Ann (Ward) Radcliffe 1764-1823
(Born Ann Ward) English novelist, poet, and journalist.
For further information on Radcliffe's works and career, see .
Considered the most important writer of the English Gothic school, 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 to a lower-middle class family. Afflicted with asthma from childhood, she was reserved and read widely. Though her parents had given her an education that was typical for a young lady of her class in the nineteenth century, they did not encourage her to continue her studies. But as a young woman, Radcliffe associated with the bluestockings Lady Mary Wortley Montague and Hester Lynch Piozzi, who, it is believed, inspired and stimulated her intellectually. In 1787, she married William Radcliffe, later editor of the English Chronicle, who recognized her talent and encouraged her to begin writing novels. It was not many years before she became the most popular novelist of her generation in England. But Radcliffe shunned most publicity; sixty years after the novelist's death, Christina Rossetti would attempt to write her biography and would be unable to find enough information about her subject to complete it. In 1817, at the peak of her fame, Radcliffe withdrew entirely from public life. Perhaps, as Sir Walter Scott believed, she stopped writing out of disgust with tawdry and maudlin imitators who were trivializing the Gothic novel. Her own poor health, her husband's illness, and the deaths of both her parents may also have played a role; moreover, her inheritance from her parents made her financially independent, so that she no longer had to write for income. Radcliffe's virtual disappearance triggered rumors of a nervous breakdown and wild stories that she had died in an insane asylum and that her imitators were haunted by her ghost. These rumors, unchecked, eventuated in premature obituaries appearing in various newspapers.
Radcliffe's first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne: A Highland Story (1789), made no impression on readers or reviewers. Though the novel had plenty of the picturesque description and dark atmospherics that would become her trademark, it was Radcliffe's next work, A Sicilian Romance (1790), that earned her critical attention and respect. In this novel, the distinctive features of her style ripened: 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. Critics have noted that Radcliffe's linking of terror and beauty corresponds to Edmund Burke's philosophy of the sublime. Her standard motif of the heroine in distress shows an acquaintance with sentimental novelists such as Charlotte Smith, but her most direct literary precedent can be found in the Gothic writings of Horace Walpole. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Radcliffe's style is her explained endings. Once she has elaborately set up a mystery, hinting at supernatural agency and piquing the reader's curiosity, Radcliffe invariably resolves her plots in a rational and orderly way, providing reasoned explanations for ostensibly supernatural events. Not all critics have praised this feature of her style, but it is generally agreed that this is one of her major contributions to the English novel. Radcliffe's next two novels, The Romance of the Forest (1791) and The Mysteries of Udolpho, firmly established her reputation and popularity as England's preeminent Gothic novelist and as a best-selling author in the United States and Europe as well as in England. In 1797, she published The Italian; or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents, considered by some to be her best novel. Its principal villain, the monk Schedoni, is often seen as a forerunner of the Byronic hero—brooding, mysterious, and fascinating. Radcliffe's last novel, Gaston de Blondeville; or, The Court of Henry III. Keeping Festival in Ardenne (1826), was published posthumously and never enjoyed the success of her earlier novels.
Early critical response to Radcliffe's novels was mixed. Samuel Taylor Coleridge complained that her explained endings frustrated the reader's expectations; other detractors found her explanations tedious, her style wooden, and her characters flat. Sir Walter Scott, however, called Radcliffe "the first poetess of romantic fiction" for her elaborate natural descriptions, and others praised her brilliant rhetorical style, her examination of the psychology of fear, and her affirmation of the moral order in concluding each novel. Thomas Noon Talfourd argued that Radcliffe's anticlimactic endings were merely in keeping with the canons of the Gothic style, whose conventions, Radcliffe believed, excluded the genuinely supernatural. At the turn of the century, Walter Raleigh helped to enhance critical understanding of Radcliffe by pointing out her influence on the English Romantic movement. Later, Virginia Woolf disputed Talfourd, arguing that Radcliffe was remarkably free from convention.
In the 1940s Wylie Sypher introduced a radically new critical approach to Radcliffe, applying a Marxist analysis to her works and finding in them conflicting bourgeois and anti-bourgeois tendencies. Radcliffe attracted little other critical attention until the late 1950s, when D. P. Varma's overview of her novels excited a fresh curiosity about her works. Some of this new interest, on the part of such critics as Nelson C. Smith and Robert Kiely, focused on the extent and purpose of Radcliffe's preoccupation with the irrational. Feminist studies by such critics as Ellen Moers, Coral Ann Howells, and Patricia Spacks examined the psychology and sociology of Radcliffe's heroines and their specifically female consciousness. There is general agreement now that Radcliffe novels do not strictly adhere to the Gothic conventions. Radcliffe often exceeded or even undermined the conventional limits of the Gothic, either by a kind of moral didacticism that elevates the Gothic by broadening its scope, as Kate Ellis has suggested, or by a satiric use of certain conventions, as argued by D. L. Macdonald. Many critics, like Kim Michasiw and Mary Fawcett, have examined relationships of power between men and women in Radcliffe's novels as well as the prevailing social and political institutions inside and outside the novel, which set the conditions for the characters' actions and for the text itself. Comparisons of Radcliffe's novels with those of other female novelists outside the Gothic tradition, such as Fanny Burney and Jane Austen, have also helped increase critical understanding of Radcliffe's work. Today, Radcliffe is generally regarded as an influential writer and a key figure in the movement that freed the imagination from conventional and rationalistic constraints, helping to usher in English Romanticism.