Who says women don’t write about war? Ann Radcliffe’s novel might not take place on the battlefront, but the Napoleonic Wars still wreaked havoc for the characters in Mysteries of Udolpho, and though women weren’t allowed to fight in combat, they had their role to play, which affected them as much as their male counterparts since the consequences of bloodshed seep far and deep.
In 1794, the mother of Gothic literature produced a work of art that would influence every writer who dared to thrill readers with horror and intrigue. The Mysteries of Udolfo is one of those rare pieces that may be difficult for contemporary readers to wrap their mind around though this story has colored the works of authors such as the Brontes, Austen, Poe, and du Maurier.
Standing at the crossroads where medieval Gothic Catholicism meets the rise of secular Enlightenment, Radcliffe’s story is an unusual amalgamation, rife with superstition and mysticism commingling with a strict insistence on Reason and Rationality, as Jacqueline Howard states in the introduction. Radcliff drops us into the middle of conflict between “the civilized and barbaric, the modern and archaic, the progressive and rationality.” To read this work is to step into a past that too often has been over-simplified and romanticized. At the time, a rising middle class took refuge in the countryside while war spread like wildfire across western Europe. The newly enlightened inspired by contact with Asia, we’ll get to that, soon became reacquainted with the bucolic mysticism of their past.
Emily St. Aubert may seem far removed from the ravages of war. Living in the French countryside with her quaint mother and father, her family are simple people who lead a virtuous life, and their humble ways lend to their modest living, which, unfortunately, puts Emily in a precarious situation when she unexpectedly loses both parents.
The Mysteries is very much a heroine’s journey. Turned from her beloved home in Gascony, her father entrusts his only child to the care of a vain, shallow, and greedy aunt, Madame Cheron. However, Mr. St. Aubert, unlike his wife, did not depart so suddenly without leaving his daughter a set of principles to guide her through life.
This heroine’s story begins with grief and mourning as part of the rites of passage as St. Aubert imparts the importance of self command, knowing that Emily will soon face a brutal and unfeeling world where she will have to fend for herself. Once her father leaves her, her journey is nothing but fending. St. Aubert must have known Emily would face challenges to test her soul and break her faith.
Our narrator assures us, St. Aubert’s teachings were taken to heart: “Never had Emily felt the importance of the lessons, which had taught her to restrain her sensibility, so much as in these moments, and never had she practised with a triumph so complete. But when the last was over, she sunk at once under the pressure of her sorrow, and then perceived that it was hope, as well as fortitude which had hitherto supported her” (22). When her father imparted his wisdom, he wasn’t necessarily concerned with Emily’s education but was intent on preparing her soul. He knew that she would be tempted or pressured to break her morals. He treated Emily as a rational individual who would have to make choices that might enforce her virtue or elicit deceit. He wanted to ensure that when she exercised agency she employed reason and relied on her honor and integrity to give her strength.
Emily’s gentle spirit and use of logic only emphasizes the grotesque and monstrous qualities of Madame Cheron, Montoni, and Count Morani. She is the ruler to which we will measure all other souls. He managed to instill in his daughter a deep piety that would ensure her virtue and earn her the love of Valancourt, the supposed knight in shining armor who captured both Emily and her father’s heart. St. Aubert approved of the suitor before his untimely death and died with the wish that their match would be secured.
Soon as St. Aubert is laid down in his final resting place, Madame Cheron wrests Emily away from Valancourt, dismissing him as unworthy since he has no inheritance to claim. All the while, Emily’s greedy aunt tries to fetch the favor of Montoni, the archetypal sinister villain, who’s dark schemes and wicked power know no bounds.
Once Emily’s aunt hits her target, both her and her new husband prefer the dubious Morani as Emily’s beau since he’s reported to hold an enviable fortune. Of course, Emily stays true to Valancourt, and this is where she’s put through unimaginable trials. She is dragged to a castle tucked away in the Pyrenees where no one can help her. A damsel in distress with no likely chance of her knight in shining armor to rescue her; Valancourt is away, serving his country, and these lovers travails couldn’t be more different.
In the company of his regiment, Valancourt amuses himself with all the pleasures that Paris has to offer while Emily is locked away in the Gothic castle Udolpho. Only a third of the novel takes place here though its the title of the novel. At Udolpho, Montoni holes up with his new bride and his niece-in-law, evading the law and conducting nefarious schemes.
Emily can barely defend herself from the terrors that rattle the door to her personal chamber. Two entrances lead to her chamber. One is the front door, sanctioned by society, symbolizing all that is proper, and what’s socially acceptable. The other portal is a secret door that leads down a dark staircase, which Emily dare not venture. This entrance is also ruled by fear but fear of the unknown. Who knows who has access here and what secret designs an intruder might have when they conspire to use this entrance?
Montoni and Madame Cheron are bent on breaking all that is good and pure. Emily’s innocence may seem an extreme exaggeration on femininity, but there lies an urgent reason to impress such an extraordinary ideal of womanhood. Just think of it, since Classical times, images of the Roman god Jupiter defiling young woman adorned paintings, and stories of young maidens being captured and ravished by rapacious men were as common as plagues that ebbed and flowed through cities and villages.
To espouse the virtues of a heroine like Emily was to not only hold women to her standards, but to also urge men to safe-keep the gentler sex by restraining their own urges and drives in reciprocation. For, if women, are the vessel of chaste purity than men are the protectors of this sacred craft. The virtuous woman is a perfect model that both men and women must heft like Atlas hoisting the world on their shoulder.
Despite his tyranny, Montoni recognizes her virtue and seems to respect Emily for it, for she is more a lady than a woman. She’s the Christian ideal, like Don Quixote’s Dulcinea. Emily is the Holy Grail to all we hold sacred and dear. Through her influence Madame Cheron softens, her heart becomes a little purer as she’s subjected to the same deceit and manipulation from Montoni. In Emily’s lifetime, she gets to witness different examples of marriage, the happy union of her parents who sacrificed to give to their only child and the selfish shallowness Montoni and her aunt share as they scrap for dominance.
Emily hasn’t a deceptive bone in her body, so she can barely protect herself against Montoni by lying to him to literally save her own skin. Madame Cheron, on the other hand, is entirely different. She desires power and this makes her less of a lady. Unlike her husband who’s gender allows him to be avaricious because men are excepted to seek their fortunes by almost any means necessary. We see this in Valancourt, who deigns to make his riches through shady dealings.
Eventually, Emily wins her freedom from Montoni’s evil grasp but not without cost, and, soon as she’s free from the trappings of Udolpho, she treks, once more through the rugged landscape of Europe. Reminiscent of Don Quixote, this novel follows the picturesque and picaresque, part horror story, part war novel, and all travelogue. Though she recovers from one struggle after another, Emily is fortunate enough to visit breathtaking parts of Western and Southern Europe, and, like Cervantes’ magnum opus, Emily’s life is filled with adventures, mad-dashed as they are. In the same vein as the Man of La Mancha, she also remains constant to her true love, Valancourt.
Her heart’s compass unfailingly points to him throughout her journeys. In their time a part, she learns very little about how Valancourt fares. Fear runs rampant because how else are women allowed to cope with war? Montoni warns his wife, “If you would release yourself from the slavery of these fears…at least forbear to torment others by the mention of them. Conquer such whims and endeavor to strengthen your mind. No existence is more contemptible than that, which is embittered by fear.” (231). No one can escape fear, but as Emily demonstrates she can channel it.
In a romance, we must always always assume that the story is never really about the boy. Our heroine may pine away but she’s not really yearning for a man. So we have to ask ourselves what does Valancourt stand in for, what does he represent? The idea of him, or the ideal of him, to put it more correctly, creates a desire so strong that Emily is magnetically pulled to keep on the straight and narrow. Annette, her lady in waiting, is a typical trope, lower in station and therefore foolish, so Emily can practice her wisdom and prove her own sagacity and experience with the one companion she has.
Conversely, we get a depiction of how men are supposed to act with Valancourt in the military. With no estate of his own to claim, he is expected to make his own fortune and prove his manhood, and we learn that his path is more crooked than Emily’s. Valancourt, for all his passion and devotion to Emily, merits rebuke: “To these men the reserved and thoughtful manners of Valancourt were a kind of tacit censure on their own, for which they rallied him when present, and plotted against him when absent; they gloried in the rhought of reducing him to their own level and considering it be spirited frolic, determined to accomplish it (276). Their attachment reinforces their gentrification. Love conforms, makes our youth genteel when they start dreaming about marriage and fantasizing of family. To wed is to officially join society.
And, here we come full circle again, back to the crossroads of the civilized and the barbaric. Radcliffe thrusts us into the perennial push and pull of the ordered and the supernatural. While musing at this strange intersection, I happened to attend a concert at the San Francisco Symphony showcasing Beethoven’s Symphonies 1 & 2, conducted by Janowski. This Romantic composer’s music provides an apt soundtrack for Emily’s journey through the wild, awe-inspiring, and rugged landscape she travels, and the great German maestro also realizes the lonely psychological trek Emily endures as she interacts with people who are essentially dangerous strangers. In his compositions, Beethoven captured both the terror and the beauty of Nature, which surrounds us and courses in the deep recesses of our own human qualities and our experiences. His music embodies the sublime experience. When we listen to his work, we can trace the magnificence of a mountain’s overwhelming height and begin to discern the inexplicable power a river pulses with the sheer force of water and gravity working together.
The day after the concert, I happened to stop by the Berkeley Art Museum, to check out their Chinese Landscape paintings, which, in China, is considered the highest form of painting. The conversation among these artists and across these cultures seems undeniable. To see these images of these natural landscapes that Beethoven evokes in his music, and the awareness of place, which Radcliffe raises in her novel is to track a remarkable conflux of ideas across sea and continent. The East meets West connection screams out at you, and it seems obvious that the Romantics were clearly inspired by Asian art. Radcliffe and Beethoven were responding to Eastern philosophy and Eastern aesthetics that were brought over to Europe and popularized at the time. These watercolors instantly recalled Beethoven’s music, and, as I studied each scroll, I could hear the peaks and valleys of his symphonies clearly in my mind, tracing the very same raw power that Radcliffe’s heroine muses over in the The Mysteries
Despite the fact that two hundred years have passed, give or take a couple of decades, we haven’t changed so much from Radcliffe’s day. To take to the countryside was to step back in time and experience a sensibility steeped in mystery, which can seem embarrassingly backwards to us. In a recent article in The Guardian John Lucas analyzes “The deep foundations of the country-house novel” :
The renewed interest in this genre might seem anachronistic, but there are good reasons for its perennial fascination. The tradition of the country house story is a lengthy one. Arguably, it begins with poetry: Ben Jonson and Andrew Marvell both penned lavish tributes to the estates of wealthy friends and patrons in the 17th century. The country house novel presents two strands, identified by John O’Connell in an article for the New Statesman: the gothic and the social. Broadly, these might be represented by Ann Radcliffe – as filtered through Jane Austen – and PG Wodehouse….The mechanics of the social country house novel are similar: a remote location, misunderstandings and dark secrets are its cogs and wheels. The intent here is different, though. Country houses are nothing if not a symbol of upper class hegemony
American readers may find it difficult for us to relate to the sway of an estate or castle set in the countryside. After all, we fought a savage bloody civil war to depose our landed gentry. All of Radcliffe’s tropes are larger the life to the point of being over-blown according to 21st century snark.
To put it simply our values have changed. Laying down one’s life for an ideal is seen as overly Romantic and foolishly simple-minded. To be spooked by strange sounds outside our room may seem childish if not positively occult. So why read a quaint story like The Mysteries today? Radcliffe definitely plays with societal expectations of women’s minds and bodies. For Emily, growing up is painful. Against her will, she’s forced to conform to the adult world. She and Valancourt are wrenched from their innocent idyllic daydreams and made to submit to the demands of the majority and authority. Does any of this sound familiar to our own experiences?
At the end of the day, or, really, at the end of a night terrorized by horrific possibilities, we wake in the full light of the sun to find its not the supernatural we must worry about but the veiled menace of class warfare, the evil intent of those who’d want to bring us down, and the unintentional follies of a love we thought was true. This heroine’s journey takes us to a strange time when knights in shining armor and damsels in distress were charged with the existential task to battle out their souls, armed with Reason and protected by Asian aesthetics. Radcliffe’s work is a rare mongrelization of influences that proves to be just as rugged and awe-inspiring as the landscape she covers in this novel.