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Though this is a coming of age story, Emily St. Aubert never strays far from the womblike enclosure of a house, carriage, or prison. She trips away from home seeking the beauty of nature, but inevitably she is brought back by the voice of her saintly father, a disapproving aunt, or "ghosts" in the forest. Walls confine and protect Emily during her difficult transformation from child to woman.
The simple and elegant chateau where the genial heroine grew up is a "resort of love, of joy, of peace and plenty". As the sole surviving child, she is cherished by her parents who lead a sublime existence amidst surrounding acres of beautiful forests, a river, mountains, and plains. Unlike most Renaissance women, Emily is very well educated. Most of her idle hours are spent writing poetry, reading, and wandering through the woods. She is also a gifted singer and enjoys playing the lute and sketching. The heroine of The Mysteries of Udolpho is difficult to forget. Indeed, one of the best features of this book is the variety of well-drawn characters.
Shortly after the story begins, Emily and her ailing father embark on a journey by carriage through the backwoods of southern France. From the window of the carriage, Emily views seascapes, grassy knolls, wildflowers, flocks of sheep, dark forests and the towering Alps. Radcliffe uses vivid imagery, but it can be tiresome after two or three consecutive paragraphs of landscape description intermixed with the travelers' meditations on the scenery.
A few months after this journey Emily becomes the reluctant ward of her social climbing aunt. She is trapped in Aunt Cheron's tacky house which is filled with large furniture, servants in spiffy uniforms, and gaudy decorations.
She escapes that monstrous house and arrives in Venice at the time of the Carnival. From the balcony of her uncle's desolate mansion on the Adriatic, Emily discovers a group of revelers dressed as nymphs floating along the canal. The incident inspires her to write a poem called "The Sea-Nymph" about a naiad who sings songs to sad sailors. If Poseidon finds out, he chains her to a rock till the sailors go away. The Poseidon character represents Signor Montoni, the tyrant whose domineering will and avarice threaten to destroy Emily's plans for happiness. Here, as elsewhere, Radcliffe's use of poetry enhances the story and provides a window into the subconscious mind.
Under mysterious circumstances, Mademoiselle Emily and her incongruous family leave Venice at the break of dawn. Montoni is the only one of the three who knows why they are going to Udolpho, a gargantuan castle situated near a waterfall, surrounded by a dark forest and mountains on all sides. Strong sexual overtones in the Udolpho chapters contribute to making this novel an exasperatingly prudish masterpiece of pornography. The well orchestrated action scenes, subtle humor, and chilling suspense are also noteworthy.
There is a connection between this castle and the next stop on Emily's itinerary: Chateau-le-Blanc, an abandoned estate bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Within this house, Emily discovers a clue about her father's mysterious past. Here also is the scene of Emily's heartbreaking reunion with Vallencourt, the carefree traveler she met in the French Alps.
Like many other coming of age stories, Udolpho deals with the subject of emerging sexuality and the male/female dynamic. Physical attraction, a vital element of romantic love, appears missing in Emily's relationship with Vallencourt - a weak hero. Nevertheless, Emily views Vallencourt as marriage material. He is allot like her father: benevolent, gentle, honest, and spiritually oriented.
In contrast, Montoni reveals himself to be a selfish, domineering, dishonest and violent man. And yet Radcliffe has decided to add virility and good looks to this character's makeup. As a result, an undercurrent of incest pervades the story. Emily's feelings towards Montoni are revealed when she finds herself confused as to why she wants to see him in the Condottieri uniform. Montoni is a far more potent figure than her own lover. Emily herself overpowers Vallencourt in every scene, and it is to her credit that she can hold her own with Montoni. The contrast between the hero and villain is an honest portrayal of how women often divide men into two categories: good/safe-impotent, bad/sexy.
Love problems lead Emily to accept a longstanding invitation to visit the convent of St. Clair. During a grueling interview with Sister Agnes, the mad nun, Emily discovers a shocking secret about her family history. It is in this seaside convent that the reader encounters, in it's worst aspect, the real horror of the book: the dark side of human nature.
All things dark fascinate the gothic writer. It is no wonder that ominous gothic buildings loom prominently in these stories. Their fantastic design, intricate detail and deep shadows inspire dread. And that is one of the primary functions of gothic fiction - to inspire fear and awe. The term "Gothic fiction" is derived from the gothic architecture of buildings in these novels. But Radcliffe, who defined the genre, does not limit her visual scope to gothic settings. As Emily finds out, the mysteries of Udolpho extend beyond the walls of that ancient edifice. A clue to one of the mysteries is found in Emily's modest home. But it is not until she leaves her home that she discovers this.
It is during her year of travels that Emily comes of age legally. In the beginning of the book she is still a naive young girl who loves listening to Madame Quesnel's description of the splendor of the balls, banquets, and processions at court. During her travels she discovers that the world beyond her doorstep is full of hedonists, phonies, and scary people. The lesson of her yearlong journey is that there is no place like home. At the conclusion of the story the heroine becomes both legally and emotionally "of age". How Emily gains this wisdom is the stuff of this novel.