The Supernatural Explained in Ann Radcliffe's "The Mysteries of Udolpho"

Seminar Paper, 2006

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. What is the Supernatural Explained?

3. Contemporary Reception of Radcliffe’s work: Praise and Critique

4. Recent Reception of Radcliffe’s work: Praise and Critique

5. A new Approach: Terry Castle’s “The Spectralization of the Other”

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This brought to her [Emilys, jf] recollection the veiled picture, which had attracted her curiosity on the preceeding night, and she resolved to examine it. […] She then hastily entered the chamber, and went towards the picture, which appeared to be enclosed in a frame of uncommon size, that hung in a dark part of the room. She paused again, and then, with a timid hand, lifted the veil; but instantly let it fall – perceiving that what it had concealed was no picture, and, before she could leave the chamber, she dropped senseless on the floor.[1]

Whatever Emily, the main character in Ann Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, might have perceived behind that black veil will not be revealed for several hundred pages. The reader is left baffled as to what caused Emily all this pain and has to resort to guesswork, only to find out that she had simply seen a wax figure, shaped like a human being who was tortured to death. Ann Radcliffe has become famous for this method, that is for “a sequence of evasions and withdrawls, condluding with long-subsequent explanations.”[2] Radcliffe developed the technique of the so-called ‘supernatural explained’ and became famous for this device; a device that was well received in her times and made her one of the most famous novelists of her age. Several editions of her books and a 500 pound salary paid by her publisher George Robinson, an immense sum for the time, might be proof.[3] Nevertheless Radcliffe’s novels and her technique of the supernatural explained have been and still are heavily criticised, not only by modern literary critics.

This term paper deals with Radcliffe’s method in her book The Mysteries of Udolpho. After a definition has been given the reception of Ann Radcliffe’s work throughout the decades will be discussed, before Terry Castle’s new approach “The Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho” will be introduced. Finally a conclusion will be drawn.

2. What is the Supernatural Explained?

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto was published in 1764 and was a turning point in the age of the romantic novel.[4] His work is a “gruesome tale of passion, bloodshed and villainy (it includes a monstrous ghost)”[5]. The novel was extremly successful and apparently went through over a hundred editions since it first appeared. Its success was seminal and it had much influence on the development of a new literary genre, the Gothic novel.[6] The genre developed continually in the 18th and 19th century. Gero von Wilpert defines the Gothic novel as follows: [Ein] bewußt auf Schauereffekte angelegter Roman, der sich durch Schauplatz (oft alte Schlösser und verwahrloste Einzelbauten mit Verliesen, unterirdischen Gesängen, versteckten Wandtüren in wildromantischen Landschaft), unheimliche Requisiten (Waffen, Kerzen, ausgestopfte Tiere, Folter- und Schreckenskabinette) und mysteriöse, übernatürliche oder erst später natürlich erklärbare Ereignisse mit raffiniertem Spannungsaufbau in sich steigernden Stufen des Schreckens bes. an die Phantasie des Lesers wendet.“[7]

In the works of Horace Walpole and his imitators, the reader had to face several supernatural agents and had to deal with mysterious events. 28 years later Ann Radcliffe developed a new technique, within the by now well established field, of the Gothic novel. She introduced the device for which she would become famous in A Sicilian Romance (1790). Her method is called the ‘supernatural explained’. As Sir Walter Scott put it: “All circumstances of her narrative, however mysterious and apparently superhuman, were to be accounted for on natural principles at the winding up of the story.”[8] Rational explanations are given for every supernatural incident. “Apparently supernatural occurences are spine-chillingly evoked only to be explained away in the end as the product of natural causes.”[9] An example: Radcliffe’s protagonist Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho thinks that her chamber in the castle is haunted and ghosts flow through the air. The rational explanation follows to the end of the novel, when the servant Ludovicio explains Emily what caused these mysterious images:

‘I soon found out, madam,’ resumed Ludovico, ‘that they were pirates […]. To prevent detection they had tried to have it believed, that the chateau was haunted, and, having discovered the private way to the north apartments, which had been shut up ever since the death of the lady marchioness, they easily succeeded. The housekeeper and her husband, who were the only persons, that had inhabited the castle, for some years, were so terrified by the strange noises they heard in the nights, that they would live there no longer; a report soon went abroad, that it was haunted […]’[10]

As this example shows: The reader still meets with typical elements of the gothic style, for example ghostlike scences, “wild and desolate landscapes, dark forests, ruined abbeys, feudal halls and medieval castles with dungeons, secret passages, winding stairways, oubliettes, sliding panels and torture chambers”[11], nevertheless the uncanny atmosphere in the novel, is not so much caused by supernatural elements, but by other protagonists of the story. A character like Montoni seems more frightening than any supposed ghosts in The Mysteries of Udolpho. This fact is also recognised by Jane Austen in her novel Northanger Abbey, where the protagonist Catherine is afraid of her host General Tilney: “It was the air and attitude of a Montoni!”[12]

Ann Radcliffe’s new technique was initially a major success: Many novelists followed her lead during the 1790s and the ‘explained supernatural’ became an identifiable school of writing.[13] Her domestication of the supernatural was the characteristic of the dominant mode of gothic writing during that time.[14]

3. Contemporary Reception of Radcliffe’s work: Praise and Critique

Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful might deliver an explanation, why Ann Radcliffe initially met with such success: “When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modificationy, they may be, and they are delightful, as we everyday experience.”[15] Anna Laetitia Aikin’s essay ‘On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Teror’ shows that “reading about terrible things is a different order of experience from actually being terrified. While the former can arouse a feeling of pleasure, the latter cannot.”[16] According to this, Ann Radcliffe’s technique of the ‘supernatural explained’ is a way of relieving the reader after having read all the horrid incidents in her novels. The rational explanations seem to have been a narrative technique which many critics eagerly awaited. Her works were authorised, because the critics were almost relieved with her solution: “Progress and the taste for primitive superstition were reconciled […], as if Radcliffe’s innovation gave the opportunity to come to terms with the barbarians at the gates without surrendering the fort.”[17]


[1] Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Oxford, New York, 2003, pp. 248-249.

[2] Cavaliero, Glen. The Supernatural and English Fiction. Oxford, 1995, p. 27.

[3] Norton, Rictor. Gothic Readings. The First Wave 1764-1840. London, New York, 2000, p. 51.

[4] Clery, E.J. „Introduction“, in: Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto, Oxford 1996, p. ix.

[5] Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London, 1998, p. 356.

[6] Compare: Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, p. 356.

[7] Von Wilpert, Gero. Sachwörterbuch der Literatur. Stuttgart, 1979, 6. Auflage, S. 724.

[8] Scott, Walter. The Lives of Novelists, 2 vols. Paris 1825, p. 245.

[9] Clery, E.J. The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762-1800. Cambridge, 1995, p 106.

[10] Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 633.

[11] Compare: Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, p. 356.

[12] Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Lady Susan. The Watsons. Sanditon. Oxford, New York, 2003, p. 137.

[13] Compare: Clery, E.J. The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, p. 108.

[14] Ellis, Markman. The History of Gothic Fiction. Edinburgh, 2000, p. 66.

[15] Burke, Edmund. Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. J.T. Boulton (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958), pp. 39-40.

[16] Aikin, Anna Letitia. „On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror“; in: Aikin, John and Letitia. Miscellanous Pieces in Prose. London, 1773, pp. 120-121, 125-126.

[17] Clery, E.J. The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, p. 107.

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The Supernatural Explained in Ann Radcliffe's "The Mysteries of Udolpho"
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Judith Forysch (Author), 2006, The Supernatural Explained in Ann Radcliffe's "The Mysteries of Udolpho", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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