I valiantly strove to finish The Mysteries of Udolpho, but with about 80% of it read (frustratingly hard to tell with a collection on Kindle), I just couldn’t take it anymore. Although the book is a classic gothic novel, it is extremely long and slow moving, and my mild curiosity about the secrets of the castle could not overcome my feeling that the novel was never-ending.
Radcliffe was known for writing novels that were more realistic than those that had come before in the gothic genre. That is, the events, however unlikely, might actually happen. Heroines are kidnapped, not squashed to death by a giant foot.
Emily St. Aubert’s troubles begin with her father’s death, but not before the two of them take a leisurely several-hundred-page trip through Provence. There she and her father meet the handsome Valancourt, alas only a younger son.
After her father dies, Emily finds she is left destitute except for her estate and goes to live with her fashionable and shallow aunt Madame Cheron. Madame Cheron eventually marries an Italian lout, Count Montoni. Once Emily and her aunt are in his power, he expends all his energy first in trying to force Emily to marry one of his dupes and then in trying to get both women to hand over all their property in France.
About halfway through the nearly 800-page book, Montoni takes them to his castle, Udolpho, in the Italian alps. Here I was expecting things to heat up, and they do a little, with a disappearing previous owner, secret passageways, unnamed but horrible sights, and odd lights on the battlements. On the other hand, Emily spends most of her time looking at the scenery—described in excruciating detail and admired while she is in peril of her life—and painting watercolors. Oh, also writing poems at the drop of a hat that we get to read.
To modern audiences, Emily seems a bit insipid, but her role is to demonstrate the feminine virtues under duress. So, instead of investigating where the secret passage from her bedroom goes or looking at the contents of the heavy chest or trying to escape, she faints and runs away. She does, however, do what she thinks is right most of the time.
So far, although the most famous, The Mysteries of Udolpho is not my favorite of the “horrid mysteries” mentioned in Northanger Abbey that I reported I was reading in a collection. (This novel wasn’t mentioned but is included in the Horrid Novels collection for completeness.)