A (very) Faint Taste of Mystery

Danielle’s reviews were so enthusiastic that I decided to give Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho a try. I love 19C literature and Gothic stories, one of my favourite ones being Bram Stocker’s Dracula. I came to Udolpho expecting gothic castles, rattling chains, ghosts in white sheets, I don’t know… I’m still only at the third of the novel and I must say I was in for a surprise. And not quite a good one. I’m so sorry Danielle I couldn’t follow you on this one.

There is up to this point literally of the story no terror… no mystery and even no Udolpho. For the moment, we follow Emily, the virtuous heroin, as she wanders from place to place, first with her father in a fictitious 16C South-West France, then to Toulouse with Emily’s guardian after she becomes an orphan, then we move to Venice, where the sinister Montoni, new husband of Emily’s guardian, bring them both. There are so many nature descriptions that I just felt my eyes glaze over and I couldn’t remember where the action was. Why oh why does Ann Radcliffe insist to describe so much nature? I know nature was very important to Romantics, but still I can’t see what it brings to the story. Or maybe we readers of 21C, with our head filled with digital pictures from the whole world, just don’t need that anymore.

Also, I’m getting a little annoyed by Emily, the oh-so-virtuous main character. She is so bland, reminding me vaguely of Virginia from Paul and Virginia by Bernardin de St. Pierre, a French 18C classics (1787 actually) where a young couple tragically dies in a shipwreck. The two young lovers are nothing short of soppy, and the young Virginia prefers to drown rather than risking to take her dress off and be seen in underwear by the seamen: 

All the sailors had flung themselves into the sea, except one, who still remained upon the deck, and who was naked, and strong as Hercules. This man approached Virginia with respect, and, kneeling at her feet attempted to force her to throw off her clothes; but she repulsed him with modesty, and turned away her head. Then was heard redoubled cries from the spectators, ‘Save her! Save her! Do not leave her!’ But at that moment a mountain billow, of enormous magnitude, ingulfed itself between the Isle of Amber and the coast, and menaced the shattered vessel, towards which it rolled bellowing, with its black sides and foaming head. At this terrible sight the sailor flung himself into the sea; and Virginia seeing death inevitable, placed one hand upon her clothes, the other on her heart, and lifting up her lovely eyes, seemed an angel prepared to take her flight to heaven. 

I’m being unfair with Emily: she’s not really as passive as Virginia, but her excessive sentimentality and her tendency to “nearly faint with terror” every time a tree moves in the dark gets on my nerves.

Now I have to ask a risqué question. Even more than Virginia, Ann Radcliffe’s novel actually reminds me of another novel where a young and pure heroin is exposed to evil in a dark castle full of terrifying corridors: Justine or the Misfortunes of Virtue, which was written by the Marquis de Sade in 1787. There is absolutely nothing sexual or even remotely improper in Udolpho, but it seems that the writers from this period liked nothing more than exposing their virtuous heroines to the worst they each could imagine. These guys really were looking for cheap thrills, as if their own period didn’t provide them in real life (French Revolution, massacres and wars of all kinds).

All right, now I’m going to stop sneering and read it to the end. Just allow me to skip the nature bits.

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4 thoughts on “A (very) Faint Taste of Mystery

  1. I totally understand your reaction. It does take some time to get going–well, a lot of time actually. The first few hundred pages just sort of meander and then they get to Venice and I kept wondering when is Udolpho going to appear. She will get there…eventually. There is a lot of build up and then it is sort of anticlimactic. I finished a couple of days ago, and I am going to post about it today. I have the Oxford Press edition and there is a wonderful introduction to the story in it. It helped put everything into perspective. The editor actually said that although it is considered Gothic, that the Gothic elements are really sort of few and far in between and in a way it is more just a novel. I had many of the same reactions you are having — lots and lots and lots of descriptions, lots of weeping and fainting and not so many chills and terror. But now that I am done with it, I think I appreciate it more for what she was doing at the time she was writing. For someone with 21st C sensibilities it can be hard going at times, though. Still, I am very glad I read it and want to read some of her other books (they’re shorter!!). I think this book has a reputation for being something and it’s really sort of something different. And I think you are right about young, pure heroines being stuck in these crumbling castles with evil men–this must have been the thing–it would be interesting to read more about this phenomenon! (sorry–that was a rather long comment!)

  2. Oh, and I hope my overenthusiastic talk didn’t get you into something that is a reading slog!! If you are hating it, I say pick something different that you’ll enjoy!

  3. Your closing question is fascinating — I think people of the time were very worried about sensibility because it seemed to walk the line between acceptable emotional displays and illicit sexuality. Cultivating emotion could make you more benevolent, more charitable, more Christian, but it could also make you more susceptible to predatory men. People probably saw exactly the similarities you are pointing out and it made them anxious.

  4. Pingback: Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas (1864) | Smithereens

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