Anne Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho

The meaning of landscape, and gendered perceptions of it

Cindy, Renate, Jasmina, Feb 17 2005

Nature and spirituality

Nature, especially of a sublime aspect, has in Radcliffe, as in much literature of the Romantic period, a spiritual tendency

"the travellers had leisure….to indulge the sublime reflections, which soften, while they elevate, the heart, and fill it with the certainty of a present God!" (Radcliffe, 30)

Radcliffe makes use of Burke's theory of the sublime; terror and obscurity figure prominently in nature description, and especially in the descriptions of Udolpho

"Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime" (Burke, section VII)

Landscape and virtue

In the world of the novel, the appreciation of nature is a sign of good moral character, and possession of virtue - we find it in St. Aubert, Emily, Valancourt, Count de Villefort, Lady Blanche

The villains are indifferent to or put-off by nature: Montoni, Madame Montoni, Countess de Villefort

"Montoni…cared little about views of any kind" (Radcliffe, 164)

"the Countess…surveyed, with disgust, what she thought the gloomy woods and solitary wildness of the scene" (Radcliffe, 440)

Nature vs. society

Nature has the power to inspire virtuous and benevolent emotions

Observing a valley surrounded by cliffs, in moonlight, Valancourt notes that such scenes:

" waken our best and purest feelings, disposing us to benevolence, pity, and friendship" (Radcliffe, 47)

In contrast, cities spoil people's characters, induce vice and harden the heart

St. Aubert notes Valancourt's "elevated mind, unbiased by intercourse with the world" (Radcliffe, 50);

he wonders, "How…are we to look for love in great cities, where selfishness, dissipation, and insincerity supply the place of tenderness, simplicity and truth?" (Radcliffe, 50)

St. Aubert and male sensibility

"The man of sensibility goes through the world like a naïve child….the equivalent both of the Rousseauist noble savage, untamed by the corruptions of society and trivial education, and of the wandering stranger of satire who turns his simplifying gaze on the foolishness of men." (Todd, 108)

Radcliffe and Ramond

"One of the amusements of St. Aubert was the study of botany, and among the neighbouring mountains, which afforded a luxurious feast to the mind of the naturalist, he often passed the day in the pursuits of his favourite science." (Radcliffe, 6)

"Not a tree, not a shrub, nothing, in short, above the level of the turf, excepting the Rhododendron,…whose pretty crimson flower enlivens the monotonous verdure of this region. This humble shrub is the only combustible which the inhabitants of these elevated pastures has within his reach; and in the Pyrenees, as well as in the Alps, its presence informs the naturalist, that he has attained an elevation of from eight to nine hundred toises above the level of the sea." (Ramond, 50-51)

"In the surrounding ground, St. Aubert had made very tasteful improvements; yet, such was his attachment to objects he had remembered from his boyish days, that he had in some instances sacrificed taste to sentiment." (Radcliffe, 7)

"Monsieur St. Aubert conversed with unusual cheerfulness; every object delighted his senses….The green woods and pastures; the flowery turf; the blue concave of the heavens; the balmy air; the murmur of the limpid stream; and even the hum of every little insect of the shade, seem to revivify the soul, and make mere existence bliss." (Radcliffe, 11)

"Imagine to yourself a deep and narrow lake about nine miles in length, bordered on both sides with rocks uncommonly wild and romantic, and, for the most part, perpendicular; with forests of beech and pine growing down their steep and overhanging, that it was with difficulty we could observe more than four or five spots, where we could have landed." (Coxe, 133)

"St Aubert pointed out to her observation the course of the rivers, the situation of great towns, and the boundaries of provinces, which science, rather than the eye, enabled him to describe." (Radcliffe 31)

Explanatory Note: "St Aubert's mastery of his subject matter here arises from study or learning, rather than local observation."

Radcliffe v. Grosley

"Often, as the carriage moved slowly over uneven ground, St. Aubert alighted, and amused himself with examining the curious plants that grew on the banks of the road, and with which these regions abound." (Radcliffe, 39)

"Among these flowers we observed some narcissus's, and most beautiful ranunculus's of a jonquille yellow, with something of that smell; also pansey violets with very large petals, and a fragrancy equal to any orange flower essence" (Grosley, 35)

In contrast to a masculine, empirical approach to nature, there exists a feminine approach - the latter is based on an emotional response, the cult of sensibility

This feminine approach exists in Radcliffe's heroine Emily, as well as in the travel writings of Helen Maria Williams

*men also can adopt the sentimental approach, of course

The Cult of Sensibility

"The cult of sensibility stressed those qualities considered feminine in the sexual psychology of the time: intuitive sympathy, susceptibility, enthusiasm and passivity" (Todd, 110)

" 'Sensibility' also connoted an intense emotional responsiveness to beauty and sublimity, whether in nature or in art, and such responsiveness was often represented as an index to a person's gentility" (Abrams, 282)

Williams: introductory

"The descriptive parts of this journal were rapidly traced with the ardour of a fond imagination, eager to seize the vivid colouring of the moment ere it fled, and give permanence to the emotions of admiration, while the solemn enthusiasm beats high in my bosom"

A female perspective:


"After a sleight interval of repose, however, we found ourselves restored to that feeling of serene, tranquil delight" (vol.II, 7)


"The serenity and clearness of the air in these high regions were particularly delightful to the travellers; it seemed to inspire them with a finer spirit, and diffuse an incredible complacency of their minds. They had no words to express the sublime emotions they felt." (44)

Another response


"The thinness of the atmosphere, through which every object came so distinctly to the eye, surprised and deluded her; who could scarcely believe the objects, which appeared so near, were, in reality, so distant." (44)

[Louis Bleuler, Rheinwald Glacier, c. 1826 (Museum zu Allerheiligen, Schaffhausen)]

Access to the sublime


"The depth is so tremendous, that the first emotion, in looking over the bridge, is that of terror, lest the side should fall away and plunge you into the dark abyss; and it requires some reflection to calm the painful turbulence of surprise, and leave the mind the full indulgence of the sensations of solemn enthusiastic delight, which swell the heart, while we contemplate such stupendous objects." (vol. I, 151)


"Madame Montoni only shuddered as she looked down precipices near whose edge the chairman trotted lightly and swiftly, almost, as the chamois bounded, and from which Emily too recoiled; but with her fears were mingled such various emotions of delight, such admiration, astonishment, and awe, as she had never experienced before" (159)

In ch. I, vol. I, Emily and St Aubert encounter a glow-worm while walking through the woods; St Aubert reprimands Emily for marvelling at the light: " 'Are you such an admirer of nature,' said St Aubert, 'and so little acquainted with her appearances as to not know that for the glow-worm?'" (18)

This example of gendered perception of nature, Benedict interprets the following way:

"He represents the knowledge of nature, which controls it, rather than an 'admiration of nature,' which wonders at and wanders in it. Stable, universal, empirical truth, identified with Enlightenment reason and masculine control, mocks the impressionable, changeable female" (188)

The discrepancies that we see arise between male and female ways of engaging with nature, as exemplified above by St Aubert and Emily, are part of a larger issue present in the novel - the tension between reason and sentiment

One critic, Barbara Benedict, sees Radcliffe as being on the side of reason: "Whereas Radcliffe's passionate heroes and heroines…foreshadow a proto-Romantic fascination with individual passion…her formal character contrasts, narrative values, and plot resolutions argue her conservative dedication to the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and balance, self-control and order" (176)

Lynne Epstein, has a somewhat different view:

"Her eighteenth century reason strikes an exquisite balance between decorum and moral sense on the one hand, and sentiment, benevolence, and sublimity on the other" (119)

On the other hand, a number of elements in the novel point to the superiority of sensibility - Emily's instinctual sentiments often guide her in the right direction; the villains lack sentiment but often possess reason, most obviously Montoni

Elizabeth Bohls on gender and aesthetics in Udolpho

"The picturesque and the Burkean sublime preside over contrasting realities and contrasting models of female selfhood" (210)

"Emily becomes first one kind of aesthetic subject, the detached and controlling subject of the picturesque, and then quite another, the powerless, overwhelmed subject of the Burkean sublime" (214)

"Radcliffe's crucial innovation is to make the subject of the sublime actually feminine - immersed in real, inescapable powerlessness" (218)

Radcliffe's treatment of scenery in the novel connects her to contemporary aesthetics theories and the cult of sensibility; it reflects Romanticism's preoccupation with Nature; it defines her characters; it is integral in defining the moral universe of the novel; finally - though much more could be said - it connects to gender relations and conceptions of masculinity and femininity of Radcliffe's time

"The odyssey begins and ends in 'the grand simplicity of nature'
(Udolpho, I, 173)" (Epstein,119)