The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe - Essay

Ann Ward


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge (essay date 1794)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Enfield (essay date 1794)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mary Poovey (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Howard Anderson (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mary Laughlin Fawcett (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jean H. Hagstrum (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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April London (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6023 words.)

Rhoda L. Flaxman (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3972 words.)

Terry Castle (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.


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D. L. Macdonald (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4049 words.)

Kenneth W. Graham (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Donald Williams Bruce (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patricia Whiting (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Terry Castle (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7969 words.)

Scott MacKenzie (essay date 1999)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10065 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 612 words.)