Turns Out the Much-Maligned Mysteries of Udolpho Is Good, Actually!

How on earth are we meant to read these days? As the pandemic goes on and on and on, I find myself choosing really long books because I want to put off finishing reading for as long as possible. I am terrified of the period in between books; of staring blankly at a collection of the most books there have ever been in human history and failing to feel that special pull of ‘I want to read you!’ to any of them. How can I be a person if I cannot connect with narrative. It’s paralysing.

One day while scrolling in quiet desperation for a tempting audiobook I see there are some new radio-play adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels. I am listening to Northanger Abbey when I realise that I’ve never read the book-within-a-book that Austen is parodying the whole way through: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. The eBook is available for free on Project Gutenberg and to my relief I see that it’s more than a thousand pages long: I can stave off my what-to-read-next existential panic for ages! Oh thank god.

My relief is mixed with scepticism, however. Austen is not the only one who has told me that Udolpho is dreadful: I emerged from my English literature degree twenty years ago with the vague impression that gothic romances were bad because they were written before proper novels were invented. One of my other all-time favourite authors, Georgette Heyer, wrote a novel called Sylvester that is also about how gothic romances are silly and a bad influence, especially on women. (In Sylvester the heroine not only reads but actually writes a gothic novel and it gets her in a lot of trouble.) So I’m dubious when I start reading Udolpho…but guys: I LOVED it.

The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, Interspersed with some Pieces of Poetry by Ann Radcliffe is a gothic novel first published in 1794 to huge success. It tells the story of French aristocrat Emily St Aubert: young and beautiful, pure of heart and spirit, and thus an excellent heroine-slash-victim for our tale. First her mother and then her father die, leaving her (and her inheritance) prey to all kinds of dangers. Various mysterious and creepy things happen to her: most famously, she is imprisoned in a scary Italian castle (the eponymous Udolpho) by a dastardly villain who may have murdered the previous owner.

The text states that Udolpho is set in 1584, which at time of publication was only a couple of hundred years ago; similar to how popular Regency romances are today. It’s odd that Radcliffe starts by giving us such a specific date because Udolpho could in no way be accused of being historical fiction. Rather, the whole story is set in an imagined past with a vaguely late-medieval aesthetic. There are some background wars taking place but Udolpho is supremely unconcerned with historical specificity. Travel is by mule—pistols have been invented but people still use swords—there are a bunch of peasants and banditti in amongst the looming castles—basically don’t worry about it. (Scholars of Sixteenth-century Europe: I see you and I love you, but please note that I am not accepting education at this time, thank you.)

The subtitle to Udolpho is important: “A Romance, Interspersed with some Pieces of Poetry” is exactly what it is, and I appreciate Radcliffe’s accurate labelling, like an olde timey AO3 tag. Every chapter begins with a poetic epigram and characters frequently break into poetry (both their own and other people’s), like a musical without the music. Not gonna lie: I did not, strictly speaking, read every single verse. There are times I can manage the word “o’er” and times I cannot. But I appreciate what the poetry is doing: slowing the narrative down and encouraging the reader to, in a sense, stop and smell the roses (if the roses had formal scansion and were sometimes about bats).

What I love about Udolpho is that it is packed full of plot while also feeling slow and dreamy; thus satisfying my need for narrative while also validating the strange detachment I’ve been feeling since the pandemic began. Radcliffe does very well what the series Lost was trying to do—layering mystery upon mystery and solving just enough of them to give you faith that everything will eventually become clear, while also holding off solving the central questions until the very end. The narrative tug from chapter to chapter is strong. Unlike Lost, Radcliffe obviously had a clear-cut vision from the beginning of how the plot would shake out. The mysteries are linked together and build on each other in a way that is gripping and satisfying. Also—spoilers—as with Scooby Doo, the solutions always turn out to be human-made rather than supernatural.

Ghosts are not real in Udolpho but the sublime—standing in for the divine—is very much present. Characters are frequently moved to tears by the beauty of the landscape, especially such capital-R Romantic vistas as the Alps at sunset. Radcliffe herself never went to Italy or France so these passages are works of sympathetic imagination based on artworks she had seen and travelogues she had read. (Side note: the wild commercial success of Udolpho and her other novels funded a trip for Radcliffe and her husband in 1794 to Holland and Germany after which she wrote her own travelogue, thus continuing the cycle.) As well as being devastatingly beautiful, the natural world is frequently dramatic in the extreme: thunderstorms abound and most of the action takes place in the evening or at night, thus adding elements of danger and suspense in the uncertain light. Someone approaches: but who?!

When reading Udolpho you must be prepared not just for the fantastical dreaminess but also for the extreme sincerity. Emily is one of the most earnest characters I’ve ever met. It’s an easy quality to laugh at, but as time went on I started to find it more and more attractive. I too want to wear a long dress and a veil and moon round a crumbling castle, sighing as I gaze out upon the sublime landscape and plan my next sonnet or strum upon the lute. I too want to do all these things without even the tiniest hint of irony or self-consciousness. I too wish to be humourless—that is, to be free from the obligation to be witty or to entertain—while still being capable of intense joy. I too want to feel powerful emotions not just in my brain-parts but fully in my whole body: sighing, weeping, even fainting.

Emily faints a lot: her feelings become so exquisite and overwhelming that her only recourse is unconsciousness. At first I took this to be an irritating sign of weakness, but as I read I started to envy Emily her total immersion in the present moment of her whole self. It never occurs to Emily not to take herself and her feelings absolutely seriously. Male characters scold Emily for feeling the wrong feelings, or feeling them too much, or in the wrong way. She dutifully tries to rein it in but, right up until the penultimate chapter, is still wandering off into the forest by herself to get some Feelings Time in (weep, sigh, compose sonnet, sing mournfully, repeat). Emily is utterly committed to her own emotional and spiritual state, and instead of this feeling indulgent I started to see it as liberating, even noble.

I wondered whether I felt this kinship with Emily because we’re both confined indoors by fear of what’s outside (in her case, Penny Dreadful villains; in my case, here in New Zealand in 2021, Covid). But it goes deeper than anything so circumstantial. Emily, to me, feels like a character who has pushed the bargain of femininity to its absolute limit. Emily is submissively—almost extravagantly—obedient to the men in her life. She is physically very passive: although she moves around a lot it’s almost always because she’s being kidnapped, escorted, or summoned by men. Very well, she seems to be saying, I will relinquish physical control. But in return, I reserve the right to live absolutely and primarily in all of my feelings to their utmost extent. And I can take refuge in unconsciousness at any time.

Although largely sexless, there’s a diffuse erotic charge throughout Udolpho. This is not felt so much between Emily and any of her suitors-slash-menacers; rather, it is between Emily and her own submission; Emily and the Alps; Emily and the sheer overwhelmingness of being a person in the world—both this one and the next. As a highly emotive feelingsdrama written by and about a woman that has had a huge influence on other female writers, Udolpho feels like a formative ancestor of fanfiction. I can give it no greater praise.

Reflecting anew on Northanger Abbey, I’m annoyed with Austen: why was she being so hard on Udolpho? It’s excellent! But as I looked into the history of the gothic romance blockbuster I thought again. Maybe gothic romances were to Austen what superhero movies are to us: when the first couple of megahits come out you’re like, yay this is excellent! So much melodrama! I love these larger-than-life characters and situations! But then they’re everywhere and it starts to seems like movie makers can only make superhero movies, and you’re like, come on people, what about the rest of the human experience?

So I can see how gothic romance could become a bit much. There’s certainly a lot to criticise about Udolpho (for example, the extremely unflattering characterisation of Italian people) and it is not for everyone. Honestly, without the loopy, detached state the pandemic has put me in it probably wouldn’t have been for me either. It’s a wandering, misty book that manages to drift lightly while also emoting furiously. It’s like being fourteen and planning what you’ll do once you get your magic sword—like Phantom of the Opera crossed with Lord of the Rings. It’s a world in which it’s normal to wander in a moonlit garden where poetry comes to you and you declaim it out loud without a trace of cringe. It is a wild emotional space of feminine id, but posh, and sort-of French… It’s a dead white lady imagining how much she would love to see a proper mountain. It’s a thousand pages long! I feel safe here.

My ancestors come from England
I am here in Aotearoa New Zealand by virtue of the Treaty of Waitangi
I was born in Auckland in the traditional tribal area of the Ngāti Whātua tribe
Waitematā Harbour is the body of water that is special to me
Mount Albert is the mountain that is special to me
I now live in Wellington in the traditional tribal area of the Te Āti Awa tribe
My name is Elizabeth Heritage


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