Ann Radcliffe Long Fiction Analysis
The novels of Ann Radcliffe serve as a transition between the major English novelists of the eighteenth century and the first accomplished novelists of the nineteenth century. In the years between 1789 and 1797, her five novels established a style that profoundly affected English fiction for the next twenty-five years and had a considerable impact in translation as well. From the negligible first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, to the sophisticated romances, The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, Radcliffe demonstrated an ability to enrich the motives, methods, and machineries of each succeeding work. Manipulating theconventions of the gothic while introducing new thematic concerns and experiments withnarrative techniques, Radcliffe became a master of her craft.
Improved control over the complex atmosphere of the gothic romance proved an early factor in Radcliffe’s success. She went beyond the traditional gothic devices of lurking ghosts and malevolent noblemen torturing innocent girls to an interest in natural description. This delight with nature’s sublime scenery gave tone and color to her settings while emphasizing the heightened emotions and imagination that were produced in reaction to the landscape. A skillful use of numerous atmospheric factors such as sunsets, storms, winds, thunderclaps, and moonlight, intensified the romantic tendencies of her time.
A scene typifying the Radcliffe concept of landscape portraiture has a ruined castle in silhouette, arranged on a stern but majestic plain at nightfall. This view does not depend on precision of outline for effect but instead on an ominous vagueness, creating in the reader an odd mixture of pleasure and fear. Her delight in the architecture of massive proportions and in the picturesque derived in part from her reading of the nature poets and her study of the paintings of Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin, and Salvator Rosa. She reflected a mid-eighteenth century English passion in cultivating an acute sensibility for discovering beauty where before it had not been perceived. While she made landscape in fiction a convention, it was her combining of beauty in horror and the horrible in the beautiful that reflected the Romantic shift away from order and reason toward emotion and imagination.
Radcliffe’s novels rely not only on strategies of terror but also on the psychology of feelings. The novels of sensibility of the past generation offered her alternatives to the gothic trappings made familiar in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto; those gothic aspects now became linked to various emotional elements in a total effect. By drawing on the poetry of Thomas Gray and Edward Young or the fiction of Oliver Goldsmith and Henry Mackenzie, Radcliffe created a minority of characters with complex natures who exhibited not only melancholy and doubt, love and joy, but also hate and evil intentions. She was one of the first English novelists to subject her characters to psychological analysis.
Of particular psychological interest are Radcliffe’s villains. Cruel, calculating, domineering, relentless, and selfish, they are more compelling than her virtuous characters. Since their passions are alien to the ordinary person, she dramatically explores the mysteries of their sinister attitudes. Radcliffe’s villains resemble those created by the Elizabethan dramatists, and their descendants can be found in the works of the great Romantics, Byron and Shelley.
At her best, Radcliffe manifested strengths not seen in her first two novels nor in her last. Her first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, exhibits the most obvious borrowings, from sources as well known as The Castle of Otranto to numerous other gothic-historical and sentimental novels. Though immature, the work offers her characteristic sense of atmosphere with the marvelous dangers and mysteries of feudal Scotland depicted to full advantage. Its weaknesses become evident all too soon, however, as stock characters populate strained, often confused incidents while mouthing rather obvious parables about morality. Didacticism seems the motivating principle of the work. As David Durant observes in Ann Radcliffe’s Novels (1980), “The characters are so controlled by didactic interests as to be faceless and without personality.” The rigid obligations of The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne to the morality of sentimental novels, the uniformity of a neoclassical prose style, and the repetitious, predictable action of the romance plot, trap Radcliffe into a mechanical performance.
A Sicilian Romance
Radcliffe’s second novel, A Sicilian Romance, has a new strategy, an emphasis on action and adventure while subordinating moral concerns. This approach, however, was not effective because of the obvious imbalance between the two methods, and characterization suffered before a mass of incident. The interest in fear was expanded throughout the tale as a long-suffering wife, imprisoned in the remote sections of a huge castle by a villainous nobleman (who has an attachment to a beautiful paramour), struggles helplessly until rescued, after much suspense, by her gentle daughter and the young girl’s lover. The characters’ shallowness is hidden by a chase sequence of overwhelming speed that prevents one from noticing their deficiencies. To dramatize the movement of plot, Radcliffe introduced numerous settings, offering the reader a complete vision of the Romantic landscape.
Though A Sicilian Romance lacks the sureness of technique of the later novels and remains a lesser product, it did establish Radcliffe’s ingenuity and perseverance. It was followed by the three novels on which her reputation rests: The Romance of the Forest, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and The Italian. Radcliffe’s last novel, the posthumous Gaston de Blondeville, which was probably never meant for publication, exhibits the worst faults of the two earliest romances. Lifeless characters abound in a narrative overloaded with tedious historical facts and devoid of any action. In reconstructing history, Radcliffe was influenced by Scott but clearly was out of her element in attempting to make history conform to her own preconceptions. The primary innovation was the introduction of a real ghost to the love story. This...
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