The Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho Study Guide

Ann Radcliffe published her first three novels anonymously. The first two came and went with little notice among the public. The third—The Romance of the Forest—proved to be quite successful, however. So popular, in fact, that the unprecedented advance of 500 pounds was extended as an offer to publish her fourth novel under her own name in 1794. That novel would become The Mysteries of Udolpho and it would transform the formerly anonymous author of unsuccessful fiction into the most famous and widely-read storyteller of her day.

The Mysteries of Udolpho would also be a cornerstone text in the evolution and development of the Gothic novel. Thousands of stories would appear in its wake that owed a debt of one sort or another to Radcliffe’s novel and not just stories of pure horror and Gothic suspense. Even Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey contains two chapters which owe a clear and distinctive debt—albeit with a strong element of parody—to Racliffe's ability to create and maintain a sense of foreboding and ominous uncertainty.

The legacy of The Mysteries of Udolpho stretches well beyond the pages of books. The structural foundation of the heroine’s experiences can be tangibly felt when viewing old 1930s movie serials, soap operas, and television dramas that rely on a cliffhanger scene at each commercial break in order to tempt the audience into not changing channels. Emily’s progression through the narrative of the dark and gloomy castle which fosters a series of unfortunate events is not just a precursor to the cliffhanger style of entertainment, it also foretells the desire to explain the unexplainable.

Many critics faulted The Mysteries of Udolpho for being too short on mystery. Every supernatural experience or uncanny event is ultimately explained away with a very down-to-earth dose of rationality. The attribution of logical explanations for every curiously bizarre happenstance to either the intent or misapprehension of a character led some to conclude that Radcliffe’s philosophical view of her fellow human beings was one which found in them the source of all evil in the universe.

In something of an unexplainable paradox, despite The Mysteries of Udolpho containing so many storytelling elements recognizable in visual media, the novel remains curiously missing from the history of film and television adaptations of landmarks of British literature. While the number of adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles—another novel bearing the influence of Radcliffe—has reached double digits, there has yet to be one major production of The Mysteries of Udolpho for either the big or small screen.