Fall 1990, Volume 7.2
Emily Vindicated: Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstonecraft
It is not customary to relate Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe to rebel Mary Wollstonecraft even though they were contemporaries, except to suggest, as does Jane Spencer in The Rise of the Woman Novelist (209), that Wollstonecraft is indebted to Radcliffe for the Gothic strain in her unfinished posthumous novel The Wrongs of Woman: or, Maria (1798). No one assumes that influence may have flowed the opposite way, from feminist Wollstonecraft (to put it in our contemporary terms) of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) to Radcliffe. Wollstonecraft's ideal female in A Vindication has disabused herself of conventional feminine values, ways, and wiles whereas Radcliffe's persecuted heroines, inclined to faint at the hint of a ghost, seemingly endure their trials passively and accept their subordination to men as their betters, living but to wed an agreeable male in the end. However, it is noteworthy that Emily St. Aubert, the heroine of Radcliffe's most famous novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), conforms in significant ways to Wollstonecraft's desiderata for women. Given that she is also unlike her immediate predecessor in Radcliffe's fiction, Adeline of The Romance of the Forest (1791), the novel with which Radcliffe first made her reputation, Radcliffe may have been reacting to a new and inspiring stimulus. Conceivably Radcliffe was influenced by Wollstonecraft. Alternatively, both reflect the current of eighteenth-century feminist protest that demanded respect for female rationality. In either case, Emily needs to be allowed a more intelligent mind and spirited independence than is ordinarily granted her.
When Walter Allen describes Emily as "incarnate sensibility, . . . her function in the novel is simply to feel, to feel the appropriate emotions of wonder, awe and terror" (101), he articulates probably the commonest view of Emily's characterization; it recurs when E.B. Murray in the Twayne series speaks only of "Emily's keenly wrought . . . exquisite sensibility" (117). Although Nelson C. Smith long ago reminded critics that Udolpho is an open "attack on the cult of sensibility" (277), deploring its excesses and cautioning Emily against them, the misguided tendency to regard Emily as purely a creature of feeling persists. Of course Emily has an overactive imagination and fantasizes more mysteries than actually exist—the progress of the plot depends on her doing so. Nonetheless, her heart does not run away with her head, nor does she let herself be put upon. Emily confirms women's rationality and right to respect for their integrity and intelligence rather than adulation for their looks. Moreover, she is no languishing female, though only Ellen Moers in Literary Women has done Emily's energy justice in claiming that Radcliffe's "idea of female selfhood" is "the traveling woman: the woman who moves, who acts, who copes with vicissitude and adventure." Moers astutely characterizes Radcliffe's use of the Gothic as a feminine substitute for the picaresque that allowed her "to send maidens on distant and exciting journeys without offending the proprieties." Likewise, inside castles "her heroines can scuttle miles along corridors, descend into dungeons, and explore secret chambers without chaperone, because the Gothic castle . . . is . . . an indoor and therefore freely female space" (126). Yet there may be even more that is feminist in Emily's portrayal than her mobility.
The suggestion here is that Radcliffe may have seen the wisdom of Wollstonecraft's observations on women's nature and reflected her approbation in the first novel she wrote after the appearance of A Vindication, even though she herself was no reformist radical. The suggestion will not seem so strange now that recent criticism has shown how often the Gothic novel contains elements of feminist protest. The Gothic, as Katherine Ellis says, by temporarily brushing away all social conventions made possible bold statements that the decorum of the realistic novel forbade. Ellis argues that Charlotte Smith uses Gothic machinery to attack the tyrannical institution of the bourgeois family. In a similar vein, Mary Poovey sees Radcliffe examining the effects of the contemporary theory of sensibility on middle-class women; Radcliffe's novels exemplify the tensions the challenge to paternalism caused women at a time when women's proper sphere and power were under debate. Investigating the paradoxical role of sensibility in restricting women yet simultaneously furnishing them power and an arena for action, Radcliffe, says Poovey, uncovers "the root cause of the late eighteenth-century ideological turmoil, the economic aggressiveness currently victimizing defenseless women of sensibility" (311). Yet Radcliff, Poovey assumes, does not suggest an alternative to paternalistic society but rather retreats into idealization.
As Jane Spencer observes in The Rise of the Woman Novelist (1986), women's writing especially during the early and ending decades of the eighteenth century evidences their objections to female education and gender roles and to the sexual double standard. More pointedly, in Radcliffe's fiction, as in Sophia Lee's, Gothic horrors "act implicitly as imaginative parallels for women's condition" (209). Through the heroine's romantic adventures in the Gothic, an eighteenth-century writer could indirectly vent not only angers and fears but also desires that she could not openly express in the domestic sentimental novel. Spencer discusses The Romance of the Forest, for example, as a "fantasy of female power, through which women could escape in imagination from the reality of their oppression" (187). Radcliffe achieves this principally by feminizing her hero with a share in the "womanly virtues "he is remarkable for his "passive fortitude"—and creating a haven for female virtue in a "romance-world of idealized paternal authority" (207).
For psychoanalytic critics such as Claire Kahane, the Gothic as evidenced by Radcliffe confronts the mother imago, pursuing the "mystery of female identity, teeming with archaic fantasies of power and vulnerability" that are encouraged by the cultural divisions of patriarchal society (64). Tania Modleski likewise believes that Udolpho in particular is blocked out in terms of the vicissitudes of female psychic life, from its oedipal start through its maternal separation-anxiety problems. Even more pertinently, Leona F. Sherman, believes that Radcliffe uses the Gothic to express her repressed discontent with her inhibited middle-class female life:
Ann Radcliffe was raised according to the strictest principles of contemporary female education—a restrictive, moralistic code denying woman's autonomy. Marriage enforced that dependency which she was so ambivalent about but so did her entire culture in its every aspect. Restriction must have bred resentment, and in the course of her novel, she reveals her feelings of unrest, ambivalence, passion, hostility, and rebellion—the whole gamut of her awakened unconscious desires which were impossible for her to admit or act upon in her world. (163)
But if so, then Wollstonecraft would appeal to her. Moreover, it is not even necessary to probe latent content or assume Oedipal conflict or invoke Nancy Chodorow to see that Radcliffe was impatient with female gendering when she conceived the heroine of Udolpho. The manifest portrayal of Emily itself is informative.
Udolpho makes its first overtures towards feminism through the particular focus it gives its literary form. Acknowledging the importance of female growth, amidst its Gothic trappings it is Emily's Bildungsroman. As the plot goes, Emily, who has been gently reared by her father at an idyllic estate, La Vallee, in southern France in the late sixteen century, is cast by circumstances out of her Eden of innocence into the world of evil and self-interest at sophisticated Venice and then at the gloomy castle of Udolpho in the Apennines. Though her unsympathetic Aunt Cheron has torn the orphaned Emily away from her true love Valancourt and callously subjected her to Montoni's villainies and imprisonment at Udolpho by marrying him and insisting Emily accompany them to Italy, Emily refuses to harden her heart to her aunt and even, at some risk to herself, succours her when Montoni becomes abusive. Strong-minded, she never collapses in self-pity or misanthropy under her own trials. However, Emily errs not only in imagining ghosts, murders, and incredible horrors (the most notable one is a presumable corpse hidden behind a black veil which turns out to be only a decayed waxen image crawling with worms) but also in attributing to Montoni a more sinister personality than he actually has. He is not the monster her imagination creates but a mere brigand, a leader of condittieri with a useful mountain stronghold.
Having escaped his clutches and returned to France for the final stage of her education, Emily discovers certain important secrets in the past history of her family and unravels some of the mysteries of Udolpho. She surmounts her severest trial in acknowledging the moral shortcomings of Valancourt (who has had a mistress and impetuously gambled away his good name during her absence) without losing her love for him. Discovering, finally, that he has been only rash and generous-natured rather than truly dissolute, she marries him. From innocence of evil to hastiness to exaggerate evil and even give it supernatural status, she has learned through her experiences to maintain her ideals but temper them to the reality of the fallen world, relegating evil to its ordinary human manifestations.
Because the characterization of Emily challenges notions of female passivity and brainlessness, Udolpho makes common cause with Wollstonecraft's Vindication. The burden of A Vindication is women's need and right to be treated as self-respecting rational creatures capable of independence rather than as sex objects kept in a perpetual state of childhood. Scorning female coquetry and frivolity, "despising that weak elegancy of mind, exquisite sensibility, and sweet docility of manner" (9) expected of women, and contemptuous of their definition as creatures of feeling, Wollstonecraft makes her goal to encourage them to become fully rational human beings superior to their sexual natures:
I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt. (9)
Moreover, they should accept inferiority only to those whom reason makes their moral betters. She insists, therefore, that "from their infancy women . . . should be educated in such a manner as to be able to think and act for themselves" (47). Even as "To become respectable, the exercise of their understanding is necessary, there is no other foundation for independence of character" (51), so "the most perfect education . . . is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart" (21). Wollstonecraft directs her scorn (and much of her writing space) pointedly against writers like Rousseau, whose Emile has instead advocated educating females on the premise that woman exists for man's sake, so that, as Wollstonecraft quotes Rousseau, women's whole education 'should be always relative to men: To please us, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, . . . to render our lives easy and agreeable: these are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught' (79).
Prominent in Udolpho is the very unRousseauistic education given Emily (a striking choice of name) by her father. Wishing her to be a virtuous person, we are told at length at the outset, M. St. Aubert "endeavoured to strengthen her mind; to inure her to habits of self-command; to teach her to reject the first impulses of her feelings" (1:5). In fact, we are told, he "cultivated her understanding with the most scrupulous care" because "a well-informed mind is the best security against the contagion of folly and of vice:
The vacant mind is ever on the watch for relief, and ready to plunge into error to escape from the languor of idleness. Store it with ideas, teach it the pleasure of thinking; and the temptations of the world without will be counteracted by the gratifications derived from the world within. (1:6)
Rather than training his Emily to be dependent on male validation for her worth, St. Aubert's goal is to make her independent of her circumstances, inner directed, and the antithesis of the emotionally vulnerable Sentimental heroine.
The daughter he rears is a credit to his teaching, neither coquette nor social butterfly, who carries books with her for sustenance when she travels. Even amidst the gloom of Castle Udolpho, Emily turns to her books for solace, and when Montoni has her forcibly removed temporarily to a peasant's cabin while the castle is under siege, she may forget some important papers pursuant to her aunt's estate, but she does not forget her own books. Is she beautiful? Presumably, but Radcliffe wastes no space on Emily's looks or dress, after initially advising us that, while Emily has her mother's "elegant symmetry of form, the same delicacy of features, and the same blue eyes full of tender sweetness," her real attractions are spiritual: "But lovely as was her person, it was the varied expression of her countenance, as conversation awakened the nicer emotions of her mind, that threw such a captivating grace around her" (1:5-6). The portrait of Emily is strikingly different from Adeline's in The Romance of the Forest:
her hair was dark auburn, her eyes blue, and whether they sparkled with intelligence or melted with tenderness, they were equally attractive: her form had the airy lightness of a nymph, and when she smiled, her countenance might have been drawn for the younger sister of Hebe: the captivations of her beauty were heightened by the grace and simplicity of her manners. . . . (1:64)
How Adeline is described at a moment of stress makes even clearer that Radcliffe's sense of her heroine underwent modification before she arrived at Udolpho, for Adeline is a feast for the masculine eye. Her beauty touched with the languid delicacy of illness, gained from sentiment what it lost in bloom. The negligence of her dress, loosened for the purpose of free respiration, discovered those glowing charms, which her auburn tresses, that fell in profusion over her bosom, shaded but could not conceal. (1:193)
Emily constitutes a significant advance in characterization, both in conception and in execution.
Adeline is a largely unchanging prop in a plot whose male characters are more important than she is except that she provides them an object to victimize or to save. As her seventeenth-century story goes, she is the convent-reared daughter of a man who, after the death of his heiress-wife, has been murdered by his brother, the Marquis de Montalt, for his wealth, though Adeline knows nothing about her true parentage. When her supposed father attempts to have her killed because she refuses the veil, her intended murderers in pity hand her over to Pierre de la Motte, a fugitive from his creditors, to take away with him. She remains hidden with his family at a ruined abbey deep in the forest until he (not realizing the relationship) schemes to hand her over to the uncle who killed her father and has designs on her virginity and then on her life. But she escapes with the help of the chevalier Theodore Peyrou, who has fallen in love with her. When finally the villain is unmasked by various males, her true parentage revealed, and her inheritance restored, Adeline weds Theodore.
She has filled her role by being the gentle maiden (and perfect victim) of patriarchal myth with downcast eyes, who entered the room with a modest blush and a timid air. . . . His compliments she received with sweet grace; but, when the young chevalier approached, the warmth of his manner rendered her's [sic] involuntarily more reserved, and she scarcely dared to raise her eyes from the ground, lest they should encounter his. (1:207-08)
Moreover, she is self-pitying and melancholic; characteristically "her spirits drooped, and she would often, when alone, weep at the forlornness of her condition" (1:106-07). Twice as inclined to cry and faint as Emily, she weeps increasingly as the book proceeds—even as Emily cries less and less as her story advances. Although both find the courage to run away from their persecutors when their circumstances become critical and both are brave enough to explore secret places to gratify their curiosity—and keep the plot going—it is Emily, alert to her surroundings, who is the constant sleuth; only once does Adeline check out a secret room. (She has had a dream of a beseeching man; she accidentally finds the secret chamber in the abbey in which he was immured and killed; he will later prove to have been her father.) Escapes aside, only once does Adeline show real initiative, and that is of the nurturing kind. When Theodore is wounded while resisting arrest because of her, she doubts the doctor who attends his illness and finds him a better physician. Otherwise, whereas Emily seeks for solutions within her reach, "the persecuted Adeline" (2: 210) retreats into reliance on heaven or others to save her or "resigned herself to despair, and in passive silence, submitted to her fate" (2:102)
Emily's trials as Gothic heroine and simultaneous growth out of innocence into experience of worldly evils entail confrontations with a series of male figures, each of whom has or asserts power over her, though she has also to contend with the shallow-minded aunt who becomes her guardian. Repeatedly Emily—"with a strength of mind that refused to yield to grief while any duty required her activity" (2:44)—manifests her resiliency and intelligence. She also puts men in their place. We are solicited to admire her for her wits and the edge they give her, as when she opposes a bullying uncle, M. Quesnel, so effectively through "the mild dignity of a superior mind" that she compels him "to feel his own inferiority" (1:217). For the sake of their future reputation and out of family duty, before leaving for Italy she refuses an immediate clandestine marriage urged by her suitor Valancourt, although she loves him deeply. Within the year, as she sensibly points out to him, she will have come of age and been released from her aunt's guardianship, so it is better to be patient. Removed to Venice by the villainous Montoni, she resists spiritedly the marriage proposal of obnoxious Count Morano (and later at Udolpho, an attempted rape) despite the combined efforts of her relations and Montoni to force her into the suit. Told she must wed Morano, she reckons logically—if na•vely—that she cannot be forced into marriage if her tongue refuses to repeat any part of the marriage ceremony.
Saved instead by Montoni's decision to flee from Venice and immured at the remote and lonely castle of Udolpho by Montoni, whom she suspects is a murderer, she likewise endeavors to apply common sense to her situation there. In a characteristic response, "considering that reflection could neither release her from her melancholy situation nor enable her to bear it with greater fortitude, she tried to divert her anxiety, and took down from her little library a volume of her favourite Ariosto" (1:288); and when the book does not help, she plays her lute instead. Montoni's pressuring she resists with a quiet but expressive tongue that infuriates him:
[said Montoni] "but if you persist in this strain—you have everything to fear from my justice."
"From your justice, signor," rejoined Emily, "I have nothing to fear—I have only to hope." (2:50)
When she is refused permission to see her imprisoned aunt, she endeavors to find Mme. Montoni nonetheless, and defying his wrath, pertinaciously forces Montoni to give the dying woman at least minimal consideration. Although Montoni subjects Emily to psychological torment, she staunchly resists his demand that she sign over to him the properties inherited from her aunt—but not when it becomes very evidently more practical to yield "to preserve her life, perhaps her honour" (2:55) since he refuses to protect her any longer from his followers. Though Montoni holds the power of life and death over her, "she felt the full extent of her own superiority to Montoni, and despised the authority which, till now, she had only feared" (2:51). In the end she bests him by fleeing to France where she soon reclaims her properties by Venetian court order.
She accepts the help of another prisoner, M. Du Pont, in effecting her escape but persistently refuses his suit for her hand even though he proves to be a very eligible, and secretly a long-time, devoted, admirer. She has the power of refusal and no sense that she is obliged to marry other than by choice. In France, where she transacts the business matters of her estate capably, she finds a dishonored Valancourt who has led a profligate life in her absence; therefore she refuses his advances even though she has longed for him. He must meet her terms for a "good" man, and if she cannot ask that he be chaste, she can insist that he be spiritually pure. Only when Valancourt is vindicated and therefore proven worthy of her—he had gambled away his small fortune to help someone else and sincerely repents his temporary fling with dissoluteness—does she agree to marry him. He, in any case, as Spencer so well says, is "truly a sheep in wolf's clothing" (204), a feminized male who never is required to rescue Emily and whom the more energetic Emily easily surpasses in the role of hero. More important, she is the very model of the self-respecting and stubborn female whose goal is to do as reason bids her to and not be coerced by others. She acknowledges as superiors or equals only those whose moral worth entitles them to such rank. Wollstonecraft could have approved of Emily.
Both Spencer and Sherman speak of Radcliffe's inadequate feminism, and understandably so, given the way Udolpho ends. What with Emily and complaisant Valancourt living happily ever after in the peaceful paradise of La Vallee, in Spencer's terms Radcliffe's "are novels of escape, criticizing the status quo of male authority but not ultimately challenging it. Her solution is retreat into an idealized pastoral world, where womanly virtue and patriarchal authority are no longer in conflict" (207). Udolpho, moreover, concludes with Radcliffe's declaration that she will be rewarded if her book "has, by its scenes, beguiled the mourner of one hour of sorrow, or, by its moral, taught him to sustain it" (672). Sherman sees this tag as embodiment of Radcliffe's own passive acceptance of her suffering; having refused the challenge of her own inner world, she urges the same on others.
It is a novel addressed to a world of Emilys, telling them that they must learn to endure their frustrations, unhappinesses, and losses, for that is all they can do. She warns them against action and denies any possibility of change. She preaches complacency, daydreams, books, and religion as the only possible outlets and sources of reward. (164)
The wish-fulfillment quality of the idyllic resolution is undeniable, and doubtless the pious hope bespeaks an author who has learned to live with compromise—whether or not she has refused her own inner challenge in the terms Sherman proposes or is so entirely quietistic. Radcliffe is no agitator for women's liberation. Yet she is interesting precisely because she gives one some sense of the vast number of women of her day who were neither rebels nor slaves but rather had learned—like so many women even now—to accommodate themselves to a patriarchal culture without yielding their belief in intrinsic female worth; therefore they could be responsive to feminist winds of change without being swept away by them. Radcliffe was inspired to depict a role model in Emily of a female who has too much self-respect and wits to be a male plaything or a mere pawn. Such a readily acceptable image may have been more useful to raise the consciousness of the mass of her female readers (whether or not such was her goal) than a more aggressive heroine would have been. By 1794 the excesses of the Terror had affrighted enough English hearts to make rebels unpalatable, but even without that shift, the mass of women have historically shown themselves bred to be conservative.
Emily is Radcliffe's best-realized female character. Her other distinguished achievements in characterization are (interestingly) her male villains such as Montoni or Schedoni of The Monk (1797), the novel which followed Udolpho. Does Radcliffe owe something in Emily to Wollstonecraft? Radcliffe was a well-read woman even as Wollstonecraft was a much-read one before counter-revolutionary reaction of the nineties to French political excesses made her radical ideas suspect. Thus Radcliffe may have known A Vindication, directly or indirectly; there is no reason to suppose, out of hand, that she would have been uninterested in a book that aroused a great deal of comment. If we are to believe Ellen Moers, in the 1780s an 90s, among the "self-conscious women" of Wollstonecraft's day, "feminism touched them all, from those who supported to those who opposed its doctrines" (125). Radcliffe does show some indebtedness in Gothic techniques to Sophia Lee, a writer with feminist sympathies, and having grown up in Bath, probably even attended the school run by Lee and her sister; admiring Lee could have encouraged her to read Wollstonecraft. Moreover, although the standard portrait of Radcliffe, owing much to T. Noon Talfourd's 1826 memoir, presents her as a retiring, domestic woman—according to Talfourd she also had "manners peculiarly straight-laced and timorous" and an "old-fashioned primness of thought" (120, 121)—in fact she was atypical for her times. Not only a productive writer but a childless woman without the usual domestic responsibilities of her day, she might well have responded to Wollstonecraft's impassioned argument for female reform.
The Wollstonecraft of A Vindication and Radcliffe share a common ground in their faith in rationality. Radcliffe is always staunchly the proponent of reason; in all her novels except the posthumous Gaston de Blondeville (1826), the apparently supernatural is shown to be rationally explicable, and credulous superstition is reprimanded. But the link between the two writers is more than an overall respect for reason. Whether or not Radcliffe had read or knew of Wollstonecraft by the time she wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho—for she may simply herself have been trying to cope with the inequities of gendering—in that novel she shows herself imbued with Wollstonecraft's spirit in conceiving and dramatizing an intelligent and assertive heroine. Thus more than Radcliffe's command of suspense and emotive scene painting renders her classic Udolpho engrossing to read. Her Emily is its triumph—though assuredly not for an exquisite sensibility.
Allen, Walter. The English Novel: A Short Critical History. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958.
Ellis, Katherine. "Charlotte Smith's Subversive Gothic." Feminist Studies 3 (Spring-Summer 1976): 51-55.
Kahane, Claire. "Gothic Mirrors and Feminine Identity." Centennial Review 24 (Winter 1980): 43-64.
Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. Hamden, CT: Archon Books., 1982.
Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. 1976. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.
Murray, E.B. Ann Radcliffe. New York: Twayne, 1972
Poovey, Mary. "Ideology and 'The Mysteries of Udolpho.'" Criticism 21 (Fall 1979): 307-330.
Sherman, Leona. Ann Radcliffe and the Gothic Romance: A Psychoanalytic Approach. New York: Arno, 1980.
Smith, Nelson C. "Sense, Sensibility and Ann Radcliffe." Studies in English Literature 13 (Autumn 1973): 577-590.
Spencer, Jane. The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
Talfourd, E. Noon. "Memoir of the Life and Writings of Mrs. Radcliffe." 1826. Gaston de Blondeville: A Romance. By Ann Radcliffe. Ed. Devendra P. Varma. Vol. 1. New York: Arno, 1972.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Ed. Carol H. Poston. New York: Norton, 1975.