Gothic Ghosts: Representation of Feminine Passion in Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho

Michelle Landauer, PhD Student, University of Melbourne

Ann Radcliffe employs spectres to explore the difficulties inherent to the representation of feminine passion and identity in a male dominated culture. This is particularly true of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) which has a plot that revolves around understanding the disjointed stories of two primary ghosts: Signora Laurentini, and the Marchioness de Villeroi.

Initially, these women are described as extreme opposites. Signora Laurentini represents the whore, or the horrors associated with uncontrolled feminine sexuality; the Marchioness represents the opposite—the Madonna. Both women are defined in terms of the binary whore/Madonna by the passions of the same man: the Marquis de Villeroi. For while the Marquis was ‘fascinated by the arts of Laurentini,’[1] he noticed that he ‘had been deceived in her character, and she, whom he had designed for his wife, afterwards became his mistress.’[2] In this way, the Marquis’ desire labels Laurentini a ‘whore’ and the Marchioness his wife. Angered at the manner in which she was replaced, Laurentini accuses the Marchioness of being unfaithful. Because this threatens the Marquis’ authority over his wife, he therefore agrees to kill her for her crime. But when he realises that the Marchioness may have been innocent, he refuses to take full responsibility for his actions. He ‘saw [Signora Laurentini] only once afterwards, and that was, to curse her as the instigator of his crime, and to say, that he spared her life only on condition, that she passed the rest of her days in prayer and penance.’[3] This scene reveals the extent to which the Marquis, in particular, and men, in general, appoint themselves as guardians of female sexuality. Believing that his wife had an extra-marital affair, the Marquis feels justified in controlling her sexuality through death. Once he realises the power Signora Laurentini’s sexuality has over him, he curses her and condemns her to a form of death as well.

The sexual passions of these two women threaten masculine authority, for they represent a form of feminine power that is plural, varied and ultimately uncontrollable. Such passions must be repressed, for as Jean-Jacques Rousseau warns, uncontrolled feminine desire is deadly.[4] Radcliffe enacts this repression by making Signora Laurentini and the Marchioness de Villeroi the two main mysteries of her text, exposing the identities of these two women according to the type of passion they represent. Because the Marchioness represses her desire and marries the Marquis, she is the socially acceptable version of feminine passion, and can be presented through a portrait. This portrait—a masculine reproduction of feminine identity—resembles the death-like quality of the male-defined supplement because, for Emily, the painting is a substitute for the dead Marchioness. Though the Marchioness may have had forms of representation in society—as her portrait and title of the ‘Marchioness de Villeroi’ reveal—they are only socially-accepted descriptions of her identity, and as such are far removed from her passionate nature.

While the Marchioness is represented in art, Signora Laurentini is initially presented as the undefinable, unimaginable spectacle behind the black veil at Udolpho. After listening to Annette discuss rumours about Signora Laurentini’s strange disappearance, Emily tries to discover what is behind the black veil:

'As she passed through the chambers … she found herself somewhat agitated; its connection with the late lady of the castle and the conversation of Annette, together with the circumstance of the veil, throwing a mystery over the subject … excited a faint degree of terror … Emily passed on with faltering steps …paused … and then, with a timid hand, lifted the veil; but instantly let it fall—perceiving that what it had concealed was no picture, and, before she could leave the chamber, she dropped senseless on the floor.'[5]

The rumours spread about Laurentini detail her passionate nature. Therefore, instead of uncovering a work of art, Emily—who is thinking about ‘the late lady of the castle and the conversation of Annette’—discovers the worm-eaten body, and presumes this to be the remains of Signora Laurentini. These stories, therefore, supplement the image that ‘was no picture,’ and this image—which is beyond description—represents Laurentini and the indescribable nature of her passion.

Another notable difference in the representation of these two women is the way their pasts are constructed. We are told that the servants at Udolpho spend their free time exchanging various ghost-stories and myths about the life and fate of Signora Laurentini. Both her past and her identity are kept alive only through these legends. However, Emily learns about the Marchioness’ life through the first-hand experiences of the servant, Dorothée, who waited on the Marchioness and knew her well enough to conjecture that ‘with all her sweet looks, [she] did not look happy at heart.’[6] Dorothée’s account of the Marchioness’ life, therefore, is a history based on facts from her own observations. As a woman who represses her desires, the Marchioness represents the feminine ideal and her life is defined through the masculine supplement, history. Signora Laurentini, on the other hand, indulges in the excess nature of her passions and is, therefore, remembered through the more feminine supplement, myth.

And finally, the ways in which these women expressed their passion further highlights the difference in their characterisation. The Marchioness married the Marquis de Villeroi so as to obey her father’s commands. However, it was said that ‘there was another nobleman … that [the Marchioness] liked better [than her husband] and that [he] was very fond of her, and she fretted for the loss of him.’[7] The Marchioness attempts to record her passion in the letters that St. Aubert forces Emily to burn at the beginning of the novel.[8] That she is expressing repressed desire is appropriate, for writing marks the move away from natural passion. As Rousseau argues, ‘writing … alters’ language by ‘substituting exactitude for expressiveness.’[9] Thus, language moves from a maternal form of ‘expressiveness’ (passion in speech) to a more rigid, masculine form of representation—something Rousseau describes as ‘exactitude.’ Explaining Rousseau’s theory, Jacques Derrida states that language evolves ‘from a fully oral language, pure of all writing … to a language appending to itself its graphic ‘representation’ as an accessory signifier of a new type, opening a technique of oppression.’[10] Writing requires absence. To compensate for this absence, the ‘graphic “representation”’ replaces, substitutes—represses—the passion it attempts to describe. The fact that the Marchioness attempts to express her passion through writing, and that her writing—the letters—survive and indeed replace her, symbolises this kind of oppression.

In contrast, Signora Laurentini expresses both passion and remorse through her voice in song. While Dorothée relates the Marchioness’ sad history to Emily, the music interrupts her tale and commands their attention. The music is so enchanting, so full of ‘uncommon sweetness’ [11] and passion, that it seems other-worldly. Even the sceptic—the Count de Villefort—is inclined to believe that this is the voice of a spirit: ‘“But hark!—what voice is that? … What a swell was that!” exclaimed the Count, as he still listened, “And now, what a dying cadence! This is surely something more than mortal! ”’[12] The fact that the music is labelled ‘supernatural’ highlights the manner in which the feminine supplement (woman’s voice in music) has been replaced by a male-defined system of representation. Rousseau proclaims that music was the first language, the maternal language of passion: ‘The first tales, the first speeches, the first laws, were in verse. Poetry was devised before prose. That was bound to be, since feelings speak before reason. And so it was bound to be the same with music.’[13] Because Signora Laurentini represents an extreme form of desire, she expresses herself through this feminine supplement, which is closely linked to passion.

The Marchioness de Villeroi is obedient and repressed so her passion can be described and expressed through masculine supplements. Signora Laurentini, on the other hand, who symbolises the opposite of repression, in the form of excessive desire, is represented by the feminine supplements of music and myth. As a result Laurentini embodies private passion while the Marchioness represents its public image. And so whereas Laurentini has to be substituted by the unfathomable and indescribable figure behind the veil at Udolpho, the Marchioness can be represented through the public form of a portrait. Laurentini’s life is repeated in myth; the Marchioness’ life is told as a history. Laurentini expresses herself through music; the Marchioness in writing. In this way, the narrative enacts a series of binary oppositions between reason (repressed passion) and extreme passion, between the public self and private desires, between the portrait and the veiled figure, between history and myth, and between the written text and the voice in music. Reason, the public self, the portrait, history and the written text are all constituted as supplements for passion, private desires, the veiled figure, myth and the voice in music. Thus, Signora Laurentini and the Marchioness de Villeroi together represent a binary structure for feminine identity. One is the ‘good’ woman, the other ‘bad’; one is the Madonna, the other a whore. The ‘good’ woman must replace the ‘bad’, for the ‘bad’ woman (as defined by men) represents the unruly, horrific and thus subversive nature of feminine passion. However, Radcliffe’s construction of the opposition between whore and Madonna is not as stable as it appears on the surface. For example, Dorothée refers to the marchioness as a ‘saint,’ and Emily notes the ‘sweetness’ and ‘resignation’ in her countenance. But Radcliffe takes pains throughout the novel to show that people are not always what they seem, and that one’s countenance can be misleading. The Marchioness is no exception, for we know that she harboured a passion for a man other than her husband. This contradicts (and indeed threatens) her innocent, passive, virgin-like image. Similarly, Signora Laurentini’s character is not easily described. While a licentious murderer in her youth, she spends the remaining days of her life in penance and prayer.

In The Mysteries of Udolpho the instability of this binary structure is highlighted through the female ghost that haunts the text. Although Signora Laurentini and the Marchioness appear different from one another, they share the same phantasmic identity in the spectre that haunts the woods near the chateau. This ghost is known only by her singing voice, which Dorothée believes is that of her dead mistress. The fact that this music comes from another ghost—that of the assumed dead Signora Laurentini—is significant. While Laurentini represents excess desire, the Marchioness symbolises repressed passion, but passion nonetheless. Both are sexual beings. However, they are unable adequately to express their passions in patriarchal society. Consequently women can only ‘properly’ define themselves through masculine supplements, which connote absence, effect a divide or split in identity, and are oppressive and repressive in their very structure. Such women, therefore, no longer experience a sense of unity; if they are to acknowledge their own passions, they must become separated from themselves, eternally divided—both whore and Madonna. This division is replicated in the text by the way in which Signora Laurentini and the Marchioness de Villeroi are doubled or repeated in the image of a ghost. The fact that these two very different women share this spectral identity underscores the degree to which the patriarchally defined binary for feminine identity was beginning to unravel. Radcliffe thus utilises this ghostly presence to highlight the limitations of representing feminine passion in patriarchal society, and also as a means for deconstructing the binary of feminine identity formation that occurs as a result of these limitations.

Works Cited

  • Derrida, J. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.
  • Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Rousseau, J-J. The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Trans. J.M. Cohen. London: Penguin Books, 1953
  • _____. ‘On the Origin of Languages'. On the Origin of Language. Trans. John H. Moran; Alexander Gode. Chicago: The University Press of Chicago, 1986. 1-74.


  1. Radcliffe Mysteries, 656
  2. Radcliffe Mysteries 656
  3. Radcliffe Mysteries 659
  4. See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions p. 37.  See also Jacques Derrida’s discussion on Rousseau in Of Grammatology p. 155.
  5. Radcliffe Mysteries 248-9
  6. Radcliffe Mysteries 523
  7. Radcliffe Mysteries 524
  8. See Radcliffe The Mysteries of Udolpho pp. 102–04
  9. Rousseau Origin 21
  10. Derrida Of Grammatology 120
  11. Radcliffe Mysteries 525
  12. Rousseau Mysteries 550–1
  13. Rousseau Origin 50–1