Ann Ward Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho

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I was drawn to reading this book after reading Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey where the female characters are enthralled by it and compare it to other perfectly “horrid” books, other gothic novels that they are reading. Udolpho consists of four volumes that download as one book from the Gutenberg Project and they took me 27 hours to read. It took me a long time to read the first half but for the last half I could not put my Kobo down and read it all in the past week. It’s a wonder I did not miss my stop on the metro and only miss the bus stop at home once.

To the extent that the book is a true reflection of life at the time in which the story is set (late 16th century, two hundred years earlier than the time of publication), it shows an interesting picture of the lack of independence afforded to women as long as they had parents or family appointed as guardians. The book only shows the heroine, Emily, as an independent young women quite capable of taking her own decisions (in spite of a strong propensity to faint) once her guardians have died. She can then take possession of the properties that were already in her name and settle where she wants.

And the whole drama of the book starts from this very dependence. After her parents’ death, Emily becomes the ward of her aunt, Madame Cheron, a wealthy widow, if I remember well. The aunt then proceeds to make an ill-advised marriage to an Italian noble, Montoni, who soon insist that they return to his home in Venice. It turns out that he is a gambler who has lost of fortune and married Madame Cheron for her money. He also attempts to marry Emily to some associates of his in order to gain access to their riches. When some of his plans fall through, he removes his establishment to the remote castle of Udolpho in the Appenines. Emily’s vows then become more severe as she is a virtual prisoner at the castle and has to see her aunt die as a result of Montoni’s mistreatment of her.

After some additional difficulties, Emily manages to escape and find her way back to France where she hopes to reunite with the man she had vowed to marry, whom she had met while her father was still alive. At the time that they meet, she learns that he had fallen victim to a number of vices, one of them gambling, and she concludes that he is no longer worthy of associating with her. This was in part due to a series of misunderstanding. In the end, this misunderstanding is resolved, and many mysteries encountered along the way (ghostly apparitions, strange musical phenomena, disappearances, and uncanny resemblances) are  all logically explained and Emily marries the love of her life and settles in the old home where she grew up to live comfortably and happily.

The novel features many trips on land and water, through difficult mountainous terrain where travelers are constantly threaten by the dangers of the landscape and the possible presence of criminals. The descriptions of the majesty of various locations (the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Appenines) are very vivid and provide a perfect backdrop to the adventures of the many lovable characters that Radcliffe develops in this book.

The author also describes in minute details the emotions and physical reactions of the main characters as they work through the elation of young love, the disappointments of perceived betrayals, and the many fearful moments they encounter throughout the novel.

This book was indeed very entertaining and I would very much like to read other books by Ann Radcliffe, if I don’t get buried by a mountain of unread books that threaten to topple over me as I write this note.

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3 responses »

  1. Pingback: Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto | Sylvie's World is a Library

  2. Pingback: Joyce Carol Oates, The Accursed | Sylvie's World is a Library

  3. I ended up reading a Radcliffe book for the exact same reason – The Italian. It was amusing, but I could see how after being the rage for a bit why Austen would mock it in her novel. They are somewhat addictive once the setup is done, I agree.

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