Ann Radcliffe’s influential Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), actively engages with sensibility, a concept prevalent in much 18th century literature. The following analysis explores how the narrative addresses the subject of sensibility through an examination of a key scene: the death of the protagonist’s father, St Aubert. The excerpts are from the Oxford World’s Classics 1998 edition of text.
Sensibility emerged in early 18th century philosophy before being subsequently applied to literature. It essentially refers to a person’s emotional response to their environment. Those considered to possess a high degree of sensibility frequently experience intense and overwhelming reactions to their surroundings, whereas those without sensibility are largely indifferent to their environment. With its emphasis on the emotions as opposed to the intellect, sensibility has often been considered a response to the rationalism which typified the Augustan age.
In literature, sensibility manifested itself in the genre of the sentimental novel, Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768) and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) being notable examples. To a lesser extent the concept was also employed in the Gothic novel, albeit in a very different environment. Sentimental novels generally featured domestic settings familiar to their readers whereas the Gothic novel was usually set in far off medieval pasts.
Literary critics are divided on whether Udolpho‘s heroine, Emily St Aubert, could be considered an outright sentimental character. Some scholars describe her as a heroine of refined sensibilities, in that she primarily responds emotionally to her surroundings, as opposed to intellectually. This is apparent when the young protagonist is frequently shown to weep, faint, or be either overwhelmed or descend into melancholy in response to her more profound experiences throughout the story.
Emily’s father dies relatively early on during a key scene which explicitly addresses the concept of sensibility. Whilst on his deathbed, St Aubert warns his daughter to “not indulge in the pride of fine feeling” (1, 7, p.79), referring to the dangers present in excessive sensibility. The opposing extremes of rationalism and emotion are invoked in St Aubert’s advice in a dialogue which anticipates Emily’s later experiences, particularly her adventures in the eponymous castle. Once incarcerated at Udolpho, it becomes imperative for the protagonist to apply logic and reasoning to her predicaments, as opposed to submitting to emotion.
St Aubert considers ‘apathy’ to be sensibility’s opposite, a characteristic he asserts as “a vice more hateful than all the errors of sensibility” (1, 7, p.80). Characters in Udolpho are often delineated through their degree of sensibility. Whereas Emily, St Aubert, and Emily’s lover Valancourt, are portrayed as highly emotional characters with an affinity to their natural environment, Madame Cheron, Mons. Quesnel, and Signor Montoni, on the other hand, are typified as essentially urban and generally indifferent to nature. The juxtaposition of urban and rural space in Udolpho plays a significant role in the novel’s handling of sensibility. Drawing on Rousseauian theories concerning the dangerous influence of cities and a veneration of nature, Radcliffe portrays the city as a haven of vice – which temporarily corrupts the impressionable Valancourt – whereas Emily’s Gascon home of La Vallee is characterized as a rural idyll.
A famous quality of Udolpho, and most of Radcliffe’s fiction, is that it doesn’t actually feature any supernatural events. The carnival of apparitions Emily witnesses throughout the novel are all revealed to have perfectly rational explanations. This particular aspect relates to St Aubert’s warnings about the dangers inherent when a young lady succumbs to her sensibilities. By the 1790s, the concept of sensibility was being called into question, and with her emphasis on rationalism, Radcliffe would appear to share these concerns.