Sunday, 13 February 2011

Ann Radcliffe: A Forgotten Author

A few days ago, I was rearranging the books on my book shelves when I came upon Ann Radcliffe’s novels. I finally decided to dedicate a post to her because it is sad that such a revolutionary authoress who had a great impact on English literature (and indirectly on some French and American authors) should have become almost forgotten.

I first heard about Radcliffe when reading Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, a parody of Gothic novels. Then, when we briefly discussed her during a university class – English Romantic Novel – I became truly interested in her, mostly because she was far more respected and famous than Jane Austen back in the day, but only Jane Austen survived, so to say, and I wanted to know why Mrs. Radcliffe drifted into oblivion.

Let me introduce you to this authoress of Romantic Gothic fiction. I hope you enjoy this semi-academic text.

Ann Radcliffe (9 July 1764 – 7 February 1823) was not the first author to publish a Gothic novel, but she was definitely a pioneer of the genre, bringing it to a new level. In a time when novels were frowned upon, considered to be an inferior form of writing (in comparison to the superiority of poetry), preferably reserved for women, Mrs. Radcliffe succeeded in ways readers and critics of the time could hardly have imagined – she became a respected novelist, equal to the likes of Tobias Smollett and Samuel Richardson. She was read and admired by people of all ranks and ages and quoted almost as much as Shakespeare. She was the most succesful female novelist of the day.

Not much is known about her life, as she spent the years of her fame in seclusion with only her husband and a few individuals she trusted. The idea of fame frightened her, yet she wrote, for the pleasure of writing and exercising one's imagination. Christina Georgina Rossetti once attempted to write a biography of her, but gave up because of the lack of information. What we know is that she was born as Ann Ward and spent her childhood years in the company of her prominent relatives, mostly her Uncle Bentley. She adopted the principles of Unitarianism from her uncle, which shows greatly in her works. She married William Radcliffe, editor of the English Chronicle, who also supervised the publications of her novels. He was very supportive of her talent. They travelled together, but Ann never showed herself in public much. She died of an asthmatic attack in 1823.

As to her writing, she was a revolutionary authoress. She changed the image of the Gothic novel, rising it to a completely new and respected level. She created the novel of suspense by combining the Gothic novel and the novel of sensibility, which means her works were entertaining, suspensful, romantic and didactic. She inserted quite a few changes into the Gothic genre. Her heroine was not merely a damsel in distress; she became a thinking, feeling individual with a talent either for drawing or music and with a love for books and contemplation. It was not enough for the hero to save her and be handsome. He had to prove his worth. By the end of every novel, her heroines grow and become independent. They do not really need the hero, but the heroine marries him for love.

The Radcliffean villain was not merely a man with several variations of only one dimension: to torment the heroine, to be bad, to be dark, to be evil. No; he became a tortured man who refused to allow his emotions to bubble out and resorted to villainy instead. Have you heard of the Byronic hero? Lord Byron, the celebrated poet (and rightfully so), did not exactly invent the Byronic hero. Ann Radcliffe did. First, he was called the Shedoniac hero, one of the two most famous Radcliffean villains (the other one being Montoni). Lord Byron liked the Shedoniac villain, made a few adaptations of his own and there was the Byronic hero, now so popular in literature. Imagine that Mr Rochester from Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre or the dark, tormented and evil Heathcliff might not have existed, had it not been for Mrs Radcliffe.

She was the first author to use nature and architecture to express her character's emotions. Her predecors created Gothic, scary places only to create a scary atmosphere. Radcliffe gave nature and architecture meaning. Now, it seems that storms in literature are always a sign of something bad and characters always act strange during storms. In Radcliffe's time, this was a novelty and after Radcliffe started doing it, so to say, every author did it. Also, nature began to present freedom, whereas buildings, especially Gothic castles (a typical villanous abode) stood for confinement.

As for the supernatural, she was the first author to start explaining the supernatural. From the six novels, only her last one kept the supernatural unexplained. Radcliffe used the concept that human tragedies and malice can be worse and more firghtening than ghosts, ghouls and vampires. The shock of a final revelation is always more intense than the previous belief that there might be a ghost in the castle. The perpetrators in her novels are not supernatural beings; they are always human.

Who did she influence? I will only mention a few (but the list is much longer): Sir Walter Scott (who was accused of stealing from her), Lord Byron (who even used paraphrased quotes from her novels in Childe Harold), Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe (she made it to the States). She was admired by many famous authors (some might surprised you, for example Stendhal and George Sand). Jane Austen read and admired her works.

Sadly, Ann Radcliffe, after being all the rage, began to drift into oblivion after her death. In 1820s, the decline of the Gothic novel began and the novel of sensibility was on the rise. However, all the elements that Radcliffe created in her novel have survived in literature, only their creator became lost in time.

Ann Radcliffe's novels (in chronological order):
The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, 1789
• A Sicilian Romance, 1790
The Romance of the Forest, 1791 (first major success)
The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794 (the first of her famous villains, Montoni, is introduced)
The Italian, 1797 (Schedoni is the villain)
Gaston de Blondeville, 1826 (published posthumously)

Jane Spencer: The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen
Coral Ann Howels: Love, mystery, and mysery : feeling in Gothic fiction
Rictor Norton: Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe


Blodeuedd said...

I so wanted to read her when I read Austen, I have not so far since I have not found the books but one day ;)

Laura @ A Jane of All Reads said...

Have you read any of her work? I'll admit I've always been tempted to pick up The Mysteries of Udolpho!

Mary Simonsen said...

Have you read her work? I find that these authors tend to be verbose. I wonder what you thought.

Jan von Harz said...

Thanks for this very interesting post. I am not familiar with this author so it was good to read about her.

Irena @ This Miss Loves to Read said...

@Life After Jane and Mary: Yes, I have read all of her six novels, as my bachelor's degree was connected to Radcliffe. I enjoyed The Romance of the Forest, The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, her most famous and best novels. Perhaps a bit not-so-scary for the modern reader, but still interesting.