The Mysteries of Udolpho is the 1794 version of Twilight.

And no, I don’t mean that in a good way.

Written by Anne Radcliffe, this is one of those rare books that is on the list of 1001 books only for it’s impact, and not because it’s a “good” or “quality” novel. It would be akin to me saying that the Twilight series has had a huge impact on teens today; but as far as quality in writing goes, Twilight is little better than grocery store trash romances. And while it has inspired young women to read voraciously, heroines that are soulless, insipid, spineless whiny brats are not my idea of entertaining literary figures. But I can only hope that the people who picked up Twilight books will be able to pick up other books as a result and therefore learn something worthwhile.

I must say, that is the one surviving pleasure of The Mysteries of Udolpho, is that many other, shall we say more talented authors, were able to use the archetype of the Gothic romance that she created to make their own incredible tales. We can see just by the order of history that The Mysteries of Udolpho inspired such authors as Jane Austen, who wrote the highly satirical and ironic Northanger Abbey, in which the main character is nearly identical to the young Miss Emily of Radcliffe’s novel; except when Emily is haunted by seemingly paranormal and supernatural events, Caroline of Northanger Abbey assumes that everyone she meets has strange, magical, and often evil motives, which leads her to act in thoroughly stupid and hilarious ways.

But let’s talk about the main character for a bit, shall we? There are two types of heroines: proactive and reactive. Usually the best are proactive characters; such as Anna Karenina, Katniss Everdeen, Elizabeth Bennett, and Scarlett O’Hara are all great leading ladies in their respective novels, because they are not static. They see their situation and do things to actively change their circumstances for the better. They fight for themselves; whether it be their rights, their property, their loves, or their lives. They are strong, intelligent,  and generally independent women. These are the good kind of heroines. Let’s talk about reactive now: reactive characters include Emily St. Aubert, Bella Swan, Queen Amidala, Hermione, and Maid Marion. They are reactive because generally they do nothing whatsoever to move the plot forward. Things will happen, and they will have an emotional reaction to the action, but not so much that it changes the course of the story. They generally serve as second-place to the hero; whose actions are motivated by the heroine. Reactive heroines are the catalyst for the characters around them, and they often faint, swoon, cry, and act in generally pitiful ways. So, just to be clear, they are less than stellar role models and definitely less than satisfying characters.

And Miss Emily St. Aubert of Udolpho is the worst one of them! She weeps constantly, faints nearly every day, is terrified by the smallest occurrences, mourns uncontrollably for her “lost love” and is utterly helpless; her information only comes from what servants have the time to tell her, and she is so obsessed with decorum that the majority of the life-changing events happening to her go by unnoticed. Thank GOD she’s beautiful/sweet enough for men to obsess about her care; like a polished trophy on their mantle. She’s thoroughly disgusting as a character and makes me weep for womankind. Same with Bella Swan: a character who gets by on her looks and “alluring smell”, she does nearly nothing to move the story forward (and if she does happen to move the story forward, it’s only when she does something stupid and impulsive; thus necessitating her quick rescue by either of her two loves). She is insipid, depressed, and spends a lot of time crying/thinking about her men. Alas, again it makes me weep. Is it so hard to have a good heroine that I can look up to and cherish?

But on the other hand, this novel is the archetype for one of the most popular genres of novels of all time. Despite the lackluster and elementary way in which all the supernatural events that occur in the story are wrapped up at the end through rational explanations; better authors came along and latched onto the genre successfully. We can attribute the tales of Sherlock Holmes to this novel: a detective that uses rational, scientific reasoning to solve artificially supernatural crimes; all the way up through The Scarlet Letter and Hawthorne s gloomy, New England romances and mysteries. We can even see glimpses of this genre in modern books such as Tiger’s Quest, nearly anything by Stephen King, and The Veritas Project to name a few. (And all of these with surprisingly good heroines!), so all this to say, I’m so glad that the first of it’s kind does not mean that it’s necessarily the best.

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About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

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