Ann Radcliffe was one of the first writers in the Gothic genre. She wrote several popular Gothic novels but inexplicably stopped writing in that style at the age of 32. Her novels include The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Romance of the Forest (1792), The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance (1794), The Italian: or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents (1797), and Gaston de Blondeville: or, The Court of Henry III (1826).
Not much is known about Radcliffe’s life. According to The Edinburgh Review (May 1823): “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.” She had few friends, did not write many letters, and the only journal she kept was on her travels. Her first full-scale biography was the ingeniously researched Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe (1999), by Rictor Norton. This book was based on an exploration of the world Radcliffe lived in, information from remote archives, and careful analysis of her works and the reviews thereof.
Ann Ward Radcliffe was born on July 9, 1764, in Holborn, London, England, the only child of William Ward and Ann Oates. During her childhood, the family moved to Bath, where, it is assumed, she attended the school of Harriet and Sophia Lee. (However, Norton does not believe she ever lived in Bath or attended that school.) In 1787 or 1788, she married William Radcliffe, an editor for the English Chronicle. The couple did not have any children. To fill her time, she began writing, which she did more for pleasure than for money. Her books eventually became popular among the upper and middle classes, and especially among young women.
Radcliffe’s writing was conventional and rational, with apparently supernatural events having logical explanations at the end. She objected to shocking scenes, such as those in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (it is believed she wrote The Italian as a protest to The Monk). She considered her writing to be “terror” rather than “horror,” as she explained in her 1826 essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” She considered terror to be characterized by an obscure or indeterminate treatment of horrible events, resulting in the sublime. On the other hand, she considered horror as, to use a modern term, “in your face,” with unambiguous displays of atrocity. Later critics have used her terminology to divide Gothic fiction into the sub-genres of terror and horror.
One of the first critics to use this distinction was Devendra Varma (The Gothic Flame, 1966), who characterized the difference between terror and horror as the difference between “awful apprehension and sickening realization.” She classified Radcliffe as the sole representative of terror, and Lewis, William Thomas Beckford, Charles Maturin, Mary Shelley, and William Godwin as horror writers.
Robert Hume (“Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel,” PMLA 84, 1969) agreed with Varma, but he stated the distinction in a slightly different manner. He held that horror replaces the ambiguous physical details of terror with a more disturbing moral and psychological ambiguity. Hume included Horace Walpole with Radcliffe as one of the writers of terror. (PMLA is the journal of the Modern Language Association of America.)
On the other hand, Robert Platzner (“Gothic versus Romantic: A Rejoinder,” PMLA 86, 1971) disagreed with these rigid distinctions. Further, he claimed that Radcliffe crossed the line into the horror she disdained, that she “compulsively places her heroine in situations of overwhelming anxiety in which a gradual shift from terror to horror is inescapable.” He believed that, for example, the heroine in Udolpho is confronted by overt, unambiguous horror.
The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne is set in the highlands of Scotland during the Middle Ages. When the Earl Osbert of Castle Athlin was a boy, his father was murdered by Baron Malcolm of Dunbayne. When Osbert comes of age, he goes to the castle of Dunbayne with low-born clansman Alleyn to avenge his father’s murder. However, they find not the vengeance they sought but a terrible challenge and the romance of a lifetime.
A Sicilian Romance explores not only the cavernous landscapes and winding passages of the castles and convents of Sicily, but also the secrets in the lives of the aristocracy. Julia and Emilia Mazzini live in seclusion in an ancient mansion near the Straits of Messina. Part of their house is haunted by mysterious sights and sounds, which the heroines attempt to solve amid a series of frantic chases through dreamlike pastoral landscapes.
In The Romance of the Forest, a couple flees Paris to escape debt. In the wilderness, the husband is caught by a bandit who does not demand money but that the couple care for a young girl. The trio take refuge in a deserted abbey, where they find odd artifacts and strange happenings.
Emily St. Aubert, the heroine of The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, is separated from her suitor and imprisoned for 20 years by her guardian, Count Montoni, in the Castle of Udolpho. Emily deals with terror on a daily basis, struggling against her guardian’s schemes and her own psychological disintegration. Emily is memorably drawn, and the terrors she endures are rendered in chilling detail.
The Italian: or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents tells of the sinister, mysterious monk Schedoni. It is a novel of crime and religion and the ill-fated love between Ellena Rosalba and Vincentio di Vivaldi. Schedoni and the Marchese di Vivaldi oppose their relationship. When Ellena disappears, Vincentio pursues her through the mountains of southern Italy before he falls victim to the Holy Inquisition.
Gaston de Blondeville: or, The Court of Henry III was written in 1802 but was published posthumously in 1826. The story centers around the wedding of the title character, which is interrupted by a man who accuses him of murder. This is Radcliffe’s only novel that features a real ghost.
Besides novels, Radcliffe wrote poems, which were collected in The Poems of Mrs. Ann Radcliffe (1816). Some poems were also included in her novels. This poetry is available on-line: here. She also wrote a short story, “The Haunted Chamber” (1794), the travelogue Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 (1795), and The Female Advocate, or An Attempt to Recover the Rights of Women from Male Usurpation (1799).
In the last decade or so of her life, Radcliffe suffered from declining physical and mental health. Among her maladies was severe asthma, and she died in London of a chest infection on February 7, 1823.