Monday, February 01, 2010

The Mysteries of Udolpho: The Good Parts Version

I recently finished Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. It was published in 1794, which accounts for about 45% of what drove me nuts about it, and it is a Gothic romance, which accounts for the rest. Before I go on to mock it mercilessly, I should point out that there are many ways in which it is a solid piece of writing, and it helped make writing an acceptable occupation for women, and Anne Radcliffe got a notably large sum of money for it, and the parts toward the end that I did not skim (I believe I read only half of pp. 100-450) were engaging enough.

Please allow me to summarize the book in a way that accurately reflects how it translated in my head. I plan to spoil all the mysteries, so skip this post if you ever want to read it.

Emily St. Aubert lives in a lovely modest little cottage in France with her lovely parents. They are aristocratic, of course, but not showy. Their cottage probably only has twenty-five rooms, tops. Emily is very beautiful and a paragon of femininity, which means she weeps and faints twice per page.

Incidentally, as soon as any English writer before a certain date takes you to Europe, you know you're going to run into some real creepsters, because Europe is where all the Catholics are and everyone knows Catholics are suspect. Anyone with an Italian name is doubly suspect. The fact that Emily should probably also be Catholic is quietly ignored. Also of note: in spite of supposedly taking place in sixteenth-century France, every single French character does a perfect impression of an eighteenth-century Briton. The Italians, of course, are evil regardless of time period.

Early on, Emily's mother dies. Emily weeps and faints. She and her father decide that the best thing to assuage their grief is an arduous journey across half the continent (okay, to Italy, but it is decribed in such detail, it really seems like they travel long enough to get to Russia) by coach, stopping at all the beautiful spots so that they can weep and faint over the late Madame St. Aubert.

On this trip they meet this fellow called Valancourt who is literally wandering around the forest for fun. I imagine him in green tights. I think that's accurate. Emily and Valancourt hardly say two words to each other but they are soon deeply in love. Then Valancourt leaves. Then Valancourt returns, but Emily's father mistakes him for a robber and shoots him. Valancourt has bad luck, as we shall see. Valancourt gets better, but Emily's father gets ill and dies, after the longest and most verbose deathbed speech ever. Emily weeps and faints.

They happen to be near a castle called Chateau-le-Blanc (unfortunately not a French burger joint). More on that later.

Emily gets handed over to her Evil Aunt, who for some reason insists on believing Emily is a tramp. I wish Emily were a tramp, she'd be much more interesting. Valancourt makes another appearance, but Evil Aunt forbids the lovers to be together. Emily weeps and faints. Valancourt weeps and faints. Valancourt weeps and faints so much throughout the course of this book that at one point Emily asks him to please tone down his "transports." I gather this is the 1794 equivalent of feeling smothered. After a while, Evil Aunt sends Valancourt away for good. She then marries Evil Uncle, and they all move to the castle Udolpho in Italy where he can pursue his nefarious schemes. Emily weeps and faints.

In spite of the promising title, not that much happens at Udolpho. It becomes clear that Evil Uncle runs with a nasty crowd of murderers, and some doors open and close mysteriously, and some rumors are spread, but that's about all. I guess also there is also a dead soldier and a genuinely bizarre wax statue of a decaying body, but whatever. If there's no cannibalism, it could be worse. Evil Aunt dies and passes on her fortune to Emily, who is afraid Evil Uncle will murder her for it. Emily weeps and faints.

But eventually Emily escapes with her trusty maidservant, Annette (who is clearly meant to be stupid but is in fact the most relatable character in the book) and Annette's fella, Ludovico. Also with them is a captive from Udolpho, this guy named Du Pont. He serves no purpose whatsoever and to a modern reader seems a whole lot like a stalker. Anyway, they end up back at Chateau-le-Blanc, the castle near where Emily's father died, and to which he seemed to have some strange connection. A nice family lives there now and of course they all love Emily because she is so pretty and agreeable and weeps and faints and all the appropriate times, as a lady should.

This castle, too, seems to be haunted. Literally the only thing that remotely interested me in the entire book was this: at one point Ludovico spends the night in some remote section of the house to prove it isn't haunted... and disappears! It's really very troubling -- until it is later revealed that he was, I am not joking, kidnapped by pirates. Don't worry, it works out for the best, and he and Annette live happily ever after.

The problem now is that Valancourt has returned, but during his time away from Emily, he has grown terribly corrupt. He has . . . gambled. He also may have . . . flirted. Emily, who has a stricter code of ethics than GOD, weeps and faints. Valancourt weeps and faints, and for some reason fails to explain the very good logic behind his behavior. It is all very strange. Even the help are perplexed as to what the big deal is.

In the meantime, Emily visits this raving insane nun at a nearby convent, and discovers that long ago, this nun was the mistress of Udolpho, and she conspired with her former lover, who owned Chateau-le-Blanc, to kill his wife. His wife was Emily's aunt, which is why her father was so affected by seeing the castle where she had been poisoned. The nun goes through an agonizing death, and Emily weeps and faints.

Let me stop a moment and say this: all along is it vaguely hinted that Emily's mother might really have been the woman in that castle. I realize you can't have a heroine who is the bastard daughter of a pair of adulterers, but I really think it would have made a better story. And then maybe Emily wouldn't have been so high and mighty about Valancourt's little gambling problem. I hate Emily.

After much drama, Emily and Valancourt are eventually reunited when the gardener mistakes Valancourt for a robber and shoots him. (You have to wonder: what is it about Valancourt that looks so suspicious?) It's just a flesh wound, and finally Valancourt explains that he got into debt trying to pay other people's debts. He was also providing a living for the lady who took care of Emily's little cottage in France after she was taken away by Evil Aunt. He isn't really an inveterate gambler with a degenerate soul. Also, getting shot twice for Emily's sake has to count for something. I believe there's a double wedding with some other characters, everybody weeps and faints, and then they shoot Valancourt again just for laughs. The end.

The plot is absurd, but it's really no more absurd than Jane Eyre, which I love. The problem is that the characters are insipid and there's no memorable dialogue and we are subjected to far too many descriptions of trees and mountains. Also, Emily is always writing exceedingly bad verse, which is unforgivable.

To sum up: this is not, as someone said at the time, "the most interesting book in the English language." It is a book, though, and except for the word "controul," it is written in English. The only other thing I'll say for it is that it justifies the existence of Northanger Abbey. Previously, I only understood why Jane Austen kept that one in a drawer; now I understand why she wrote it to begin with. Anne Radcliffe begs to be lampooned.


Ivan said...

I got to the part about "kidnapped by pirates" and I went "kidnapped by pirates is good!" and then i went "no, wait, MURDERED by pirates is good. kidnapped by pirates is just weak".

Simon said...

Hahaha. And just think, Ludovico was the MANLIEST of all the male characters. He never wept or fainted at any point, and he later fought off all the pirates single-handedly. He did have a weakness for medieval romance poetry, though. I don't really know what to make of him.

Pandora said...

Although I only read half of words 100-450 of your post, I gathered that it's a good thing you read this book and kindly summarized it for me. I have concluded that Anne Radcliffe was actually a woman ahead of her time. She would have been highly successful as a soap opera writer today, what with all the fainting and crying. If only there had been mascara then. Wait, was there mascara then? She was just one evil twin, one baby switched at birth and a long lost adoped closeted gay soldier who comes back from the dead away from ratings gold.