Vulgarly Called Stonehenge (Oxford: 1747), p. 76.

  12. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. D. G. C. Macnabb, 2 vols. (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1962), 1:64.

  13. Caravaggio was an early exemplar of the technique of painting scenes with a single, limited source of light, and Dutch painters, including Schalken and Honthurst, are given credit for making a genre of paintings whose subjects are lit only by a candle. See Judy Egerton, Wright of Derby (London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1990), p. 10.

  14. Ronald Paulson, Breaking and Remaking: Aesthetic Practice in England, 1700-1820 (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1989), p. 204. Also see Benedict Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light, 2 vols., Studies in British Art Series (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, and the Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, 1968), p. 40.

  15. See Terry Castle, “The Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho,The New Eighteenth Century, ed. Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown (New York: Methuen, 1987), pp. 231-53.

  16. I borrow this definition of fiction from Catherine Gallagher, who, in her introduction to Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820, says of mid-eighteenth-century novels, “nothingness … seemed to contain at least the potential for a new and more positive form: the form of the fictional Nobody, a proper name explicitly without a physical referent in the real world” (p. xiv).

  17. Henri Lefebvre writes of “the functioning of capitalism, which contrives to be blatant and covert at one and the same time.” The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 49.

  18. Peter de Bolla contends that as a direct spin-off from the scene of female reading “a kind of textual commodification results, in which the text is both an object for the performance of male sexuality and the repository of female subjectivity.” The Discourse of the Sublime (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), p. 278.

  19. Cannon Schmitt, “Techniques of Terror, Technologies of Nationality: Ann Radcliffe's The Italian,ELH 61 (1994): 870.

  20. Quoted in Deborah D. Rogers, ed., The Critical Response to Ann Radcliffe (Westwood, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), p. 121.

  21. Home is also the novel's origin, though the plot convulsions which obliterate the homeness of Emily's home for most of the novel also leave it a substantially redefined location when it is reclaimed.

  22. Quoted in Schmitt, p. 876, n. 43.

  23. Jacques Derrida, Aporias, trans. Thomas Dutoit, Meridian Crossing Aesthetics series (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1993), p. 20.

  24. Recent criticism of Radcliffe has found it all but impossible to steer around this scene. I have come across examinations by Terry Castle (pp. 243ff); Claudia Johnson in Equivocal Beings (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 96ff; Robert Miles in Ann Radcliffe the Great Enchantress (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 135ff; Adela Pinch in Strange Fits of Passion (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 113ff; and Claire Kahane in “The Gothic Mirror,” in The (M)other Tongue, ed. Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengnether (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), p. 339.

  25. This meditation seems practically culled from Edmund Burke: “Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force.” A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), p. 53.

  26. I will explore the anti-novelistic implications of this and other aspects of Radcliffe's work in greater detail later on.

  27. Mary Poovey, in “The Production of Abstract Space,” Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation 1830-1864 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 25-54, argues that the social space of the late-eighteenth century comes to be formatted upon “the logic of the factory”: “abstract space was symbolically and materially associated with homologies: seriality, repetitious actions, reproducible products; interchangeable places, behaviors and activities” (p. 29). Hence all social practice may be considered, in this light, a form of productive labor. I certainly wish to apply this conceptual format to the reading of novels.

  28. Maria Edgeworth, Letters for Literary Ladies, ed. Gina Lurie, Feminist Controversy in England 1788-1810 Series (New York: Garland, 1974).

  29. Frances Burney, The Wanderer, ed. Margaret Ann Doody, Robert L. Mack, and Peter Sabor, Oxford World's Classics (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), p. 508.

  30. If Emily is to function, properly speaking, as a metonymy she must be considered metonymic of her readership. On the other hand, in the context of horrific encounters with self-loss, the reader is a metonymy for Emily.

  31. Nancy Armstrong writes, “The modern female body comprised a grammar of subjectivity capable of regulating desire, pleasure, the ordinary care of the body, the conduct of courtship” (p. 95).

  32. Emily's parentage and legitimacy are thrown into doubt by her father's attachment to a mysterious woman's image (she turns out to be his sister) and her own resemblance to debased figures.

  33. The Romance of the Forest features a wonderful example of Radcliffe's play with the perils of women's reading. Its heroine, Adeline, discovers a damaged manuscript—full of lacunae, naturally—“What she had read of the MS awakened a dreadful interest in the fate of the writer, and called up terrific images to her mind” (p. 128); “he [the writer of the MS] spoke in the energy of truth, and, by a strong illusion of fancy, it seemed as if his past sufferings were at this moment present … to her distempered senses the suggestions of a bewildered mind appeared with the force of reality” (p. 132). Ed. Chloe Chard, The World's Classics (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986).

  34. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), p. 306.

  35. Hannah Moore, Strictures on Female Education (Oxford: Woodstock Books, 1995), p. 181.

  36. From John Gregory, A Father's Legacy to His Daughters (1774). Quoted in Alan Richardson, Literature, Education and Romanticism, Cambridge Studies in Romanticism Series (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994), p. 186.

  37. From James Fordyce, Sermons for Young Women (1796). Quoted in Richardson, p. 186.

  38. Quoted in J. T. Taylor, Early Opposition to the English Novel (New York: King's Crown Press, 1943), p. 48.

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The Mysteries of Udolpho