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Books & Authors, History & Biography

Ann (Ward) Radcliffe (July 9, 1764 - February 7, 1823)

If you enjoy atmospheric stories of romance, mystery, and terror set amidst the shadows of crumbling estates and potentially haunted castles, you might want to take a moment to thank Ann Radcliffe.

Along with the likes of Horace Walpole and M.G. Lewis, Radcliffe was a pioneer of the gothic novel*. More subtle than Walpole and less salacious than Lewis, her contributions to the genre center on the struggles of virtuous young heroines entangled in the villainous schemes of ambitious scoundrels, imprisoned behind the walls of decrepit ruins, haunted and harassed by vaguely evil forces, and happily rescued by valorous young suitors. In tune with her colorful narratives, Radcliffe's style is rich with poetic descriptions (or even outright poetry), steeped in melodrama and intrigue, and rife with last-minute revelations and rational explanations for seemingly-supernatural phenomena that nevertheless leave the sense of mystery intact.

For a woman author in late 18th-century England, Radcliffe enjoyed an uncommon level of respect and support, both professionally and personally.

Her two best-known novels--"The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry" and "The Italian; or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents"--were incredibly popular with her contemporaries, especially the rapidly expanding demographic of middle-class female readers, a group that eagerly devoured and shared her exciting tales. In response, her publisher paid handsomely, giving her an advance of 800 pounds for "The Italian" in 1797 (adjusting for inflation, that's well over $100,000 now). Compare that with the 10 pounds (or less than $1000) that Jane Austen received for "Northanger Abbey" in 1803.

In contrast to the hubbub surrounding her work, Radcliffe herself was very unassuming, preferring to live a quiet life out of the spotlight with her husband, a successful journalist who encouraged her writing. When circumstances (financial stability, ill health) led her to largely stop writing, her reclusiveness only fueled the public's curiosity, resulting in many an outlandish rumor: She'd been secretly committed to an asylum after being driven mad by her overactive imagination! She'd been arrested in Paris as a spy! She was dead! It was gossip befitting a gothic novelist.

While the excessive melodrama and other trappings of this first wave of gothic fiction eventually fell out of favor in the face of demand for more realistic fare like that of Dickens and Austen (whose "Northanger Abbey" explicitly parodies "Udolpho"), the influence of Radcliffe and her fellows can still be traced throughout the development of popular fiction, from classics like "Jane Eyre" and "Dracula", to the early sci-fi of H.G. Wells, to modern gothic romance and horror.

 

To learn more about gothic novels and this quiet writer of flashy fiction, check out these and other resources from The Library's collection.

 

 

The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance by Ann Radcliffe

 

 

 

 

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

 

 

 

 

The Monk by M.G. (Matthew Gregory) Lewis

 

 

 

 

 Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

 

 

 

 

Ann Radcliffe* from St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers via Biography in Context

 

Ann Radcliffe* from Encyclopedia of World Biography via Biography in Context

 

Gothic Romance booklist from The Library

 


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