‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ Made Awesome in Six Easy Steps

It isn’t difficult to imagine why Jane Austen would want to satirise a novel like The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is, despite its fine romantic imagery, the huge role it played in defining the Gothic novel and Mrs Radcliffe’s general awesomeness as a successful female novelist in nineteenth century England, a rather silly book. Its characters are tiresome cardboard cut-outs in the habit of spontaneously composing perfectly-structured poetry, which they sometimes recite (mercifully when alone); its plot is engaging, then thrilling, then utterly flat; and the author often doesn’t seem able to make up her mind as to whether she’s writing a novel, a treatise on the Sublime, or what Lady Bracknell would call ‘a three [four?] volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality.’

Her Ladyship has determined that the task of reviewing this valuable, important, harmlessly fun and unappealingly preposterous book is far too large and complicated an assignment. She shall therefore undertake to suggest a few changes that might have made it a more entertaining read. Most of these would probably be unacceptable in nineteenth century society, would no doubt have seen the author excommunicated and forced into hiding, and will not take into account that Udolpho’s ridiculousness is entirely deliberate and appropriate to the genre at that time, but what matter? Her Ladyship is simply amusing herself.

Let us begin with a brief introduction to the characters most relevant to this little project.

Emily St Aubert: the novel’s protagonist. A sugary sweet, good as gold, virtuous, righteous, honourable, helpless little princess (not literally) with the constitution of a butterfly; overly fond of fainting and of trying to be rational.  She does, mercifully, have a strong but not overpowering spunk about her that prevents her from being utterly unbearable and even leads us to admire her every now and again, particularly in her confrontations with Signor Montoni .

Artwork by Three Panel Book Review on tumblr.

Artwork by Three Panel Book Review on tumblr.

Monsieur St Aubert: Emily’s father. Jean-Jacques Rousseau without the sulking.

Valancourt: Emily’s fiancé; the stereotypical passionate young lover. Self-pitying, narcissistic, eminently punchable, spends most of his time making Emily lose consciousness and feel dreadful about herself. He’s also good, then bad, then good, then not-so-bad-after-all, then good, and is simply not worth the trouble of puzzling it all out.

Madame Montoni: Emily’s aunt. Mrs Reed from Jane Eyre, only inclined to greed instead of jealousy (not that she’s without that either).

Signor Montoni: Madame Montoni’s husband, the novel’s villain. The most bearable character in the entire book, he is only rendered so by not possessing a jot of the golden virtue that most of the other characters possess ad nauseum. Callous, cruel, amoral, dissolute, brooding and greedy: stereotypical gothic bad guy.

Count Morano: Montoni’s friend; the embodiment of every bad thing the English have ever thought about Italians (lustful, overly-passionate, can’t take no for an answer, blah blah blah).

Udolpho not being the most popular book in the universe, we shall now take a look at a bland and poorly-written introduction to plot points relevant to our purposes:

Emily lives happily in Gascony with her parents; Emily’s mother dies; Emily’s father takes her on a tour by coach to the Languedoc and the Pyrenees; they run into Valancourt on the road; Valancourt and Emily fall in love on the road; Emily’s father dies on the road; Emily is put into the care of her heinous aunt Madame Montoni, who says that she can’t marry Valancourt, then that she can, and then that she can’t; Emily is taken away to Italy by Madame Montoni and her creepy husband Signor Montoni, who has an equally-creepy castle in the Apennines called Udolpho; they settle in Venice, where Emily meets Montoni’s dishonourable friend Count Morano; Count Morano never stops trying to get into Emily’s pants; Montoni tries to marry Emily to Count Morano, Emily refuses, Emily is told she will be forced to marry Count Morano; on the morning of the wedding, Montoni unexpectedly takes Emily and Madame Montoni away to Udolpho.

Artwork by zen_parvez-d5trhut

Artwork by zen_parvez-d5trhut

Udolpho turns out to be a terrifying edifice where supernatural things go bump in the night; Montoni turns out to be a bit of a jerk who is trying to force Emily’s aunt to give her fortune to him instead of Emily when she dies; Madame Montoni refuses to sign over her fortune; Montoni finds time, between his commission of various grievous crimes including getting drunk with his friends, associating with bandits and carousing with ladies of the night, to employ a number of cruel and unpleasant means to get his wife to succumb; Emily spends most of her time crying, fainting, wishing Valancourt would rescue her, and interceding with Montoni on her aunt’s behalf when the old lady has been nothing but a bitch to her; and…well. Her Ladyship does not intend to summarise the entire book.

Let us begin.

The Mysteries of Udolpho made awesome in six easy steps

Make Emily edgy.

Make her a more flawed version of Elizabeth Bennett; or make her someone who seems perfect, but is hiding something, or running from something; or if she absolutely has to be a stereotype, make her a tomboy. It’s a less annoying stereotype than that of the princess.

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Cut down on the random poetry recitals.

Yes, making characters spontaneously write poems in their heads is a very original idea, but unless your characters are literary geniuses, oral poets, or from Middle Earth, it’s not realistic, and doesn’t even make us want it to be realistic.

Make Emily think about escaping Udolpho on her own steam.

Sure, it’s difficult to do any kind of spontaneous running when you’re trapped in a castle on a mountain. It’s not difficult to find out all you can about the surrounding country, or to know when the guard is changed, how many guards there are per watch, what routes they take, what weapons they carry, which ones are drunks, which ones are idiots, which ones fall asleep on duty (hey! I’m sounding like Arya Stark!). Even if it’s just the thought of bribing someone, stop all this waiting for Valancourt or Ludovico (the novel’s stereotypical Italian servant) bullshit and let the girl use her brain. Better still, let her try to run away. It’s a stupid idea without the aforementioned preparation, but at least she’d be rendered a little less pathetic.

Make Emily see Valancourt for the self-obsessed little creep he really is.

Valancourt’s strategy, both in a fight and out of it, is to blame Emily for absolutely everything and then to use a diabolical kind of reverse psychology and paint himself in the worst possible light. This inevitably makes Emily feel awful, start crying and not want to lose him, and while we can certainly give her the credit of not yielding to most of his entreaties, she kind of spoils things by making it clear that she wants to. Then there’s the way that he talks to her, expresses his love for her and woos her, which is so disgustingly sentimental that even your standard male participant in a medieval courtly love relationship would find it either hilarious or distasteful.

If you absolutely have to pair Emily with someone, pair her with Montoni.

Turn it into an ‘irresistible chemistry between cruel older man and innocent young girl’ thing. And, if you want to be really original, don’t make her reform him or discover that ‘deep down he’s vulnerable and just wants to be loved,’ or anything like that. Keep him bad, and keep her good and virtuous, but unable to help herself: the sort of thing that Angela Carter does in The Bloody Chamber. For one thing, the sheer raciness of the idea would make the entire novel a thousand times more entertaining, and would provide a lot more opportunity for character development in Emily, i.e. she’ll have a choice between staying in a destructive relationship, or taking charge and walking away.

Yes, she’s in a castle in the middle of nowhere, but can’t we just pretend?

Make the ghosts real.

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Or at least make us unsure that they’re not. A ghost story that provides rational explanations for every thrillingly creepy incident (albeit at the end, so it’s not that bad) is just plain disappointing. The triumph of reason is a very sensible and very noble literary theme, but in a gothic novel? It doesn’t really work unless it’s cathartic in some way, and though ghosts are laid to rest by the novel’s end, we aren’t seized by any kind of emotion or catharsis, because the author decides to devote a chapter to explaining everything. This would be fine if it was done through the mouths of the novel’s characters. What we get instead is an utterly-emotionless step-by-step provision of reasons why none of the shit going down is actually supernatural. It’s both yawnable and disappointing.

That being said, Her Ladyship has now adequately amused herself and is retiring for the night. I would say something to the tune of ‘Farewell, dear reader,’ but that would just be irritating.

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Sherlock S03E01: The Empty Hearse (Review)

Her Ladyship takes time off from her wanderings in the dark corridors of fan fiction to watch the premier episode of Sherlock season 3 and to reason from what she sees.

A singularly-strange and enjoyable little episode that feels a lot more like the product of the hugely-hyperactive and oft OTT pen of Steven Moffat than the darkly-intelligent work of its actual writer, Mark Gatiss, The Empty Hearse is big on chemistry, hugely entertaining and very promising of more awesomeness to come; yet falls a little flat in terms of plot, and of the mishandling of a few subtle but entirely basic Sherlock character traits that doesn’t quite seem pardonable in a show run by a pair of Holmes junkies.

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The Empty Hearse has a lot of fun ridiculing the many fan theories (both plausible and preposterous) that have popped up since the deeply-moving rooftop scene in The Reichenbach Fall that had most of us crying and screaming into our pillows for days after it was shown. None, however, is quite so much fun as the one we are introduced to first, in the episode’s engaging and utterly-badass opening sequence that brings us everything from the strategically-placed cyclist, to the bungee-rope-not-bungee-rope in Sherlock’s coat, to the Sherlock mask on Moriarty’s corpse; as well as a range of other awesomeness of which we shall not speak (except Sherlock crashing through the mortuary window and sticking his tongue down Molly’s throat. That part was too much fun not to mention). After the opening sequence, the show loses no time in informing us that Sherlock has been fully exonerated, post-mortem, of the charges trumped up by Moriarty, has spent the past two years dismantling the criminal genius’ network, and has been recalled to London from the depths of a Serbian torture chamber by his brother Mycroft, who wants him to investigate an imminent terrorist threat to the city. This, of course, means being reunited with John, who is newly-engaged, still grieving the loss of his best friend to the point of not having contacted Mrs Hudson for two years, and will probably be none too pleased that Sherlock has knowingly allowed him to go through hell. John’s reaction to the discovery that Sherlock is alive constitutes the main crux of the episode, and it is, most unfortunately, a double-edged sword of a focal point.

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First up, John. Martin Freeman’s acting is beautifully, movingly and vividly realistic. In John’s day-to-day existence he dons the grin-and-bear-it mask that so many bereaved people wear every day of their lives no matter how much it hurts. In his quieter moments of remembrance with his fiancée Mary (Amanda Abbingdon), and in the touchingly-garbled and emotional conversation that he has with Mrs Hudson when he finally works up the courage to visit 221B after Sherlock’s death, he starts to let us in more and more as to what he’s been thinking and feeling in coming to terms with the ‘aloneness’ of a world without Sherlock. It’s in his interaction with Sherlock himself, of course, that all hell truly breaks loose, and the naturally-volcanic chemistry between Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a whole lot of highly-emotional, heartrending and side-splitting scenes together, as John alternates between listening to Sherlock trying (and failing) to explain himself in an acceptable manner; and attempting to murder Sherlock in a variety of ways for what he has done.

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It is Sherlock’s half of the equation, regrettably, that just doesn’t feel right, and the problem lies in the script’s characterisation of him. Yes, we all know that Sherlock is a sociopath and has a near-autistic inability to understand or consider the feelings of others; and this may very well lead us to make the same conclusions, in terms of his character, that Gatiss has made in the script, i.e. Sherlock believes that John will be ‘delighted’ to discover that he is alive; doesn’t display anything that could reasonably be called remorse; is quite at a loss to understand why his friend doesn’t forgive him immediately; and is willing to resort to the most callous (if typical) of theatrics to bring John’s true feelings about him to the fore.

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‘If his theatrics are typical, then what’s the problem?’ The answer to that question is in the Reichenbach Fall itself. The pathos of that scene; the incredible emotion and tragedy of it; Sherlock’s willingness to destroy both himself and his reputation for the good of his friends; the fact that we see him crying towards the end of it; the usually stunted nature of his emotions transformed in the face of death, even though the great detective almost certainly knows, at that point, that he will not die: the idea of those emotions being simulated is, to Her Ladyship at least, absolutely unthinkable. Watching it, you’re really seized with the idea of separation being just as painful for Sherlock as it is for John (even if it isn’t, John not being about to die), and as a viewer, you’re granted a rare opportunity of seeing that, unburied beneath all Sherlock’s usual bullshit. I’m not saying that I wanted Sherlock to break down and be an emotional wreck for most of The Empty Hearse. Emotion is not something he does easily or lightly: but just one, tiny particle of a millisecond of acknowledgment of how hard it must have been for him to know that for two years, his friend was just a text away from being spared complete misery and heartache, would have rendered the Sherlock we see in this episode just a little more human, and would have ensured that the Reichenbach Fall itself, arguably the greatest scene ever between Sherlock and John, was not so shamelessly trivialised.
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The original short story on which this episode is based, The Empty House, succeeds marvellously at this particular aspect of Holmes’ character, even though he is faced with an entirely forgiving Watson who does nothing more alarming that faint at the sight of him. The short story manages to preserve both Holmes’ character, and the uncharacteristic expression of the depth of his regard for Watson. Let’s look at a quote:

“I had only one confidant – my brother Mycroft. I owe you many apologies, my dear Watson, but it was all-important that it should be thought I was dead, and it is quite certain that you would not have written so convincing an account of my unhappy end had you not yourself thought that it was true. Several times during the last three years I have taken up my pen to write to you, but always I feared lest your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret (…) I came over at once to London, called in my own person at Baker Street, threw Mrs Hudson into violent hysterics, and found that Mycroft had preserved my rooms and my papers exactly as they had always been. So it was, my dear Watson, that at two o’clock to-day I found myself in my old armchair in my own old room, and only wishing that I could have seen my old friend Watson in the other chair which he has so often adorned.”

In contemporary English: ‘I was scared that you’d do something stupid if you knew I was alive. I knew what you must have been going through, I missed you like hell, and I’m sorry.’ The short story preserves Holmes’ charming narcissism and high opinion of himself, while still presenting us with a touching apology and a sincere admission of guilt. Will somebody please explain to me why this could not be done convincingly in The Empty Hearse? True, Victorian men were much more vocal about their affections for their friends than contemporary ones, but the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock could easily have portrayed emotions parallel with those of the Conan-Doylian Holmes even without saying a word, and this could have been achieved with just a tad more attention to detail and subtlety in the script. I find it very hard to believe that a writing and production team working with an actor of Benedict Cumberbatch’s calibre could not find some way of doing this properly.

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But now I’m acting as though the entire episode was ruined by this one thing; and that is very far from the truth. Most of the scenes between John and Sherlock are an absolute joy to watch, thanks to the aforementioned Freeman-Cumberbatch chemistry, and as the original storyline of the terrorist plot on London becomes more and more submerged in the interaction between their characters, we find that we don’t mind very much at all. There is a wonderful scene involving Sherlock, John, a bomb and a railway cart (V for Vendetta?) that makes for phenomenal viewing thanks to its powerful acting (I don’t ship Sherlock and John as a couple, but I must confess to harbouring sentiments distinctly of the ‘just kiss him, already!’ persuasion while watching it). A pleasant surprise is the instant and seemingly-mutual respect that springs up between Sherlock, and John’s fiancée Mary, which should provide us with plenty of interesting interactions in future episodes; particularly in terms of the way it will no doubt develop when the time actually comes for John and Mary to get married. An unpleasant surprise is the recourse to terrible jokes and clichés for no apparent reason (what exactly was the point of making such a terrific fuss about Sherlock getting his coat back, à la Captain Jack Harkness in Torchwood: Children of Earth?). But, ultimately, The Empty Hearse is well-acted enough, and entertaining enough, to keep us wanting more, and to make us give the showrunners the benefit of the doubt thanks to the awesomeness of their previous material. Her Ladyship shall return next week, to find out if the game is afoot, or over.