I just finished reading the 1794 novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho
, by Ann Radcliffe. It's considered one of the seminal Gothic Romances, alone with The Castle of Otranto
and The Monk
It's solidly in the romance genre, as defined now: girl meets boy, various obstacles keep them apart, obstacles vanquished by end of novel, girl and boy get married live happily ever after. The "gothic' part of Mysteries
is purely atmospheric, as all the apparently supernatural events are explained away by human action.
That being said, there's a reason that literature classes study Jane Austen and not Ann Radcliffe--she's just not that good. Jane Austen is much, much better.
Issues I had with the novel, such that I can see why Jane Austen parodied Mysteries of Udolpho
in Northanger Abbey
(It's on my To Be Read list):
Women in 2-D!
There are four types of major female characters in the novel:
- innocent, young, beautiful upper-class girls, who are so sensitive and innocent that they inconveniently faint whenever anything exciting happens, or when the idea of anything exciting happens. Someone needs to loosen their corset stays or something.
- hysterical servant women.
- Kind, generous, compassionate and conveniently deceased upper-class ladies who are relatives.
- Shallow, spendthrift, self-centered to the point of meanness, and living upper-class matrons who are relatives. Something tells me that Ann Radcliffe did not get along well with her older female relatives.
Elizabeth Bennett would have been embarrassed by the lot of them.
As in Tolkien's work, we get a lot of the author's poetry randomly interspersed in the novel, purportedly written by the various characters. This is one case where I would have preferred the character's poetry writing to be an Informed Attribute.
The poetry is distracting, not that great, and interrupts the flow of the story. (And, in the E-book I was reading, incorrectly formatted, which really
Idiot Plots and Informed Attributes
These are connected, as we have several characters--the heroine Emily St. Aubert and the secondary parental figure Count de Villefort who are described as rational, anti-superstition, trained in reason and philosophy, who nevertheless behave like irrational idiots.
In Villefort's case, the otherwise skeptical man who doesn't believe rumors of hauntings and suchlike is willing to believe every bad rumor he's heard about Valancourt's(the romantic lead) character, in spite of having met the man in person and knowing his family. This only happens when the plot requires it, of course.
In Emily's case, in spite of supposedly being quite anti-superstition and a rational devotee of Reason, she's quick to assume every weird thing must be a supernatural horror and doesn't look for alternative explanations--when the plot requires it.
And let's not forget that classic bad romantic trope, the tragic misunderstanding that keeps the couple apart for half the book that could have been cleared up with five minutes of honest conversation.
ETA: One minor thing that drove me nuts several places in the book: our heroes, both male and female, have the singular ability to lose a mountain trail in broad daylight, not find the well-known inn their accompanying guides supposedly were taking them to, and insist that the cleverest thing to do is keep on walking in the dark looking for the missing inn. In the mountains, complete with floridly described cliffs and chasms. In the dark. Because obviously that's the way to find a place--try to walk off random drop offs in the dark.
Seriously, someone needs to teach these people the concept of "making camp at dusk". If you can't find the inn, guess what, you can sleep in the carriage and your useless guides can at least tend the fire and keep watch.
The author has an explicit Aesop tacked on in the afterword: good, virtuous people triumph in the end and live happily ever after while evil people die horribly even if they temporarily get to push around the good guys. Not only is this obviously not true in Real Life, it's not true in the book. The completely innocent Marchioness dies painfully of poison, the merely shallow but not evil Madame Montoni (neé Cheron) dies badly; the gentle, kindly father Mons. St. Aubert dies of illness after losing his family fortune and outliving his wife and the Marchioness (who he loved as a young man), leaving his beloved daughter an impoverished orphan, and the completely honorable Mons DuPont drifts out of the book at the end, sad over unrequited love. The real Aesop is "if you are a main character that the author likes, you get to live happily ever after", but that's hardly a surprise.
The implicit Aesop is that one should use reason and control one's emotions and do not trust rumors and appearances, but investigate things that don't make sense. It would have been a much shorter book if the major characters who were supposed to be rational had done that. On the other hand, IF Emily had
listened to the rumors around Montoni's character and run off with Valancourt instead of following her guardian aunt to Italy with her new husband Montoni, it would have been a much shorter book. Or at least a different one. Admittedly, Emily neither acted on the rumors nor did she investigate the matter rationally--she did nothing and just went along with things (not that she had much chance to investigate).
In general, Emily was just the kind of overly-sensitive, excessively sheltered twee character that I just want to grab and shake some sense into. Not that it would help, she'd just faint and be feverish for days over the shock to her senses. (Maybe she needs some quinine for that recurring illness?)
Her reaction to Valancourt's supposed disgrace was, frankly, not mine. My reaction would have been: "Clean up your act, get out of debt, and come back when you've proven you can control yourself and your spending habits and then we'll talk." Incidentally, that would have provided him an opportunity to realize that what "I" had heard about him was possibly not the same as what he actually did. Instead, Emily was all weeping and crying and "You have lost my esteem FOREVER
, go away and don't even try to talk to me," without mentioning what he'd supposedly done, since obviously he knew how disgraceful he'd been.
This book would have been thrown at the wall several times if I weren't reading it on an e-reader that wasn't built for that kind of abuse. I am looking forward to reading Northanger Abbey
to see just what kind of takedown Jane Austen did to it.