Wednesday 4 December 2013

A Regency History guide to The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Illustration from The Mysteries of Udolpho  (1806 edition)
Illustration from The Mysteries of Udolpho
(1806 edition)
The Mysteries of Udolpho is a Gothic romance by Mrs Radcliffe which was first published in four volumes in 1794. It was her fourth novel and proved to be her most popular. Its title is well-known today because it was famously satirised in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey which makes numerous references to it.

You can read more about the connection between The Mysteries of Udolpho and Northanger Abbey here.

But what is Udolpho actually like?

The main characters of Udolpho are full of sensibility and frequently pause to marvel at the scenery through which they are travelling. The heroine has a harrowing time and is habitually moved to tears. Moreover, the narrative is punctuated by various poetical asides which add very little, if anything, to the plot. I confess that I did not personally get on with it very well and found the storyline dragged in places, but I am very glad that I have read it and can now make sense of all the references to Udolpho in Northanger Abbey.

Main characters

Emily St Aubert, the heroine.
Monsieur and Madame St Aubert, her father and mother.
Valancourt, a fellow traveller who falls in love with Emily.
Madame Cheron, Monsieur St Aubert’s sister into whose care Emily is placed.
Signor Montoni, the owner of the Castle of Udolpho, who marries Madame Cheron.
Count Morano, friend of Signor Montoni, whom he wants Emily to marry.
Monsieur Du Pont, a Frenchman who is a prisoner in the Castle of Udolpho and is in love with Emily.
Annette, Madame Montoni’s maid.
Ludovico, a servant of Signor Montoni in the Castle who falls in love with Annette.
Marquis de Villeroi, the recently deceased owner of the Chateau-le-Blanc.
Marchioness de Villeroi, Monsieur St Aubert’s sister
Count de Villefort, the new owner of the Chateau-le-Blanc.
Lady Blanche de Villefort, the Count’s daughter, who becomes Emily’s friend.
Signora Laurentini di Udolpho, alias Sister Agnes.
Dorothée, the old servant at the Château-le-Blanc.
Madame Clairval, Valancourt’s aunt.

Plot summary

(I apologise that this is quite lengthy, but I have no desire to ever read this book again and want to remember what happened!)

Tearful trials 

The Mysteries of Udolpho is set in 16th century France and is the story of Emily St Aubert.

At the start of the book, Emily is living the seemingly ideal life at La Valée, in the beautiful countryside of Gascony with her beloved parents.

Illustration from The Mysteries of Udolpho  (1806 edition)
Illustration from The Mysteries of Udolpho
(1806 edition)
Then everything begins to go wrong. First, Emily’s mother becomes ill and dies. Emily is perplexed because she sees her father crying over the miniature of a woman who is not her mother. Then Emily’s father becomes ill and they decide to travel to the Mediterranean coast for his health.

A mystery

At one stage, they lose their way and come near to the deserted mansion of the Marquis de Villeroi. The owner’s name seems to distress Monsieur St Aubert, but the mystery is not explained.

Enter the hero

They meet a fellow traveller called Valancourt and travel some distance together. Emily and Valancourt are attracted to each other and appreciate the beauty of the scenery together. They part company reluctantly and travel on.

They pass through an area where there is a fear of bandits and when someone approaches their vehicle, Monsieur St Aubert shoots him, only to find that he has injured poor Valancourt. Emily and Valancourt spend more time together as Valancourt recovers from his injury.

Death of Monsieur St Aubert

Monsieur St Aubert becomes too ill to travel and they stop near the Count de Villefort’s mansion where they are looked after by peasants in a cottage. Monsieur St Aubert knows that he is dying and makes Emily promise to destroy a paper back in their home without looking at it. He consigns her to the guardianship of his sister, Madame Cheron. Monsieur St Aubert dies and is buried in the nearby convent.

Emily spends some time at the convent and meets Sister Agnes before travelling back to her home in the deepest distress. Valancourt visits and is distressed to find that Emily’s father has died and she is all alone. Emily destroys the paper, but not before she accidentally reads a line which she finds impossible to forget. Emily wishes to remain in her family home, but her aunt, Madame Cheron, insists that she visit her. She cannot afford to stay at home because it appears that her father’s investments have failed.

A heartless aunt

Emily visits her aunt. Valancourt wants to pay Emily court, but is discouraged. But then Emily’s aunt discovers that Valancourt is related to the influential Madame Clairval and she starts promoting the match. Emily and Valancourt are about to be married when Madame Cheron suddenly announces that she has married Signor Montoni.

Illustration from The Mysteries of Udolpho  (1806 edition)
Illustration from The Mysteries of Udolpho
(1806 edition)
The new Madame Montoni heartlessly breaks off Emily's engagement to Valancourt and tells Emily that they are going to Venice and then to her husband's estates in Tuscany. Valancourt has heard bad reports about Montoni and asks Emily to marry him secretly, but Emily refuses to go against her aunt’s wishes. 

In Venice, Count Morano falls in love with Emily and proposes marriage. Emily refuses, but Montoni tries to force her to accept. Signor Montoni plans to overcome Emily’s reluctance and they travel into Italy. 

When they leave, Valancourt is distraught, but he is teased by his fellow officers and falls into bad company.

The Castle of Udolpho

Signor Montoni is not kind to Emily’s aunt. He is a gambler and wants her to sign over her own property to him, but she refuses. There is a sudden change of plan. The Count no longer wants Emily to marry Count Morano and they leave for the Castle of Udolpho.

The Castle is a centre for bandits led by Signor Montoni. It comes under attack from other forces. Emily is terrified because there is a second door to her room which she cannot lock. One night, Count Morano enters and tries to abduct her but his plans are foiled and he is badly injured.

The black veil

Emily has heard rumours of ghosts and mysterious tales about the Castle. She goes into a room and finds something hidden beneath a black veil. What she sees is so frightful that she will not go near the room again.

There is a rumour that the Count was married to the former owner of the Castle, Signora Laurentini di Udolpho, and Emily believes that he has killed her and it is her body that lies under the black veil.

Death of Emily’s aunt

Once ensconced in the Castle of Udolpho, Signor Montoni mistreats Emily’s aunt who perversely softens towards Emily and resolutely refuses to sign over her lands which she promises to leave to her niece. Emily is supported by her aunt’s maid, Annette, and Annette’s lover, Ludovico. Emily’s aunt is locked away in a turret and becomes ill under the bad treatment and eventually dies.


Random noises and music give rise to ghost stories, but these prove to be nothing more than a fellow prisoner moving about in secret passages and making music from his cell. Emily learns that he is a Frenchman and believes that Valancourt is the fellow prisoner. A meeting is arranged, but she finds herself being embraced by a complete stranger, Monsieur Du Pont, and not Valancourt. But Emily is not a stranger to Monsieur Du Pont – he has seen her back in La Valée and is in love with her.

After her aunt’s death, Signor Montoni threatens Emily to sign over the property her aunt has bequeathed her. Frightened for her life, she gives in. With the help of the servants and Monsieur Du Pont, Emily escapes from the Castle.

Illustration from The Mysteries of Udolpho  (1806 edition)
Illustration from The Mysteries of Udolpho
(1806 edition)
The Count de Villefort

They travel back to France and land near the convent where Monsieur St Aubert is buried. They meet Count de Villefort and his wife and daughter, Blanche, the new tenants of the mansion, who invite Emily to stay with them. There are rumours that the mansion is haunted and the Count finds it hard to keep his servants.

One old servant, Dorothée, was with the lady of the manor when she died. She tells Emily the story of the Marchioness de Villeroi and takes her to the room where she died. Her picture is in the room and it looks very like Emily and Emily fears that this lady is her true mother. Emily is terrified because the room appears to be haunted.

Valancourt is unworthy

Emily writes to Valancourt, but when he comes, the Count reveals his previous knowledge of him – that he was leading his son into bad company in Paris – and warns Emily against what Valancourt has become. Heartbroken, Emily vows to part with Valancourt forever. The Count urges Emily to accept his friend Monsieur Du Pont who is in love with her. To try to dispel the rumours of ghosts, Ludovico stays in the supposedly haunted room. In the morning, he is gone.

The mystery of Sister Agnes

Emily visits the convent where old Sister Agnes is dying. She confesses her crime to Emily. Sister Agnes was once known as the Signora Laurentini di Udolpho and had been the Marquis de Villeroi's lover. The Marquis had married  Emily’s aunt (not her mother), but then conspired with Signora Laurentini to poison her. After his wife's death, the Marquis was filled with remorse and insisted that Agnes spend the rest of her life in penance or face the authorities.

What Emily had read in her father’s papers was a reference to the Marchioness de Villeroi, her father’s sister, and it was a miniature of the Marchioness that Emily had seen her father crying over.

The fortuitous reappearance of Ludovico

Emily travels home accompanied by the Count and Lady Blanche. They break their journey in the mountains but find they have come to a hideout of ruffians. Ludovico turns up – it was these people who had kidnapped him from the Count’s home. He helps them escape. Emily becomes a wealthy woman – her aunt’s lands are recovered and her father’s affairs are found to be less desperate than previously thought.

Valancourt is proved worthy at last

The Count de Villefort visits and continues to urge his friend’s suit. But Monsieur Du Pont has heard stories of Valancourt’s kindness and realises that his misdemeanours have been overstated. Valancourt and Emily are reunited at last.

So what was behind the black veil?

Clearly not the body of Signora Laurentini di Udolpho as Emily thought, as she turned out to be Sister Agnes. What Emily saw behind the veil was a human figure, partly decayed, but the figure was not real but made of wax. It had been made as a rather gruesome penance for the Marquis of Udolpho, that he should look upon it for a certain time each day in order to receive pardon for his sins.

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes clean/Christian historical romance set in the time of Jane Austen. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

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 Sources used:

Radcliffe, Mrs Ann, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794; 6th edition 1806)


  1. This has been on my list of books to read for a long time. I got a headache just reading your summary. Thank you for saving me from a migraine.

    1. My pleasure! You might want to read a bit of it sometime just to get a flavour of the style of writing - it is hard to convey this in a summary. All those swoonings and tears - you have to read it to believe that it was actually written like that. No wonder Jane Austen poked fun at it in Northanger!

    2. Wonderful, I read Udolpho once and didn't enjoy it as much as your summary! Actually it is more like one of today's soap operas that a "modern" Regency - lurching from crisis to crisis and I can imagine it's readers in Austen's time lapping it up and chatting about it over the the tea cups. Thanks Rachel!

    3. I am glad you enjoyed it and yes, I agree, it is a bit like a soap opera. It would probably have worked better as a serial than reading it in one go! I think it was the digressions into scenic descriptions and poetry that I found most difficult to get through.

    4. Ive battled on as far as volume IV and I cant take much more. I had to know what was beyond the black veil. I found Emily annoying and skipped all the poety.

  2. I understand your aversion.
    I tend to rate Jane Austens by how many times I wished to slap or do general unkindnesses to the heroine. (Northhanger Abbey has the lead at the moment) What rating would you give this?

    1. Pretty high! I found it hard to sympathise with Emily when she refused to heed the warnings about Count Morano and got taken away to the Castle of Udolpho. Turning her back on Valancourt when she heard he had been behaving badly also showed little faith in her beloved. And she did cry. A lot.

  3. Can you tell me if Montoni is murdered and by whom? And what time is the romance? On what page is the murder?
    I will translate your post into Portuguese and publish it on my blog if you let me.

  4. Emily escapes from the Castle of Udolpho and it is only later, in chapter VIII that we learn that Montoni was arrested and died a mysterious death in prison - he may or may not have been murdered, and we don't know by whom.

    "A friend of Monsieur Quesnel, who resided at Venice, had sent him an account of the death of Montoni who had been brought to trial with Orsino, as his supposed accomplice in the murder of the Venetian nobleman. Orsino was found guilty, condemned and executed upon the wheel, but, nothing being discovered to criminate Montoni, and his colleagues, on this charge, they were all released, except Montoni, who, being considered by the senate as a very dangerous person, was, for other reasons, ordered again into confinement, where, it was said, he had died in a doubtful and mysterious manner, and not without suspicion of having been poisoned."

    You are very welcome to translate my blog but please state that the original blog is by Rachel Knowles and link your post back to this site.

    Best wishes Rachel

  5. Just a note - Signora Laurentini is later called Sister Agnes, not Sister Agatha ("The mystery of Sister Agatha"). But thanks for the summary, I've forgotten nearly everything except the pain.

    1. Thank you so much for pointing this out. What a silly mistake! I had the right name at the top and the bottom but for some reason wrote Agatha in the middle section. I have now corrected it. :) And I quite agree - I am glad to have read it, but it was not a particularly enjoyable experience!

  6. Many thanks for such a thorough summary. I've been curious about that book for 20 years but find reading of 18th century tedious because of the verbosity. Even a generation after the Regency, Thackerary's prose is soooo verbose! (Though I love Vanity Fair, which would be better if several thousand words were cut from it.)

    1. I understand what you mean - I shall not be reading it again in a hurry!

    2. To be fair to Thackerary Vanity Fair was published in installments and he would have had a financial inducement to spin things out. Taking the lead charecters off to the continent no doubt helped no end.

  7. When Valancourt seeks a clandestine marriage (in Toulouse) it's Montoni whose doubtful character he worries about. Morano has not appeared in the book at this stage.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I must have got confused - I have now put this right.

  8. Thank You for the readable content that enabled me to prepare for my competitive examinations. Though it was too long (as you said), it provided a fulfillment of mostly reading the exact text

  9. Thank You for the summary which helped me to attend my competitive exams.Though it was long (as you said), it was much helpful like giving a feeling as if I had read the exact text

  10. I'm in Chapter 5 of Vol 2 of Udolpho. I must confess, I love how verbose it is - similar to Jane Austen - I do believe people back then were a lot smarter than we are today. Of course, that's if you were born into wealth. But I gotta tell ya... women like Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Radcliffe are a real turn-on for this lower middleclass, smalltown boy turned classics lover! Love it! Love it! Love it!

  11. I've read Udolpho three times now. I have no issue with the "overwritten" prose of the era but that's just me, and due in no small part I'm sure to my own upbringing. I was a very precocious reader (college level by the 4th grade) and the bulk of my childhood reading was pre-20th century. I can't speak to much before the 17th century, but it always seemed to me that *everything* from literature to newspaper articles to product advertisement copy was intensely verbose and overwrought in tone. For better or worse my experience and preference for mostly 18th-19th century lit has influenced my own writing style. Even so, I really struggled to slog through the constant digressions into random poetry and what seemed like entire chapters of excruciatingly detailed descriptions of the landscape.

    Since then I've skipped/skimmed those parts and found it not just more enjoyable and better paced, but one of my favorite gothic novels of all time. I generally loathe abridgement, but for the modern audience sifting out the worst of the chaff would make this much more popular and accessible. Heresy I know, but I personally know two people who tried to read Udolpho but couldn't stomach the perpetual, florid digressions. Better they read a classic like this in a conservatively abridged form than not at all (and be likely turned off from trying anything similar besides).