Austenalia

Year of Reading Dangerously: The Mysteries of Udolpho, volume I

Originally published in 1794 in four volumes, The Mysteries of Udolpho is probably the prototypical Gothic Novel. Regular readers will know that I did not read it first, though it is of primary importance to Catherine in Northanger Abbey, preferring instead to work my way through Walpole and Lewis in preparation for Udolpho.  I must say I am glad I did.  Walpole had the advantage over Mrs. Radcliffe in brevity and Lewis has it all over her for salaciousness, at least so far.

In Volume the First, we meet our cast of characters and do a little bit of traveling, so that we can endure the picaresque of which Henry insisted on tutoring Catherine. I find it highly improbable that anyone as flighty and fickle as Isabella could possibly have read Udolpho in its entirety.  I think she must have read excerpts at best.

Here is the breakdown of Volume I:

Chapters 1-6 our heroine, Emily manages to lose her mother and meet her beloved, Valencourt. She travels through the countryside with her father, who is in ill-health. There is a mysterious portrait and a supernatural forest. There is a lot of nature and description…

Chapters 7-12  Emily’s father dies, but not before making her promise to burn some papers in a very specific location of his closet–without reading them! Dear reader, you can easily see that this will not go as expected.  Who among us could actually keep such a promise, virtuous though we may be? Emily, now an orphan (I am sure you see a theme here among our heroines.) returns home under the nominal care of her mother’s sister, Madame Cheron, who is, shall we say, less than virtuous. Valencourt reappears in the story and asks permission to court Emily, which Madame Cheron wants to refuse, but then reluctantly gives, when she realizes he is the nephew of someone important to her. Montoni arrives on the scene and it is apparent that he will be the villain.

Chapters 13-14 Emily and Valencourt are engaged and nuptials are being planned, but the evil Montoni elopes with Madame Cheron and announces that the household will be moving to Venice, all the better for Montoni to gain control of Emily, my dear.  Madame Cheron remains clueless and Valencourt is thwarted in his efforts to see Emily or write to her, but they meet by chance and are able to indulge in a tearful farewell. Emily entreats Valencourt to remain calm–she fears he will challenge Montoni to a duel, and reminds him it is only one year until she reaches her majority and will no longer have to abide by Montoni’s will. Gloom, despair and agony on Emily and Valencourt, dear reader. Thus ends Volume I.

There is really so much here, that I will just choose a few themes to discuss as they relate to Northanger Abbey. First, let’s talk tropes. The orphan virgin, the bad chaperone, and the evil foreigner. These three tropes have all been present in the books so far–The Castle of Otranto and The Monk. Emily is so virtuous, she almost gives me a pain, but she is so sweet, you can’t help but like her, at least a little.  By the end of chapter 7, she is orphaned and under the guardianship of the bad chaperone, Madame Cheron. Madame Cheron is a bad chaperone, because she doesn’t care about her charge, she is extremely self-absorbed, and by taking Montoni as her lover first and eloping with him later, she makes it difficult for Emily to maintain her engagement with Valencourt, or indeed with any gentleman. Finally, the evil foreigner, Montoni, embodies the dissipation of the Catholic Church, as interpreted by Protestant Englishmen and women. He is sly, sneaky, and willing to become the lover of Madame Cheron to get to Emily.  He plots, he thwarts, he is the supervillain we love to hate.

Austen uses these same tropes in Northanger Abbey–in fact she engages in literary shorthand with her readers by using the Gothic to fill in the details that are not explicit on the page. Catherine is not an actual orphan, but her trip to Bath with the Allens makes her a pseudo-orphan.  Her connection to home remains through her brother, but it is tenuous–she is left to figure things out mostly for herself, without much guidance. This is why Mrs. Allen is a bad chaperone–she talks incessantly of clothes and muslins, in fact, Henry Tilney charms her by discussing muslin himself-catching her off guard and winning her approval in one stroke. The Allens shouldn’t have let Catherine go riding with Thorpe alone–Mr. Allen doesn’t ask for enough details, and they really probably shouldn’t have let her go to Northanger Abbey without doing more checking. Mrs. Allen is self-absorbed in much the same way as Madame Cheron, minus the illicit love affairs. She is however, apparently somewhat younger than Mr. Allen, which makes one wonder…he very wealthy after all. Finally, the evil foreigner.  The evil foreigner in Northanger Abbey is off page, referred to by Thorpe in conversation with Catherine, and acknowledged by Henry in his “Remember we are English…” speech to Catherine, who is imagining all kinds of things that really would only happen in France, Spain, or Italy (a Catholic country), according to the English. Austen makes her point with tongue firmly in cheek.

Another hallmark of Gothic fiction, and really a lot of early fiction, is the use of books and reading to indicate the traits of the characters. In Udolpho, books are used as messengers to the reader. Valencourt proclaims his love for Emily through the gift of a book. “For some moments she was conscious of being beloved; then, a recollection of all the variations of tone and countenance, with which he had recited these sonnets…she wept over the memorial of his affection.” (58) Emily remembers her father after his death by spending time in his library and reading a book he had been reading, “To her the book appeared sacred and invaluable, she would not have moved it, or closed the page, which he had left open, for the treasures of the Indies.” (95)

As we know, the character depiction and action in Northanger Abbey depend on the reading habits of the players. Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho appears a virtuous reader–she and Valencourt share a love for poetry and reading is a large part of their courtship.

I await further developments in Volume II.