English novelist Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) wrote a series of Gothic tales in the 1790s just as the literary genre was reaching its peak of popularity among middleand upper-class women readers in England and America.
Characterized by a suspenseful mixture of romance and horror, the Gothic story unusually centered on an innocent, persecuted heroine threatened by a dark-haired, fierce villain who owns a ghost-haunted or otherwise mystery-steeped castle. The tag “Gothic” came from the fact that these castles or abbeys were usually crumbling piles already several hundred years old by then, built in the late medieval period of the 1300s to the 1500s, when Gothic architecture predominated in England, France, and Italy. “What Radcliffe brought to the Gothic was poetry,” noted an essay on her work that appeared in the St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers. “In all her novels she has lush descriptions of landscape, mostly French and Italian, which seemed more romantic than her native England; and this is not merely background but affects the moods of her characters and comes almost to dominate characters and plot.”
Born Ann Ward on July 9, 1764, Radcliffe spent her first eight years in the central London neighborhood of Holborn. Her father, William, was a haberdasher, a term once used for a retailer who sold fabric, buttons, ribbons, and similar items. Both William and his wife, Ann DeWitt Ward, had some prominent figures among members of their extended family: one was William Cheselden (1688–1752), a famous London surgeon who helped elevate the profession in the early eighteenth century and disassociate it from its longstanding alliance with barbers. There was also Thomas Bentley, the business partner to pottery-maker Josiah Wedgewood (1730–1795). Bentley invited Radcliffe's father to take over one of the Wedgwood and Bentley shops in the resort town of Bath, to which they moved in the early 1770s when Radcliffe was eight years old.
Husband Encouraged Her Stories
Few details survive about Radcliffe's formal schooling, though she knew some Latin and appeared to have been quite well-read. In January of 1787, at the age of 22, she married William Radcliffe, a graduate of Oxford University who had abandoned plans for a career in law and switched to journalism. The couple settled in London, where he served as an editor with a newspaper called the English Chronicle. They had no children, and it was William Radcliffe who was said to have encouraged his wife's literary ambitions during these first years of their marriage.
Radcliffe made her literary debut with The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne: A Highland Story, which appeared in 1789. The story was set in medieval Scotland, and centered on a young earl named Osbert, who is determined to avenge the untimely death of his father at the hands of a local landowner-rival. With Alleyn, Obsert's mysterious new, apparently common-born friend, he attacks the castle of Baron Malcolm, but then he and Alleyn are taken prisoner within its walls. A pair of romances—one of them involving a young woman who is destined to become the evil baron's bride against her will—rounds out the plot and helps the story conclude on a happy note. The title did not sell well, however, and the handful of critics who reviewed it pointed out several inaccuracies, particularly in her descriptions of the Scottish Highlands.
The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne had a few elements of the Gothic novel, but Radcliffe would deploy these more fully in her next work, A Sicilian Romance. Published in 1790, it features several hallmarks of the genre, including two innocent female protagonists—the sisters Emilia and Julia—who learn that their reprobate father has imprisoned their mother at the family stronghold, the castle of Mazzini in Sicily, while he idles his days away in Naples with his mistress. Again, the work attracted little notice, and later literary scholars have generally dismissed both this and her debut as inferior works of Radcliffe's.
The Romance of the Forest
In 1791, Radcliffe achieved minor celebrity with the publication of The Romance of the Forest, Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry, the first of her works to enjoy strong sales. Its plot followed the heroine Adeline's quest to unlock the secret of her parentage, and contained several “of what were, even then, Gothic clichés,” asserted the St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers contributor, including “a beautiful young woman being protected, an abbey used by a highwayman as a base, a nightmare featuring a message, a secret chamber, terrible family revelations, injustices and romantic misunderstandings.” Critical assessments of the day were mixed, and an essay from Deborah D. Rogers in the Dictionary of Literary Biography noted that reviewers “praised Radcliffe's hallmark and pioneering poetical descriptions of landscapes and her creation of suspense but criticized the interspersed verses, anachronisms, improbabilities, excessive descriptions, explained supernatural events, and inadequate characterization.”
Despite those shortcomings, The Romance of the Forest proved a financial boon to Radcliffe, and her London publisher, Robinson, offered her a 500-pound advance for her next work. This was The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry, which appeared across four volumes in 1794. The story is set in the 1580s as a young, innocent heroine named Emily St. Aubert finds herself locked up in the frightening Castle Udolpho, which appears to be populated by ghosts. Her jailor is an aunt who became Emily's guardian after the death of both parents, along with her aunt's treacherous Italian husband, who schemes to obtain the St. Aubert fortune. The novel figures prominently in the plot of Northanger Abbey, English novelist Jane Austen (1775–1817)'s first novel. In Austen's 1818 tale, published posthumously, her heroine Catherine Morland is a devoted reader of Gothic romances, and imagines that the old abbey she is visiting harbors dark secrets along with its owners, the Tilneys, whose son Henry is falling in love with Catherine.
The Mysteries of Udolpho proved a great commercial success for Radcliffe, and like her previous tale, The Romance of the Forest, was adapted for the stage. Fontainville Forest, a drama by James Boaden, premiered at London's Covent Garden Theater in the summer of 1794, and in January of 1795 The Mysteries of the Castle had its debut at the same venue. Despite the popular acclaim, Radcliffe was reportedly sensitive to the harsher words of her literary critics, and strove to improve her prose, characterizations, and plots. She took a break from writing fiction during that same summer of 1794, when she and her husband made an extended trip to visit her mother's relatives in the Netherlands, and continued along Germany's picturesque Rhine River route. Her travel diary was published the following year as A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 Through Holland and the Western Frontiers of Germany.
Abandoned Literary Career
Radcliffe received an 800-pound advance for her next book, The Italian; or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents, published by Cadell and Davies over three volumes in 1797. The work owed some creative debt to a popular novel published a year earlier, The Monk by Matthew Lewis, a Gothic tale that caused a sensation for its rather daring sexual innuendo, which, in turn, was said to have been inspired in part by Radcliffe's Udolpho tale. Unlike her previous works, The Italian was set in the relatively recent past, in the 1760s, and did not feature any poetical interludes, which later literary critics found to be the most original element in her writing style. In this plot, the virtuous heroine is named Ellena, and she and the dashing Vincentio di Vivaldi are in love. An Italian monk, Schedoni, conspires to keep them apart, and locks Ellena away in a convent, where the nuns treat her harshly and attempt to force her to take religious vows. Vivaldi comes to rescue her, but their happiness is once more thwarted by Schedoni, who alerts agents of the Holy Inquisition—the Roman Catholic Church's long campaign to ferret out heresy among its believers, sometimes by means of torture—to take the young man into custody. Ellena, meanwhile, is imprisoned in a mansion, and nearly dies at the hands of the mad monk until a revelation that they may be related; he turns out to be her long-lost uncle.
The Italian was the final novel that Radcliffe would publish during her lifetime. Several factors conspired to end her literary career: she had already earned a good sum of money from her work, and in 1797 her husband purchased the English Chronicle, which may have placed them on more secure financial footing as well. Her father died in 1798, and her mother died a year later. In between these events, Radcliffe's husband fell ill but recovered, but his nursing care kept her from writing. Furthermore, her inheritances gave her complete financial freedom—although, as an only child she grieved for some time over the deaths of her parents, which also stifled her creative energies. In a journal entry from the year 1800, she wrote: “In this month, on the 24th of July, my dear father died two years since,” according to Rogers's Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. “On the 14th of last March, my poor mother followed him: I am the last leaf on the tree!”
Radcliffe was a shy writer, uncomfortable with literary acclaim, and had a naturally reclusive personality. These factors combined to make her a somewhat mysterious figure, and there were occasional rumors that she had actually descended into mental illness and was being held somewhere—possibly against her will, like her heroines— out of sight. The gossip was merely imaginative speculation, and Radcliffe was never hidden away; instead she and her husband took extended trips throughout England every summer, and she began to suffer from respiratory ailments, including asthma. She died on February 7, 1823, at the age of 58, from respiratory failure likely caused by pneumonia. She was laid to rest in a chapel in Bayswater, the London neighborhood. One final novel appeared posthumously: Gaston de Blondeville; and St. Alban's Abbey, with Some Poetical Pieces, issued by the London house Colburn in 1826. The tale was inspired by her 1802 visit to several historical sites, among them Kenilworth Castle, a ruin dating back to Norman times.
Two volumes of Radcliffe's verse also appeared after her death. Her first biographer was Thomas Noon Talfourd, who wrote a “Memoir of the Life and Writings of Mrs. Radcliffe” for the 1826 publication of Gaston de Blondeville. In 1995, another examination of her life and career appeared, bearing the title Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress. Its author was Robert Miles. Four years later, Rictor Norton's Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe appeared. In the 2007 film Becoming Jane, Radcliffe appears as a character, played by Helen McCrory, who meets the young Jane Austen (Ann Hathaway) and encourages her literary ambitions. Such a meeting, however, is not known to have actually occurred.
Rogers, Deborah D., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 178: British Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers Before World War I, edited by Darren Harris-Fain, Gale, 1997.
St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, St. James Press, 1998.
Independent on Sunday (London, England), September 21, 2003. Studies in the Novel, Spring 1997.