Ann Radcliffe was one of the most popular and highly acclaimed author of the 18th century. Although she wasn’t the first gothic novelist, her work was considered by many a the time to be the first mature works of that genre. While her novels might come as a melodramatic and superficial to contemporary readers (as a lot of older literature will, of course), they also bear many features which not only were innovative for their time but have become standards in fiction today.
Radcliffe’s most well known work is The Mysteries of Udolpho. It also happens to be her most “gothic” gothic novel. It contains more ghosts, secret corridors and chambers, and horrors than either The Romance of the Forest or The Italian. When I read Wuthering Heights in high school I was a bit disappointed by how retained the supernatural elements were and, although this did not negatively impact my appreciation for it, I was nevertheless happy to discover that Udolpho longed for in a gothic novel.
One of the characteristic qualities of Radcliffe’s work is her use of the explained supernatural. Some readers cannot stand this but I love it. It aids Radcliffe’s carefully structure suspense perfectly. Disappointment is necessarily a part of the way she builds suspense and teases the reader. The reader is lead to expect something horrifying (the essence of terror) and supernatural but is then disappointment the cause is revealed to be quite innocent and natural. This disappointment serves to temporarily relieve the tension of suspense but it never resolves any of the underlying fears or mysteries that protagonist must confront and discover. Just when the reader feels at peace, the expectation of horror is revived but this time does lead to something genuinely horrifying and the previous disappointments serves to intensifies the sensations of the scene.
The suspense is enhanced further by the first person perspective that Radcliffe’s uses throughout most of the story. We see everything from the protagonist Emily St. Aubert’s skewed perspective. Emily is not a believer in the supernatural yet when her rationality fails to explain strange event and phenomena, fear overtakes her imagination and distorts her perception of her environment. Unlike the protagonist of Jane Austin’s parody of the gothic Northanger Abbey, Emily faces both real and imagined dangers. Her perilous situation and relative powerlessness render her expectations of danger all the more reasonable, even when the exact details of her exceptions are not.
Radcliffe’s suspense is not only conventional but psychological and lends her fiction a depth of insight both powerful and sophisticated. This is why I am often surprised when people characterize Emily as one-dimensional, when in fact her characterization is anything but. Sure, Emily is very uncompromising, even uptight, about her morals and opinions but Emily’s psychological experience is incredibly dynamic. As I have argued in a previous post, Emily’s many fainting spells closely resemble panic attacks. These details may not be readily apparent to many but they are definitely present and demonstrates that there is more to The Mysteries Udolpho, and it characters, than its conventional gothic trappings.
For many contemporaneity readers, Radcliffe’s prose may be difficult to get through, as I myself found it nearly a decade ago, but her work easily rewards one’s effort with both fine storytelling and nuanced psychological depth. I would highly recommend it to those interested in the gothic, early women authors, romantic literature and, or, psychology. (I fit all these categories.) For those who might feel daunted by the length but want to read Radcliffe, I would recommend beginning with The Romance of the Forest or The Italian, with the later perhaps being the better of the two because its pacing is very much like a modern thriller film. There are a number of good editions available but I would most recommend the Oxford University Press edition, both for their scholarly introductions and annotations. Be wary of digitized texts, for they frequently aren’t of the highest quality! If you don’t like spoilers, do not read the introduction until you have finished the book; while it provides a lot of interesting history and insights into the novel, it contains plenty of spoilers. Personally, I don’t believe in spoilers–there’s so much more to a story than its major plot points.