Quotes Mysteries Of Udolpho Essay

The Mysteries of Udolpho Ann Radcliffe

The following entry presents criticism of Radcliffe's novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). For information on Radcliffe's complete career, see NCLC, Volumes 6 and 55.

Although several novels published before The Mysteries of Udolpho fall into what is considered the gothic genre, many critics consider Radcliffe the founder of the gothic novel. The Mysteries of Udolpho includes all of the classic gothic elements, including a haunted castle, a troubled heroine, a mysterious and menacing male figure, and hidden secrets of the past. Extremely popular when it was first published in four volumes in 1794, the work made Radcliffe famous throughout Europe.

Biographical Information

Born July 9, 1764, Ann Ward was the daughter of William and Ann Oates Ward. Her father held a modest occupation as a haberdasher, but her extended family included well-known scholars and physicians. Growing up a very shy and reticent young woman in Bath, she led a sheltered life but had a great love for literature and nature. She gradually developed a heightened romantic sensibility and an interest for the supernatural. On January 15, 1787, she married William Radcliffe, a student at Oxford, and the couple moved to London, where, according to all accounts, they lived happily.

Finding herself among literary circles in London, Radcliffe was stimulated enough to try her hand at writing, and she quickly established herself as an author with extraordinary powers of description. By the time she had published The Romance of the Forest in 1791, her reputation was established. Despite being acknowledged as an adept writer, the 500 pounds she received for The Mysteries of Udolpho surprised the literary world, it would have been a handsome sum for a male writer, let alone a woman of the late eighteenth century. Interestingly, although the novel includes many descriptions of Italy and other foreign locales, it was not until the work was actually being printed that Radcliffe left England for the first time in her life, traveling to the Continent with her husband and visiting Holland and Germany. Her descriptions of foreign landscapes in Udolpho, therefore, come exclusively from her reading and her appreciation of art.

After writing a half dozen novels, Radcliffe's literary output slowed, though she continued to write some poetry. By 1813, Radcliffe's health began to wane. A longtime asthma sufferer, she moved to Ramsgate in 1822 for the sea air. However, she passed away on February 7, 1823, when the inflammation reached her brain.

Plot and Major Characters

Set in the sixteenth century, The Mysteries of Udolpho opens in the idyllic setting of Emily St. Aubert's home in La Vallee, where she lives with her parents. The happiness of this life is quickly dissipated, however, when her mother dies. She moves to the Pyrenees with her father, and there meets and falls in love with Valancourt. However, her father soon falls ill, too, and upon his deathbed commands Emily to burn a number of letters and documents, strictly forbidding her to read any of them. After he dies, Emily dutifully burns the letters, but she accidentally chances to read a passage from one of them. Although the content of the letter is never revealed to the reader, the passage she reads, which apparently refers to a woman whom her father had once loved, deeply disturbs Emily.

With her parents gone, Emily goes to live with her aunt, Madame Cheron. Cheron is a vain, selfish, and unpleasant woman, but more unpleasant and menacing still is her suitor, the villainous Montoni, who has squandered his own money and is in league with a group of bandits. Cheron marries Montoni, though it is clear he is only interested in her estates. Valancourt has followed Emily to her aunt's home in Toulouse, and, at first, is given permission by Montoni to marry Emily. However, Montoni changes his mind and sends Valancourt away. Montoni takes Emily and his wife to Udolpho, a castle in the Italian Apennines. Here, he tries to force one of his associates, Count Morano, upon Emily, who resists his proposals. Montoni then tries to force Emily's aunt to give him all her property. When she refuses, he locks her away in a secluded room where he neglects and eventually starves her to death. Meanwhile, Montoni also pursues Emily for her money and land. During her stay at Udolpho, many bizarre and seemingly supernatural occurrences frighten Emily.

Emily manages to escape from Udolpho. However, she is shipwrecked on the French coast, where she is rescued by the Count de Villefort, who takes her to live with his family in the chateau he has inherited from the Villerois. The chateau is near the convent where her father's grave is located, and Emily spends some time there. Back at the chateau, Emily experiences other frightening sights. When one of the servants, Ludovico, bravely spends the night there to prove that there are no ghosts, he disappears the next day. Soon, Emily also finds out that she bears a striking resemblance to the Marchioness de Villeroi.

Vallancourt appears once again, but Emily rejects him this time because she has heard that he engaged in gambling and other poor behavior while he was in Paris. She returns to La Vallee to learn that the lands Montoni has stolen from her have been returned to her possession and that Montoni is now in jail. Ludovico is also rediscovered. He had been taken by bandits, who had been using part of the chateau to hide their ill-gotten booty. It is discovered that it was the bandits who had been haunting the chateau to scare away anyone who might discover them and their secret. Emily further learns that the rumors about her love, Vallancourt, were untrue, and the couple marries and lives happily at La Vallee.

Major Themes

The most prominent theme in The Mysteries of Udolpho is the triumph of virtue over villainy: a characteristic of all the novels by Radcliffe, who was a devout Christian. Montoni, who squanders his fortunes and turns to illegal and deadly means to win them back, is eventually imprisoned, while Emily, though she endures many trying adventures, maintains her moral principles and eventually finds happiness. Related to this theme is the importance of balance and moderation, which Emily's father teaches her. It is when Emily allows herself to go to emotional extremes, becoming imbalanced, that she suffers most. Also present in the story is Emily's search for truth and need to uncover the secrets at Udolpho and the Villeroi chateau. Another theme is the inescapable past. Many of the characters are haunted by their past, as Emily is; although the mysteries of Udolpho are eventually resolved, there is still a sense of an inescapable haunting that follows the characters.

Critical Reception

The Mysteries of Udolpho was both an extremely popular novel and a critically praised one when it was first published and for many years after. Readers heartily enjoyed Radcliffe's gift for description and her deftness at building dramatic tension throughout the story. She was acknowledged by critics of her time as the queen of the gothic novel, and she was also considered to be a pioneer of the romantic movement. With her popularity, however, also came a wide array of imitators who shamelessly—and often poorly—copied her style, plots, and characters to the verge of plagiarism. It was because of these lesser writers that Radcliffe's novel often suffered by association. Her work was sometimes satirized, too, most famously in Jane Austen's 1818 novel, Northanger Abbey.

Not all of Radcliffe's contemporary critics lauded Udolpho, however. Some reviewers noted that there were a number of flaws in the work. The most disturbing of these, even for general readers, was Radcliffe's insistence on explaining away the apparently supernatural events with logical, quotidian causes. And, even though she explains these events, her explanations sometimes fall short; there is a sense that the author is merely teasing the audience with hints of supernatural spirits that are not really there. One recent critic, Terry Castle, however, notes that the supernatural is not so much explained as it is transferred to Emily's everyday life, where she is later “haunted” by the presence of her dead parents in La Vallee. Other complaints include the work's anachronisms (many of the settings are distinctly eighteenth-century in nature, although the novel is supposedly set in the sixteenth century), flat characterization, and improbable turns in plotting. Emily has been particularly criticized for her repeated fainting spells that occur at the slightest provocation, her exaggerated imagination that leads her to quickly conclude that something ordinary is supernatural, and her heightened “sensibility” that makes her a character whofeels but rarely thinks. The poetry that Radcliffe wrote for her story and interspersed throughout its pages is also criticized for being distracting and unnecessary by some, and of poor quality by others.

Recent critics analyze Udolpho from feminist and psychological standpoints and offer more serious considerations of Emily's character. The book has also been considered in terms of its sensual subtext and Emily's growing sense of her sexuality. In this new light, Udolpho has gained greater appreciation among modern literary pundits.


1. Introduction

2. What is the Supernatural Explained?

3. Contemporary Reception of Radcliffe’s work: Praise and Critique

4. Recent Reception of Radcliffe’s work: Praise and Critique

5. A new Approach: Terry Castle’s “The Spectralization of the Other”

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This brought to her [Emilys, jf] recollection the veiled picture, which had attracted her curiosity on the preceeding night, and she resolved to examine it. […] She then hastily entered the chamber, and went towards the picture, which appeared to be enclosed in a frame of uncommon size, that hung in a dark part of the room. She paused again, and then, with a timid hand, lifted the veil; but instantly let it fall – perceiving that what it had concealed was no picture, and, before she could leave the chamber, she dropped senseless on the floor.[1]

Whatever Emily, the main character in Ann Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, might have perceived behind that black veil will not be revealed for several hundred pages. The reader is left baffled as to what caused Emily all this pain and has to resort to guesswork, only to find out that she had simply seen a wax figure, shaped like a human being who was tortured to death. Ann Radcliffe has become famous for this method, that is for “a sequence of evasions and withdrawls, condluding with long-subsequent explanations.”[2] Radcliffe developed the technique of the so-called ‘supernatural explained’ and became famous for this device; a device that was well received in her times and made her one of the most famous novelists of her age. Several editions of her books and a 500 pound salary paid by her publisher George Robinson, an immense sum for the time, might be proof.[3] Nevertheless Radcliffe’s novels and her technique of the supernatural explained have been and still are heavily criticised, not only by modern literary critics.

This term paper deals with Radcliffe’s method in her book The Mysteries of Udolpho. After a definition has been given the reception of Ann Radcliffe’s work throughout the decades will be discussed, before Terry Castle’s new approach “The Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho” will be introduced. Finally a conclusion will be drawn.

2. What is the Supernatural Explained?

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto was published in 1764 and was a turning point in the age of the romantic novel.[4] His work is a “gruesome tale of passion, bloodshed and villainy (it includes a monstrous ghost)”[5]. The novel was extremly successful and apparently went through over a hundred editions since it first appeared. Its success was seminal and it had much influence on the development of a new literary genre, the Gothic novel.[6] The genre developed continually in the 18th and 19th century. Gero von Wilpert defines the Gothic novel as follows: [Ein] bewußt auf Schauereffekte angelegter Roman, der sich durch Schauplatz (oft alte Schlösser und verwahrloste Einzelbauten mit Verliesen, unterirdischen Gesängen, versteckten Wandtüren in wildromantischen Landschaft), unheimliche Requisiten (Waffen, Kerzen, ausgestopfte Tiere, Folter- und Schreckenskabinette) und mysteriöse, übernatürliche oder erst später natürlich erklärbare Ereignisse mit raffiniertem Spannungsaufbau in sich steigernden Stufen des Schreckens bes. an die Phantasie des Lesers wendet.“[7]

In the works of Horace Walpole and his imitators, the reader had to face several supernatural agents and had to deal with mysterious events. 28 years later Ann Radcliffe developed a new technique, within the by now well established field, of the Gothic novel. She introduced the device for which she would become famous in A Sicilian Romance (1790). Her method is called the ‘supernatural explained’. As Sir Walter Scott put it: “All circumstances of her narrative, however mysterious and apparently superhuman, were to be accounted for on natural principles at the winding up of the story.”[8] Rational explanations are given for every supernatural incident. “Apparently supernatural occurences are spine-chillingly evoked only to be explained away in the end as the product of natural causes.”[9] An example: Radcliffe’s protagonist Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho thinks that her chamber in the castle is haunted and ghosts flow through the air. The rational explanation follows to the end of the novel, when the servant Ludovicio explains Emily what caused these mysterious images:

‘I soon found out, madam,’ resumed Ludovico, ‘that they were pirates […]. To prevent detection they had tried to have it believed, that the chateau was haunted, and, having discovered the private way to the north apartments, which had been shut up ever since the death of the lady marchioness, they easily succeeded. The housekeeper and her husband, who were the only persons, that had inhabited the castle, for some years, were so terrified by the strange noises they heard in the nights, that they would live there no longer; a report soon went abroad, that it was haunted […]’[10]

As this example shows: The reader still meets with typical elements of the gothic style, for example ghostlike scences, “wild and desolate landscapes, dark forests, ruined abbeys, feudal halls and medieval castles with dungeons, secret passages, winding stairways, oubliettes, sliding panels and torture chambers”[11], nevertheless the uncanny atmosphere in the novel, is not so much caused by supernatural elements, but by other protagonists of the story. A character like Montoni seems more frightening than any supposed ghosts in The Mysteries of Udolpho. This fact is also recognised by Jane Austen in her novel Northanger Abbey, where the protagonist Catherine is afraid of her host General Tilney: “It was the air and attitude of a Montoni!”[12]

Ann Radcliffe’s new technique was initially a major success: Many novelists followed her lead during the 1790s and the ‘explained supernatural’ became an identifiable school of writing.[13] Her domestication of the supernatural was the characteristic of the dominant mode of gothic writing during that time.[14]

3. Contemporary Reception of Radcliffe’s work: Praise and Critique

Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful might deliver an explanation, why Ann Radcliffe initially met with such success: “When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modificationy, they may be, and they are delightful, as we everyday experience.”[15] Anna Laetitia Aikin’s essay ‘On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Teror’ shows that “reading about terrible things is a different order of experience from actually being terrified. While the former can arouse a feeling of pleasure, the latter cannot.”[16] According to this, Ann Radcliffe’s technique of the ‘supernatural explained’ is a way of relieving the reader after having read all the horrid incidents in her novels. The rational explanations seem to have been a narrative technique which many critics eagerly awaited. Her works were authorised, because the critics were almost relieved with her solution: “Progress and the taste for primitive superstition were reconciled […], as if Radcliffe’s innovation gave the opportunity to come to terms with the barbarians at the gates without surrendering the fort.”[17]


[1] Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Oxford, New York, 2003, pp. 248-249.

[2] Cavaliero, Glen. The Supernatural and English Fiction. Oxford, 1995, p. 27.

[3] Norton, Rictor. Gothic Readings. The First Wave 1764-1840. London, New York, 2000, p. 51.

[4] Clery, E.J. „Introduction“, in: Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto, Oxford 1996, p. ix.

[5] Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London, 1998, p. 356.

[6] Compare: Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, p. 356.

[7] Von Wilpert, Gero. Sachwörterbuch der Literatur. Stuttgart, 1979, 6. Auflage, S. 724.

[8] Scott, Walter. The Lives of Novelists, 2 vols. Paris 1825, p. 245.

[9] Clery, E.J. The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762-1800. Cambridge, 1995, p 106.

[10] Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 633.

[11] Compare: Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, p. 356.

[12] Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Lady Susan. The Watsons. Sanditon. Oxford, New York, 2003, p. 137.

[13] Compare: Clery, E.J. The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, p. 108.

[14] Ellis, Markman. The History of Gothic Fiction. Edinburgh, 2000, p. 66.

[15] Burke, Edmund. Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. J.T. Boulton (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958), pp. 39-40.

[16] Aikin, Anna Letitia. „On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror“; in: Aikin, John and Letitia. Miscellanous Pieces in Prose. London, 1773, pp. 120-121, 125-126.

[17] Clery, E.J. The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, p. 107.

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