Monday, 1 August 2011

Neglected classics: The Mysteries of Udolpho

Ann Radcliffe
Proof (if proof is needed) that I really am a nerd is made manifest in my response to the Twilight/vampire/gothic phenomena of recent years.  I did eventually read Twilight at the urging of my teenage daughter, but my response was not to devour the rest of the series, but to at last fulfill an intention I’ve had for the past twenty years, to finally read some of the original, eighteenth century gothic novels.  Although I blogged previously on The Monk, the first true gothic novel I read was Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, satirized by Jane Austen refers to in  Northanger Abbey.    

The heroine, Emily, left orphaned and at the mercy of uncaring relatives, is forced to leave the man she loves and travel with her guardian aunt (who has made a rash marriage) to Italy: first Venice and then the remote Castle Udolpho.  In between resisting her aunt’s husband’s attempts to sell her to the highest bidder, she seeks to unravel the mystery concerning her dead father’s connection to a supposedly murdered Marchioness, who was once an inhabitant of the castle.

This is a typical, peripatetic and lengthy eighteenth century volume.  One of the chief things it did was to remind me once more of Austen’s own achievement in launching her pithy, domestic novels on the world.  The lengthy travelogues (although making a point about finding meaning and consolation in the divinely created world) can be tiring, as can the poems, and the deus ex machina ending was quite a disappointment to me.  The element of horror is subdued; there is almost a humour in the way Radcliffe leads the readers to the brink of horrific discoveries time and again, only to draw back. 

What the novel does highlight, though, is the plight of young women of the upper classes dependent on their guardians’ whims.  Emily is often left physically helpless, and only survives through the philosophy of self control imparted by her father before his death.  Although historically interesting, I think The Mysteries of Udolpho is best read if you are already familiar with novels of this period, or you may find the style offputting.

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