R.I.P. IV Challenge #2
Strange happenings seem to follow Emily St Aubert. Missing necklaces and music of no apparent origin are just the beginning. When she is orphaned and left in the charge of her aunt, said aunt soon remarries and Emily’s new uncle, Montoni, takes them both to his Italian castle. Inside Udolpho mystery and danger lurk in all quarters. If it’s not Montoni trying to railroad her into marriage to the obnoxious Count Morano, it’s sinister figures roaming the ramparts or - far worse - the ghastly object concealed behind a black veil.... Emily’s hope of taking possession of her father’s estate and marrying the dashing Valancourt are looking more remote by the day.
While mulling over what to write in my review, two words came to mind: Literary bipolar. Udolpho has a bad case of it. It’s one of the classics gothics ... but large stretches of it aren’t gothic at all. It’s set in the sixteenth century ... and walks and talks like the eighteenth century. Emily St Aubert faints at the drop of a hat (or a black veil, as the case may be) ... except for a few moments of such strength that I felt like cheering for her. It’s got plenty of seemingly supernatural horrors ... but the only scary things in it are patently real. Sometimes I wanted to scream from the sheer tedium of it ... and then something thrilling would happen. Trying to define it is like trying to knit with spaghetti.
I think the only way to read it is to forget all notions of what a gothic novel, or a historical novel - or a novel at all - is meant to be. Give yourself up the surreality of it all: the insubstantial characters, the fainting fits and melodrama, the elaborate explaining-away of everything seemingly supernatural, the eccentric pacing that varies from snail speed to warp speed. If you can do that, you should have fun. I did, at times; but just as often I wanted to shake someone - either character or author. When Radcliffe gets into scenery-painting mode, or Emily begins wilting under the weight of her sensibility, it can get unspeakably dull. (Though it is livened by a few moments of unintentional comedy when other characters think Emily’s about to keel over, and leap into action accordingly.)
As far as spooky occurrences go, it’s not a creepy book, even before everything is accounted for. The chilling thing for me was Emily’s powerlessness against those around her. The Montonis were bad enough; but even the Count of Villefort rattled me with his insistence on knowing what was best for her. With friends and relatives like those, who needs a ghost? Maybe it would have been eerier had I really cared for the women being threatened, but there’s not a single three-dimensional character among them, Emily is frequently exasperating, and I was hoping a ghost or whatever would make off with her chatterbox maid Annette.
Dull bits and flimsy characters aside, it’s worth reading just to gain a new appreciation of Northanger Abbey.