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Horror Fiction 101: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe


Horror fiction is a genre with ancient origins and its roots embedded in folk literature. One can usually find supernatural creatures like ghosts or vampires, but also an enchanted castle, a mysterious forest, a haunted house. When talking about the most recent horror fiction, there are stories about psychological horror, where the reader cannot find the difference between what is real and what is not; there are also stories about alien invasions or robots taking over the world. However, to properly talk about horror fiction, one must start at the beginning: Gothic literature.

Horror Fiction 101 will be divided into five different chapters:

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Ann Radcliffe was born in London in 1764 and when she turned 23, married the journalist William Radcliffe. Since he would come home late from work, she started writing to keep herself entertained. She wrote five novels that made her extremely popular in her time and placed her as a prominent author in English literature studies even today. Her most popular novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, is considered to be one of the pioneers of Gothic fiction. Many authors named her work as their main influence, from Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Walter Scott to the Brontë sisters and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Jane Austen, for example, defined her writing in contrast to Radcliffe’s and wrote a parody of Udolpho in her novel Northanger Abbey. Ann Radcliffe was also a key author for feminist studies in Gothic fiction since it is based on her work that scholars developed the concept of Female Gothic.

The Mysteries of Udolpho, fifth edition, illustrated with copperplates.

The term “Female Gothic” was first coined by Ellen Moers in her revolutionary book for feminist criticism, Literary Women. She explained the term as “the work that women have done in the literary mode that, since the eighteenth century, we have called the Gothic” (Moers, 1976, p. 90). Her work was vital for feminist literature studies and moved Gothic fiction into the canon. However, what started as a relatively simple concept has evolved into a myriad of interpretations and controversies. Following her steps, many critics have tried to define and re-define the concept of the Female Gothic. Author Juliann Fleenor argues that the concept refers to the reality of women’s position within a patriarchal society, and the ways in which the Female Gothic is used by women as a metaphor for the female experience (Fleenor, 1983, p. 27).

Following Moers' and Fleenor’s arguments, The Mysteries of Udolpho is a key example when examining the Female Gothic. However, talking about the Female Gothic implies that a Male Gothic also exists. The easiest way to get a good grasp of both concepts is by comparing Udolpho with the other pioneer work for Gothic fiction: The Castle of Otranto. The main difference between Udolpho and Otranto is what Moers calls 'the explained supernatural'. While Walpole deals with ghosts, giants, and other supernatural elements; Radcliffe deals with them only on the surface, meaning that those events are later on explained through rational logic. The castle in The Mysteries of Udolpho is haunted only in appearance, Radcliffe explains at the end of the novel how the sudden closing of doors or the weird voices coming from seemingly haunted rooms are nothing other than tricks of the imagination of its protagonist, Emily. The figure behind a veil that Emily instantly believes to be the dead signora Laurentini reveals itself to be nothing more than a very realistic, and slightly disturbing, wax statue, since the signora is very much alive.

"Beyond, appeared a corpse, stretched on a kind of low couch, which was crimsoned with human blood."

The explained supernatural in Radcliffe’s work was not particularly well received by her contemporary readers. As a matter of fact, Walter Scott argued that she was missing the point when dealing with supernatural incidents; he also commented on the treatment of Radcliffe’s female characters and how a woman in real life would never behave the way her heroines do in her novel, labelling them as too masculine (Miles, 2009, p. 42). In The Castle of Otranto and other stories that fall into the Male Gothic, the female character is a mere tool for the plot to develop, while in The Mysteries of Udolpho she is the protagonist and the plot revolves around her. This allows Radcliffe to expose the situation women faced in the society of her time, which is another key element of the Female Gothic.

The Mysteries of Udolpho perfectly fits in the type of Female Gothic that Ellen Moers described as travelling heroinism, meaning that “the heroines are in flight from male tyrants across fantastical landscapes and in search of lost mothers entombed in womb-like dungeons beneath patriarchal castles” (Wallace & Smith, 2009, p. 2). In Udolpho, women's vulnerability and inequiality towards men are very clearly represented using this fantastical landscapes and labyrinthine castles. Over and over again, the reader is presented with women that cannot control who they marry: Signora Laurentini is nearly forced to marry the villain Montoni when she was in love with the Marquis, the Marchioness de Villeroi is trapped in an unhappy marriage that will cause her death, and Emily is nearly forced to marry evil Morano. There seems to be no such thing as a happy marriage either; Madame Cheron marries Montoni, who will mistreat and abuse her since he only cares about stealing her properties and wealth.

" 'You shall be removed, this night,' said he, 'to the east turret: there, perhaps, you may understand the danger of offending a man, who has unlimited power over you."

The treatment of property and inheritance in Udolpho is also a very good example of Gothic as a metaphor for the female experience that Juliann Fleenor developed. Men in Udolpho are only interested in women as long as they can control their wealth. Montoni, for example, threatens and abuses Emily to gain control of her properties, and tries to sell her to Morano for the same reasons. However, wealth and properties also work as a form of redemption, Signora Laurentini leaves all her properties to the nearest relative of the woman whose death she caused, the Marchioness, who turns out to be Emily’s aunt. During the whole story, Emily is forced to take a passive role in her life, while the male characters have all the agency and freedom; that situation will change as soon as Emily inherits her properties (all from other women) and takes full control of her destiny.

As a Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho engages with Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime, developed in his famous Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). According to Burke, the sublime is a state that one can transcend through very extreme and intense emotions. In Gothic fiction, the feelings of fear, disgust, and surprise are mixed into a concoction that will lead the characters and the readers towards the sublime. However, many Gothic writers, like Mary Shelley and Ann Radcliffe, chose a Romantic approach to the sublime through the subject of nature. The Romantics believed that nature was sublime, since through its contemplation one could achieve intense feelings. In The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe takes her protagonist Emily to the sublime through the contemplation of fantastical landscapes. However, as Robert Miles explains in his essay “Mother Radcliffe,” the sublime in Udolpho, and therefore in the Female Gothic, plays a very specific role, “it uplifts the female soul (thus representing genius) while threatening to render the female soul ‘abject’ through self-abasement before the masculine principle” (2009, p. 54). In other words, through the sublime, a female character proves her worth to transcend and show her intelligence, but it also means that she risks being silenced in a construct reserved only to men. The sublime is therefore a key aspect of the Female Gothic.

"In silent caution they followed the sound, which was heard but at intervals, and which, after some time entirely ceased."

Ann Radcliffe and The Mysteries of Udolpho are a fundamental part of Gothic fiction. The Castle of Otranto may have been the first but Udolpho took over the genre like a storm and soon became the one to follow. Ann Radcliffe’s work was revolutionary, she took female writers to the canon, and still to this day she is regarded as a vital figure for feminist criticism. The Female Gothic as a concept was based on The Mysteries of Udolpho and it presents the female experience in the society of the time, showing women’s vulnerability under the patriarchal oppression.


  • Fleenor, J. [Editor] (1983). The Female Gothic. Eden Press. The University of Michigan.

  • Miles, R. (2009). "'Mother Radcliffe': Ann Radcliffe and the Female Gothic." The Female Gothic. Palgrave Macmillan. London.

  • Moers, E. (1976). Literary Women. Doubleday. The University of Michigan.

  • Wallace, D. & Smith, A. (2009). "Introduction: Defining the Female Gothic." The Female Gothic. Palgrave Macmillan. London.

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Isabel Panadero

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