Monday, October 03, 2016

31 Days of Gothic Romance | The Mysteries of Udolpho

Horace Walpole may have officially started the gothic romance genre with The Castle of Otranto, but it was Ann Radcliffe who popularized it 30 years later with The Mysteries of Udolpho. It wasn't her first gothic romance, nor her last, but it was her most famous. And with her other books, Udolpho turned gothic romance into a genre that people could take seriously.

Part of how she did that was Scooby Dooing the supernatural elements. Her novels are full of supposedly haunted castles and cottages and abbeys, but there's always some kind of rational explanation for the spookiness. That gives her stories the thrill of genre books, but with the deniability that they're not really genre books. Literature Snobs are not a new phenomenon.

The other thing she did was include large sections of poetry and travelogue-like descriptions of landscapes. This was really well-received and Radcliffe inspired other writers as diverse and important as Walter Scott and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. However, it does make her kind of slog for modern readers. At least, it did for this modern reader.

Hanging out. Talking about nature.
Udolpho is the story a young woman named Emily St Aubert, whose father passes away and leaves her in the care of her aunt. Before this happens, she takes trips with Dad and they look at a lot of nature and talk about nature and at some point meet a handsome, nature-loving man who'll become important later. Oh, and Emily's mom also died and Emily lost a locket. There's a lot of setup in this thing.

Unfortunately, Emily's Aunt Cheron doesn't really like nature or looking at nature or talking about nature, so she and Emily don't get along. Worse than that, Madame Cheron is a gold-digger and marries a mysterious guy named Montoni who claims to be Italian nobility. But Montoni is actually broke and also looking for a way to make a quick buck. He's got his eye on marrying Emily to a different nobleman to hook into that money, but when Montoni learns that there's no fortune to be had there either, he retreats with the women to his remote castle of Udolpho to figure out a new plan.

What he comes up with is to try to force Madame Cheron in signing over some property to him. And while he's working on that (by imprisoning her in a tower of the castle), Emily has time to investigate various Mysteries of Udolpho. It gets more complicated from there, with Emily's discovering another prisoner in the castle and eventually escaping with him. I'm skipping a lot of stuff about secret portraits and locked doors, but that's to keep from having to also talk about Italian politics and extended trips to the countryside that also take place around that same time.

Emily meets some forest bandits.
And we're not done once she leaves either. After that, she meets some friends of her fellow escapee and uncovers a whole other set of mysteries at their house. Except that they're actually tied into Udolpho and this convent that Emily and her dad stayed at one time and whatever happened to that handsome, nature-loving guy from earlier?

Udolpho is the only Radcliffe novel I've read, and for years I claimed that it would be my last. I had to force myself through its 700 pages, enjoying the parts where the plot actually moves, but hating the long passages of unnecessary backstory and details about scenery. I think I might need to give it another chance, though. From a different point of view, what I thought was endlessly dull could also be described as luxuriously immersive. Radcliffe invites requires you to spend a lot of time in her story with her characters and you can either begrudge that or give in to it. I made my choice at the time. I wonder if it's possible to go back and do it the other way.

I don't know that I'll revisit Udolpho soon, but I'm easing back from my decision to not read any more of Radcliffe's stuff. I'll talk a little about The Italian tomorrow, a book of hers that I put on my To Read list at the same time as Udolpho and have since taken off. I might need to give that one a shot, with the foreknowledge that it won't be as face-paced or thrill-filled as The Castle of Otranto.


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