Symmetry and Deformity in Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho

Luke Inberg

Here is the passage from I.2 of Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho that we were discussing in class when we were considering the concept of "precepts" in relation to the characters of St. Aubert and his daughter Emily:

I have attempted to teach you from your earliest youth, the duty of self- command […] not only as it preserves us from the various and dangerous temptations that call us from rectitude and virtue, but as it limits the indulgences which are termed virtuous, yet which, extended beyond a certain boundary are vicious…All excess is vicious; even that sorrow, which is amiable in its origin, becomes a selfish and unjust passion, if indulged at the expense of our duties. […] The indulgence of excessive grief enervates the mind, and almost incapacitates it for again partaking of those various innocent enjoyments which a benevolent God designed to be the sun-shine of our lives. My dear Emily, recollect and practice the precepts I have so often given you […]. (20)

The kinds of "precepts" instilled by St. Aubert are those that enjoin such "virtues" as moderation, simplicity, circumspection, and respect (5). Throughout the above passage and in her initial chapter, Radcliffe is establishing several binaries through which the novel as a whole an be mapped, and retirement in the country versus involvement in "the world" (1, 4), economy versus dissipation (2), simplicity versus exaggeration, serenity with congeniality versus tumult with incongruity (4), happiness and misery (4-5), affection versus ambition (11), health versus disease (physical and emotional [8, 18]), and life versus death, are only a few ways in which to articulate them. However, in the end, one binary can serve to organize the many: symmetry versus deformity. And it is in apprehending the logic of her novel as being one of symmetries and deformities that some apparent incongruities of Radcliffe's work become understandable, and that the work becomes pertinent to the era in which she wrote.

This logic of symmetry and deformity is located in the depiction of Nature-a landscaped variety-and the characters' relationships to their natural environment. The environs of La Vallée are characterized by the qualities of the picturesque landscape, and every angle of the house looks out on some prospect (2-4). In this landscape there is natural symmetry-the improvements that St. Aubert makes to the ground around the chateau are few and conform to a taste "for the beautiful" (6) that is formed by nature rather than learned (see how St. Aubert conceives of Valancourt [35]). During the tour through the Pyrenees, many "prospects" are remarked upon, but so too is the absence of a prospect (28-29). Prospects are what make a landscape-it is from a view large enough to incorporate diverse elements of a scene and a variety of distances that a landscape (comprised of foreground, middle ground, and a background) emerges. The idea of prospect is involved with the concept of perspective, and perspective (as it relates to the way one interacts with anything) brings us back to the ideas of taste and precept. But taste, precept, and prospect are in turn all linked to a consciousness of past, present, and future. Thus St. Aubert, when making "improvements" in his estate or in his daughter is always referencing them to his past experiences at La Vallee (2, 4), or to his hopes and fears for Emily's future (5). An acquaintance with Nature and the symmetry in Nature gives one a perspective that allows for the adjustment of irregularity.

Two incongruities (both of which were mentioned in class) in Radcliffe's novel are the excessive grief that plagues St. Aubert even while he instructs Emily, and the explanation of the marvellous while coincidences remain uninvestigated. St. Aubert's unacknowledged grief represents a disorder that the discourse of the novel has to deal with. How is it that a man who enjoins a strict rationality with respect to one's emotions suffers from so serious an imbalance? Certainly, it is the excessive nature of this grief, as it destroys the "proper tone" of his nerves, which leads to the ultimate breakdown of his health (25). But more important is the fact that this sorrow is never allowed to be dissipated by the open and frank expression of it; rather, it is "concealed" (24) and indulged in secret (26). In the rationale of the novel then, St. Aubert has fallen into deformity by failing both on the side of excessive caution and on the side of excessive sorrow; he has imperceptibly inhabited that habitual, near irreversible state of excessive indulgence that he warns Emily to guard against (21). That St. Aubert, though a man possessed of man virtues, dies from this double deformity is then symmetrical with the logic of the novel.

Another incongruity in the novel is the explanation of the supernatural while striking coincidences are not explained; however, even this incongruity becomes coherent if it is examined through the binary of symmetry and deformity. Thus, what is called the "supernatural" in the novel must represent some sort of deformity, while what is coincidental must be understood as symmetry. The "supernatural" in the novel is frequently just the lack or suppression of a logical explanation (as with the music heard by Emily at the fishing-house [9], with the agitation of St. Aubert when he arrives at Chateau-le-Blanc [69-71], with the mysterious history and disappearance of Signora Laurentini, and with the "low knocking against the wall" that interrupts this history [237-40]). So where an explanation is demanded, but wanting, deformity is apparent. However, in the use of coincidence (particularly the way that many of the characters and events of the novel revolve around Chateau-le-Blanc), no matter how this represents a realistic incongruity, there is a strange symmetry-a symmetry provided by "the certainty of a present God" (28). Coincidence then is not a deformity to those who are acquainted with God and Nature for it is already logical as being either providentially organized or an accident of Nature.

Boundaries (what St. Aubert is attempting to help Emily realize) are a way of organizing the worlds one lives in (one's own and the larger world). Boundaries, by their ordering and containing principle, enable one to experience, understand, and command one's world. In the world in which Radcliffe was writing, the boundaries that had organized the Western world for the last thousand years had collapsed entirely or were greatly threatened. The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) was published during the upheaval and the horrors of the French Revolution-a revolution that destroyed the ancient social hierarchy of France, and threatened to lead to widespread revolution throughout Europe. The Christian religion, the ancient way of understanding all things, was being challenged by the scientific method. C. S. Lewis' The Discarded Image gives a detailed description of this completely "explained"-and therefore completely symmetrical-Christian world (not just the world, but the whole universe), in which there is a place for everything and everything is in its place. There is no uncertainty about God in this world construct, and therefore there are no absences, there is no ambiguity, there are no coincidences, and there is no deformity. It is a world of mathematical proportion-is a beautiful world. (Though Burke may argue against the place of "proportion" in defining the beautiful, I think few would agree with him, for it is the rationale of proportion and of symmetry that has informed Western ideas of the beautiful-consider, for instance, Michelangelo's David, the whole school of classical and neo-classical architecture, and the paintings of Massaccio or Raphael) (Burke). But a world in upheaval, a world where boundaries are being challenged and transgressed is not a beautiful world. Science, while it allows us to understand much of our world (and much less was understood then than now) does not explain all of it, for it can only confidently address those things which can be empirically examined. Galileo opened Pandora's box and Newton ate of the tree of knowledge. Ambiguity and obscurity gradually crept back into the world as the ideas about the physical universe were challenged by contradictory empirical evidence. Hobbes, Locke, and Paine challenged the idea of a society divinely organized. The "Age of Enlightenment" was an age of ambiguity and obscurity-a sublime age.

The conversation between St. Aubert and M. Quesnel, as they discuss the renovations that the latter plans to implement on what was formerly the paternal estate of St. Aubert powerfully suggests a relationship between the story and the actual events of Radcliffe's period:

To St. Aubert's enquiry, as to these intended improvements, he replied that he should take down the whole east wing of the chateau […] for at present there was not accommodation for the third part of [his] own people.

'It accommodated our father's household,' said St. Aubert, grieved that the old mansion was to be thus improved, 'and that was not a small one.'

'Our notions are somewhat enlarged since those days,' said M Quesnel. (13)

What St. Aubert is dissatisfied with is the extent of Quesnel's "improvements," for the enlargemenmt of which Quesnel boasts is characterized by excess. (It is to be noted that, when improving his own house, St. Aubert adapted his enlargements "to the style of the old one" [2]). Thus, as an exploration of the importance of boundaries, and of the symmetry and continuity that those boundaries give, Radcliffe's novel enters into the discourse of its decade.

Works Cited

Burke, Edmund. "Proportion Further Considered". A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909-1917 (New York:, 2001).

Lewis, C. S. The Discarded Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Radcliffe, Anne. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.