The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radclifffe (I)

A read-along. Part I/Volume I

A while back, after reading The Moonstone (or was it The Woman in White?) by Wilkie Collins I discovered a list of ten Victorian novels on its back cover and decided to read all ten of them. Haunted castles, beautiful heroines, courageous heroes and villainous relatives, suspense and murder, mystery and love, I can never have enough of them. (I have a sneaky suspicion I’ve used a similar phrase before.) This is the list and the crossed titles are the ones read so far.

1. Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
2. Paul Clifford, by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton
3. Jack Sheppard, by William Harrison Ainsworth
4. The String of Pearls, by Anonymous (?)
5. The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins
6. The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins
7. The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe
8. A Sicilian Romance, by Ann Radcliffe
9. The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole
10. The Monk, by Matthew Gregory Lewis

Vishy is joining me again for our second read-along and this time, to make it more interesting (that means spoilers will be present), we decided to come up with a list of questions (5 or 10 or any number in between) to ask each other in the hope of tackling more specific rather than general issues of the novel. The book is divided into 4 Volumes and this weekend we’ll talk about Volume 1.

This is the second book by Ann Radcliffe that I’m reading and is a whooping 875 pages long and that’s a BIG book with a rather small print, which is not a great combination, but since this was the only edition I could find – and it took me a while to find it! – I shouldn’t complain.

Volume I opens with beautiful descriptions of nature as seen in the year 1584 in Gascony, France, where the family of Monsieur St Aubert lives in a chateau surrounded by idyllic grounds.
Monsieur St Aubert, his wife, and daughter Emily spend their days in a splendid solitude in the middle of the countryside. They walk, go for picnics, read and sing and generally enjoy a tranquil life. Theirs is a perfect little family and Emily is as happy, obedient and beautiful a daughter as anyone would wish to have. Following the death of Madame St Aubert, Emily and her father set on a journey in the course of which they get acquainted with a Mr. Valancourt, a young man “who’s never been to Paris” and who falls in love with Emily. During their journey, Emily’s father dies, not before entrusting her to go to a secret place in his study and burn the papers she finds there, without reading them. This Emily tries to do, not before she gets a glimpse of the writing and she also finds a miniature portrait of an unknown beautiful woman she remembers seeing her father weep over not long before his death.

Following the death of her father, Emily goes to live with Madame Cheron, his father’s sister, a shallow, capricious woman who sees her niece as an obligation left her by her deceased brother and only thinks of ways of using her to better her position in society. That is why she first rejects, then accepts Valancourt when he asks for permission to see Emily – she even consents to their marriage only to change her mind later when she herself gets married to Montoni, an Italian aristocrat, moody and with a suspicious past. To be honest, I thought they made a perfect match. The alliance, however, doesn’t benefit Emily in any way, as she is forced to leave her home and follow her aunt and her new husband to Italy.

Volume 1 ends with the separation of the lovers, tears flow, promises are made and melancholy and despair give way to happiness and wedding plans.

I confess being somewhat impatient with so many descriptive passages which even though they serve the purpose of introducing the reader to the time and space of the age the action takes place, it was at times too much. But then I’m not overly fond of lengthy descriptions in any book. For this reason, I went through Volume 1 at full speed, looking for mystery and why not, maybe a ghost or two. One thing I particularly liked was the poetry, especially the verses at the beginning of each chapter, like this one:

“I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul.”

(Note to self: get reacquainted with Shakespeare’s work. It’s been too long.)

I found the mystery but not the ghosts (yet!) and I’ve also put together a few questions for Vishy, for our little discussion.

1. How do you feel about the language, do thither, thou and similar words add to the beauty of the narrative or are they annoying words that give you a headache?

2. In Chapter III, in the following lines:
‘O how canst thou renounce the boundless store
Of charms which nature to her vot’ry yields!
, what do you think vot’ry means?

3. Who is the mysterious woman in the miniature portrait that St Aubert cries over?

4. Who is the author of the verses Emily found in the fishing house, the musician playing the lute and the one who took the bracelet? Are they even the same person?

5. Should Emily have accepted Valancourt’s idea of running away to get married?

You can read Vishy’s review here.

Until next weekend, when we’ll talk about Volume II in which things start to get interesting. And I leave you, dear visitor, with a question: do you like Gothic stories or does the idea of ghosts and haunted castles makes you move along to the next book in a hurry?

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6 Responses to The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radclifffe (I)

  1. Pingback: Readalong Part 1 – The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe « Vishy’s Blog

  2. Vishy says:

    Wonderful post, Delia! I loved the long descriptions at the beginning of the book, but after a while it did become a bit difficult to continue reading. My favourite part of the book was till Emily returns back to her home after her father dies. Ironically, the plot moves faster after that, but I found too many things happening in very less time, compared to the previous part of the book! Especially, the frequent flip-flops that Emily’s aunt does was a bit too much. I loved that Shakespeare quote too. I too have to get re-acquainted with Shakespeare, now!

    Here are my answers to your questions.

    (1) I think sometimes words like ‘thou’ and ‘thither’ are annoying, but I get used to them after a while. However one thing I liked about the book is the way sentences are structured. I love this aspect of Victorian novels – where sometimes sentences are long and one can linger over the sentence and experience a lot of pleasure and joy doing that.
    (2) I am guessing here. I think ‘vot’ry’ is probably ‘votary’ with the apostrophe standing for the ‘a’. So, the phrase refers to a ‘votary of nature’ which means a ‘lover’ or ‘worshipper’ of nature.
    (3) I can only guess the identity of the mysterious woman in the portrait. It is probably someone Monsieur St Aubert loved. It could be the Marchioness de Villeroi. I am excited to find out more about he portrait and the Marchioness.
    (4) I am guessing that all three are the same person and it is Valancourt. But then it means that Valancourt was already in love with Emily before they met formally. It means there is a back story there. I am looking forward to finding out what it is. I loved the fact that the verses kept changing everytime Emily sees them with new lines added.
    (5) It is an interesting question. Looking at it from today’s perspective, Emily should probably have accepted Valancourt’s idea. One of the things that I have noticed in Victorian novels is that even if the heroine is a strong and independent woman and is a rebel in some ways, when it comes to the crunch, she doesn’t cross the line but does things in a way that is acceptable to the society of that time. I remember feeling like this about Elizabeth Bennett when I read Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Even Dorothea from George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, who is one of the strongest literary heroines of that era, does that. So, I think Emily did that too. The author probably didn’t want to break the social rules of her time too much.

    The questions I have for you are these :

    (1) Do you think the novel presents characters as stereotypes – for example the good people are all French living in a place surrounded by nature, the people living in the city are pretentious, the potentially bad guys are Italians?
    (2) Should Emily have read the papers before destroying them? Would that have added more excitement to the story – because Emily knows the contents of the papers while the reader doesn’t?
    (3) Did the poems which were interspersed throughout the book change the pace of the book and significantly affect your reading experience?
    (4) Did you like the slow-paced descriptive first part of volume 1 or the second part where lots of things were happening, sometimes in just a paragraph?

    • Delia says:

      Hi Vishy, thanks for answering those questions! I never would have imagined that was “votary”, now I’m so glad I asked you. Didn’t even know what the word meant until you told me. That’s the beauty of reading and discussing a book, one learns new things, even if they are actually old. 😉 I don’t think anybody uses that word anymore, do they?
      I would very much like to expand on those answers you gave but to do so would mean giving things away so I’d better not. I would say, however, that I agree with you that when it comes to decisions, the heroine follows the ethics of the time. Given the way Emily was raised, I’d say that was to be expected. Maybe he author was trying to give her readers a lesson, something along the lines of “virtue is rewarded in the end”.

      Now on to your questions:
      1. Yes, it seems like the author does just that. Paris is seen as a place of corruption while the countryside is associated with purity of thought (and lack of comfort). Your questions also made me do a bit of research and so I found out about the Italian Wars which started in the 16th century and which involved Italy and France among other countries – I’m guessing they may have something to do with the bad reputation the Italians are getting in the story.

      2. Ah well, now if I say she should have it means I actually want to her to break her promise to her father. Obviously the writer didn’t want us, the readers, to change our opinion about Emily (she is the good girl after all) so she just allows her a glimpse of the words. I have to say though that by the end of the book we may find out more about those papers so even if she read the words it probably wouldn’t have made a difference. Probably.

      3. The poems did alter the pace, and sometimes it was nice to see how thoughts changed into these amazingly intricate verses. I have to admit that I did skip one poem which was about 2 pages long – my patience did run out – but that comes later on in the book.

      4. I like it better when the events go at a brisk pace and I’m constantly being kept on the edge of my seat. Descriptions are nice but action is much more entertaining.

      • Vishy says:

        I have seen ‘votary’ being used sometimes as part of the phrase ‘votary of peace’ in the newspapers here, Delia. But otherwise I have rarely seen it used.

        I agree with you that discussing a book makes us learn many things, including aspects of language. I remember once reading a description of a novel’s plot which had this sentence – “One summer a group of strangers – each with their own reason for wanting to step out of their busy life…”. I had a question here – something that I have often had. I was wondering whether “each with their own reason” was grammatically correct. Because, from what I know “each” is singular. So, I was thinking whether “each with his own reason” or “each with her own reason” is more appropriate. But then another question cropped up – what happens if this group of strangers has both men and women? Then it is difficult to use ‘his’ or ‘her’ here, because it would give an incomplete picture of things. How does one use a gender neutral term which is the equivalent of ‘his’ or ‘her’ here? I also wondered whether the writer of this sentence had the same problem and used ‘their’ to skirt over it 🙂 What do you think about this?

        Thanks for telling me about the Italian wars and the involvement of France in it. I want to do some research on it sometime.

        I liked what you said about how thoughts changed into the beautiful poems in the book. I want to get to that poem which is two pages long and find out how it is 🙂

        Emily does look like a ‘good girl’ till now. She hasn’t made a wrong move. Hope the author’s intention of virtue being rewarded in the end comes out true.

        I agree with you that action makes the book much more entertaining. I remember reading in the preface of ‘Stories’ edited by Neil Gaiman and El Sarrantonio, on how they wanted to make readers turn the page hoping to find out what happened next in the story.

        I can’t wait to find out more about the letters and the mysterious portrait!

        • Delia says:

          Some words and expressions infiltrate the language and are taken as correct, even if, according to the rules of grammar, they shouldn’t be. I think that’s the case with “each with their own reason”. According to the rules, it should be “each with his or her own reason”, like you said, but that to me sounds too long, even if it’s grammatically correct, and “each with their own reason” sounds just fine, so I guess the colloquial has won over the grammar rule in this case, and is now generally accepted.

          Your comment about Emily and also what you said about stereotypes in “The Mysteries of Udolpho” made me realize that the book is full of these characters. Good people are good and the bad are just…bad. And it’s strange because I usually like characters that have good and bad traits, but maybe that comes from reading too many Stephen King novels. 🙂 And it’s also weird that even though the characters fall on one side or the other when it comes to good and bad, it doesn’t make the story any less interesting.

  3. Pingback: Books of 2012 – the great, the good, and the disappointing | Postcards from Asia

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