Gothic Veils: A Critique of the Sentimental Feminine Ideal in Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho

By Michelle Landauer, PhD student, University of Melbourne.

Gothic novels descended from the sentimental tradition. In fact, female Gothic fiction could be described as a sentimental novel with a twist, the twist of course being intimations of the supernatural. The Gothic is often studied through an interpretation of its motifs. One of the most prominent motifs, the image of the veil, was made popular by Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and has its roots in the sentimental tradition.

In his seminal sentimental text, Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously utilises veiling to help define the image of ideal femininity that would influence generations of sentimental and Gothic texts. Throughout this novel the heroine, Julie, fights the passion she feels for her tutor in order to become the ideal wife to the man she was arranged to marry. Unable to conquer her desire, Julie gladly gives her life to save her child from drowning and to protect herself from temptation. Upon dying, the site of Julie’s unruly passion, her body, is covered by a veil, where a stable image of feminine purity emerges. The biggest best-seller in the eighteenth century, Rousseau’s novel was so successful it had a cult following and was responsible for popularising the spectacle of death, particularly the death of a beautiful woman. These themes influenced The Mysteries of Udolpho where a veiled image and two female ghosts comprise the central mysteries of the title. The ghosts of Signora Laurentini and the Marchioness de Villeroi form extreme aspects of sentimental feminine identity that Emily, the heroine, must learn to manage, and the veil at the heart of the story represents the site for negotiation.

Signora Laurentini embodies the dangers associated with emotional excess, a potential side effect of the cult of sensibility, and the Marchioness represents the opposite, the limitations of the repression required of the sentimental feminine ideal as outlined in sentimental texts like Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse. The representation of reason (repressed passion) and desire—as expressed through Signora Laurentini and the Marchioness de Villeroi—symbolises the psychological battle which rages within Emily. After all, the story is about Emily’s entrance into the adult world, where she must learn to define herself through (largely) male-defined sentimental codes for feminine identity in order to achieve a more well-rounded and sustainable subject-position. For example, Montoni forces Emily to renounce her lover and leave him behind in France. She is torn between duty and desire—between the innocent and virginal role of daughter, and her womanly passions for her lover. Emily is therefore at a crossroads. If she marries the man Montoni would choose for her, then she must repress her own passion and identity, just as the Marchioness de Villeroi did in order to masquerade as the sentimental feminine ideal. On the other hand, if she chooses to defy her guardians, she is in danger of giving in to the ‘madness’ of her passions and thus becoming like Signora Laurentini. These two women embody aspects of female identity promoted by the discourse of sensibility that Emily must learn to negotiate—a fact that is highlighted by the narrator’s description of Emily as having ‘the contour of a Madona [sic], with the sensibility of a Magdalen.’[1]

The Mysteries of Udolpho thus presents a search for unity where Emily must attempt to suture a subject position that is fragmented by sentimental extremes. Veils symbolize this sense of fragmentation. Similar to Rousseau’s Julie, the veil emerges in The Mysteries of Udolpho as a dominant image, functioning as a supplement or sign for feminine identity. Radcliffe exposes the limitations of the sentimental model for feminine identity formation through this image of the veil by highlighting its corporeal nature. She does so in a scene where Emily and the servant, Dorothée, examine the Marchioness’ room. The Marchioness’ absence is signified by the many items that recall her image after her death. One of these is a long black veil: [next bit is a quote]

which, as Emily took it up to examine, she perceived was dropping to pieces with age. ‘Ah!’ said Dorothée, observing the veil, ‘my lady’s hand laid [it] there; it has never been moved since!’ Emily, shuddering, immediately laid it down again. ‘I well remember seeing her take it off’, continued Dorothée, ‘it was on the night before her death’ . . . Dorothée wept again, and then, taking up the veil, threw it suddenly over Emily, who shuddered to find it wrapped round her, descending even to her feet, and, as she endeavoured to throw it off, Dorothée intreated that she would keep it on for one moment. ‘I thought,’ added she, ‘how like you would look to my dear mistress in that veil;—may your life, ma’amselle, be a happier one than hers!’[2]

In this scene, Emily is defined by and linked with the Marchioness through the veil. The description of the veil focuses on its corporeal nature, highlighting how it is ‘dropping to pieces with age.’[3] Dorothée states that the last time that veil was touched was by the Marchioness on the night she died. The veil is thus linked with corporeality, decay and death. Emily ‘shudders’ to hear this and immediately puts the veil down, wanting to distance herself from it. However, Dorothée, against Emily’s will, throws the veil over Emily. Dorothée does this to see the resemblance between Emily and the Marchioness—an odd way to judge a resemblance, when one is completely covered. In this process the veil objectifies the body, allowing it to become a commodity that can be exchanged—one for the other, the Marchioness for Emily. Symbolising resignation and repressed passion, the veil becomes the blank slate onto which ideal femininity can be grafted in the tradition of Rousseau’s Julie, and thus emerges as a supplement for feminine identity. In this way the veil separates image from body, outward appearances from inner emotions, underscoring the fragmented nature of feminine identity. These divisions lead to mis-representations, mis-interpretations and, at base, an eternal divide between surface and interior, sign and referent. Emily’s rejection of the veil in this scene signals a rejection of the division required of the sentimental model of identity formation for women—a point more forcefully made by the iconic veil in Udolpho.

While, in La Nouvelle Héloïse, Julie’s closest friend covers her body saying ‘curs’d be the wretched hand that ever lifts this veil,’[4] Radcliffe suggests that the veil should be lifted, stating that it was too bad Emily did not dare ‘to look again, her delusion and her fears would have vanished together, and she would have perceived that the figure before her was not human, but formed of wax.’[5] During her stay at Udolpho, Emily repeatedly lifts veils imagining that they cover the physical remains of a passionate woman (either her aunt, or Signora Laurentini). In La Nouvelle Héloïse the veil covers Julie’s decomposing body which is depicted as having ‘worms . . . gnaw [at her] face.’[6] In a similar fashion, Radcliffe describes the waxen figure at Udolpho by saying that it had a ‘face’ that ‘appeared partly decayed and disfigured by worms.’[7] However, what is particularly important to note in The Mysteries of Udolpho is that the figure behind the veil is androgynous[8] and, therefore, what lies beyond Radcliffe’s version of the veil is not Signora Laurentini, or the long-imagined, passionate, feminine body in an advanced state of decay (an extreme form of the ‘real’), but a waxen figure or the supplement of the supplement[9] in an endless chain of signification. Clery describes this ‘trademark device’ of the explained supernatural, stating that Radcliffe ‘withdrew with one hand what [she] offered with the other.’[10] But this device for textual closure is more than just a simple sleight of hand. Throughout the novel, Radcliffe exposes how Laurentini’s passionate exploits mix with superstition to create a ‘story’ about what might lie behind the veil at Udolpho. She then provides various hints about the Marchioness’ strange fate, conflating their stories and even, at times, their identities. As representations of the extremes of sentimental feminine identity, both women are, at one point, presumed to be the decomposing body behind the veil at Udolpho. To deny these assumptions by exposing an unconnected, androgynous waxen figure at the heart of this mystery is to undermine the sentimental model that, in the tradition of Rousseau, places the unruly excesses of feminine passion behind the veil.

Works Cited

  • Clery, E.J. The Rise of Supernatural Fiction: 1762–1800. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995.
  • Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Julie, or the New Heloise. Letters of Two Lovers Who Live in a Small Town at the Foot of the Alps. Trans. Philip Stewart; Jean Vaché. London: University Press of New England, 1997.


  1. Radcliffe Mysteries p. 184
  2. Radcliffe Mysteries pp. 533–534
  3. Radcliffe Mysteries p. 533
  4. Rousseau Julie p. 606
  5. Radcliffe Mysteries p. 662
  6. Rousseau Julie p. 610
  7. Radcliffe Mysteries p. 662
  8. ‘It may be remembered, that, in a chamber of Udolpho, hung black veil, whose singular situation had excited Emily’s curiosity, and which afterwards disclosed an object, that had overwhelmed her with horror; for, in lifting it, there appeared, instead of the picture she had expected, within a recess of the wall, a human figure of ghastly paleness, stretched at its length, and dressed in the habiliments of the grave’, Radcliffe p. 662.
  9. The waxen figure is a supplement for the body which in turn is a supplement for the soul.
  10. Clery Rise p. 105.