The Mysteries of Udolpho is a book a reader can only enjoy by giving into it. There is no engaging in it in any normal way, no way to second guess the mysteries or plough through the excess of landscape detail - a reader can only wallow in it and be carried away. On the days I was willing to be swept away, I had a delightful experience but on other days it was a real slog.
One aspect that alternately won me over and put me off was the description of landscape. It is lush, especially at the beginning when Emily, our main character, and her father are taken a scenic route around the mountains. There were some beautiful details, such as a mountain slightly taller than the others glowing with snow on the top, or the dreamlike depiction of Venice and being rowed towards it with the fairy-lights twinkling and music in the air. Other times, I was tired of being told yet again that there were larches, or another rushing torrent of water. Yet, as excessive as it is (and the Gothic novel relies on excess) it had a point. This is a book of heightened sensuality. The landscape, food, music - it all strikes hard and is felt deeply. As much as Emily is warned away from feeling things too strongly, it’s very noticeable that the characters in the book who are good and decent also feel very strongly and are at times carried off by their engagement with their surroundings.
Another push/pull element of the book are the mysteries themselves. This book may as well have been titled The Mystery-Boxes of Udolpho, the way the book creates mystery after mystery and only fills them all in at the end. There are times when the book cheats, shifting point of view so the reader isn’t informed of the shocking thing seen and then teased about it forever after. There are also examples of the technique known in film as the Leyton Bus, where tension is built and relieved by a false scare, in the case of Udolpho often in the form of a figure bursting out of the shadows actually being a friend.
I can see why some readers may get frustrated with Emily. I saw an infographic where she wins the ‘fainting-woman-in-a-Gothic-novel award’ with a total of eleven faints. She’s also prone to crying and sighing. Yet I really grew to like her, especially in the parts of the book in Udolpho itself. She does faint a lot, but more often she feels faint before overcoming it. She may cry often but frequently she holds back the tears until she’s alone or fights off the urge. She does get the creeps about spooky goings on but she reserves her real worries for earthly fear, like the spare door to her room she can’t lock. Rather than see her as a weak character, I saw her as someone with very strong feelings and no experience of life’s horrors being remarkably brave under utter desperate circumstances. True, she doesn’t have sudden kick-ass kung-fu moves, neither does she parkour over the castle backflipping guards - but she is strong and (especially in Udolpho) is in a completely impossible position.
I didn’t like Valencourt though, that guy was a wuss. Though he does further add evidence to Emily’s strength, when they said goodbye to each other, he was in incoherent bits and she was firm. Also, what was Du-Pont about? His character made no sense to me, I’m guessing he went off and invented Nylon. (Also, speaking of inconsistent characters, what about Manon, the incredible disappearing/reappearing dog?)
I thought the book built up tension very well. Montoni was a brilliant villain with enough fairness to make him seem like he could be reasoned with and enough nastiness to make it dangerous. The part when Emily returns to the castle after the siege and everything is lawless had me gripped, anything could have happened in those winding corridors. It did seem strange, then to have the stuff about Blanche and their castle in the third part. We’d already spent time in the scariest castle, this one feels like a come-down, even though the part when they go into the abandoned apartments is really good.
An element that mostly put me off the book was the poetry. I didn’t skip any of it but most of it did little to add to the story or the atmosphere, few people when being abducted decide to amuse themselves writing a poem about Troy. The poetic tags at the beginning of chapters were interesting, giving little clues about the content of the chapters. One of those tags made me laugh out loud, it was from Thompson and read;
“Hail! Mildly-pleasing solitude!’ - It’s a lovely bit of bathos.
As for chapters, it rather ruined the flow of my reading that some chapters were a page or two long, whilst others could be up to thirty pages. It meant that when I started a chapter, I didn’t know if I’d have enough time to get to the end of it in the same sitting.
Overall, The Mysteries of Udolpho can be very rewarding if it is read right. Don’t fight it - just let it take you and it will.
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