The Treatment Of The Lower Class In Radcliffe's The Mysteries Of Udolpho

1603 words - 6 pages

Elizabeth Bohls, in her study Women Travel Writers and the Language of Aesthetics, 1716-1818, argues that aesthetic theories of the eighteenth century served to support the social and political hierarchy of the time. The observer, the viewing subject - the educated, wealthy male - is defined by what is constructed as opposite and antithetical to him - the labouring class, the female, and the non-European. The language of aesthetics thus also becomes the language of social exclusion. She notes "the structuring dualisms of eighteenth-century society: polite/vulgar, man/woman, civilized/savage" (67); she continues that the "second terms are subordinated as the foils against which the aesthetic subject defines himself" (67-68).

In chapter 7 of her book, Bohls considers "Radcliffe's ambivalent obsession with aesthetics" in relation to Mysteries of Udolpho, and sees in Radcliffe's novel a critique (though a deeply divided one) of "aesthetics' patriarchal structure" (210). The question I want to pose is what does Radcliffe do for the labouring classes in Udolpho, how does she treat the lower class, another 'foil' to the construct of the (non-labouring) observer? The novel contains a number of devoted and kind servants - Annette, Theresa, Ludovico. Many kind peasants also offer their hospitality to Emily on several different occasions in her travels. In her landscapes we find idealized pastoral scenes of dancing, apparently carefree peasants (7; 64-65, for example). The picturesque impulse of ordering human figures into ornaments of a scene is clear in the novel; it is not, however, without exception. In volume I, chapter 5, Emily, Valancourt, and St Aubert come across a shepherd's family, in distress over a lost sheep; the shepherd's wife relates that they must make up for the lost sheep, and that their master is 'a hard man' (Radcliffe, 52) - a pointed and realistic critique of the hardships of the labouring classes. Here we see a hint of the sort of observations Helen Maria Williams makes in her travelogue A Tour in Switzerland, where many passages dwell on the political and social realities of the inhabitants - such as the lowly status of the peasants in the Canton of Basil (vol. I, ch.VII).

The servants, like other characters, are flat. The female servants' most dominant trait is their predilection for chattering. Alongside the latter, superstition is a defining characteristic of all lower class characters, continually exhibited by Annette, and even by the kindly peasant La Voisin who houses St Aubert just before the latter's death. The servants and peasants are a clear foil to the sensible, yet rational, upper-class members - Emily, St Aubert, Valancourt, whose engagement with their environment is portrayed as aspiring to a 'higher' level - they are often possessed of solemn feelings of awe, contemplation of the Deity, or fits of melancholy. The servants seem all-together free from such refined feelings as 'delicious melancholy' and...

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