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Review: "The Mysteries of Udolpho" by Ann Radcliffe

The Mysteries of Udolpho illustrated by Catherine LaPointe, is available at An edition sans illustrations is available free on this site.

The Mysteries of Udolpho IllustratedFirst published in 1794 in four volumes, The Mysteries of Udolpho is a Gothic Romance set in the 16th century. The novel is unique in this genre in that its many mysterious and supernatural events are eventually given a rational explanation. While most famous today for being referenced in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, The Mysteries of Udolpho was wildly popular on its own account upon initial publication and in subsequent decades.

Central to the plot is our beloved heroine, Emily St. Aubert. She is a young French woman who bears a striking resemblance to the heroine of Fanny Burney's Cecila. She is an orphan, naive, innately good, yet preyed upon and at the mercy of many shady characters, many who are her own relatives. Like Cecilia's favorite suitor Mortimer Delville, Emily's true love, Valencourt, has the same emotional (some would say whiny) character and true heart. And like Cecilia, Emily's story is long.

The novel begins in France as we travel up and down and back up the Apennines too many times to count. It is almost a relief when Emily departs for sea level, traveling to Venice under the "protection" of her vain and superficial aunt and her aunt's new husband, Montoni. Emily is frustratingly at the whim of Montoni, who is intent on marrying her off to the first rich Count he encounters. From Venice we enter the mountains again, and this time they are crawling with banditti. Now things get interesting at the Castle of Udolpho

I will stop the summary here as I cannot do smallest justice to the story in Radcliffe's own words. This long novel contains enough excitement for three novels of such length. The subject matter is also shocking, even for modern readers. It deals with death, murder, poison, secret passageways, crumbling turrets, obsessed lovers and shady bandits. It is amazing that Radcliffe can write a story with gory and fantastic elements and yet in the end explain it away with Victorian (or rather, Regency) propriety.

Despite the dark and gloomy context, Radcliffe's prose is enchanting. There is also much poetry--Emily many times will burst into song while particularly entranced by a scene in nature. Music and poetry make up a large portion of the text and come in at the most critical points of the plot. It makes one wonder why this novel has never been made into a musical. What is Broadway waiting for? Forget The Phantom of the Opera, The Mysteries of Udolpho would be a smash hit!


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