Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of UdolphoThe Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the Mysteries of Udolpho we have the grandmother of the Gothic novel, springhead of every soap opera, the original melodrama, something so outlandish and overwrought that it has been -- and deserves to be -- much mocked and parodied. At the same time, it commands some respect because of what it is -- an early novel, written when the form was still in its infancy, written by a woman at a time when women had no access to much education or ability to make a living for themselves, written at a time when the very idea of "what was a woman" had barely pushed out the roots of change.

That in itself sounds overwrought, but one must make large claims for this novel, this great ancestor of the novel, still read when so many of its contemporaries are lost in the dusty stacks of archival libraries. I will admit readily that, to finish the last 200+ pages of the novel, I stayed up very late.

But now that we have spoken to its dignity and given the respect it deserves for its place in history, let's get to the myriad of stupid, irritating things Radcliffe does that infuriate the modern reader and even drove contemporary readers (like Jane Austen, most famously) to mock it.

[;spoiler]Our heroine, Emily St. Aubert, is the only child of a gentleman of retiring and pure nature. We know this because he has the word "Saint" abbreviated in his name, and because he rhapsodizes about nature and death and makes pious speeches about Heaven and death. We are told he does good for the poor even though he is, for a person of his social status, poor himself, and so everyone loves him despite his somewhat holier-than-thou attitude. He has raised his daughter to be just like him. Emily is well educated (for a woman) with music and poetry and drawing, her fine, delicate, high spiritual nature underlined by her tendency to stare at trees and mountains.

Emily has many features which are designed to mark her as a woman of delicacy and grace. She has beauty and a very sympathetic heart -- we are told. What she lacks are any braincells devoted to such foriegn things as logic, reason, common sense, or even the lessons of simple observation. While she may spend long hours in raptures over leaping rivulets and verdant demonstrations of nature's power, the simpler facts elude her.

Of course, the poor girl spends so much time fainting, she must have suffered dozens of head injuries or have some sort of medical affliction unknown in Radcliffe's time but treated in ours with a colorful little pill, possibly available in the cheaper generic. She faints a lot. She faints to excess, shall we say, and over everything. Some are understandable, while others are just plain annoying. I am tempted to buy my own copy of the book for the pleasure of taking a pink highlighter and marking every time Emily faints, nearly faints, or cannot support herself. Really, she should have loosened her corset.

When Emily is not fainting, she is weeping. When not weeping, there is sobbing, crying, gasping, moaning, and sighing (oh, let us not forget sighing)

Now, she has a few things to weep and sigh about. First, her mother dies rather suddenly. Then, within probably a year, her father becomes ill and, while traveling for his health, sickens and dies. By strange coincidence (which I really want to term "coinkedink, because that's how often these "just so happens" happen) he does so near an abandoned chateau where we are presented with our First Mystery -- and there will be many more, all made Very Mysterious. Orphaned and under age, she is sent to live with her capricious and self centered aunt. This aunt toys with her by first denying, then allowing, then denying again Emily to be married to her beloved Valencourt.

Oh, let's take a moment to talk about Valencourt. Here's another useless article. He is, indeed, Emily's soul mate and mirror, although instead of fainting and sinking helpless into conveniently placed chairs, he exclaims, paces around, and skulks in the darkness. Now that I think about it, except for the bloodsucking and sparkling, he is a forebear of Edward Cullens, what with his stalking behavior, declarations, and scary possessiveness. Yes, he is the template for the Romantic Hero. He also is fairly annoying because he doesn't do much except give his money away, get rapturous in the trees, and the aforementioned skulking.

Back to Emily. Torn from her love when her aunt marries an Italian named Montoni (Dun dun dun!) and taken to Italy, she waxes rhapsodic on Venetian gondolas rowed out to sea under the moonlight and resists the attempts of her aunt and Montoni to force her into marriage with a Count Moreno. Oh, did I not mention that at least 1/3 of men who spend time in Emily's presence fall in love -- or at least in lust -- with her, often violently? Talk about pheromones. Those who resist her charms either take up the villain role of wanting to control and torment her, or wanting to father her. And that sums up all the male characters. Anyway, to escape Moreno (among other things) Montoni takes them all into the mountains to his castle Udolpho, where he turns warlord and bandit according to the rules of war in the Italian states at the time. The central part of the novel happens in this pile, and Emily experiences constant horror, terror, fear, etc. etc., because she won't spend any time thinking.

Now, she is in a tough situation, but she does everything she can to milk it for all it's worth in drama -- much leaning on window casements, much tender poking at emotional wounds, more sighing. She also collects ghost stories and catches glimpses of things that thrill her with terror because she won't take any time to properly observe them or think it over. But these are important, because they are More Mysteries. Anyway, her aunt dies, leaving her inheritor of valuable properties Montoni wants her to sign over. Her serving woman, Annette -- another garrulous, irritating idiot who serves only as a bridge between Emily and one of the two sensible characters in the novel, Ludovico -- helps to keep Emily upset as much as possible. Ludovico eventually engineers an escape for Emily and a Frenchman kept prisoner in Udolpho. They sail back to France and by Some Chance, their ship wrecks near that very Chateau where we had our First Mystery. Now, with the introduction of Count de Villefort (the other sensible person in this novel, for which I am SO grateful), the mysteries pile up a bit and then unravel. Emily is almost reunited with Valencourt, but he's ruined his reputation and lost his fortune in Paris, so now he's not worthy of her. They spend quite a long time tormenting each other with declarations of Separating Forever while not actually leaving the room, and Never Seeing Each Other More, while staring and sighing.

We then have some more ghost silliness which turns out to be pirates, Ludovico vanishes mysteriously only to turn up later when the Count is attacked by said pirates (in the mountains! but whatever) and finally the mysteries begin to unravel. Emily comes of age to inherit, Montoni is captured, the real owner of Udolpho is a crazy nun in a nearby convent who was REALLY the Italian mistress of the previous owner of the chalet who contrived to kill her lover's wife who JUST HAPPENED to be Emily's aunt and the sister of her father, who wanted to CONCEAL the mystery of his beloved sister's death but Emily is such a twin to this particular paragon, and Valencourt is not really all that bad, but just noble and stupid. [/spoiler]

Radcliffe does a few things that nearly sent her book crashing against a wall. First, Emily sees Mysterious Things that upset, terrify, haunt, and worry her -- but we do not get to see these things for ourselves, even in part. There are some words in a document she wasn't supposed to see (but fainting messed her up there) which Radcliffe never does clear up, although by the very end of the novel we get full and somewhat tedious explanations.

Second, Radcliffe never has a character tell us a thing until they have told us why they can't tell us and made us promise we won't tell. Once they agree to speak, we get a few more minutes of details about how horrible it is and why they can't speak of it. And when they finally DO speak of it, it's rare they actually SAY anything. Or, worse still, they will simply refuse to convey information "because of honour". There is a great deal of what I consider pure deception by omission, all done in the name of paper thin honour.

She only tops that little technique, however, by use of the "Oh, YOU know what I mean" technique. Characters will assume they already know the substance of a conversation before it happens, which of course means they are wrong about what they think they know. Usually both characters think they know and think the other person knows, and so you can imagine how much useful information is passed along. It's like the Passive-Aggressive Playbook.

Then there are the travelogues, the interminable descriptions of every terrifying or overwhelming crag, tree, precipice, cascade, view, flower, twig, dust mote. Luckily, once you learn Radcliffe's set up for these, they can be skimmed or skipped entirely. She might as well have put [insert atmosphere X here].

My last complaint is about Emily's dog, Marchon. The poor creature keeps vanishing, completely forgotten, until he's needed to bark an ill-timed alert or lick his suffering mistress's hand. For all the begging she did to bring him along, he was left behind at Udolpho. Oh Well. Furry plot device.

Yet, with all these irritations (and more, I'm sure, I don't have space to list) the novel still managed to capture my attention. I shed a few tears with Emily over the death of her father. I felt anxious to know how she would escape. I was mystified over Ludovico's disappearance. I stayed up to read the ending.

And yet I could not help laughing, sometimes with irritation, over the contrivance and coincidence, over the extremes to which she went to arouse her reader's emotion and bypass any reason or rationale. Here we have the heart of the romance novel, the seedlings of the horror story, the first dark shade of the mystery. Even fantasy and science fiction can trace their lineage back here, for Mary Shelly certainly read the book and felt its influence in Frankenstein. The Mysteries of Udolpho stands as the Tree of Life for modern genre literature.

Also, you could make a great drinking game out of it.

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