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!