Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)

Title-page of the first edition, 1794

[Image source:, where it's for sale at £4,750]

Born Ann Ward, in Holborn 1764, d. 1823.

When I was young, the author of The Mysteries of Udolpho was still usually known as "Mrs Radcliffe", but I'm not sure why, because here, loud and proud, is the name on the 1794 title page: Ann Radcliffe.  (Her earlier books had been unattributed. The first time she named herself was in the second edition (1792) of The Romance of the Forest.)

So she used her first name ("Ann" was already a very common spelling, in case you were wondering) and her husband's surname.

Her critical reputation in the 1790s grew, but not without controversy. Coleridge, for example, slated Udolpho on two occasions, though he later spoke up for The Italian. (Wordsworth despised the "Radcliffe school" altogether.) But she was admired by Hazlitt, Barbauld, Scott and Hunt.

After her death, she began to be named, when formally introduced in a title, as "Mrs Ann Radcliffe". This was the form used by her obituary-writers and also by Scott ('Prefatory Memoir to Mrs Ann Radcliffe' for Ballantyne's Novelist's Library series, 1825; reprinted in Miscellaneous Prose Works vol III, pp. 337-90). Subsequent to that first introductory mention, the writers then refer to her as "Mrs Radcliffe", e.g. throughout the text of Scott's brilliant essay. This is perfectly  in accord with the conventions of that time;  living or recently-deceased authors should be named "Mrs Smith" or "Mr Collins". Only once an author had been firmly established in the canon did they become unprefixed authorities: e.g. "Dryden", or "Fielding". But in 1825, shocking as it is to say, there were as yet no recognized canonical works of English literature by woman authors.

By 1905, when her work was seriously out of fashion, Andrew Lang's influential essay in Adventures Among Books was playfully titled "Mrs Radcliffe".  That's in effect an allusion to the erstwhile reputation that defined an era. (Lang's title alludes to Scott and Hazlitt just as, today, an essay titled "Mr Eliot" would allude to F.R. Leavis.)

Lang's title struck a chord. Though his essay is in fact perceptive and enthusiastic about the novels, yet the primary meaning connoted by "Mrs Radcliffe" in early twentieth century usage is "a sensational author, once extraordinarily popular, now deservedly unread".

No doubt it added a bit of extra spice that the forgotten author was a woman. As Germaine Greer pointed out in Slipshod Sybils, woman authors were particularly prone to become the sensation of one season and the jest of the next. That's merely the shape of misogyny.   "past reason hunted... past reason hated..."


Disparagement of Radcliffe may, perhaps, be considered a sport authorized by Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey.

It still shows up in Michel Foucault's "What is an Author?" (1969), where he contrasts the undoubtedly seminal Radcliffe with Marx and Freud. Foucault claims that Radcliffe's work yielded a rich legacy of motifs that could be redeployed by other writers, but Marx and Freud, the "founders of discourse", created possibilities that went far beyond their own achievements: the seeds, even, of the arguments that would eventually refute them.

Foucault's argument doesn't stand up to much scrutiny, but it's interesting that he chose Radcliffe to make it, rather than, say, Flaubert. It was a choice that meant he didn't have to spend too much effort arguing the literary toss; Radcliffe was already accepted as typifying the author who is influential without being great.

[Information about this came from Robert Archambeau's essay "The Future of Genius" in Body: ]


There was some agreement that Radcliffe had founded a "school". She's without doubt the key influence in Scott's conception of what a novelist can be. If he was the wizard of the north, she had been "the enchantress".

The Mysteries of Udolpho is set well back in the past (1584) but its concern with history is impressionistic. As editors have pointed out, the lifestyle of Emily is pretty much that of the late 18th century. Nevertheless, there's enough here of the potential excitements of a historical setting (e.g. the armies criss-crossing Italy) to have inspired Scott.

And it should be said, Radcliffe writes remarkably strong dialogue for her colourful rough types like soldiers and banditti. (Gil Blas in the background maybe?) Emily's conversations with the sentries on the battlements of Udolpho are excellent. Best of all is the menacing conversation of Ugo and Bertrand during Emily's scary journeys away from and back to the castle.

Of course Radcliffe influenced many authors besides Scott,  both major and minor, in the heyday of romanticism.  Listening to Udolpho, Byron was another name that came to my mind pretty swiftly.


Radcliffe's scenery of southern France and Italy is superb, though it has some puzzles. (At the time she wrote Udolpho she had never been outside Britain, apparently.)

In her descriptions of the Pyrenees, cedars are mentioned several times (not native to mainland Europe); so are larches (not native W. of the Alps). Palms are mentioned too, growing high up on mountains - this cannot mean the shrub-size palmito, Europe's only native palm. It's clear that here as in some of her mentions of the local flora Radcliffe is using her imagination. Putting together a description of Mediterranean scenery, she uses tree-names like counters: cork-oak, cedar, chestnut, larch. The latter is also used for panelling and furniture: she mentions "black larch" several times; as far as I can work out from the internet, it looks like she invented this concept (it clearly has nothing to do with the American Larix laricina). I'm not perfectly convinced that she knew what a larch looked like. But other Mediterranean descriptions, e.g. of the ruddy autumnal vines in the valleys, and the sub-montane chestnuts, the fragrant thyme and other mountain herbs, the summer thunderstorms, etc. carry plenty of conviction.

In the same year that Udolpho was published, Ann and her husband finally went on their travels, but not to Gascony or the Pyrenees. She published an account of them, which is well worth a look: A journey made in the summer of 1794, through Holland to the western frontier of Germany: with a return down the Rhine: to which are added Observations during a tour to the lakes of Lancashire, Westmoreland and Cumberland (online text)


Scott, with the acuteness of an interested fellow-practitioner, has much to say about Radcliffe's rational and often disappointing explanations for the numerous mysteries that pepper her story. Sometimes these explanations appear so insufficient to account for the uncanny and terrifying experiences we have shared with the heroine,  as to seem like cheating.

Scott argues that the problem with Radcliffe's approach is that her novels don't bear re-reading: no-one is going to feel the thrill of Udolpho's uncertainties when they recall that the resolutions, some of them anyway, are so mundane. (I'm just finishing re-listening to Udolpho, and of course Scott is right about the mystery-elements losing their grip, but there are significant compensations.) As I argued recently, Fielding's Tom Jones is an enriched (though very different) reading experience second time around. Radcliffe's concerns are different from Fielding's. What matters in Udolpho is the initial impression, the experience of the uncanny and terrifying. The ultimate explanations are comparatively unimportant.

The sense of disappointment is perhaps less for a modern reader, who isn't likely to feel violently agitated by Radcliffe's mysteries in the first place. Speaking for myself, I didn't object much to the paltry explanations, the occasional lack of explanation (through oversight, I suppose), or even the eventual realization that the whole castle of Udolpho section has been nothing but a gigantic digression from Emily's main story-line, and that Signor Montoni once at the castle has only very fitful designs on her.

None of these things really matter. There is still plenty of real story with real distress (think of the death of St Aubert, the attempts by Montoni and Morano to bully Emily into a marriage against her will, and the more-or-less-murder of Emily's aunt).  But more interesting still than these meaty plot-lines is how Radcliffe's atmospheres and terrors are a kind of extended image of the life of any young woman under arbitrary patriarchy.


Radcliffe's writing abounds in often-repeated motifs and phrases.

For example, in the opening chapters  (those opening chapters that in many ways remain for me the most affecting part of the novel, up to the death of St Aubert)  we keep coming up against the idea of leaving (or parting) "perhaps for ever".  In Radcliffe's novel, such presentiments tend to be false.  [In 1857, George Eliot used "perhaps for ever" in the same way at the climactic moment of "The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton" (in Scenes of Clerical Life).]

Another example, during the Venice chapters, is "to indulge one's melancholy feeling". Emily longs to be left alone in order to etc..  A page or two later, Valancourt's letter shows him doing the same at La Vallée. To "indulge" (feelings or reveries) is a very central part of Radcliffe's language.

Soon after, the peremptory Montoni says (more than once) that he is not to be trifled with. You might describe it as his catch-phrase, he says it so often. But it's rather strange to hear (not long afterwards) Emily begging a loquacious Annette not to trifle with her.

The point is that in Radcliffe's world these important motifs transcend individuals. We see that the same motifs recur throughout society. What we have to do with here is, to a surprising extent, a social novel.


Most people, designing a tale of terror such as Udolpho, would probably think of the master of the castle (Montoni) rapaciously pursuing his wife's pretty protégé (Emily).

That's a story-line that Radcliffe resolutely resists. She portrays Montoni as immoveable, heartless, and entirely indifferent or hostile to all women. His cutting short of old Carlo's attempts to talk about his dead wife is characteristic. He shows no sign of being attracted to Emily. He does, it turns out, have a regular mistress of his own, but that seems to be mainly a matter of drunken revels, of unspeakable things that Emily is terrified of witnessing. We have no sense of the way Montoni and his mistress might talk with each other.

For Emily, Montoni is simply the ultimate nightmare of a peremptory patriarch. Risen to a complete power over Emily that is founded on no tie of affection, nor even long acquaintance, Montoni commands her, menaces her, and otherwise demands complete silence. Most of the time she spends in the castle is spent in isolation. Most of the rest with female company.

But if Montoni's is the nakedest of tyrannies, yet it only amplifies  the normal experience of Emily and her peers. For this isolation, this world of reading, imagination and indulgence of melancholy, is essentially Emily's normal life as a dependent female writ large.  Before coming to Udolpho, she had no power outside her own room.  Travel, for example. Where, and when, and in what vehicle, and in whose company she travels: this is all determined for her by others. Even her own beloved father. Where and when she speaks to a man of her own class depends on the man approaching or summoning her. If he doesn't do either, she simply has to wait. (When Montoni orders her to attend to be married to Count Morano, Emily reflects that she can't be married if she refuses to say the words of the marriage ceremony. Such a refusal seems to her possible: Emily has an ingrained habit of silence. But the idea of simply declining to attend when summoned by Montoni is, apparently, inconceivable to her. Montoni's commands are absolute.)

At Udolpho, the disquieting second entrance into Emily's bed-chamber emphasizes that she now has no power even there. Curiously, this perception is eventually liberating. Chiefly because it brings her into closer intimacy with the irrepressible maid-servant Annette. Annette is, definitively, a talker; when Annette starts to occupy centre-stage, the reader experiences a palpable sense of relief.


I must talk! (Annette)

The most important of Radcliffe's repeated motifs is non-communication. We've seen one aspect of that in Montoni's tyrannous demands for silence.

The fire was now lighted; Carlo swept the hearth, placed chairs, wiped the dust from a large marble table that stood near it, and then left the room.

Montoni and his family drew round the fire. Madame Montoni made several attempts at conversation, but his sullen answers repulsed her, while Emily sat endeavouring to acquire courage enough to speak to him. At length, in a tremulous voice, she said, 'May I ask, sir, the motive of this sudden journey?'—After a long pause, she recovered sufficient courage to repeat the question.

'It does not suit me to answer enquiries,' said Montoni, 'nor does it become you to make them; time may unfold them all: but I desire I may be no further harassed, and I recommend it to you to retire to your chamber, and to endeavour to adopt a more rational conduct, than that of yielding to fancies, and to a sensibility, which, to call it by the gentlest name, is only a weakness.'

Emily rose to withdraw. 'Good night, madam,' said she to her aunt, with an assumed composure, that could not disguise her emotion.

In fact, Montoni can even command silence at a distance. Many are the whispered warnings (chiefly to the loquacious Annette) that such-and-such a piece of talk would make Montoni angry.

But non-communication is often self-imposed, too. How often do we hear such phrases as "It is unnecessary for me to add", "I need not say", "Spare me the necessity of" etc etc. You wonder if there's an element of willed non-communication in the convention that strong emotion (chiefly Emily's and Valancourt's) leads to inarticulate states of faintness and tears, resistant to coherent speech.

This reluctance or inability to say things is of course very useful to the author because it leads to mix-ups such as  Emily's written submission to M. Quesnel, or the misunderstanding with Valancourt near the end. During the latter scene, Emily shuts up Valancourt with the words:

This explanation is now unnecessary

And soon afterwards shuts herself up thus:

Spare me the necessity of mentioning those circumstances of your conduct, which oblige me to break our connection forever.

In such moments the deeply interested reader becomes simply infuriated with Emily, and maybe dismisses her words as merely Radcliffe manufacturing mysteries. (She's pretty shameless about it. Think e.g.  of the conversation between Emily and Sister Francis, where Radcliffe manages to hint that Sister Agnes might be the Marchioness de Villeroy and also that she might be a close relative of Emily: both hints being entirely unjustified.)

But I think there's much more to it. The obsessive throttling of free dialogue rings decidedly true as an essential habit of Emily's way of life, where scrupulous observation of conventions is a substitute for the power of self-determination. And where, in any case, it's an understood thing that the deepest feelings resist statement. No book lays more emphasis on feelings of delicacy, the pain of statement and the shunning of "intelligence" (i.e. conveyed information).

One specific aspect of those conventions is not talking too much to the lower orders. When the virtually imprisoned Emily has a distinctly interesting talk with the sentries on the ramparts, there's still a part of her that feels discomfort: "she thought the conversation somewhat too much". And when a day or so later she has another conversation with the friendly Antonio, she's careful to bring it to a definite close:

'I commend your prudence,' said Emily. 'Good night, and accept this from me,' she added, throwing him a small piece of coin, and then closing the casement to put an end to the discourse.
It takes a long while for Emily to trust Annette and then Ludovico openly, though they are her salvation.

The point is that Radcliffe shows us that the imposed limitations of a woman's life under patriarchy tend to become, after a while, self-imposed limitations.

Emily is, after all, extremely loyal to her first patriarch, her lovable father M. St. Aubert.  Yet in a way the book is an extended critique of his benevolent rule. That he means the best towards Emily, we know. He's earnest in trying to check her excessive sensibility to impressions. It's unsettling that Montoni frequently levels the same charge against her; doesn't this male accord raise some questions, in hindsight?  (Emily, unsurprisingly, has internalized this language of reproof and at one point orders Annette, in her own turn, not to indulge in fancies.)

(It's a surprising thing, too,  that the "bad" patriarch Montoni, sometimes acts like a good one: for example, in sending Emily away from Udolpho when a siege approaches.)

What about the rest of St Aubert's legacy? In life he has always controlled the flow of information to his daughter, and on important matters he's been extremely secretive; she has imbibed this to such an extent that she considers it quite normal and feels guilty if she ever finds anything out. Dying, he extorts from her a promise to burn papers unread, thus leaving her in an ignorance that does nothing for her peace of mind. He also places her under the protection of her aunt Mme. Cheron, which is a catastrophic error.  These are not Emily's judgments; she would be shocked by them. But the novel makes you think about it.

No sooner escaped from Udolpho, than Emily finds herself under the wing of her third patriarch, the admirable and well-meaning Count de Villefort, who does his honest best to wreck Emily's relationship with Valancourt, and to "remonstrate gently" in favour of the unfortunate M. Dupont, who's thus kept hanging on to no purpose. (The Count, even when apprised of his error, fails to learn its lesson and keeps Emily in ignorance, thus precipitating the painful though happily short-lived misunderstanding that begins the final chapter.) Again, you feel that neither Emily nor probably her creator really object to the idea of nestling under the wing of a benevolent patriarch; in fact, this is the life in which they feel most comfortable. Shakespeare's idealization of the father-daughter relationship continues to resonate particularly strongly in Radcliffe's writing. (It's only the shallow, selfish female characters - like Mme. de Cheron and the Countess de Villefort - who put up a determined resistance to patriarchy.)

Late in the book, Emily does a bit of quasi-patriarching of her own, hearing Annette (whose beloved Ludovico has just reappeared as from the dead) with "extreme impatience", and peremptorily ordering a visitor to be turned away on no other basis than her own (mistaken) assumptions.


As a pioneer of the mystery story Radcliffe tried out various things that subsequent authors mainly eschewed. There's a particular kind of indirection that comes out in e.g. the planet that appears each evening at the time of the music. Radcliffe sees no need to name the planet, and its behaviour doesn't sound right in the long term, though of course the recurrence of a planet at the same time of night  (-ish) is something we often experience over a period of a few days or weeks.

Similar to this is the motif of hearing a distant voice or groan, yet the text not telling us whether the voice appears to be male or female.

And the distant music where, for all the text informs us, no specific musical instrument is distinguishable. (In fact, we never learn the name of the instrument.)

This intentional cloudiness operates in unexpected ways: it transforms described experience into a subjective material. It puts us in touch with a mystery deeper than any that Radcliffe explains.

At a great distance, it's like the magical contradictions of the Kalevala:

Flee away, thou moose of Juntas,
Flee away, thou Hisi -reindeer,
Like the winds, thou rapid courser,
To the snow-homes of the ranger,
To the ridges of the mountains,
To the snow-capped hills of Lapland,


It wouldn't be ridiculous to claim Radcliffe as the inventor of the poetic novel. She initiated the use of poetic quotations as chapter-epigraphs, which Scott refined further. Unique to Radcliffe is the liberal use of original inset poems. At its best, as for instance in the marvellous final chapter of Udolpho (vol 4 ch 18), the patterns made by this intermixture compose a structure that we notice and contemplate, in which the narrative is only one strand. Scott at his best can do that, too.


Annette is a variant on the well-established literary type of a loquacious and materialistic servant, though I think Radcliffe's novel allows some questioning of that convention.

Annette's attempt to convince Emily of the ghost on the battlements by showing her the very cannon beside which it appeared, is a stock joke. Dickens thought it good enough to use on the first page of Barnaby Rudge.


The Librivox rendering of  The Mysteries of Udolpho is a fine thing. Many readers, mostly excellent; notable work by Michelle Crandall, Martin Geeson, Anna Simon, "redabrus", Andrew Drinkwater, Lucy Burgoyne and Sheila Morton among others.


Stephen Gallagher's 2002 proposal for an Udolpho movie is fascinating and full of insight. Interesting to see how his proposed screenplay enhances the sexual threat of the castle, and also how he develops the character of Du Pont.

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