An illustration from a 19th century edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho.
In the year 2005 I began reading Ann Radcliffe’s famous gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho and, after reading the first three-hundred pages, set it aside for several years since. In the interim I frequently wondered whether I would ever return to it and finally complete my reading but one thing or another deprived me of the interest in doing so. Then, in August of this year, I pulled it from its place on the self, determined to finish it, and—much to my surprise and delight—have! At long last I managed to read the last four-hundred pages and enjoyed every moment of the journey with its protagonist, Emily St. Aubert.
The Mysteries of Udolpho is not as well known today as it was two-hundred years ago. This cartoon by Lisa Brown perfectly reflects the reputation it has today. Unfortunately, it reduces the novel to a single aspect of its protagonist, both misrepresenting what it ridicules and neglecting the many good qualities that make Emily such a strong woman and her story so thrilling. Not only is Emily a strong, intelligent young woman who stands up for herself but the story clearly conveys a feminist message. Radcliffe was a talented author, whose sophisticated understanding of the human mind gave her characters unique dimensions and made the horror of the story truly psychological.
In The Mysteries of Udolpho there are no true supernatural phenomena and anything that appears so receives a perfectly rational explanation sooner or later. This has been the subject of some criticism ever since its publication but I found this aspect of the story both appealing and quite effective in creating an atmosphere of terror. For Radcliffe, terror is determined by how we perceive the world. Whether by superstitious belief or unease, Radcliffe’s characters are moved to feel fear, anxiety, and terror. Sometimes the explanation reveals a harmless source, even a friendly compatriot, but on other occasions Emily’s discoveries are far more macabre and often expose more mysteries.
Those who have criticized Radcliffe’s rational terror have argued that it robs the narrative of the sublime and of genuine horror but what she accomplishes in The Mysteries of Udolpho is really quite brilliant. Although the reader might know that the supernatural effects are illusions, these scenes are described in a way that defies an easy, rational explanation. Like Emily, I tried to explain what I saw through her eyes but failing to contrive a compelling answer actually intensifies the anxiety, and terror, we are supposed to feel with Emily.
Radcliffe was praised for her eloquent descriptions of landscapes and criticized for their frequency. Such is true for The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is only four pages short of eight-hundred. In addition to these beautifully poetic passages, I was impressed by her keen understanding of psychology. Her descriptions of Emily’s fears and how she checks herself by assessing or seeking out evidence reminds me of cognitive theory, which emphasizes how belief effects our perception of the world and how this, in turn, reshapes or reinforces, our beliefs. Emily tends to benefit most from her reason, while her companion Annette is more susceptible and willing to believe in supernatural explanations and less inclined to doubt what she assumes. Despite this, however, Emily does give in occasionally when her mood is affected by eerie stories or when she is caught off guard and Annette will dismiss a supernatural explanation when previous beliefs and knowledge provide a more compelling answer. They both have their own preconceived notions about strange phenomenon and although Emily generally tends to be right to assume a more rational perspective, she does not dismiss the possibility of the sublime when she considers her father looking after her from heaven.
The following passage perfectly reflect the psychological horror Radcliffe affects so well:
“The castle was perfectly still, and the great hall, where so lately she had witnessed a scene of dreadful contention, now returned only the whispering footsteps of the two solitary figures gliding fearfully between the pillars, and gleamed only to the feeble lamp they carried. Emily, deceived by the long shadows of the pillars and by the catching lights between, often stopped, imagining she saw some person, moving in the distant obscurity of the perspective; and, as she passed these pillars, she feared to turn her eyes toward them, almost expecting to see a figure start out from behind their broad shaft.”
Emily is notorious for her fainting fits and, like other aspects of the novel, I believe it has partly been misunderstood. They have been explained as a literary device that extends and enhances suspense, and in several instances this is true. Her struggle to maintain her senses in emotionally stressful situations does heighten the feeling of danger. They can also be understood as a reflection of the belief in “feminine weakness” that characterized the popular views of women at the time. Although all of Radcliffe’s characters are affected by the fear of the supernatural and of the fragility of their mortality, none of then men faint and only a few women characters in the novel actually do.
Both theories are apt but the way in which Radcliffe’s describes the psychic processes that precede her fits suggests another interpretation. What Emily expressions are panic attacks! She becomes anxious in the presence of danger or in the presence of a terrible sight, begins to breath heavily, loses her sense of the environment around her, and (if she fails to recover her composure) faints. A panic attack is understood as an abrupt experience of intense fear, induced either unexpectedly or by a specific object or situation, and is accompanied by physical symptoms that may include heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, and even dizziness. If we interpret these fits from a contemporary psychological perspective one would diagnose Emily St. Aubert as suffering from an anxiety disorder.
One must also consider the circumstances of life in the sixteenth century, during which the story takes place. People would not have had the benefit of modern medicine and medical theory. The memory of the bubonic plague would have still be lingering on the cultural consciousness. The mortality rate was likely high enough to warrant a phobic response to the sight of blood or a decaying corpse, and Emily encounters plenty of these sights. This fear would be viewed as ridiculous and unjustified today, for we do not have to fear disease as our ancestors would have centuries before. This could be the reason for why people now perceive Emily’s fainting fits as something worthy of ridicule; we forget just how precarious human life can be and was then.
The Mysteries of Udolpho also contains a feminist message. The reputation of the gothic novel may not immediately suggest it but at least in the case of Radcliffe’s novel, the rights of women are advocated and are treated as equals. This becomes apparent when one examines how the good men of the novel treat women in contrast to how the evil men do. Valancourt, who is Emily’s love interest, treats her as an equal. He respects her decisions even when they contradict his own wishes, rather than compel her to his will. The reverse is true in the case of Count Morano, a rival suitor. Earlier in the story Emily’s uncle Montoni has promises her to him but later retracts the marriage when he discovers the count has lost much of his personal fortune. Count Morano doesn’t give up, however, and sneaks into Emily’s chamber by way of a secret passage with the promise to save her from her villainous uncle but, in return for his services, he demands that she marry him. Emily refuses the offer, explaining to him the injustice of his coercive offer and states, quite powerfully,
“Count Morano! I am now in your power; but you will observe, that this is not the conduct which can win the esteem you appear so solicitous to obtain, and that you are preparing for yourself a load of remorse, in the miseries of a friendless orphan, which can never leave you. Do you believe your heart to be, indeed, so hardened, that you can look without emotion on the suffering, to which you would condemn me?”
Unfortunately, Montoni proves to be even more exploitative than Morano. He imprisons his own wife when she refuses to surrender her property to him and pursues Emily with as much cruelty when the properties eventually become hers. He attempts to deceive Emily into signing away her inheritance but she sees through his deception when he refuses to allow her to read the document. He underestimates her intelligence and then, in a final attempt to persuade her into signing, tries to flatter her into compliance. In doing so he reveals his contempt for women:
“I am not in the habit of flattering, and you will, therefore, receive, as sincere, the praise I bestow, when I say, that you possess an understanding superior to that of your sex; and that you have none of those contemptible foibles, that frequently mark the female character—such as avarice and the love of power, which latter makes women delight to contradict and to tease, when they cannot conquer.”
In the end, Emily triumphs over the evil schemes of her uncle and her other persecutors. She uncovers the mysterious affairs her father kept secret from her and marries her beloved Valancourt. Though she has lost her parents, she gains a new family previously unknown to her. Emily St. Aubert is not the weak heroine she has been mistaken to be but an intelligent and courageous young woman who defends herself despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Through she trembles at the sight of blood or of strange figures passing along the corridors at night, these circumstances never fully subdues her and she perseveres with fortitude against oppression.
In The Mysteries of Udolpho Radcliffe argues for the dignity and equality of women, and although it may not always stand up to the standards and criticism of contemporary Feminism, it deserves to be recognized for what it is rather than ridiculed for what it isn’t. Not only is it important within the history and development of the gothic literary genre but the merits of Radcliffe’s work are significant and should not be forgotten.