The Mysteries of Udolpho

Object name: The Mysteries of Udolpho, first edition

Object number: CHWJA:JAHB48.1 – 4

Category: Books

Description: The Mysteries of Udolpho, first edition, 1794, in four volumes. Written by Ann Radcliffe and printed in 1794 by G. G. and J. Robinson. Marbled cover and back with brown leather spine and corners. The spine printed with title, author, volume number and 1794. Re-bound by William George’s Sons LTD.

Made: 1794

Context: The Mysteries of Udolpho is a Gothic novel by Mrs Radcliffe. It was one of the most popular novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and continues to be cited as the archetypal Gothic novel.

Set in France and Italy in the late sixteenth century, it tells the story of Emily St Aubert, a beautiful and virtuous heroine who suffers a series of extravagant and highly dramatic misadventures including the death of her mother and father, supernatural terrors in a gloomy castle, and the machinations of a violent Italian brigand. Published in 1794, it became a literary sensation with its extravagant plot, overheated prose and naïve heroine. It was an easy target for satire, with parodies such as Eaton Barrett’s The Heroine (1813) emerging; on 2–3 March 1814 Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra: ‘I have torn through the 3d. vol. of the Heroine, & do not think it falls off.—It is a delightful burlesque, particularly on the Radcliffe style’.

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (published in 1817, but written possibly as early as 1794, and completed it in 1798-1799, at which time it was called Susan) also satirises Udolpho, although in a more restrained and elegant manner. Its heroine Catherine Morland, also a naïve young protagonist, has her natural good sense distorted by her fondness for Gothic novels and an overactive imagination.

Catherine reads Udolpho greedily, declaring to her friend Isabella Thorpe: ‘Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it.’

Northanger’s hero, Henry Tilney, also professes enjoyment of it, telling Catherine: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time.”

Gothic terror novels not only feature within the plot of Northanger Abbey, but their conventions seep into it. Part of the action takes place at Northanger Abbey itself, where Catherine gleefully assumes the role of Gothic heroine, on a keen lookout for any terrifying circumstances, although these all prove to have quite rational explanations.

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