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The Mysteries of Udolpho Paperback – Oct 11 2008
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About the Author
Terry Castle is Professor of English at Stanford University.
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The Oxford World's Classics edition with the introduction by Terry Castle is the only edition I've read, but I recommend it particularly because of the introduction, which I found very interesting and insightful after finishing the novel. One point that Castle makes is that despite the novel's Gothic label, Udolpho is more like "a disconcerting textual hybrid." The multi-generic nature of the novel is one of the features that most surprised me; it takes quite a while for Emily to become imprisoned in Udolpho and what precedes her time there is almost anti-Gothic. Emily has perfect parents and the perfect upbringing, though she begins to suffer relatively early on when her mother dies. After this point, she and her father embark on a long trip across France, described at length by Radcliffe in what Castle terms "a bizarre quasi-travelogue." Here we get super-detailed descriptions of natural scenery and of the innate goodness of the St. Aubert clan. Yes, some of the nature described could be filed under "sublime," and such descriptions are standard in many Gothic texts. They are also standard in many Romantic texts, and while the overlap between those two genres/movements is significant, for some reason the Gothic has been viewed as the dark, popular (ew!) sibling of the (maybe) sunnier (self-satisfied?), high-art-producing Romanticism. While the St. Auberts' innocence and goodness make them prime targets for our evil Italian villains (Montoni, primarily), they do spend a lot of their time happily exploring nature, and even after several tragedies befall her and dampen her spirits (and make her faint a lot), Emily is relatively cheerful at times. In other words, the mood is not always Gothic in the novel; indeed, it's probably Gothic less often than it is something else. And then besides the travel narrative, there are also those poems that Emily composes on a whim, about sea nymphs and weary travelers. Radcliffe also incorporates excerpts from poetry into her prose, along with lines from Shakespeare plays, and she begins each chapter with epigraphs from other works. I think that in many ways, the mixing of genres in the novel ultimately makes it a more interesting and more complex text.
Udolpho is a very long novel (almost 700 pages), but, as an insanely popular best-seller in the late 18th century, Radcliffe's work was apparently quite a page-turner. Even Austen's Henry Tilney admits that after hijacking his younger sister's copy of the novel, he "could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days--my hair standing on end the whole time." For modern readers, there's not going to be much in Udolpho that is particularly scary, but Radcliffe does create suspense by introducing mysterious plot elements and not resolving those elements for, literally, hundreds of pages. But because all of those elements are, indeed, resolved, and any potentially supernatural phenomena are explained away, the novel isn't really about scaring the reader at all. Instead, we are invited to witness, as many other reviewers have noted, the coming-of-age of the heroine, as she struggles to overcome her passion and superstition to live a life governed by reason and logic. At the same time, however, I agree with Castle that Radcliffe aims "to reawaken in her readers a sense of the numinous - of invisible forces at work in the world." These forces are not exactly supernatural, though; instead, "Radcliffe represents the human mind itself as a kind of supernatural entity." In this sense, Udolpho is truly a Gothic classic as a result of its interest not in mysterious external forces, but in the way in which the human mind registers such forces, and how it attempts to understand and work through them. The Gothic's preoccupation with human psychology is more often-commented on in response to American Gothic works like Poe's short stories or Female Gothic classics like Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," but I see this as a primary interest of Radcliffe's in Udolpho, as well.
I have given the novel five stars, which reflects my personal enjoyment of the work and my interest in the themes and issues it raises for a reader. It will probably be most well-loved by those interested in Gothic fiction, literature by women, and those who are enamored by lengthy, patient, meticulously-detailed narratives. As a fan of all of those things, I recommend the novel and its introduction very highly.
Radcliffe is brilliant at describing her heroine's evolving sensibility and allowing her heroine to document her own changing mental states with poetry. This is the higher pleasure of the book: the examination of female sensibility.
The lower pleasure of the book would be the GOTHIC atmospheres & characters that Radcliffe subjects her romantically-inclined heroine to. The Gothic atmospheres (castles with secret passageways, veiled portraits, remote mountain passes populated by banditti) & characters (almost all of the villains are Italian and excessively vile) are great fun. A lot of people (including Percy Shelley & Jane Austen) make fun of this kind of Gothic writing, but without it think of all the pleasures we would be missing out on.
Certainly some Gothic writing addresses serious real-world anxieties and fears (about divine abandonment; about psychic dissolution; about aristocratic power arbitrarily and maliciously exercised; about women's rights; about sexuality; about irrationality and/or susceptibility to unknown forces both within and without). However, this is not one of the more radical examples of Gothic literature. In fact, this is often considered to be a rather conservative example of Gothic literature. There is no real mention of God, instead nature is unquestionably revered. There is one instance of mental breakdown but its due to excessive guilt not any metaphysical anxiety or fear. There are plenty of corrupt aristocrats but they are more interested in acquiring property than in torturing young maidens. Womens rights and sexuality are topics that are never brought up, at least not explicitly. For every unnatural phenomenon there is a rational explanation. Hence this is a rather tame version of the Gothic.
For readers seeking more sensual & lurid versions of the Gothic, the Marquise de Sade's Justine & Matthew Lewis's The Monk might be better options.
And for those seeking more metaphysically & philosophically evocative versions of the Gothic, there is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
But Radcliffe definitely has her strengths. Even though the things that happen around Emily and some of the other characters often seem overly done, Emily herself is a great Gothic heroine (sensitive, imaginative, and infinitely susceptible to terrors).
But approach the book with indulgence and patience, and it has moments to reward both. Fans of gothic literature will still find Udolpho an interesting view into the genre's development, particularly in the role of the sublime and the function of human imagination (in place of literal supernatural events) to create horror. And, in defiance of its other limitations, Udolpho has some exceptional moments--sympathetic and honest human interactions, perceptions into human thought, evocative atmospheric and natural descriptions. These moments vary from indulgently gothic to thoughtful or romantic, but each is a quiet delight. Udolpho may not have stood the test of time ("a lot of the book's emotional force has dissipated (xxi)," states Castle in the incisive, apt introduction to the Oxford World Classic edition), and the book is not for all readers, but it is an important and interesting historical selection of the gothic genre--and to the reader who has patience for the book's failings and interest in its strengths, there is something of value here: a number of surprisingly atmospheric, perceptive moments sprinkled within a dreamlike, rambling story of shifting tone and setting. I give it a mediocre recommendation--to the right sort of reader.