Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Mysteries of Udolpho

Radcliffe, Ann. 1794. The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry.

On the pleasant banks of the Garonne, in the province of Gascony, stood, in the year 1584, the chateau of Monsieur St Aubert.

Emily St Aubert is our heroine in Ann Radcliffe's gothic classic, The Mysteries of Udolpho. When we first meet Emily, she is quite happy and living with her mother and father. Everything is as it should be. But this blissful existence won't last long. The beginning of the end comes with the death of her mother. Grief-stricken but brave, this father-daughter team decide (after some time) a vacation would be ideal for his health. He hasn't been the same since his wife's death. And the truth of the matter is, he is slipping away as well. Of course, Emily, dear that she is, isn't aware of how desperate her situation is. How close she is to becoming an orphan. But she senses that all isn't right with the world, with her father.
On this journey together the two meet a young man, a Monsieur Valancourt. (He joins them and they journey all three together here and there and everywhere. But he can't stay with them forever. He can't just invite himself along wherever they go. So they do eventually part ways. Their destination is Provence and the Mediterranean.) The sights are exquisite. And a good time is had by all. But as they arrive at their final destination, little do they know that St Aubert is about to arrive at his. While staying with some kind strangers in a small cottage, her father takes a turn for the worse. And after confessing to a local priest (or clergy of some sort), he dies. This locale is situated by an abandoned castle whom legend has is haunted. The home of a former Marchioness, Villefort I believe is the name. Besides this strange wonder, there is a convent of nuns nearby as well. And Emily does have some interaction with the abbess and a few of these nuns. They do provide some relief for her grief.

Charged with an important mission, Emily--weeping all the way--makes her way back home. Her father's dying wish was for her to burn some of his papers hidden away in his office. And to do so without reading them. She's a bit stunned that her father would have that big a secret from her. But she's a good girl, and does as told. She also finds a mysterious picture (or portrait) of a woman that she witnessed her father weeping over the night before they home for their mountain journey. She keeps this with her. And it's a good thing she does--it makes a great plot device later on.

But while Emily would love to remain in her own little home going about in her own little way. Sad, yes. But in familiar surroundings and with the servants she's known and loved her whole life through providing for her. This is an in-between period for everyone. Emily has been left under the guardianship of an aunt she's never met. A woman named Madame Cheron. Emily is aware of this shift. But she's naive enough--perhaps hopeful enough--to think that life couldn't change that drastically. (While I'm at it, before I forget, her only other relations are the Quesnels. Monsieur Quesnel is her uncle (by marriage). His wife, her natural aunt, isn't brought up much but occasionally the Quesnel name does pop up.) Before her aunt can arrive, M. Valancourt reappears in Emily's life. He's there to comfort her. There to woo her. There to pay his respects and earn her devotion. He wants to marry her naturally. But Madame Cheron's arrival changes all that. Not his desire or devotion. Nor Emily's. But she is definitely trying to end this relationship of young lovers before it even gets much of a chance to start.

Madame Cheron is heartless, cruel, unthinking. And poor Emily is under her control. Cheron jumps to dozens of erroneous conclusions about Emily, about her relationship with Valancourt, about her character and reputation. Cheron takes an instant dislike to Emily. But Valancourt isn't the only one doing the wooing. No. Someone is courting Madame Cheron. A Count named Montoni. Once those two are wed, Emily's nightmare is born. The Montonis--Count and Madame--are dragging the weeping Emily with them to Venice. She's to be forever-and-ever separated from her true love, Valancourt.

In Venice, Montoni's true nature begins to shine through his facade. But it's only a fraction of the horror to come--as Emily later realizes. Here Emily is being pursued--with Montoni's blessing--by a Count Morano. This guy just won't take no for an answer. I think he proposes each and every day that he sees her. The count says yes. The mademoiselle says no. Emphatically. But Montoni seems to have her in his power. And he tells her that she must marry who he says she must marry.

Fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be, the Montoni's (Count, Madame, Emily) after some time flee Venice without a word. Their destination is one of his estates, an abandoned castle (again rumored to be haunted) called Udolpho. The former mistress of the house is a woman called Laurentini. It is after their arrival at this dismal and foreboding castle that Emily's worst fears and imaginings are realized. Montoni is revealed to be the cruel, vindictive, lying scumbag that he is. And Madame Montoni realizes much much too late just how stupid she was to have married a man she knew little about and given away her power. Both parties were liars--to be fair. Both were putting on a show for the other. Both wanted to bamboozle the other. She thought he was rich. He thought she was rich. And now when it's revealed their both...not...then the problems are magnified. The count is in debt, yes, and a gambler at heart. And he makes a career change--turns banditti. He becomes a captain of rogue soldiers-turned-bandits/highway men.

The Madame does have something he wants, however, some property that remained in her name after the marriage. She is convinced to hold onto this no matter what. Her first hope is that this may be her refuge should she ever escape. Her only possession left in the world. Her only thing of value. But eventually, she realizes that this isn't her hope any longer. It is the hope and refuge and prayer of her niece, Emily. She will never escape--she'll die imprisoned in Udolpho--but maybe just maybe Emily can break free of Montoni. You see, as soon as the Count realized that his wife wouldn't budge on this property, he imprisoned her, tortured her, starved her, essentially left her for dead. He thought--erroneously--that he would be the one to inherit if she died. He wasn't. It was clearly left to Emily.

Now the cruel count turns his focus to Emily. And Emily's only two friends are two servants, her maid Annette, and her maid's lover, Ludovico.

And that's where I'll leave you. With Emily still hopelessly stuck under Montoni's control. An Emily who is still dreaming of salvation by her M. Valancourt. An Emily whose only solace is sitting by the window night after night waiting for the mysteriously-haunting happenings to occur beneath her room. (Music is heard sometimes. And also sometimes mysterious strangers that seem out-of-this-world.) I leave you with over the half the book remaining.

The settings for this novel are rich--France and Italy--and the tone is melancholy and haunting. The characters are intricately drawn. And the plot while not perhaps conforming to the tightest structure is beautifully done. More than I first expected. It's complex, but surprisingly easy to follow given its age. Yes, they talk differently. And the sensibilities are different. A modern-day woman wouldn't hardly be trapped by Emily's situations. But it works beautifully.

For the record, I skipped 99% of the poetry. And guess what...the book still made sense. So old fashioned? Sure. But good, delicious fun? Definitely!

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Ana S. said...

I will get to this one someday. Thanks for the lovely review, Becky.

Lindsey said...

This is definitely going on my list of books I need to read! I'm reading Jane Eyre right now, and this would be a good choice for another gothic classic. :-) Thanks for the review!

Anonymous said...

I got this after reading Austen's Northanger Abbey, since it was mentioned so often, but haven't gotten to it yet. I did the same thing with Byatt's Possession--skipped much of the poetry the first time I read it, and still enjoyed the story.

Mari said...

I have always wanted to read this after reading Northanger Abbey.

Anonymous said...

One of the worst novels ever. The explanation of the supernatural incidents, as the wax figure, is really ridiculous.


I've always wanted to read this Goth novel since having read Northanger abbey and "The Jane Austen Book club" Surely a novel praised by such an authoress must be a prodigious one?

Nikola said...

Thanks for the review. I have just started reading this book and I hope I will like it as much as you did.

Anonymous said...

Thank you!
Wonderfully written.

Red said...

I'm reading this novel for my British lit class in university.....I'd have to say though it is really lengthy it is an improvement over the other novels that I have read for this course....I think its the fact that most of the heroines whine alot, seem helpless, and have numerous (too many to count) fainting episodes. I do enjoy the description of the scenery which seems paramount to this novel.