The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

The mysteries of udolphoThe 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.

In The Woods

In The Woods (1859) Camille Pissarro
~ source Wikiart

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?

Landscape with a Castle

Landscape with a Castle (1632) Rembrandt
~ source Wikiart

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.”

The Castle at Trento

The Castle at Trento (1495) Albrecht Durer
~ source Wikiart

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.

In Time of Peril

In Time Of Peril (1897) Edmund Leighton
~ source Wikipedia

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. ☺️


39 thoughts on “The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

  1. I LOVED your review & those fabulous quotes. Isn’t that first one on the ‘well-informed mind’ so CM/Classical! Well done on finishing it. I must check out your NA post. I don’t think I’ve seen that one??

    • Thanks, Carol! I felt that Radcliffe was primarily trying to impart a moral (or morals) to her reader and she did that by crafting an adventurous story with lots of struggles for the heroine. Through Emily, we learn that we can’t control the challenges we face, but we can control how we respond to them. I was glad to finally complete such a tome! Yes, my Northanger Abbey review was long enough ago that I had to re-read it to refresh my memory, lol!

  2. A lovely review, Cleo. Congratulations on finishing. It hardly matters when, it’s the how, and you’ve done that with style.

    I hold my hand up, and admit that I was one of those who found Emily – at times – irritating, though I did make allowances for differences in social etiquette and expectations, and by the end, my attitude had shifted right across to admiration. I do like a woman of principle, and she demonstrated oodles of that.

    • Thank you, Cath. I’m so glad to have completed it. Even though it wasn’t intellectually tough I feel I’m getting back into reading again.
      I found Emily trying at the end with her mooning over Vallencourt. Otherwise she was quite sensible and willing to do what was necessary even though it could be overwhelming for her. But principles she had in excess thanks to her father. I’m looking forward to reading the next book by Radcliffe.

  3. I stopped reading about a third of the way through but I’m hoping to finish it this year. So you aren’t the last to finish! I haven’t read Northanger Abbey either, so I’ll read it after I finish Udolpho. Thank you for the review! One of the reasons I stopped reading is that I was confused about what was happening in the story – your review might help me track better. Thank you!!

    • I can understand losing track as so much is going on. I’m not sure if my review will help because it’s super-condensed but it might give you a framework to work with. I do hope you finish it. At least Northanger Abbey will be a walk in the park after this one. ☺️ Good luck!

  4. Yay!! Congrats on finishing! And I love your review and all of the info you included. Northanger Abbey is one of my favorites of Austen’s and I was glad to have read one of the horrid novels she parodies. 🙂

    • Thanks, Kim! You were one of the ones who pushed me to finish as you kept on top of your reading. I agree with your review that the book was drawn out but more for me during her stay at Udolpho. I felt that part could have been condensed but otherwise I found the pacing predictable. Oh, and of course there were the coincidences. How fortunate their shipwreck was right near the estate of the Marquis de Villerois! That was pretty unbelievable. But, of course, I will read more by Radcliffe. How could one resist?

      • Ha! Yes the coincidences…amazing how that happened. 😂 I really did like Emily as a heroine. She was strong-willed where it was necessary, even if she was a bit susceptible to swooning. 😬😄 I also want to read more Radcliffe!

  5. This sounds like a fun read even if it was a long one. Thanks for the tie in to Northanger Abbey. I had read Austen’s novel a couple years ago and your post gives me an added understanding of it!

    • You’re welcome, Dale. It was a fun and easy read. It’s nice to add in some less mentally taxing books like this one now and then.

  6. You did it!! Congratulations! I’m glad you enjoyed it so much. I laugh, but I also always admire Mrs. Radcliffe’s steadfast commitment to the power of common sense. I think Jane Austen was poking fun at the Gothic genre, but in an affectionate way. She seems to have enjoyed a fun story as much as anybody, but does want to remind us that they’re *stories,* and modern dangers look somewhat different.

    • I did it!

      What a great comment, Jean. The power of common sense, absolutely, although I think it’s becoming rarer which is perhaps why Radcliffe felt the need to emphasize it. And yes, they are stories. If only the good and pure always won in the end but it doesn’t always work that way. Sadly ….

  7. Congratulations! I mean to read this someday. Horror/Gothic is generally not my genre, but then, Jane Austen, and also this one is supposed to be a classic. Your review was great, and made me think, well, maybe I could do it…

    • Thanks! I think you’d enjoy it. It’s a mental break but a fun one. Austen novels are classics …. I wouldn’t call this novel one but it’s definitely an interesting story. Yes, you can do it! 👍

  8. super review! and gorgeous art as usual! i thought the ending was kind of strange; it was like she was preoccupied with something else and was trying to end it in her spare time… fine quotes, representing a balanced, moral attitude toward living… now i’ll see if this will print, haha i guess not; neither google or wordpress will cooperate, darn…

    • Thanks, Mudpuddle! And I agree. The ending was full of mooning over Vallencourt and didn’t have the strength of the rest of the novel. But it doesn’t surprise me. Have you read anything else by Radcliffe and, if so, how does it compare?

    • I have had a terrible time with comments lately. Finally about a month ago I was able to easily comment on blogger blogs but just a few days ago all of a sudden I couldn’t anymore. Now it’s hit and miss …. one try I won’t be able to but if I wait, I might be able to get it to go through later. It’s very frustrating as it’s happening on some self-hosted blogs too. Glad you had Mrs. M. to help!

  9. What an amazing review , especially summarizing the adventures! That is some feet! I did not really enjoy the book when I read it at 20 But then I think I read it with the sensibilities of 21st century not allowing for the social systems of 18th century. Plus I read all Ms. Radcliff’s work from Ms. Austen’s lens, not terribly complimentary to the former, or even the latter, considering how much Jane Austen admired the former’s work. And you are right, this was expected to be a morality tale so to speak, which Ms. Radcliff cloaked into an adventure to be both instructive and entertaining. All of this enlightenment came to me much later when the Sicilian Romance as an older adult!

    • Thanks, Cirtnecce! Oh, did you read Sicilian Romance? Was it good? I almost want to buy all of her other books just to have them to read when I want. On another note, I’m finding it very expensive to order paperbacks now. I miss being able to go across the border to my used book stores. Oh well, hopefully soon I will be able to do that again.

  10. I’d never seriously considered reading this till your thoughts & review! Now I’m really intrigued. As you described Vallencourt, I see a “type” or a shadow of other characters in Victorian literature, the noble young man being one fits into the heroine’s family by his gallantry and help towards them.

    @miss.havishams.clock on IG is doing a readalong of this book and other Gothic works this year… I don’t have time to join but a heads up to anyone who might interested 🙂

    • As long as you don’t expect too much, I think you’d enjoy it. And in spite of its length, it’s a quick read (my pace is nothing to judge by!). Vallencourt’s character and behaviour is another surprise in the novel. Radcliffe doesn’t balk at making the reader do backflips to follow her plotline.

      Thanks for the tip! I’ll check it out and see if I have time to fit in another Gothic novel.

    • I agree that Emily did appear too perfect but I believe she was given as a standard to live up to. If we could all make good decisions in uncertain, tempting and dangerous circumstances, our lives would certainly be better. So I see her as a role model ….. we probably won’t get to her level of sainthood but if we try to be like her, we would be better people.

      • In 2019, I had an experiment of mood reading : one novel I put down because I thought I would hate it, I later picked up and loved it, so now, I’m cautious when I say I don’t like a book. Who knows, if I pick that one up in a few years, I might very well enjoy it 🙂

        • I’ve had that experience too, Iza. I thought I would hate The Iliad and absolutely loved it. The same with Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. And with classics, even if I don’t particularly like it, I can usually find something beneficial in it.

  11. You can definitely pick out the gothic elements in this novel. Emily fit the typical woman in distress. She is definitely portrayed as vulnerable and is dominated by a villainous man. However, she also exhibits great courage and fortitude as well. So I think that while she was cast as the vulnerable woman in distress, she had great strength too. And I liked that Radcliffe chose to give her main female character strength and courage. I really enjoyed reading this novel so am glad you did the read-along for it! 🙂

    • Yes, I think you’re right. Just because someone is quiet and vulnerable and good, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re weaker. One can be stronger in character which I think is one of my most important strengths, and Emily beat out most characters in that aspect. I’m so glad that you enjoyed it. I have a feeling her other novels won’t be quite as good but I’ll be interested to read them in any case.

    • You’re welcome! If you like gothic, it’s definitely worth reading. I hope you’re able to get to it at some point!

  12. Yay, you finished! I had the same expectation that it would be more over-dramatic/sensational that it was, largely because of they way Catherine and Isabella reacted to it in Northanger Abbey, as well as the melodrama of some of the other Gothic novels I read. But I enjoyed reading it regardless, though I’m not sure if I’d ever reread it.

    • I know! I was sort of sad when it ended but one can have too much Gothic at one time, if you know what I mean. I might try her The Italian next. If I had one more life, I’d re-read it but otherwise, there are so many other books to read!!

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