In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the heroine is mesmerized by the scandalous gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Readers, I read that novel. My paperback Oxford World’s Classics edition (1998) of The Mysteries of Udolpho is 679 pages long, not counting introduction and notes. That’s a lot of mysteries. I read this so you don’t have to. SPOILERS AHEAD.
The Mysteries of Udolpho was a huge hit for author Ann Radcliffe when it first came out in 1794. It’s notable for being the ultimate Gothic novel, for having a lot of changes in tone and mood throughout the story, and for the fact that Radcliffe liked to give all her supernatural horrors mundane explanations. The author herself was described as pretty but shy, and led a mostly reclusive life with her husband and her dog. They liked to travel but not to mingle with society. In her work, she sought to inspire “terror,” saying:
Terror and Horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them.
Our story of Udolpho begins in a lovely French chateau (not Udolpho) where we meet the angelic and lovely and very virginal Emily. Over the course of 100 pages, her mom dies, then Emily hangs out with her dad and her picture is stolen, then they get kicked out of their house so they go on a long trip where they meet a helpful guy named Valancourt and, as a “meet cute,” her father accidentally shoots him in the arm (‘tis but a scratch)(he mistook Valancourt for a bandit). Do Emily and Valancourt fall in love? By golly, they do. Then Emily’s dad dies and many, many pages are devoted to Emily crying and fainting with grief. Emily, now completely destitute, takes refuge in a nunnery before being sent to live with her shitty aunt, Madame Cheron. Madame Cheron breaks up Emily and Valancourt because she wants Emily to marry someone rich.
We are now 170 pages into this book and so far all Emily has done is write poetry, cry, and faint. She perks up a bit when Madame Cheron takes her to Venice, because who wouldn’t cheer up in Venice? Madame Cheron wants Emily to marry the dastardly Count Morano, which of course Emily does not want to do because she still loves Valancourt and Morano creeps her out.
Madame Cheron marries the very rich (she thinks) Signor Montoni and they go to Montoni’s castle, Udolpho. Yes, we are finally at Udolpho and it only took 227 pages to get there, of which most was scenery with some poetry, some intrigue, and a lot of fainting and crying thrown in.
At Udolpho, very confusing things occur. Emily is told to get ready for her wedding to Morano and then the wedding is called off for reasons no one can understand, and then Montoni and Morano have a sword fight about it. Emily spends much of her time in her room because the castle is full of drunk, heavily armed men and she’s afraid of being raped and/or murdered. Every time Emily wants to know something, she sends her servant girl, Annette, out to scout around, which I thought was a crappy thing to do. As far as I can tell, Annette remains unviolated, yay, but Annette falls in love with one of the guards, Ludovico, which turns out to be a good thing. Annette is a comic relief character who tells Emily all kinds of scary stories about the castle and scares both Emily and herself out of their wits constantly, so they are fainting in their white nighties every five minutes.
Anyway, various things occur – mysterious music at night, strange figures walking the halls, miscellaneous sword fights and various crimes, attempted kidnapping, bandits, something terrible hidden behind a veil, a hot rumor that maybe Montoni killed his first wife, the exciting suspicion that Valancourt may be held prisoner in the dungeon…you know. The usual.
Signor Montoni wants some property of Madame Cheron’s that is safe from him despite the marriage, and she won’t give it to him, and he locks her up, and she dies of fever. It’s very sad and it’s confusing to feel so sympathetic towards Madame Cheron, a previously despicable character, but here we are. Those properties go to Emily and she does give them to Montoni (WUSS!) but he keeps her locked up anyway (ASSHOLE). At one point, things are really picking up steam with the intrigues and hauntings and whatnot and then Montoni sends Emily out of the castle to live in a village for a while (more travelling, more scenery, some dancing peasants) and then brings her back, which basically drags everything to a screeching halt and then picks it up again – why? Why? I don’t know.
Since there’s so much scenery in this book, I’ll give you a sample of it:
Emily gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle, which she understood to be Montoni’s; for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. As she gazed, the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin vapour crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipped with splendour. From those, too, the rays soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely, and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign. As the twilight deepened, its features became more awful in obscurity, and Emily continued to gaze, till its clustering towers were alone seen, rising over the tops of the woods, beneath whose thick shade the carriages soon after began to ascend.
That’s some high quality scenery there, although I’m not sure I needed over 600 pages of it.
Emily and Annette get Ludovico to help them reach the dungeon and guess who the prisoner is! GUESS! I bet that, like Emily, you guessed Valancourt. Well, you are WRONG! It’s this random guy who, get this, used to sort of stalk Emily adoringly back in her old familial woodland days. He knew he was beneath her so he worshipped her from afar. His name is Du Pont. No relation to the chemical company. Anyway, Du Pont and Ludovico get Emily and Annette out of the castle and back to France. Hooray! The book must be over! Happy endings for everyone!
NOT SO FAST.
We are only at page 464 and that means there are, in my edition, 208 pages to go.
Understand that I am leaving out SO MUCH, you guys. Love triangles and scenery (so much scenery) and poems (long, long poems) and weird plot digressions, peasants, bandits, servant problems, a few nuns, and a lot of wine. I can only type so fast, people.
Way back when Emily’s father was dying they stayed near a chateau that was thought to be haunted. Emily goes back there to stay with a new cast of characters including a new comic relief servant, a new Count and Countess, and their daughter, Blanche, who is basically Emily 2.0. There’s a haunted room and Ludovico disappears in it but later it turns out that he was not spirited away by the undead. Actually, he was kidnapped by pirates who used secret passageways to store their loot in the room. It was thought to be a haunted room so no one ever went in it, and the pirates only stored stuff there for a night at a time or so, and they never got caught, and they would have got away with it too if it weren’t for those meddling kids. After a few chapters the long-suffering Ludovico turns up in the forest and saves everyone from bandetti and explains about the room and goes back to the chateau. Did you find that confusing? So did I. Focus people. Try to keep up!
In between the haunted room chapters, Valancourt returns. Alas, after Emily disappeared Valancourt (it is rumored) went to the Big City, became a gambler, consorted with loose women, and went to prison, as one does. Once this comes to light, he and Emily cry on each other for many, many pages about how Emily can’t take him back because he’s become unworthy. Emily’s old, retired servant, Theresa, has the best moment in the book:
“Alas! My dear young lady!” said Theresa, “why should all this be? I have known you from your infancy, and it may well be supposed I love you, as if you was my own, and wish as much to see you happy. M. Valancourt, to be sure, I have not known so long, but then I have reason to love him, as though he was my own son. I know how well you love one another, so why all this weeping and wailing?” Emily waved her hand for Theresa to be silent, who, disregarding the signal, continued, “And how much you are alike in tempers and ways, and, that, if you were married, you would be the happiest couple in the whole province-then what is there to prevent your marrying? Dear dear! To see how some people fling away their happiness, and then cry and weep about it, just as if it was not their own doing, and as if there was more pleasure in weeping and wailing than in being at peace. Learning, to be sure, is a fine thing, but, if it teaches folks no better than that, why I had rather be without it; if it would teach them to be happier, I would say something to it, then it would be learning and wisdom too.”
In this part of the book we also meet Sister Agnes. I love Theresa, but Sister Agnes is my life goal. I too want to wander into parties like this:
“You are young-you are innocent! I mean you as as yet innocent of any great crime!-But you have passions in your heart,-scorpions; they sleep now-beware how you awake them!-they will sting you, even into death!”
Since reading this book I’ve developed the habit of walking up to family members and saying “To me, my crime was but yesterday!” and walking out again. Agnes has given my life new purpose, for which I thank her.
While Agnes is on her deathbed, she reveals that she helped murder Emily’s auntie (not the mean one, a different one) a long time ago and has been repenting ever since (hence the nunnery). Agnes leaves a lot money to Emily. I’m not 100% sure I have understood what happened here. It’s very confusing and the book is very long. The point is that everything is fine now, OK? EVERYTHING IS FINE.
It turns out that Valancourt has been a great guy all along. He gambled a little but mostly he got in trouble helping out his friends and he never did consort with women, loose or otherwise. So he and Emily get married in a double wedding along with Blanche (AKA Emily 2.0) and some guy. Du Pont slinks off, sighing nobly. Montoni gets arrested and dies, poisoned by his enemies. The author closes by basically saying, “I hope we all learned a valuable lesson from all this” and the book is over. Sheesh.
Dear Reader, I hope you benefitted from my reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, all 679 pages of it. After reading this I went to the store and dropped all my money on Halloween decorations and here I sit, brooding, in a Gothic fashion, overwhelmed by all the scenery and spooky architecture. I leave you with the final words of the novel for your moral edification:
O! useful may it be to have shewn, that, though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!
And, if the weak hand, that has recorded this tale, has, by its scenes, beguiled the mourner of one hour of sorrow, or, by its moral, taught him to sustain it—the effort, however humble, has not been vain, nor is the writer unrewarded.