Book Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann RadcliffeThus had she been tossed upon the stormy sea of misfortune for the last year, with but short intervals of peace, if peace it could be called, which was only the delay of evil. (619)

So goes the year that changes Emily St. Aubert’s life. Raised in peaceful, pastoral comfort by parents who adore her, Emily’s life alters dramatically when first her mother, then her father pass away. She is given to the care of her selfish aunt who is only kind when the kindness will benefit herself. Through the actions of her aunt, Emily is removed from everything she knows – her home, her lover, her country – at the mercy of her aunt’s new husband, the Italian Montoni.

Practically every dramatic plot point possible in the history of dramatic plot points is tossed into this 693 page behemoth of a novel, written by Ann Radcliffe in 1794. Considered one of the most popular novels of Gothic literature, The Mysteries of Udolpho sports a massive cast of characters all connected by various forms of villainy. We find no less than 3 crumbling castles, 2 presumed ghosts, 1 veiled image to horrible to describe, more murderers than I can count, weeping on every page, kidnappings, sword fights, secret passages, subterranean burial chambers (which seem to only be used at midnight), shipwrecks, madness, love found and lost again, and even pirates. It’s a bit of a mess, but through the mess, I have to say I was entertained. It’s quite sensational.

Udolpho is like one of those daytime TV shows that has been on for 20 years. Every time you think that the plot is finally, FINALLY about to wrap up, a new cast of characters brings a new twist onto the scene. Out of the 693 pages, everything is described in excessive detail except the conclusion: it is really quite rushed after the abundance of earlier chapters. I suppose there is little drama to be found in “happily ever after”.

Gothic literature isn’t my thing. The mysteries, the drama, the weeping, the excessive use of commas, the word “sublime” yet again… I’m not one for horror films at all, either. Give me a Jane Austen any day! Actually, that’s why I read this – although I enjoyed Northanger Abbey, I knew there was a lot I was missing due to my unfamiliarity with the Gothic genre. Now that I’ve read Udolpho, Northanger may make its way back into my pile. I’m sure I’ll understand it better this time around.

This is my first book for Back to the Classics 2017, in the Gothic category. LINK UP here

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