Ann Radcliffe is one of the foremost exponents of the gothic novel, yet is one of the least known. Gothic novels often combine fiction with elements of horror, death, the supernatural and romance. The Mysteries of Udolpho is probably her most famous novel, having been hugely influential on Jane Austen, especially her novel Northanger Abbey. In this novel we follow the eventful life of Emily St. Aubert, a young French woman who suffers the tragedy of losing her parents early in the novel, before getting entangled in various devious plots. Despite never having visited Italy, much of the action is set in Venice and the surrounding areas, it is believed that Radcliffe got much of the imagery she uses from travel literature of the time.
Emily is put in the care of an aunt, Madame Cheron, who soon gets involved with an Italian, Count Montoni. The two women then move with him to Italy, supposedly to a luxurious Venetian mansion, and a lavish lifestyle, this however, being a gothic tale does not happen. They are soon embroiled in the questionable life of the count. The Udolpho of the title is a decrepit castle that Montoni has inherited by dubious means. He uses the castle to isolate the women and tries to enforce his will upon them. Madame Cheron, now Madame Montoni, has vast estates which he wants for his own. As for Emily, he wishes her to marry a wealthy gentleman. Emily has previously fallen for a young man, Valancourt, and wishes to wait for him to rescue her. All the makings of a classic gothic novel.
Later Emily is able to escape, but her aunt has died. After her escape she manages to return to France, where her life coincides with that of another family at their property in the south of France, Chateau le Blanc. She takes control of her property in France with their help, and investigates the relationship between them and her own family. Valancourt also returns to the plot and redeems himself, having lost much of Emily’s respect.
Throughout this novel Radcliffe uses the classic tropes of a gothic novel, and helps to define the genre. The supernatural occurrences that happen at both Udolpho and Chateau le Blanc are eventually explained by human, or natural causes. Romance is another key feature of this novel, Emily and Valancourt being the main characters who meet, lose each other then reunite. Radcliffe was big on nature, and took a lot of time describing scenes. Our heroine, Emily, remarks on the beauty of nature, whilst our villain, Montoni, in unconcerned with the beauty around him. Radcliffe’s novel is a classic, and certainly worth the effort it takes to read, being over 600 pages long. If you like Frankenstein or Dracula, give this a go as well.