Radcliffe, Ann (1764–1823)

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Radcliffe, Ann (1764–1823)

Hugely popular and prolific 18th-century English writer who developed the Gothic novel as a distinctive genre and whose works continued to have a considerable influence on major writers for 20 years after her death. Name variations: her books were always attributed to Ann Radcliffe, never Mrs. Radcliffe, but she was subsequently referred to by her husband and by her literary critics as Mrs. Radcliffe. Pronunciation: RAD-cliff. Born Ann Ward on July 9, 1764, in London, England; died on February 7, 1823, in London; only daughter of William Ward (a haberdasher) and Ann (Oates) Ward; educated probably at home but may possibly have briefly attended the school "for young ladies" run by the writer-sisters Harriet and Sophia Lee in Bath; married William Radcliffe, in 1787; no children.

Lived in London until age eight when her parents moved to Bath; after marriage at St. Michael's Church in Bath (1787), settled in London and began writing novels; visited Holland and Germany with husband (1794); published last novel during her lifetime (1797); spent next 25 years living quietly at home, writing for pleasure and traveling widely in England; in later years, suffered from ill health and traveled less; last novel and extracts from her journals published posthumously.

Selected publications:

The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne: A highland story (T. Hookham, 1789); A Sicilian Romance (2 vols., 1790); The Romance of the Forest: interspersed with some pieces of poetry (3 vols., 1791); The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance; interspersed with some pieces of poetry (4 vols., G.G. and J. Robinson, 1792); A Journey made in the Summer of 1794, through Holland and the Western frontier of Germany, with a return down the Rhine, to which are added Observations during a tour to the Lakes of Lancashire, Westmoreland and Cumberland (G.G. and J. Robinson, 1795); The Italian, or The Confessional of the Black Penitents: A Romance (3 vols., T. Cadell Jun. and W. Davies, 1797); "On the Supernatural in Poetry," in New Monthly Magazine (Vol. 16, 1826, pp. 145–152); Gaston de Blondeville; or, The Court of Henry III: Keeping Festival in Ardenne, A Romance and St Alban's Abbey, A Metrical Tale, with some poetical pieces … to which is prefixed a Memoir of the Author, with extracts from her Journals (4 vols., Henry Colbourn, 1826).

During the morning of September 3, 1797, a young woman stood on a point immediately below Dover castle looking out over the English Channel. Beside her stood her husband. Having left London two days earlier, they were on a tour of the southeast English counties of Kent and Sussex and enjoying a spell of fine and calm weather. Below them, and to the right, the picturesque town of Dover curved its way along the bay, nestling under the white and green of the sheltering chalk cliffs. As the young woman wrote in her journal later that evening, she and her husband were much struck with the grandeur of the seaview: "the long shades on its surface of soft green, deepening exquisitely into purple." In stark contrast, though, the castle itself, bristling with heavy fortifications, presented a sinister aspect. For the young couple, it was impossible to escape the fact that England was at war with France and Napoleon; below them on the water, could be seen a fleet of merchant mariners sailing down the Channel. They were in convoy formation and heavily protected by ships from the British fleet. In the far distance, the French coast itself was visible, "a white line bounding the blue waters."

The young woman was Ann Radcliffe, a highly prolific and popular writer whose vivid powers of description had already won her critical acclaim and whose latest novel, The Italian, was being rapidly snapped up by her adoring public. The Italian and her fourth novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, which had appeared three years before, had been prominently heralded in the London press for several weeks, evidence, as Clara McIntyre suggests, that the publication of a new book bearing her name was an important event in the literary world. And yet, this young woman, whose books brimmed with detailed descriptions of French and Italian landscapes, is believed to have made only one visit outside England, to Holland and Germany in the summer of 1794. Instead, she took other writers' travel records and let her imagination take wing. The sight of the distant white line of the French coast was the closest she ever came to the dramatic landscapes of Southern Europe that she was able so successfully to evoke.

Radcliffe's novels were the escapist literature of the 1790s, a time of considerable turmoil and uncertainty. The idea of the Gothic "terror" novel was not new. Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) already contained many of the elements of this form of fiction: brooding monasteries and remote, half-ruined castles with subterranean passages, winding corridors, mysterious lights, strange noises, and villainous banditti, which form the backdrop for kidnaps, imprisonment, hair-raising escapes and dramatic death-bed resolutions played out by almost stock characters such as innocent and modest young heroines who are never compromised and tend to break into song or poetry at moments of great tension; naive heroes who fall hopelessly in love; sinister, domineering and, usually, aristocratic older men who are prepared to steal from, ravish and ultimately murder their wives, daughters and protégés; and loyal, garrulous servants. Radcliffe's success lay in the way she perfected the genre by her ability to create a sense of excitement and terror in her reader through apparently supernatural happenings and her power to enhance the atmosphere with vivid descriptions of the surrounding scenery—the magnificent peaks of the French Pyrenees, the craggy, desolate Italian Apennines, the architectural glories of Venice. As the titles suggest, her works were also liberally sprinkled with poems. That the reader's credulity was often severely stretched, that the supernatural happenings invariably had a completely rational explanation and that it was always evident that everything would eventually be happily resolved only added to the enjoyment. To her contemporaries Radcliffe was "The Great Enchantress" who could beguile her readers with the power of her narrative and the romantic beauty of her landscapes.

Despite Radcliffe's huge popularity in the 1790s and during the first half of the 19th century, little is known about her life and personality; it is recorded that when poet Christina Rossetti tried to write a biography some 50 years after Radcliffe's death she was forced to give up the idea because so little information was available. As the Edinburgh Review recorded at the time of Radcliffe's death: "The fair authoress kept herself almost as much incognito as the Author of Waverley; nothing was known of her but her name on the title page. She never appeared in public, nor mingled in private society, but kept herself apart, like the sweet bird that sings its solitary notes, shrowded and unseen." Radcliffe left no letters, diaries, or papers, and her journals are concerned purely with recording her impressions of the world around her and reveal little of her innermost thoughts. The major source for information about her life is the Annual Biography and Obituary of 1824, and it is believed that most of the material for this account was supplied by her husband. It must therefore be treated with some caution. However, the only physical description that exists of her comes from this source and is quoted in several works about her. She "was, in her youth, of a figure exquisitely proportioned; while she resembled her father, and his brother and sister, in being low of stature. Her complexion was beautiful, as was her whole countenance, especially her eyes, eyebrows, and mouth."

Ann Radcliffe was born on July 9, 1764, at number 19 Holborn on the fringes of the City of London. Her father William Ward came from Leicestershire and her mother Ann Oates Ward from the pleasant Derbyshire town of Chesterfield already noted for its famous church with its crooked, lead-striped steeple. William Ward was a tradesman. He owned a haberdashery shop, a fact which seems to have caused Radcliffe's husband some grief. Her somewhat humble but respectable background was quickly passed over in his account of her life in the Annual Biography and Obituary: she was "the daughter of William and Ann Ward, who, though in trade, were nearly the only persons of their two families not living in handsome, or at least easy independence." Much greater play was made of her more illustrious relatives. Her paternal grandmother was a sister of William Cheselden, surgeon to King George II, and renowned throughout Europe for his skill in performing operations to remove gallstones. On her mother's side, there were also connections with the medical profession as her maternal grandmother, Ann Oates , was the sister of Dr. Samuel Jebb of Stratford whose son became physician to many eminent people in London and was a favorite with the king who made him a baronet in 1778. On her mother's side, she was also related to Dr. Halifax, the bishop of Gloucester, and more distant ancestors were said to be the De Witt family from Holland who were invited to England during the reign of Charles I to undertake drainage works in the fenlands.

Radcliffe lived in London until the age of eight when her parents left to manage a showroom in Bath which sold the fine pottery, jasper ware, medallions, busts, and plaques produced by Josiah Wedgwood whose decorative wares were widely admired by those of fashionable taste. She was to remain in Bath, although with frequent trips to the capital, until her marriage in 1787. Little is known about Radcliffe's education. It seems that, like the majority of girls of her class and background, she would have been taught at home and given a smattering of skills and knowledge designed to maximize her chances of making a good marriage, the kind of "disorderly" and superficial education so roundly condemned by Mary Wollstonecraft in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. The emphasis would have been on accomplishments—needlework, drawing, dancing, singing, piano-playing, perhaps a smattering of European languages. Both McIntyre and Robert Miles are eager to suggest that Radcliffe's education may have been of a more formal nature and that she may have attended the well-regarded school for "young ladies" that writers Sophia and Harriet Lee opened in Bath in 1781. This seems unlikely given that she was already 17 when the school opened. However, there is certainly evidence that Radcliffe was acquainted with the Lee sisters, most likely on a social basis, and that the greatest influence they had on her life was through the books they published, particularly Sophia Lee's The Recess (1785) which represented an important point in the development of the novel with its blend of what Aline Grant terms "history, sentiment, suspense and sensibility," a combination of approaches never attempted before.

And yet Radcliffe's education does seem to have gone beyond mere accomplishments. It was certainly not a masculine, classical education for the account of her life in the Annual Biography and Obituary recalls that she "would desire to hear passages repeated from the Latin and Greek classics; requiring, at intervals, the most literal translations that could be given, with all that was possible of their idiom." Yet she was extremely widely read. The allusions in her writings show considerable familiarity with the works of the pre-Romantic English poets and with the plays and poems of Shakespeare. She uses quotations from many different sources as headings to her chapters. There is also evidence that she took much pleasure in music and was knowledgeable about art.

It seems that Radcliffe's wider education owed much to the literary and cultural circle in which some of her more wealthy relatives moved. One of this circle, and a person who had a particularly marked influence on her early development, was Thomas Bentley, a man of many interests, a liberal in politics and religion, an anti-slavery campaigner, and a close friend of the radical Joseph Priestley and a business partner of Josiah Wedgwood. Bentley had been married to Radcliffe's aunt, Hannah Oates , and after her death in 1756, another of Radcliffe's aunts agreed to act as his housekeeper. For 16 years, until he remarried in 1772, Elizabeth Oates kept house for Bentley and even after his second marriage spent considerable time at his substantial home with its fine gardens in Little Cheyne Row, Chelsea. According to Grant, she was "a kindly, well-disposed, intelligent woman," who frequently invited her niece to spend time with them. Wedgwood's biographer, Eliza Meteyard , records that Bentley was a popular man who counted among his friends many prominent people in the literary and scientific world and, although she was still very young at the time, Radcliffe would have been introduced to a stimulating and intellectual group of people which included several forceful women—a friend of Dr. Johnson, Hester Thrale (Hester Lynch Piozzi ), who became a well-known travel writer, historian and critic, the bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu who produced, among other works, an Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare, and Anna Letitia Barbauld , classical scholar, editor, poet and essayist.

Bentley died in 1780 when Radcliffe was 16. From then until her marriage seven years later, she appears to have spent most of her time in Bath. It was there that she met William Radcliffe, an Oxford graduate and law student. She was married from her parents' home but, soon after, the couple left Bath to set up house in London where William Radcliffe, who had quickly tired of the law, began a career as a journalist and as part-editor of the English Chronicle. He also undertook translations from French.

It was her marriage to William that seems to have established Radcliffe's career as a novelist. As was then the practice of many similar young women, she had already begun to record in her journal vivid accounts of the places and scenery she saw as she traveled between Bath and London. William seems to have been impressed with her literary skill and, when she started to write regularly to fill the long winter evenings while he was away on editorial business or preparing reports on parliamentary debates in the House of Commons, he encouraged her enthusiastically.

Her first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, appeared within two years of their marriage. Although not a runaway success, it was sufficiently well received for her publisher to ask for a second. Within a year, she had finished A Sicilian Romance and only a year later The Romance of the Forest. These first three novels were published anonymously but so successful was The Romance of the Forest that when the second edition was issued Radcliffe was happy for her name to appear on the title page. Her fourth novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794, set the seal on her reputation, not only in Britain, but also in Europe. By then, she was indisputably the most popular writer of her day.

She was far and away the best-selling English novelist of the 1790s; the most read, the most imitated, and the most translated.

—Robert Miles

That same year, Radcliffe took time off from her novel-writing to accompany her husband on a tour through Holland and Germany to Switzerland. They visited Rotterdam, Delft, and other major towns in Holland and were much impressed with Dutch standards of cleanliness. Germany, however, presented a very different picture. They were soon being accosted by barefooted children who ran out to beg; the land lay uncultivated and signs of recent fighting were much in evidence. As they traveled, they came across bands of wounded soldiers and of wretched French prisoners of war. In many places, they were received with rudeness and sullenness. Nevertheless, their visit to Germany did have some high points, particularly their stay in the beautiful spa town of "Goodesberg" (Bad Godesberg). However, they never made it to Switzerland—the Austrian commander of the garrison at the border post refused to accept that they were English and turned them back. They returned to England and made a tour of the Lake District instead.

Radcliffe may have temporarily abandoned her novel-writing but throughout their journey she made copious notes in her journal and on their return was persuaded to publish an account of their travels. A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794, a mainly descriptive work, appeared the following year. Two years later, The Italian, arguably the most satisfactory of her novels, was published.

And then, after the appearance of six books in eight years, at the age of 33, Radcliffe suddenly stopped publishing. A slim volume of poems appeared in 1816, but her last novel, Gaston de Blondeville, was not published until three years after her death. There has been considerable discussion as to why she should have ceased to write for publication. One suggested explanation is that she was upset by adverse comments about The Italian. She certainly seems to have been highly sensitive to criticism. For example, she is reputed to have completely misinterpreted a seemingly innocent remark about her in a letter written by the bluestocking Elizabeth Carter and to have been extremely upset when Joanna Baillie 's very successful Plays on the Passions was wrongly attributed to her by the writer Anna Seward . However, although some reviewers had compared The Italian unfavorably to The Mysteries of Udolpho, there was much critical acclaim and her preeminence as a writer of fiction was never questioned. The only really hostile review did not appear until four years later. A more plausible explanation was that her great success was beginning to engender a number of second-rate imitations of her work, the most notorious being Matthew Lewis' The Monk (1796), and that she was no longer happy to be associated with this genre of writing. Most likely, though, it was the receipt of a sudden legacy which gave her and her husband greater financial stability and enabled her to give up writing for monetary reward.

Unlike some other women writers of her day, Radcliffe never seemed to have difficulty in reconciling her gender and her success as a writer. Others appear to have been assailed by ambivalent feelings towards the status of women as writers. Although by the 1790s women were more widely accepted as literary figures than 50 years earlier, their works, especially their fictional writings, were frequently treated with indulgence and disparagement by male critics, this despite the fact that it has been estimated that women wrote between two-thirds and three-quarters of the novels published between 1760 and 1790. Equally, although many women argued that women should be allowed greater economic independence, they frequently expressed concern that they should have to demean themselves by writing for money. Charlotte Smith —who came from a family of landed gentry but was forced to write to support her large family when she finally left her husband after putting up with his profligacy, unfaithfulness, and violence for 27 years—was very bitter because she considered that a woman of her class ought not to be reduced to writing novels for a living. Smith admittedly came from a higher social class than Radcliffe but Elizabeth Inchbald , the daughter of a poor farmer, also stresses in the preface to her novel A Simple Story (1791) that she did not choose to be a writer. She justified her career as a novelist on the grounds that it was financial necessity that had obliged her "to devote a tedious seven years to the unremitting labour of literary productions."

Radcliffe never, as far as is known, made any apology for publishing her novels. However, it is possible that her husband's insistence that she wrote with his blessing and the apparently deliberate policy of keeping her from the public eye may have represented an attempt at legitimation. Certainly in the early days of their marriage Radcliffe's earnings, which were not insignificant, would have made a welcome contribution to the family finances. She is said to have received the handsome sum of £500 for The Mysteries of Udolpho and £600 for The Italian. (Jane Austen , admittedly unknown at the time, received only ten guineas for Northanger Abbey 20 years later.) Radcliffe's husband seems not to have been a good financial manager and on several occasions ran into debt. In the summer of 1797, Radcliffe received news that her aunt Elizabeth had died, leaving her money, books, and plate. Less than a year later, her father also died and she found herself with a life interest in the rents of a house and land a few miles outside Leicester, his hometown. To this was added considerable property which came to her after the death of her mother in 1800. It is Miles' contention that it was these financial inheritances that "allowed her to quit the embarrassing environs of the romance-writer's Grub Street, where few proper ladies were to be found." It was certainly shortly after her aunt's death that William Radcliffe was able to buy the English Chronicle for £1,000. Perhaps, though, Radcliffe merely ceased publishing because her husband was becoming more established in his career and was able to spend more time at home with her.

During the rest of her life Radcliffe continued to write poetry and completed the historical romance Gaston de Blondeville, which was published along with some of her poems and extracts from her journals in 1826. Gaston was prefaced with a memoir of Radcliffe by the writer Thomas Noon Talfourd, this being the only other authoritative source about her life that appears to exist besides the account in the Annual Biography and Obituary of 1824. Talfourd was no doubt briefed by William Radcliffe. Also attached was a statement by the family physician. Radcliffe's failure to publish any further novels, and her quiet, almost secluded, lifestyle in the later years of her life, had attracted considerable comment. Stories circulated that she was suffering from a disoriented state of mind brought on by the excesses of her imagination; that she had been confined in Haddon Hall in Derbyshire (believed, erroneously, to have been the prison of the hapless Mary Stuart , queen of Scots, who lost her head during the reign of Elizabeth I ); that she had died an early and unhappy death. While such rumors marry fittingly with the substance of Radcliffe's novels, they were untrue. For a number of years, though, Radcliffe did suffer increasingly from attacks of asthma and from recurring chest infections. It is said, for instance, in the memoir appended to Gaston de Blondeville, that the Radcliffes, keen theatergoers, always sat in the pit, "partly because her health required warm clothing."

In the autumn of 1822, Radcliffe and her husband visited the resort of Ramsgate in the hopes that the sea air would give her some relief from a painful cough and difficult breathing. Although she gained a brief respite, on January 9, 1823, she began to suffer again and died peacefully in her sleep less than a month later. Her physician's statement records that she remained clear-minded until only a few days before her death. She was buried in London in the cemetery on the Bayswater Road which belongs to St. George's Church, Hanover Square.

Radcliffe's novels remained highly popular until well into the 19th century. Several were dramatized, and editions in French, German, Spanish, and Italian cited in the British Library catalogue are evidence that she was read across Europe. The most successful, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, ran into a number of subsequent editions and all those which were published in her lifetime have been reprinted in recent years. The account of her journey to Holland and Germany and her posthumous novel, Gaston de Blondeville, are available in facsimile editions. Care must be taken, though, not to confuse Radcliffe with three other women writers of the period. Wrongly attributed to her in some past editions of her novels has been the feminist polemic The Female Advocate; or, An Attempt to Recover the Rights of Women fromMale Usurpation (1799). This was the work of an older woman, Mary Ann Radcliffe. The British Library catalogue also lists works from the same period by Ann Sophia Radcliffe. Again, these should not be attributed to Ann Radcliffe.

Radcliffe was writing at the end of a century during which women writers had become increasingly numerous and prolific, and the female reading public had grown rapidly. Of all these women writers, Radcliffe was probably the most widely read. Indeed, E.B. Murray goes as far as to suggest that she enjoyed a popularity which no novelist before her—male or female—had ever experienced. Later well-known writers—Walter Scott, Jane Austen and, subsequently, Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters—acknowledged their debt to Radcliffe in the many allusions to her works that can be found in their letters and novels. Although Radcliffe may not herself have been their equal, it is impossible to deny the definite and important contribution to the development of the novel that she made and the considerable critical acclaim she received both during her lifetime and after her death.


Grant, Aline. Ann Radcliffe: A Biography. Denver, CO: Alan Swallow, 1951.

McIntyre, Clara. Ann Radcliffe in Relation to Her Time. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1920.

Miles, Robert. Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Murray, E.B. Ann Radcliffe. NY: Twayne, 1972.

Talfourd, T.N. "Memoir of the Author" and "Extracts from her Journals" prefaced to Ann Radcliffe's Gaston de Blondeville, or The Court of Henry III: Keeping Festival in Ardenne, A Romance. Vol. 1. London: Henry Colbourn, 1826.

suggested reading:

Frank, F.S. The First Gothics: A Critical Guide to the English Gothic Novel. NY: Garland, 1987.

Kelly, G. English Fiction of the Romantic Period, 1789–1830. London and NY: Longman, 1989.

Spencer, Jane. The Rise of the Woman Novelist From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Stoler, J.A. Ann Radcliffe: The Novel of Suspense and Terror. NY: Arno Press, 1980.

Sylvia Dunkley , Tutor in History at the Department of Adult Continuing Education, University of Sheffield, England, with gratitude to Robert Miles of Sheffield Hallam University for allowing access to a pre-publication copy of his Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress

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Radcliffe, Ann (1764–1823)

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