Emily St. Aubert carries her books with her wherever she travels, and because she both recites and writes poetry in the company of nature, we know she is a heroine who is fond of reading. Special care has been taken to make sure she is well-educated as she is an only child after her parents lose two sons. Her father focuses on her and cultivates her mind rather than her “charms” (5), believing they are temporary qualities that do not guarantee happiness. It is important for St. Aubert to teach self-restraint since Emily’s delicate sensibility makes her susceptible to overindulging in emotion. Though she is a prototypical romantic heroine, liable to fainting and experiencing emotions of grief and love more poignantly than ordinary people, she is also a heroine who is practical and steadfast in her principles. These middle-class virtues make her very much like one of Austen’s heroines, and though Austen makes fun Radcliffe, it is evident that she admires her predecessor more than she satirizes her. For Austen, Radcliffe is both a competitor in an economy fueled by print media and entertainment, which the novel begins to monopolize, and a respected novelist in British literary tradition. Though Radcliffe’s territory is not domestic, Austen is able to borrow elements from her writing because Radcliffe synthesizes the domestic with the gothic. She does this through her heroine: her refined education, her incapacity to be governed by her morals, and her exceptional ability to remain virtuous in trying circumstances.
Both nature and reading foster the bond between the heroine and hero in the novel. Reading, in particular, unites them in memory. In domestic novels, reading not only unites lovers but is also used as a gauge to identify suitable matches. When Valancourt leaves Emily and her father, Emily finds a book Valancourt intentionally leaves behind to communicate his affection to her. When courting her, Valancourt recites Petrarch’s poems to display his refined knowledge and education, and like a hero of a novel of manners, he does not openly confess his love to her but displays it through a text. He leaves textual evidence of his affection, writing that is authored by one of the most highly esteemed poets in western history:
On searching for the book, she could find it no where, but in its stead perceived a volume of Petrarch’s poems, that had belonged to Valancourt, whose name was written in it, and from which he had frequently read passages to her, with all the pathetic expression, that characterized the feelings of the author. She hesitated in believing, what would have been sufficiently apparent to almost any other person, that he had purposely left this book, instead of the one she had lost, and that love had prompted the exchange; but, having opened it with impatient pleasure, and observed the lines of his pencil drawn along the various passages he had read aloud, and under others more descriptive of delicate tenderness than he had dared to trust his voice with, the conviction came, at length, to her mind. For some moments she was conscious only of being beloved; then, a recollection of all the variations of tone and countenance, with which he had recited these sonnets, and of the soul, which spoke in their expression, pressed to her memory, and she wept over the memorial of his affection (58)
When Emily reads this book, she is convinced of Valancourt’s affection. Before this reading, he is viewed as a cherished friend that her sense of propriety and delicacy prevents from receiving as a suitor. Emily always “hesitates” in perceiving his words and attention to mean more than what is conveyed to an ordinary friend. As the ideal feminine model, she is not arrogant or vain, and thus, remains doubtful of his feelings and oblivious of her influence. In Radcliffe, we notice the foundations of a feminine model Austen capitalizes to elevate middle-class values of humbleness and propriety.
Another aspect that makes her similar to a heroine of domestic novels is Emily’s doubt in the supernatural. Although she finds herself in the most mysteries and ominous circumstances, she does not easily give into superstition that her servants unquestionably accept. Accounts of ghosts and apparitions from servants are received by her with a “smile” (71), but she is naturally affected by the gothic and what the narrative desires its readers to admit as real. As a listener and witness, her eventual belief is warranted. As a woman or peasant whose beliefs are easily influenced by superstition and tales of fantasy, she is not included in such a class or gender. Circumstances that the reader must accept as true and that Emily cannot deny as lived experience convince her of the reality of the supernatural.
As an escape from Udolpho, Emily is asked to sign papers that will transfer the estates her aunt passes to her into her husband’s hands. Emily is a prisoner in the castle and is miserable for a considerable time, but she has the courage to deny her aunt’s husband because she will not allow him to abuse his power and degrade her aunt’s memory. Moreover, she refers to her refusal to sign the papers as “resistance to oppression” (419). Such resistance is not only a display of her virtue but also of her autonomy. Montoni, in making his wives suffer and in generalizing women as manipulative, is a misogynist. In response to his demand to sign the paper, he tells her “‘You speak like a heroine…we shall see whether you can suffer like one’” (419). Through Montoni’s words, Radcliffe is marking the features of the romantic heroine. Such exhibition of autonomy and independence readers further experience in domestic novels, though perhaps in a more subtle form.
Radcliffe’s work, though it has traces of the domestic, is still a gothic novel. However, the heroine’s personality might be accurately characterized as similar to the personality of some heroines in domestic novels: their ability to practice and follow their principles, their lack of vanity and pride, and their refined taste in reading make them exceptional human beings in the most trying circumstances.