The Mysteries of Udolpho

by Ann Radcliffe

‘As the carriage wheels rolled heavily under the portcullis, Emily’s heart sunk, and she seemed, as if she was going into her prison …. her imagination, ever awake to circumstance, suggested even more terrors than her reason could justify.’


I’ve been neglecting the books on my Classics Club list for a while and picked this one to get back on track. Ann Radcliffe was one of the first authors to write Gothic fiction. She was a contemporary of both Jane Austen and Walter Scott, and indeed we find references to her in Austen’s writing.

The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794, is set in France and Italy two hundred years in the past (1584) amid romantic woods and hills, contrasting with glowering mountains and dark, forbidding castles. A few chapters into the story I didn’t think I was going to like it – or even finish it. Overburdened with description, some of it  repetitive, and in very dated style and language, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. The heroine is dithering and infuriating by modern perceptions and her would-be lover rather bland and weepy. Then, about half way through Volume 1, I began to enjoy it. The protagonist was still annoying me with her ‘timid one moment, daring the next’ personality, but the plot was driving along to some sort of conclusion.

Emily St Aubert is traveling in the south of France with her father when he dies and, not having reached her majority, she is left in the care of her disagreeable and social climbing aunt. On his deathbed, M. St Aubert extracts a promise from Emily that she will locate and destroy certain documents he has hidden in his home. This Emily does but not before accidentally reading a few haunting words on one of the papers. She also retains the portrait of a mysterious unknown woman who seems to have been important in St Aubert’s life.

Emily is being ‘courted’ (isn’t that an old-fashioned word?) by Valancourt, a young army officer whom she met in Languedoc. Her aunt forbids the match; Valancourt isn’t rich! He wants Emily to elope with him but she refuses.

Her troubles really start when her aunt marries an Italian gentleman, Signor Montoni, who wants Emily to marry another ‘gentleman’, Count Morano. Neither are gentlemen as it turns out and having by now become Morano’s bitter enemy, Montini moves with his wife to his castle in the Apennines, taking Emily with them. She becomes a virtual prisoner in Udolpho, where there are some very strange goings on indeed – dark corridors, ghostly apparitions, strange music in the night, secret staircases, unpleasant servants, duelling and murder. In other words, no shortage of Gothic elements!

Radcliffe manages the tension by means of long, contrasting passages of descriptive prose, matching Emily’s various moods with the scenery around her. Two examples will serve to illustrate her technique:

‘When Emily … opened her casement, she was surprised to observe the beauties , that surrounded it. The cottage was nearly embowered in the woods, which were chiefly of chestnut intermixed with some cypress, larch and sycamore. Beneath the dark and spreading branches, appeared, to the north, and to the east, the woody Apennines ….’

‘The gloom of these shades, their solitary silence ….assisted to raise the solemnity of Emily’s feelings into awe …’

Emily eventually escapes from Udolpho with the help of Du Pont (another admirer) but her problems are not over. Some of its mysteries are still unexplained and there are a few other odds and ends to tie together, not least the matters of her inheritance, Valancourt’s character and intentions, and the mysterious woman in the portrait Emily carries on her person.

Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823)

The Mysteries of Udolpho is, on reflection, a good STORY, but the plot wanders and depends too much on ill-explained coincidences. The plot has several strands, which we suppose from the early chapters are connected, yet as the narrative proceeds we begin to doubt their resolution. There are also some inconsistencies of geography; both distances and journey times are, it seems to me, condensed and Radcliffe, who probably never traveled the path of her heroine, sometimes confuses her directions.

We cannot deny that Ann Radcliffe is a mistress of atmosphere, especially where dark scenery and Gothic castles are concerned. At times, we almost expect to turn a corner and discover the lair of Dracula. However, the supernatural here is imagined rather than real. Emily more closely resembles Catherine Morland than Mina Harker. There is horror (see note **), certainly, in the book but there are also long passages where very little – or nothing – happens, making it a slow read. In the introspection of the heroine, we see occasional touches of Austen, in the descriptive prose something of Scott, and in the writing generally much of the style, language and character traits of earlier novelists.

The similarities with Austen and Scott are often noted in criticisms of Radcliffe’s work. The three writers were undoubtedly known to one another, though it’s unlikely that they ever met. My thoughts on this are that it is less a matter of influence – as is often claimed – than of exposure to the same culture, not to mention the demands of their reading public. The late 20th and early 21st centuries have given us altogether different literary tastes, driven by our experience of visual media but, in spite of that, the late 18th century still has much to offer.

Mrs Radcliffe was a successful author and immensely popular in her day. We surely cannot doubt the presence of her ghost in works of later writers, such as Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte and Daphne du Maurier.

‘Mrs Radcliffe, as an author, has the most decided claim to take her place among the favoured few ….’ [Sir Walter Scott]

NOTE: (**) Ann Radcliffe would likely have disagreed. She made a point of distinguishing horror from terror: ‘… [T]error is characterized by … indeterminacy in its treatment of potentially horrible events; it is this indeterminacy that leads the reader toward the sublime. Horror, in contrast, nearly annihilates the reader’s responsive capacity with its unambiguous displays of atrocity.’ [On the Supernatural in Poetry, 1826]






6 thoughts on “The Mysteries of Udolpho

  1. Mybookfile

    I’ll probably be reading this book next school year or so. Read northanger Abbey :’) what a book. Sometimes so enjoyable and other times very annoying.


  2. bookheathen

    There’s a school of thought which sees ‘Northanger Abbey’ as a deliberate satirical mimicking of ‘Udolpho’. Thus Catherine should share with Emily certain characteristics (?) – – I suppose. You’ll recall there is a passage in NA in which Catherine, on seeing the abbey, is reminded of Radcliffe’s novel. There’s probably enough here for an essay on the subject – but I’m leaving you to write it if you feel so inclined!! 🙂


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