Summerbook #16: The Mysteries of Udolpho

I've done it!  I finished!  That was fun, despite Emily's inability to make it across a room without leaning on every available piece of furniture for support.  That girl needs a stronger spine or something.

So, Emily believes Valancourt to have gotten into some very bad habits, including heavy gambling and being a gigolo.  Valancourt admits his lack of worthiness, and they're both very sad.  A lot of this volume involves Emily meeting Valancourt -- by his request or accidentally -- whereupon they both get very upset and leave each other again, and Emily writes melancholy poetry.  Emily is staying with her friend Blanche, and an elderly servantwoman won't stop commenting on how much Emily resembles the late Marchioness, who died tragically young.  Emily, remembering her father's mysterious papers, begs for the story.  (Meanwhile, back at Udolpho, Montoni is captured!)

The Marchioness was a lovely and good woman who was badly treated by her husband, and went into a mysterious decline before dying.  Her rooms have been locked up ever since and Dorothee takes Emily to have a look at them.*  But!  Are the rooms haunted or something?  A specter in the bed scares them both, and they flee.  The whole staff decides the rooms must be haunted, so Ludovico says he'll spend the night.  He takes food and a book, and reads an interesting story...and in the morning, he's gone.

Also, Valancourt has disappeared and was probably shot when he was mooning around the estate; somebody thought he was a robber.  Wounded?  Dead?  Emily is worried sick.  And it turns out he's been doing good deeds in secret.

Well, everybody but Emily goes on a trip to look at wild mountain scenery, but they get lost and try to take shelter in an old ruined fortress, where now shepherds and hunters sometimes stay.  These hunters, however, turn out to be banditti!  (Banditti must have been a deliciously scary word to the English.)  They're planning to murder and rob everybody, but in the battle, the good guys win with the unexpected help of...Ludovico??  Turns out he was kidnapped by the banditti, who have been using the secret passages and caves under the chateau as storage for years, and didn't want anybody else living there, so have been 'haunting' the place.  They all head off to Emily's place.

Emily, still at home, is happy to see Ludovico alive, and also finds Valancourt, who is not dead, but she still can't love him. 

The nunnery sends for Emily to come back, because Sister Agnes is ill and keeps asking for her (Agnes has some mysterious mental disturbance).  We discover the story of Agnes, who once owned Udolpho -- she is the mysterious lady who disappeared 20 years ago!  Everybody thought Montoni murdered her, but no.  She was the mistress of the former Marquis who treated his nice wife so badly, and it was she who inflamed his jealousy and encouraged him to poison his own wife.  She then realized her crimes and spent the rest of her life in torment.  The Marchioness was Emily's aunt, which is why her father mourned her so.  That's the big mystery.

And now it turns out that Valancourt wasn't as bad as Emily thought!  He did get into gambling and debtors' prison, but then he repented, and did good works of charity instead, and he was never a gigolo.  So, phew, they can get back together.  (Here we see a prime example of a plot device that drives my husband absolutely mad: when people don't explain things and spend all their time misunderstanding each other -- which is also what Emily's father did.)  So, hooray, there are some weddings, and the abbess ties up all the loose ends by explaining a lot of things, like just what was behind the horrid black veil.

The end!  Well, I must say I didn't expect Mrs. Radcliffe to finish up by just explaining everything through the abbess.  Still, this is mostly a fun read, and is of course the premier example of Gothic literature.  You can't pretend to know anything much about the history and development of Gothic lit if you don't know about the horrid black veil.  Thanks so much to Cleo and company for this fun read-along!  I feel ready for fall now!


*I had no idea how much Jane Austen was doing a send-up of this scene in Northanger Abbey.  It's a direct parody.



  1. Woohooooo way to go you! As I may have already said, I have thought a lot about reading The Mysteries of Udolpho and have just never been able to pull the trigger. SOME DAY.

  2. Aw Jenny, you would have so much fun! DO IT.

  3. Maybe the plot device of no one explaining anything made more sense back when everyone was too polite or dainty to explain anything? I'm reading "Captain Blood" and a plot point is when a sailor doesn't explain something to the protagonist's love interest because the "story was not for ladies' ears."

    Or maybe it was bunk back then too.

  4. That's exactly why Emily won't let Valancourt explain, or ask him about the rumor she heard -- it's too embarrassing to even mention the rumor that he was a gigolo. But that means that she's prepared to sacrifice her happiness and future because she can't bring herself to mention the idea of it so she can do some fact-checking. Emily spends much of the novel trying to develop her self-control and common sense muscles, as her dad taught her, but he also taught her that she (or any woman) was incapable of dealing with difficult or ugly situations. Nope, the correct thing to do is to never speak of it to anyone, so as to cause the maximum amount of distress and fear.

  5. I'm not sure how seriously to take that sort of thing. I mean, is it true that Victorian ladies would cover piano legs because they were too suggestive? Or is all this shrinking violet stuff in Gothic novels just myth? Or something in between? Was the fainting lady the ideal, but no one actually acted like that?

  6. Oh, what a great question!

    The Victorian piano legs story originated with a joke. A British writer was asking a Yankee about what the Brits considered to be Americans' prudishness, and the Yank pulled his leg with the story. It became an urban legend, and both Brits and Americans eventually used it to prove how ridiculously prudish the other society was.

    Now Mrs. Radcliffe was a Georgian, writing just before 1800, and they weren't nearly as delicately-minded as the Victorians later on (Victorians reacted against their predecessors' public vulgarity and immorality). But the ideal upper-class young woman -- as in many societies throughout history -- was a delicate flower, to be sheltered from the rougher blasts of life. I doubt that it was possible for any actual young woman to be as innocent and angelic as novelistic heroines were at this time. Jane Austen (also a Georgian, whose writing sometimes shocked her Victorian great-nieces) materially advanced the novel by writing heroines that bore some resemblance to real girls.

    As for fainting, remember that they often wore their corsets too tight and so deep breaths might not work too well. An upper-class lady type would ideally be a delicate flower, but anybody else had to work for a living.

  7. Isn't a relief to be finished! I confess, reading your post, I had forgotten quite how eventful the last part is. More amusing in your retelling, actually. :) I was a bit surprised at how well Radcliffe tied up all the loose ends--I'd thought it possible she might forget one.

    I hadn't realized that the scene in Northanger Abbey was a direct parody before, but it's find to know now! Kind of tempts me to reread the Austen...

  8. Oh, no! I am a too late to this thread. But I too want to read Udolpho for the RIP challenge, so I'm trying very hard to not catch spoilers here. :)

  9. Just finished Udolpho myself, it was so much fun. I've taken the liberty to link your readalong in my own review of Udolpho -- hope that's OK. The post is here for reference:


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