The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Read: 5 May, 2008

After reading The Monk, I thought that the Gothic genre was pretty neat-o. So I looked up for some other books in the genre and The Mysteries of Udolpho kept coming up, so I took a chance and bought it. It took me eons to read. In fact, I did give up at one point and read Tom Sawyer and Hearts in Atlantis before picking it up again. But I have an obsession with finishing every book that I start, so I was determined. I took notes while I was reading of everything I didn’t like, so I will go through negatives first:

The biggest negative is the pacing. A full two hundred and change pages pass before anything happens. That’s right, the first third of the novel is essentially a travel narrative with some old dying guy and his personality-less daughter as the travellers. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a novel that toys with crossing genres and becoming a travel narrative (I did like Black Mountain, after all), but the descriptions of the scenery were altogether too Romantic for my tastes. Romantics are as stuck up, pompous, and self-absorbed as the Victorians, but a trait I find endearing in the latter is made annoying in the former by being caste under the pretence of artistic genius (those of you who know me know that I make a distinction between “artists” and “artistes” – I am incapable of being in the same room as the latter without wanting to hit something, whereas I find artists to be, on the whole, quite nice people).

On the whole, only about a third of the novel takes place in the titular location. But there was more to it than just a slow-moving novel (which, again, in and of itself is not a terrible thing). What made it infuriating was that the main character seemed to be suffering from Alzheimer’s. A new plot line, or short-term goal, would be introduced and she would resolve to take care of it. It would then be dropped entirely as though it had never happened until dozens of pages later where she suddenly remembers and takes care of it. A good example of this occurs near the beginning where Emily’s father instructs her to burn some secret letters. She gives him a solemn promise, goes to where the letters are, and then spends pages and pages moaning about how sad life is before she finally gets to the letters. At this point, my next complaint is made into example. Emily reads a bit of the letter, doesn’t tell the reader what it says, alludes to how “shocking!” the content of the letters is several times, but does not actually explain what she read until a full 450 pages later!

That’s right, dear Ms. Radcliffe seemed to have lived under the mistaken impression that frustration = suspense. Several times, Emily makes shocking discoveries that horrify her, but she refuses to tell the reader what those discoveries are. Worse yet, Emily will seem to forget all about them as soon as she is done being shocked – at least until another shocking discovery prompts her memory.

In fact, Emily’s forgetfulness is a major theme in the novel. It comes up as part of another complaint that I will mention in a minute. For example, when she and her suitor, Valancourt, are forced to part, he makes her promise that she will always look at the setting sun. The idea is that he would do the same and that they would be “together” even when apart by knowing that they are both looking on the same object. Sweet and romantic, right? Well, yes, it is… the first night. Emily whines away while she watches the sun set. This promise is then never mentioned again. Never. By either Emily or Valancourt. This isn’t just a case of sunsets not being mentioned because there are oodles of sunsets in the novel. Emily just doesn’t seem to care that much about the “solemn promise” she makes to the love of her life.

Which is my next complaint: there are two Emilys in the novel. One is the Emily constructed by the narrator, the Emily that we are told about. The other is the Emily we see, through the things she says and the actions she takes (or, in this case, doesn’t take). These two Emilys are rarely in agreement.

Another complaint I had was that objects and characters appear and disappear depending on the plot’s need for them. A major example of this is Emily’s dog. Whenever it is needed to wake Emily up to spot an intruder, or growl when there is a need for absolute silence, it will appear. As soon as it’s done filling out this function, the dog promptly disappears. Relating to the last point I made, the narrator tells us again and again how much Emily loves this dog, feels comforted by this dog, and dotes on this dog. And yet, we never once see her cuddling it, petting it, stroking it, looking to it for comfort when afraid, or anything else of the sort.

There are other continuity errors. For example, Emily escapes Udolpho in the middle of the night, with no warning whatsoever, and from a place that is not her bedroom. And yet she somehow has the presence of mind to carry with her a large box of letters and all the drawings she’s made since going to the castle. Maybe she hides them under her skirts or something?

The final negative that I will mention is that Valancourt is a thoroughly despicable character. Honestly, Jane Eyre‘s Rochester is a sensitive and romantic boyfriend compared to this guy. He bears every mark of the abusive boyfriend. Not only does he accuse Emily of not really loving him whenever she doesn’t want to do something he wants, he will also stalk her (to the point that her gardener shoots him thinking that he’s a burglar) when she refuses to marry him. After all that, he flies into a rage when she (rightfully) wonders if he loves her, trying to physically restrain her! And for all the noble chivalry the narrator keeps telling us he expresses, he allows his girlfriend to be taken into a situation that he knows is dangerous for her and doesn’t even try to save her from it (except, of course, trying to terrify her into marrying him with threats of violence – you know, from other men… that he’d be saving her from… obviously…).

He’s also just so whiny. It’s totally pathetic. He knows that he is distressing her, she’s in tears and begging him to stop and leave her alone, but he just whines and whines and whines at her. He will even admit that he is distressing her and that he should stop, but the very next sentence out of his mouth is more whining!

All in all, I found that he was incredibly similar in his behaviour to the Count Morano – the bad guy, the guy we are supposed to hate, the guy Emily spends a third of the novel terrified of. The way he acts toward Emily is nearly identical. In fact, he even tries to scare Emily into marrying him by telling her that Morano will hurt her – using the same tactic the Count uses, except that he’s passing off the obvious part of the blame to someone else!

There’s plenty more that I could mention, but those are the major points and this post is getting pretty long. In terms of positives, I must admit that I struggle to find any. There were some instances of humour that had me chuckling, but they were too few and too far between to really count them as any kind of saving grace. I did like that every single instance of the supernatural was resolved (even if poorly) and shown to have perfectly natural explanations. And, of course, the novel is a classic and has a lot to offer if looked at as a historical document.

All in all, it’s a book that I hated reading but that I am glad to have read. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, though. This is one of the few books that I think might be better enjoyed in a heavily abridged or cliff-note form.

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