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The Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho

by Ann Radcliffe


A novel set in France and Italy in 1584; published in English in 1794.


After the deaths of her parents, Emily St. Aubert is separated from her idyllic home and her first lover and is held prisoner in the Italian castle of Udolpho. Her escape leads to discoveries about her family history and her lover’s fate.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Born in London in 1764, Ann Ward moved to Bath in 1772. There is some uncertainty about her education. She perhaps attended a school run by Harriet and Sophia Lee. Sophia, one of the earliest writers of gothic novels, may have strongly influenced Ann’s future writings. It is known that Ann married the journalist-publisher William Radcliffe in 1787 and began writing with his encouragement. Within a few years she had published the romantic novels The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789) and The Sicilian Romance (1790). The publication of her third novel, The Romance of the Forest (1791), established her reputation as a gothic novelist, and the more successful release of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) proved her mastery of “terror,” earning her the epithet “Great Enchantress” of the gothic movement (coined by English writer Thomas De Quincey). The work gained similar distinction, attaining enduring renown as the most influential Gothic novel of the eighteenth century.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place


After 1350 the city-states of Italy found themselves in a constant state of war. What were initially local conflicts began to spread further along the Italian peninsula, drawing in the larger city-states. Successful in trade and commerce, these city-states did not want to disrupt their burgeoning economies by sending their citizens to war. They chose instead to hire outsiders who would fight for them. In time, the practice of war became a profession in Italy, and the condottieri, or hired soldiers, emerged as crucial players in the military and political landscape. They differed from typical soldiers in that they usually had no partisan feelings in the conflicts for which they hired themselves out.

One of the most prominent condottieri captains, Sir John Hawkwood, was not even Italian. An Englishman fighting in France, Hawkwood came to Italy when England and France made peace and pledged his own skills and his English soldiers to Florence for a lucrative contract or condotta. Hawkwood’s company of Englishmen played a pivotal role in Italian conflicts from the 1360s through the late 1390s.

At first, the majority of the early condottieri were foreigners, but eventually inhabitants from the Appenine and Romagna region of the Italian peninsula began to form their own mercenary armies. Soldiers would attach themselves to a popular leader, by whom they were directed into the service of any state that could settle on a price with him. These mercenary companies put themselves at the service of wealthy, but poorly defended, cities of the Italian plains, which included Padua, Parma, Venice, and Bologna.

From this new military professionalism came new forms of warfare. It grew rarer to fight in the open field because commanders began to rely on strategies of attrition, frequent skirmishing to lower enemy morale, and long sieges in which firearms and field fortifications became important factors.


Because the involvement of the condottieri was financially rather than politically or patriotically motivated, the battles between condottieri armies often produced fewer casualties than traditional warfare. There was a mutual sympathy and an understanding between condottieri, who knew the men opposing them were fighting for the same cause they were: money. In one of Hawkwood’s greatest battles against the Veronese, the total casualties amounted to 716 dead and 846 wounded. By comparison, 1,500 knights and 10,000 common soldiers died in the earlier battle of Crécy In France, and 26,000 men died in the battle of Towton during the English War of the Roses.

By employing condottieri companies, Italian city-states enjoyed the benefits of a standing army without having to pay the costs of maintaining one, but less palatable consequences resulted from the new practice too. While not actively employed, the large bands of condottieri posed a serious danger to the stability of the city-states they were hired to protect. A mercenary, Cecchino Broglio, for example, though born in the city of Piedmont, had fought successful battles for Milan. When peace was reached in Milan, Broglio launched his own raids into Florentine territory. Florence made formal protests to the leadership of Milan, who claimed they were not responsible for Broglio’s conduct. As Broglio’s incessant raiding continued, Florence realized the only way to stop him was to hire him. Broglio refused several offers, but finally agreed to a three-year contract to serve as the Captain-General of Florence, which, as anticipated, ended condottieri raiding in Florentine territory.

An even greater danger to the leaders of the Italian city-states came from the incredible popularity of some condottieri captains. In the fifteenth century, Biordo Michelotti became a condottiere after being exiled from his native city of Perugia. Years later, as Perugia struggled with violent unrest, Michelotti used his own army to take control of the city. A very popular leader, he maintained control for several years, until assassins sent by papal factions murdered him, inaugurating a new period of unrest in Perugia.

The most widespread use of condottieri began in the thirteenth century and continued through the late fifteenth century, with their activities persisting on a smaller scale for many more years to come. In Radcliffe’s novel, Montoni, the principal villain, raises his own band of codottieri in the late sixteenth century. He meets several condottieri captains at the gambling tables and conceives “a desire to emulate their characters, before his ruined fortunes tempted him to adopt their practices” (Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 379). Using the castle of Udolpho as a base of operations, Montoni quickly gathers an army of his own and launches incursions into the nearby countryside. Not only do his men pillage the helpless traveler; they also attack and plunder “the villas of several persons” (The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 397). His condottieri status reveals Montoni to be motivated primarily by economics; in short, he is a hunter of fortunes.

Pirates and banditti

In the sixteenth century, Dutch and English shipbuilding far surpassed the techniques used in the Mediterranean Sea, partly due to the greater availability and quality of timber in northwestern Europe. Realizing that Mediterranean ships were more poorly constructed and less well armed than northern European ships, English and Dutch pirates quickly took advantage.

Meanwhile, banditry in northern Italy was becoming epidemic. After an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1576, years of famine and increasing economic hardship followed. Responding to this weakening economy, landlords and city governments increased the already soaring taxation, prompting more unrest and dissatisfaction in the lower classes. This rising discontent manifested itself in an unprecedented surge of banditry in the last two decades of the sixteenth century. In an attempt to curb this problem, the viceroy of Naples condemned 18,000 people to death but soon realized this did nothing to discourage banditry. Government actions against the major bandit camps took on the aspect of miniature wars, with the law regaining control only when the viceroy of Naples joined with papal forces to crush the bandit movement

This sweeping criminality surfaces on several occasions in the novel. The servant Ludovico is kidnapped by pirates who have been so successful that they need the cellars below one of the homes, Chateau-le-Blanc, to store their plunder. Early in the novel, Emily and her father, Monsieur St. Aubert, worry about encountering banditti (bandits) in the isolated mountain passes of the Pyrenees, and later a count’s family is almost murdered when it meets a group of bandits while traveling. A member of the family overhears the bandits debating whether to rob them: “While we run the chance of the wheel [an instrument of torture] … shall we let such a prize as this go? (Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 613).

Convent life

In the sixteenth century, bachelors striving to marry their way into fortune precipitated an inflation of the dowry payment from a bride’s family to a groom’s. Daughters had once been powerful assets for alliances with other families, but now, in view of the rising dowry, they more often became financial burdens. Women with little financial means often faced the difficult choice of marrying a man socially beneath them or remaining unmarried. At the same time, the rise of urban centers and guilds restricted the freedom of working-class men; apprentices and journeymen often stayed unmarried for years until they attained a mastership. Meanwhile, the Church gained stature as an avenue for professional advancement. Clerical orders provided one of the few opportunities for upward mobility, attracting many eligible bachelors, who disappeared from the marriage pool to enter the clergy, where they sometimes took vows of celibacy.

With so many men removed from the supply of potential husbands, a place had to be found for the growing surplus of unmarried women. Convents became a natural solution. Typically families paid a fee to have their daughters accepted into a convent, but they considered the expense a bargain compared to the escalating cost of dowries. While the majority of nuns came from upper-class families, reformed prostitutes, the mentally disabled, and destitute widows also joined some convents. Charitable contributions would pay a poor woman’s way into the convent, where she repaid her benefactors by praying for them. Many such women entered convent life not because of religious devotion, but simply because, with no dowry and no chance for education or employment, the convent was their only option. Coincidentally some found fulfillment through the prayer and religious instruction that were part and parcel of convent life.

For a short while, the protagonist of Radcliffe’s novel, Emily, lives in a convent near Chateaule-Blanc. She discovers that she enjoys the tranquillity of the convent, but her primary reason for staying is practical rather than spiritual. She receives a letter that crushes her dreams of returning to live at her home, La Vallée, informing her that “her circumstances would by no means allow her to reside there, and earnestly advising her to remain, for the present, in the convent of St. Clair” (The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 494).

The degree of discipline in convents varied wildly by geography, time period, the codes of the religious orders that sponsored them, and the ideals of the local authorities. At some convents, the nuns had their own money to buy whatever they wished; at others, nuns began their service with a vow of poverty and surrendered their possessions, which were liquidated to help support the convent. In Radcliffe’s novel, when Emily enters the convent of St. Clair, she makes no payments or donations but is readily welcomed by the abbess. The nuns of St. Clair do no work and spend much of their idle time gossiping, but their living conditions are spartan. When Emily enters the convent, she finds herself in a tiny cell with only a bed of straw. Like many medieval and renaissance women, Emily considers remaining at the convent when she has no other options, but when she suddenly becomes a wealthy heiress, the idea of staying at St. Clair is quickly forgotten.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

As the novel opens, Emily St. Aubert is living an idyllic existence with her parents at La Valleé, a modest chateau set high in the Pyrenees. Monsieur St. Aubert has devoted himself to a simple life, far removed from the complications and pettiness of Paris society. One day Madame St. Aubert’s locket with Emily’s portrait inside mysteriously disappears. Emily later notices a romantic poem has mysteriously appeared on the wall of the tiny fishing house on their property. Otherwise, life follows a routine. Monsieur St. Aubert devotes himself to Emily’s education, teaching her Latin, English, the sciences, and literature, while also trying to instill in her his own appreciation for the peace and satisfaction that a simple life brings. Emily studies diligently, following Monsieur St. Aubert’s philosophy that “a well-informed mind is the best security against the contagion of folly and vice” (The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 6). She adopts Monsieur St. Aubert’s appreciation of the simple life, knowing she will receive only a small inheritance, as the family’s fortunes have diminished due to poor investments.

The family’s tranquillity is upset when Madame St. Aubert dies from a terrible fever. Emily grows additionally disconcerted when she hears her father sighing over a mysterious miniature of a woman who is not her mother. Trying to overcome his melancholy, St. Aubert takes Emily for a trip through the Pyrenees. During their travels they meet Valancourt, a young nobleman hunting in the mountains, who joins them in their travels. Spending several days with the St. Auberts, Valancourt falls in love with Emily, but he must leave her to return to his regiment because of increased hostilities in the civil wars between the French king’s Catholic armies and the rebellious Protestant Huguenots.

As they reach the coast, Monsieur St. Aubert’s health declines and Emily struggles to locate a doctor. They find a small village where they are welcomed by an elderly peasant. Monsieur St. Aubert is surprised to learn that they are very near to Chateau-le-Blanc, the former residence of the marquis de Villeroi. Monsieur St. Aubert wistfully recalls the marquis’s wife, the marchioness de Villeroi, but gives Emily no explanation of their acquaintance. The marquis’s sprawling chateau now lies abandoned. Just before he dies, Monsieur St. Aubert tells Emily that, without reading them, she must burn a collection of papers he has hidden in his study (the place where he sighed over the miniature). Emily agrees and, leaving Emily only the modest chateau at La Vallée, Monsieur St. Aubert dies. He is buried at the neighboring convent of St. Clair.

Returning to La Vallée, Emily finds her father’s secret documents. She dutifully overcomes her desire to read the papers and burns them as promised. For a few months Emily continues on at La Vallée, pursuing her education and receiving Valancourt. Monsieur St. Aubert’s sister, Madam Cheron, deems it improper for Emily to live at La Vallée without a chaperone, and so summons her niece to her own chateau in Tholouse.

In Tholouse, Madame Cheron forbids Emily to write Valancourt; because he has an older brother and stands to inherit nothing, Madame Cheron considers him an unworthy suitor. Also, knowing that Emily has no fortune of her own, Madame Cheron believes she should use her beauty to attract a wealthy husband from a prestigious family. Emily obeys her aunt’s wishes, but Valancourt continues to visit Emily in the secluded gardens of Madame Cheron’s chateau. When Madame Cheron learns that Valancourt is related to Madame Clairval, a wealthy and influential neighbor, she suddenly encourages Emily to see him and supports their plans to marry.

Meanwhile, Madame Cheron pursues a husband for herself, a seemingly wealthy Italian nobleman from Venice, whom she marries. The nobleman, Monsieur Montoni, drops his courtly facade and shows his true colors when he prohibits Emily from marrying Valancourt. He also informs Emily that they will be moving to his home in Venice. Valancourt and Emily consider eloping, but decide it would be devastating to their future plans and too detrimental to Emily’s social situation. They part sadly, hoping to be reunited.

In Venice, Montoni becomes even colder toward Emily and her aunt, now Madame Montoni, when he learns that his new wife’s fortune is much smaller than she led him to believe. He too has misrepresented his wealth; his Venice mansion is in dire need of repair. In an attempt to salvage his finances and ally himself with a powerful family, Montoni invites Count Morano to court Emily. Though Emily refuses the count’s affections, Montoni arranges for a wedding in a few days.

Before the wedding can take place, Montoni takes his wife, her niece, and the entire household to the ancient castle of Udolpho with no explanation. At Udolpho, Emily explores the gloomy corridors with Madame Montoni’s servant, Annette. Annette has learned the history of the castle from the other servants and explains that it was once owned by Signora Laurentini, a distant cousin of Montoni’s. Montoni wanted to marry her, but she refused and disappeared from the castle shortly thereafter. Her body was never found, but the servants believe her ghost still walks the castle. Emily dismisses the more fantastic elements of the story, but is intrigued by the disappearance of the signora. Later, while wandering through one of the signora’s old rooms, Emily finds a veiled painting. When she lifts the veil, she is terrified and faints from the shock of what she has seen.

Montoni presses Madame Montoni to sign over her French properties to him, but she refuses. Furious, Montoni spends his time repairing the castle’s defenses and gathering armed condottieri in its hall. Emily enjoys the solitude of her chamber, but becomes frightened when she hears noises in the corridors and sees a strange apparition outside her window. During the stay here, Montoni and his men ride out in large numbers and return to the castle for wild celebrations. Annette spends time with Ludovico, one of the castle servants, and learns that Montoni’s men are professional soldiers of fortune and have been successfully raiding nearby towns.

Emily is shocked one morning to learn that Count Morano has arrived at the castle. In the middle of the night, he comes into Emily’s room and tries to abduct her, but Montoni and his men hear the commotion and burst into the room. Montoni and Morano draw swords, and Morano is severely wounded. Despite his strong desire to kill Morano, Montoni allows his servants to carry him from the castle. Emily later learns that Montoni rejected Morano’s marriage suit in Venice because Morano’s fortune was not so large after all.

When government troops march against Montoni’s castle, Montoni sends Emily away to a secluded cottage. After a few days reminiscent of her life at La Vallée, Emily returns to Udolpho and sees that a terrible battle has taken place. Despite some damage to the castle walls, Montoni’s men have won the day and driven away the government forces. Turning his attention back to Emily’s aunt, Montoni demands she sign over her lands, but still she refuses. Her aunt disappears, and Emily fears foul play, then learns that her aunt has been locked in one of the towers. In a last attempt to get her properties, Montoni refuses to give his wife food, but to no avail. Madame Montoni remains obstinate, ultimately dying of starvation and fever in the tower.

Emily is heartbroken by the death of her aunt and watches sadly as Montoni’s cruel soldiers bury her in the chapel. The hotly desired properties have passed to Emily, and Montoni threatens her with the same fate as her aunt if she does not surrender her rights to the land. Emily refuses at first, but when Montoni promises she will be returned to France if she signs the papers, she agrees and signs. Montoni tells her she will be returned to France in a few months, once he is sure the lands are fully in his possession.

Back in her chamber, Emily again sees a strange figure out on the battlements and hears singing in the middle of the night. Though the voice is faint, Emily believes the singer to be Valancourt and learns from Ludovico that there is a Frenchman locked in the dungeon. Certain that the man is Valancourt, Emily sends a note to him through Ludovico and is surprised to receive her mother’s missing locket in return. Ludovico promises to sneak the man out of the prison.

True to his word, Ludovico brings the prisoner to Emily’s chamber the next night. Emily is disappointed to see he is not Valancourt. His name is Du Pont, and he once lived very near Emily’s home at La Vallée. Though they have never met, Du Pont had admired Emily from afar. He admits to having taken the locket from the fishing cottage, and also he wrote the poem on the wall. A few nights later, when Du Pont is again visiting Emily, Ludovico rushes in and tells them the castle gate has been left open while Montoni’s men celebrate another successful expedition. Emily, Du Pont, Annette, and Ludovico all escape the castle and race away.

Back in France the count de Villefort, a distant relative of her father’s old acquaintance, the marquis de Villeroi, removes his daughter Blanche from the convent where she has been living and takes his family to live at Chateau-le-Blanc. He hopes to restore the sprawling Chateau to its former glory. A few days later a storm nearly dashes a small ship into the rocky beach by the Chateau. The ship lands, and Emily, Du Pont, Ludovico, and Annette come ashore.

Blanche makes friends with Emily, who agrees to stay at Chateau-le-Blanc until she learns whether or not the papers Montoni forced her to sign are legally binding. Emily also writes letters to Valancourt’s family, hoping they will be forwarded to his current post. Emily and Blanche explore the ruined chateau, which captivates them with its endless hallways and the chambers of the marchioness, all locked since her death 20 years earlier. The housemaid, Dorothée, remarks at Emily’s resemblance to the marchioness and finally agrees to unlock the chambers. Dorothée and Emily enter the marchioness’s suite of rooms and are terrified to see a figure lying on the bed. They race out of the rooms and share their story with the rest of the household.

Wanting to dispel the servants’ growing fears about ghosts in the chateau, the count asks for a volunteer to spend a night in the marchioness’s chambers. Ludovico bravely steps forward and locks himself in the rooms for the night. The next morning he has disappeared. Unable to solve the mystery of his disappearance, the count and his son stay in the rooms. They make it through the night, but seem shaken the next morning and refuse to divulge what they have seen.

Emily visits her father’s grave at St. Clair and begins living in a small cell among the monks and nuns of that monastery and convent. One of the nuns, Sister Agnes, starts raving when she sees Emily. The other nuns explain that Sister Agnes has been demented since she came to the convent 20 years earlier. Several days later Blanche persuades Emily to return to the chateau, and, soon after, Valancourt arrives. He seems strangely melancholy during their time together and tells Emily that he no longer deserves her esteem. Confused by Valancourt’s words, Emily goes to the kindly count for advice. He informs her that Valancourt is reputed to have lost his small fortune through gambling and vice in Paris. The count’s own son was nearly ruined when Valancourt and his friends apparently cheated him in a game of cards. The count tells her she should send Valancourt away and accept the unblemished affections of the noble Du Pont. Devastated, Emily dismisses Valancourt and leaves for La Vallée.

A few weeks later, the count and his family leave Chateau-le-Blanc to visit Emily. They lose their way through the mountains at night and seek refuge in a ruined fort. Finding a band of hunters inside, they agree to share a meal with them. Blanche loses the group in the darkness and overhears some of the other “hunters” discussing their recent robberies. They are banditti plotting to poison the count and his group. Before Blanche can tell her father, he overpowers the bandits with the help of his servants, Du Pont, and (it turns out) Ludovico. After the fight, Ludovico explains that these same bandits are affiliated with a group of pirates who ply the Mediterranean. A network of caves link the beach with the cellars just below the marchioness’s chambers back at the chateau. While Ludovico slept, the pirates came into the room through a secret door after storing their plunder in the caves and were surprised to find him there. Not wanting him to give away the secret, they kidnapped him. Ludovico also reveals that one of the pirates bragged about pretending to be a ghost when Emily and Dorothée visited the chambers.

After a brief visit at La Vallée, Emily returns with the count and Blanche to Chateau-le-Blanc. Emily visits St. Clair and learns that Sister Agnes is dying. When she says good-bye to Sister Agnes, she finds her strangely coherent. Agnes confesses to Emily that she is actually Signora Laurentini. She once loved the marquis de Villeroi, but his family did not approve of her, and he returned to France to marry the marchioness. Feeling betrayed and seething with jealousy, the signora followed him back to Chateau-le-Blanc and slowly convinced him that the marchioness had been unfaithful. Twisted by the signora’s lies, the marquis poisoned the marchioness, but then he realized his mistake and left Signora Laurentini and Chateau-le-Blanc behind forever. Repenting her murderous jealousy and the loss of the marquis, who died in battle just weeks later, Signora Laurentini entered the convent of St. Clair, hiding her true identity.

Sister Agnes now tells Emily that the marchioness was the younger sister of Monsieur St. Aubert. Saddened by the tragic death of the aunt she never knew existed, Emily realizes this fact explains the mystery of St. Aubert’s documents and the miniature portrait. We also learn that the veiled painting at Udolpho concealed a wax sculpture of a rotting corpse used by previous generations as a Catholic religious warning about the wages of sin. In the shadows of the chamber, Emily believed it to have been the remains of Signora Laurentini. At this point, Sister Agnes dies, leaving her considerable wealth to the current heir of the marchioness. Emily is thus newly wealthy; however, she feels saddened by all the unnecessary tragedy and her own loss of Valancourt.

The count comes to Emily and tells her he had been falsely convinced of Valancourt’s treachery. While Valancourt was ruined by his own gambling, he had nothing to do with the crooked games or the loss of others’ fortunes. With the reputation of Valancourt restored, Emily’s newfound wealth, and his plea to her for forgiveness, nothing impedes their union. Valancourt is called back to Chateau-le-Blanc and happily reunited with Emily. As a married couple, they take possession of Emily’s original home at La Vallée.

Poison in fiction and history

When Montoni retreats to the castle of Udolpho, he believes he is safe from the political treacheries and betrayals that have been smoldering in Venice. But when he makes a toast to the future endeavors of his condottieri, his wine glass shatters and we learn that it is “Venice glass, which had the quality of breaking, upon receiving poisoned liquor” (The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 313). Realizing that someone is trying to kill him, Montoni imprisons the servants who poured the wine and uses this incident as an excuse to imprison Madame Montoni as well. Poison also figures prominently in the death of Emily’s aunt, the former marchioness de Villeroi. After the marquis agreed to Signora Laurentini’s diabolical plan to murder the marchioness, “a slow poison was administered” (The Mysternies of Udolpho, p. 658).

In the Renaissance, poison was commonly used in political assassinations in European lands. Murderers favored poison because it concealed the identity of the killer and was difficult to detect, given the limited medical techniques of the period. The novel speculates that even if the marchioness’s father suspected the plot, “the difficulty of obtaining proof deterred him from prosecuting the Marquis de Villeroi” (The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 659). Similarly, Montoni eventually releases the servants he suspects of poisoning him because there is no way of proving their guilt.

Inspiration for the novel’s instances of poisoning may hark back to Radcliffe’s own family history. In 1672 her ancestor Cornelius De Witt was falsely accused of plotting to poison William of Orange. The story of De Witt’s subsequent torture and imprisonment was widely known during Ann Radcliffe’s life and may have had an influence on her frequent use of poison in The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Sources and literary context

With the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764, gothic fiction seized the imagination of English readers. The movement featured stories of mystery and terror, characterized by gloom, violence, and medieval settings. The term gothic was drawn from medieval architecture that figured so prominently in the fiction, especially the ruins and edifices that distinguished its settings. Among the most widely used gothic elements were ruined castles, sublime landscapes, shadowy dungeons, wandering ghosts, and sinister plots.

One of the first female gothic writers was Sophia Lee, who wrote The Recess in 1783 and ran the school that many scholars believe Ann Radcliffe attended as an adolescent. With the publication of The Romance of the Forest and then The Mysteries of Udolpho, Radcliffe gave new energy to the movement and helped make the gothic romance the most popular literary genre of the 1790s. More exactly, Radcliffe cultivated a particular type of gothic fiction, one that aimed to inspire terror, not horror. Writers of horror, argued Radcliffe, go far beyond insinuation; they graphically depict grisly deeds and grotesque apparitions. In contrast, terror restricts itself to just insinuating dreadful circumstances and perilous dangers into the reader’s imagination without giving full details. Based usually on unseen threats, it awakens a reader’s faculties to a high intensity. Terror is expansive, whereas horror constricts and freezes these same faculties, a difference Radcliffe allegedly explained in an essay attributed to her—“On the Supernatural in Poetry.”

Radcliffe had not traveled outside of England at the time she wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho, and many of her descriptions of the beautiful landscapes of France and the romantic splendors of Italy were borrowed from travel books. William Coxe’s Travels in Switzerland (1789) mentions the nuns of St. Clare, claiming that one of them was Agnes, the former queen of Hungary, who spent her old age in the convent. Radcliffe’s own travels to England’s Isle of Wight, with its famous ruins of Carisbrooke Castle and Netley Abbey, may have influenced her description of the crumbling castle of Udolpho.

The wild landscape paintings of Salvator Rosa (1615-1673) further informed Radcliffe’s imagination, as did the French mythological landscape paintings of Claude Lorrain (1600-1682). Finally, her landscape descriptions are heavily indebted to the theory of the “picturesque.”. Popularized in her time, this theory concerned the criteria for making verbal descriptions evoke “painted” pictures in the mind (discussed in William Gilpin’s Three Essays, 1792).

The wax figure that Emily believes to be the corpse of Signora Laurentini may have been inspired by the description of a tomb in Pierre Jean Grosley’s New Observations on Italy and Its Inhabitants: “[in] the waxen image of a woman, made by her lover who had found her dead and buried upon his return … a lizard is sucking her mouth, a worm is creeping out of one of her cheeks” (Grosley in Norton, p. 73). This resembles the waxen figure Emily sees in the novel, the face of which is “partly decayed and disfigured by worms (Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 662).

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

The gothic movement and women’s rights

In 1765 William Blackstone stated in his Commentaries on the Laws of England that “the husband and the wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose total protection and cover, she performs everything” (Blackstone in Hoeveler, p. 6). In eighteenth-century England, women had no rights to sue, sign contracts, or make a valid will without the consent of their husbands. When Ann Radcliffe signed the publishing contracts for The Mysteries of Udolpho and her other novels, her husband, William Radcliffe, had to sign them as well. A contract signed by a wife without her husband’s consent had no legal validity, and a woman had no right to sell property, intellectual or otherwise.

Married women found it difficult to control any of their own real property during marriage. While a husband could not take away his wife’s land or other real property, he could take all rents and other income these properties generated. By law, husbands had the right to physically punish their wives, and women had little recourse to escape bad marriages. Divorce by act of Parliament was enormously expensive and quite rare; from 1670 to 1857 only four women managed to obtain divorces this way. To gain a legal separation in the church courts, a wife had to prove that her husband was adulterous and so physically cruel as to be life threatening. If a wife left her husband without a lawful divorce, she was guilty of desertion and had no claim to any of his property—including property she had brought into the marriage. In addition, she lost all rights to custody of their children.

Among upper-class women, England’s marriage laws made the well-being and safety of heiresses a major concern. Realizing that they could gain complete control of vast fortunes through a simple marriage, male suitors seduced wealthy heiresses without the consent of their families. By 1753 this problem had become so prevalent that, in an attempt to curb clandestine marriages, Parliament passed the Hardwicke Marriage Act, which made parental consent mandatory for everyone under the age of 21. Radcliffe appears to have applied such laws, with which she was familiar, to the plot of her novel. While Valancourt has Emily’s true love, a clandestine marriage is his intention when he asks her to “quit Madame Montoni’s house, and be conducted by him to the church of the Augustines, where a friar should wait to unite them” (The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 154). Emily refuses because of “her repugnance to a clandestine marriage, her fear of emerging on the world with embarrassments” (The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 155).

In such a male-dominated world, it perhaps comes as no surprise that “middle-class women writers of this period were particularly attracted to the female gothic novel because they could explore within it their fantasized overthrow of the public realm, figured as a series of ideologically constructed male ‘spaces,’ in favor of the creation of a new privatized, feminized world” (Hoeveler, p. 4). Novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho typically featured an innocent female character who eventually triumphs over a male villain—and even gets asked for forgiveness by the hero—despite oppressive strictures imposed from every side. While Emily is not married to him in the novel, her relationship with Montoni puts her in virtually the same position.

Belief in ghosts—from the novel’s to Radcliffe’s day

Catholic folklore of the late sixteenth century often featured ghosts. According to this folklore, the spirits of men who had died after leading sinful lives or without giving a proper confession appeared to friends or family members and asked them to pray for their salvation. These doomed spirits were consistent with the Catholic belief in purgatory, a temporary state in which the soul undergoes punishment before being allowed into Heaven. Many stories ended with the reappearance of the ghost in a more peaceful condition, an indication that the soul of the deceased was passing from purgatory into Heaven. This convenient resolution gave credence to the power of prayer and encouraged continued support to Catholic churches that took donations to pray for the souls of the departed.

Protestants—Radcliffe was one—rejected the idea of purgatory and usually attempted to refute the belief that ghosts were the spirits of the dead. In 1570 Louis Lavater wrote De Spectris, which became one of the most prominent Protestant books on supernatural occurrences. The book emphasized the Protestant view that spirits go directly to heaven or hell at death and do not return from either. Because their fates are sealed at death, spirits cannot walk the earth soliciting prayers for their salvation. Instead Protestants believed that ghosts, if they existed at all, were good or bad angels, most commonly bad angels sent by the devil to lure men into sin and false doctrines. These bad angels could be driven away only through prayer and the study of scripture.

For those who continued to believe in ghosts as spirits of the dead, there were certain rules to be followed while encountering a spirit. N. Taillepied, writing in France in the 1580s, advised his readers that, although “we are actually affrighted and startled in some degree at any such appearance or at a ghost,” we should “not fear any the more, nor tremble and shake, but boldly say: ‘If thou art of God, speak; if thou art not of God, begone’” (Taillepied in Finucane, p. 102). When Ludovico asks to have a sword during his stay in the haunted chamber, the count echoes another sixteenth-century belief by telling him, “Your sword cannot defend you against a ghost, neither can bars, or bolts; for a spirit, as you know, can glide through a keyhole as easily as through a door” (The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 544).

Even after Ludovico’s disappearance, the count doubts the existence of ghosts in the chateau, despite a friend’s advice. “I allow it may be probable,” counsels the friend, “that the spirits of the dead are permitted to return to the earth only on occasions of high import; but the present import may be your destruction” (The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 571). The count continues to regard this belief as mere “superstition,” which is the conclusion of this episode that Radcliffe delivers to her readers.

By Radcliffe’s time the questions concerning the existence and nature of ghosts had not yet been fully answered. Samuel Johnson spent considerable time evaluating the historical evidence (see The Life of Samuel Johnson, also covered in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). Johnson came to the following conclusion: “It is


Disappearance of Madame St. Aubert’s locket.Du Pont has watched Emily from afar and steals the locket from the fishing house.
A ghostly voice accosts Montoni during a meeting with his men.Du Pont has found a secret chamber and wails through a crack in the wall.
Disappearance of Ludovico from the sealed chamber.Pirates enter through a secret door and kidnap Ludovico.
Apparition on the battlements.Du Pont has tried to visit Emily while briefly free of the dungeon.
Spectral singing heard for years in the forest around Chateau-le-Blanc.The Abbess secretly allows Sister Agnes to leave the convent at night, hoping her singing will ease her troubled spirit.
Emily and Dorotheé see an apparition in the mar-A pirate, caught by surprise in the room, pretends to be a ghost to frighten the women away.

wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it” (Johnson in Finucane, p. 169). In keeping with this view, in the novel Emily experiences numerous occurrences that she is tempted to believe are supernatural. Some of these incidents are dramatically established but immediately explained. When Emily hears something strike her door and hears heavy breathing on the other side, we expect supernatural circumstances. Instead it is Annette, who has run terrified to Emily’s chamber and fainted just as she reaches the door. Every other supernatural incident has a similar explanation, though some do not come until late in the novel. Here are the key “realities” behind the novel’s most “supernatural” moments.


Ann Radcliffe received £500 for the copyright of The Mysteries of Udolpho, an unheard-of fee for an author of the period, especially a female author. This amount was “at the time so unusually large a sum for a work of imagination” that, on being told she had received £500, old Mr. Cadell, a man “more experienced” than anyone in such matters, offered a wager of £10 “that it was not the fact” (Norton, p. 95). Ironically, CadelFs publishing firm would pay Radcliffe £800 for her next novel, The Italian. By comparison, more than 20 years later, Jane Austen would receive only £10 for her gothic parody Northanger Abbey.

The reading public was instantly fascinated by the novel: “When a family was numerous, the volumes flew, and were sometimes torn, from hand to hand, and the complaints of those whose studies were thus interrupted, were a general tribute to the genius of the author” (Scott in Norton, p. 102). Critics appeared to be just as intrigued. The Monthly Review raved that “a story so well contrived to hold curiosity in pleasing suspence, and at the same time to agitate the soul with strong emotions of sympathetic terror, has seldom been produced” (Monthly Review in Norton, p. 106). When reviews offered mild criticisms of the novel, the backlash was so severe that retractions were quickly made. After the Critical Review received an outraged response to its first article on the novel, it was quick to dilute its critical tone with an apology, followed by high praise indeed: “It could not be our intention to speak slightingly of a work which all must admire, and which we have no hesitation in pronouncing ‘The most interesting novel in the English language’” (Critical Review in Norton, p. 105).

—Terence Davis

For More Information

Bruhm, Steven. Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Castle, Terry. “The Spectralization of the Other” in The Mysteries of Udolpho. In The New Eighteenth Century. Ed. Laura Brown and Felicity Nussbaum. London: Methuen, 1987.

Ellis, Kate Ferguson. The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Finucane, R. C. Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead & Cultural Transformation. Amherst: Prometheus, 1996.

Gilpin, William. Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; On Picturesque Travel; and On Sketching Landscape. 3rd ed. London: Cadell and Davis, 1808.

Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontes. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.

McNamara, Jo Ann Kay. Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Miles, Robert. Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress. Manchester, N.Y.: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Norton, Rictor. Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe. London: Leicester University Press, 1999.

Poovey, Mary. “Ideology in The Mysteries of Udolpho.” Criticism 21 (1979): 307-30.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Ed. Bonamy Dobrée. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1998.

—— “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” New Monthly Magazine 16 (1826): 145-52.

Trease, Geoffrey. The Condottieri: Soldiers of Fortune, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971.

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