In January I read The Mysteries of Udolpho for the Classics Club Chunkster Spin – it was a great way to start the year!
Emily St Aubert is a young women leading an idyllic life with her parents at their estate in France. Her time is spent walking through the lush countryside playing her lute singing and taking delight in the natural world around her. When her mother dies, she and her father travel through France taking comfort in each others company and the beauty of the landscape. They meet a young soldier, Valencourt who is smitten with Emily and has the approval of Monsieur St Aubert since he too, sings, writes poetry, plays the lute and clearly has never been to Paris! This is a black and white world where the city means shallow and wicked and the countryside spiritual happiness. Indeed,the countryside is almost its own character since everything trembles – lips, leaves, voices, moonlight, hearts – all the natural world and the good people in it.
But suddenly orphaned, Emily’s life takes a turn. Taken into the care of her aunt (who has been to and loved Paris!) and her villainous step-uncle, Signor Montoni, she is taken to Italy – to the castle of Udolpho. And there the adventures begin. A creepy old castle of ‘mouldering stones and heavy buttresses’, there are hidden staircases, subterranean dungeons and labyrinthine passages, strange noises and cries, horrible shapes beneath sheets and a beautiful, melancholy voice that sings in the middle of the night. Imprisoned and with the prospect of being sold in marriage, there were moments of very fast page turning and gasping on my part! My Penguin edition had 638 pages and still at page 574 new horrors were being unmasked!
But apart from the story there were two things I found very interesting.
The first was that I thought Emily St. Aubert was a very good role model. Radcliffe’s use of the omniscient narrator, allows us inside Emily’s mind and she is a young women who has been brought up to acquire and maintain fortitude, to value her good sense and her education. We are told that St Aubert had educated Emily
‘with a general view of the sciences and an exact acquaintance with every part of elegant literature. He taught her Latin and English, chiefly that she might understand the sublimity of their best poets’
‘A well-informed mind’ he goes on to say ‘. . . is the best security against the contagion of folly and vice. The vacant mind is ever on the watch for relief and ready to plunge into error, to escape from the languor of idleness. Store it with ideas, teach it the pleasure of thinking. . . ‘
So Emily cries and faints it’s true, but she is scared, imprisoned and threatened by a man who she knows has no sense of justice or morals, she knows that he wants the deeds to her land but she relies on her judgement, creeps around corridors listening in at keyholes and builds up her courage to confront Montoni even in front of his cronies and henchmen. She needs her land and she’s not giving it up. The one constant is her love for Valencourt, but when she hears reports of his behaviour in Paris, she knows she is worth more than to accept him. She’s plucky, knows her mind and values her education.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman had been published two years earlier and I like to think that Ann Radcliffe was thinking along the same lines for her heroine. Not only that but at a time when poetry was seen as the literary sphere of men, The Mysteries of Udolpho, A Romance is a novel Interspersed With Some Pieces Of Poetry – she’s staking a claim of authority for female authorship and for romance! As well as poetry the text is littered with quotations from Milton and Shakespeare (and others), as if she’s bragging that to fully understand her novel the reader needs the education of Emily!
The second very interesting point to me is the timing. Written in 1794, in England the story is set in 1584 in France and Italy. For its contemporary readers I can see that it would be much more atmospheric to have a ‘gothic’ story set some 200 years before, and in the lands of the ‘old religion’, Catholicism. But whereas the villains are very much of an old ‘tyrannical’ feudal order the main protagonists have the tastes of a much more enlightened 18th century. The St.Aubert’s desire for the sublime and picturesque is in perfect keeping with a new informality that had arrived in English society.
In Life in the English Country House Mark Girouard describes how at the end of the 18th century nature began to be seen as a positive force and preferably in as natural and wild a state as possible. It became fashionable to have French windows opening directly on to the garden so that nature could be allowed into the house, so when the château of the St. Aubert family is described:
‘The windows of this room were particularly pleasant; they descended to the floor, and, opening upon the little lawn that surrounded the house, the eye was led between groves of almond, palm-trees , flowering-ash, and myrtle, to the distant landscape. . . ‘
and with a library that ‘occupied the west side of the château, and was enriched by a collection of the best books in the ancient and modern languages.’ this would not only feel very modern to her readers but perhaps also aspirational, she’s describing a very desirable residence!
This is West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire, which between 1735 and 1781 underwent a complete transformation, including softening the landscape by its owner Sir Francis Dashwood.