Radcliffe, Ann

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Radcliffe, Ann (1764-1823): English Writer.

Ann Radcliffe was one of the first writers of gothic fiction and one of the most popular novelists of late eighteenth-century England. Radcliffe's father was a London haberdasher who became a manager for the Wedgwood-Bentley showroom at Bath. Her mother came from a family connected to the Unitarian movement of Rational Dissent. Her husband, William, was a radical journalist and editor of The English Chronicle.

Radcliffe published five novels during her lifetime. The first two, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789) and A Sicilian Romance (1790), were published anonymously and received slight attention. Her third, The Romance of the Forest (1791), was highly praised by contemporary reviewers for its poetic descriptions. Radcliffe's next two novels, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), were and continue to be widely read. They were so frequently imitated in Europe that reviewers often spoke of the "Radcliffe school." Udolpho had been praised for its poetic descriptions of landscapes and its imaginative energy. The Italian is notable for its greater narrative control, as well as its descriptions of and aesthetic theorizing about music. A measure of her popularity with contemporaries is the fact that Radcliffe received the unusually high advances of £500 for Udolpho and £800 for The Italian. She wrote one travel narrative, A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 (1795), which recounts her travels in Holland, Germany, and the English Lake District. A historical romance, Gastone de Blondeville, which she wrote in the winter of 1802, was published posthumously in 1826, along with an essay "On the Supernatural in Poetry."

Given her familial connections with the Unitarians, her characters and plots are believed by many to promote the revolutionary, democratic values of late eighteenth-century Rational Dissent. Influenced by the aesthetic theories of Burke, Edmund, Radcliffe produced novelistic landscapes that emphasize contrasts among the beautiful as a source of quiet pleasure, the sublime as a source of pleasing terror, and the picturesque as a middle ground combining the qualities of the beautiful and the sublime. These landscapes embody the ambivalence of the Dissenting elite: a value for high culture, with its aesthetic refinements and material comforts, combined with a belief in political reform and equality. The frequent anti-papist sentiments of the narratives imply a larger rejection of absolutism and hierarchy in religion and politics. The time frame for most of the novels, the mid-seventeenth century, implies a contrast between medieval and Enlightenment attitudes toward religion, reason, society, and government. The plots of the novels dramatize the ascendancy of the Enlightenment's rational, egalitarian tolerance. In their emphasis on the psychology of terror and their tendency to provide naturalistic explanations for what appear initially to be supernatural phenomena, Radcliffe's novels exhibit the influence of the Enlightenment's rationalism and interest in the science of human nature.

Further Reading:

Rictor Norton, Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe, 1999.


Glen Colburn

Morehead State University

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