The Mysteries of Udolpho

Text by Keiren Phelan, Trustee at Jane Austen’s House

The 2007 film Becoming Jane, in which American actor Anne Hathaway’s love affair as Jane Austen with Scottish actor James McAvoy as Irish lawyer Tom Lefroy, includes an improbable encounter in which the emerging novelist Jane Austen meets the bestselling novelist Ann Radcliffe.

Mrs Radcliffe, with her fourth novel The Mysteries of Udolpho of 1794, had become a literary sensation with her extravagantly gothic tales, creating an impact  in fiction which reverberates to this day. She wasn’t the first writer to indulge in terror – and therefore sales – but the success of Udolpho has had a lasting impact on popular fiction for the last two hundred years. She established the staple ingredients of forlorn maidens, appalling and tyrannical men, wild and inhospitable landscapes, and barely credible storylines. The heroine of Udolpho, Emily St Aubert, is a strange mix of soppy swooning incompetence and a quietly impressive proto-feminism, standing up with fervour to her repellent aunt, the brigand Montoni and his wretched castle, and the banditti of the Apennines and Pyrenees.

However, the naivety of young Emily makes her an obvious target for Jane Austen. Other writers too had satirised Radcliffe’s overheated prose, and Jane had written to her sister Cassandra that she had ‘torn through’ Eaton Barrett’s The Heroine, ‘a delightful burlesque, particularly on the Radcliffe style.’ Nonetheless, as a response to the reading passions aroused by The Mysteries of Udolpho, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is the most elegant of satires, a delightful story in its own right, which affectionately teases the original without lumbering parody. Its heroine Catherine Morland surprises Henry Tilney, to put it mildly, when she compares a view in Bath with the south of France. ‘You have been abroad then?’ he asks in disbelief, but she has only been reminded ‘of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho.’ In this she had much in common with Ann Radcliffe, who had no first-hand experience of France or Italy either.