John C Adams Reviews 'The Mysteries of Udolpho'

Updated: Aug 12

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe


One writer whose name is inextricably linked with Gothic novels is Ann Radcliffe. Along with 'The Romance of the Forest', 'The Mysteries of Udolpho' is one of her most famous books. The former established Radcliffe as a leading writer in the niche subgenre of Gothic historical romance. Published in 1794, 'The Mysteries of Udolpho' garnered even more attention, in part due to her energetic descriptions of lush scenery and impressive mountain landscapes.


When the novel opens, Emily St Aubert is enjoying the kind of innocent, idyllic life that any reader of Gothic fiction knows will soon deteriorate into terror and superstition as her circumstances change. Her mother dies of a fever and her father succumbs on the road trip designed to raise both their spirits and pull them out of their disabling grief. Emily, who as a young, unmarried woman is considered in need of a guardian, is left in the care of her aunt. Madame Cheron is too busy conducting a wild social life to find it in her heart to be kind to the grieving Emily, whose low spirits are made worse by separation from her deserving but nearly penniless lover, M Valancourt.


Madame Cheron's marriage to the sinister Signor Montoni moves the action to the Castle of Udolpho, which Montoni has inherited under fairly dubious circumstances. Emily's aunt is soon robbed of any illusions about her cruel husband and dies, exhausted by his torments, some months later. Emily has been trapped in the castle since their arrival, prey to first her aunt's and then her new uncle-by-marriage's selfish, vacillating plans to marry her off to candidates of their choosing.


Since this is Gothic romance, Radcliffe's novel moves from one episode of physical terror to another, with plenty of psychological torture of the heroine along the way. Emily is far stronger emotionally than many central figures of Gothic romance, frequently reminding herself that she should adhere to sense and logic, rather than fall prey to uncontrolled sensibility and a willingness to be frightened witless by rumour, unexplained noises in the night or bizarre happenings with a supernatural tint. Radcliffe's message is clear, though it is never overbearing or dogmatic. Emily stays true to herself, seeks a rational answer to the mysteries she encounters and stands loyal in her affection for her lover. Gothic horror novels are often associated with hysterical heroines, supernatural manifestations presented as reality and bloody demises of vulnerable young women. In fact, 'The Mysteries of Udolpho' is far more measured than most Gothic horror novels, a fact that may well help to explain its enduring popularity today.


This is an immensely long novel, partly because of the rich descriptions of scenery and the natural world that abound at every possible opportunity. There is also a host of supporting characters and minor subplots. Finally, Radcliffe's careful construction of threat after threat to the female characters (each established, developed, varied and concluded) takes up many pages. At almost nine hundred pages, it is quite a doorstop read.


I enjoyed this novel very much, though it took me some considerable time to finish it because of its sheer length. As a halfway house between the more florid Gothic novels and the mainstream horror fiction of, say, Wilkie Collins, it has a very distinctive place in the literary market. It has stood the test of time, enduring much goodnatured teasing in the pages of Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' among other things, and emerged among the canon of horror novels as a respected part of the genre. Above all, 'The Mysteries of Udolpho' has spawned many imitations and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.


Thank you so much for reading this Way Back Whensday review from John C Adams Reviews. My next review is for Fantasy Friday in a couple of days. In the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts about horror novels you've enjoyed and would recommend to others.

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