Ann Radcliffe’s Absolutely Essential “The Mysteries of Udolpho” (1794) and the Books I’d Rather Read

Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance Interspersed With Some Pieces of Poetry (1794) has been one of those books that I have been wanting to read for some time—wanting to read in one way, but hesitant in another.

Radcliffe is a literary master of Gothic literature, which gave birth to some of the great 19th-century English novels and is behind genres of horror and fantasy that I love (as well as ghost stories, which I don’t particularly thirst for). She is also one of the crucial voices behind one of my favourite authors, Jane Austen—not just in Austen’s parody of Udolpho, Northanger Abbey, but in a certain sophistication of style combined with immediacy of characters who have a particular sensitivity to their place in the world. I suppose the brief appearance of Ann Radcliffe in Becoming Jane will be the only serious biopic we ever see of her, but her importance in English literary history cannot be overstated.

However, I have always been a little hesitant. Mostly, I must admit, because the book is quite long. Don’t judge me, for I am a wee bit wounded by Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and the 18th-century simply does not invite me into its lush (and long) valleys. I’m not against long books as I currently need a prosthetic limb to help me hold up Susanna Clarke’s regency-era 1000-page fantasy novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I also have a perverse attraction to Stephen King’s writing and a committed SHANWAR reader. But with so many great, long books to read in the cold nights of winter or long summer evenings, I found that each time I went to the bookshelf, I reached for books that were not the classic and famously popular, The Mysteries of Udolpho.

And … I did find it terribly long. I liked the protagonist, for the most part. I loved the section of the book that is actually at Udolpho. I don’t even mind a long build—and Emily’s story is a long build. However, Radcliffe’s importance as a writer, her innate ability to capture landscape and atmosphere, and her exquisite prose cannot bring me to forgive her for the extremely long and unnecessary family background to the Marquis De Villeroi’s late introduction to the story. Really, Book IV was drudge match for me, even though the piece ties up nicely and the excellence in descriptive prose does not slacken.

Moreover, the coincidences in this book are beyond belief. I love serendipity. I am always intrigued by the quiet hand of Providence working in a novel. But the connections and surprising links in this book are—if they are indeed providential—of a miraculous quality rather than a quiet intrigue. It is a pretty good collection of mysteries and thrills, all told. But the unbelievable coincidences and something in the tone of writing combine with my satirical mind to ill effect. When Vallencourt appears suddenly from offstage, I imagine a band in the pit playing spooky or surprise or joyful or solemn music, as is appropriate to that particular sudden vision. Think ‘50s radio drama and an awed pronunciation, “Vallencourt,” and you have a sense of what I mean.

And given the number of times the poor, beleaguered heroine faints, I am pretty sure she had better be treated for anemia or low blood pressure. “Faint” occurs 162, “overcome” 66 times, and there are countless other losses of consciousness—at least one every chapter. Poor girl. I wish her constitution matched her strength of moral character.

Now, I truly really recognize the literary and historical merits of the book. She is a lovely writer. From a feminist angle, Radcliffe is pretty important. As someone who profoundly transformed the novel form from the Samuel Richardson generation, and could write a Gothic tale to rival Michael Lewis’ The Monk, Radcliffe created a space for Austen and other women writers to excel in their craft.

Moreover, I think her contribution is deeper than that. Charles Dickens awakened a readerly world to the great and often preventable suffering in their own neighbourhoods. So many times when reading Dickens, I want to cry out, “This is unacceptable!” Likewise, Radcliffe’s heroine in The Mysteries of Udolpho is smart, capable, devout, loyal, perceptive, and wise beyond her years, while being thoroughly good—not unlike Esther Summerson in Bleak House. However, the maneuvering of the villainous men (and one woman enthralled in an insipid self) in Udolpho shows how utterly trapped a good woman can be by men who are content to be evil. In the 1790s Mary Wollstonecraft’s prose awakened a reasonable generation with her pen, but it was stories like Radcliffe’s that awakened the imagination to shape their response.

None of this, however, can help me go from liking the book to loving it. I am glad I read The Mysteries of Udolpho. When I first read Jane Austen, though, I wanted to read more Jane Austen. When I read Radcliffe for the first time, I wanted to read Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, or Mary Shelley—or even Stephen King.* Indeed, it’s possible we may not have these authors without Radcliffe’s late 18th-century romances, making The Mysteries of Udolpho an essential read for lovers of historical novels, Gothic literature, supernatural fiction, and the early roots of horror. And yet, it is these later great writers that draw me in to the beauty and depth of the story in a way that makes me want to read more.

*Truthfully, I am hesitating right now. Do I read Northanger Abbey next, the parody of Udolpho? Or go to Frankenstein as I planned? Or read The Green Mile? Something in Udolpho made me want to reread The Brothers Karamazov, if I have a free half-year available…. See, that’s a long book I have infinite patience for!

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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17 Responses to Ann Radcliffe’s Absolutely Essential “The Mysteries of Udolpho” (1794) and the Books I’d Rather Read

  1. dalejamesnelson says:

    C. S. Lewis cites The Mysteries of Udolpho in a discussion of “sensibility” in Studies in Words.

    “Mother Radcliffe” was a favorite of my favorite artist, Samuel Palmer; he and his artist friends might read something from one of her books in order to promote in themselves a poetic feeling prior to sitting down to their work.

    I read quite a bit of Mysteries a while ago. I suppose I’ll start from the beginning and try again! It’s a book to read at its own pace; what’s my hurry?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Gael says:

    Frankenstein or Northanger Abbey would be a nice shortish read in the wake of what sounds like a heavy slog—but then you mentioned The Brothers Karamazov and my immediate reaction was, “Do it!” Half a year is a small price to pay for Dostoyevsky.

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    • Yes, I’m in the midst of Northanger Abbey, with Frankenstein on the horizon. I just read The Brothers Karamazov a couple of years ago and am more tempted now by Crime and Punishment, which was important to me as a reader when I was younger.

      Liked by 1 person

      • dalejamesnelson says:

        If you haven’t read Dostoevsky’s Demons (as translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky), you should make it a priority, especially because it’s really the second reading that delivers the goods. It is a book for our times though it was topical in its day. A fascinating book. I would give up all my non-Inklings science fiction and a lot more before I’d give this novel up. I have a library of 4000+ books. If I had to cut it down to 50 this book would make the cut.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The Gael says:

        I haven’t yet read Crime and Punishment but I really want to. I made the mistake of starting War & Peace instead. So far, I’m just not liking Tolstoy as much.

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        • War & Peace–see you in a year! I haven’t succeeded in that book or Joyce’s Ulysses. I’ll have to join a reading challenge sometime. Or perhaps an amazing audiobook. We’ll see.
          Crime and Punishment was part of my awakening to what a book can do. I think Tolstoy was a smarter (and scarier) thinker, stronger on shorter stories, etc. Perhaps Anne Karenina is the “great” novel. But I love Dostoevsky and for me, there is little better than the Brothers K.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. KimP says:

    I read Udolpho last summer for the exact reason you mentioned: Jane Austen and Northanger Abbey. I love all things Jane and Northanger Abbey was my very first Jane novel to read. It did take me a good three months to get through Udolpho and I did really love the descriptions of nature. I also enjoyed some of the connections to other poets and writers cited in Udolpho (and blogged about that at fanciedfreedom.wordpress.com). I also thought Emily was a heroine of great fortitude, in spite of the frequent fainting. 😂 But there were implausible coincidences and some parts of the story dragged on. Still, it made me want to read more of Radcliffe as I’ve found she has some shorter works. 😊

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  4. It is quite a while now since I read Northanger Abbey but, as with all Jane Austen, I found it a really enjoyable read. In fact so enjoyable that I have never had any interest in reading any of the Gothic literature that she parodies so well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s perhaps best! I don’t know as I’ve only read Udolpho and Lewis’ The Monk, which I quite like. I think I have come to enjoy the Gothic moments in non-Gothic stories more than Gothic literature as its own category.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love Udolpho for all the imagery Radcliffe paints when describing a landscape. Poetic and lyrical. Northanger Abbey is my least favorite of Austen novels…but Henry Tilney is one of my favorite Austen characters.

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