The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe


Word Press
This, published in 1784, is probably best-known as the book in which Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe were both engrossed in Northanger Abbey, and from which Catherine got some rather gruesome ideas about General Tilney having bumped off his wife. I decided to read it not because of that but because it features some scenes set at the Carnevale di Venezia; but it turned out that there wasn’t really that much about Venice: most of the book’s set in either South West France or at the fictional castle of Udolpho, in a remote part of rural Northern Italy.

Seeing as this is a historical fiction blog, I wish to start by complaining vociferously, not about anything “Gothic horror” related but about the fact that the book keeps going on about the Italian Wars … which famously began in 1494, the date traditionally given as the end of the Middle Ages in Continental Western and Central Europe, and ended with the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559. The book’s set in 1584. OK, we all make mistakes, but that’s really a pretty big one! I can’t think of any rational explanation for that at all!

Hmm. But so to the “Gothic horror” stuff, which Jane Austen was so sarcastic about. Our English teacher used to get very upset if anyone said that Jane Austen was sarcastic, and insisted that we say “ironic” instead, but “sarcastic” is definitely the more appropriate word. I find it rather annoying, actually: I wish she’d just stuck to writing her own story instead of making fun of someone else’s! Quite honestly, most of the characters in this are just as over-imaginative as Catherine is. The various ghosts all turn out to be real human beings who just like wandering around at night, and Our Heroine Emily turns out not to be the secret love-child of the mysterious marchioness whom she resembles but to be her perfectly respectably-born niece. And the dead body behind the veil turns out to be a waxwork … although admittedly the idea of anyone having a waxwork of a dead body hanging around does rather strain the credulity, LOL.

Having said which, yes, there are plenty of fights to the death, kidnappings, dramatic escapes, romantic misunderstandings, mysterious papers, strange noises, locked doors, etc. And Our Heroine is annoyingly prone to weeping and swooning. And she attracts unwanted suitors at an alarming rate: mind you, most of Jane Austen’s heroines attract unwanted suitors as well. And it does turn out that the aunt she never knew she had was murdered by an elderly nun who was wrongly thought to have been murdered by her other aunt’s baddie second husband … if you follow that. But the storylines weren’t really that much dafter than some of the ones we used to get in American soap operas in the 1980s, and are still getting in the wonderful Spanish Gran Hotel and, apart from the inclusion of a lot of silly poems, the book was really quite entertaining. I expected to be amused: I was actually quite gripped!

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