An introduction to Ann Radcliffe

Ann Radcliffe is one of the founders of Gothic fiction. Dale Townshend explores Radcliffe's works in terms of the Female Gothic and her unique distinction between terror and horror.
The ‘Shakspeare [sic] of Romance Writers; ‘the mighty magician of THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO’; ‘the first poetess of romantic fiction’; ‘a genius of no common stamp’; ‘the great enchantress of that generation’; ‘mother Radcliff [sic]’: Nathan Drake, T J Mathias, Walter Scott, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Thomas De Quincey and John Keats respectively, together with countless other essayists, reviewers and critics of the Romantic period in Britain, praised the writing of the Gothic romancer, poet and travel-writer Ann Ward Radcliffe (1764–1823) in the most superlative terms imaginable. Although Radcliffe wrote poetry, a travelogue and three other novels, her literary reputation, today, rests largely on the three Gothic romances that she published during the turbulent, post-French Revolutionary decade of 1790s: The Romance of the Forest, Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry in 1791; The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance; Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry in 1794; and The Italian: or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents in late 1796 or early 1797.

Letter from Ann Radcliffe to her mother-in-law

Letter from Ann Radcliffe to her mother-in-law

Examples of manuscripts in Ann Radcliffe's hand are rare. This undated letter was sent to Radcliffe's mother-in-law.

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Founder of a class or school

Even as critics and reviewers in the 1790s castigated Gothic fiction as the ‘trash of the circulating libraries’ – that is, as a cheap and tawdry form of popular entertainment that, in its formulaic and highly repetitive nature, fell foul of the emphasis that emergent Romantic aesthetics placed upon the category of ‘original genius’ – Radcliffe was consistently singled out an exception, as the one writer who was deservedly exempt from the general condemnation of Gothic writing in Romantic-period culture. Although Horace Walpole, while galvanising tendencies that had been present in British culture for at least two centuries before, had ostensibly ‘invented’ the Gothic literary mode in The Castle of Otranto in late 1764, it was to Radcliffe that most late 18th- and early 19th-century critics and literary historians looked as the perfector of the form, as the writer in whose works the Gothic mode in its most acceptable and pleasing of forms came most fully into being. As Walter Scott put it in 1824,

Mrs Radcliffe, as an author, has the most decided claim to take her place among the favoured few, who have been distinguished as the founders of a class, or school. She led the way in a peculiar style of composition, affecting powerfully the mind of the reader, which has since been attempted by many, but in which no one has attained or approached the excellencies of the original inventor [...].

As Scott’s assessment suggests, it was particularly Radcliffe’s deft manipulation of the experience of terror and wonder that, together with her superlative skills in the rendition of visual, almost pictorial natural landscapes, most pleased her early readers. Consequently, Radcliffe became the most highly paid professional writer of the 1790s: in an age in which the average amount earned by an author upon receipt of a manuscript was £10, her publishers, G G and J Robinson bought the copyright for The Mysteries of Udolpho for £500, while The Italian garnered from Cadell and Davies a staggering £800. She was also the most emulated, copied and plagiarised author of the period: visual tableaux taken directly from her highly descriptive prose-works provided the subject-matter for several Romantic painters; the plots of her lengthy novels were tirelessly reworked as short, often highly illustrated chapbooks with attention-grabbing titles such as The Southern Tower: or, Conjugal Sacrifice and Retribution (c. 1805) and The Midnight Assassin: Or, Confession of the Monk Rinaldi (c. 1802); and her suspense-filled fictions inspired several dramatic appropriations and retellings on London’s Gothic stage, including James Boaden’s Fontainville Forest (1794) and The Italian Monk (1797), Henry Siddons’s The Sicilian Romance: Or, the Apparition of the Cliffs (1794), Miles Peter Andrews’s The Mysteries of the Castle (1794) and George Manners’s Edgar: Or, Caledonian Feuds (1806).

The Midnight Assassin, a pirated edition of The Italian by Ann Radcliffe

The Midnight Assassin, a pirated edition of The Italian by Ann Radcliffe

Frontispiece illustration from The Midnight Assassin, one of many examples of a pirated Ann Radcliffe novel.

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Though the work of Radcliffe fell into relative obscurity from the mid-Victorian period onwards, she was resurrected as somewhat of a literary-historical ‘curiosity’ with the rise of Gothic scholarship in the early decades of the 20th century. Indeed, it was really only with the reawakened interest in the Gothic aesthetic initiated by the publication of David Punter’s The Literature of Terror in 1980 that Radcliffe and those of her school came to be regarded as a serious and legitimate object of academic enquiry. This was a moment that coincided with the interrogation of the masculine biases underpinning canonical conceptualisations of ‘Romanticism’ – William Blake; William Wordsworth; Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Percy Bysshe Shelley; John Keats; Lord Byron – that was spearheaded by Anglo-American feminist literary critics in the 1970s and 1980s. In seeking to interrogate further the cultural and academic privileging of ‘High’ Romantic poetry over the ‘popular’ horrors and terrors of the Gothic romance, more recent critical work on Radcliffe has sought to argue for the writer’s central place within literary culture of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, noting her influence on, and points of aesthetic similarity with, such seminal Romantic writers as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Walter Scott and Jane Austen.

Current scholarship within the fields of Gothic and Romantic studies tends to conceptualise and respond to the work of Radcliffe according to the following two concerns: the distinctions horror and terror, and the so-called ‘Female Gothic’.

Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful [page: 186-87]

Edmund Burke's definitions of beauty, terror and the sublime was central to the development of Ann Radcliffe's Gothic novels.

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Horror and terror

Based upon the influential distinction between horror and terror that the writer drew in her posthumously published essay ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ (1826) – ‘terror and horror are so far opposite’, her speaker declares, ‘that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them’ – Radcliffe herself has come to epitomise the writing of ‘terror’ in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, despite the fact that her fiction seems to use the two terms interchangeably. For, unlike the modes of ‘horror’ demonstrated by the ghastly, lurid excesses of a fiction such as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk: A Romance (1796), Radcliffean narratives, taking their cue from Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), are characterised by an emphasis upon psychological suspense over bodily gore, by an omnipresent sense of mystery and obscurity over the certainties of fast-paced action, and by mere hints and suggestions of ghostly activity over fully realised manifestations of the supernatural. In a fiction such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, for instance, Radcliffe, though not for the first time in her career, famously gives expression to her distinctive narrative technique of the ‘explained supernatural’, according to which several plot-based occurrences that momentarily seem, for both reader and heroine alike, to be of preternatural, other-worldly causes are eventually revealed to have rational, material origins. In Lewis’s The Monk, by contrast, supernatural beings and events, including the figure of the Bleeding Nun and even the eventual appearance of the Devil, are left very much in place at the narrative’s end. Concretising these and other differences between sensation and sensibility, horror and terror, Radcliffe would pen what was, in part, her own response to the extravagances of Lewis’s text in The Italian, the last novel that she published during her lifetime. Although Radcliffe’s use of the ‘explained supernatural’ was almost uniformly met with disapproval by several early critics – many contemporary readers, including Scott, felt disappointed, gulled and altogether cheated by Radcliffe’s tendency to dispense with spectral, ghostly terrors through the process of rational explanation – it nonetheless proved to be extremely influential among Gothic writers of the day, not least of all in Austen’s playful Gothic parody, Northanger Abbey (1818). Ever sensitive to reviews of her work, Radcliffe abandoned the technique of the explained supernatural in favour of a ‘real’ ghost in her final novel, the posthumously published Gaston de Blondeville (1826).

The Monk by Matthew Lewis

Matthew Lewis, The Monk [page: frontispiece and title page]

This frontispiece illustration and title page summary from an 1818 edition of The Monk by Matthew Lewis (first published 1796) provides a flavour of how extreme and dramatic the novel was.

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Male and Female Gothic

With the rise of Anglo-American feminist criticism in the 1970s, these distinctions between terror and horror, the explained supernatural and the unexplained supernatural, and Radcliffe and Lewis would be critically superimposed upon the differences between ‘female’ and ‘male’ Gothic respectively. Ellen Moers’s influential coining of the category of the ‘Female Gothic’ in her landmark study Literary Women in 1976 served to place the fictions of Radcliffe, alongside Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818; 1831), at the centre of this important, retrospectively named and constructed sense of literary tradition. When conceptualised according to this category, Radcliffe’s fictions, particularly A Sicilian Romance, The Romance of the Forest and The Mysteries of Udolpho, are said to epitomise the ways in which women writers, from the 18th century onwards, have made recourse to the techniques and conventions of the Gothic mode in order to explore and articulate, often to highly politicised ends, the conditions and experiences of women within patriarchy. Orphaned early on in the narrative, and subject from this moment onwards to numerous forms of objectification, abuse and physical violence in a crumbling and purportedly haunted Gothic pile, the young heroines of Radcliffe’s fictions give powerful articulation through the conventions of the Gothic to what Mary Wollstonecraft would figure in the subtitle to her own uncompleted Gothic fiction, Maria, as ‘The Wrongs of Woman’ (1798). In this way of thinking, the Gothic castle, abbey or recess – those Wollstonecraftian ‘Abodes of horror’ that, from The Castle of Otranto, onwards, have featured strongly in the Gothic imagination – becomes a powerful metaphor for women’s ‘incarceration’, both domestic and otherwise, within the institutions of patriarchy, and the aggression that the vulnerable heroine suffers at the hands of a range of malevolent male villains a codified protest on the female writer’s behalf against the sufferings of women engendered by marriage, maternity and even the fact of female embodiment itself. Perceived as a kind of ‘mother’ to this mode, then, Radcliffe stands at the origin of a feminist literary consciousness that not only influenced radical feminist writers such as Wollstonecraft in the 1790s, but also the fictions of writers such as Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Brontë and Charlotte Perkins Gilman during the 19th century, the work of Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier in the 20th century, as well the fictions of modern and contemporary North American and British writers such as Angela Carter, Ann-Marie Macdonald and Sarah Waters.

The Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho [page: vol. I frontispiece and title page]

The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe was one of the most popular and influential Gothic novels of the late 18th century.

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Illustrations to Wuthering Heights by Clare Leighton

Illustration by Clare Leighton of Heathcliff from Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Like Radcliffe's novels, Wuthering Heights has been viewed as belonging to the Female Gothic.

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Copyright: © By arrangement with the Estate of Clare Leighton

Perceptions of Ann Radcliffe today

Mistress of the Gothic mode, a crucial voice in early feminist consciousness and a writer of Gothic terror par excellence: Radcliffe and her works deservedly occupy a central place within scholarly understandings of late 18th- and early 19th-century Gothic and Romantic writing. To this day, her oeuvre continues to inspire and engage both literary critics and readers alike. Of the considerable attention that Radcliffe is currently receiving from academic critics across the world, there are a number of topics that seem particularly rich for further investigation: the politics of this notoriously elusive writer (within the furore of British politics of the 1790s, was she the conservative that several critics took her to be, or did her fictions mask a more subversive political intent?); the ecological imperative behind her writings (to what extent was Radcliffe part of a broader Romantic preoccupation with the preservation of the natural environment?); the cultural meanings informing her carefully studied use of Gothic architecture; the translation and reception of Radcliffe’s fictions in Europe, particularly Spain, Italy and France; her engagement with contemporary scientific thought; and her relationship with the travel writing and poetry of more canonical forms of British Romanticism. Regardless of the directions in which these and other scholarly interests might develop in future years, one fact remains indisputable: the writings of Radcliffe have terrified, delighted and enchanted her readers for over 200 years.
  • Dale Townshend
  • Dale Townshend is Senior Lecturer in Gothic and Romantic Literature at the University of Stirling, Scotland, and Director of the MLitt in The Gothic Imagination. He has published widely in the fields of late 18th- and early 19th-century Gothic writing. His recent publications include The Gothic World with Glennis Byron (Routledge 2014); Ann Radcliffe, Romanticism and the Gothic with Angela Wright (Cambridge University Press, 2014); and Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination (British Library, 2014), the companion volume to the British Library’s major exhibition of that name (3 October 2014–20 January 2015).

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See also

More articles on: The Gothic

More articles on: The novel 1780-1832

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