Study Guide

The Mysteries of Udolpho

By Ann Radcliffe

The Mysteries of Udolpho Introduction

Long before the word "goth" was associated with black lipstick, it meant basically everything contained in The Mysteries of Udolpho: haunted castles, nasty villains, and fainting heroines. When Anne Radcliffe trotted out this page-turner in 1794, she made sure that her readers would be falling all over themselves to find out every single secret contained in the moldering castle of Udolpho. And once Radcliffe-aholics finished up Emily St. Aubert's adventures, they were clamoring for more louder than the cute kids in an AT&T commercial.

The rest is spooky, spooky history. The Mysteries of Udolpho triggered a series of eighteenth-century equivalent of spoofs, with dozens of riffs on Gothic dungeons popping up throughout the next century. Jane Austen even took a stab with Northanger Abbey, poking fun at the Mysteries of Udolpho-obsessed Catherine Morland. If you jump at every spooky story and think something's lurking around the corner, you too can join the Gothic Club (black lipstick not included).

Gothic Club, like Fight Club has rules. The first rule of Gothic Club is: you do not talk about Gothic Club. Seriously, you don't talk about all the secrets hidden behind the closed doors of Udolpho because the servants probably wouldn't believe you anyway. Besides, how else are you going to keep up the suspense for 672 pages?

That's because the second rule of Gothic Club is to have a healthy degree of paranoia about everything. Hey, did you find a secret passage leading into your bedchamber? Awesome. Either a ghost, a hideous monster, or a creepy Count is bound to use it for nefarious purposes. And that spooky music playing in the woods has a 99% chance of being otherworldly. If this is all getting too intensely creepy, feel free to call the local authorities—but you'd better believe they're actually disguised banditti.

The third rule of Gothic Club is to be just like The Mysteries of Udolpho's heroine, Emily. Be a plucky, yet virtuous girl. Have your parents die, get shipped off to live in a musty old castle (yup: the castle of Udolpho) with your scheming aunt and a step-uncle, fall in love with a dashing young bachelor, and encounter spooky music, hidden chambers, nasty family plots, some smugglers, and a few pirates for good measure.

The fourth rule? Get used to fainting—a lot. It's partially because your corset is so dang tight, but also because The Mysteries of Udolpho is filled with a bunch of stuff that is, frankly, hair-raising.

Welcome to the Gothic Club. Did we mention you pay your dues by staying overnight in a haunted room? No? Sweet dreams, Shmoopers.

What is The Mysteries of Udolpho About and Why Should I Care?

A few preliminary questions for y'all to see if you should care. Answer yes or no.

If you answered yes to any of these questions—any of 'em—then you should care about The Mysteries of Udolpho. Why? Easy: The Mysteries of Udolpho is the great-grandmommy of Gothic literature. It wasn't the first Gothic novel, but it was the first crazy-influential Gothic novel.

All those books we listed? All Gothic. Any Western horror movie (pretty much)? A descendant of the Gothic novel. Any work of art with a creepy house, hidden chambers, uncanny figures walking around at night, undead specters, or a heroine who faints every time a doorbell rings owes more than a little of its literary DNA to The Mysteries of Udolpho.

But Mysteries ain't just about ghosties and mysterious figures (although that's a lot of its charm). It's also a meditation on just how freakin' beautiful the natural world is, a torrid romance novel, a book where an orphan is manipulated at the hands of a money-grubbing aunt and a evil step-uncle, and a novel where pirates make more than a guest appearance.

So whether you like your novels horrific with a side of musty dungeons, or romantic with a chaser of splendid European scenery, The Mysteries of Udolpho is going to satisfy your literary hunger.

The Mysteries of Udolpho Resources

WEBSITES

Read All About It (In 1794)
When The Mysteries of Udolpho came out in 1794, it caused quite a commotion. Check out what the ruckus was about in this 1794 review of the book.

Kickin' It on the Victorian Web
The Victorian Web is always good for a gander, especially if you're looking to dig deeper into Radcliffe's life.

Total Tropes
We always thought Emily was the "Aloner" type, and TVTropes confirms it.

Back to Italy
Check out this preview of Radcliffe's other well-known book, The Italian. If you liked the landscape descriptions in Udolpho, you're going to love this.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

Jane Knows What's Up
We're still waiting for The Mysteries of Udolpho to be made into an epic thriller. But in the meantime, try out The Jane Austen Book Club, a movie that pays homage to Udolpho in a discussion of Austen's Northanger Abbey.

Shades of Radcliffe
Speaking of Jane, here's a pretty awesome rendition of Northanger Abbey. Our main girl, Catherine Morland, takes a page from Emily St. Aubert's book after reading The Mysteries of Udolpho.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Lots 'n Lots of Landscape
Landscape descriptions are so prevalent in Udolpho that you might say the mountains are a main character. Here's the rundown on landscape, plus a hefty works cited page for future research.

Terror, Horror, and Screams, Oh My
Ever wondered how the horror genre fits into The Mysteries of Udolpho? Wonder no longer.

VIDEO

Northanger as a Horror Movie is Basically Udolpho
It's a totally clever idea to play scary music over Northanger Abbey like it's actually a horror movie. Someone's borrowing straight from Radcliffe's playbook.

AUDIO

Terrifying Tales
Kevin Lucia's podcast on Horror 101 tackles The Mysteries of Udolpho and its "Scooby-Doo ending." Curious about what that means? Check it out!

IMAGES

St. Aubert's Not Doing Too Well
In this 1823 title page for The Mysteries of Udolpho, St. Aubert is looking a little worse for the wear.

Taking a Turn for the Comic[al]
An Austen comic that brings up Radcliffe's classic? We'll take it.