01 October 2009

Book Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

R.I.P. IV Challenge #2

The Mysteries of Udolpho 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.

Rating: B-


Laura's Reviews said...

I would love to read this novel just for that reason - a better understanding of Northanger Abby. Great review!

Bluebell said...

Hi Coversgirl,

I don't think you've fully appreciated what Udolpho is. It is actually extremely sophisticated - and her heroines are very strong and admirable.

Perhaps you could try the romance of the forest instead - it's much more tightly plotted and it is Adeline and not the masculine authorities around her, who reveals the most strength and moral strength of character.

Dorte H said...

Trying to define it is like trying to knit with spaghetti.

Cooked or raw?

I have thought about reading Udolpho, partly because I have heard about it in Jane Austen´s Northanger Abbey, but now I don´t quite know. Well, if I stumble upon the book one day ...

Kristen M. said...

This is on my TBR list so I appreciated seeing your review! I think that in many of these early Gothic novels, they turn out to only be partially dramatic. It's almost as if they are just at the cusp of a new genre but it hadn't been perfected yet.

Amat Libris said...

Laura: I think I'll read Northanger Abbey again soon, while Udolpho is still fresh in my mind.

Amy: Well, maybe I was having a blonde week ... or we have different taste in heroines. I have another - shorter - one of hers in my TBR box, so we'll see how that one goes.

Dorte: Cooked and slippery, straight out of the saucepan!

Kristen: That's a really good point. It would be interesting to read a chronological line-up of gothics, to see how the genre progressed.

Anonymous said...

I love your knitting spaghetti comparison.

Thanks for an honest review of this! I've been toying reading this but was put off by the length.

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