An ‘Obscure and Terrible’ Place: Restructuring Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ for the TV Screen

Posted by Elizabeth Bobbitt on June 05, 2015 in Elizabeth Bobbitt tagged with , , , ,

The-Tower In my last blog on my six-part adaptation of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho for TV, vialis 40mg I discussed the way in which Radcliffe’s text demands significant restructuring in order to render it suitable for a visual re-representation of the romance for a modern audience. I first stumbled upon Radcliffe’s work during my initial reading of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey when I was 15 years old. As many of you will know who have read—or attempted to read—a Radcliffe novel, the experience can be somewhat daunting, and, needless to say, rather unlike Catherine Morland’s breathless and fevered reading of Udolpho in Austen’s novel. Moments of suspense are repeatedly, and somewhat transparently, broken up with an incessant stream of interruption. A heated exchange, for instance, which occurs between Count Montoni and Emily, in which they argue over the possibility of her engagement to the lascivious Count Morano, reaches its climax, only to be interrupted by Emily’s sudden decision to compose a few hasty stanzas on the Trojan War (191). In other instances, whole pages are taken up with the minute description of the scenery to be found in the Apennines and the Languedoc, while moments of revelation, often conveyed to Emily by her servants, are irritatingly put to a lengthy halt until they can return to Emily’s bed-chamber at a more opportune time.

Any adaptation of Udolpho must also, of course, take a position on Radcliffe’s ant-climactic use of the ‘explained supernatural,’ in which Radcliffe takes great care to construct terrifying instances of supernatural encounters, only to disappoint her readers at the end of the novel by attributing them to mundane explanations which appear even more improbable than the supernatural ones originally put forward. Radcliffe’s famous black veil, for instance, is revealed to conceal a penitential figure of wax, rather than the murdered corpse of Signora Laurentini. Frank Kermode, has, I think, pin-pointed a central concern of the Gothic, which is to ‘ritualize the plot device of the unspoken secret (Robertson 72). For Radcliffe, then, the significance of the black veil lies not in its being a vital clue to the narrative, but rather in its pure and untrammeled signification as a mystery (Robertson 77). From the point of view of an adapter, I was particularly concerned for my adaptation to revel in Radcliffe’s sense of mystery for mystery’s sake, at the same time that its plot elicited a satisfactory outcome for modern viewers.

In Radcliffe’s attempts to deliberately mislead the reader’s expectations, she constructs a compelling plot line, in which nothing is as it seems, sacrificing a tightly-woven story, for a somewhat convoluted narrative, in which even the title misleads the reader. Indeed, despite a third of the novel being set at Udolpho, it is Chateau le Blanc which ultimately holds the secrets to Emily’s past, and a visual adaptation of Radcliffe’s novel demands a more obviously coherent narrative. My own adaptation has significantly restructured Radcliffe’s back-story, which forms the revelatory material of the novel, and which serves to ultimately reveal the truth behind St. Aubert’s secret family history. Below is a brief diagram of the way in which I have restructured the back-story to Radcliffe’s narrative. Please double click on the image if it appears blurry on your screen.


My strategy in altering Radcliffe’s plot was to construct my narrative based upon one central question: what if Emily’s fears and apprehensions concerning Montoni and the fate of her mother were in fact true? In this way, I felt that my adaptation could function as a true re-imagining of Udolpho, which presents, albeit in altered form, another ‘version’ of Udolpho which Radcliffe’s text suggests. In doing so, I have constructed my adaptation to reflect the centrality of the role which the physical site of Castle Udolpho holds in Radcliffe’s text, by rendering it more immediately significant in its role as a site which serves to unveil the truth of Emily’s familial past. The figure of the Marchioness is still revealed to be Emily’s aunt, although I have renamed her Agnes, which is the name that Laurentini goes by at the convent of St. Claire in Radcliffe’s novel. In my back story, the Marchioness is Emily’s mother’s sister, rather than St. Aubert’s. Emily’s mother, who I have named Emmie Quesnel, takes the place of Laurentini in the novel, with whom Montoni forms an attachment. When Montoni discovers that Emmie is in fact in love with St. Aubert, and pregnant with his child, he imprisons her in Udolpho in a cell whose door is hidden behind a black veil. Upon Emily’s birth, Agnes (or the Marchioness) manages to take Emily away from Udolpho, although she fails to save her sister; a failure which eventually drives her mad, and leaves St. Aubert to presume that Emily’s mother is dead.

I am aware that these constitute significant changes to Radcliffe’s plot. However, as an adaptation, I would like to suggest that it retains a sense of Radcliffe’s thematic intent. The way in which I have substituted the figure of Emily’s mother for Signora Laurentini, and conflated the name of Agnes with Radcliffe’s Marchioness, achieves the same cyclical pattern of ‘doubleness’ which Radcliffe suggests, although does not always enact, in her depiction of mistreated or abused maternal figures. In altering Radcliffe’s story, I wished to utilise elements of Radcliffe’s fiction wherever possible, in order to reflect a true sense of Radcliffe’s creative aims. Therefore, in my depiction of Emily’s mother at the end of the adaptation, trapped for twenty years at Udolpho, I wished to recall the figure of Julia and Emilia’s mother from A Sicilian Romance, Louisa Mazzini, who was similarly imprisoned by their father in order that he might indulge his own passions in marrying his mistress (238).

Here is a short excerpt from episode one of my adaption, which I will discuss further in my next blog:

Episode 1, Scene 4



The only light in Emily’s chamber emanates from the meagre glow of several candles on the mantelpiece above a large, unlit fireplace.

A window on the left side of the room is thrown open, and a light breeze causes the candles to flicker, casting oddly shaped shadows on the opposite wall.

Emily’s bed is unmade and rumpled, and it seems as if she attempted to sleep, but failed.

She is busying herself around her chamber in preparation for their journey south.

Emily is feverishly collecting her books, clothes, and drawing utensils; throwing them unceremoniously into a large trunk by the door.

She pauses at the mantelpiece on the way back from her third trip to her over-laden trunk, glancing up at a portrait resting there.

It was painted perhaps twenty years ago judging by the style of execution and the dress.

She reaches for the portrait and picks it up.

It depicts a young woman, closely resembling herself, although the woman’s eyes are darker than hers; haunted and frightened…



A five year old Emily is perched on her father’s knee as they sit together in a threadbare and commodious armchair.

St. Aubert is straining to reach something which he has hidden on the floor behind them.


What is it, Papa?

St. Aubert grabs hold of a small, framed painting and lays it in Emily’s small hands.


It’s your Mama, Emily…isn’t she lovely? Just like you…

Emily looks down at the portrait in her hands curiously.

It is covered in a black cloth, gossamer like in its transparency…

The camera closes in on the eyes of the portrait through the black veils which covers it.

Emily’s eyes widen in terror, and she drops the portrait with a loud clatter on the stone floor…

Works Cited

Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. New York: Dover Press, 2004.

Radcliffe, Ann. A Sicilian Romance. London: Penguin Books, 2010.

Robertson, Fiona. Legitimate Histories: Scott, Gothic, and the Authorities of Fiction. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Tiny URL for this post: