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The Mysteries of Udolpho (Oxford World's Classics) 1st Edition

3.9 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0199537419
ISBN-10: 0199537410
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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Terry Castle is Professor of English at Stanford University.
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Product Details

  • Series: Oxford World's Classics
  • Paperback: 736 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (November 15, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199537410
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199537419
  • Product Dimensions: 7.7 x 1.4 x 5.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #43,894 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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I have been intrigued by this novel for years, but I only knew Udolpho by reputation until I finally read the novel recently. Many studies of Gothic fiction cite Radcliffe's novel as a classic Gothic text, one of the early examples that set the standard for the genre as we now think of it. Scholars of the Female Gothic subgenre in particular point to Udolpho as an early example, mostly due to Emily St. Aubert's perfect turn as the helpless female heroine who became a stock character in early Gothic fiction. Then, of course, I read Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey in a college seminar and imagined Udolpho to be a laugh-worthy, melodramatic, fake horror fest. I can't say there aren't any laughable moments (Emily's poems), or that there isn't melodrama (lots of fainting; the parting scene between Emily and Valancourt at the end of Volume I), or even that there isn't some fake horror (all of the "mysteries" are explained by the novel's close); however, Radcliffe's novel defied my expectations in more ways than it reaffirmed them.

The Oxford World's Classics edition with the introduction by Terry Castle is the only edition I've read, but I recommend it particularly because of the introduction, which I found very interesting and insightful after finishing the novel. One point that Castle makes is that despite the novel's Gothic label, Udolpho is more like "a disconcerting textual hybrid." The multi-generic nature of the novel is one of the features that most surprised me; it takes quite a while for Emily to become imprisoned in Udolpho and what precedes her time there is almost anti-Gothic. Emily has perfect parents and the perfect upbringing, though she begins to suffer relatively early on when her mother dies.
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Format: Paperback
A peculiar, very long, but charming instance of one of the first Gothic novels. Emily, a young, fresh and innocent heroine, loves nature and faints a lot. She is seduced into evil bourgeois society portrayed quite convincingly by Radcliffe in the form of the evil Count of Udolpho (really, one of the better villains of literature) and his wife, Emily's aunt, who provides much of the comic relief of the novel while still being nasty and self-centered. In the course of 700 pages or so, Emily falls in love with the gallant Valancourt, is betrothed and un-betrothed to several rakish scoundrels in pursuit of her money, is kidnapped by the Count to the gloomy Castle Udolpho in the woods, faints some more, and writes a lot of sonnets that appear in the middle of the novel apropos of nothing. Worth your read if you are a literature fan, if you want to understand why evil people believe they are still actually good, or if (like me) you had the flu for three days and had a lot of time on your hands.
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This is a very long (670 page) coming-of-age novel that foregrounds the evolving sensibility of its teenage heroine Emily. Like any good romantic heroine, Emily is fond of nature, poetry, music & the simple pleasures of country living; and like any good Gothic heroine she's inflinitely susceptible to strange noises, evocative landscapes, and sinister personalities with suspicious histories. Her father instructs her not to be too sensitive or susceptible, and to discipline her still impressionable sensibility but thankfully she's never very successful at following her father's rational instructions. Those who are Emily's equal, and who are as responsive to the transports of nature & as susceptible to and curious about strange occurences & influences as she will immediately adore this book.

Radcliffe is brilliant at describing her heroine's evolving sensibility and allowing her heroine to document her own changing mental states with poetry. This is the higher pleasure of the book: the examination of female sensibility.

The lower pleasure of the book would be the GOTHIC atmospheres & characters that Radcliffe subjects her romantically-inclined heroine to. The Gothic atmospheres (castles with secret passageways, veiled portraits, remote mountain passes populated by banditti) & characters (almost all of the villains are Italian and excessively vile) are great fun. A lot of people (including Percy Shelley & Jane Austen) make fun of this kind of Gothic writing, but without it think of all the pleasures we would be missing out on.
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In 1580s France, young Emily St. Aubert is orphaned and later imprisoned in a remote castle in this dreamlike, rambling gothic classic. Approach Udolpho burdened by expectation, and the book may be a disappointment. It's an influential, classic piece of gothic literature, yet two thirds of it takes place not in the dark halls of Udolpho but in the French countryside. It's both exemplified and criticized for its gothic clichés of haunted castles and fainting women, yet for every ghostly mystery is a dry, factual explanation, and this insistance upon the "explained supernatural" can be both disappointing and anticlimactic. Slow pacing, clunky narrative arcs, and unrealistic explication may frustrate modern readers, but what makes the book a disappointment is that it doesn't not seem as gothic as it could be--or as popular knowledge represents it.

But approach the book with indulgence and patience, and it has moments to reward both. Fans of gothic literature will still find Udolpho an interesting view into the genre's development, particularly in the role of the sublime and the function of human imagination (in place of literal supernatural events) to create horror. And, in defiance of its other limitations, Udolpho has some exceptional moments--sympathetic and honest human interactions, perceptions into human thought, evocative atmospheric and natural descriptions. These moments vary from indulgently gothic to thoughtful or romantic, but each is a quiet delight.
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