My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Early in this wildly popular 1794 novel, the heroine’s father instructs her that, “Virtue and taste are nearly the same…for virtue is little more than active taste.” The Mysteries of Udolpho, borrowing a template from Horace Walpole’s 1764 Castle of Otranto, created the taste of generations of readers by helping to establish the conventions of the Gothic romance. This is a genre that dramatizes an enlightened modern heroine’s confrontation with barbarous relics of the Catholic, medieval, patriarchal past, even as the narrative itself combines the conventions of 18th-century realism with the fantastical air of the premodern romance. Radcliffe takes Walpole’s slight, thinly-imagined, stagy novella and transforms it into a long, rich, detailed, and psychologically complex novel. In it we can find the roots of subsequent fiction, from Jane Austen’s and Henry James’s interest in the consciousness of young women on the cusp of maturity, to the psychological dreamwork of Poe, Hawthorne, and the Brontës, to the paranoid, Gothicized cityscapes of Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Kafka, and this is without mentioning the hints picked up by popular fiction from Dracula to Rebecca. All of the 19th-century novel and much of the 20th-century novel can be observed in embryo in Radcliffe’s innovative, intelligent romance. Radcliffe’s early readers took notice: according to Jaqueline Howard’s introduction to this Penguin Classics edition, Udolpho was one of the first Gothic romances to be published by a respectable London press rather than by the circulating libraries, it received rapturous praise in its own time and in the generation after (notably by Sir Walter Scott), and Radcliffe was one of the most financially successful writers, male or female, of her time.
Udolpho is also a bildungsroman about the development of a young woman named Emily. She is reared by loving and enlightened parents in the bucolic neighborhood of La Vallée in late-16th-century Provence. She is schooled in rational sentiment not only by her parents, particularly her devoted father, but also by the surrounding countryside, whose spectacle teaches her to love not only the creation but the Creator, as in 18th-century aesthetic philosophies (Burke, Kant) for which nature’s grandeur teaches the spectator a corresponding largeness of mind and spirit:
It was one of Emily’s earliest pleasures to ramble among the scenes of nature; nor was it in the soft and glowing landscape that she most delighted; she loved more the wild wood-walks, that skirted the mountain; and still more the mountain’s stupendous recesses, where the silence and grandeur of solitude impressed a sacred awe upon her heart, and lifted her thoughts to the GOD OF HEAVEN AND EARTH. In scenes like these she would often linger along, wrapt in a melancholy charm, till the last gleam of day faded from the west; till the lonely sound of a sheep-bell, or the distant bark of a watch-dog, were all that broke on the stillness of the evening. Then, the gloom of the woods; the trembling of their leaves, at intervals, in the breeze; the bat, flitting on the twilight; the cottage-lights, now seen, and now lost—were circumstances that awakened her mind into effort, and led to enthusiasm and poetry.
Since Radcliffe provides examples of Emily’s poetry throughout the novel—I will be polite and say only that they sit uncomfortably beside the chapter epigraphs from Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope—we might define Udolpho not only as a bildungsroman but as a pioneering female künstlerroman too.
Emily’s development is soon menaced by events, though. Her mother and father die, and she is left until she comes of age in the care of her vain social climber of an aunt, Madame Cheron, who not only mistreats Emily but insists that she break off relations with her betrothed, the brooding Valancourt, so she can be married off for status. Madame Cheron herself soon marries the cruel Italian count Montoni, who spirits her and Emily away, first from pastoral France to the civilized pleasures of Venice—though Emily, in general, scorns the corrupt city in favor of the ennobling countryside—and eventually to titular alpine castle, a half-ruined medieval fortress full of secret passages, hidden recesses, veiled portraits, and mysterious noises. Emily’s first glimpse of the structure shows Radcliffe’s conscious playing on the English reader’s fascination with a superseded past:
Emily gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle, which she understood to be Montoni’s; for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. As she gazed, the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin vapour crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipped with splendour. From those, too, the rays soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely, and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign.
With sufficient time, human artifice may, like nature, become sublime and extend the reach and ardor of human subjectivity. Unlike nature, though, this dark past is corrupt, caught up in what Emily rationally knows is superstition and bigotry. Unlike her father and Valancourt, two men who treated her as an intellectual equal, the heartless and selfish Montoni, a man insensible to taste or virtue, treats her like chattel. Her time in his castle is a protracted haunting by experiences that her imagination tells her are supernatural but which her reason informs her require a plausible explanation; she is joined in this intellectual struggle by the prattling servant Annette, whose robust lower-class ignorance serves as a foil to Emily, who at least knows enough to fight against the temptation to believe that she is prey to literal ghosts and demons.
Anti-climactically enough, Emily escapes Udolpho three-quarters of the way through the novel, and Montoni dies a death unrelated to his mistreatment of our heroine. Emily then falls in with the family of the Count de Villefort—including his Emily-like daughter Blanche—and the long remainder of the novel is occupied by her complicated reunion with Valancourt, who has made himself “unworthy” of her by succumbing to the vice of gaming (in the corrupt city of Paris, no less) during her confinement. In these chapters, she also discovers her family history and its relation to Udolpho, a history involving adultery, murder, and an insane nun, though this makes it sound more interesting than it is. In the course of events, the bad are defeated, and the good are rewarded.
Moreover, all seemingly supernatural events receive mundane explanations—if a mad nun wandering through the forest playing a flute is more mundane than an errant spirit. Radcliffe holds Latin Catholic superstition in fine English Protestant contempt: despite her popish and Provençal provenance, Emily is really an 18th-century middle-class English girl, and she exists to be superior to superannuated medieval barbarism. Yet Radcliffe also plays the familiar shell game of the popular novelist, who exploits emotions she claims to want to subdue in the reader—we recently saw an example of this feint in these electronic pages in a contemporary Gothic romance, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Just as Tartt offers the glamor of intellectual amoralism behind a superficial censure of the same, so Radcliffe teases us for pages and pages (and pages!—this is a long book) with hints that the dead may walk before she reveals in the end that it was all just a misunderstanding and that Emily, unlike simple Annette, was right to heed her father’s counsel to let reason govern imagination. Before this rational governance is complete, though, Radcliffe is even so shameless as to indulge that vice of the hack horror movie director, the fake jump scare:
“Hush!” said Emily, trembling. They listened, and, continuing to sit quite still, Emily heard a low knocking against the wall. It came repeatedly. Annette then screamed loudly, and the chamber door slowly opened.—It was [the servant] Caterina, come to tell Annette, that her lady wanted her.
To give Radcliffe her due, though, she operates according to a theory of Gothic fiction according to which a fright that arouses enlivening curiosity—as opposed to a shock that merely prostrates the intellect—has the same effect of sublime nature or sublime architecture in lifting the mind to God:
But a terror of this nature, as it occupies and expands the mind, and elevates it to high expectation, is purely sublime, and leads us, by a kind of fascination, to seek even the object, from which we appear to shrink.
Further, Radcliffe knows her tradition. Late in the novel, Annette’s boyfriend Ludovico braves a night in a possibly haunted chamber (it’s not haunted, though he is kidnapped from the dark room by bandits), and he decides to beguile the hour by reading an old volume of Provençal tales. Radcliffe comments:
The fictions of the Provençal writers, whether drawn from the Arabian legends, brought by the Saracens into Spain, or recounting the chivalric exploits performed by the crusaders, whom the Troubadors accompanied to the east, were generally splendid and always marvellous, both in scenery and incident; and it is not wonderful, that Dorothée and Ludovico should be fascinated by inventions, which had captivated the careless imagination in every rank of society, in a former age.
If we hear a note of superiority in that rebuke of prior ages’ “careless imagination,” we also hear Radcliffe acknowledging her own precursors in the art of romance, a tradition that extends to the Latin and Oriental imaginative territory she otherwise represents as a nightmare from which she is trying to awaken.
Politically, Udolpho upholds the enlightenment of the English middle class, with its private and interior life under the tasteful management of domestic woman. It is this female authority that is affronted by the patriarchal barbarism of Montoni and the disordered Italian and aristocratic passions he represents. Radcliffe’s feminism is directed outward and backward, against a patriarchy that both belongs to another culture and another time, but which may always return as incubus; such fictional terrors continue into the present, as for instance in Margaret Atwood’s popular neo-Gothic 1985 dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale, whose American fundamentalist theocracy is inexplicably portrayed as an Anglo Enlightenment hallucination of femininity confined, with much Catholic imagery, to a society at once convent, brothel, and breeding pen. As a contemporary Marx- and Foucault-informed critic like Nancy Armstrong would argue, such feminism is nothing to celebrate, especially since, in Armstrong’s account, it was developed as much in the English diaspora’s colonies, where the menacing patriarch might not be an Italian count but rather a Wampanoag chief, as in England itself. If Armstrong’s argument was regarded as fringe and outrageous when she first mounted it in the 1980s—largely through readings of Radcliffe’s precursors and successors in the English novel: Richardson, Austen, and Charlotte Brontë—it is now the common sense of the educated: white middle-class women are not oppressed but are rather an oppressor class without qualification.
Whatever we think of the political case, Radcliffe’s unwavering enlightenment does seem like an artistic flaw. Dostoevsky is supposed to have listened with rapt attention in his childhood to Radcliffe’s work being read aloud in Russian translation, but he pursued its irrational terrors much further than Radcliffe, and without even hinting at the merely spectral. The insane nun who murdered her aunt tells Emily:
“You are young—you are innocent! I mean you are yet innocent of any great crime!—But you have passions in your heart,—scorpions; they sleep now—beware how you awaken them!—they will sting you, even unto death!”
It is a premonition, perhaps, of Ippolit’s vision in The Idiot of the monstrous insect in the drawing room; yet if Radcliffe knows the scorpion lurks in the human heart and in human society, she goes out of her way to subdue it under the weight of her heroine’s virtue and her narrative’s too-rational, if highly improbable, design.
Today’s readers may accordingly struggle with the novel, as the reviews on popular sites like Goodreads and Amazon amply attest. This is not a case, I would argue, of an audience failing to rise to the occasion of a classic. I would say instead that nothing ages worse than entertainment; one generation’s stay-up-all-night thriller is the next generation’s desperate bore. Radcliffe’s successors made more lasting art out of her materials because they muted her moral didacticism, deepened her psychological inquiry, or amplified her oneiric mood. And almost all of them focused less on the red herrings and dead ends of false suspense with which this overly long tale is almost unendurably padded. Just compare what Jane Eyre discovers in Thornfield’s attic to what Emily finds behind the veil in Udolpho to see the difference between an author who rewards her reader’s patience and one who squanders it. As Poe remarks in his “Letter to B——,” “men do not like epics, whatever they may say to the contrary,” a questionable statement, but one whose undeniable grain of truth can be shown in the comparison between Udolpho and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which attains almost all of Radcliffe’s sublimest effects at something like 3% of its page count. Radcliffe should be celebrated as an innovator without whom so much that followed her might never have taken shape, and her most famous work should be read by those who care about the art of the novel and its development; but in its prolix advocacy for a virtue that denies the claim of its own narrative interest, The Mysteries of Udolpho may only abrade the taste of the modern reader.