The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe is pretty good! (my reading of an 18th century Gothic classic)

Helen De Cruz
9 min readApr 29, 2022
A gloomy landscape by Caspar David Friedrich, painted around 1824 showing two figures from the back, a man and woman, as they watch the moon in the evening

Dreamy, feverish, introspective, psychoanalytic, Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) is the perfect read for when you have Covid, or so I have found, and are sick in bed unable to do much else.

It’s long (the edition I read, Oxford World’s Classics, is at 692 pages, average-size typesetting). This length is due to the many poems and songs that intersperse the book (of varying quality — think Tolkien, but hardcore), the lengthy sublime nature descriptions, and the long introspective passages to explore the inner turmoil of the characters.

Except if you were a goth teen, you probably know gothic literature mostly through its cultural influences. Think of the Addams Family, Halloween decorations, a lot of the horror genre, and much, much more.

Ann Ward Radcliffe (1764–1823) represents the height of the gothic novel’s success in the 18th century. She was admired, imitated, and also satirized. Authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Marquis de Sade acknowledged her influence on their work. She wrote under her own name (rather than pseudonymously), and made enough money with her writing to allow her to travel and explore, taking her husband and dog with her. Udolpho has descriptions of the Italian and French countryside, with mountains, weather, forest, that are so lush and realistic it’s incredible to realize Radcliffe had not visited these France or Italy herself at that point. For this, Radcliffe used contemporary travel guides which reminds us that good research can often compensate well for personal experience when writing fiction.

In spite of her immense popularity when alive, Radcliffe is sadly forgotten today by the general public (part of the systematic erasure of women in the history of literature). Yet, I think she’s very much worth reading today, and not just for “gothic completion”, as Revenant Reads suggests.

You might have heard of Radcliffe through Jane Austen. She satirized gothic novels, Udolpho specifically, in Northanger Abbey (published posthumously 1818). We smile at Catherine Morland’s wild imaginings, where she fancies herself living in a gothic novel and where Henry Tilney, in that condescending manner of his, tries to set her straight, “You had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to — Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from?”

But wait! To read Northanger Abbey as a satire of Udolpho, as we commonly do, misses out on the fact that Ann Radcliffe too used satire and humor throughout her work. Also, in Radcliffe’s work not all is what it seems. A signature Racliffean move is that what appears to be supernatural (e.g., the sighting of a ghost and the hearing mysterious music, seeing a decomposing corpse in a hidden room behind a curtain) always has a natural explanation. This explanation sometimes comes hundreds of pages later, but is always given to the reader.

This has to be seen in a broader cultural context. For a very brief period (the pre-romantic and romantic era) women were seen as more rational than men! And Radcliffe was (according to Jerold Hogle) regarded as a rational, female response to the more violent passionate male gothic horror of Matthew Lewis.

Also, it’s intriguing to see many “Jane Austenisms” in Udolpho: dry sarcastic observations on social situations. To pick one of many examples

Thus the party continued to converse, and, as far as civility would permit, to torture each other by mutual boasts, while they reclined on sofas in the portico, and were environed with delights both from nature and art, by which any honest minds would have been tempered to benevolence, and happy imaginations would have been soothed into enchantment.

Excerpt From: Ann Ward Radcliffe. “The Mysteries of Udolpho.”

The novel itself is set 16th-century France, but the reader would be forgiven for forgetting this, as it is filled with anachronisms: people go to the opera (which did not exist at that time), drink coffee, and the atmosphere is more like fantasy late medieval than historical Renaissance France. The main character, Emily St Aubert, does play the lute (a popular instrument at the time).

The first quarter or so of the novel consists of Emily and her father taking a long trip (more like extreme hiking tour) in the French countryside, where we get a lot of the nature descriptions. There, Emily meets and falls in love with Valancourt. After her father’s death, Emily comes under the guardianship of her aunt, Mme Cheron, and the aunt’s new husband Montoni. Montoni takes the two women to Udolpho, his castle in Italy. He there pressures his wife, and later Emily, to sign over all their estates and property to him. Turns out Montoni is penniless and not wealthy as Emily’s aunt had supposed. The aunt, sickened by the extreme psychological pressure Montoni exerts on her, dies. Meanwhile, Emily is all alone (except for her faithful maid Annette) in the creepy castle, where ghostly appearances, spooky music, and dark secrets potentially about her past and other chills await. I will not spoiler more about the book here.

The psychology of the characters is interesting. Montoni is a delightful villain, that you also feel a bit sorry for. The aunt (Mme Montoni) is antagonistic to Emily but also psychologically disintegrates so dramatically one cannot but look on with compassion. Emily does swoon and cry a lot but she also rational, steadfast, and does make active plans to escape the castle of Udolpho. Psychologically, we get an involved omniscient author who takes a lot of time describing the inner lives of their protagonists. Emily’s digging into her family history, and dreading what she will find, giving the story also a psychoanalytical bent.

Though the castle of Udolpho is important for the story, we only reach it about 1/3 into the book. The first part of the book is a kind of travelogue full of sublime nature descriptions, just to give one randomly picked example:

“Over these crags rose others of stupendous height, and fantastic shape; some shooting into cones; others impending far over their base, in huge masses of granite, along whose broken ridges was often lodged a weight of snow, that, trembling even to the vibration of a sound, threatened to bear destruction in its course to the vale. Around, on every side, far as the eye could penetrate, were seen only forms of grandeur — the long perspective of mountain-tops, tinged with ethereal blue, or white with snow; valleys of ice, and forests of gloomy fir. ”

Excerpt from Mysteries of Udolpho

The novel is best known for the parts that play in the gloomy castle of Montoni, where Emily is under extreme psychological distress and wrestles both with scary family secrets (her father, prior to his death, instructed her to burn some papers without reading them, but of course she caught an accidental glimpse). Here’s where we see the distinction between horror and terror, which Radcliffe discussed in her paper “on the supernatural in poetry” (1824):

“Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”

Ann Radcliffe — on the supernatural in poetry

Differently put, terror is what you do not show (e.g., the trembling glass in Jurassic Park), which yields a sense of dread and anticipation. Horror is the power of what you do show, where the worst fears of the reader come true. Here, you overwhelm the imagination, freezing it (e.g., the alien leaping out in Alien). You can’t do suggestion all the way. When that moment of horror arrives, it’s important that the reader, though she anticipates what’s coming, is still mentally unprepared, so that she feels shocked and overwhelmed. Ideal horror fiction plays with these two and they are in a dynamic relationship. You suggest, create fearful anticipation in the reader and then, bam! you deliver.

Now, we reach the most famous part of the novel where terror sublimates into horror. On a lonely night exploration of the castle, Emily first spies torture instruments in the castle “she perceived no furniture, except, indeed, an iron chair, fastened in the centre of the chamber, immediately over which, depending on a chain from the ceiling, hung an iron ring. Having gazed upon these for some time, with wonder and horror, she next observed iron bars below, made for the purpose of confining the feet.’’ Seeing a heavy curtain (a trope now familiar in horror),

Emily wished, yet dreaded, to lift it, and to discover what it veiled: twice she was withheld by a recollection of the terrible spectacle her daring hand had formerly unveiled in an apartment of the castle, till, suddenly conjecturing, that it concealed the body of her murdered aunt, she seized it, in a fit of desperation, and drew it aside. Beyond, appeared a corpse, stretched on a kind of low couch, which was crimsoned with human blood, as was the floor beneath. The features, deformed by death, were ghastly and horrible and more than one livid wound appeared in the face. Emily, bending over the body, gazed, for a moment, with an eager, frenzied eye; but, in the next, the lamp dropped from her hand, and she fell senseless at the foot of the couch.’

Excerpt from Racliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho

Kristen Girten (2016) argues that Radcliffe is not only innovative in her use of horror and terror, but also by her novel conception of the sublime. Radcliffe drew on, but significantly altered, the account of the sublime by Kant and Burke by removing the distance between the observer and the source of the sublime.

For both Kant and Burke, it was important that the observer was physically safe from harm to be able to achieve the sublime. You could not be awed by, say, a volcano or a tornado, if you felt you might come to harm. So, for instance, Burke writes “when danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight and are simply terrible.” Radcliffe challenged this notion: you can actually be in a situation of danger, directly, or imaginatively through the protagonist to experience sublimity. The distance and safety are now lifted, and the reader vicariously experiences the sublime alongside the hapless protagonist, in a way that the more established horror genre would successfully continue.

It is a sublime where danger is not at a safe viewing distance, and yet it affords a sense of freedom. If you can, along with Emily, achieve the sublime (which Robert Clewis explains as aesthetic awe), this exemplifies a triumph of the human mind over a wide range of circumstances. We here recall that for Kant and other 18th century authors, the sublime is closely associated with reason and self-reflexivity.

Kant famously writes (in end of his 2nd Critique, 1788) “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more frequently and persistently one’s meditation deals with them: the starry sky above me and the moral law within me”

Kant argues that both of these elicit a sense of the sublime because of their impact on the how he perceives himself. The starry sky is outside of the self, “annihilates, as it were, my importance as an animal creature that, after having for a short time been provided (one knows not how) with vital force, must give back again to the planet (a mere dot in the universe) the matter from which it came.’’ However, the sense of the moral law starts within himself “elevates infinitely my worth as that of an intelligence by my personality, in which the moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality ,… that is not restricted to conditions and boundaries of this life but proceeds to infinity.’’

The way that we can apprehend our environment in spite of the overwhelm of circumstances by achieving the sublime thus places us as rational, free beings, no matter the circumstances. Emily is often read as a very passive character. Many things happen to her: she is shipped off to Udolpho, she is not allowed (at first) to marry Valancourt, she is pressured to sign over her estates to Montoni. Yet, she resists and she does deliberate effort to continue to seek the sublime on her “rambling” nature walks in the forest, gazing out over mountains or the night sky. Thus, Emily represents, in spite of the pre-romantic air of this book a kind of rationalism within a world swept about with chance, and a freedom that is independently won regardless of circumstance.