Study Guide

Ann Radcliffe

by Ann Ward

Ann Radcliffe Essay - Radcliffe, Ann (1764 - 1823)

Radcliffe, Ann (1764 - 1823)


ANN RADCLIFFE (1764 - 1823)

(Born Ann Ward) English novelist, poet, and journal writer.

Considered one of the most important writers of the English Gothic tradition, Radcliffe transformed the Gothic novel from a mere vehicle for the depiction of terror into an instrument for exploring the psychology of fear and suspense. Her emphasis on emotion, perception, and the relationship between atmosphere and sensibility helped pave the way for the Romantic movement in England. Radcliffe's best-known novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), ranks as one of the chief exemplars of the Gothic genre.


Radcliffe was born in London. A shy child afflicted with asthma, she read widely. Though she was given private instruction in the classics, literature, painting, and drawing, Radcliffe received little encouragement from her parents to continue her studies. As a young woman, Radcliffe associated with the "bluestockings" Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Hester Lynch Piozzi, who, biographers believe, provided her with inspiration and intellectual stimulation. In 1787 she married William Radcliffe, later the editor of the English Chronicle, who recognized her talent and encouraged her to begin writing novels.

Although Radcliffe was the most popular English novelist of her generation, she managed to avoid publicity almost entirely. In fact, when Christina Rossetti attempted to write a biography of Radcliffe in 1883, she was forced to abandon the project because of the lack of available information. For unknown reasons Radcliffe withdrew entirely from public life in 1817 at the peak of her fame. Her absence triggered a series of rumors, the most widespread being that she had suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by the terrors described in her own works. Sir Walter Scott speculated that she stopped writing because she abhorred the manner in which her imitators had cheapened and sentimentalized the Gothic novel. Obituaries appeared in newspapers on the supposition that Radcliffe had died. Also in circulation were legends that Radcliffe had died in an insane asylum and that her ghost returned to haunt her imitators.


Radcliffe's first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne: A Highland Story (1789), made a negligible impression upon readers and reviewers alike. A historical romance set in Scotland, the novel abounds in the picturesque description and dark atmosphere that was to become Radcliffe's trademark. Yet it was criticized for its abundance of anachronisms, especially imposing upon feudal heroines a distinctively nineteenth-century sensibility. A Sicilian Romance (1790), Radcliffe's next work, established her reputation as the preeminent Gothic novelist. Here the distinctive features of Radcliffe's style emerge more fully: the use of landscape to create a mood of terror, mystery, and suspense, intricacy of plot, a lyrical prose style, and a focus on individual psychology. The Romance of the Forest (1791), and The Mysteries of Udolpho, her first signed work, strengthened her popularity and made her a best-selling author in England, the United States, and Europe. The Mysteries of Udolpho contains all of the classic Gothic elements, including a haunted castle, a troubled heroine, a mysterious and menacing male figure, and hidden secrets of the past. The most prominent theme in Udolpho is the triumph of virtue over villainy: a characteristic of all the novels by Radcliffe, who was a devout Christian. Montoni, who squanders his fortunes and turns to illegal and deadly means to win them back, is eventually imprisoned, while Emily, though she endures many trying adventures, maintains her moral principles and eventually finds happiness. Related to this theme is the importance of balance and moderation, which Emily's father teaches her. It is when Emily allows herself to go to emotional extremes, becoming imbalanced, that she suffers most. Also present in the story is Emily's search for truth and need to uncover the secrets at Udolpho and the Villeroi chateau. Another theme is the inescapable past. Many of the characters are haunted by their past, as Emily is; although the mysteries of Udolpho are eventually resolved, there is still a sense of an inescapable haunting that follows the characters. A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany (1795) details Radcliffe's first trip outside of England. The Italian; or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents (1797), a Gothic mystery which is considered by some to be Radcliffe's best novel, traces the machinations of the monk Schedoni, who became a prototypical Gothic hero—brooding, mysterious, and fascinating.


Critics have speculated on the various influences upon Radcliffe's style, noting the similarities between her landscapes and the paintings of the Neapolitan painter and poet Salvator Rosa and the French landscape painter Claude Lorrain. Critics also note that her linking of terror and beauty corresponds with Edmund Burke's philosophy of the sublime and that her poetry resembles that of William Collins, James Thomson, Thomas Gray, and James Macpherson. In addition, Radcliffe's motif of the heroine in distress indicates a knowledge of sentimental novelists such as Charlotte Smith, although her works most often appear to be modeled upon the works of Horace Walpole. The primary distinguishing feature of Radcliffe's style is her explained endings. After elaborately setting up a mystery, planting the seeds of supernatural agency, and piquing the reader's curiosity, Radcliffe invariably resolves her plots in a rational and orderly way, providing reasoned explanations for seemingly supernatural events. Whether they praise or criticize her for this practice, critics cite this as Radcliffe's distinctive contribution to the development of the English novel.

The Mysteries of Udolpho was both an extremely popular and critically acclaimed novel when it was first published and for many years after. Readers enjoyed Radcliffe's gift for description and her deftness at building dramatic tension throughout the story. She was acknowledged by critics of her time as the queen of the Gothic novel, and she was also considered a pioneer of the Romantic movement. With her popularity, however, also came a wide array of imitators who shamelessly—and often poorly—copied her style, plots, and characters. It was because of these lesser writers that Radcliffe's works often suffered by association. Her work was sometimes satirized, too, most famously in Jane Austen's 1818 novel, Northanger Abbey.

Overall, early critical response to Radcliffe's works was mixed: while Samuel Taylor Coleridge attacked her explained endings for their inadequacy in satisfying the expectations of the reader, Sir Walter Scott called her "the first poetess of romantic fiction" for her natural descriptions. Other contemporary critics assessed her explanations as tedious, her dialogue as wooden, and her characters as flat, while some praised her brilliant rhetorical style, her examination of fear, and her affirmation of moral order at the conclusion of each novel. Thomas Noon Talfourd (see Further Reading) attributed Radcliffe's anticlimactic endings to her obedience to the conventions of the Gothic novel. He proposed that Radcliffe determined that the conventions of romance did not allow for supernatural agency, and that she therefore felt bound to explain it away. Virginia Woolf (see Further Reading) disputed Talfourd by assert-ing that Radcliffe's novels were remarkably free from convention. At the turn of the century, Walter Raleigh (see Further Reading) enlarged the popular understanding of Radcliffe by noting her role as a predecessor of the Romantic movement in England. Wylie Sypher's Marxist analysis (see Further Reading) delineated the novels' simultaneously bourgeois and anti-bourgeois tendencies, which he considered hypocritical. On the whole, Radcliffe's works received very little critical attention until the late 1950s, when Devendra P. Varma's overview of her novels again spurred curiosity about her work. The 1960s and 1970s reflected this surge of renewed interest. Critics have pursued new approaches to defining the role of description in Radcliffe's works; the extent and intent of her preoccupation with the realm of irrational behavior have been debated extensively, and recent critics have analyzed Udolpho from feminist and psychological standpoints and offer scholarly considerations of Emily's character. Udolpho has also been considered in terms of its sensual subtext and Emily's growing sense of her sexuality. In this new light, the novel has gained greater appreciation among modern literary commentators. Such writers as William Wordsworth, Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Anne and Emily Brontë, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Lord Byron (who used Schedoni as the model for the Byronic hero), admired Radcliffe's exploration of extreme emotional states and adapted her techniques in their own works. Most critics now view Radcliffe as a key figure in the Gothic tradition who freed the collective English literary imagination from conventional and rational constraints and ushered in English Romanticism.

Principal Works

The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne: A Highland Story [published anonymously] (novel) 1789
A Sicilian Romance. 2 vols. [published anonymously] (novel) 1790
The Romance of the Forest: Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry. 3 vols. [published anonymously] (novel) 1791
The Mysteries of Udolpho, A Romance; Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry. 4 vols. (novel) 1794
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 (travel essays) 1795
The Italian; or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents. A Romance. 3 vols. (novel) 1797
Gaston de Blondeville; or, The Court of Henry III. Keeping Festival in Ardenne, A Romance. St. Alban's Abbey, A Metrical Tale; With Some Poetical Pieces. To Which Is Prefixed a Memoir of the Author (novel and poetry) 1826

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Primary Sources

Ann Radcliffe (Novel Date 1794)

SOURCE: Radcliffe, Ann. "The Haunted Chamber." In Gothic Tales of Terror, Volume One: Classic Horror Stories from Great Britain, edited by Peter Haining. 1972. Reprint edition, pp. 49-67. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books Inc., 1973.

The following excerpt is from an episode of Radcliffe's novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, first published in 1794.

The Provençal Tale

There lived, in the province of Bretagne, a noble baron, famous for his magnificence and courtly hospitalities. His castle was graced with ladies of exquisite beauty, and thronged with illustrious knights; for the honour he paid to feats...

(The entire section is 3660 words.)

Ann Radcliffe (Essay Date 1826)

SOURCE: Radcliffe, Ann. "On the Supernatural in Poetry." New Monthly Magazine 16 (1826): 145-52.

In the following excerpt from a fictional conversation between two travelers, Radcliffe presents a distinction between horror and terror.

[Said W―:] "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. I apprehend, that neither Shakespeare nor Milton by their fictions, nor Mr. Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a...

(The entire section is 720 words.)