The mystery of how I’ve reached volume III of Ann Radcliffe

There has been a lot of weeping, so far. I assure you, though, dark as this journey has been, these tears were not from me. Our heroine, Emily, is the watering can, crying her way through most chapters, now that she has been orphaned.

Oops, sorry for that spoiler, folks. Perhaps I should have warned you that I’m going to be discussing several incidents from the first two volumes. So, if you’ve plans to read The Mysteries of Udolpho, you’d be advised to leave me here. Because, unlike Miss Radcliffe, I’m not going to be coy with my revelations.

Yes, Ann, I do accuse you of deliberately withholding key information, a story-offence of the first degree, in my opinion. Let’s take the example of the veiled picture, first discovered while Emily and her maid, Annette, are trying to find Emily’s new bedroom in the huge and inhospitably drafty castle, in the dark.

Annette is too frightened to stay and lift the veil, she runs off with the lamp. Why wouldn’t she? The other servants have warned her about a range of ghosts and horrors linked to the castle and it’s questionable owner.

Emily though, like me, is driven by an overriding curiosity. The next day she retraces her route to the picture…

…which appeared to be enclosed in a frame of uncommon size, that hung in a dark part of the room. She paused again, and then, with a timid hand, lifted the veil; but instantly let it fall – perceiving that what it had concealed was no picture, and, before she could leave the chamber, she dropped senseless on the floor.

When she recovered her recollection, the remembrance of what she had seen had nearly deprived her of it a second time.

Yes, but what was it? What did she see?

I’m a hundred pages further into the story and I still don’t know, despite several occasions when Emily becomes weak at the knees over the memory.

I’m not too happy about the treatment of Annette, either. She’s full of the kind of sensibilities that allow Emily to demonstrate her superior commonsense and bravery. How does Emily repay this? When she’s too frightened to stay in her room alone she has Annette stay with her. Emily gets the bed, Annette must make do with a chair by the dying fire.

But let me get back to Emily’s weeping. No, wait, it’s never gone away. She’s prone to getting ‘lost in this melancholy reverie, and shedding frequent tears…’

To be fair, this young woman is at the mercy of an unenviable bunch of relatives who are intent on using her to advance their own fortunes. But what else should a female of the 1580s expect? Her role, as she continually reminds us, is obedience to the wishes of her elders, even when she knows that they act wrongly.

Except, hold on a minute, who says that their ambitions are wrong? Why Emily (and Ann Radcliffe).

The case for the defense, surely, is that Emily’s aunts, uncles and neighbours are acting in her best interests, as well as their own, in aiming her towards the most advantageous marriage possible. After all, upper class marriage in the sixteenth century is not about love, it’s a business deal negotiated by family elders.

Her father knew this, but still he decided to bring his daughter up in such a way that she was never going to fit the social scene. What was he thinking? I have some ungenerous thoughts about his selfishness. It was all very well to create a perfect companion for himself, but did he think beyond the limits of the estate where they lived?

In fact, now I come to think of it, this book sets me in a particularly judgmental frame of mind. Hmm, does that mean I’ve entered into the story?

It might. Though if so, it’s not in a way I would usually expect.

I’ve spent a lot of time locked up in dark spaces with Em as she dithers, sobs, faints and waits for things to happen to her. I’ve had to remind myself that, for readers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Emily is daringly independent. She goes alone, at night, to visit her father’s grave. She wanders through Udolpho Castle, a place full of mysterious corridors, rooms and presences, in darkness and daylight, despite her fears of molestation and abduction.

However passive she might be in some instances, she is a young woman without access to transport or uninterested assistance. The constraints of her time mean that she must always be limited by the need to hold onto her respectability. If that is lost, so is she.

What I’m irritated by is the very thing that Radcliffe is drawing attention to, the dangers of having too much sensibility. This is interesting, because it seems that here I am, 226 years after this book was published, reacting in a way that the author probably intended, despite our cultural differences.

The Mysteries of Udolpho summer readalong is organised by Cleo, at Classical Carousel.

32 thoughts on “The mystery of how I’ve reached volume III of Ann Radcliffe

  1. Oh, I’m sorry Cath that this is such a chore! I had hoped for something better, to be honest – but I do admire your devotion (I’d probably just abandon the book already ;))

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  2. This made me smile, Cath, although I’m not sure it was supposed to! Like it or not, you have certainly engaged with the book and thus far you haven’t put me off at all. (Although I have no idea when I might finally get around to trying it myself.) I’m looking forward to your thoughts on later volumes ๐Ÿ˜Š

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    • Glad you liked my post, Kendi. Reading journeys are my favourite kind, and yes, this one certainly can be frustrating, but here I am, still reading, so yes, captivating too. Good luck with your own bookish travels.

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    • It seems to mostly be alcoholic, and I’m not sure she wouldn’t be better if she ate properly too. I think she must have low blood sugar levels, as she only seems to eat once a day, and most of that is fruit.

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  3. Udolpho was OK, but The Italian was Radcliffe’s masterpiece in my opinion — more focused and consistently interesting in character and plot, fewer 50-page descriptions of landscapes, etc. Go for The Italian!

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  4. Iiiiiii do not think I could handle this, but then, I didn’t think I could handle Count of Monte Cristo, either. It’s interesting how certain texts can call out to us from across the years. I was SUCH an murder’n’mayhem junkie in college, and yet Pilgrim’s Progress and Dante’s Journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven (? Did I actually reach Heaven? You know, now I wonder if I got that far…) really struck some deep chords. A result of my upbringing, perhaps, a life of object lessons and finding the living parables in my world. I’ve wondered what it would be like to write such a tale…

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    • I share your love of ‘murder ‘n’ mayhem’, but find, now, that I can only take so much of that kind of quick reading, and then I need a contrast. Usually, those are easier reads than ‘Udolpho’, but I’ve been surprised by the way this one got under my skin.

      I take my hat off to your Pilgrim’s Progress progress, as I’ve never got past the first page! I suppose if I had a suitable imperative I might, but it’s one volume that’s not hanging about my shelves waiting.

      I think it would take some artful writing to update that kind of story, but who knows…

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