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[Psst, it's free at Project Gutenberg]
Jane Austen mocked it in Northanger Abbey (1817)-- and I'll gleefully admit that this Gothic icon has drinking (or Halloween candy-eating) game potential! Bottoms up each time heroine Emily St. Aubert (a) faints, (b) plays plaintive, melancholy music on her lute, or (c) composes a poem/song... Or hey, just eat chocolate whenever the word "sublime" pops up in the text! If you're in pursuit of a sort of 18th-century campiness, there's plenty of material here.
And you expected every bit of it, right? ...However, I'm about to take the somewhat riskier step of asserting that-- swooniness aside-- this novel still works! It spellbound me at age 16, and since then I've returned to it at least half a dozen times. Here's what's to love:
1. Page-turning qualities that obsessed Catherine Morland. Despite some moralizing, Udolpho invites you to enter a dreamlike world of unearthly beauty that soon slides into nightmare. There are slower spots, true-- but the atmosphere draws you in, the "mysteries" are suspenseful, and your mind will whirl with schemes for Emily's escape. (Mine did, at least!)
2. Romantic innocence. Set in the Pyrenees, the first phase of Emily's romance with Valancourt is idyllic ("Oh, come on! That would never happen")... Yet it's the sweetest fantasy: She's exploring a glorious landscape with her beloved father, all the while falling in love with a fellow traveler who shares all of her enthusiasms, and who-- blessedly-- loves her in return.
(Curl up on the couch and sigh.)
I like to linger a little in this epoch, because I know that it's soon to end. And as the story progresses, I never fail to mourn its loss.
3. First world problems, early-modern style. It's fun to want to bang your head against the wall when Emily allows scruples (as we'd see them today) to thwart her happiness and endanger her life.
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4. Castle Udolpho is the last word in romantic terror. Why is this door suddenly locked? Is someone-- or something-- concealed in the room next to mine? Is that a ghost outside my window? Does this secret passage ever end, and is it leading me through--shudder-- the catacombs? Just trying to make sense of that apparently maze-like floor plan (where can she hide??) makes my heart race...
5. Luminous bits of verse by Shakespeare, Thompson, Milton, and other poets ... They're well-chosen, enhance the atmosphere, and are definitely worth pausing to read (unlike "Emily's" compositions, which add little).
6. This story extends beyond the supernatural drama. What happens when two lovers meet after a year of widely divergent experiences? We actually find out.
7. Emily's character. Many will disagree with me here, and understandably: At once impossibly beautiful, accomplished, and gentle, Emily embodies a cookie-cutter femininity prone to fainting fits, crying jags, and reliance on male rescuers. True.
Yet she's far from weak. No, I'm serious.... ! She stands up to her scheming aunt and evil step uncle; takes steps to secure her own freedom and financial independence; and refuses matrimony on any terms but her own. Moreover, she has a strong sense of humor and empathy... While Emily falls short of our 21st-century standards of female agency, she nevertheless grows into a distinct presence on the page. And it's fun to watch a stock character become a (stubborn, dignified, somewhat world-weary) person.
Have you read The Mysteries of Udolpho-- and if so, what did you think of it? Would you call it a favorite?
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