Book Review: Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe–Part 2

 

Part 1

Around p. 435: Madame Montoni has met her fate, not by Montoni’s direct hand but indirectly, as she languished from illness in the east turret.  And now her estates have passed on to Emily, making her the next target.

After advising her aunt to give up the estates for the sake of her own life, now that she has the estates herself, she won’t take her own advice: She hopes the estates will be a source of income for herself and her beloved, Valancourt.

But this means that Montoni withdraws his protection from her, while the castle is full of various rough characters, mercenaries who fight battles for whoever sponsors them.  The Italian political system is chaotic at this time, so battles aren’t just a matter for the state.  The state turns a blind eye to sponsors of the mercenaries, as long as they don’t cause too much trouble.

The thought of Valancourt keeps her going through all this, as she deals with terror, apparent phantoms frightening the guards, a siege, and having to run from men who keep trying to grab her in the hallways while the others carouse.

Before the siege she’s sent away to a peasant’s cottage in the countryside, a haven where she makes friends with the teenaged daughter.  But she’s kept under constant guard and finally brought back to the castle again, back to dread.

As I said, the thought of Valancourt keeps her going.  But she has no idea that while she’s shut up in the castle, his fellow comrades-in-arms have lured him into gaming and various other entertainments to get his mind off things.

The funny bit is Annette, Madame Montoni’s servant, a talkative, sweet and dimwitted girl who attends her needs while informing her of the latest castle gossip.  Annette’s informant is Ludovico, a charming household servant who has taken a fancy toward her.

The funniest part is that every time there is some danger in the castle, Emily finds Annette locked up in some obscure room, and Annette tells her that Ludovico put her there to keep her safe.  And now, finally, Emily has met Ludovico, who promises to help her escape.

On page 464, after Emily has escaped the castle, we go to the villa belonging to Count De Villefort, a villa which he has just inherited and by which Emily was freaked out on her travels with her father.  We leave Emily for quite some time to read about new characters, including a Blanche who is much like Emily, and to read endless pages of description of the villa and surrounding landscape.

I suppose the readers of the time loved this sort of thing, especially since they had no photographs or videos, and travel took much more time and was far more wearing on a body than it is in our modern world.

But I find the description to be overwhelming: I have trouble holding the pictures in my head for long, so it becomes more a series of unconnected images which I’m constantly changing through a great deal of effort and re-reading, rather than the full panorama which I’m sure was intended.

Oftentimes I’ll just skip over something because I’m tired of reading the same paragraph over and over for the past 10 minutes.  So I do hope the action will soon pick up again.

Around p. 530: Now that Emily is safely home and has sent for Valancourt, it seems everything should now come together with a happy ending.  But no.

For one thing, there are more than 100 pages left, so unless this turns out like Tolkien’s Return of the King, there should be more plot left.  For another, she discovers that Valancourt has gotten involved in gambling, shady characters from the gambling underworld–and a woman.

She demonstrates that even the dumper–whether in romance or friendship–may seem heartless to the dumpee, but actually be full of grief herself.  She feels she has no choice, as anyone would have to feel, who still loves the person they are breaking off a romance or friendship with.  Otherwise why do it?

Naturally, he is upset; naturally, he tries his best to change her mind.  If a dumpee doesn’t do this, you have to wonder if they truly cared in the first place, and “respecting her wishes” from the outset rather than at least trying to change her mind would seem almost insulting.  But finally he understands why she’s doing it, and leaves her alone with her grief.

This poor girl hasn’t been happy in ages: First her mother dies, then her father dies, then Valancourt is taken from her when they were supposed to get married, then she has to spend months in a gloomy and terrifying castle, and now she loses Valancourt again, but this time for his own sins instead of somebody else’s.

Which is probably why Jane Austen was so ready to parody the book in Northanger Abbey.  The book’s notes have already pointed out two scenes which were parodied in “Northanger”; I’m anxious to re-read those scenes, but have to be patient, because all must be done in the proper order.

The ending of Udolpho takes many pages as more twists and turns keep coming about.  But finally everything is tied up, all the mysteries of Udolpho and elsewhere are explained, misleading information is cleared up, and Emily ends up with her One True Love ™.

And yes, there are plenty more poems and commas, so never fear the lack.  And plenty more faintings by Emily or Blanche, her new friend.

It’s about time Emily got a friend.  Other than chatty servants and nuns, she had no friends through most of the book.

Annette the chatty maidservant could be called a friend, except that Emily kept having to assert her superiority by telling Annette to stop falling for superstitious nonsense, and to get to the point already woman.

Though of course, Emily would never do this meanly, but always with the utmost kindness and grace.

In the last two paragraphs, we discover that there is a moral to the story:

O! useful may it be to have shewn, that, though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!

Well, considering that in real life this often does not happen, and that this is just a novel, it’s hard to say it has shewn or proven any such thing.

And, if the weak hand, that has recorded this tale, has, by its scenes, beguiled the mourner of one hour of sorrow, or, by its moral, taught him to sustain it–the effort, however humble, has not been vain, nor is the writer unrewarded.

Oh, geez, there’s a moral to the story!  It couldn’t have just been for fun: It had to “teach” us something.

…Though, yes, come to think of it, I did read it the first time after a breakup from a boyfriend…

and the second time after a breakup from a best friend…

so it did in fact beguile me during many hours of sorrow…

and maybe it did sort of teach me to sustain it….

Oh, bugger all, it has successfully conveyed its moral to me.

These 672 pages have been enjoyable over the past 6 months, re-reading a book I first read in the winter or early spring of 1992.  Back then it was a very old copy, found in the college library, actually two little red hardback volumes, now one big paperback by Oxford World’s Classics.

I look forward to seeing (again, after many years) how Jane Austen skewers them in “Northanger Abbey.”  Well, that is, after I first read the 20-page introduction by the editor.  I didn’t want to read that until after reading the book….

[1/2/11]

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