Ann Radcliffe (born Ward, 9 July 1764 – 7 February 1823) was an English author and pioneer of the Gothic novel. Radcliffe's technique of explaining the apparently supernatural elements in her novels has been credited with enabling Gothic fiction to achieve respectability in the 1790s.
Radcliffe was born Ann Ward in Holborn, London, on 9 July 1764. Her father was William Ward (1737–1798), a haberdasher, who moved the family to Bath to manage a china shop in 1772. Her mother was Ann Oates (1726–1800) of Chesterfield. Radcliffe occasionally lived with her Uncle, Thomas Bentley, in Chelsea, who was in partnership with a fellow Unitarian, Josiah Wedgwood, maker of the famous Wedgwood china. Sukey, Wedgwood's daughter, also stayed in Chelsea and is Radcliffe's only known childhood companion. Sukey later married Dr Robert Darwin and had a son, Charles Darwin. Although mixing in some distinguished circles, Radcliffe seems to have made little impression in this society and was described by Wedgwood as "Bentley's shy niece".
In 1787, she married the Oxford graduate and journalist William Radcliffe (1763–1830), part-owner and editor of the English Chronicle. He often came home late, and to occupy her time she began to write and to read her work to him when he returned. Theirs was a childless but seemingly happy marriage. Radcliffe called him her "nearest relative and friend". The money she earned from her novels later allowed them to travel together, along with their dog, Chance. In her final years, Radcliffe retreated from public life and was rumoured to have become insane as a result of her writing.
Ann died on 7 February 1823 and was buried in a vault in the Chapel of Ease at St George's, Hanover Square, London. Although she had suffered from asthma for twelve years previously, her modern biographer, Rictor Norton, cites the description given by her physician, Dr Scudamore, of how "a new inflammation seized the membranes of the brain," which led to "violent symptoms" and argues that they suggest a "bronchial infection, leading to pneumonia, high fever, delirium and death."
There are few artefacts or manuscripts that give insight into Radcliffe's personal life, but in 2014 a rare letter from Radcliffe to her mother-in-law was found in an archive at the British Library. Its tone suggests a strained relationship between the two, similar to the one between Ellena Rosalba and the Marchesa di Vivaldi in her novel The Italian.
Little is known of Ann Radcliffe's life. In 1823, the year of her death, the Edinburgh Review said, "She never appeared in public, nor mingled in private society, but kept herself apart, like the sweet bird that sings its solitary notes, shrouded and unseen." Christina Rossetti attempted to write a biography of her, but abandoned it for lack of information.
According to Ruth Facer, "Physically, she was said to be 'exquisitely proportioned' – quite short, complexion beautiful – 'as was her whole countenance, especially her eyes, eyebrows and mouth.'"
Radcliffe published five novels during her lifetime, which she always referred to as "romances"; a final novel, Gaston de Blondeville was published posthumously in 1826. She also published a travel narrative of her European travels, A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794, through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany, in 1795. At a time when the average amount earned by an author for a manuscript was £10, her publishers, G. G. and J. Robinson, bought the copyright for The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) for £500, while Cadell and Davies paid £800 for The Italian (1797), making Radcliffe the highest-paid professional writer of the 1790s.
Jane Austen parodied The Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey. Radcliffe did not like the direction in which Gothic literature was heading – one of her later novels, The Italian, was written in response to Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Monk. Radcliffe portrayed her female characters as equal to male characters, allowing them to dominate and overtake the typically powerful male villains and heroes, creating new roles for women in literature previously not available. It is assumed that this frustration is what caused Radcliffe to cease writing. After Radcliffe's death, her husband released her unfinished essay "On the Supernatural in Poetry", which details the difference between the sensation of terror her works aimed to achieve and the horror Lewis sought to evoke. Radcliffe stated that terror aims to stimulate readers through imagination and perceived evils while horror closes them off through fear and physical dangers. "Terror and Horror are so far opposite, 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's fiction is marked by seemingly supernatural events that are then provided with rational explanations. Some modern critics have been frustrated by her work, as she fails to include "real ghosts". This could be motivated by the idea that works in the Romantic period, from the late 18th century to the mid-19th century, had to undermine Enlightenment values such as rationalism and realism. Throughout her work, traditional moral values are asserted, the rights of women are advocated, and reason prevails.
Accusations of Anti-Catholicism
Ann Radcliffe's works are traditionally regarded as anti-Catholic. She was seen as one of the Gothic authors that brought this prejudice more into the public eye of Anglican England. Her works, especially The Italian, often have Catholic ideas presented in a negative light, including prejudices in the Inquisition, negative depictions of convents and nuns, monks as villains, and ruined abbeys. The confessional is often portrayed as a danger zone controlled by the power of the priest and the church. The Italian and The Mysteries of Udolpho are both set in Italy, a land historically predisposed towards Catholicism and against Protestantism. Radcliffe's works would have left her contemporary readers with an impression of Catholicism as something ultimately cruel and corrupt, and therefore alienated against the denomination and its practitioners.
This connection to anti-Catholicism has been suggested to be at least partially in response to the Catholic Relief Act of 1791, allowing Catholics to practice law, open Catholic schools, and exercise their religion.
Some think she was ultimately ambivalent toward Catholicism and more of an Latitudinarian Anglican, or even Unitarian.
Radcliffe's elaborate descriptions of landscape were influenced by the painters Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa. She often wrote about places she had never visited. Lorrain's influence can be seen through Radcliffe's picturesque, romantic descriptions, as seen in the first volume of The Mysteries of Udolpho. Rosa's influence can be seen through dark landscapes and elements of the Gothic.
Radcliffe said of Lorrain:
In a shaded corner, near the chimney, a most exquisite Claude, an evening view, perhaps over the Campagna of Rome. The sight of this picture imparted much of the luxurious repose and satisfaction, which we derive from contemplating the finest scenes of nature. Here was the poet, as well as the painter, touching the imagination, and making you see more than the picture contained. You saw the real light of the sun, you breathed the air of the country, you felt all the circumstances of a luxurious climate on the most serene and beautiful landscape; and the mind thus softened, you almost fancied you hear Italian music in the air.
- The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1 vol.) 1789
- A Sicilian Romance (2 vols) 1790
- The Romance of the Forest (3 vols) 1791
- The Mysteries of Udolpho (4 vols) 1794
- The Italian (3 vols) 1797
- Gaston de Blondeville (4 vols) 1826
Influence on later writers
Radcliffe influenced many later authors, including the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814), Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), and Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), and many lesser imitators of the "Radcliffe School", such as Harriet Lee and Catherine Cuthbertson. For example, Scott interspersed his work with poems in a similar manner to Radcliffe, and one assessment of her reads, "Scott himself said that her prose was poetry and her poetry was prose. She was, indeed, a prose poet, in both the best and the worst senses of the phrase. The romantic landscape, the background, is the best thing in all her books; the characters are two dimensional, the plots far fetched and improbable, with 'elaboration of means and futility of result.'"
As a child the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky was deeply impressed by Radcliffe. In Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863) he writes, "I used to spend the long winter hours before bed listening (for I could not yet read), agape with ecstasy and terror, as my parents read aloud to me from the novels of Ann Radcliffe. Then I would rave deliriously about them in my sleep." A number of scholars have noted elements of Gothic literature in Dostoyevsky's novels, and some have attempted to show direct influence of Radcliffe's work.
Jane Austen's parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey is frequently mentioned. Scholars have also noted a number of other apparent allusions to Radcliffe's novels and life in Austen's work.
Honoré de Balzac's novel of the supernatural L'Héritière de Birague (1822) follows the tradition of Radcliffe's style and parodies it.