‘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.

tree-climbing-woman-girl-Favim.com-474740

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.

living-with-ghosts

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.

Advertisements