Austenalia

The Mysteries of Udolpho, the final chapters…

Dear Reader,

I do apologize for taking so long to finish up with Mrs. Radcliffe’s enormous tome.  My goal was to finish it before the JASNA AGM, and I did, but just the day before on the plane, so it was only by a hair’s breadth.  Then the splendour of the AGM temporarily stalled my book reviewing plans. At long last, I will fill you in on what happens to Emily, whether Valencourt wins fair maiden, and what befalls the evil Montoni.

One of the sessions I attended was a talk by Marsha Huff entitled, “The Gothic Key,” in which Ms. Huff read Udolpho so that Janeites wouldn’t have to, as she so eloquently put it.  Many of the points she made were similar to those I have made, so I won’t belabor them. To review–Gothic fiction is very meta (before being meta was a thing!) and self referential–it refers to other Gothic novels, and the same images and tropes are recycled so that the reader knows what to expect, even though she (and it is always a she) is dying to find out what is behind the veil, just like Catherine!

When last we were together, I chose to discuss a few themes.  In this installment, I would like to point out the ways in which Austen explicitly refers to Udolpho in Northanger Abbey and elsewhere. There is one passage in particular, in which Henry goes on at length teasing Catherine about the Abbey. He asks whether she is prepared to “encounter all the horrors” (114) and be led around by an ancient housekeeper named Dorothy (115).  Of course, your footnotes may have told you he is teasing Catherine about one of the most tense series of scenes in Udolpho in which Emily is toured through the old castle by Dorothee and eventually sees what is behind the veil, although the reader must suffer through about 450 more pages before her curiosity is satisfied.  Spoiler: It is a wax work of a corpse–a weird form of penance being suffered by a minor character whose identity and crime is not revealed until the final two pages (I am not kidding) of Udolpho. Radcliffe obviously did not adhere to the “rules of composition” Austen did whilst composing Northanger Abbey (186). But I digress. 

One of Austen’s letters contains another explicit reference to Radcliffe.  In a letter dated Wednesday (March 2, 1814), Austen writes of having finished The Heroine by Eaton Stannard Barrett, which Austen refers to as a “burlesque” of Mrs. Radlciffe’s style.  The Heroine was a parody of the Gothic, and this is an interesting tidbit to file away–Austen admired the book, and one wonders if reading this made her more determined to get the rights to Northanger Abbey back from Richard Crosby. The Heroine was published in 1813 and in 1816 Henry Austen bought back  the copyright for Northanger Abbey on behalf of his sister, Jane. 

In case you are still wondering what happened to our cast of characters from Udolpho…  After much wandering through the countryside, which Mrs. Radcliffe describes in excruciating and minute detail, Emily ends up back at La Vallee. Montoni is killed by banditti, Valencourt is suspected of having led a dissipated life, but is exonerated through the offices of a poor old servant woman he has been supporting. The portrait Emily’s father was carrying around turns out to have been his sister, Emily’s aunt–she is the murdered Marchioness of Dorothee.  So, Emily looks just like her, because she is her niece. Emily and Valencourt are wed, as are Blanche and her love. Ludovico even reappears to Annette’s everlasting joy. All’s well that ends well. 

Radclffe, after making the reader suffer through 672 pages of which only about 250 were necessary, ties everything up in a neat bow in the last few pages, just as Austen does in Northanger Abbey.  Hmmm. Radcliffe’s narrator also gets in a didactic aside, which causes this reader to wonder whether she wasn’t having a laugh at the reviewers who always seemed to like Radcliffe’s Gothic novels, but not anyone else’s…

“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.” (672)

Verbose to the last.


I have enjoyed this year of reading dangerously so much, that I am going to continue with the Gothic for a while longer.  I will intersperse my thoughts on the Gothic with reviews and book discussions of other novels as well. I have found much more to explore in the rabbit hole of the Gothic, some of which I will write to you about next time, including the “Terrorist System of Novel Writing” from 1797.

***Photo from the writer’s tour of the Swem Library Rare Book collection at the College of William and Mary

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Oxford UP, New York, 2008.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Oxford UP, New York, 1992.