Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

RADCLIFFE, ANN (1764-1823)

RADCLIFFE, ANN (1764-1823), English novelist, only daughter of William and Ann Ward, was born in London on the 9th of July 1764. She was the author of three famous novels: The Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797). When she was twenty-three years old she married William Radcliffe, an Oxford graduate and student of law. He gave up his profession for literature, and afterwards became proprietor and editor of the English Chronicle. After The Italian she gave up writing for publication, and was reported to have been driven mad by the horrors of her own creations, but the nearest approach to eccentricity on Mrs Radcliffeʼs part was dislike of public notice. Of scenery Mrs Radcliffe was an enthusiastic admirer, and she made driving tours with her husband every other summer through the English counties. She died on the 7th of February 1823. In the history of the English novel, Mrs Radcliffe holds an interesting place. She is too often confounded with her imitators, who vulgarized her favourite properties of rambling and ruinous old castles, dark, desperate and cadaverous villains, secret passages, vaults, trapdoors, evidences of deeds of monstrous crime, sights and sounds of mysterious horror. She deserves at least the credit of originating a school of which she was the most distinguished exponent; and none of her numerous imitators approach her in ingenuity of plot, fertility of incident or skill in devising apparently supernatural occurrences capable of explanation by human agency and natural coincidence. She had a genuine gift for scenic effect, and her vivid imagination provided every tragic situation in her stories with its appropriate setting. Sir Walter Scott wrote an appreciative essay for the edition of 1824, and Miss Christina Rossetti was one of her admirers. She exercised a great influence on her contemporaries, and Schedoni in The Italian is one of the prototypes of the Byronic hero.

& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

RADCLIFFE, Ann (1764-1823) by Dale Townshend

When the Reverend Montague Summers, the twentieth century’s most assiduous of Gothic bibliophiles, delivered his lecture entitled A Great Mistress of Romance: Ann Radcliffe, 1764–1823 before the Royal Society of Literature in London on 24 January 1917, he addressed an audience for whom the name Ann Radcliffe meant very little indeed. Looking back on the event in the closing moments of his extraordinary autobiography The Galanty Show (1980), Summers recalled that the subject was commented on as being almost unknown. For instance, among the auditors, I think only Sir Edmund Gosse had read The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian and was able to discuss them. In the context of the Encyclopædia Britannica entry of only four years earlier, Summersʼs mentioning of Gosse is hardly coincidental, for Gosse had been a significant contributor to the 9th edition of 1878 as well as literary advisor for the 11th. Between the then of early 1917 and the now of Summers’s completion of his memoirs a few weeks before his death in August 1948, however, things had shifted considerably, not least due to Summers’s own concerted efforts across such monumental tomes as The Gothic Quest (1938) and A Gothic Bibliography (1940) to bring to light the work of Ann Radcliffe and the larger tradition of early Gothic writing over which she was said magisterially to preside. Since then things have changed, the ageing Summers with some satisfaction noted, and as [Jérôme-] Adolphe Blanqui said of England in an earlier age: ‘Tout le monde se gothise’.

Ann Radcliffe
Unknown. Ann Radcliffe. Unknown, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain OR Wikipedia Commons

If, in the intervening thirty-one years of Montague Summers’s career, Radcliffe and her Gothic fictions had gratifyingly been transformed from an obscure and somewhat arcane object of antiquarian interest into a vibrant subject of scholarly enquiry and debate, the century and more that separates the publication of the entry on the writer in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica in 1910-1911 from the present day has witnessed even greater changes. Paramount is the institutionalisation of English Studies and, with that, the rise of a Gothic scholarly tradition, the formal academic interest in early Gothic fiction, drama, and poetry that, emerging in the work of such critics as Dorothy Scarborough (1917), Michael Sadlier (1927), J. M. S. Tompkins (1932) and Summers himself, has developed into the lively field of enquiry that it is today. As it did for the study of Gothic writing in general, the advent of second-wave feminism in the 1960s, 70s and 80s did much to establish Ann Radcliffe’s cultural and literary significance, and it was in the vital work of such Anglo-American feminist scholars as Ellen Moers (1976), Juliann E. Fleenor (1983), Alison Milbank (1992), Anne Williams (1995), Diane Long Hoeveler (1998) and others that Radcliffe and her works were thoughtfully reappraised within the context of historical and contemporary gender concerns—significantly, without the embarrassed disclaimers and awkward justifications that characterised much early Gothic criticism.

Authorial biography became central to this endeavour. Radcliffe’s relations to the emergent middling classes of late eighteenth-century British society did much to recommend her and her fictions to such materialist, class-based analyses of the Gothic as David Punter’s seminal The Literature of Terror (1980). The biographical information cited in the Encyclopædia Britannica entry is sparse, and indicative, perhaps, of the same difficulties that Christina Rossetti, ever an enthusiastic reader of Radcliffe, faced in 1884 when she was forced to abandon the biography of the writer that she had intended to produce for John H. Ingram’s Eminent Women Series due to a sheer lack of material: as the Encyclopædia notes, Radcliffe was notorious in her day for her avoidance of public notice, and as a consequence, almost no holographic material (letters, memoirs, manuscripts) remains. The publication of Rictor Norton’s ground-breaking Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe in 1999, however, remedied for Radcliffe scholars and enthusiasts this dearth of biographical information, addressing in detail such concerns as the origins of the pervasive rumour that she had been driven mad by the horrors of her own creations and exploring at length her biographical connections with the late eighteenth-century culture of radical Dissent.

More recently, the post-millennial turn towards historicist scholarship within the field of Gothic Studies more broadly has only underlined and confirmed the writer’s canonical status, for there is no doubt that, even beyond the immediate context of Gothic Studies, Radcliffe is recognised today as one of the most important writers of the late eighteenth century. A key figure in the rise of the professional woman writer, she is now also rightfully hailed as an important voice in British and European Romanticism, a critical gesture that has involved the dismantling of the value-laden critical distinction between the Gothic and the Romantic that tended, at best, to confine the writer and her works to an emergent form of “pre-Romanticism or, at worst, to relegate her to a substandard literary mode that was barely worthy of serious critical attention at all. Alongside a number of book chapters and journal articles, such recent collections as Dale Townshend and Angela Wright’s Ann Radcliffe, Romanticism and the Gothic (2014), Jakub Lipski and Jacek Mydla’s The Enchantress of Words, Sounds and Images: Anniversary Essays on Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823) (2015), and Andrew Smith and Mark Bennett’s Locating Ann Radcliffe (2020) provide some measure of the central position that Radcliffe holds in eighteenth-century, Gothic, and Romantic Studies today. Indeed, the conferences, symposia, and publications that commemorated the 250th anniversary of her birth in 2014 almost entirely eclipsed that other important Gothic anniversary of the same year: the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.

As the subtitle of Robert Miles’s influential study Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress (1995) indicates, the critical recuperation and canonisation of Radcliffe over the last 100 years has depended, at least in part, upon the recovery and considered appraisal of some of the encomiastic terms in which the writer was celebrated in her own day. Though distinguishing her from her imitators, the Britannica entry neglects to mention such indicative Radcliffean monikers as Nathan Drake’s Shakspeare [sic] of Romance Writers (1798), Thomas James Mathias’s mighty magician of THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO (1798), Walter Scott’s first poetess of romantic fiction, and Thomas De Quincey’s great enchantress of that generation (1856). The work of Deborah D. Rogers in The Critical Response to Ann Radcliffe (1994) and Ann Radcliffe: A Bio-Biography (1996) crucially recovers Radcliffe’s contemporary reputation, for as a survey of responses to the writer reveals, Radcliffe and her works reduced to silence even those critics who, like Mathias and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, remained resolutely opposed, at least officially, to the popular taste for Gothic fiction. Similarly, while reviewers in the periodical press almost routinely expressed their distaste for what even the Britannica dismissively refers to as the repetitive, highly conventionalised literature of rambling and ruinous old castles, dark, desperate and cadaverous villains, secret passages, vaults, trapdoors, evidences of deeds of monstrous crime, sights and sounds of mysterious horror, Radcliffe and her fictions were subject to a general law of critical exception in the often acrimonious review culture of the 1790s. This was partly because, as several early reviewers pointed out, it was in her romances that the recognisable features of Gothic writing were originally—and thus, according to the discourse of original genius, more effectively—deployed, and this despite what, for some, were the readerly disappointments generated by her singular narrative technique of the explained supernatural. As Walter Scott observed, Radcliffe had the rare distinction of being the founder of a distinctive literary class or school, perhaps even more so than Horace Walpole.

Like those in attendance at Montague Summers’s lecture seven years later, the writer of the 1910-1911 Britannica entry struggled to remember much of Radcliffe’s life and works beyond three of her best-known fictions: The Romance of the Forest (1791), sometimes hailed as the first literary best-seller and the second edition of which included her break with anonymity; The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), the novel that brought her the most critical acclaim in her day; and The Italian; or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents (published late 1796; dated 1797), the fiction in which, in careful answer to her readers and critics, Radcliffe refined her Gothic craft.

Today, however, Radcliffe’s oeuvre has been considerably extended beyond these novels to include her early, anonymously published romances The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789) and A Sicilian Romance (1790); her important contributions to travel writing, both Continental and domestic, in A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794, Through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany, With A Return Down the Rhine; To Which Are Added, Observations During a Tour to the Lakes of Lancashire, Westmoreland, and Cumberland (1795); as well as her four-volume collection of posthumously published journal entries, poetry, and fiction, Gaston De Blondeville; or, The Court of Henry III Keeping Festival in Ardenne, A Romance; and St Alban’s Abbey, A Metrical Tale; With Some Poetical Pieces (1826). As this posthumous collection makes particularly clear, Radcliffe was also a prolific writer of original poetry, much of which, to the frustration of some of her readers, she interspersed within her lengthy prose romances. In 1816, and not for the first time, an unauthorised collection of poems drawn from her fiction appeared under the title of The Poems of Mrs Ann Radcliffe, Author of The Mysteries of Udolpho &c &c &c. In the excerpted essay On the Supernatural in Poetry (1826), meanwhile, Radcliffe not only retrospectively articulated the distinction between horror and terror that informed her own work, and which distinguished her creative practice from that of a contemporary writer such as Matthew Gregory Lewis, but also set in place the critical terminology that continues to inform and structure the study of Gothic literature and horror fiction and film to this day. Then identified merely as the writer, however distinguished from her imitators, of three Gothic romances, Radcliffe is now the subject of serious textual and editorial scholarship in the form of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ann Radcliffe (2023–26), an ambitious, multi-volume scholarly edition of the writer’s complete oeuvre that is currently in preparation under the general editorship of Angela Wright and Michael Gamer. Seldom have the fortunes of an eighteenth-century woman writer of popular fiction who, a century ago, was almost unknown been more pleasing.

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