This novel is considered to be the earliest and greatest of gothic novels.
Most do not know it, but those who love modern tales of vampires and the supernatural owe a great debt of honor to Ann Radcliffe, the mother of the gothic novel and the author of “The Mysteries of Udolpho,” first published in 1794. It was Radcliffe’s work in the gothic that formed the foundation for the Romantic period, which many literary scholars agree, was the highest development of the novel as a literary device.
In turn she found inspiration in Shakespeare’s works, such as “Macbeth” and such works as “The Castle of Otranto.” In the creation of her masterwork, she drew the best elements from both of these sources. “The Mysteries of Udolpho” is less supernatural, however, than it is a psychological thriller. The author succeeds in creating an atmosphere of terror. Some of the terror is well-founded, for example, the menacing Italian nobleman Montoni is a very real threat. But, some of the atmosphere is rooted in the superstition of the servant classes.
The tale, set in the Gascony region of Italy in1584, revolves around an orphan named Emily St. Aubert. She is honorable, talented, graceful and everything a young woman of her class should be. Her father dies leaving her vulnerable to her aunt, Madame Cheron, and her terrible husband, Montoni. Montoni tries to force Emily to marry evil count Morano, but she is in love with Valancourt whom she met previously while traveling with her father.
All kinds of terrifying things happen to Emily with in the walls of the castle Udolpho. But, she manages to escape with the help of a secret admirer and is reunited with Valancourt.
This novel set the stage for the style of the romantic period with its amazing descriptions of the wilderness and wild life. Because of the elegant descriptions, the reader is completely drawn in to the atmosphere of the tale. It all begins harmlessly enough, but then descends into the darkest horrors imaginable. This contrast adds to the dynamics of the tale.
The most horrifying and memorable scene in the novel for me is where Emily can here Montoni and his men from another part of the castle, after which Count Morano attempts to abduct Emily. The kidnapping scene is very much intensified by all that Emily hears through the walls.
This psychological horror was the model for Matthew Lewis’ “The Monk,” and Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey.” And, it has formed the basis for most of the modern horror of authors like Stephen King.
This novel is purely Gothic and absolutely timeless. If you love horror and psychological thrillers, then you are sure to love and always remember, “The Mysteries of Udolpho.” Once you’ve read it, you will want to read her other works such as, “The Italian,” and “The Romance of the Forest.”