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Summary Article: Radcliffe, Ann from Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature

Radcliffe is the great exemplar of the 18th-c. GOTHICNOVEL. The best-selling English novelist of the 1790s, her work inspired plays and operas as well as numerous imitations. Her enchanting fictional world influenced some of the greatest literary imaginations of the 19th c., including the Romantic poets—John KEATS named her “mother Radcliffe.” Her novels remained popular until the middle years of the Victorian era.

Devalued by early 20th-c. critics because her work influenced but did not conform to a male Gothic tradition, Radcliffe was reinstated more recently by feminist critics who highlighted major themes in her work that have resonance with the experiences of contemporary women. All of Radcliffe’s major novels figure heroines trapped in patterns of pursuit and imprisonment, persecution and endurance, sexual division and repression, underlined at all times by the absolute necessity of respectability. Criticized for her two-dimensional characters and anachronisms, Radcliffe’s success really lay in the psychological reality of her exploration of an inner life behind the contemporary social milieu. She achieved this through a Gothic world of nightmare in which the historical and foreign settings distance the reader from the ordinary daylight world and the characters are overshadowed by scenic intensity.

Radcliffe’s first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne: A Highland Story (1789), is a fast-paced tale of warring clans, influenced by Horace WALPOLE. In A Sicilian Romance (2 vols., 1790), Radcliffe established the heroine-centered world and familial plot that became typical. The heroine, Julia, goes on a journey of self-discovery, challenging religious and patriarchal authority in an attempt to marry the man of her choice. Ultimately, she has to uncover dark family secrets and rediscover her maternal origins, figured here in the form of Louisa de Mazzini, the ghostly mother, before her new family can be established.

Radcliffe’s reputation is based principally on her next three novels, The Romance of the Forest (3 vols., 1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (4 vols., 1794), and The Italian (3 vols., 1797). For the last two, she was advanced record sums by her publishers. In these, the heroines—sentimental, “accomplished” young lady poets by the names of Adeline, Emily, and Ellena—are plunged into a terrifying and mysterious world as their childhood security disintegrates and they become the victims of unscrupulous villains, evil father figures determined to control them. The hedonistic Marquis de Montalt and the manipulative Montoni are active, ambitious men with much of the old quest hero about them, but Radcliffe’s most celebrated villain is the monk Schedoni from The Italian, a demonic, powerful embodiment of masculine ferocity. By contrast, the heroes, Theodore, Valancourt, and Vivaldi, are pointedly endowed with qualities more appealing to Radcliffe’s female readership—courage and pride, but also a sense of family responsibility, sensitivity, and respect for women.

The keynote of the novels is suspense, which Radcliffe creates with technical ingenuity. She is the mistress of suggestion—her settings (dungeons, castles, forests, ruins) are described in detail, yet remain curiously obscure. Elements of the supernatural tantalize the reader (later explained away rather implausibly) and an unreliable narrator adds ambiguity. Radcliffe expertly manipulates the plot, supplied with a plentiful combination of short and longer-term mysteries, while the vision of reality is dominated by the heroine’s overwrought emotions. As William HAZLITT wrote, “in harrowing up the soul with imaginary horrors, and making the flesh creep, and the nerves thrill with fond hopes and fears, she is unrivaled.” Radcliffe’s “narrative of landscape,” where scenery is used as an external manifestation of a state of mind or mood, was an important development for the novel. She describes with the eye of a painter. Indeed, Radcliffe’s novels are rich in allusions to contemporary aesthetic theories of the sublime and the picturesque, as her characters move against a backdrop of the rugged Appenines, the dark forests of southeastern France, or the lush valleys of Gascony and Savoy. Her characters are measured by their response to landscape, their peak of emotional experience provoked by the pleasurable pain of the Burkean sublime.

Radcliffe also published a book of travel writing, A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 (1795), which was well received. After The Italian, she published no more novels in her lifetime. The reason for this sudden silence remains, like much of her life, a mystery. Radcliffe was a private person who did not court the limelight. Her posthumous works include an historical novel, Gaston de Blondeville (4 vols., 1826), which was apparently never completed to her satisfaction, owing to ill health.


Bibliography Norton, R., Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of A. R. (1999); Punter, D., The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to thePresent Day (1980); Rogers, D. D., The Critical Response to A. R. (1994)

Rebecca Morgan

© 2006 The Continuum International Publishing Group, Ltd

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