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.
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.
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.
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.