Ann Radcliffe Critical Essays

Ann Ward

Ann Radcliffe Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The novel was a young genre, not yet a century old, when Ann Radcliffe began writing. She modified both its structure and its themes and established the gothic novel (the novel with a quasi-medieval setting) as a popular form. The first gothic novel, Hugh Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), had fused medieval chivalry and the ghost story, creating a fast-paced, incredible tale that drips with blood as it piles shock on shock. In Radcliffe’s more leisurely novels, which blend the gothic with the sentimental, the psychological effects of incidents take precedence over action. Her own distinctive version of the gothic novel, moralistic and rationalist, requires that sensitive heroines show their worth by their behavior during suspenseful ordeals whose mysteries prove to be rationally explicable. Radcliffe considerably developed the principle of suspense, adapting the techniques of drama to fiction more completely than had yet been achieved in the novel. Moreover, a precursor to the Romantics, she laced her prose with poetry, her own and others’, and she transformed the natural landscape into an appropriate setting for her tales.

The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne

In Radcliffe’s first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), an unsuccessful, amateurishly plotted tale centered on a hero in the sixteenth century Scottish Highlands, she had not yet found her distinctive style, though she had found her favorite, if not invariable, time setting: the sixteenth century. More important, the book’s conclusion, exalting the eventual triumph of virtue in a universe ruled by divine goodness, anticipated the characteristic moral tone of her mature fiction. In the typical Radcliffe novel, a beautiful but solitary and eminently virtuous maiden undergoes persecutions amid picturesque and usually gothic surroundings, whether castle, abbey, or convent. Each time this heroine is about to reach safety, she is thrust back into danger by new ordeals. Finally, wiser for her experiences, she is rescued and marries the man she loves.

Not only does virtue, like love, triumph, but reason does as well. In the final pages of the novel, mysteries are solved—though many have already resolved themselves along the way. As one critic has aptly remarked, the appeal of Radcliffe’s books isnot intellectual but emotional. The reader is not invited to unpick a knot, but to enjoy the emotion of mystery; the knot, indeed, is not unpicked at all; at the appointed hour an incantation is breathed over it, and it dissolves.

Gaston de Blondeville

Only in Radcliffe’s posthumously published Gaston de Blondeville (1826) does an unexplained knightly ghost, returned to bring his murderer to justice, form the pivot of the plot. With its twelfth century setting, this story is told as a medieval legend rather than as a gothic fiction of supernatural terror and suspense.

A Sicilian Romance

A Sicilian Romance (1790), the first of the novels written in her characteristic mode, illustrates Radcliffe’s typical plotline. The heroine, Julia, kept secluded in a castle where mysterious lights are seen in a deserted wing, is burdened with not only a licentious stepmother but also a tyrannical marquess of a father. The marquess proposes to marry her to an evil duke instead of to her beloved. Persuaded by her brother Ferdinand and her lover Hippolitus to flee, after a desperate midnight flight through secret, underground chambers, Julia is overtaken and imprisoned; she manages to flee again to a nunnery, which the marquess besieges. In the ensuing complications, Ferdinand and Hippolitus rescue and re-rescue Julia. Finally, Julia finds her mother, supposedly dead but in fact imprisoned by her father, in a subterranean dungeon (hence the apparently supernatural lights). When her stepmother poisons the marquess and commits suicide, Julia and Hippolitus finally wed.

Radcliffe’s plotting would become more polished in later novels, inviting a readier suspension of disbelief. Even in this early novel, however, emphasis falls not on events but on their effects on characters, on the psychological torments created, especially the fear of what may happen next. Having discovered certain valuable techniques, she would perfect them in subsequent novels.

Characteristically, Radcliffe arouses fear by making use of suggestion: the sound of haunting music on the midnight air, a vanishing light, the shadow of a figure, a pregnant sigh, and the like. Night, desolation, and gloom proliferate. Versed in the aesthetic theories of her time, such as Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), she assumes that terror, not horror, expands the soul toward the sublime, and she combines terror with beauty. This combination is achieved partly through...

(The entire section is 2008 words.)