The Mysteries of Udolpho (BBC Radio 4) Back

Mysterious voices, subterranean passages, nocturnal apparitions, towering battlements, a sexually predatory count… all these are familiar tropes of the gothic novel.  But for Ann Radcliffe’s readers in the 1790s these were fresh images, and the ingredients of a genuinely suspenseful tale. Today Radcliffe finds few readers beyond literary scholars. The Mysteries of Udolpho, wildly successful on its publication in 1794, is now largely remembered through Northanger Abbey as the novel that overexcites Catherine Morland’s imagination, with embarrassing consequences. Michelene Wandor’s 1996 radio adaptation of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto was a tongue-in-cheek melodramatic romp, but with Udolpho, Hattie Naylor has chosen to play it straight – almost. Her adaptation for BBC Radio 4 rises admirably to the challenge of recreating the terror of the original novel by focusing on the interplay between masculine power and sexual coercion, an issue that still resonates today.

The reduction of four mammoth volumes into a one-hour radio drama necessarily means that only a flavour of the original novel can be imparted, and Naylor has stripped out the early sections in France and Venice to begin the story at the climactic moment when the heroine, Emily St Aubert, arrives at the towering Castle of Udolpho, deep in the Apennine mountains.  Udolpho’s battlements, towers and blood-stained flagstones cast a threatening shadow over the story that unfolds. It is a classic tale of an innocent maiden, imprisoned by voracious suitors, mercenary relatives and dark family secrets. The controlling Count Montoni, Emily’s uncle by marriage, first attempts to force her into marriage with Count Morano, and then to make her relinquish her inherited estates, using the threat of physical and sexual violence. Emily relents on promise of safe passage to France, but his promise is revealed to be worthless, and she and her maid Annette are kept prisoner in the castle, where Montoni’s rapacious friends circle like wolves. Meanwhile, Montoni’s own dark and murderous secret is hinted at and ultimately revealed by his erstwhile lover, Signora Laurentini. Driven mad by guilt she haunts the castle at night, providing a sub-plot of supernatural suspense against which the power politics of the main action are played out.

In the novel the fear of the supernatural is essential to creating suspense, and this is perhaps the most difficult aspect to translate into radio drama. Early on, Naylor cannot resist a nod at contemporary horror films, when Emily’s aunt asks, with faux innocence, “so no-one can hear you scream?”.  Although ultimately Emily’s fears are debunked – Radcliffe called it the ‘supernatural explain’d’ – the possibility that a real ghost might be haunting the castle is necessary to sustain the tension throughout.  Director Sally Avers relies on sound effects to create this tension: echoing footsteps, the otherworldly screaming of a fox, eerie singing, slamming doors. Emily and Annette jump with exaggerated terror at these sounds but for the listener, they are too clichéd to be convincing. The effects stop short of melodrama, however, and add to the gothic atmosphere.

If the supernatural aspects of Udolpho now seem a little outmoded, Radcliffe’s central concern with female rights and male power has lost none of its relevance. Located within the genre of ‘female gothic’, written and largely read by women, Radcliffe’s novels explore issues of patriarchal control, women’s property rights and the underlying threat of sexual violence, whether through forced marriage or rape. Although since the 1790s changes in the law have allowed women to gain control of their property, the gender imbalance of power and its association with sexual coercion remains a hot topic. Since this adaptation was first aired in December 2016 this has become even more current, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the #MeToo phenomenon.

The sexual predators in Udolpho take the form of Italian nobleman Montoni, Morano, and the barely-civilised Cavigni and Verizzi, self-proclaimed connoisseurs of the female face and form whose exaggerated compliments contain thinly-veiled threats. “There’s nothing quite as dull as a young woman who does not know the art she possesses. All manner of disasters can befall such a woman”, leers Verizzi, and Emily is rightly concerned with the absence of a lock on her bedroom door. Initially, her greatest threat is Morano, who lusts after Emily’s person and property in equal measure. Slavering over the prospect of possessing her “exquisite” estates in France, he muses, “There is nothing quite as beautiful as the way a young woman looks when afraid.”  Emily’s virginal vulnerability is inseparably bound to issues of property. Her estates expose her to predatory suitors, but without them, she has nothing, and is equally unprotected from the world. When Morano is exposed as a pauper and driven from the castle, Cavigni and Verizzi swiftly move in, not even pretending to conceal their assaults behind the legality of marriage. Even within marriage however, women are vulnerable. Emily’s aunt is threatened and ultimately killed by Montoni in an attempt to wrest her property from her. As the plot moves towards its crisis, the sexual threats become increasingly explicit and it is implied that Annette has been raped, while Emily only narrowly escapes the same fate.

It is this litany of sexual threat and coercion, concomitant with women’s inferior legal and economic status, that gives the radio drama of Udolpho its force. Luke Thompson as Verizzi and Finlay Robertson as Cavigni inspire dread and revulsion alike.  Scottish listeners might disagree. Avers’ choice of Scottish accents for the Italians (effectively, the baddies) and English accents for the French (the goodies) is a provocative one. For all the contemporary resonance of the subject matter, Emily ultimately proves an unsatisfactory modern heroine, urging her aunt to relinquish her properties, and giving herself up in marriage to the waiting Valancourt, while Montoni, Signora Laurentini and the castle itself are destroyed in a final conflagration that foreshadows Jane Eyre. But for fans of gothic fiction, or for those unwilling to invest twenty-odd hours in reading the original novel, this is an enjoyable and atmospheric adaptation that keeps to the fore Radcliffe’s preoccupation with power, sex and gender politics.

BBC’s production of The Mysteries of Udolpho, adapted by Hattie Naylor and directed by Sally Avers, was first broadcast on Radio 4 on 31 December 2016, and was again broadcast on 18 March 2018.