“You speak like a heroine,’ said Montoni, contemptuously; ‘we shall see whether you can suffer like one.” – Ann Radcliffe The Mysteries of Udolpho
Finishing Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho crosses it off not only my 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list but also knocks another book off of the list of books I started in grad school that I haven’t finished yet (only three more to go). I actually bought the book years ago after reading Northanger Abbey (for the second time, I think). Thanks to my Gothic lit class, I actually got around to starting the book. While one of my earlier professors reading the elaborate descriptions aloud to our class for comedic effect will always be one of my favorite memories of college, I was surprised at how much I actually had to say about it in my Gothic lit seminar (I wrote extensively about the violence of sleep; characters are violently woken from sleep or their shocked so badly they faint).
Though I ran out of time during grad school, I have been plugging away, chapter by chapter, since and finally completed the novel. As far as the story goes, it is very repetitive, not only in the descriptions but in certain scenes themselves (Emily’s reservations and emotional turmoil over any number of events in the book come to mind; she laments the circumstance, endeavors to overcome them, and succumbs to grief but maintains her virtuous resolve). There is plenty of build up throughout the novel: the eerie nocturnal music, the black veil and what lies behind it, the mysterious death of the Marchioness. But they’re all drawn out just a little too long and while the explanations are obviously not going to actually be supernatural, they’re not average or logical enough to really pack a punch. They make a certain kind of sense but are still ridiculous (but in a humdrum way rather than a memorable way). All of this is underscored by the fact that the reader knows exactly how the central characters will wind up by the novel’s conclusion; one must simply endure it. In a time when there were fewer forms of personal entertainment (no movies, television, or radio) and where fewer people were able to travel as much or as far as in modern times, something like The Mysteries of Udolpho would have been exciting and engaging.