Discussion Post: The Mysteries of Udolpho

July 1, 2010 at 12:00 am 5 comments

Greetings, Classics Challengers, and welcome to the discussion for our second classic of the summer, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. (For a full list and more info about how to get involved, see here.) Just a reminder: any little comment here will enter you in a drawing to win a Penguin Clothbound Classic, so it definitely pays to have an opinion this summer! Next week we’ll be reading the only complete novel to survive antiquity, The Golden Ass, but for now let’s turn our attention to The Gothic Novel, Udolpho:

Considering Montoni, what do you make of the trend in English literature to use Italians as mysterious, malevolent villains? You’ll remember that this device was also later used by Wilkie Collins in his The Woman in White and Henry James in Portrait of a Lady.

I am actually pretty consistently underwhelmed by this style of Italian villain. Okay, they’re foreign, we don’t know much about them, and they pretend to be charming and then end up being grumpy and impoverished. Forgive me if this doesn’t strike fear into my heart.

Montoni in particular was never particularly frightful for me simply because he is so wrapped in mystery. In my opinion, simply telling the reader that something is scary does not serve to make it so. While he did a number of bad things, he is never anything worse than a bit rude and impatient to our heroine, Emily, and he seems more preoccupied with defending his castle and robbing people than being particularly villainous. Radcliffe herself seemed unimpressed (or perhaps bored?) with him as she abruptly springs Emily from the castle three quarters of the way through the book and then a few pages later mentions in passing that he was poisoned in a Venetian prison. That’s taken care of, then. His end was disappointing, but almost entirely in keeping with how blah he was throughout the rest of the story, I think.

On a related note, why do you think Radcliffe chose to make her protagonist (and all the “good guys” in the story) French? Radcliffe herself was English and writing during the French Revolution, a time when Britons as a group were even more appalled than usual at the goings on in France. It was viewed by Britons as this cesspool of sin and confusion, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense that Radcliffe would choose to make her characters insane French people rather than upstanding Britons.

Kate has discussed this in the past when posting about one of Radcliffe’s other novels, The Romance of the Forest, saying, “Radcliffe set the story in France, a crazy place where crazy things will happen that could never occur in Britain.” I think that’s key.

While all the “good guys” are French, they are also not a particularly sane group. Everyone is remarkably prone towards bursting into tears at the slightest provocation, the women are all inclined towards swooning at inappropriate/inconvenient/stupid moments, and Emily in particular is far too emotional and not nearly bright enough to function in any real world. Perhaps Radcliffe was making the point that, while France may have some good people, they are also not anywhere near as level-headed as the British and thus get into all kinds of trouble over on the Continent.

Interestingly, I found out after reading Udolpho that Radcliffe had never actually traveled beyond England and was thus relying on travel guides for all of her detail about geography, physical descriptions of places, and personalities of foreigners. Perhaps that explains how she wrote the French as a people?

Let’s also take a moment to talk about the form of the novel. It’s gothic, all right, but did you find Radcliffe’s narrative style effective? She keeps a lot of things mysterious and doesn’t reveal very much at all, leaving the reader and Emily to freak out more about unknowns than necessarily any proven evil occurring in the story. Was this a good move? Or do you think there is a way she could have made the story equally eerie without necessarily keeping the reader completely in the dark?

Bad move in my opinion! By the time she got around to explaining every little loose end she had left dangling throughout the preceding 600 pages, I wanted to die. I hardly even wanted to know the answers. If there could have been hints at any point prior to the ending, I think that would have made the entire thing much, much more bearable. (And much scarier, I think. Guessing at hinted evils can be much scarier than not having a clue what’s going on.)

Favorite part: The whole beginning part before St. Aubert dies and everyone seems to possess some degree of sanity.

Least favorite part: Poor dejected M. du Pont! He was clearly a stand-up fellow who I hoped would at least end up with Blanche or something. No consolation prize for being a nice guy, apparently.

Sound off below about any of these questions or other topics related to gothic literature, Ann Radcliffe, and/or swooning. See you next week for a return to antiquity!

–Corey

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kate  |  July 1, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    I think the Italians, more than anyone else, were viewed as very passionate people. Since civilization (at least, English civilization) at the time seemed predicated on the notion that one should never show any sort of desire for anything (except maybe an empire?), it might make sense to have an overly passionate nation of people as the antagonists.

    At any rate, it’s easier to imagine a passionate Italian being so overwhelmed by desire for Emily that he would kidnap her, while a level-headed Brit or rather charming Frenchman may be bound by some sense of honor.

    What I hate about Radcliffe in general is that everything that was supposed to be so mysterious actually isn’t at the end of the day! I know she left nothing to the supernatural at the end of The Romance of the Forest — was that true of this novel as well?

    Reply
    • 2. Corey  |  July 2, 2010 at 6:14 pm

      You’re probably right on the Italian front. In this case, though, Montoni was really not portrayed as particularly passionate about anything other than regaining his lost fortune (lost due to his gambling and other shenanigans—presumably things level-headed Brits also refrained from) nor did he care one fig about Emily beyond the properties she inherited from her aunt. There was no passionate kidnapping of desire here; he just wanted her land and figured it would be easier to scare it out of her once he had her locked away in his castle rather than out in civilization. DULL.

      And she did explain everything quite neatly, much like in Romance of the Forest. In my case, though, by the time she did finally explain everything I was profoundly grateful since she had been dragging out the “Ah! Supernatural music!” thing way too long.

      On the whole, I wasn’t in love with the book, although it makes for excellent retelling and mockery!

      Reply
      • 3. Kate  |  July 2, 2010 at 7:01 pm

        Boring! I suppose it’s painfully obvious that I didn’t read this one, then. In which case, my theory is that Italians had a vulgar notion of class as connected to money — whereas in Britain and France you could be impoverished and still genteel, perhaps in Italy money equaled social class at the time. I suppose that idea of social mobility would have been pretty scary for an English writer, and would also explain the The Woman in White thing (maybe?).

        Reply
      • 4. Corey  |  July 7, 2010 at 5:29 pm

        I think you’re onto something with the social mobility/money connection. All the three Italian villains I listed were basically into their French or English lady friends for those reasons. Historically, the British are sort of notoriously afraid of foreigners in general, so perhaps this was a manifestation of that fear? Foreigners coming in and seducing well-bred and/or rich English womenfolk does sound fearsome from the Brit perspective!

        Reply
  • 5. Purposeful not reading « Literary Transgressions  |  February 22, 2012 at 12:01 am

    […] its humor) a lot more than I did when I started it back in high school (notably before I read The Mysteries of Udolpho or was at all aware of Gothic romances!). So the parsing out of the Austens is (so far) working in […]

    Reply

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