Exclusionary aesthetics and the treatment of the lower class in Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho

Jasmina Odor

Elizabeth Bohls, in her study Women Travel Writers and the Language of Aesthetics, 1716-1818, argues that aesthetic theories of the eighteenth century served to support the social and political hierarchy of the time. The observer, the viewing subject - the educated, wealthy male - is defined by what is constructed as opposite and antithetical to him - the labouring class, the female, and the non-European. The language of aesthetics thus also becomes the language of social exclusion. She notes "the structuring dualisms of eighteenth-century society: polite/vulgar, man/woman, civilized/savage" (67); she continues that the "second terms are subordinated as the foils against which the aesthetic subject defines himself" (67-68).

In chapter 7 of her book, Bohls considers "Radcliffe's ambivalent obsession with aesthetics" in relation to Mysteries of Udolpho, and sees in Radcliffe's novel a critique (though a deeply divided one) of "aesthetics' patriarchal structure" (210). The question I want to pose is what does Radcliffe do for the labouring classes in Udolpho, how does she treat the lower class, another 'foil' to the construct of the (non-labouring) observer? The novel contains a number of devoted and kind servants - Annette, Theresa, Ludovico. Many kind peasants also offer their hospitality to Emily on several different occasions in her travels. In her landscapes we find idealized pastoral scenes of dancing, apparently carefree peasants (7; 64-65, for example). The picturesque impulse of ordering human figures into ornaments of a scene is clear in the novel; it is not, however, without exception. In volume I, chapter 5, Emily, Valancourt, and St Aubert come across a shepherd's family, in distress over a lost sheep; the shepherd's wife relates that they must make up for the lost sheep, and that their master is 'a hard man' (Radcliffe, 52) - a pointed and realistic critique of the hardships of the labouring classes. Here we see a hint of the sort of observations Helen Maria Williams makes in her travelogue A Tour in Switzerland, where many passages dwell on the political and social realities of the inhabitants - such as the lowly status of the peasants in the Canton of Basil (vol. I, ch.VII).

The servants, like other characters, are flat. The female servants' most dominant trait is their predilection for chattering. Alongside the latter, superstition is a defining characteristic of all lower class characters, continually exhibited by Annette, and even by the kindly peasant La Voisin who houses St Aubert just before the latter's death. The servants and peasants are a clear foil to the sensible, yet rational, upper-class members - Emily, St Aubert, Valancourt, whose engagement with their environment is portrayed as aspiring to a 'higher' level - they are often possessed of solemn feelings of awe, contemplation of the Deity, or fits of melancholy. The servants seem all-together free from such refined feelings as 'delicious melancholy' and 'delightful terrors.'

The servants do not appear to belong to the same moral framework as the main characters - the framework in which virtue equals taste, and an appreciation of nature is a sign of good moral character. A sensibility to landscape does not appear to be a pre-requisite for a virtuous disposition in the labouring classes. Though most of them are well-meaning and honest, the servants do not seem to engage in contemplation of nature. The only hint of it we have occurs during the journey to Udolpho, when Emily - herself much engaged with the Italian landscape - is "compelled to smile at the naïveté of Annette, in her remarks on what she saw" (Radcliffe, 213). The gaze of the servant Annette is clearly inferior, and Emily treats her with a condescending kindness. Indeed most of Emily's interaction with Annette hinges on kind condescension, and she repeatedly smiles at one or another of Annette's quips, superstitions, or 'ignorant' remarks.

The same St Aubert who lectures on essences of taste and virtue has a habit of interpreting people's characters from their faces. The faces of most of the servants and peasants, however, are not described. Even Annette, who is a relatively major character, is not described as to her appearance (I hope I'm correct in this). We learn only of Ludovico that he is tall and handsome, from Annette's mouth (Radcliffe, 234). On the other hand, nearly all of the upper-class characters' appearance is described. On meeting Valancourt, St Aubert admires "the manly grace of his figure" (Radcliffe, 33), and his "open countenance" (Radcliffe, 33). St Auberts' neighbour, Monsieur Barreaux, has an "ungracious appearance" (Radcliffe, 95) but also "goodness of heart and delicacy of mind" (Radcliffe, 95). The villains typically possess 'strength of features,' expressiveness and passion. The arch-villain Montoni is a man "of an uncommonly handsome person, with features manly and expressive" (Radcliffe, 25). A portrait of Signora Laurentini in her youth is described similarly: "her features were handsome and noble, full of strong expression, but had little of the captivating sweetness….It was a countenance, which spoke the language of passion, rather than that of sentiment" (263). Appearance, and the general 'air' of a person, are closely bound with their disposition, when it comes to the 'main' characters, the upper-class; the lower-class seems to be exempt from this framework.

The lovers Annette and Ludovico are also a kind of foil to Emily and Valancourt. Their love, however, doesn't have the grandeur, refined sentiment, and plot-twists of Emily's and Valancourt's affair. The disappearance of Ludovico from a chamber at Chateau-le-Blanc prompts sparse commentary as to its effect on Annette; we learn only that "poor Annette gave herself up to despair" (Radcliffe, 530), while we hear at length of course as to all minute emotions Emily feels in regard to Valancourt. The love affair between the two servants is most often described in a comic mode - Annette easily blurts out her affections for Ludovico, much unlike Emily; Ludovico locking Annette up in a room at Udolpho to protect her from the men roaming the castle also has a comic function. This stands in contrast to the high register and dramatization, the solemnity, anguish, despair, etc., of Emily and Valancourt's courting.

Emily's old servant Theresa speaks perhaps the most refreshing words of the novel, when she exclaims, "dear! to see how gentlefolks can afford to throw away their happiness! Now, if you were poor people, there would be none of this" (588-589). The scene occurs when Emily is back at La Vallee, visiting Theresa, and Valancourt stumbles to Theresa's cottage at the same time. The whole scene in which the words occur seems unique - it is an instance where the narrator's tone and attitude toward Emily shifts somewhat from the tragic to the comic, allowing the reader - for the first time, as far as I can tell - to stand above Emily and Valancourt, and even laugh at their sentimental excesses. Theresa speaks things plainly as they are, while the two lovers continue their convoluted talk of esteem and lost affections. Theresa speaks to Valancourt on Emily's behalf: "Why, my dear young lady loves you now, better than she does any body in the whole world, though she pretends to deny it" (588), giving Emily much chagrin, and making her response look somewhat ridiculous by contrast: " 'This is insupportable!...Theresa, you do not know what you say. Sir, if you respect my tranquility, you will spare me from the continuance of this distress'" (Radcliffe, 588). After Emily insists on sending Valancourt away, Theresa notes that "it was but now you was crying, mademoiselle, because he was dead. Well! young ladies do change their mind in a minute, as one may say!" (589). The narrator's position shifts, though up to this point, and immediately afterward, it is overtly aligned with that of Emily. The whole scene is the stuff of comedy, and even verges on parody.

For all of Emily's and other 'nobles'' condescension and indulging smiles, it seems to be the servants who do the hard, practical work - on the level of content, but also of plot - they are devices for conveying information to the protagonists, and getting the protagonists in and out of situations. Annette, as chatty and superstitious as she may be, is Emily's only real source of information, and nourishment, both literal and figurative, in Udolpho. It is Annette who stays with Emily in her chamber when the latter is too scared to be alone, Annette who brings her food and lights her fire, Annette who conveys her through the castle and brings her to her dying aunt, etc. Similarly, it is Ludovico who repeatedly saves the whole gang - Ludovico who rescues Emily, Du Pont, and Annette from Udolpho by the sole means of his own wit and quickness, and Ludovico who rescues Lady Blanche with her father and her suitor, from the nest of banditti into which they somewhat naively stumbled, again through only his wit and courage. From this perspective, if there is a hero in the novel, it cannot be the largely absent Valancourt, but the steady and reliable Ludovico. While it may be a stretch to claim that Radcliffe had any intention of secretly 'glorifying' the lower class, or subverting class conventions, it seems to me the text itself offers up ambiguous evidence. She does not grant the labouring classes the privileged position of an aesthetic observer, and can even be seen as complicit with the exclusionary nature of aesthetics conventions in this regard - yet, perhaps the several contrasts between the 'real' characters (the upper-class) and their 'foils' (the servants and peasants), and one moment of near self-parody, are enough to question the surface appearances of the work.