What a fun book Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe turned out to be! Sure it’s a long book, and sure there is lots of wandering and admiring the sublime scenery, but oh, when I got down to the end and all the secrets and mysteries began to be revealed, what fun! All the revelations at the end could have been handled better. Instead of making them part of the narrative, they end up feeling like Radcliffe knew she had to end the book and disclose all the secrets and she wasn’t sure how so she just tells us in one long rush. She does manage to tie up everything which was good because I was starting to wonder if she was going to remember to say what was behind the black veil at Udolpho. Now I know why there is so much wondering about this very thing by Catherine in Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
The Mysteries of Udolpho was published in 1794 in four volumes. It is a Gothic Romance with love, bad men, castles, hidden passages, ghosts, bandits, murder, coincidences, and secrets galore. But Radcliffe did not write a supernatural gothic novel, for her there is an explanation for everything. And to make extra sure we know we are not to believe in the supernatural, she makes fun of the people in the novel who do.
The story follows Emily St. Aubert who becomes an orphan at the tender age of seventeen. Because she is not yet of age, she is given to the care of her father’s sister, Madame Cheron, a vain, ambitious woman with a mean streak. Not long after Emily goes to live with her aunt, Madame Cheron agrees to marry Count Montoni, a handsome, passionate and agreeable Italian. Almost immediately they set out for Venice. Montoni turns out to be other than he represented himself and his sins, to the horror of the good and pure Emily, begin to mount up fast as soon as they arrive in Venice. After a few months in Venice where Montoni tries to trick Emily into marrying Count Morano, Montoni suddenly packs up his household and hurries his servants and women off to Udolpho, his crumbling and remote castle in the Pyrenees. The only thing that sustains Emily’s spirits throughout her trials at Venice and Udolpho is her love for the Chevalier Valancourt who loves her in return.
Poor Emily’s road is never smooth but in spite of the river of tears she cries, the horrors she must face, the many moments of fainting and insensibility, she remains true and kind and good so is therefore rewarded in the end.
There are many things the book is about but I think the one that stands first in line is, in the words of Emily’s father:
‘A well-informed mind,’ he would say, ‘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. Thought, and cultivation, are necessary equally to the happiness of a country and a city life; in the first they prevent the uneasy sensations of indolence, and afford a sublime pleasure in the taste they create for the beautiful, and the grand; in the latter, they make dissipation less an object of necessity, and consequently of interest.’
Of course Emily has a well-informed mind and it is from all this her goodness and many virtues flow. It is also because of this that she is the only one in the book who, while suffering more than anyone, comes through it all unblemished. We are subtly and not so subtly reminded of this throughout the book.
We are also to learn what it means to have good taste as well as gain an appreciation of the sublime. In fact, there is so much sublime this sublime that in the book I was prompted, by the suggestion of Tom, to read Burke’s Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful. Which I did, mostly, and about which I will write tomorrow and attempt to relate it to Udolpho without boring you too much.
The completion of this book also concludes my RIP Challenge reading. It has been great fun, as usual, and I even managed to read one more book than I had planned. Yay!