This archetypal Gothic work begins by setting an idyllic scene,
a context of security like Eden before the Fall; obviously too
good to be true, or at least, to last. The "awful
forms" of the mountains which bounded the "pleasant
banks" of Emily St Aubert, our heroine's , home.
M. St Aubert is introduced in terms which suggest that he'd
have been very at home with the Romantic poets, as far as his
views on the corrupting influence of urban life & the purity
of nature are concerned. His view of the countryside is idealised,
however, and the first of many references to fruit & cream
are made; AR seems to perceive the countryside as, almost literally,
a land overflowing with milk (or milk products) & honey.
The peasants in her novel also dance a lot after work, just
for the hell of it. As if!
Emily is introduced in terms of a sentimental heroine who has
received an Augustan training which will enable her to control
her instincts. She is meant to be the perfect mix of Romanticism
& Augustanism. The novel will chart, amongst other things,
the course of her loss & regaining of that control. Emily
is often to be found contemplating nature & God and having
Soon she becomes the focus of romantic attention, by an unknown
admirer who graffittis poetry on her walls, steals her jewlry
and secretly plays her lute. Sounds like a romantic hero.
Some mystery associated with M.St Aubert is raised but not
explained, and everyone is too delicate & heroic to ask.
We also encounter seemingly supernatural phenomena which prove
to have a rational explanation; the glow worm incident establishes
the book's pattern , though sometimes the explanation can be
a long time in coming. AR cheats somewhat; she entices the reader
with sublime supernatural possibilities then exposes the truth
& chides the readre for being so credulous.
Sadly, Emily writes poems.
Emily's process of decontextualisation begins with the death
of her mother.
St Aubert & Emily react in what is presented as a commendably
Augustan manner. Further reference is made to the mystery which
is saddening St Aubert. We mmet Madame Cheron, who is to become
our duenna figure, and get our first distant glimpse of Montoni.
He is Italian which was code for bad & untrustworthy. M.St
A declines in health & Emily finds he has been gazing at
& kissing a portrait of a woman not her mother. We are not
enlightened as to her identity. This mystrey is going to continue,
like a bubbling pot which is slow to come to the boil. As the
novel continues more & more of these simmering pots will
appear on the metaphorical stove, till, she hopes, we are almost
expiring with suspense.
The opening poem deals with aspects of sublimity & nature's
relationship to the divine. Emily & M. St A see lots of
sublime nature, E nearly faints with fear of heights & we
meet Valancourt, our hero. He's obviously a hero because of
his "manly grace" & "chevalier - like and
open countenance". What's more he reads Homer (not Simpson)
Horace & Petrarch, so he must be educated.
The opening verse seems to refer to Valancourt, & the reference
"A sigh, a tear, so sweet, he wished not
may hint at his future lack of Augustan self control &
his tendency towards sentimental "
Lots of nature & sublimity & more heroic fainting by
E (though to be fair they have just been attacked
by banditti). Valancourt is injured in her defence and is obviously
beginning to fall in love with her. He stays with them for some
days & experience lots of sublimity together.
Travelling at night they come across a convent - typically
Gothic location - & stay for the night. Cue more sublimity.
Contains copious amounts of nature and sublimity. Valancourt
is presented as an innocent unbiased by intercourse with the
world". A very Romantic, Wordsworthian view of city life
is presented by St. Aubert who muses that
"its scenes, and its interests, distract
the mind, deprave the taste, corrupt the heart".
We will see what happens when Valancourt comes into contact
with the corrupting world. In the meanwhile we are shown that,
come what may, Valancourt has a generous heart. This is evidenced
by his giving almost all he has to the destitute family of the
shepherd. Valancourt's generosity will be in evidence again
later in the novel, when we have need to be reminded of his
Valancourt's friendship with Emily is looked upon with approval
by St.Aubert. It is important to remember this later, when St.Aubert
is no longer around to express a preference and Valancourt is
deemed unsuitable by Madame Cheron, who has her own plans for
On page 55 there is a reference, in description of the landscape,
to "beauty sleeping in the lap
of horror". This description might aptly be applied
to Emily, who is at present secure, and oblivious to the horrors
that await her.
Sees Valancourt leave so as not to outstay his welcome, but
not before we learn that his brother has land little more than
twenty miles from La Vallee. We might well believe that this
increases the likelihood of Valancourt being the poetry writing,
lute playing bracelet thief.
We are reminded of the mystery surrounding M. Quesnel and the
papers which so upset St.Aubert, and shortly learn that he is
close to financial ruin. One by one the props of Emily's security
are being taken from her; first her mother, next her financial
prospects, imminently her father, whose health continues to
fail. This decontextualisation is what we would expect in Gothic
fiction, as sources of rational judgement are removed from the
heroine, throwing her back upon her sensibilities and rendering
her vulnerable to superstition and terror. Emily's response
to this is sickeningly virtuous and Augustan. The excessively
flowery language in which she assures St. Aubert of their continued
happiness (p.60) is another characteristic of Gothic fiction.
As they journey on, St. Aubert becomes increasingly weak, even
fainting in the carriage. The only shelter available seems to
be a chateau in the woods , but
"it receives nobody" and Emily finds
the path to it "gloomy and desolate".
She almost succumbs to the temptations of "a
melancholy imagination" but her Augustan training
holds firm and she insists on responding rationally. M. St.
Aubert, however, twice thinks he sees a figure which speaks
"a deep, hollow tone, which seemed to be
Shortly after this mysterious music is heard, and a laugh
which Emily takes to be threatening. The suspense is building
and we expect some ghostly happening in this place and situation
with all the Gothic trappings. It comes as an anti-climax when
the source of the laughter is revealed to be some partying peasants
who are all to willing to give assistance to Emily and her father.
The source of the music remains a mystery, however, which La
Voisin, peasant in chief, is unable to explain -
"That guitar is often heard at night, when
all is still, and it is sometimes accompanied by a voice so
sweet , and so sad, one would almost think the woods were haunted."
St.Aubert remains Augustan about this, refusing to believe
in ghosts, but we haven't heard the last of the mystery music,
nor of the rumour that it is heard before a death.. We must
not forget, however, the lesson of the glow worm!
When the name of the Marquis de Villeroi is mentioned St. Aubert
seems very effected. The Marquis is the owner of the strange
and lonely chateau. The name of the Marchioness seems to have
even more of an impact and I immediately recall the picture
of the unknown lady. Is there a connection? If so, what?
The chapter ends with more sublimity . What's new?
The opening verse, which deals with the idea of death, prepares
us for the expiration in this chapter of St. Aubert. the Gothic
significance of this is that Emily's isolation is being extended;
another of her props, those things familiar to her on which
she can base rational judgement, is taken from her.
The (rather dreadful) poem composed by Emily gives a temporary
expectation of St. Aubert's recovery, but this is not to be;
it is a product of Emily's desires rather than any real improvement.
St. Aubert is definitely dying, and before he does he wishes
to inform Emily of a dreadful secret. The fact that Emily chooses
the precise moment at which St. Aubert is about to speak tells
us a) that she is under extreme emotional stress (heroines faint
under stress, remember?) and b) that Radcliffe is upping the
atmosphere of suspense by keeping her readers waiting.
Emily's response, and the language in which it is expressed,
are highly ornate and excessive, which is characteristic of
Gothic fiction. St.Aubert encourages her to take the Augustan
view - "my child, rejoice that I am saved from such suffering,
and that I am permitted to die with a mind unimpaired and sensible
of the comforts of faith and of resignation" p.76. This
scene would have been most moving to an 18th century audience,
who had a taste for sentimentality. To us it is excessive in
the extreme. Pass the sick bag.
After a suitable suspense lull, we return to the deep secret
which Emily must promise to keep. It revolves around some secret
papers in a hidden compartment - Gothic in the extreme, this.
Emily is required to destroy these papers "without examining
them". She must also promise never to sell La Vallee. My
immediate reaction is that the papers are somehow connected
to the picture, and may relate to Emily's parentage. It's all
very suspicious, and is another mystery to bubble away under
the surface of our minds as the novel progresses. The thing
is, Emily being so Augustan and virtuous, will keep her promise,
so the suspense and mystery will not be relieved
The paragraph which begins "Above
all, my dear Emily..." on p.79 and the one following
it which ends "...where it might
assuage!" on p.81 warn Emily against the dangers
of sensibility. It is a sermon promoting Augustan values. This
is St. Aubert's legacy to Emily.
Just before dying St.Aubert commits Emily to the care of his
sister, Madame Cheron, whom even he admits to be
"Not exactly the kind of person to whom
I would have committed my Emily"
which is not a promising start. The experienced Gothic reader
would know that this is to be the wicked female guardian who
will exploit Emily and expose her to moral and physical danger.
St. Aubert passes away in a scene of unrivalled sentimentality.
The verse at the head of this chapter suggests that the dead
St.Aubert will be guarded by angels.
Emily's response to her father's death has become less sentimental
and more Augustan -
"In the sight of God...my dear father now
exists, as truly as he yesterday existed to me; it is to me
only that he is dead; to God and to himself he yet lives!"p.82.
The mysterious music, said to accompany death, sounds again,
raising the idea of something supernatural going on. In Emily's
heightened emotional state she is more likely to respond to
it superstitiously than with Augustan reason.
St. Aubert is to be buried at the nearby convent, a suitably
Gothic setting which will give future opportunity for more creepy
happenings. One such occurs on pages 90 - 91, when Emily, visiting
the grave of her father before travelling to join Madame Cheron,
thinks she sees a shadowy figure gliding among the pillars;
in Gothic fiction the figures are always shadowy
and they always glide, often between
On the way back La Voisin exhibits strange anxiety about the
villa which had so bothered St.Aubert. La Voisin says that
"nobody likes to go near that chateau after
"Strange things have happened there".
He then immediately mentions "the
late Marchioness", which suggests that there is
a connection between her and the strange happenings. Ghosts
leap to mind.
The funeral is described in some detail, the intention being
to enable the reader to share in Emily's emotional experience
at this time.. It's a bit like the graveyard poets seeking the
sublime through their nocturnal vigils by tombs. What follows
is typical of Gothic scene setting
"The cold air of the aisles
chilled her, and their deep silence and extent,
feebly shone upon by the moonlight, that streamed
through a distant Gothic window, would at any
other time have awed her into superstition; now grief occupied
all her attention. She scarcely heard the whispering
echoes of her own steps, or thought of the open grave
, till she found herself almost on its brink. ...as she had
sat alone in her chamber at twilight, she heard,
at a distance, the monks chanting the requiem
for his soul."
The emphasis highlight the particularly Gothic elements.
Emily travels home crying a great deal, but still endeavouring
to be Augustan -
"Let me not forget the lessons he has taught
me! How often has he pointed out the necessity of resisting
even virtuous sorrow; how often have we admired together the
greatness of a mind, that can at once suffer and reason."
Nevertheless, as she wanders around the house she is so aware
of St. Aubert's presence that she briefly falls victim to the
superstitious belief that he is in the chair beside her. The
rational explanation, which follows quickly, is that it is the
M. Barreaux, who barely knew Emily, has sent a pheasant. By
contrast, Madame Cheron, has been too busy to receive Emily
or join her at La Vallee.
Emily is summoned by Madame Cheron, and her desire to "avoid
the displeasure" of that lady sets the tone for
the subsequent relationship, which is almost entirely centred
Emily returns to the fishing house, and is surprised there
by non other than Valancourt. This strengthens our conviction
that it is indeed Valancourt who is the poem writing-lute playing
bracelet thief. He is unaware of St. Aubert's death.
By this time we have forgotten about the mysterious papers,
so Radcliffe reminds us, bringing that particular pot to the
Having had so many of her familiar props removed from her,
Emily is shown in this chapter to be losing her Augustan grip.
Radcliffe condemns this -
"It was lamentable, that her excellent understanding
should have yielded, even for a moment, to the reveries of superstition,
or rather to those starts of imagination, which deceives the
senses into what can be called nothing less than momentary madness."
It's typical of Gothic writers to experiment with and exploit
the conventions they are discovering, but to be unwilling to
commit themselves totally, retreating to the safety of the familiar
and acceptable. Emily's lapses into superstition take the form,
on one occasion, of imagined sightings of her late father.
Emily follows her father's instructions to burn the hidden
papers unread. She does this, but not before noticing some phrases
which trouble her. Infuriatingly, we don't get to find out for
hundreds of pages what those phrases were. This is another of
those simmering pans I was talking about.
Valancourt reappears in this chapter and declares his love
for Emily, a love which she acknowledges that she returns. Madame
Cheron bursts in upon this tender scene and does what any self
respecting wicked Gothic guardian should do; she accuses Emily
of improper and immoral behaviour. When Madame Cheron declares
of St. Aubert that
" I have often thought the people he disapproved
of were much more agreeable than those he admired"
we realise that this is a person whose judgement is not to
be trusted. Remember that St. Aubert was early established as
the touchstone of good judgement. Add to this the information
that "The love of sway was her ruling passion, and she
knew it would be highly gratified by taking into her house a
young orphan, who had no appeal from her decisions", and
we know for sure that this is bad news for Emily.
The chapter ends with some sublime contemplation of nature,
and thoughts of Valancourt.
The verse at the head of the chapter talks of leaving childhood
innocence, which is what Emily is about to do.
Some background is given as to Valancourt and his family before
we return to Emily, who arrives at her aunt's Thoulouse home
after an unpleasant journey in which Madame Cheron reveals herself
to be utterly lacking in feeling. On her arrival, Emily is shown
to a "small chamber" in a "remote part"
of the chateau. This physical isolation highlights our sense
of Emily's moral and emotional isolation. The process of decontextualisation
has begun in earnest. Even at this point, however, Emily still
retains her Augustanism -
"After some time, her thoughts returning
to her father's injunctions, she remembered how often he had
blamed her for indulging in useless sorrow; how often he had
pointed out to her the necessity of fortitude and patience,
assuring her that the faculties of the mind strengthen by exertion,
till they finally unnerve affliction, and triumph over it."
Emily receives another lecture on propriety from Madame Cheron,
who has a nasty, suspicious mind. It is made evident that even
her aunt's servants perceive Emily as a dependent relative,
a scrounging inferior.
Montoni and Cavigni come to dinner and Emily feels an inexplicable
fear of Montoni. Cavigni flirts with her and Emily escapes into
the garden where she thinks she sees someone looking like Valancourt.
Next morning a letter comes for her and Madame Cheron immediately
assumes that Emily has been encouraging an illicit correspondence.
She makes Emily promise neither to see Valancourt nor write
to him. Emily so promises and, no sooner than Madame Cheron
has left than Valancourt appears in the gardens. Madame Cheron
reappears and jumps to yet more hasty conclusions, but Emily's
"heart was pure" , we read. This is very heroic language.
More heroine- like behaviour follows when, at a ball, Emily
"dancing with a young and beautiful lady;
saw him conversing with her with a mixture of attention and
familiarity, such as she had seldom observed in his manner."
Quite naturally (for a Gothic heroine, I mean) Emily faints.
This behaviour is connected with the idea that physical weakness
accompanies and reflects emotional sensitivity. Valancourt's
embarrassment and awkward behaviour on seeing Emily may lead
us to think he is up to something. We would be wrong.
Cavigni pays attention to Emily and Madame Cheron unwittingly
makes a complete fool of herself through vanity. Suspicions
begin to surface that there is something going on between Montoni
and Madame Cheron. When Madame Cheron becomes aware that Valancourt
is related to an important local family she changes her mind
about the relationship. Plainly this woman is a gold digging
social climber whose decision is made on the basis of
"the present distinction, which the connection
would afford for herself".
Emily's happiness is not an issue.
At least, however, for the time being, Emily is able to see
Valancourt with propriety. There is a sense, though, that this
will not last. There are, after all, about 500 pages to go before
a happy ending is possible!
Madame Cheron, eager to secure a connection with Madame Clairval,
Valancourt's posh relation, now insists on the marriage she
has hitherto opposed. Madame Clairval agrees assuming Emily
to be her aunt's heir. Emily then "decisively"
objects to this marriage - presumably because it's all too soon.
She needn't worry, though, because Madame Cheron marries Montoni
with great secrecy and celebrates the marriage using the preparations
made for Emily. Montoni is presented using terms like "command"
& "obedience" &
"haughty". He soon decides that Valancourt
is not good enough for Emily; we might wonder what he has in
mind for her. We read on page 145
"Montoni sought to aggrandise himself in
his disposal of her, and it occurred, that his friend Cavigni
was the person, for whom he was interested."
Certainly she is not consulted, and we may begin to fear his
influence over her, especially as he proposes to take her away
from her homeland into Italy. She is being removed further from
all that is familiar, into a war torn country.
"The prospect of going to Italy was rendered
still darker, when she considered the tumultuous situation of
that country, then torn by civil commotion, where every petty
state was at war with its neighbour, and even every castle liable
to the attack of an invader." (p.145)
Valancourt arrives on the scene and tries to reason with Montoni.
Emily begs him not to seek revenge, for her sake, increasing
our vague, unfounded fear of Montoni. Madame Cheron arrives
& yet again accuses Emily of secret liaisons; this is becoming
predictable! When Valancourt fails to get his own way
"in the first moments of passionate despair,
he forgot every promise to Emily, except the solemn one, which
bound him to avoid violence" (p.149)
This backs up what I've been saying about Valancourt lacking
the moral strength possessed by Emily; shortly before she is
due to leave Valancourt comes secretly to see her - we know
how Madame Cheron would feel about this - and pours out his
distress to her. We read that she has to comfort him and that
she struggles to
"recover the calm dignity of mind, which
was necessary to support her through this last interview, and
which Valancourt found it utterly impossible to attain"
She is able to control herself, though she is in the worse
situation, because she is the one with the Augustan training.
Page 154 repeatedly stresses his weakness, indeed his selfishness:
"he again felt only for himself"
... "Valancourt ... lost the power, and almost the wish,
of repressing his agitation"... "told
her cruelly". He uses selfish emotional blackmail
on Emily She on the other hand behaves in an Augustan fashion
" her reason had suffered a transient suppression.
But duty and good sense, however hard the conflict, at length,
triumphed over affection and mournful presentiment."
Valancourt's suspicions about Montoni (p.156) give vague hints
of villainy; the very vagueness increases the fear, because
we are able to ascribe to Montoni our own worst imaginings.
Weakly, I feel, Valancourt uses this information to try to persuade
Emily to run away with him, and page 158 shows him increasing
Emily's unhappiness by his parade of his own. He realises this
himself "I am a wretch - a very wretch, that have felt
only for myself!- I who ought to have shown the fortitude of
a man, who ought to have supported you, I! have increased your
sufferings by the conduct of a child!" Sadly this doesn't
This chapter, which ends volume 1, ends on a cliffhanger, with
much emotional roller coastering from Valancourt and strength
of character from Emily. We wonder what is in store in the next