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The Mystery Behind the Mysteries of Udolpho

mysteries-of-udolpho-coverI have been deep in gothic literature, as I somehow decided writing a fifteen page term paper on The Mysteries of Udolpho was a good idea. I did this, despite not having actually ever read The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is neither here nor there.

Aren’t I clever?  It has the same number of dots on the bottom of my Kindle’s screen as The Thorn Birds, AKA That Australian Epic, did.  Clearly this is an appropriate amount of work for a twelve-week semester, because I haven’t got the good sense to be reasonably daunted by, well, much of anything.  All the same, I have been enjoying myself.  I have a weakness for early novels.

Radcliffe was writing before just about every book you’ve ever heard of was written.  She was one of the first, if not the first, to write about finding corpses in lonely towers.  The characters are flat, but the descriptions of the landscape are vivid enough to make up for it.  And if I giggle a little every time the villains whip out their swords and fight amongst themselves, well, it does well to remember that her original audience had never seen the conclusion of The Princess Bride.

But they probably knew Hamlet.

One of the reasons I love 18th century literature (or, in this case, not-quite-18th-century-literature) is that it’s such a reminder of what electricity did to change our world.  The people who originally read Radcliffe read her novels out loud to each other while sitting in dark rooms lit only by candle light.  There are parts of the story that seem nearly innocent because of our modern overexposure to gore and violence, but there was a time when reading about finding a corpse in a dark turret of a lonely castle at night would have been enough to haunt you for days.  There’s something fabulous about early horror novels– so fabulous that I want to read them while sitting in a dark room lit only by candle light on a cold and rainy night.

It is not the most amazing writing.  The characters are very flat.  Our heroine is good and brave and generous.  Her parents are good.  Her extended relations are foolish and selfish.  You don’t have to wonder who the villain is–Radcliffe refers to him as such all the time (pet peeve alert).  But if Radcliffe doesn’t leave you to form your own opinion about him, there’s no real need to– since he only ever acts in a villainous way, there isn’t much to discuss about his character.  The landscape is given much more attention than the characterization of any of the people, which is one of the areas where the novel really shines.  The characters are moving through an agricultural world, where groups of people would sit around and discuss the attributes of the mountains surrounding them.  Taking a day trip to see a vista was completely reasonable.  I imagine that Radcliffe was one of those people– her love affair with nature comes through whenever the characters move through the world.  The natural world looms so large that it becomes a character of itself; a character that dwarfs the people in it and makes their vulnerability and frailty obvious.  If I would bring any of Radcliffe’s style into my own writing, her setting description would be what I would choose.

As tempting as corpses in lonely castle turrets are.

All the same, if you’re a horror lover, I can’t imagine that you’d want to pass over the original horror writer.  It’s long, it’s very 18th century, but it’s also a view into a way of life that has disappeared — and there are points where it’s heart-poundingly page-turningly good, in the way only a swashbuckling adventure can be.

 

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