Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho
Ann Radcliffe was the greatest of the classic Gothicists, and The Mysteries of Udolpho is her most famous novel. The enormous popularity of her work is indicated in the huge advances that she received from her publishers - £500 for Udolpho and £800 for The Italian - and her many imitators. Radcliffe is clearly influenced by the Walpole tradition, utilising continental Catholic settings and the ruined castles, vaults and forests that are such a feature of The Castle of Otranto. She follows the archetypal Gothic plot in which a vulnerable and virtuous female is pursued and incarcerated by dominant and ambitious male figures, although the heroine always manages to return to the domestic sphere in the end and harmony is restored.
The novel is inconsistent in tone (perhaps unsurprisingly given its considerable length), switching from pure Gothic scenes to lighter, almost satiric moments, between highly stylised set pieces and moments of realism, and between poetry and prose, but enjoyed considerable critical success. Coleridge called Udolpho "the most interesting novel in the English language" while Scott dubbed Radcliffe "the first poetess of romantic fiction". The heroine is the beautiful and virtuous Emily St Aubert, who is brought up in an idyllic French chateau until the death of her father and her removal to Venice by her aunt. Here, Emily falls in love with the young nobleman, Valencourt, but before she can marry him, she is forced away by her uncle the wicked Montoni to a remote castle in the Appenines, where she suffers the menaces of her captor and numerous apparently supernatural terrors. After many trials, Emily manages to return to France and is reunited with Valencourt. The supernatural terrors are explained away (often hundreds of pages after the original event) and the novel ends with the moral that innocence and patience will always triumph over the temporary power of vice. The novel is based on sharp antithesis, contrasting the darkness and evil of Udolpho with the light and virtue of the rural domestic sphere. Emily is educated by her experiences of excessive sensibility and fear and learns the value of moderation and self-control.
There are some absurdities and inconsistencies in the text, and Udolpho has been accorded less effusive praise by most modern critics, taking their cue from Jane Austen's lampoon, Northanger Abbey. But Radcliffe is certainly an expert in the art of Gothic fiction, and proves herself adept at maintaining a fluent narrative style and creating moments of high drama. She clearly understood the mechanics of her craft and in an essay published after her death she expressed the importance of obscurity and the Sublime in her works of terror:
"Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them... where lies the difference between terror and horror, but in the uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil?"
In order to maintain this state of terror for as long as possible, Radcliffe tends to delay her storylines with repetition and multiplication of episodes. Through devices such as the repeated static descriptions of a certain moment and the fragmentation of stories told by other characters, she conspires to put off the disappointment of closure for as long as possible.
There are no actual supernatural forces at work in the novel; Radcliffe deals in the "explained supernatural". A good example of this is the episode in third section when Emily and the old housekeeper, Dorothee, explore an unused bedroom in which the Marchioness of Villeroi died and see an "apparition of a human countenance" rise from beneath a pall on the bed. Later it is revealed that the apparition was the trick of pirates who had been using the room as a storage place for stolen goods. These explanations have disappointed some readers as anticlimactic; even Scott complained that "Mrs Radcliffe, a mistress of the art of exciting curiosity, has not been uniformly fortunate in the mode of gratifying it." But the fact that the spectres and phantoms are creations of the human imagination makes their visions deeply powerful, and it is Radcliffe's depiction of the haunted human mind that is her greatest strength. It is the heroines themselves (and thus the readers) who construct the darkest possibilities in their minds, such as Emily's apprehension of a terrible family secret having glimpsed one of her father's letters. Radcliffe 's eventual return to normality, having created extended passages of suspense, allows the thrill of terror but also an eventual realism and morality. Radcliffe's work is proof that the supernatural need not be a part of the
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