I have finished reading Ann Ward Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, which really grabbed me by the end of the novel and became difficult to put down. Part of this was that the end was in sight; by the time 600 pages of Radcliffe’s writing has happened to you, you’ll just want to see how things turn out. And Radcliffe is good at stringing you along — there are mysteries that aren’t explained until the very final pages, so even as you think you know what must happen to give the happy ending that’s surely coming, it’s not all that obvious that it’s going to. She is good with her misdirection.
Anyway. One more classic early novel under my belt. And although I aspire more towards Austen’s humor than Radcliffe’s dark drama, there were a couple of aspects that I really enjoyed about the reading. The first, as I mentioned before, was that Radcliffe knows how to paint a scene with detail. At no point are you ever in doubt as to what the corners of the room look like. She excels at putting the reader in a place that is concrete and real. As a historical fiction writer, that’s an important skill to master, since that’s half of why the reader is interested in the novel to begin with.
The second aspect that I really enjoyed was that Radcliffe had an amusing method of introducing the hero whenever he came into a scene, which was to wonder at the mysterious figure in the doorway, then announce him–as Valancourt! She does this nearly every single time Valancourt comes into a scene, which got to be downright funny by the end. Perhaps not the effect she intended.
Unintended, perhaps, but I now desperately want, when someone writes the book about my life, for my entrances to always be announced–as Charlotte! Let the trumpets blare on my behalf. I think I’m at least half as heroic as Valancourt, even if he did end up taking significantly more bullets than I ever hope to.
Heroes equal exclamation points. It’s true.
The reason I found myself reading The Mysteries of Udolpho is because it’s mentioned so prominently in Northanger Abbey, which I’ve now started reading again. It’s one of Austen’s early novels, which is obvious from the style and the simplicity of the plot line. Quite a lot of the humor revolves around the heroines of gothic novels, like Udolpho, and people who find themselves taken up enough with them to try and emulate their characteristics. (Rampant TV and movie watchers….you know who you are.) I’ve just reached Chapter Five, where Austen speaks directly to the reader in defense of the novel as a worthy art form. This rant not the best fiction, but it’s difficult not to sympathize with the indignant Austen, when the rest of the text is so witty and clever, and you happen to know that novels wouldn’t win widespread respect for nearly a century.
The two novels were written within a few years of each other, but reading Austen after Radcliffe is like leaving a cave for a bright day, which is actually exactly how both writers probably would have liked to phrase it. And while I am enjoying being back with an author that writes better characters, I do find myself missing Radcliffe a bit. After all….Valancourt!