The introduction to my Oxford World's Classics edition of Udolpho, by Terry Castle, takes it as a given that most 21st century readers who pick up Ann Radcliffe's 18th century bestseller do so because of the book's connection to Northanger Abbey, or at least with their expectations of what Udolpho is like having been determined by Jane Austen. But as Castle points out, Udolpho is a much stranger novel than Austen gives it credit for being, and much harder to sum up. True, a large portion of the novel does take place in the titular castle, a remote, imposing edifice in the Italian Appenines, where innocent orphan Emily St. Aubert is held against her will by her late aunt's grasping, heartless husband Signor Montoni, who tries to bully her into signing over her inheritance to him on the dubious promise of freedom and safe passage home if she acquiesces, and in whose darkened passages, freezing turrets, and damp catacombs she is exposed to all manner of psychological and actual horrors. But this is only the middle portion of the novel. The events leading up to it--including the shucking-off of Emily's parents, the introduction of her love interest Valancourt, her aunt's marriage to Montoni and their departure for Italy--which we'd expect Radcliffe to hurry through in a few chapters, take up more than 200 pages. These feel like a novel in their own right, one whose tone and emotional register are very different from the Gothic style of the Udolpho segment. Their main thrust is a long, hallucinatory journey through the French countryside undertaken by Emily and her father--allegedly for the sake of his health though the entirely predictable hardships of the trip actually end up hastening his death--and later Emily's journey to Italy and sojourn in Venice with her aunt and Montoni, where her supposedly incurable sorrow over being parted from Valancourt is quickly assuaged by the beauty of the scenery.
Nor does Emily's (anticlimactic, almost accidental) escape from Udolpho herald the end, or even the beginning of the end, of her story, but rather the beginning of a new one, as Emily returns to her native France and ends up in an entirely different Gothic edifice with an entirely different dark history to puzzle out (in fact, despite the novel's name there are more mysteries in this chateau than there are in Udolpho), while Montoni, entirely forgotten by the main characters, is done away with for unrelated reasons by his political enemies, his death reported to us long after the fact. Throughout all three of these stories Radcliffe returns again and again to themes and styles that have little to do with horror or sensationalism. Parts of Udolpho, especially Emily's journeys in France and Italy, read like nothing so much as a travelogue. Emily's own narrative is so suffused with discussions of her religious faith and how it sustains her that it sometimes feels like devotional writing. An important theme is the valorization of nature and secluded living over cities and high society, which are held to be corrupting and soul-destroying, despite the fact that Emily's story doesn't lend itself to an exploration of this contrast; Radcliffe gets around this difficulty by having Valancourt try to drown his heartbreak over losing Emily in the pleasures of Paris, where he quickly becomes dissipated, and in those brief chapters the novel feels more like a Balzac-esque social novel. The narrative is frequently interrupted by poems, allegedly composed by the characters on the fly, and though the novel is supposed to be a historical piece--it is set in the late 16th century, and the Italian civil wars of that period feature in it--that foreignness feels like a thin gloss of exoticism against which Emily (whose Frenchness feels, to me, equally thin) can be all the more effectively threatened.
It's tempting to call Udolpho bad, or at least so far outside the as-yet uncodified conventions of its form--then less than half a century old--that 21st century readers could never hope to stomach it. And there is some truth to this. The narrative's frequent pauses to describe scenery or recite poetry might have been overcome (in fact as I write this it occurs to me that I've just described The Lord of the Rings, a novel that is no less sui generis than The Mysteries of Udolpho, and one that is nevertheless beloved by millions of modern readers), but the anticlimactic resolutions to most of the Udolpho's mysteries--towards the end of the book it seems inevitable that Emily was born out of wedlock, but Radcliffe is so desperate to avoid tainting her heroine (and Emily's sainted father) that she pulls a last-minute revelation that preserves both their honors by the simple expedient of asking us to believe that Emily could have grown up entirely ignorant of her father's having had a second sister--and even more so, the contrast between the feverish pitch at which Emily's emotions are set by the horrors she experiences and our own placid responses to those horrors, are insurmountable obstacles. The crowning moment of the novel's horror is Emily lifting the veil that hangs in an uninhabited, usually locked room in Udolpho, and being so horrified by what she sees behind it that she immediately faints (to be fair, something she does quite a lot) and, upon waking, suppresses the memory of the experience so thoroughly that for the rest of the novel it is merely a dim recollection of something unpleasant on which her mind refuses to linger. This is serious buildup indeed--the first mention of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey involves Catherine's frantic speculations on what might lie behind the veil--and Radcliffe waits until the novel's very last pages to pay it off. A 21st century reader, however, has so little reason to expect the answer to the mystery of the veil to be truly shocking that its constant teasing quickly become aggravating, and the actual solution--which is anyway delivered rather inelegantly--is simultaneously overwrought and deeply silly.
At the same time, to classify Udolpho as bad or unsuited to modern tastes is too dismissive, too easy a judgement. This is more than just a bad read; it is a profoundly strange one, so uncertain of what it wants to be and what affect it is striving for that its very inability to settle on a tone, a mode, a style, and even a coherent narrative structure comes to seem almost like a success. As Castle writes, "Udolpho has a way of escaping critical formulas: it is always bigger and baggier and more uncanny than one thought it was. No trite summing-up can capture the novel's dreamy, surreal flow of incident, the odd, mediumistic shifts through space and time, the often bewildering vagaries in Radcliffe's handling of plot, character, and scene. ... Virtually anything one might say about the work--down to its most basic textual features--will be countered. The book is its own antithesis; the clichés fail to hold." While I certainly wouldn't say that I enjoyed Udolpho, or that I recommend it to other readers, I'm just as certain that its representation in Northanger Abbey is reductive and unjust. There's more to the novel than Austen's portrait of it as an overwrought, cliché-ridden horror-fest, even if that more doesn't cohere into a whole or successful work. But as my second reading of Northanger Abbey revealed, Austen's novel is less a parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho than it is a parody of its readers.
Before we delve into that, I should say that this second reading has done little to endear Northanger Abbey to me. Reading Udolpho may clarify Austen's references and the targets of her parody, but it does nothing to obscure Northanger's rather significant faults. To put it simply, Northanger Abbey doesn't sound like a Jane Austen novel. It was completed around the same time as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, but whereas they stayed with Austen for the better part of a decade before being published, during which she presumably revised and polished them, Northanger was sold to a publisher in 1803, then allowed to languish unpublished for 13 years. Probably as a result of this, the published novel gives off the impression of a writer who has not yet found her style, and who is using a parody of another style to conceal that fact. Northanger's narrative voice is much more present than in Austen's other novels, frequently addressing the readers directly. This has the effect of placing a buffer between us and the characters, but it also means that almost everything that Austen tries to tell us is Northanger Abbey is right there on the surface. The frequent criticism of Bath as a city of relentless bustle and equally relentless triviality, for example, is delivered in bald, blatant terms whose obviousness undercuts their effect. (Austen lived for several years in Bath and was, from what I've read about her, deeply unhappy there, and it's therefore easy to assume that there is more than a little score-settling in her unflattering portrait of the city.) The barbed wit that characterizes all of Austen's novels is already here, but the surgical control over it that she develops in her later novels, the silk and velvet beneath which she conceals her stilettos, are not yet in evidence.
It is with a similar forthrightness that Austen explains her plans for Catherine, who is introduced to us in the novel's opening sentence with the unpromising assurance that "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy could have supposed her born to be an heroine." Such asides persist throughout the book (though they fade a little in its middle segments), telling us how Catherine's mundane adventures in Bath, her first experience as a young woman away from her parents, fail to live up to the standards set by novels of Udolpho's ilk--her father is "not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters," her mother does not die giving birth to her "as anyone might expect," when she first arrives at the Upper Rooms in Bath, "Not one [young man] started with rapturous wonder on beholding her, no whisper of eager inquiry ran round the room, nor was she called a divinity by anybody," and when she's disappointed in her hopes of dancing with a young man who caught her eye, her heartbreak takes the following ignominious form: "It appeared first in a general dissatisfaction with everybody about her, while she remained in the rooms, which speedily brought on considerable weariness and a violent desire to go home. This, on arriving in Pultney Street, took the direction of extraordinary hunger, and when that was appeased, changed into an earnest longing to be in bed; such was the extreme point of her distress; for when there she immediately fell into a sound sleep which lasted nine hours, and from which she awoke perfectly revived, in excellent spirits, with fresh hopes and fresh schemes." Leaving aside the again uncharacteristic lack of subtlety displayed in this device, and even admitting that it can be quite funny (though personally I think it overstays its welcome quite quickly), the question has to be asked--who is it that's supposed to be harboring these expectations?
Not every reader of novels in Northanger Abbey expects real life to proceed like The Mysteries of Udolpho. In Henry Tilney, Catherine's sardonic love interest, and his sister Eleanor, Austen gives us two examples of devoted fans of Gothic fiction, and Udolpho in particular, who are nevertheless rational enough to distinguish between fact and fiction, between the rules that govern a Gothic novel and the ones of real life. But Catherine herself, and her friend Isabella Thorpe, are incapable of making that distinction. Isabella, who introduces Catherine to Udolpho, romances and becomes engaged to Catherine's brother James, schemes to attach Catherine to her own odious brother John, and throws James over for Henry and Eleanor's caddish brother Frederick (who leaves her in a lurch), behaves at all times as if she were the star performer in a grand drama. She pretends to be the kind of virtuous, principled woman of character she's read about in novels, but never quite bothers to live up to that self-image. She feigns sisterhood with Catherine, declaring that she prefers her company to that of flirting young men, or that she means to pay her friend attention rather than James; she announces her indifference to the men who flirt with her and flatter her, and her determination not to behave improperly by, for example, dancing a second set with James before they are engaged. But whenever the high-minded principles that, Isabella has decided, a heroine must possess clash with her desires, the latter win through--Catherine finds herself abandoned, James gets his second dance, the flirts and flatterers find a willing subject. It's also worth noting Isabella's conviction that she is playing to an audience--she can't dance with James because it would be a terrible scandal, tongues would wag, she'd be the talk of the town. When the truth--to Isabella's great sorrow, no doubt--is that no one is watching, because no one cares.
Catherine, who despite her descent into silliness over the course of the novel emerges from it as the kind of quietly principled person Isabella pretends to, but could never really, be, lacks Isabella's pride and self-importance. Whatever Austen thinks our expectations of her might be, Catherine herself has no idea of being a heroine. She does, however, arrive at Bath almost entirely innocent in the ways of the world, and is thus, on the one hand, convinced of the morality and honesty of the people around her, and on the other hand, all too ready to take a novel like The Mysteries of Udolpho as a reliable guide to human behavior. In the Bath-set chapters of the novel, this strains credulity--Catherine may be young, and may have lived a sheltered life, but her inability to consider, except at the greatest provocation, that a person might say one thing and mean another comes to seem less like innocence and more like an autism-spectrum disorder. Nevertheless, there is something quietly affecting about these chapters, in which Catherine blindly and painfully fumbles her way towards the realization that Isabella may claim to be her friend and to love James, but is really greedy and selfish, and that the people around her may claim to adhere to strict codes of propriety, but are really happy to ignore them for the sake of convenience. The scene in which Catherine, after learning of Isabella's betrayal of James, is finally disillusioned, exclaiming that Isabella is nothing but a "vain coquette" whose protestations of fidelity and friendship are worthless, is quietly heartbreaking--we are watching something delicate and irreplaceable within Catherine as it is lost forever.
It's when she arrives at Northanger Abbey that Catherine's naiveté ceases to function as a human, albeit exaggerated, quality and becomes the tool of Austen's comedy. The same Catherine who earlier in the novel tells Henry and Eleanor that she doesn't like reading popular history because too much of it is made up, considers The Mysteries of Udolpho to be such a reliable record that she supports her belief that their father, General Tilney, killed his wife by musing that "how many were the examples to justify even the blackest suspicions!" This loss of perspective is actually a very short interlude--Northanger Abbey appears even later in the novel that bears its name than Udolpho does in Radcliffe's novel, and Catherine only lets her imagination run away with her for a few short chapters--but it lingers over the novel, and is its best-known segment. As much as Northanger Abbey has determined the public perception of The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Mysteries of Udolpho defines Northanger Abbey.
One of the most famous passages in Northanger Abbey is Austen's spirited defense of the novel, in which she condemns other novelists, whose heroines are too intelligent or too sophisticated to ever read anything as insipid as the work in which they themselves appear, for their "ungenerous and impolitic custom," and angrily replies to the self-deprecating exclamation of the novel reader, "It is only a novel" with "[it is] only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language." But Northanger Abbey also draws a worrying picture of the effect that novels have on impressionable minds, causing them to lose touch with reality and become blind to their own faults and the flaws of others, and justifying bad behavior. This is only one of the ways in which Northanger Abbey, like Udolpho, seems not only flawed but deeply weird, though at least in Austen's case it is more obvious that this weirdness is deliberate and purposeful. When Henry Tilney learns about Catherine's suspicions of his father, he delivers another famous passage (if nothing else this is a very quotable novel), a harangue in which he chides her for thinking that such horrible things could really happen.
"Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?"Ian McEwan used this passage as an epigraph in Atonement, presumably to highlight the irony of a story in which dark and dastardly things do happen behind the walls of rich, Christian, English houses. But that irony is present in Northanger Abbey as well. When you think about it, this is actually a weirdly specific and cold-blooded objection for Henry to make--at a point where you'd expect him to be spluttering in anger at the insult to his family, he behaves like a lawyer before the court, calmly but forcefully arguing that the prosecution's case doesn't hold water. The whole thing gets even stranger when you consider that, as Henry has reason to at least suspect, something dark and dastardly is happening behind the walls of Northanger Abbey. General Tilney, fooled into believing that the rich neighbors who escorted Catherine to Bath mean to leave her all their money, has been effectively courting her for his son, and both Henry and Eleanor are shown to be surprised and suspicious of his solicitous behavior towards her. Even Catherine, when she realizes the reason that the General first curried her favor, then threw her ignominiously out of his house upon learning of his mistake, muses that "in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty."
And yet, that weirdly sanctimonious speech from Henry. This, by the way, is one of the reasons that although I may find Catherine annoying at points, Henry is the Northanger Abbey character I genuinely dislike. It's not just the fact that he is more patronizing of Catherine than even an Austen hero should be allowed to be, but that that condescension often crosses the line into a cynical worldliness that in Austen's other novels marks out coarse, even dissipated characters. Henry watches Isabella Thrope toy with James Morland's affections and his only response is that James--and Catherine, who doesn't understand Isabella's behavior--are fools. He watches his brother flirt with an engaged woman with resigned detachment. He calmly informs Catherine that, having been the cause of the breakup of Isabella's engagement, there is no chance that Fredrick will marry her because she's not rich enough. Catherine's naive conviction that everyone around her shares the fervency of her moral convictions and could never knowingly do wrong may be a flaw, but it's a less off-putting one than Henry's calm, sarcastic acceptance of the moral bankruptcy of those around him.
In a way, though, Henry is as much a victim of Austen's scheme for the novel as Catherine--his cynicism, like her innocence, is in service of the novel's message, the conclusion Catherine comes to when she gets some sense knocked into her by Henry--"Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the Midland counties of England, was to be looked for. ... Among the Alps and Pyrenees, perhaps, there were no mixed characters. There, such as were not as spotless as an angel might have the disposition of a fiend. But in England it was not so; among the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad." We're not meant to take Henry's assurances that these sorts of things don't happen here at face value. Or rather, we're meant to realize that horror doesn't have to mean sinister foreigners hounding their wives to death and terrorizing innocent virgins; it can also mean living like Eleanor Tilney, a slave to her domineering father's caprices, forced to put a polite face on his boorish behavior. There is no moment in Northanger Abbey that so thoroughly captures The Mysteries of Udolpho's tone as when a mortified Eleanor visits Catherine in the middle of the night to tell her that she must leave in the morning, and seems as close to hysteria as Emily St. Aubert ever was: "Eleanor's cheeks were pale, and her manner greatly agitated. Though evidently intending to come in, it seemed an effort to enter the room, and a still greater effort to speak when there." To be on constant lookout for the first kind of horror, as Catherine is during her stay at Northanger, is to miss the signs of the second.
So, after a stirring defense of the novel that culminates with a list of its finest qualities--it displays the greatest powers of the mind, the most thorough knowledge of human nature, etc., etc.--Austen spends the rest of Northanger Abbey demonstrating that The Mysteries of Udolpho lacks those qualities, and laying out a very firm distinction between good novels and bad, between those in which humanity may be looked for and those in which it shouldn't--along the way placing her own novel very firmly in the former category. Austen couches her defense of novels in the terms of sisterhood--"If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can we expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not abandon one another; we are an injured body"--and both that defense and the treatment of novels in the rest of Northanger Abbey make it clear that the prejudice against novels is tied up with gender, and with the perception that the readers at whom novels are targeted (and perhaps also the majority of authors) are female. And yet one can't help but feel that this is an Isabella Thorpe sort of sisterhood, loudly proclaimed but ultimately false. Austen may call for mutual support, but the distinction she draws between Northanger Abbey and The Mysteries of Udolpho speaks louder. It says, I'm not like those other, silly girls; I'm cool.
Of course, sisterhood is not easy, especially when it's with the likes of The Mysteries of Udolpho. Reductive as her portrait of it is, I don't actually disagree with Austen's claims about Udolpho's silliness, the melodramatic turns of its plot, and the inhumanity of its characters (though I would argue that Udolpho's problem isn't that it is shlock but that it's boring shlock; The Woman in White, which borrows many of Udolpho's plot points and is no less overwrought, has a rollicking plot and interesting characters, and is a great read). Is she obliged, in the name of sisterhood, to defend a work she has so little regard for? If you're a feminist, you've probably found yourself faced with some variant of this question. Am I obliged, for example, to defend Twilight--which I actually found myself thinking of several times while reading Udolpho; Emily, who faints at the slightest provocation, who is irresistible to many of the novel's male characters, and who waits passively while the plot resolves itself around her, is a rather Bella Swan-ish character, and the book even expects us to find it romantic that before he makes his feelings for her known, Valancourt stands outside her window while she sleeps--when it is attacked, as it often is, in misogynistic terms, or simply for being a work that appeals primarily to girls?
It's a question that crops up again and again, whenever art by, for, or about women is discussed. You see it whenever chick-lit--the term, the publishing category, and the question of who gets classed into it--is discussed, and especially when an author of literary fiction--usually a female one--comments disparagingly on it. These discussions, if they acknowledge that chick-lit is rooted in some deeply problematic assumptions (and that it is equally problematic that women writing about the domestic, such as Austen herself, are assumed to be writing chick-lit, or at least less worthy work than male writers who write about it), will usually fail to admit that the perception of chick-lit as frivolous and shallow is rooted in misogyny, and vice versa. During the discussion of the dwindling ranks of women writing SF, there were several surprisingly negative responses from female bloggers, which were partially explained by their argument that women haven't been driven out of SF but have left it for fantasy and paranormal romance, and that the prioritization of SF is just the flipside of the tendency to discount these genres. But all is not well even within those fields: witness, on the one hand, Stina Leicht complaining about the expectation that a female fantasy writer must be writing paranormal romance, and on the other hand, M.K. Hobson's creation of a moniker for a female-oriented subset of steampunk which she dubs "bustlepunk." And then there's the fact that what is meant by literature for women is often literature for white, middle class, heterosexual, cisnormal women, as discussed in the comments to Kyra Smith's review of a romance novel at Ferretbrain.
The truth is, there isn't really a good answer. It's one of the traps laid for us by the patriarchy, which teaches us, on the one hand, that women must be feminine, and on the other hand, that femininity is bad, or at least trivial and shallow. Even leaving aside the question of how femininity is defined, and what women are left out of that definition whether they want to or not, it's almost impossible to defy one part of that formula without validating the other.
One possible answer to this quandry can be found in the vengeance that time has delivered on Radcliffe's behalf. For all of Austen's attempts to set the two novels in opposition, there's still a relatively large circle of readership that genuinely does not see the difference between Northanger Abbey and The Mysteries of Udolpho, and decries Austen's novels as the same sentimental, unrealistic, lovey-dovey fluff that she excoriates Radcliffe for. The older I get, the harder it is for me to understand this perception of Austen, which leaves out her caustic wit and profound cynicism. Perhaps that's one of the things that makes her a great writer--you can read her at 15 and see only the romance, then come back at 30 and find the bitterness that lies just beneath the surface (if Northanger Abbey has a core flaw, it is that it doesn't quite manage this amalgam). The problem, of course, is that so many people don't bother to read Austen at all before passing judgement on her, based on her gender, her chosen subjects, and maybe a few movie adaptations. Two hundred years after her spirited defense of the novel and equally spirited attempt to distance herself from the perceived girliness of the form, she is still subject to the same accusations, the same dismissal, the same condescension the fear of which causes the heroine of the novel Austen swore never to write to set aside her reading saying "Oh! It is nothing! ... It is only a novel." I don't know whether it's reasonable or right to always be guided by sisterhood, to refrain from criticizing the work of women just because those women are also being criticized by misogynists--and I can't say that I always have, or always will, live up to that exacting standard. But seeing the way that our culture, despite her own best efforts, continues to misapprehend Jane Austen, it feels important to try.