Ann Radcliffe

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This article is about the 18th-century author. For the 17th-century benefactor of Harvard, see Ann (Radcliffe) Mowlson.
Ann Radcliffe
Ann Radcliffe.jpg
Born (1764-07-09)9 July 1764
Holborn, London, England
Died 7 February 1823(1823-02-07) (aged 58)
Occupation Novelist
Nationality English
Genre Gothic novel

Ann Radcliffe (née Ward, 9 July 1764 – 7 February 1823) was an English author and pioneer of the Gothic novel. Her style is Romantic in its vivid descriptions of landscapes and long travel scenes, yet the Gothic element is obvious through her use of the supernatural. It was her technique, "the explained supernatural" as the final revelation of inexplicable phenomena, which helped the Gothic novel achieve respectability in the 1790s.[citation needed]


Little is known of Ann Radcliffe's life. In 1823, the year of her death, the Edinburgh Review, said: "She never appeared in public, nor mingled in private society, but kept herself apart, like the sweet bird that sings its solitary notes, shrouded and unseen."[1] Christina Rossetti attempted to write a biography of her, but abandoned it for lack of information.[2]

According to Ruth Facer, "Physically, she was said to be 'exquisitely proportioned' – quite short, complexion beautiful 'as was her whole countenance, especially her eyes, eyebrows and mouth.'"[1]

Radcliffe was born Ann Ward in Holborn, London, on 9 July 1764. Her father was William Ward, a haberdasher, who later moved to Bath to manage a china shop. Her mother was Ann Oates. In 1787, she married the Oxford graduate and journalist William Radcliffe, part-owner and editor of the English Chronicle. He often came home late, and to occupy her time she began to write, and read her work to him when he returned. Theirs was a childless, but seemingly happy, marriage. Ann called him her "nearest relative and friend."[1] The money she earned from her novels later allowed them to travel together, along with their dog, Chance. When Ann died on 7 February 1823, there were some reports that she was insane. Her husband claimed that she died of an asthma attack. Despite the acclaim for her writing, she did not maintain a public profile.

There are few artifacts or manuscripts that give insight into Radcliffe's personal life, but in 2014 a rare letter from Radcliffe to her mother-in-law was found in an archive at the British Library. Its tone suggests a strained relationship between the two, similar to the relationship of two characters in her novel The Italian.[3]

Literary life[edit]

Radcliffe's fiction is marked by seemingly supernatural events that are then provided with rational explanations. Throughout her work, traditional moral values are asserted, the rights of women are advocated, and reason prevails.

Radcliffe published six novels and a book of poetry, but her prose far exceeded her poetic ability. She also wrote a work about an excursion to the Continent, A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794, through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany...To Which Are Added Observations of a Tour to the Lakes (1795).

Radcliffe is considered one of the founders of Gothic literature. While there were others that preceded her, Radcliffe was the one that legitimised the genre. Sir Walter Scott called her the "founder of a class or school".[1] Jane Austen parodied Radcliffe's novel The Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey. Radcliffe did not like the direction in which Gothic literature was heading – one of her later novels, The Italian, was written in response to Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Monk. It is assumed that this frustration is what caused Radcliffe to cease writing. After Radcliffe's death, her husband released her unfinished essay "On the Supernatural in Poetry," which details the difference between the sensation of terror her works aimed to achieve and the horror Lewis sought to evoke.[4] She states that terror aims to stimulate readers through imagination and perceived evils while horror closes them off through fear and physical dangers.[5]

Art connection[edit]

Radcliffe's elaborate description of landscapes was influenced by the painters Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa. She often wrote about places she had never been. Lorrain's influence can be seen through Radcliffe's picturesque, romantic descriptions of landscapes, as seen in the first volume of The Mysteries of Udolpho. Rosa's influence can be seen through dark landscapes and elements of the Gothic.

Radcliffe said of Lorrain:[1]

In a shaded corner, near the chimney, a most exquisite Claude, an evening view, perhaps over the Campagna of Rome. The sight of this picture imparted much of the luxurious repose and satisfaction, which we derive from contemplating the finest scenes of nature. Here was the poet, as well as the painter, touching the imagination, and making you see more than the picture contained. You saw the real light of the sun, you breathed the air of the country, you felt all the circumstances of a luxurious climate on the most serene and beautiful landscape; and the mind thus softened, you almost fancied you hear Italian music in the air.

Selected publications[edit]

Influence on later writers[edit]

Radcliffe influenced many later authors, including the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814), Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), and Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), and many lesser imitators of the "Radcliffe School", such as Harriet Lee and Catherine Cuthbertson. For example, Scott interspersed his work with poems in a similar manner to Radcliffe, and one assessment of her reads, "Scott himself said that her prose was poetry and her poetry was prose. She was, indeed, a prose poet, in both the best and the worst senses of the phrase. The romantic landscape, the background, is the best thing in all her books; the characters are two dimensional, the plots far fetched and improbable, with 'elaboration of means and futility of result.'"[6]

As a child the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky was deeply impressed by Radcliffe. In Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863) he writes, "I used to spend the long winter hours before bed listening (for I could not yet read), agape with ecstasy and terror, as my parents read aloud to me from the novels of Ann Radcliffe. Then I would rave deliriously about them in my sleep." A number of scholars have noted elements of Gothic literature in Dostoyevsky's novels,[7] and some have attempted to show direct influence of Radcliffe's work.[8]

Jane Austen's parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey is frequently mentioned. Scholars have also noted a number of other apparent allusions to Radcliffe's novels and life in Austen's work.[9]

Honoré de Balzac's novel of the supernatural L'Héritière de Birague (1822) follows the tradition of Radcliffe's style and parodies it.[10] Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Oval Portrait" drew from Udolpho and mentions Radcliffe by name (somewhat disparagingly) in the introduction.

Film reference[edit]

Helen McCrory plays Ann Radcliffe in the 2007 film Becoming Jane, starring Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen. The film depicts Radcliffe as meeting the young Jane Austen and encouraging her to pursue a literary career. There is no evidence of such a meeting having actually occurred.


  1. ^ a b c d e Chawton House Library: Ruth Facer, "Anne Radcliffe (1764–1823)", retrieved 1 December 2012
  2. ^ Rictor Norton (1 May 1999). Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 8–. ISBN 978-1-84714-269-6. 
  3. ^ Alison Flood, Gothic fiction pioneer Ann Radcliffe may have been inspired by mother-in-law, The Guardian, 30 January 2014.
  4. ^ Dr. Lilia Melani. "Gothic History" (PDF). Retrieved 3 May 2012. 
  5. ^ Eighteenth Century Lit, Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic, The Mysteries of Udolpho: Discover the secrets within…
  6. ^ Stanley Kunitz and Howard Haycraft, eds, British Authors Before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary (NY: H. W. Wilson, 1952), p. 427.
  7. ^ Berry, Robert. "Gothicism in Conrad and Dostoevsky". Retrieved 18 October 2014. 
  8. ^ Bowers, Katherine. "Dostoevsky's Gothic Blueprint: the Notebooks to The Idiot". Retrieved 17 October 2014. 
  9. ^ William Baker, Critical Companion to Jane Austen: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work (Facts on File, 2007); see entry on Radcliffe, p. 578.
  10. ^ Samuel Rogers, Balzac and the Novel (Octagon Books, 1969), 21

Further reading[edit]

  • Cody, David (July 2000). "Ann Radcliffe: An Evaluation". The Victorian Web: An Overview. Retrieved 1 December 2010. 
  • "Ann Radcliffe.". Brooklyn College English Department. 9 May 2003. Retrieved 15 June 2015. 
  • Norton, Rictor (1999). Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe. 
  • Rogers, Deborah (1996). A Biography of Radcliffe. ISBN 978-0-313-28379-6. 

External links[edit]

 Garnett, Richard (1896). "Radcliffe, Ann". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 47. London: Smith, Elder & Co.