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.|
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.|
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
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.