Book Review: Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe–Part 1

Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe; review posted to my Facebook friends between July 2010 and January 2011, in the first throes of my grief over my ex-best friend:

p. 5: Ann Radcliffe loves talking about the “sublime” in her works. I just read the word twice in the same paragraph. It brings to mind this video from college:

Nearing p. 100: It amazes me how, lately, the books I’m reading keep matching my mood.  I read the last chapters of “Gone With the Wind” on the night of a terrible e-mail argument with my former best friend.  I apologized and we tried to patch things up, but it left a pall over the evening, and the next few days as well.

(Incidentally, in an attempt to finally fix things and restore our friendship to the kind and sweet way it used to be, several days later I sent an e-mail–which, unfortunately, got taken wildly out of context and misunderstood, and left me vilified and the friendship in shambles, much like Shirley Sherrod without the later apologies.)

At the same time, in between e-mails that evening, I was reading about Scarlett’s devastating last night before Rhett left her for good.

First Melanie dies, just as Scarlett realizes she loves her and Melanie has been her strength.  Then she finds out that Ashley was only infatuated with her, that his true love was for Melanie.  Then she realizes that her own true love is Rhett, and she’s been terrible to him.

She goes out into the night, which is foggy and appears supernaturally terrifying.  Her long walk finally leads her to her safe place, Rhett–only Rhett is fed up and leaving her.

Now I’m reading “Mysteries of Udolpho,” which–now that it’s finally gotten past the endless landscape descriptions and the plot has started–describes Emily’s grief.

First her mother died of a fever, and now, after a long trek through the Pyrenees, her father has also succumbed to the fever.  She’s grieving the deaths of both her parents.

The author goes into just as much detail about the grief as she did about the landscape, which powerfully brings across what Emily is dealing with.

Not only am I reading this while dealing with the loss of a friendship, but the first time I read it, my first college boyfriend had just broken up with me.  It seems that grief is the same whether it’s over a death, a lost romance or losing a best friend.  And Ann Radcliffe is a master at writing about it.  For example:

Emily sat for some time, given up to sorrow. Not an object, on which her eye glanced, but awakened some remembrance, that led immediately to the subject of her grief.

Her favourite plants, which St. Aubert had taught her to nurse; the little drawings, that adorned the room, which his taste had instructed her to execute; the books, that he had selected for her use, and which they had read together; her musical instruments, whose sounds he loved so well, and which he sometimes awakened himself–every object gave new force to sorrow.

At length, she roused herself from this melancholy indulgence, and, summoning all her resolution, stepped forward to go into those forlorn rooms, which, though she dreaded to enter, she knew would yet more powerfully affect her, if she delayed to visit them (p. 94-5).

p. 131: This book is not all doom and gloom (or landscape descriptions).  Once we got past the trip through the Pyrenees, the plot began to pick up, beginning with the death of Emily’s father so soon after the death of her mother.

She is now an orphan left to the care of her father’s sister, a proud and vain woman who just assumes her niece is a silly, disobedient girl, without even knowing her.

Her father met the young Valancourt in the Pyrenees and approved of him…, but her aunt has made up her mind that he’s not worthy to court Emily.  She takes Emily to a dance, where she discovers Valancourt has also been invited.

He’s dancing with another girl he seems to know, and considering he only just confessed his ardor for Emily and his request to court Emily was only just today rejected by Emily’s aunt, Emily doesn’t know what to make of this.

But the funny part is something my SCA dance practice friends will appreciate: Count Bauvillers, in speaking of the girl Valancourt is dancing with, says,

She is handsome, and her fortune will be very large. I hope she will make a better choice in a partner for life than she has done in a partner for the dance, for I observe he has just put the set into great confusion; he does nothing but commit blunders.

I am surprised, that, with his air and figure, he has not taken more care to accomplish himself in dancing.

It’s good to see that our hero is not painted as perfection itself.  And he has more flaws which show up later.

As for Emily herself, I think she’s meant to be shown as having too much sensibility–which, in those days, meant being enslaved by sentiment and emotion–but so far she seems normal to me.  But then, maybe I’m one of these “sensible” people, too….

“Have you got to the black veil yet?” asks Isabella in the 1986 film version of “Northanger Abbey.”  I have got to the black veil, and it’s on page 248.  We don’t know what’s behind it yet (though I actually remember it from the first time I read it nearly 20 years ago).

It has been encountered and mentioned a chapter or so back, but Emily did not have the courage to lift the veil until now.  In the book “Northanger Abbey,” the conversation goes like this:

(Isabella:) “But, my dearest Catherine, what have you been doing with yourself all this morning?  Have you gone on with Udolpho?”

“Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil.”

“Are you, indeed?  How delightful!  Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world!  Are not you wild to know?”

“Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be?  But do not tell me–I would not be told upon any account.  I know it must be a skeleton, I am sure it is Laurentina’s skeleton.  Oh! I am delighted with the book!  I should like to spend my whole life in reading it.  I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world.”

“Dear creature!  How much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”

“Have you, indeed!  How glad I am!  What are they all?”

“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocketbook.  Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries.  Those will last us some time.”

“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”

“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them….”

I’ve read “The Italian,” though I haven’t read the other books listed.  I loved “The Italian,” which had a delightful Black Monk character who was also the Grand Inquisitor tormenting the main character and her beau.

And as luck would have it, I read this book about the same time I first saw the videos for “Man in a Box” by Alice in Chains (with a black monk) and “Patient Eyes” by PM Dawn (with a young woman praying in a church, wearing a veil, reminding me of the protagonist of “The Italian”).

I’ll have to read it again sometime, though after I re-read “Northanger Abbey.”

Around page 310: Montoni has begun to show his true colors to Emily and her aunt, who is now Montoni’s new bride.  Turns out his supposed riches are nothing but show, because of his heavy debts, and he thought Madame’s own wealth would put him back on solid footing.

But her riches are not what he expected, either, so he wants to marry off Emily to the highest bidder.  First he promises Emily to Count Morano (despite her refusals, based on her love for Valancourt), but he discovers that Count Morano has money problems as well, so at the last minute he packs Emily off to a distant and crumbling castle.

Count Morano tries to steal Emily away, using a secret passage which leads into her bedchamber–a passage which, naturally, causes her constant worry, but Montoni refuses to move her.

When Montoni discovers Morano in her bedchamber, they fight and Morano is mortally wounded.  Now Emily wonders what will become of her, while Montoni insists that his wife sign away to him the estates she kept to herself in the marital contract.

Because of Montoni’s cruelty, his wife hopes to get away from him; she refuses to sign away the estates, so Montoni threatens to lock her in the east turret.

Emily intercedes with Montoni for Madame, since Emily is the virtuous, pious heroine who can put aside the fact that Madame has been mistreating her.  But he says,

She suffers by her own folly, and is not to be pitied;–she knows how she may avoid these sufferings in future–if she is removed to the turret, it will be her own fault.  Let her be obedient, and sign the writings you heard of, and I will think no more of it.

How like the classic abuser he speaks!  The abuser doesn’t see fault in his own self, but blames the victim for his own rages, threats, curses, put-downs, beatings, or whatever he has inflicted on the victim.

And if she does give in, he will rage at her again over another incident later on.  Fortunately, Madame is too stubborn to accept the blame.

But for those of us who are more willing than Madame to find fault in ourselves in general, such emotional blows worm their way into our psyches until we start to believe that we are to blame, even though we know we are not, that only the abuser is responsible for his own lack of control over himself.

And of course, the abuser refuses to apologize, thinking he has done nothing wrong, that the victim needs to “obey” or “grow up” and accept the responsibility and consequences for “her own behavior.”  I know these charges all too well from past abusers, and how they cut into your mind and heart and will not let go.

Montoni’s character is, unfortunately, all too realistic, even though most of us don’t have elaborate castles in faraway lands or bands of followers to do our bidding.  His evil is far too common even among everyday, ordinary people.

Emily advises Madame to give in because of Montoni’s temper, but she will not budge.  The author represents it as a stubborn character failing, a lack of good judgment.  I’m torn as I read this.

On the one hand, yes, it is true that land is not worth throwing away Madame Montoni’s life, and not giving in will lead to Montoni’s vengeance.  She will probably die in that turret.

Still, how can anyone tell her the best way to deal with her tormentor?  If she gives away that land, she won’t have the proceeds to live on after escaping and legally separating from Montoni.  She could escape her abuser, only to end up in poverty in a time when ladies like her were not supposed to get a job.

On the other hand, abuse targets are warned that giving in to an abuser’s threats, rages and control only leads to more and worse abuse, because the abuser now knows he/she can get away with it.  I have seen firsthand that there is no way to win when dealing with an abuser of any type.

When I refused to give in to my abuser’s tyrannical will, back in college, he raged at me and cut me down, trying to break my will.

Another abuser’s spouse started giving in to the rages; the rages keep happening, and the abuser keeps chasing away any of the spouse’s friends who see him/her for what he/she is.

Emily believes that there is no way Madame can escape the castle, so she must give in.  But I think that Madame should take any chance she can to escape–along with Emily, whom Morano claims is also in danger, though Emily doesn’t know how.  Escaping the abuser is the only way either of them can get out of this.

But–as if Radcliffe meant a metaphor for the domestic abuse victim who is trapped by financial circumstances, wanting to keep a family together, or even strong and fervent love despite all the abuser has done–Emily and Madame are trapped inside a crumbling, drafty castle in the middle of the Apennine mountains, with a tyrant.

Steve Taylor’s “Svengali” says, “He’ll try to steal your body but he can’t touch your soul.”  However, even if Montoni can’t kill their bodies, he will murder their souls with psychological torment that will break them apart.

Run, Emily and Madame!

But, of course, shortly afterwards, Madame is locked in the east turret, and Emily doesn’t know what has become of her.  She strongly suspects Madame has been murdered.

On page 336, when Emily hears a “chorus of distant” voices from within the castle, she asks Annette, who says it is only Montoni and his guests carousing.  Emily’s response is

can this man’s heart be so gay, when he has made another being so wretched; if, indeed, my aunt is yet suffered to feel her wretchedness?  O! whatever are my own sufferings, may my heart never, never be hardened against those of others!

And Emily is so right.  I have seen people rejoice in deliberately hurting others.  This is considered one of the signs of abuse.  For example, from Patricia Evans:

Why does it seem that after he abuses me verbally he is happy, like he feels relieved? Also, he will act like it never happened. It’s like he has no memory of it….

This is what verbal abusers do. Verbal abusers almost universally act like nothing happened, like they feel fine and the relationship is fine.

This is because they feel they have more control. Maybe they got you to back down, believe them or doubt yourself.

If you doubt yourself then you might go with what they tell you, be more compliant and more slave-like. This makes them happy.


To be continued…..