Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 17. The Mysteries of Udolpho and other works

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XIII. The Growth of the Later Novel

§ 17. The Mysteries of Udolpho and other works

Of the novels themselves, as actual works of art, or as actual procurers of pleasure, it is not easy to speak so decisively. Except in the first, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), where the author had hardly found her method, and in the posthumous Gaston de Blondeville (1826), the general scheme is remarkably and, to some tastes, tediously uniform—repeating over and over again the trials and persecutions of a heroine who, at last, wins through them. Of the processes by which she herself, at last, achieved something beyond the stock personages who, as Scott says,

  • had wept or stormed through the chapters of romance, without much alteration in their family habits and characters, for a quarter of a century before her time,
  • Sir Walter’s own study of her gives, perhaps, the best criticism existing or likely to exist. His title for the motive of her more accomplished books—suspense—shows the expert. But actual enjoyment and a sense of obligation, not merely for that but for help in craftsmanship, made him, perhaps, a little too favourable. It is difficult to conceive anything more childish than her first novel, which carries out the most conventional of thin plots by the aid of characters who have not any character at all, an almost entire absence of dialogue, stock descriptions, stilted and absurd language and an exaggeration of the hopeless deformation and confusion of local colour and historical verisimilitude which distinguishes the age.

    A Sicilian Romance (1790) is a very little better, but not much; it approaches nearer to the main theme of the persecuted heroine, the main scene of wild landscape, house or castles honeycombed with dungeons, broken stairs and secret passages, and the main method of ingenious, intricate, at first alarming, but, so far as any total result goes, almost wholly futile, incident. In the three central books The Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), these motives, methods, or machineries are fully developed; and, among Mrs. Radcliffe’s admirers, each has its partisans. The first is the freshest, and its heroine Adeline, perhaps, is more attractive than her successors, Emily and Ellena. The far-renowned Mysteries supply the fullest, the most popular and, perhaps, the most thoroughly characteristic example of the style. The Italian is the most varied, the least mechanical, and, in the personage of the villain Schedoni (whose almost legitimate descendant the ordinary Byronic hero undoubtedly is), has, by far, the most important and, almost, powerful character—a character not, perhaps, wholly impossible in itself, and, even if so, made not wholly improbable by the presentation in the book. In fact, one may go so far as to say that, for anyone who has “purged considerate vision” enough to behold Schedoni, unaffected by the long vista of his deplorable successors, there is power in him; while, in all the three books, the various new motives above referred to make a strong combined appeal. In particular, though Mrs. Radcliffe had never visited Italy itself, she knew the Rhine with its castles; she knew the more picturesque parts (including the Lakes) of her own country; and she utilised her knowledge more than cleverly.

    On the other hand, there are two drawbacks (though, perhaps, one of them may be included in the other) which Scott himself perceived and admitted, and which will probably always prevent some, if not most, readers from appreciating Udolpho and its fellows. These are the extraordinary elaboration on means with futility on result already noted, and the “explained supernatural,” which, perhaps, is only a sub-variety of that blend. For, this latter, defence has sometimes been tried from different points of view; some urging that surely nobody can want such nonsense as the supernatural to remain unexplained and accepted; others, that the explanation gives room for, and, indeed, necessitates, no small possession of craftsmanship, if not of actual artistry, on the part of the novelist. Neither plea needs much critical examination. But the fact certainly remains that, to some readers, not, perhaps, the unfittest, this much-ado-about-nothing process, in the first instance, means disappointed irritation, and, in after cases, utter boredom and lack of interest. The further prevalence of the same much-ado-about-nothing method, even in cases where there is nothing supernatural, is, perhaps, equally tedious, if less positively irritating. It has been pointed out that pages on pages, and, almost, chapters on chapters, of Udolpho are occupied by the account of Emily wandering, or being led about, the castle for hours by one of Montoni’s ruffians, and being brought back to her room without anything really dreadful being done to her, even in the way of threats. Once, her aunt is, with some violence, removed from her company; but nobody injures her, locks the door, or interferes with her in any way. When she is in the hall, a wounded man is carried past; but, again, nobody even speaks to her. She wanders about the castle and sees a track of blood (which is not very remarkable, considering the wounded man) and concludes that her aunt has been murdered. She finds her maid in a room. And then she goes back to her own, and—very sensibly—goes to bed.

    It is fair to say that, in The Italian, both hero and heroine are exposed to much more real dangers; and that there are situations not by any means lacking in strength. It would certainly stand reprinting better than the others. But it shares with them the drawback that there is no real suspense about this so-called “novel of suspense.” Jack is sure to have Jill; both Jack and Jill are sure to get out of their troubles; and, though there is not exactly “much ado about nothing” here, as there almost, or altogether, is in The Mysteries, there is certainly rather little wool for a very great cry.