She Reads & Writes

Women • Fiction • Life

The book Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho on a wooden ledge with flowers

“…the soothing hour, when the last tints of light die away; when the stars, one by one, tremble through æther, and are reflected on the dark mirror of the waters; that hour, which, of all others, inspires the mind with pensive tenderness, and often elevates it to sublime contemplation.” ― Ann Radcliff, The Mysteries of Udolpho

Ann Radcliffe was an English author who published novels in the late 1700s. She was a pioneer of what is called the gothic novel, a genre full of mystery, horror, and medieval-like settings. It was a very popular genre in the 18th and early 19th centuries and the success of her novels provided the funds for her and her husband to travel.

I was introduced to Radcliffe when The Mysteries of Udolpho was assigned to me in an English Literature graduate course in 2014. The novel is long, coming in at 600+ pages in paperback, but has had a lasting hold on my imagination and literary musings.

One of many, many thought-provoking aspects of this novel is how Radcliffe thinks highly of sensibility, of the capability to respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences. In The Mysteries of Udolpho, she intentionally uses the novel to reveal her own sensibility toward nature, art, architecture, language, and music.

“In The Mysteries of Udolpho, Radcliffe intentionally uses the novel to reveal her own sensibility toward nature, art, architecture, language, and music.”

Radcliffe does this in 4 beautiful ways:

  1. The painterly quality of her writing reveals her sensibility toward nature and art; a quality that places a vision of the sublime European landscape before the reader’s eye.
  2. Her descriptions of aging castles and winding hallways, presented as both beautiful and haunting in their grandeur and decay, reveals her sensibility toward architecture.
  3. Her inclusion of poems throughout the novel and the dreamy, flowing nature of her prose reveals her sensibility toward language.
  4. Music’s active presence throughout her tale, haunting the main character, Emily, as it weaves in and out of the novel’s plot reveals her sensibility toward music.

The Mysteries of Udolpho is no July beach read, but that’s okay. In fact, that’s why I felt compelled to write about it over the summer. In our world of short blog posts and even shorter tweets, Radcliffe’s work provides a possible antidote to our ever-diminishing attention spans. It provides the opportunity to think on complex emotional or aesthetic influences; to be reminded that there is beauty in the world all around us that’s just waiting to be appreciated and felt, deeply.

In our world of short blog posts and even shorter tweets, Radcliffe’s work provides a possible antidote to our ever-diminishing attention spans.

Intrigued, but zero time for such a long, flowing novel? I understand! There’s no need to set a time limit on the reading experience or to take graduate level notes. Just buy a copy and read, one page at a time, even if it takes a year to get through. Or, my current go-to tool for reading, buy the audiobook. Life is busy, so why not make your commute or dishes or laundry more pleasant with a good story!

Have you read any of Radcliffe’s works? Any other long novels that were totally worth the time to get through? I’d love to read your comments!


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6 thoughts on “Sensibility and Sublime Contemplation

  1. Monica says:

    Yes, I’ve read A Sicilian Romance. My copy of Udolpho arrived two days ago. It will have to wait until I finish The Monk!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. susanmkhoward says:

      Wow – I’d love to hear which one is your favorite when you’re all through!

      Like

  2. Natalie says:

    Sounds like a worthwhile read. I like the idea of having no deadline to finish the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. susanmkhoward says:

      Yes! Deadlines are nice sometimes (Book Club, yearly reading goals, etc.), but not all of the time. We can end up confining our reading lives without even realizing it!

      Like

  3. aprildbest says:

    I’ve always wanted to read this — mostly because it was referenced by Jane Austen. I’m definitely more interested now after reading your thoughts 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. susanmkhoward says:

      Austen’s Northanger Abbey is a caricature of The Mysteries of Udolpho. 🙂

      Like

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