Ann Radcliffe Radcliffe, Ann (Ward) - Essay

Ann Ward


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne: A Highland Story (novel) 1789

A Sicilian Romance (novel) 1790

The Romance of the Forest (novel) 1791

The Mysteries of Udolpho (novel) 1794

A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany (journal) 1795

The Italian; or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents (novel) 1797

The Poems of A. Radcliffe (poetry) 1815

The Novels of Ann Radcliffe. 10 vols. (novels) 1821-24

Gaston de Blondeville; or, The Court of Henry III. Keeping Festival in Ardenne. St. Alban's Abbey: A Metrical Tale, with Some Poetical Pieces (novel and poetry) 1826

Mary Laughlin Fawcett (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Udolpho's Primal Mystery," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1983, pp. 481-94.

[In this essay, Fawcett discusses how symbols used in The Mysteries of Udolpho reveal to the reader the world of 1790s England and especially the condition of sexuality, in a way that confirms Blake's verdict that contemporary love is crippled by the struggle between desire and restraint.]

In Ann Radcliffe's novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, a daughter wishes to know the secrets of her father's past and to understand events which occurred twenty years ago, at the time of her own birth, but which her father has, on his...

(The entire section is 4878 words.)

Charles C. Murrah (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mrs. Radcliffe's Landscapes: The Eye and the Fancy," in The University of Windsor Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1984, pp. 7-19.

[In this essay, Murrah discusses how Radcliffe's reflective verbal pictures found in her published Journey serve as an introduction to her use of imaginative description of nature in her fiction.]

Only fifteen years ago, it was still possible to say of Ann Radcliffe that her immense popularity in her own day had not at all survived the early nineteenth century and that only the literary historian or the fancier of fictional oddities continued to appreciate her works. But since that time our contemporary Romantic Movement...

(The entire section is 5779 words.)

Chloe Chard (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Romance of the Forest, by Ann Radcliffe, edited by Chloe Chard, Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. vii-xxiv.

[In the following essay Chard introduces the general features of this early work of Radcliffe's. In addition to discussing the novel's genre, immediate critical reception, and place in literary history, Chard compares The Romance of the Forest to Radcliffe's later work in terms of her use of plot, characterization, and description.]

Adeline, the heroine of The Romance of the Forest, is portrayed, towards the middle of the novel, reading an old and partially illegible manuscript which she has found in a concealed...

(The entire section is 6156 words.)

D. L. Macdonald (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bathos and Repetition: The Uncanny in Radcliffe," in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 197-204.

[In this essay, Macdonald uses the critical theories of Tzvetan Todorov that relate to Gothic romance to maintain that Radcliffe, in The Mysteries of Udolpho, uses the fantastic satirically and with a didactic purpose.]

The defining characteristic of the fantastic as a literary genre, according to Tzvetan Todorov, is the hesitation or uncertainty it produces in the reader (and sometimes in the characters) as to the fictional reality of supernatural phenomena [The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre,...

(The entire section is 3985 words.)

Kate Ferguson Ellis (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Kidnapped Romance' in Ann Radcliffe," in The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology, University of Illinois Press, 1989, pp. 99-128.

[In the following excerpt, Ellis suggests that in her Gothic novels Radcliffe elevates the character of romance by using the fanciful conventions of the Gothic tradition as a means of addressing the real problems encountered by a young lady or gentleman entering the world in the eighteenth century.]

The novels of Ann Radcliffe offer something new to the Gothic tradition still in formation. Working in the domain of romance, which had less prestige even than the novel, she transformed the features...

(The entire section is 11746 words.)

Janet Todd (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Great Enchantress': Ann Radcliffe," in The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing, and Fiction 1660-1800, Virago Press Limited, 1989, pp. 253-72.

[In the following excerpt, Todd provides a detailed overview of Radcliffe's novels and discusses the traits that distinguish her from both her eighteenth-century predecessors, such as Samuel Richardson, and her nineteenth-century successors and contemporaries, such as Mary Wollstonecraft.]

Mrs Radcliffe came into the public consciousness with her third novel, The Romance of the Forest, in 1791. This was followed in 1794 by The Mysteries of Udolpho and in 1797 by The Italian....

(The entire section is 8800 words.)

Patricia Meyer Spacks (book date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fathers and Daughters: Ann Radcliffe," in Desire and Truth: Functions of Plot in Eighteenth-Century English Novels, The University of Chicago Press, 1990, pp. 147-74.

[In the following excerpt, Spacks argues that Radcliffe bases the structure of her fiction on the "moral implications of [Edmund] Burke's theory of the sublime."]

In Radcliffe's novels . . . literal or metaphoric tensions between fathers and daughters suggest a way to understand the new kind of plot that [Fanny Burney's] Evelina introduced. Radcliffe's plots might be called "daughters' plots"—not simply because they originate in a female consciousness, but because they establish internal...

(The entire section is 10837 words.)

Kim Ian Michasiw (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ann Radcliffe and the Terrors of Power," in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 6, No. 4, July, 1994, pp. 327-46.

[In the following essay, Michasiw discusses the ways in which individual characters in Radcliffe's novels struggle with other characters and with the political and social institutions that define and determine the limits of power relations. In particular, he focuses on ways in which terror becomes not only an irrational response to illusory horrors in the story, but also a rational response to personal and institutional abuses of power.]

Late in Ann Radcliffe's last novel, Gaston de Blondeville, the narrator pauses to consider the burdens of...

(The entire section is 7507 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Anderson, Howard. "Gothic Heroes." In The English Hero, 1660 to 1800, edited by Robert Folkenflik, pp. 205-21. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1982, 230 p.

Examines the variety of heroes in Gothic romances, particularly in the works of Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, and Matthew Lewis.

Benedict, Barbara M. "Pictures of Conformity: Sentiment and Structure in Ann Radcliffe's Style." Philological Quarterly 68, No. 3 (Summer 1989): 363-77.

An examination of Radcliffe's style that reveals the relationship between her rationalism and her preoccupation with the emotions and imagination of terror....

(The entire section is 1847 words.)