Fiction: “The Mysteries of Udolpho” by Ann Radcliffe

mysteries of udolphoA few months ago, my friend Erica read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. I had read it a few years ago, and it was getting time to make my selection for Spring Classic Literature Month. Well, I was perusing the shelves of the Yarmouth Library after returning Babayaga, and came across The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. This book was actually mentioned by the characters in Northanger Abbey numerous times, as it is the favorite novel of the lead character Catherine. And Northanger Abbey was in the back of my mind, and this book was free and I’d never read it before, so … hey! Synergy!

Please feel free to add this title to the list of Bad Decisions Alaina’s Made In Life.

Look, I’ve read a lot of classic literature in my day, but oh man – this was like, 700 pages of nothingThe Mysteries of Udolpho is supposed to be the first Gothic novel, and I kept waiting for some suspense? But after reading Red Dragon or, fuck it, Dracula, this book was a snooze fest.

As evidence, please look at the fact that it took me ten weeks to read this. TEN FUCKING WEEKS.

So the plot, as she is horribly, horribly overwritten: Emily St. Aubert lives with her father in the South of France (I think). After her mother dies, she and her father take a tour of the rest of the south of France as part of their bereavement tour or whatever. On the trip, they meet a chevalier (traveling knight) named Vaillancourt. Emily and Vaillancourt fall in love on, like, page 109, and then Emily’s father dies and Emily gets sent to live with her Aunt, Madame Chernon. Madame Chernon disapproves of Vaillancourt, so she forbids them to be together. Then she relents because she finds out Vaillancourt has wealthy connections. Meanwhile, Madame Chernon is wooed by Count Montoni, who appears to be some suave Italian motherfucker. Well, Madame Chernon agrees to marry Count Montoni, does so by stealing the wedding plans of Emily and Vaillancourt, then forbids Emily from continuing her relationship with Vaillancourt. Count Montoni then removes his new wife and Emily to his palace in Venice, where we come to learn that Montoni? is actually a dick.

He’s a leader of the dreaded Italian Bandits, which would make a great name for a rock band. But really, he’s a thief and a murderer. He attempts to sell Emily’s hand in marriage to a Count Morano, but when that deal goes belly-up, he takes the entire “family” up to his palace in the region known as Udolpho.

The Udolpho palace is full of secrets – it’s like Gretchen Weiners’ hair. Emily and her chambermaid, Annette, get into all sorts of adventures. And when I say “adventures,” I mean “forty pages of Annette rambling and Emily saying she doesn’t want to hear it but then says okay sure, I’ll listen, and then they walk through the halls of the castle and see weird shit which will all be explained as not paranormal whatsoever in about five hundred pages.”

While they are imprisoned in Udolpho, Madame Chernon passes away – oh, shit, spoiler alert, I guess – and then Montoni pressures Emily into giving up the land she inherited from her aunt. But Emily refuses, because she’s moral or whatever. Anyway, one night she thinks she hears the voice of her beloved Vaillancourt, but it turns out that it’s another dude from her region of France, who has been imprisoned by Montoni. Not too much later from that, Emily, her maid Annettte, this other dude, and Annette’s boyfriend Ludovico escape from Udolpho and end up at the mansion of a friend named … George, I guess. (I’m wrong, but it’s an easy name to make up and the book’s been back at the library for a month now and I’m not going to look it up.) George had apparently run into Vaillancourt in Paris, and Emily’s boyfriend had managed to turn into a bit of a gambler, so George tells her to cut him loose because he’s a bad egg. When Vaillancourt returns to plead his case, she refuses him.

But after another hundred pages of back and forth, Emily realizes that Vaillancourt was only gambling to make money to help pay off her debts to her servants and other shit, so his morality is restored and they end up married or whatever.

See?  It took me not even 1000 words to give the major points of the plot. Why was this book nearly 700 pages long?

Well, it would have been shorter if Mrs. Radcliffe knew how to use the comma properly.

No, for reals. And while I recognize that this was written nearly three hundred years ago and common grammatical structure has evolved, THERE ARE ENTIRELY TOO MANY COMMAS IN THIS BOOK.

I decided to turn it into a game after I read this sentence:

The immense pine-forests, which, at that period, overhung these mountains, and between which the road wound, excluded all view but of the cliffs aspiring above, except, that, now and then, an opening through the dark woods allowed the eye a momentary glimpse of the country below. [p. 224]

I MEAN. So, as I continued to read – because I don’t give up on books, not anymore – I decided to see if I could find the sentence in the novel that had the most commas.


Beneath the dark and spreading branches, appeared, to the north, and to the east, the woody Apennines, rising in majestic amphitheatre, not black with pines, as she had been accustomed to see them, but their loftiest summits crowned with antient forests of chesnut, oak, and oriental plane, now animated with the rich tints of autumn, and which swept downward to the valley uninterruptedly, except where some bold rocky promontory looked out from among the foliage, and caught the passing gleam. [p. 413]

That is one entire sentence, folks. It has 14 – FOURTEEN – commas in that one sentence. That’s … entirely too many commas.

Let’s see, what else can I talk about – oh, how about how Annette the Maid is so annoying, even the saintly main character Emily hates her? Okay, maybe “hates” is a strong word, but she does delight in poking fun at Annette who is too stupid to realize it.

“Down this passage, ma’amselle ; this leads to a back stair-case. O! if I see any thing, I shall be frightened out of my wits!”

“That will scarcely be possible,” said Emily … [p. 232]

“But the story went round, and many strange reports were spread, so very strange, ma’amselle, that I shall not tell them.”

“That is stranger still, Annette,” said Emily … [p. 238]

Another thing I love about reading old books? What was probably very tame and normal back then sounds really dirty now.

Madame La Comtesse had often deep play at her house, which she affected to restrain, but secretly encouraged … [294]

“I have myself seen the Chevalier engaged in deep play with men, whom I almost shuddered to look upon.” [507]

“Deep play” is defined in the notes as “gambling,” which is such a buzzkill.

Oh, and Ms. Radcliffe attempts to break the novel up by inserting poetry. And if one of those poems have a verse that sounds dirty, well, Alaina’s going to take note of it:

Neptune for this oft binds me fast
To rocks below, with coral chain,
Till all the tempest’s over-past,
And drowning seamen cry in vain. [181]

Overall, the entire book suffers from histrionics which were probably considered the height of literature three hundred years ago, but today reads horribly. I can step back and appreciate it for what it was during its time, but am I ever going to read this again? Hell no.

Grade for The Mysteries of Udolpho: 1 star

(the star is for the That’s What She Said moments the book provided; that’s it.)

Fiction: “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel García Márquez

Time of CholeraApparently I have a knack for creating things without even thinking about it.  American History Month started in the same way: I looked back at the past couple of years, realized I had started a trend, and then decided to continue that trend because dammit, trends are cool.  Recently, I found another one: In May of 2012, I had read Great Expectations.  Last May, I read The Great Gatsby.  Suddenly, I had apparently made May “Classic Literature Month” at That’s What She Read without even realizing it.

So when this year rolled around, I didn’t really know where I was going to go: I had read Dracula kind of out of sequence (although I guess one could argue that I was getting all Halloween-ey up in here), and lord knows I have tons of classics I could read, but nothing was really jumping out at me – mainly because I couldn’t find any more classic novels with the word “Great” in the title.  I was also knee-deep in books borrowed from the library, and could easily pick up something I didn’t own.

And then Gabriel García Márquez passed away in April.  I felt horrible, because I did not realize he was still alive.  I was brought back to my sophomore year of high school, where the curriculum was supposedly literature from other cultures — I say “supposedly” because it was my first year of Honors-level English, and I seem to remember watching a lot more movies than our counterparts did.  I remember doing a section on fairy tales, I definitely remember having to read Crime and Punishment – who makes a bunch of sixteen-year-olds read that?? -, and we had to read One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Honestly, I was going to re-read that book for this past May’s edition of Classic Literature Month – it seemed appropriate following the death of Márquez, and it has been more than … oh man, so many years I don’t even want to attach a number to it since sophomore year, that re-reading it would really be like reading it for the first time.  I mean, let’s be real: I don’t remember too much about the plot of Hundred Years beyond the fact that all the characters had the same name and the whole thing was rather incesty.

But when I took my copy of A Hundred Years of Solitude out of my classics bookcase (because yes, I have a bookcase dedicated solely to classic literature), I realized that the copy I had picked up at a book sale would deteriorate into dust if I sneezed on it wrong, and the pollen is really bad this time of year.  So I tried to find a copy at the library, but all the copies were checked out.  But his other novel, Love in the Time of Cholera was there, so I checked that out and then took three weeks to read it.

Love in the Time of Cholera tells the story of the love between Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza.  Florentino falls in love with Fermina when they’re both very young.  They carry on a flirtation through surreptitious love letters, until Fermina’s father quasi-politely forbids Fermina to marry Florentino, because Florentino was illegitimate.  Fermina eventually marries Dr. Juvenal Urbino, and they are married for almost fifty years until he dies, at which point Florentino returns into Fermina’s life, where he had been in love with her from afar, and tries to renew her love for him. She holds out at first, claiming that at their age love is indecent.  But Florentino takes up letter-writing again – this time via a typewriter – and their relationship grows from awkward acquaintances into platonic friends, and finally lovers while on a riverboat tour.

I would love to say “That’s it; that’s the plot,” but there’s so much more in the novel – and chances are, I probably won’t be able to elucidate those other things.

What Marquez specialized in was the genre that came to be known as “magic realism” – he discussed the daily details of his characters’ lives, but in a way that it didn’t sound tedious or boring.  Every aspect of their lives – whether it be the initial phases of falling in love, or having to make and eat numerous plates full of eggplant – took on a magical, otherworldly quality, and raised the characters and their actions and reactions to a heightened level of transcendence, if that makes any sense.  [This would be the point where I’d quote an example from the book, but it was a week overdue and I returned it already.]

In this book, Marquez makes numerous comparisons between “love” and “cholera” — that love causes pain, and digestive distress, and hallucinations, and can lead (in some cases) to death, just like cholera.  The character of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, Fermina Daza’s husband, treats such excessive love as a disease – we learn through flashbacks that he is a fastidious germaphobe, so he avoids any contact with a disease (or a disease-like affliction, like love).

There can also be discussions regarding the fact that Florentino Ariza does not remain chaste in his wait for Fermina Daza; his love remains constant, but he has affairs with numerous other women.  Fermina Daza, however, remains married to her husband and never strays from the marital bed.  If I were a scholar, I would discuss this dichotomy; but since I am not a scholar, I will simply say “GENERATIONAL AND CULTURAL AND HISTORICAL ISSUES” and walk away, because after all the Maleficent things I’ve been reading (and/or writing, and/or not even about Maleficent but the whole #YesAllWomen and the second coming of Women’s Rights), I’m exceedingly tired about that type of discussion and feel that I cannot adequately contribute to the discussion through the lens of magical realism literature.

I think my final topic of discussion is this: this book won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  And while it is a stunning treatise on the concept of love, its conditions, its disease-like qualities, and how people interact with it, I don’t understand why it won the Nobel.  Don’t get me wrong, it is an excellent book and I liked it — my feeling right now is that I didn’t understand the quality that garnered the Nobel, or I didn’t have a moment of epiphany that would make this my favorite book forever and ever (and there are a lot of people who claim this as one of their favorites).  I guess it goes back to the fact that I am not a scholar, and I don’t pretend to be one: this blog (and my reviews) are matters of opinion, not fact, and I don’t have the temperament to be a scholar: I get distracted by shiny Internet things too much.

Grade for Love in the Time of Cholera: 4 stars