Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

When I was recently purchasing some more Fanny Burney books I saw the Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. Remembering the references to it in Northanger Abbey, I thought it was a book that I should read and I'm glad I did!

The most popular book of the author's time, this Gothic Romance was published in 1794 and was read with excitement - in 1824 Sir Walter Scott recalled the eagerness of whole familes as the four volumes of the work "flew, and were sometimes torn, from hand to hand".

Set in France and Italy two centuries before it was written, it is a wonderful tale of suspense. Our heroine, Emily St Aubert, is orphaned a short period before she is of legal age. Aware of the proprieties and social moires of the time, she goes to live with her aunt, a cold, selfish woman. Before her father dies, she meets and falls in love with the Chevalier Valancourt and her early expectation of marriage to him under her Aunt's care is dashed when her Aunt marries Signor Montoni, and they remove to Italy - firstly Venice and then to the Apennines to the secluded Castle Udolpho.

Emily's fears of inpropriety, marriage to any man but her beloved Valancourt, and the loss of her family estate are soon expanded to almost permanent periods of terror induced by Montoni's heartless treatment and fearful associations, not to mention ghostly mysteries within the dark and gothic castle.

The novel is full of descriptive scenic views of the place and time, which belies the fact that the author only travelled abroad once in her life; poetry appears frequently and I must admit I skimmed over those passages a bit!

The pace of the novel can be slow and there is the occasional thread that lacks continuity (perhaps this is only something that the modern reader would note). Personally I don't think the romance aspect of the novel is all that convincing although the overall devotion of Emily and Valancourt is obvious.

The author's real strength is suspense and intrigue - for example, we wait right until the end of the novel before we find out what scares Emily so much in the remote room of Udolpho where a picture is hidden behind a black veil.

It is not a particularly 'easy' read. I found I needed quiet and preferably solitude to read it, and in that environment I could envision and enjoy the story more and make steady progress through the volumes.

It is a wonderful example of its genre and should be mandatory reading for lovers of Austen et al.

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