The Mysteries of Udolpho: “On the pleasant banks of the Garrone, in the province of Gascony, stood, in the year 1584, the chateau of Monsieur St. Aubert.”
Finally, I have finished The Mysteries of Udolpho, the turtle coming in over the finish line of her own read-along. It was actually more like a last-minute buddy read but still everyone finished before me and I think a good number of you enjoyed the read.
I must say, Radcliffe surprised me. I had expected a novel infused with the overly dramatic, filled with unbelievable occurrences, overdrawn characters, and sentimentality galore. While there was a little of each within the novel, it was much less than I expected. Emily, the heroine, while she did faint on occasion, was actually quite strong and steadfast given her age and circumstances. I’m a little puzzled as to why she’s mocked so heavily in other reviews I’ve read.
Our heroine, Emily St. Aubert, lives a sheltered life with her father and mother in the area of Gascony, France. Both her parents are persons of moral virtue and good sense, and Emily spends her time wandering the verdant forests and natural landscapes, reading and appreciating poetry. Under the tutelage of her father, her character is formed. St. Aubert instructs and cautions her:
“A well-informed mind ….. is the best security against the contagion of folly and of vice. The vacant mind is ever on the watch for relief, and ready to plunge into error, to escape from the languor of idleness. Store it with ideas, teach it the pleasure of thinking; and the temptations of the world without, will be counteracted by the gratifications derived from the world within …….
“I have endeavoured to teach you, from your earliest youth, the duty of self-command; I have pointed out to you the great importance of it through life, not only as it preserves us in the various and dangerous temptations that call us from rectitude and virtue, but 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; even that sorrow, which is amiable in its origin, becomes a selfish and unjust passion, if indulged at the expence of our duties — by our duties I mean what we owe to ourselves, as well as to others. The indulgence of excessive grief enervates the mind, and almost incapacitates it for again partaking of those various innocent enjoyments which a benevolent God designed to be the sun-shine of our lives ….
“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 ….. You see, my dear, that, though I would guard you against the dangers of sensibility, I am not an advocate for apathy. At your age I should have said THAT is a vice more hateful than all the errors of sensibility, and I say so still. I call it a VICE, because it leads to positive evil; in this, however, it does no more than an ill-governed sensibility, which, by such a rule, might also be called a vice; but the evil of the former is of more general consequence ….. Always remember how much more valuable is the strength of fortitude, than the grace of sensibility ….. Remember, too, that one act of beneficence, one act of real usefulness, is worth all the abstract sentiment in the world. Sentiment is a disgrace, instead of an ornament, unless it leads us to good actions ….”
Upon the death of her mother, her father sets out on a journey towards Rousillon to assuage his grief but since he is already in a weakened state, he finally succumbs and Emily is left an orphan. St. Aubert’s sister, Madame Cherron, takes responsibility for Emily but makes an imprudent marriage to an Italian “nobleman”, Montoni, who takes them to Venice and thence to the Appenines and his castle, Udolpho. He is set on marrying Emily to someone who will further his financial desires, whereas Emily can only think of Vallencourt, the young man who assisted her and her father through their journey in Rousillon at the end of her father’s life. Cloistered at Udolpho, she observes horsemen coming and going, surmising they are come to assist Montoni, or at least protect the castle from siege. However, lute music coming from the castle at night captures her attention and she is determined to find its source, but after a long time at the castle she finally escapes and make her way back to France. Coincidentally, a shipwreck lands her in the very area where her father had passed away and she makes the acquaintance of the Count Villeforte who encourages her to stay at the estate he has inherited, the estate of the Marquis de Villerois and the same estate she had encountered with her father in their travels. Vallencourt returns a ruined man, a crazy nun makes mysterious claims and another young man vies for Emily’s hand. Will Emily find happiness, regain her rightful inheritance and solve some of mysteries surrounding her father and Udolpho?
Heavens, that was only a cursory summary. Throughout the book the reader is treated to journeys, flights from oppressors, questionable banditti, a number of suitors for Emily’s hand in marriage, an isolated and sinister castle, a terrifying vision behind a veil, inheritances, ghostly apparitions, secret papers, deaths, murders, love triangles, conspiracies, intrigue, machinations, fainting, bemoaning, spurned lovers, unrequited love, forbidden love, and much, much more. It was quite a romp, a long, long, panoramic tale that whirls you and spins you as if you were on a rollercoaster until the end, as the reader is treated to a satisfying, if predictable conclusion.
“O! useful may it be to have shewn, that, though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!
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 in vain, nor is the writer unrewarded.”
Apparently Radcliffe never travelled to any of the locations she wrote about which is why there were some puzzling locational circumstances, such as why, when she escaped Udolpho which is in the Appenines, she soon made her way to Florence and from there could see the sea where they planned to board a boat for France. But I must say, even with Radcliffe’s lack of knowledge, she did a reasonably adequate job of portraying each location in a way that made you feel you were there. Her descriptions of some of the locations were quite lovely and a pleasure to read. Yet in spite of her enchanting setting illustrations and her ability to include numerous breathtaking plot devices to hold the reader in suspense, Radcliffe’s style was lacking in excellence. Her construction of a story was not the multi-layered creation you would normally find with a classic novel. She mostly “tells” rather than “shows”. Often knowledge is withheld from the reader to build the suspense and it is only at the end of the novel that we get a summarization of what was actually happening and the intricate connections between circumstances and characters to which we were hitherto unaware. Yet, in spite of the weaknesses of the novel, I enjoyed it immensely and was rather sad to leave the world Radcliffe had created.
Jane Austen apparently parodied The Mysteries of Udolpho in her novel Northanger Abbey, but when I read my review of the latter, I wondered if Austen was criticizing the Gothic genre of fiction or merely cautioning against a steady diet of it. In my review, I’d also alluded to Northanger Abbey falling apart at the end, but after reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, I’m wondering if it wasn’t by design. Austen relates a number of improbable circumstances and introduces hitherto unknown characters, yet correspondingly Radcliffe, as I mentioned above, employs a very similar technique within The Mysteries of Udolpho. Perhaps it was Austen’s poke at the somewhat clumsy crafting of an authoress who had come before her.
In time, I’d like to read all of the Horrid Novels, of which The Mysteries of Udolpho is one. The complete list is included in my Northanger Abbey post, which you can find by following one of the numerous links I’ve already included. ☺️