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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

I apologize in advance for the long review but I feel it is the only way to do justice to this book.  The first part will be a bare bones plot summary, from Wikipedia.  It has some spoilers, so skip or skim if you like.  The second part will be thoughts and impressions I had while reading this remarkable literary work.

Summary via Wkipedia:

Emily St. Aubert is the only child of a landed rural family whose fortunes are now in decline. Emily and her father share an especially close bond, due to their shared appreciation for nature. After her mother's death from a serious illness, Emily and her father grow even closer. She accompanies him on a journey from their native Gascony, through the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean coast of Roussillon, over many mountainous landscapes. During the journey, they encounter Valancourt, a handsome man who also feels an almost mystical kinship with the natural world. Emily and Valancourt quickly fall in love.

Emily's father succumbs to a long illness. Emily, now orphaned, is forced by his wishes to live with her aunt, Madame Cheron, who shares none of Emily's interests and shows little affection to her. Her aunt marries Montoni, a dubious nobleman from Italy. He wants his friend Count Morano to become Emily′s husband, and tries to force her to marry him. After discovering that Morano is nearly ruined he brings Emily and his wife to his remote castle of Udolpho. Emily fears to have lost Valancourt forever. Morano searches for Emily and tries to carry off her secretly from Udolpho. Emily refuses to join him because her heart still belongs to Valancourt. Morano′s attempt to escape is discovered by Montoni, who wounds the Count and chases him away.

In the following months Montoni threatens his wife with violence to force her to sign over her properties in Toulouse, which upon her death would otherwise go to Emily. Without resigning her estate Madame Cheron dies of a severe illness caused by her husband′s harshness. Many frightening but coincidental events happen within the castle, but Emily is able to flee from it with the help of her secret admirer Du Pont, who was a prisoner at Udolpho, and the servants Annette and Ludovico. Returning to the estate of her aunt, Emily learns that Valancourt went to Paris and lost his wealth. In the end she takes control of the property and is reunited with Valancourt.
(link to summary)  [Sorry, but my summary was way too long and I tried several times to be concise, but couldn't do it.]

My Thoughts and Impressions:

 “…of beauty sleeping in the lap of horror” (pg. 55)

Radcliffe uses this line to describe the mountainous landscape that  Emily and St. Aubert are traveling.  However, this phrase could be used to describe the whole story contained in Udolpho.  Emily, our beauty, often finds herself in the lap of horror: becoming a young orphan, having uncaring and unfeeling family, the treacherous and mean behavior of aunt Madame Cheron, being subjected to the machinations of Montoni, the castle Udolpho and its mysterious occurrences, and the alleged misbehavior of her one true love Valencourt. 

When reflected upon as a whole, even though all of these terrible circumstances keep happening, it becomes comical because poor Emily just can’t catch a break!  Most novels have one or two disagreeable instances, but not for Emily.  The entire novel is one bad situation after another; like a soap opera, think General Hospital.  I think it’s this overall arc that led Jane Austen to satirize Udolpho in Northanger Abbey (NA).  Although I haven’t read NA in quite some time, the similarities between NA and Udolpho  are striking and a re-read of NA is definitely in order.  Austen uses situations from Udolpho, such as the mysterious death of a spouse, a rundown castle in search of a good dowry for repairs, for her antics in NA.  It’s all in good natured fun.  By the end of Udolpho, all of the mysterious occurrences are explained, and everything comes together nicely.  One key difference between NA and Udolpho is the heroine.

Emily begins our story being quite weak, crying and fainting at the least little disruption to her person.  Emily is also quite the blusher.  As events unfold however, Emily grows stronger, due in part to what she must endure.  She still tears up and faints from time to time, but at least it is less frequent and the causes of these episodes are legitimate threats to her life and liberty.  I believe Radcliffe was trying to reflect either women’s behavior at her time (1794) or the time of her story, 1584.  Either way, Emily becomes her own person by the end, and it was delightful to see her develop and progress to adulthood.   

Throughout Udolpho, there are both little and big mysteries in the story, with most of the action occurring when the story shifts to the castle Udolpho.  I won’t go into detail, but there were many scenes in which I was riveted to the page.  This was probably my favorite part of the book.  Udolpho became quite the page turner and I was not expecting that.  Some may say there is too much going on, however with the novel being so lengthy, the mysteries kept it interesting.

Besides the mystical/horror element, Radcliffe’s descriptions of the various landscapes set the mood for the reader.  This combined with her description of castle Udolpho conjured up feelings of dread within me just like Emily, knowing those thick stone walls held nothing but sadness and despair.  In addition, Radcliffe crafts all of her secondary characters so well, that they assist in pulling the story together, and drawing the reader further into the action of the novel.  All of the characters are quite unforgettable.  The reader will fear and despise Montoni as much as Emily.  As for Madame Cheron, as vile and mean as she can be, Radcliffe was able to bend and sway my feelings into a sympathetic light for Cheron, and that is the work of a skilled writer.  Radcliffe made it easy to escape into this literary feat.

Now you may think I have nothing negative to say, but there were a few things.  First, the time frame of the novel.  This story is supposed to be set in 1584, but it never felt that way to me, possibly because I always assumed Radcliffe wrote in her present time, that being the 1790s.  Another nagging aspect, were the interspersed poems throughout Udolpho.  Some interesting and related to the story, others, not so much.  The poems sometimes enhanced the story, but slowed me down after a while.  Broke my rhythm. Lastly the length of this novel.  When it was originally published, it was done so in several volumes, which help to explain why there are so many mysteries that need solving, and I guess the length as well.  Many have said the beginning is a bit slow, but I was fine with that.  It was the end for me that could not come fast enough.  I felt as though the story meandered a bit, and I was not that interested in the aristocratic characters that entered into the back end of the story.  These characters served a purpose but I felt they were forced or extended their stay too long.

All in all, I really enjoyed The Mysteries of Udolpho, and am so glad I read it and finished it.  Maybe it was Radcliffe's writing prowess, but I believe it has changed my opinion of Gothic Literature as being hard to read and get into.  I would certainly consider reading more of Radcliffe's work.

My Rating: 95/100

This novel was read and reviewed as part of the Gothic Lit Tour hosted by Rebecca at the Classics Circuit.  Please stop by there and check out some other fabulous Gothic novels.

Publisher: Penguin Classics
Paperback, 632 pages

Challenges Met: Chunkster Challange

Monday, October 17, 2011

Behind the story: Venice, Apennines, and Tuscany from The Mysteries of Udolpho

After the beautiful scenery of France, our story travels to Venice, Italy.  Ah yes, that beautiful city filled with wide eyed young people, mysterious lovers, financially ruined or debt ridden aristocracy, and lots of liscentious behavior.  Just imagine being young Emily St Aubert as she entered Venice....

 Sad because she had to leave her lover, meanwhile she is surrounded by a city filled with love and clandestine meetings.

After a staying for a few weeks, like thieves in the night, Signor Montoni (our villain) packs up his people in the early morning and flees Venice for his castle in the mountains, Udolpho.  I believe it is in the Apennine mountain range, which runs down the middle of Italy.  I'm a bit fuzzy about the exact location.

Udolpho was an ancient castle, situated in the mountains, surrounded by dense forests and mountain cliffs.  I tried to find a suitable picture,  but in my mind Udolpho is dark, cold, and dank, and run down as well.  It's falling apart in places.  Unfortunately, this photo below was the best I could do, so picture dark and stormy like.

At some point, our heroine, Emily, will escape Udolpho and make her way back to France via Tuscany.  Ah, I can feel the warmth on my skin already, just like Emily.

Next time on Behind the story, I'll discuss the background of Mysteries of Udolpho, how it was originally published and it's various covers through the years.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Gothic Lit Classics Circuit, October 17 to October 31

Starting Monday, October 17th, the Gothic Literature Classics Circuit Tour will begin.  Gothic Literature pertains to those works written before 1840, as defined by the lovely Rebecca, host of the Classics Circuit.  My post, Mysteries of Udolpho, is scheduled for October 30th.  I've posted the entire schedule below, so please be sure to check out some of these fabulous old novels as reviewed by some equally awesome bloggers.
Happy Halloween :)

Monday, October 17
A Striped Armchair posting on The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve or Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown
Devouring Texts  posting on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog posting on The Devil’s Elixir by E.T.A. Hoffman
2606 Books and counting… posting on The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

Tuesday, October 18
She Is Too Fond Of Books posting on The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
BaffledBooks posting on The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve
The Story Girl posting on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Every Book and Cranny posting on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and/or The Italian by Anne Radcliffe

Wednesday, October 19
Christa’s Hooked on Books posting on The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo or Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe
Fleur Fisher in her world posting on The Two Emilys by Sophia Lee
things mean a lot posting on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Sandman” and other Gothic tales
Sasha & The Silverfish posting on Zastrozzi by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Transformation by Mary Shelley

Thursday, October 20
Stiletto Storytime posting on The Monk by Lewis
Aesop to Oz posting on The Vampyre  by John Polidori and  Caleb Williams by William Godwin
Simpler Pastimes posting on The Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons
Your Move, Dickens posting on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Friday, October 21
Bread Crumb Reads posting on Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
One Librarian’s Book Reviews  posting on something Radcliffe or Frankenstein by Mary Shelley or Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Book Clutter posting on The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
A Literary Odyssey posting on The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
Saturday, October 22
Shelf Love  posting on The Romance of the Forest by Anne Radcliffe
The Blue Bookcase posting on Emmeline by Charlotte Smith
Tony’s Reading List posting on Die Elixiere des Teufels’ (“The Devil’s Elixir”) by E.T.A. Hoffmann

Sunday, October 23
Fig and Thistle posting on either Clermont by Regina Maria Roche or Melmoth the Wanderer  by Charles Mautrin
Farewell, Office posting on The Monk by Matthew Lewis
Desperate Reader posting on The Castle of Otranto or Nightmare Abbey

Monday, October 24
Chrisbookarama posting on The Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons
A Few More Pages posting on a few short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Books and Chocolate posting on Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
An Armchair by the Sea posting on The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Tuesday, October 25
eclectic / eccentric posting on The Monk by Matthew Lewis
Eclectic Book Readings posting on Frankenstein by Mary Shelly or Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
She Reads Novels posting on A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe
Laura’s Reviews posting on a few Gothic American short stories

Wednesday, October 26
bibliophilia posting on Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen or The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
bibliographing posting on The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
Gudrun’s Tights posting on The Witch of Ravensworth by George Brewer

Thursday, October 27
Literary Lindsey posting on Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
The Reading Life posting on “The Terrible Vengeance” and “Viy” by Nikolai Gogol
Becky’s Book Reviews posting on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Friday, October 28
Kristi Loves Books posting on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley or The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo orNorthanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Chew & Digest Books posting on Jane Talbot by Charles Brockden Brown
pages turned posting on Caleb Williams by William Godwin

Saturday, October 29
Ardent Reader posting on Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne by Anne Radcliffe or Claremont by Regina Maria Roche or Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Truth Beauty Freedom and Books posting on Vathek by William Beckford and/or The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
Redeeming Qualities posting on Jane Talbot by Charles Brockden Brown

Sunday, October 30
Jenny Loves to Read posting on The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
Iris on Books posting on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
seagreen reader posting on Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown

Monday, October 31
Le Vanity Victorienne posting on The Vampyre by John Polidori
Book Lust posting on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
A Room of One’s Own posting on Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Friday, October 14, 2011

Review: World War Z by Max Brooks

The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time.World War Z is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.

Ranging from the now infamous village of New Dachang in the United Federation of China, where the epidemiological trail began with the twelve-year-old Patient Zero, to the unnamed northern forests where untold numbers sought a terrible and temporary refuge in the cold, to the United States of Southern Africa, where the Redeker Plan provided hope for humanity at an unspeakable price, to the west-of-the-Rockies redoubt where the North American tide finally started to turn, this invaluable chronicle reflects the full scope and duration of the Zombie War. (From Goodreads)

World War Z is an oral history of what happened in various parts of the world when the zombie epidemic occurred.  It’s called a world war because that was the response necessary to save humanity.  All of the earth’s population was under attack, animals too.  Only with an all out effort could the zombies be eliminated.  Also the psychological effect of “winning” a war was something humanity needed.  When you have been beaten down and brought to the brink of extinction by a tough to kill, mindless enemy, a victory goes a long way. 

These oral stories were collected from every corner of the globe, mostly from armed services personnel or other front line fighters.  The storyline of the book evolves from when the first cases were discovered to the “victory” and aftermath .  Events in between are also covered, such as how people fled, a major ground battle outside New York City, and  how government responded.  That last bit is quite shocking, but it makes sense.  The one bright spot is that at some point, the world government realized they had to work together, to a degree.  I’d like to say there were specific stories that struck a chord with me. However it was the entire book and it’s plausibility that stays with me.

Forget it’s a zombie apocalypse and think of it as an infectious disease outbreak instead.  The initial outbreaks are hushed up by the government, public panic and all, and everyone involved is silenced.  This information can’t get out.  When it does eventually reach mainstream media, it’s a byline story on the news.  Let’s face it, the news really isn’t news anyway; around the few lines of actual news, are plenty of celebrity information and what your neighbor tweeted or said on Facebook.  People don’t really pay attention to the news anyway.  So this outbreak is brewing, and before you know it, people are sick, there’s no food on store shelves, you grab your guns, etc.  This is a worldwide crisis; society will start to break down and tough decisions are going to have to be made.

I liked this book so much, not only because of its plausibility, but Brook’s ability to get me to empathize with each and every story teller; even the gentleman who comes up with a plan to save the small populations that are left.  It’s quite a gruesome plan but someone has to say it.  Brooks captures the behavior of people and government quite well, and this book provides the reader with plenty of food for thought.  Zombie apocalypse, nuclear war, flu epidemic, regardless of what it is, society will break down.  What would you do?  I’m not saying come up with a plan, but maybe we should pay more attention to the world out there, and hold our news organizations and governments accountable for providing us with actual information instead of just fluff.

My Rating: 95/100

Publisher: Crown Publishers
Genre: Dystopian, War
Hardback 342 pages
Book Source: borrowed from the library

Monday, October 3, 2011

Behind the story: The region of Gascony in France featured in The Mysteries of Udolpho

As I read the Mysteries of Udolpho I thought it would be interesting to research and spotlight the area of Gascony where the first part of the story takes place.  In the book, Emily and her father live along the Garonne rive in Gascony, France.  This area is on the southwest of France close to the border with Spain, and the Pyrenees can often be seen in the distance.

Gascony included or was often paired with Acquitaine and yes, was part of Eleanor of Acquitaine's dowry to Henry II.  Other familiar people who came from this area included Henry IV, king of France, Cyrano de Bergerac, and d'Artagnan of the Three Musketeers.

Today it is filled with medieval towns and villages, peaceful rolling hills, and beautiful weather, often making it a popular tourist destination for Europeans.

Garonne river near Toulouse, France
Another area that features prominently in Udolpho are the Pyrenees.  Emily and her father travel along the Pyrenees down to the Mediterranean so her father could enjoy the beautiful landscapes and weather and get well.  Often along their trip, they would get out and gaze upon the lovely vistas from the road, being in awe of the rugged wild beauty of the mountains contrasting with the greenery, trees, and bushes.

The descriptions of the scenery in Udolpho lend the story its air of mystery and danger, because many of the roads that were traveled were close to the mountain edge, with villages few and far between. It take much to go off the side of the road.  Mules and small carriages were used for travel, or one could go by foot if needed.  Banditos were also known to inhabit the mountain passages making travel after dark quite dangerous.  Therefore whenever one happened along the pleasant face of a fellow traveler dinner and stories would be shared, and new acquaintances made.

Later in the story Emily will journey down along the Pyrenees to Italy, to stay in a creepy castle with it's equally creepy owner.  More to come I'm sure.