The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe Book Review: Overwritten and Tiresome but a Seminal Gothic Work

The Mysteries of UdolphoThe Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, £8.99 (Oxford University Press, 9780199537419)
Publication date: 1 November 2008 (first published 1794)
My rating: 

The Mysteries of Udolpho is the story of orphan Emily St. Aubert, who finds herself separated from the man she loves and confined within the medieval castle of her aunt's new husband, Montoni. Inside the castle, she must cope with an unwanted suitor, Montoni's threats, and the wild imaginings and terrors that threaten to overwhelm her. (Penguin Classics description)

I don't believe in judging classic literature according to contemporary sensibilities, which makes a review of an 18th-century novel challenging. Certainly, as other reviewers have noted, Radcliffe is due credit for her pioneering Gothic novels. Her prose is strong, her landscapes and settings are imagined on a grandiose scale and, excepting a tiresome every-other-page occasion of a fainting fit, in Radcliffe's work is a prevailing championing of reason and womanhood that is quite ahead of its time.

Swooning I Love GIF
Radcliffe is the queen of next-level swooning, though perhaps not editing.

Nevertheless, there are certain universal standards of good writing that, I feel, Radcliffe seems comically unaware of.

Straining with gushing effusions of the virtues of the natural world, Udolpho can feel like more of an exercise in romanticist polemic and Radcliffe's bland conventional moral assertions than a piece intended for enjoyment. And, while various other prominent works of classic romanticist fiction are not dissimilar in this regard, at near 700 pages, such sermonising wears thin, with numerous redundancies and repetitions.

Such rambling tendencies give the novel the roughness of a first draft, with a dubious structure that sees characters introduced extraneously to further the plodding plot before being unceremoniously dumped, plot holes compensated for with dry follow-up summaries of events (with one character even admitting to 'forgetting' to relate something earlier) and disjointed scenes strung together with little apparent motivation other than Radcliffe's rampant desire to gratuitously describe fresh scenery in digressive travelogues.

Image result for wayne's world extraneous
'It seemed extraneous at the time.'

Characters are, for the large part, frustratingly two-dimensional, with a thwarted opportunity for moral ambiguity and the possibility of compromise in one particular male lead  something Austen was to explore much more successfully a few years later.

And, while Radcliffe's technique of explained Gothicism may have helped lend credibility to a much-parodied genre, to achieve this she employs a [deceptive carrot-dangling 'Scooby Doo' man in a rubber mask device] (highlight to view spoiler), which involves explaining away the most absurd of supernatural twists, leading to predictable, unconvincing and downright unsatisfying conclusions. Most disappointingly, [the obsessively plugged black veil cliffhanger turns out to be the most tenuous of all].

Nevertheless, Radcliffe's work remains a seminal work of Gothic literature that, for those with a keen interest in the genre and copious amounts of time, is worth looking into.


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