Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’: An Adaptation for Television

Posted by Elizabeth Bobbitt on May 27, 2015 in Blog, Elizabeth Bobbitt tagged with , , ,

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to attend the University of Sheffield’s symposium on Re-Imagining the Gothic, in which speakers shared the ways in which they have creatively re-engaged with the genre through their own insights and projects. During the symposium, I was particularly struck by the sheer variety of mediums and methods through which other speakers re-represented the Gothic. We watched several short films, read creative responses to Gothic novels, and listened to the re-telling of regional Lancashire folk tales–to name a few of the excellent projects on display.

Standing in the midst of such a profusion of projects initially inspired by the Gothic, and which have ultimately taken on a creative and aesthetic life of their own, I was forcefully reminded of the inherent complicity which the process of adaptation bears towards the Gothic as a genre, whose themes, character tropes, and anxieties have been obsessively re-represented to its readers through various mediums since its inception in the eighteenth century. In other words, the process of adaptation, whereby one creative medium is transposed into another mode of artistic expression (Hutcheon 8), is a truly Gothic process. Indeed, Angela Wright has astutely argued that the Gothic ‘[exploits] anxieties surrounding translation, adaptation, and literary imposture,’ and, our own gathering of creative and scholarly projects was no exception (Wright 12). As a group, we exemplified the Gothic obsession with creative return, in which the same stories are compulsively retold, paralleled, and doubled in a cyclical pattern which resonates with the creative impulse behind the process of adaptation.

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This brings me to my own Gothic adaption of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). I first began writing my adaptation in the summer of 2013 for the creative project which served as my dissertation for my Masters in creative writing from the University of Salford. In its current form, my adaptation consists of one full length episode, which is sixty minutes in duration, followed by an outline for the composition of five more episodes of the same length (I do intend to keep writing!). The first episode opens shortly after Emily’s birth, and starts as a flash back. It concludes at St. Aubert’s funeral, where Madame Cheron is named as Emily’s sole guardian. I have employed a non-linear narrative throughout my adaptation, in order to better integrate the back story of Emily’s familial history into the main plot line. As a result, my adaptation includes episodes which are suggested by Radcliffe, but not fully depicted in the text. In this way, the first episode contains a scene in which St. Aubert first meets Emily’s mother in Paris, as well as a scene in which St. Aubert teaches Emily the Italian and Classical poets as a child. I have set the main action of the plot in 1794 instead of 1584, in order that it may more clearly reflect the contemporaneity of Radcliffe’s works, which have become inextricably representative of Gothic romance in the 1790’s.

Now, you may be wondering why we need a televisual adaption of Radcliffe’s most famous Gothic romance at all—and I would like to suggest that we desperately do. Admittedly, the plot line is convoluted by modern standards, which Radcliffe’s trademark use of the ‘explained supernatural’ only serves to the further complicate and confuse. Any adaptation of Radcliffe’s work, whether it be for film, radio, television, or theatre, inherently involves major narrative restructuring and omission. However, this is no reason to shy away from it as a text which bears significant cultural value as one of the seminal novels of the Gothic, whose characteristation, atmosphere, and narrative ritualization of suspense and terror, served as a vital literary building block, without which we may never have had the great Gothic novels of the nineteenth century, or the dark, brooding heroes of the Brontës. In this way, I want my adaptation to take an active part in attempting to widen the bounds of the accepted cultural canon of British literature, television, and film.

I chose to utilise the format of a script for television in order to choose a creative visual structure which would allow me to include as much of Radcliffe’s plot as possible. The telling of the story in six, hour-long installments would also, I hoped, simulate in some way the experience of Radcliffe’s original readers as they eagerly anticipated the publication of the subsequent volumes of Radcliffe’s novels. I was particularly anxious to highlight the ways in which adaptations, like the Gothic, confound traditional notions of authorship, forcing viewers to question commonly held assumptions which generally attempt to assign one author to a single text. What does it mean, for instance, when a text can be said to be written and re-written by multiple authors?

In my next two blogs, I will share several scenes from my adaptation of Udolpho, in which I will also be discussing the ways in which I have restructured Radcliffe’s plot in order to construct a more tightly-woven narrative more suitable for a visual re-telling of Radcliffe’s Gothic romance.

Works Cited

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006, p.8. Print.

Wright, Angela. Britain, France, and the Gothic: The Import of Terror, 1764-1820. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.


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