What lies behind the mysterious black veil?

gothic novel - Catherine readingHave you ever read a novel by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens and wondered what kinds of books they were reading at the time? Well there is actually a considerable amount known about the reading habits of some of our most well-loved writers. One source of information is the works themselves, and Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, is a fine example. The protagonist, Catherine Moorland, reads gothic novels, a popular genre at the turn of the nineteenth century. Catherine is particularly engrossed with The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe.   

When was the last time you read a gothic novel? This is not a genre that is very popular in twenty first century Britain, but it lies behind many of the genres we read today. The gothic novel was an unwieldy and changeable form, but often contained the following characteristics:

  • gothic castleIt is set in a strange or mysterious place, often in the past or another country
  • Its characters must explore or be imprisoned inside an old castle or ruin
  • It has a heroine who is under threat from an evil villain
  • There are corridors or rooms with many doors, some secret or locked
  • There are murdered bodies and/or skeletons
  • There is a fear of supernatural goings on
  • There are suspicious noises or horrible groans

And the truth of the matter is that the Victorians were utterly obsessed with gothic everything. You can see it in many stately homes around the UK – Cardiff Castle is a perfect example. Some critics argue that the genre laid the way for modern historical fiction, detective fiction, ghost stories, horror and murder mysteries.

The mysterious black veil…

I must admit, the motivation that lay behind my first seeking out The Mysteries of Udolpho was not in the least bit academic. For anyone who has read Northanger Abbey, you’ll remember that the protagonist Catherine Moorland is pre-occupied, for a large part of the novel, with her desire to find out what lies behind the mysterious black veil. She imagines the most horrendous possibilities, and even supposes that it is the skeleton of Laurentina. But as a reader of Northanger Abbey, we never discover what the veil hides. So, in order to find out for myself, I decided to read the book!

Northanger Abbey and Mysteries of UdolphoThe Mysteries of Udolpho (published in 1794) follows the tale of Emily St Aubert, an orphan who finds herself imprisoned in a medieval fortress by her evil guardian Count Montoni. It is long (over 600 pages) and includes poetic interludes and highly detailed descriptions, but is also full of suspense and horror. Here is the scene in which Emily first stumbles upon the black veil:

“…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 to the floor.”

So I challenge you to read a gothic novel this summer and, while you do so, imagine yourself back to the early nineteenth century, perhaps the year 1805; imagine that you are an insignificant Miss Smith, with a small income and little prospect of finding an agreeable suitor, and imagine that, as you read, you are inspired to put pen to paper yourself, to write something of your own, something new, something extraordinary…

And please do let me know how you get on. I will openly admit that The Mysteries of Udolpho is the only gothic novel I have ever read, so I’d love to receive some recommendations. To get you started, here’s a list of some of the book - mysteries of udolphomore well-known gothic novels which you may be able to buy on Amazon or find in your local library.

  • The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764)
  • Netley Abbey by Richard Warner (1795)
  • The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe (1791)
  • The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796)
  • Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock (1818)

And if you too want to find out what lies behind the mysterious black veil, you’ll have to read The Mysteries of Udolpho

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