Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 920
Ann Radcliffe was born Ann Ward on July 9, 1764, in Holborn, a borough of central London, the only child of William Ward and Ann Oates Ward. Her father was a successful haberdasher who provided the family with a comfortable life, allowing Radcliffe access to a well-stocked library and the time to read the works of every important English author, as well as numerous popular romances.
This quiet, sheltered existence was enlivened by the visits of Radcliffe’s wealthy and learned uncle, Thomas Bentley, who was the partner of Josiah Wedgwood, the potter. Bentley’s London home was a center for the literati; there, among others, the pretty but shy girl met Hester L. Thrale Piozzi, the friend and biographer of Samuel Johnson; Elizabeth Montagu, “Queen of the Blue-Stocking Club”; and “Athenian” Stuart.
In 1772, Radcliffe joined her parents at Bath, where her father had opened a shop for the firm of Wedgwood and Bentley. She remained sequestered in this resort until her marriage to the young Oxford graduate, William Radcliffe, in 1788. William had first decided to become a law student at one of the Inns of Court but abandoned this for a career in journalism. The couple moved to London soon thereafter, where William subsequently became proprietor and editor of the English Chronicle. The marriage was happy but childless, and the couple’s circle of friends were primarily literary, which added encouragement to William’s argument that his wife should begin to write.
With her husband away on editorial business, Radcliffe spent the evenings writing without interruption. Her first book, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, was unremarkable, but her next two novels established her reputation as a master of suspense and the supernatural. A Sicilian Romance and The Romance of the Forest attracted the public’s voracious appetite for romances. Both works were translated into French and Italian, and numerous editions were published, as well as a dramatization of The Romance of the Forest, performed in 1794. Radcliffe’s success culminated in the appearance of The Mysteries of Udolpho; her decision to rely less on external action and more on psychological conflict produced ecstatic reviews. The excitement created by the book threatened the relative solitude of the Radcliffes, but the publisher’s unusually high offer of five hundred pounds freed them to travel extensively on the Continent.
In the summer of 1794, the Radcliffes journeyed through Holland and along the Rhine River to the Swiss frontier. On returning to England, they proceeded north to the Lake District. While traveling, Radcliffe took complete notes concerning the picturesque landscape and included detailed political and economic accounts of the Low Countries and the Rhineland. These latter observations were probably contributed by her husband, though both Radcliffes found the devastation of the Napoleonic Wars appalling. A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 Through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany appeared in 1795.
Radcliffe’s interest in the human misery of these regions and the legends and superstitions of the great fortresses and Roman Catholic churches of the Rhineland suggested her next work, The Italian: Or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents. As a romance of the Inquisition, it explored character motivation in great detail, while action became a method of dramatizing personalities and not a simple vehicle for movement from one adventure to another. The Italian, though not as popular as The Mysteries of Udolpho, was translated immediately into French and even badly dramatized at the Haymarket on August 15, 1797.
At the age of thirty-three, Radcliffe was at the height of her popularity; though she had never decided on writing as a potential source of income, her means by this time had become quite ample. With the deaths of her parents between 1798 and 1799, she found herself independently wealthy. Whether it was because of her secure financial condition or her displeasure with the cheap imitations of her novels, Radcliffe withdrew from the public domain and refrained from publishing any more works in her lifetime. Innumerable reports surfaced that she was suffering from a terminal illness, that the terrors of which she had written in her novels had driven her mad, or that she had mysteriously died. These reports were without substance; in fact, she wrote another novel, a metrical romance, and an extensive diary.
After her death, Radcliffe’s husband found among her papers a novel, Gaston de Blondeville, which he arranged to have published. Written after Radcliffe’s visit to the ruins of Kenilworth Castle in 1802, it came near to comparing with the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott but lost itself in a preoccupation with historical precision, leaving action and character to suffer from a lack of emphasis. The narrative poem, St. Alban’s Abbey, appeared posthumously with this last novel; though Radcliffe had been offered an early opportunity for publication, she broke off negotiations with the publisher.
Content with retirement and relative obscurity, Radcliffe wrote in her last years only diary entries concerning the places she and her husband had visited on their long journeys through the English countryside. From 1813 to 1816, she lived near Windsor and probably at this time began suffering from bouts of asthma. From all reports, she enjoyed the company of friends, maintained a ready wit and a sly humor, but insisted on delicacy and decorum in all things. Shortly before her final illness, she returned to London; she died there on February 7, 1823, in her sixtieth year. The “Udolpho woman” or “the Shakespeare of romance writers,” as one contemporary reviewer called her, has achieved a secure place in the history of English literature.