First of all, let me warn you, this is a very long book. If you're looking to read a quickie, this isn't the one. The Dover edition is 620 pages, consisting
of the four volumes that make up the entire book. And I also have to warn you that it moves very slowly. The characters don't even arrive at Udolpho until
well into Volume 2. There are some other really annoying issues, too, especially the overabundant commas that Radcliffe seemed to think necessary
after every several words, irregardless as to whether they separated phrases or clarified the sentence. After a while, you just begin to ignore them.
There is poetry interspersed throughout the book. that can be positive or negative, but for me, I found it more a space-taker-upper than anything else. But that's just personal. By
today's standards, this would probably not be considered a well-written professional quality book. For instance, the dog, Manchon, is mentioned about
once every hundred pages. Why have a dog in the first place? There are other inconsistencies, too, and lots of spelling discrepancies. Some words are over used
to the point of sickening, such as "trembling." Was there not a thesaurus to be found in those days? And there is waaaaaaaay too much weeping. OMG. Gag me with
a spoon—enough already. OK, so there's some negatives. There are positives, too.
I find it awesome that a book written by a woman that long ago has survived and is still in print. Ann Radcliffe lived from 1764 to 1823. The novel was first published in 1794. It was set beginning in 1584. Cool.
While The Castle of Otranto is considered by many to be the "first Gothic novel," this one is probably the next most famous example of classic Gothic fiction. And it is much improved from the above mentioned book which is supposed to be scary, but I found downright silly, even humorous. This one is not, although it is ultra-melodramatic, which accounts for the profuse weeping and melancholy, which, I suppose is forgivable because it is part of the style. This is also the book spoofed by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, although it appears that Jane did ike it.
Because it is so long, I'm going to give a brief synopsis of each volume. Actually, as I said earlier, it moves very slowly, so while you read through pages and pages and pages, often not that much happens, action wise, and the plot is fairly simple. A great deal of words are spent describing the beauty of the mountainous land in France and Italy, and the splendour of Venice. But even that can become wearisome after a while.
Volume 1 introduces us to the main characters, Monsieur and Madame St. Aubert and their late teen-age daughter Emily. (Although I really don't know her age, and
if it was mentioned, I missed it. But she is to come of age in less than two years after her father's death, so I figured late teens to early twenties.)
They come from a family of means, but through some unfortunate fate, they are not wealthy. It matters not, though. They are humble and plain, and prefer to
live in solitude in their chateau, located in the Pyrenées mountains of Gascony, on the banks of the Garonne called La Vallée. Emily's two brothers
have died in childhood. Her parents are very loving and kind, and have taught her to live with virtue, honesty, kindness, respect and humility. The family
spends their time enjoying the beautiful land on which they live, reading and making music. Emily draws, sings, and plays the lute, and also writes poetry.
They are happy and content.
Contrast that to the rest of their family. St. Aubert's father's extravagance put the family's finances in disarray, and when he died, St. Aubert chose to marry a woman for love not money, and sold the main residence to her brother Monsieur Quesnel, who is the opposite in life philosophy of the St. Auberts, placing importance on wealth and social standing. The same for St. Aubert's sister, Madame Cheron. They are pretentious, selfish, nasty, and lacking in all the virtuous qualities valued by Emily's family.
St. Aubert is struck with a fever from which he almost dies, but recovers. His wife, however, soon also become ill and dies. This begins to weaken Emily's father, through extreme grief and remnant of the disease. They decide to travel through the mountains in the hopes of bringing full recovery to St. Aubert, but the trip is rough. (Can you imagine traveling through the mountains in 1584 in a carriage with mules?!!) As they travel, they are met by a young man dressed for the hunt, and he befriends them. His name is Valancourt, and it turns out that St. Aubert is familiar with his family. They end up traveling together for much of the way. St. Aubert becomes fond of him, and it is obvious that he and Emily are falling in love.
However, St. Aubert is growing weaker every day, and they stop in a village of peasants where he dies in a cottage. The people take care of Emily, and there is a convent near by where she stays for a while under the loving care of the religious who abide there. Before dying, St. Aubert gives Emily specific instructions about destroying papers hidden in the chateau without reading them. He tells her there is also a small bag of money. She will not be wealthy, neither will she be destitute. He implores her to not sell the chateau, and gives his blessing on a marriage between her and Valancourt. He tells her he has appointed his sister, Madame Cheron as her guardian.
After spending quite a while at the convent, Emily does return home. She destroys the papers as instructed, but not without accidentally seeing something which greatly disturbs her. She struggles with the temptation to read further, but then is true to her promise to her father and burns them.
Emily wants to stay at La Vallée, but Madame Cheron demands she leave and live with her in Toulouse. When Emily doesn't arrive, Madame shows up at the chateau and takes her. Madame Cheron is also appalled by Valancourt and accuses Emily of impropriety. She forbids Emily from seeing him and intends to match Emily with a family of wealth. Madame Cheron is cruel, heartless, and selfish and chooses her "friends" by their status. Now it is Madame Clairval of whose Madame Cheron focuses. Imagine her surprise when, at a gathering, Valancourt is discovered to be present. And imagine even more surprise when she find that he is related to Madame Clairval! Meanwhile, she is also soliciting the company of a certain Italian named Montoni.
Because of the correction of perceptions, Valancourt and Emily are now urged to marry, of which they are joyful. But right before the marriage is to take place, they discover that Madame Cheron has secretly married Montoni, and he forbids the marriage between Emily and Valancourt. And what is even worse, the household is to immediately depart to Montoni's palace in Venice. As a last resort, Valancourt begs Emily to elope, but she feels she cannot.
Volume 2 begins as the Montonis begin their rough and dangerous journey over the Alps. Emily is at first in awe of Venice and enjoys the scenes and floating on
a gondola. But it doesn't take long to realize that Madame has made a terrific error in marrying Montoni. He is cruel and vicious, and his friends are made up
of scoundrels. He is now determined to force Emily to marry Count Morano, whom he believes to be wealthy. It's all pretentious, of course. Everyone is
operating for their own self-interest, including, of course, Madame, who married Montoni for wealth. Though Emily has vowed to refuse to marry the
Count, a wedding date is set for the next morning. Equally disturbing is the fact that her Uncle, Monsieur Quesnel has rented the chateau without Emily's
On the morning of the supposed marriage, Montoni whisks the household off before daybreak to his castle, Udolpho, in the Apennines. It is crumbling and deserted, and gradually Madame realizes that Montoni has no money, and he begins threatening her to sign over her property which she will not. Emily is the next heir, thus putting her also in grave danger. Meanwhile, Emily discovers lots of scary stuff about this castle, including the fact that she's been put in a room with a door that opens to a staircase—that locks from the outside! She has no way of barring entrance to her room, and Montoni won't allow her to change rooms. Next to it is a room containing a veiled picture that is forbidden to be viewed. And to top it off, the rightful owner of the castle, Signora Laurentini, a lover of Montoni, mysteriously disappeared twenty years ago, after which Montoni took ownership of the castle. At least this volume contains a little humor (intended or not) in the form of Madame Montoni's lady servant, Annette, who talks incessantly and is filled with stories and superstitions. That is also one of the characteristics of classic Gothic literature, by the way, (both the superstitions and servants with big mouths).
Things begin to unravel as Morano shows up to claim his bride. He breaks into Emily's room, but a fight ensues between him and Montoni, and he is gravely injured. Thrown out by Montoni, he is removed to a cottage where he is not expected to live. (But he does.) We now know more and more about the situation. Morano is just as in debt as the rest of the riffraff parading as nobility, which is why Emily was removed from him. That marriage is no longer a threat to her. However, violence toward Madame Montoni is inevitable because she won't sign over her property. Montoni has lost great wealth in gambling, and is losing both the castle and palace in Venice, yet he now has the castle filled with servants and workmen who are beginning repair of the crumbling fortress. In addition it is heavily guarded, so no one may escape or enter. And finally, someone tries to poison Montoni by putting something in his wine. Montoni blames his wife. Volume 2 ends as Madame Montoni is imprisoned in the east turret.
Volume 3 begins as Emily believes one of the guards, Barnardine, will escort her
to see Madame Montoni. But he double-crosses her, and she is involved in an attempted kidnap by Count Morano, who has indeed recovered and has bribed
Montoni's guards. She escapes.
One of the characteristics of classic Gothic horror is the involvement of supernatural phenomena, and there are many things happening in the castle that appear to be just that. However, Radcliffe tends to keep it more realistic, because everything turns out to have a physical cause, (except for the bit about the veiled picture, which we still are kept in the dark about until the very end of the book). Shortly after Emily's arrival, she begins to hear lute music and singing below here window. At first she believes it is a spirit, but observes it frequently, and, since it is singing French songs familiar to her, she becomes convinced it is Valancourt, who must be a prisoner in the castle.
During this period, Italy was at war with itself—not actual war as we perceive it, but more the plundering type, so it was typical for people like Montoni to have armies at his disposal. Often military men, when not occupied with other duties would join these groups. And of course, Montoni is nothing but a robber, and he and his band go out at regular intervals to steal from the wealthy.
Emily begs him to allow her to see her aunt, and he says she can see her at any time—she isn't locked in. By this time, he realizes it was Morano who tried to poison him. When Emily finds her, she is nearly dead. They bring her back to her room, and she dies soon after, but not before informing Emily where her papers are that leave her all her property. Of course now Emily is put in the same dangerous position as her aunt had been, and Montoni threatens to punish her horribly unless she signs over the property to him, which she will not. Meanwhile, a group of people from Venice arrive, including a woman whom Emily had thought was a lady, but turns out to be a lover of Montoni. They party and drink and carouse with the soldiers and Montoni's friends. But word has come that Montoni's deeds have been discovered and the castle is to be attacked. Montoni sends Emily off "for protection" with two guards to a cottage supported by Montoni. Though she doesn't trust anyone, it turns out she really is being protected, and somewhat enjoys her stay in the pleasant country surroundings out of the depression of Udolpho.
But Montoni sends for her return after the siege has been defended, and now he once again demands she sign the papers. Totally wearied by the whole ordeal, she does on the condition that she may return to France. He promises, but of course, goes back on his word. And what is worse, she now discovers that she will be used for paying off Montoni's debts. The first who comes to collect is Verezzi. But she is rescued by Annette and her lover Ludovico, another servant, and they all determine that they need to escape the castle. Meanwhile, Emily is convinced Valancourt is there as a prisoner, and sends Ludovico to investigate. The prisoner will not give his name, but knows all about Emily, and even has the little picture of her that belonged to her mother that went missing one day in the fishing house at La Vallée. Emily is beside herself with joy, and they carefully set up a meeting, as one of the guards is trusting and trustworthy.
But to Emily's horror, the man into whose arms she rushes is not Valancourt, but someone named Du Pont, another soldier, who was the one who secretly wrote the love sonnets to Emily back at La Vallée. As the meeting is taking place, several other event transpire at once, and they all become aware that there is a secret passage, an opening in the gate, and a way to bribe the guard with wine. The four of them escape with horses. They are truly free at last! They suddenly remember that they, none of them, have any money, but discover a little bag on one of the horses which will more than supply them what they need. When they grasp that they are not being pursued, they relax as they head toward Pisa. They cross the Arno by ferry, and at Pisa are able to get a boat to France.
We abruptly switch to the village where Emily's father passed away, and where the little convent is whose sisters and monks provided so much comfort and compassion to her on that sad event. There also is Chateau-le-Blanc. At the time of Emily's first visit there, no one would go near the chateau, even with St. Aubert so ill. There were terrible legends about it, and it was all but deserted. It was owned by the Marquis De Villeroi, whose wife had died mysteriously years before, and he left the residence permanently shortly after. St. Aubert knew the Marchioness, in fact it was her picture that Emily once caught her father grieving over. But now the Marquis has died, and the chateau has come into the possession of a relative, Count De Villefort, a kind and good-natured man, much like St. Aubert, who despite his wife's protests has determined to move the family there from Paris and to bring the chateau back to life. There is also a son, Henri and daughter, Lady Blanche, step-daughter to the Countess, who has put her in a convent all these years. Blanche's father, the Count now insists she be freed from those confines. She and her father adore the new residence. The Countess is sour and pretentious. One of their first activities is to spend leisure time on a boat, as they are located right on the sea, but a storm blows up and, unable to make it back to the chateau, they seek shelter at the convent. The servants go back by land for the carriages, as it is just a short distance. Meanwhile, another boat is in distress, and the Count and Henri guide them in, just making it to safety. It is the boat carrying Emily, Du Pont, Ludovico, and Annette.
They are befriended by the Count, and Emily and Du Pont stay at the chateau. More mysteries are revealed as the old servant, Dorothée confides in Emily the terrible circumstances of the late Marchioness, whom she has mourned these twenty odd years.
As for Count Morano, Montoni had anonymously accused him of plotting against the State in Venice, and he was thrown in prison without trial, and possibly without anyone knowing. People were said to die there unnoticed. Eventually Montoni also goes to prison where he dies, thus making Emily a very wealthy woman. But is it all for naught? It seems her beloved Valancourt has allowed himself to be corrupted in Paris while in the military, and the Count persuades her to sever their relationship. But what is really the truth about Valancourt?
I shall stop here, because I have already said way more than planned. As mentioned above, it takes a certain type of
reader to tackle this book, though it is very easy to read—no complicated language at all, and I truly found it hard to put down, especially into Volume
2 and beyond. And there are some quite terrifying parts—not because of the supernatural aspects, but because the villains are really quite horrible and
cruel—much scarier than any ghost! If ever we wanted a heroine to live happily ever after, it is surely so with Emily, who has been through hell and back. And
therein lies the most suspense with this novel.
One other comment: since this story was set two hundred years earlier than the date it was written, and contains facts about society and geography of the time, I consider it also a historical novel. And despite its length and slowness, I personally enjoyed it and found the conclusion, where all the mysteries were solved, quite exciting!
l m o v
All material on this site copyright © 2015 by Laughing Crow.
This site designed and written by Laughing Crow.