Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Books: The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe

Possibly the most readable 18th Century novel (coming in under the wire: 1794), The Mysteries of Udolopho, in the case that you didn't read it in college (I was only assigned to read a section, and, since then, have always intended to circle back and read the entire thing) is probably the most famous Gothic and Sublime novel. Somewhere (in a plastic storage bin in my parent's garage), I have copious notes from English 45B that delineate the finer points of this genre, but, being far from home, I will have to rely on memory in stating that novels of this kind, most often featuring a young and helpless female protagonist, embodying innocence, though not naivete, use rich and dark descriptions of nature, architectural ruins, and the supernatural to inspire a delightful terror in the reader. Perhaps I should have saved this book for for the long and lonely nights of winter, when the wind whistling through my windows, snuffing out my candles, would amplify my thrills, but I didn't. It was deliciously frightful anyway. Well, not if one is accustomed to Stephen King, but I am not.

Emily, our heroine, is a generally plucky and good-natured young woman, until her parents die and leave her in the care of a careless Aunt, who marries an ill-intentioned Italian who whisks the two of them off to a dark and drafty castle (Udolpho) filled with secret passageways, soldiers, corpses (!) and possibly ghosts (!!). Our heart skips beats along with Emily's as she wanders the dark and empty corridors after midnight, propelled by an intense desire to know what horror lingers behind the black veil hanging over one of the paintings in an abandoned wing of the castle; what she sees is so horrific that she cannot bear to look for it longer than a moment and she runs away in a fright, often remembering afterward what she saw there with a shudder. It is so horrific, in fact, that Ann Radcliffe does not tell us what it is until within the last twenty pages of the novel's 600+ and for that reason, I will not here disclose what it is, either. What I will disclose is that, at the novel's end, there is a quick and synoptic explanation given for all of the previously supposed supernatural occurrences, and Emily is ever-so-slightly embarrassed at her prior degree of fear.

The book is typical of 18th Century English literature and paves the way for later, easily-digestible fare like Anne Rice (perhaps, not having read Anne Rice, I oughtn't say this, since I don't really know what I'm talking about); it is easily-consumable writing that does not problematize gender inequities (it is an evil man that traps Emily in the castle, but it takes another man, this one valorous, to rescue her), even as it highlights them in order to propel the plot. (Most infuriating to feminist readers (of which I am not one), for example, would be the way Emily constantly laments the loss of her fortunes not because the loss renders her dependent, but because she had looked forward to giving her all of her wealth up to her lover, who hasn't any of his own.) It isn't unlike any other novel by a female author (neurotic, emotional, fraught), but it is somehow less obnoxious; most likely this is because my expectations are set at a different standard by the genre itself—I expect and desire a melancholy young lady with doleful eyes to sit in her casement, playing a sad dirge upon her lute and remembering with sorrowful fondness the sun-filled afternoons she spent roaming the gardens with her lover. Furthermore, however silly they are, Radcliffe holds her cards close, stretching our thrills and fascinations all the way through to the end, in a way few novelists of her time could do.

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