The Mysteries of Udolpho is the story of a young woman who survives the terrors of life as an unprotected orphan subject to the control of an avaricious aunt and her archvillain husband in Italy and the south of France. The Mysteries of Udolpho takes place in a pseudo-medieval world, a world in which strange music floats on the midnight air, half-seen forms walk through unlit corridors, and danger threatens the heroine at every turn.
One year under legal age, Emily cannot control her own property or her own movements, and she cannot marry the man she loves. Her father extracts a deathbed promise from her that no matter what happens, she will never sell her family home at La Vallée. Her aunt’s property will by law descend to Emily. Montoni’s desire is to force both Emily and Madame Montoni to sign their property over to him. They refuse. Madame Montoni pays for this with her life; Emily holds out until she can no longer. When Montoni is later arrested, the authorities return to her her own estate as well as that of her aunt.
Emily falls in love early on with Valancourt, but their marriage is delayed until the end of the narrative for a variety of reasons. Her aunt disapproves of the courtship because she wishes Emily to marry someone of station—not for Emily’s happiness, but to add to her own position in the world. Madame hastily marries Montoni, who packs up his household in the middle of the night, including his wife and Emily, and moves them all to the ruined castle of Udolpho.
While virtually a prisoner at Udolpho, Emily is constantly subject to threats both real and imagined. For example, one night an apparition turns out to be Count Morano, who, declaring his love for her, attempts to abduct her, but he is foiled by the appearance of Montoni, who engages him in a sword fight. When the possibility of Emily’s alliance with Count Morano is gone, Montoni even more menacingly presses his wife and his niece-by-marriage for their signatures on property transfers.
Emily has two goals now: to help her aunt, whom Montoni has locked away in the east turret to perish from starvation and neglect, and to escape the same fate. Her escape is made possible not by Valancourt, but by Monsieur Du Pont, a friend of her father and her longtime secret admirer, who has been taken prisoner and is being held at Udolpho. She escapes with him but ultimately does not accept his advances.
Before she can return to La Vallée and a future with Valancourt, she endures the terrors of Château-le-Blanc, the ancestral home of the Villerois. At the castle, the mysteries are solved and the action is unraveled, showing that the portrait of the woman over which Emily had seen her father cry is the Marchessa de Villerois, his sister; that the Marchessa had been poisoned by her own husband, who had been in love with Signora Laurentini; that Signora Laurentini was never killed by Montoni as Emily had suspected, but that she had in fact conspired with the Marquise to poison the Marchessa, and that she is not a ghost as the servants have told Emily, but that she has been living for twenty years as the mad nun “Agnes” in the convent of St. Clair. The longest-obscured mystery, that of the veiled figure, the sight of which made Emily faint and which Emily thought to be an actual worm-eaten corpse, turns out to be merely a wax figure.
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La Vallee (lah vah-YAY). Château in the Languedoc region of France, home to the St. Aubert family. The château is part of a larger family estate which, since childhood, has held fondly nostalgic associations for Monsieur St. Aubert. Once a cottage, the château has been renovated and expanded to harmonize with the surrounding rural landscape. The interior is furnished in “chaste simplicity,” with simple furniture and a library filled with good books. Its attached greenhouse supports St. Aubert’s interest in botany and bespeaks his sympathy with nature. Ann Radcliffe portrays the château as a place of comfort, tranquillity, and spiritual fulfillment.
La Vallee is a physical symbol of the domestic virtues practiced by the St. Aubert family. Its ideal character as a pastoral retreat is emphasized by its contrast with the adjoining estate, which St. Aubert sold to Monsieur Quesnel to settle his father’s debts. Quesnel prefers the city life of Paris to life in the country, and his proposed extravagant renovations, which will entail destroying the natural beauty of the grounds and planting foliage incongruously out of step with the setting, affirm the insensitivity of those not attuned to nature.
For Emily St. Aubert, La Vallee is a reservoir for memories of the last happy days spent with her family. The château symbolizes an innocence that is threatened when her guardian, the villainous Count Montoni, schemes to sell it and pay off his debts.
*Languedoc (lang-gah-DAHK). Mostly wild region in southern France, favored by St. Aubert and Emily. Its vivid colors and breathtaking vistas give rise to spiritual thoughts and veneration of the Great Creator by those sensitive to its sublime beauty. Throughout the novel, Radcliffe contrasts the wholesomeness of this natural world with the artifice of the city and human-made dwellings, most notably the castle Udolpho. Places that look upon the landscape, such as La Vallee and the Château-le-Blanc, are portrayed as serene and free. People who prefer the city to its natural splendor are depicted as insincere and superficial. In this setting Emily enjoys her final moments with her father and meets Valancourt, who proves to be her savior.
Udolpho (oo-DOHLF-oh). Castle in the Apennine Mountains to which Montoni moves Emily, her aunt, and the rest of his entourage following their brief sojourn in Venice. Emily first glimpses it as a “gloomy and sublime object” that seems to absorb ambient light and plunge the surrounding woods into darkness. That gloom is so intense that Emily can only discern parts of the castle in outline, as though Udolpho is partly made of shadow. The castle’s immense dimensions suggest great strength, but are more grotesque than reassuring. Parts of the castle are in disrepair, hinting at a former glory that is long past. Udolpho was once a formidable fortress, but the evil Montoni exploits its remoteness and inaccessibility to protect his band of marauding condottieri.
Aging castles and buildings are common props in gothic fiction, and Udolpho is among the most famous because it magnificently manifests the spirit of menace associated with the literature. The castle is poorly illuminated, and Radcliffe describes its gloom as a contagion capable of infecting those who stay there. In contrast to the interior furnishings of La Vallee, which are minimal yet suited to the simple tastes of its residents, the furnishings of Udolpho are austere and suggest an absence of basic comforts. Hallways that trail off into darkness and illusions of both sound and sight, created by the castle’s vast interior, all contribute to its aura of supernatural peril. Above all, Udolpho conveys a sense of entrapment and imprisonment. Emily’s removal to the castle is tantamount to an abduction, and Montoni does not allow her to leave its premises. Each night, she is locked in a bedroom set apart from other rooms in the castle.
Typical of gothic fiction, the castle serves as a physical manifestation of the states of mind of its inhabitants. The deterioration of parts of Udolpho and reclamation of some of its grounds by the wild natural world express the moral decline of its owner, Montoni, a nobleman who indulges in thievery and murder. The secret passages that honeycomb the walls of its rooms are as tortuous and labyrinthine as Montoni’s evil schemes. Emily sees a grim portent of her own fate in a legend associated with the castle: Udolpho is supposedly haunted by the ghost of its former owner, a woman who refused to acquiesce to Montoni’s will.
The Mysteries of Udolpho, perhaps more than any other novel, is the prototype for what has come to be seen as a specifically female genre: the gothic romance. The heroine is transformed from the typical sentimental heroine of the eighteenth century—such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740-1741) and Clarissa (1749) and Charlotte Smith’s heroines—and is someone of extremely refined sensibilities. She is a rational person who takes control of her own life as soon as circumstances permit. In effecting this change, Radcliffe helped make possible a different kind of female protagonist. The heroine ceases to be merely a victim, as is Antonia in Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796).
In contrast to the world of gothic literature written by men, the focus in The Mysteries of Udolpho is on the heroine; the threat is mainly imprisonment and powerlessness, rarely rape, and never incest. The supernatural never actually appears, and all is rationally explained; the heroine triumphs, not the villain. Emily ends up with what she wants: the man of her dreams returned with her to their Eden of innocence at La Vallée.
For the most part, Radcliffe elicited praise from the major writers of her era. Among the most widely read and repeatedly published novels in the nineteenth century, The Mysteries of Udolpho was also translated and imitated on the continent. It holds a significant position in the history of women’s literature. Its predecessors are Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753) and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). Radcliffe was significantly influenced by Clara Reeve’s Old English Baron (1777) and the gothic novels of Harriet and Sophia Lee.
The Mysteries of Udolpho is not merely another “shilling shocker.” It represents a significant change in the direction of the novel, specifically through the character of Emily, and it provides an aesthetically respectable prototype for the elevation of the tale of terror.
The gothic romance continues as a genre in the nineteenth century. It evolves through such works as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) into the twentieth century, with such novels as Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), but it devolves into mass-market formula fiction with none of the cultural resonances found in the works of Ann Radcliffe. The implications of the formula gothic as a “female” genre, now written and read mostly by women, are currently being studied.
Castle, Terry. “The Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho.” In The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature, edited by Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown. New York: Methuen, 1987. Examines the neglected segments of The Mysteries of Udolpho and asserts that the supernatural is “rerouted” rather than explained.
Fawcett, Mary Laughlin. “Udolpho’s Primal Mystery.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 23, no. 3 (1983): 481-494. Provides a psychoanalytic approach to the novel.
Freeman, R. Austin. Introduction to The Mysteries of Udolpho. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1931. Dismisses Radcliffe’s anachronisms and inaccuracies as irrelevant, claiming that The Mysteries of Udolpho’s merits are elsewhere. Whereas Samuel Taylor Coleridge had faulted Radcliffe for explaining all the mysteries, Freeman shows that The Mysteries of Udolpho anticipates the convention of the novel and satisfies readers with those explanations.
Graham, Kenneth W. “Emily’s Demon-Lover: The Gothic Revolution and The Mysteries of Udolpho.” In Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, edited by Kenneth W. Graham. New York: AMS Press, 1989. Places Radcliffe’s works in the historical moment of revolution.
Howells, Coral Ann. Love, Mystery, and Misery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction. London: Athlone Press, 1978. Analyzes Emily St. Aubert as a character through whom Radcliffe experiments with subjectivity and points of view.
Kiely, Robert. The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. Kiely observes innovative aspects in the character of Emily St. Aubert, including the fact that she is aware of her own thinking and that she is astute rather than helpless in finding her way in her gothic situation.
Moers, Ellen. Literary Women: The Great Writers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976. A groundbreaking work that begins to delineate a female literary tradition. Moers discusses how Radcliffe used the gothic novel to explore the nature of heroinism. Compares her to Fanny Burney.
Roberts, Bette B. “The Horrid Novels: The Mysteries of Udolpho and Northanger Abbey.” In Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, edited by Kenneth W. Graham. New York: AMS Press, 1989. Challenges conventional notions of Jane Austen’s evaluation of Radcliffe’s art by examining Austen’s treatment in Northanger Abbey of both Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho and other contemporary “horrids.”
Smith, Nelson. “Sense, Sensibility, and Ann Radcliffe.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 13, no. 4 (1973): 577-590. Shows The Mysteries of Udolpho to be an attack on eighteenth century “sensibility.”
Spender, Dale. “Ann Radcliffe and the Gothic.” In Mothers of the Novel: One Hundred Good Women Writers Before Jane Austen. London: Pandora Books, 1986. A defense of a female literary tradition. Discusses Radcliffe in historical context, including mention of female writers who influenced her.
Todd, Janet. The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing, and Fiction, 1600-1800. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Discusses female authorship by the signs it creates to identify itself. Suggests that Radcliffe maintains the image of female gentility, the lady, in her life and works.