Places: The Mysteries of Udolpho

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1794

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Gothic

Time of work: 1584

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedLa Vallee

La Mysteries of Udolpho, TheVallee (lah vah-YAY). Château in the Languedoc region of France, home to the St. Aubert family. The château is part of a larger family estate which, since childhood, has held fondly nostalgic associations for Monsieur St. Aubert. Once a cottage, the château has been renovated and expanded to harmonize with the surrounding rural landscape. The interior is furnished in “chaste simplicity,” with simple furniture and a library filled with good books. Its attached greenhouse supports St. Aubert’s interest in botany and bespeaks his sympathy with nature. Ann Radcliffe portrays the château as a place of comfort, tranquillity, and spiritual fulfillment.

La Vallee is a physical symbol of the domestic virtues practiced by the St. Aubert family. Its ideal character as a pastoral retreat is emphasized by its contrast with the adjoining estate, which St. Aubert sold to Monsieur Quesnel to settle his father’s debts. Quesnel prefers the city life of Paris to life in the country, and his proposed extravagant renovations, which will entail destroying the natural beauty of the grounds and planting foliage incongruously out of step with the setting, affirm the insensitivity of those not attuned to nature.

For Emily St. Aubert, La Vallee is a reservoir for memories of the last happy days spent with her family. The château symbolizes an innocence that is threatened when her guardian, the villainous Count Montoni, schemes to sell it and pay off his debts.


*Languedoc (lang-gah-DAHK). Mostly wild region in southern France, favored by St. Aubert and Emily. Its vivid colors and breathtaking vistas give rise to spiritual thoughts and veneration of the Great Creator by those sensitive to its sublime beauty. Throughout the novel, Radcliffe contrasts the wholesomeness of this natural world with the artifice of the city and human-made dwellings, most notably the castle Udolpho. Places that look upon the landscape, such as La Vallee and the Château-le-Blanc, are portrayed as serene and free. People who prefer the city to its natural splendor are depicted as insincere and superficial. In this setting Emily enjoys her final moments with her father and meets Valancourt, who proves to be her savior.


Udolpho (oo-DOHLF-oh). Castle in the Apennine Mountains to which Montoni moves Emily, her aunt, and the rest of his entourage following their brief sojourn in Venice. Emily first glimpses it as a “gloomy and sublime object” that seems to absorb ambient light and plunge the surrounding woods into darkness. That gloom is so intense that Emily can only discern parts of the castle in outline, as though Udolpho is partly made of shadow. The castle’s immense dimensions suggest great strength, but are more grotesque than reassuring. Parts of the castle are in disrepair, hinting at a former glory that is long past. Udolpho was once a formidable fortress, but the evil Montoni exploits its remoteness and inaccessibility to protect his band of marauding condottieri.

Aging castles and buildings are common props in gothic fiction, and Udolpho is among the most famous because it magnificently manifests the spirit of menace associated with the literature. The castle is poorly illuminated, and Radcliffe describes its gloom as a contagion capable of infecting those who stay there. In contrast to the interior furnishings of La Vallee, which are minimal yet suited to the simple tastes of its residents, the furnishings of Udolpho are austere and suggest an absence of basic comforts. Hallways that trail off into darkness and illusions of both sound and sight, created by the castle’s vast interior, all contribute to its aura of supernatural peril. Above all, Udolpho conveys a sense of entrapment and imprisonment. Emily’s removal to the castle is tantamount to an abduction, and Montoni does not allow her to leave its premises. Each night, she is locked in a bedroom set apart from other rooms in the castle.

Typical of gothic fiction, the castle serves as a physical manifestation of the states of mind of its inhabitants. The deterioration of parts of Udolpho and reclamation of some of its grounds by the wild natural world express the moral decline of its owner, Montoni, a nobleman who indulges in thievery and murder. The secret passages that honeycomb the walls of its rooms are as tortuous and labyrinthine as Montoni’s evil schemes. Emily sees a grim portent of her own fate in a legend associated with the castle: Udolpho is supposedly haunted by the ghost of its former owner, a woman who refused to acquiesce to Montoni’s will.

BibliographyCastle, Terry. “The Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho.” In The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature, edited by Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown. New York: Methuen, 1987. Examines the neglected segments of The Mysteries of Udolpho and asserts that the supernatural is “rerouted” rather than explained.Fawcett, Mary Laughlin. “Udolpho’s Primal Mystery.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 23, no. 3 (1983): 481-494. Provides a psychoanalytic approach to the novel.Freeman, R. Austin. Introduction to The Mysteries of Udolpho. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1931. Dismisses Radcliffe’s anachronisms and inaccuracies as irrelevant, claiming that The Mysteries of Udolpho’s merits are elsewhere. Whereas Samuel Taylor Coleridge had faulted Radcliffe for explaining all the mysteries, Freeman shows that The Mysteries of Udolpho anticipates the convention of the novel and satisfies readers with those explanations.Graham, Kenneth W. “Emily’s Demon-Lover: The Gothic Revolution and The Mysteries of Udolpho.” In Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, edited by Kenneth W. Graham. New York: AMS Press, 1989. Places Radcliffe’s works in the historical moment of revolution.Howells, Coral Ann. Love, Mystery, and Misery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction. London: Athlone Press, 1978. Analyzes Emily St. Aubert as a character through whom Radcliffe experiments with subjectivity and points of view.Kiely, Robert. The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. Kiely observes innovative aspects in the character of Emily St. Aubert, including the fact that she is aware of her own thinking and that she is astute rather than helpless in finding her way in her gothic situation.Moers, Ellen. Literary Women: The Great Writers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976. A groundbreaking work that begins to delineate a female literary tradition. Moers discusses how Radcliffe used the gothic novel to explore the nature of heroinism. Compares her to Fanny Burney.Roberts, Bette B. “The Horrid Novels: The Mysteries of Udolpho and Northanger Abbey.” In Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, edited by Kenneth W. Graham. New York: AMS Press, 1989. Challenges conventional notions of Jane Austen’s evaluation of Radcliffe’s art by examining Austen’s treatment in Northanger Abbey of both Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho and other contemporary “horrids.”Smith, Nelson. “Sense, Sensibility, and Ann Radcliffe.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 13, no. 4 (1973): 577-590. Shows The Mysteries of Udolpho to be an attack on eighteenth century “sensibility.”Spender, Dale. “Ann Radcliffe and the Gothic.” In Mothers of the Novel: One Hundred Good Women Writers Before Jane Austen. London: Pandora Books, 1986. A defense of a female literary tradition. Discusses Radcliffe in historical context, including mention of female writers who influenced her.Todd, Janet. The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing, and Fiction, 1600-1800. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Discusses female authorship by the signs it creates to identify itself. Suggests that Radcliffe maintains the image of female gentility, the lady, in her life and works.
Categories: Places