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Landscape, Setting, and Character


One of the unique aspects of Ann Radliffe’s novels is her emphasis on landscape. The Mysteries of Udolpho is full of landscape description, so much so that critics have named her style “a pictorial art.”[1] Radcliffe engages in “[s]elf-conscious scene painting” (Cottom, 38), where popular theories of landscape are described in detail. An example of this kind of artistic ‘tableau’ occurs when St. Foix pauses to describe his view of Blanche and her father in the landscape:

“St. Foix stopped to observe the picture, which the party in the cave presented, where the elegant form of Blanche was finely contrasted by the majestic figure of the Count…and each was rendered more impressive by the grotesque habits and strong features of the guides…who were in the background of the piece. The effect of the light, too, was interesting; on the surrounding figures it threw a strong, though pale gleam, and glittered on their bright arms; while upon the foliage of a gigantic larch… appeared a red, dusky tint, deepening almost imperceptibly into the blackness of night” (Radcliffe, 601).

Through this lengthy description Radcliffe is highlighting theories of the picturesque, which combines sublime and beautiful elements. The loneliness of the figures in a desolate landscape creates a sense of terror, and the obscurity of the light also heightens the sense of the sublime. Yet, the elegance of Blanche and the majesty of her father introduce beauty to the scene, taming the wildness of the landscape to achieve a picturesque effect. Radcliffe’s scenes call to mind the landscapes of famous Romantic painters, “Claude Lorraine and Salvator Rosa, the one famous for dreamy, picturesque… scenes, and the other for sublime depictions of beetling cliffs, ragged forests, and menacing bandits.” [2]

Landscape and Character

There is also a parallel between landscape and character in Radcliffe’s novels (Cottom, 35). The journeys that characters make through the landscape are journeys through different states of mind, and characters’ reactions to the landscape act as a “touchstone” for their morality (Cottom). For example, Emily and Valancourt can be uplifted by the sublime in nature, revealing their benevolent sensibility, while the Countess DeVillefort cannot abide the “horrid” Pyrenees (Radcliffe, 476). Later, Radcliffe critiques the Countess’s false sensibility, as responsive to “fictitious sorrow” but unmoved by “living objects of distress” (Radcliffe, 500). If characters are moved to feeling by the objects of nature, they are more likely to be benevolent to their fellow human beings.


Similarly, theories of landscape are tied to particular settings in the novel. The three main settings for the novel are the different ‘homes’ that Emily inhabits: La Valée, the castle of Udolpho, and Château-le-Blanc. La Valée “is a sheltered and highly sentimental world, a version of a Rousseauian ideal community,” (Kilgour, 114) where Emily “receives a moral and sentimental education from her father,” (Murray, 115) St. Aubert. Emily will take with her the moral lessons of her idyllic home to a more hostile landscape, as is captured by the Castle of Udolpho. Thus, La Valée and Udolpho represent the beautiful and the sublime: “[p]leasurable sentiments characterize the first world; sensations of terror characterize the second. Obscurity replaces light, mystery replaces openness” (Murray, 115). Situated on a towering mountain in the Apennines, the castle of Udolpho is “[s]ilent, lonely and sublime[. It] seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign” (Radcliffe, 227).  The Château-le-Blanc, in contrast, contains elements of both the beautiful and the sublime; it is a more ambiguous space (an ancestral castle that is modernized by its owner), in which Emily has to negotiate between appearance and reality (Murray, 128).

Setting and Character

Like the characters’ relation to nature indicates their moral character, so the setting’s relation to the surrounding landscape reveals the character of its owner (Kilgour, 119). For example, La Vallée is in harmony with its surroundings, reflecting the moderation and virtue of St. Aubert, while Udolpho reflects Montoni’s tyranny by dominating the landscape (Kilgour, 119). In this sense, setting takes on aspects of character, like the Castle in Walpole’s Otranto.

Next, we will look at the characters and plot of The Mysteries of Udolpho in more depth.

[1] Miles, Robert. “Radcliffe, Ann.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. Ed. David Scott Kastan. © 2005 Oxford University Press. The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature: (e-reference edition).

[2] Ibid.