Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe (1794) Review Part 2

Second part of my review of Ann Radcliffe's most well-known novel.  Yes, I do recommend it, by the way.

This book can be confusing at times, but I'm having a great time reading it.  To help you through it, you could listen to the audiobook while you read.  That certainly helps carry you over the flowery descriptions of scenery.

However, to me, the main character - Emily - seems a bit naive on this whole affair.  I wish she would have thought to escape from the castle Udolpho.  But that's not something women do in these novels, they are rescued.  If an escape is planned, they are not the planners but the weak, simpering participants.  They put all their faith and hope in some man.  In this case it was the servant Ludovico, the servant Annette's romantic attachment, along with another prisoner who happens to be in love with Emily and lived near her (wonderful melodramatic coincidence).  Of the four of them, it won't be Annette or Emily that plan or execute the escape.  Another weak point is that this new character, Du Pont, is introduced late in the novel.  It's the sort of thing you see in serialized novels that are written as the story progresses in a monthly publication.

I think protected is the perfect word for Emily.  She was protected in her idyllic life with her mom and pop, and nature, and with Valancourt as a suitor.  All those are taken away, and she herself is taken off to a dark and hoary old castle where danger lurks literally around every corner, and there is no one to protect her.  18th century heroines simply don't protect themselves.  Alone, they are vulnerable.  When Emily is vulnerable, her sensibility and prudence start to break down and vague fears and superstitious terrors begin to fill her mind.  So of course, she faints.  She does a lot of fainting in this book.

Women in them olden' days fainted all the time.  When something upset them, they fainted.  In all my life I have never known a woman to faint, and I'm sure I've shocked quite a few of them.  Is it some evolutionary thing?  We no longer have tails, we walk erect, and women no longer faint away?

Another point of contention is that it sort of takes away from the gothic fun when Radcliffe continuously tells us that terrors and suspicions are due to a timid and harassed mind.  This whole sensibility and prudence thing puts a damper on the creepy gloominess that we so want to enjoy in a gothic romance.

I think maybe the reason Radcliffe was so against believing in superstition (though her novel was so full of it!) was that this was a time before modern science, when people were still steeped in old superstitious beliefs and traditions.  They were a society much closer to medieval beliefs than we are.  Today, we live in a purely scientific world with no place for fairies and goblins.  But maybe that's just the reason we like fairies and goblins so much.  Now that we know they're not real, we look at them as fun.  That's the answer, I believe.  These dark, gloomy, mysterious stories full of fear and imaginings are fun to us, and nothing more.  While to people of the 18th century, they were very real and very frightening, and at the same time an entire mindset was developing that was learning to scoff at such beliefs for the first time.  They were in the process of going from open mindedness to close mindedness, perhaps a necessary transition for science to take over.  But now we're in the reverse process.  Since we already know fairies don't exist, we don't feel threatened by someone writing about them.  It's all harmless fun.

Here are some further thoughts, all jumbled one after the other:

I wonder that both her parents have such nasty, unsympathetic siblings.  Her father's sister is a gold digger, and her mother's brother, Quesnal, has no concern for her at all.

Sure, there are plenty of stereotypes in this book.  The 18th and 19th century views of life are on full display.  So here are some things I learned from this book.  Peasants always sing and dance after a hard day’s work.  Women faint – a LOT – when they are shocked.  Maids are always simple minded.  Landed gentry are not simple minded.  Living in the city is evil.  Living in the country is good.

When Valancourt is shot in the woods, my first instinct is to go out and look for him, investigate things, search around for a trail of blood or something.  Unfortunately, the main character we follow is an 18th century female, so all news of what happened can only come to her from the report of a male character on whom she has to rely to do the investigation for her.  I pictured her in a big fluffy dress scouting around in the woods and realized it would never happen.

This book was written for a certain class of people.  That simply stands to reason.  Most peasants or working class could not read in 1794.  The audience was of the same class as our main character.  However, I was impressed that there were various servants who actually played a role in this book (unlike Jane Austen novels).  Unfortunately, many of them were plot devices - Annette was shown for contrast against Emily's more reasonable beliefs, Theresa is shown as a receptacle for Valencourt's goodness, Dorothee is the provider of historical information.  Beyond that, we really aren't meant to care too much about them.

We just knew that Emily would turn out rich and not have to work or suffer.  Inheriting estates is one of the main conclusions for characters in these novels.  We even saw it in Dickens, decades later.  There must have been a lot of estates sitting around waiting for the proper main character.  But that's how their society was based.  Nobility and landed gentry were at the top.  The middle class was just then starting, with tradesmen, solicitors, that sort of thing.  The vast, unwashed masses of working class were below that.  Our heroes and heroines were usually part of the landed gentry - they didn't work but were often on the cusp of society, sometimes in danger of losing their money or estate, not quite wealthy enough to be spoiled or to be on the radar of the snobby gold diggers such as Quesnel in this story.  I often wonder just what would happen to these poor folks if they did lose their estate.  Would they just fade to dust and blow away?  Or would they get a job and work like the rest of us?

An annoying device of Radcliffe is to introduce a problem but then just ignore it completely for sometimes hundreds of pages before touching on it again, usually by giving some rational explanation.  In modern books, problems are introduced and then the book will be about solving that problem.  But in this book, the problem is simply forgotten, no one's trying to solve it, and then it just clears itself up later.

Overall, this is a fine, old book.  As long as you know what you're getting into with the longwinded flowery speech, then you know it's okay to skim some parts.  If you are a lover of the gothic descriptions, this thing is full of that.  Things happen at midnight, there are expiring fires, mysterious figures, stormy nights, and plenty of darkness.  Things are always going on in some dark room or along some dark corridor.  Plus, the locations are great.  Only part of the story takes place in the castle of Udolpho, but there are also plenty of dark woods and other haunted places including a supposedly haunted chateau.

Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho stands out as a great example of late 18th century gothic romance.

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