Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) English author

Ann Radcliffe lived such an uneventful life that it is reported that one admirer of her work gave up the idea of writing her biography due to a lack of material. Although her success could have gained her entry into the most fashionable social circles, she shunned the limelight, prefering to sit quietly at home. However, she had an immense influence on English novels which lasted for decades. Her stories are generally classified as gothic novels, and her writing style has been described as "word painting". Her novel The Italian is regarded by some to be the best gothic novel ever written.

Radcliffe was born the year The Castle of Otranto, considered to be the first gothic novel, was published. She was the only child of William and Ann Ward, and had a rather isolated childhood. The details of her education are unknown, but her parents both had connections in the prefessional class of England, so she appears to have been exposed to what was considered to be the cultured and artistic society of the day. She married William Radcliffe in 1787. William was an Oxford graduate who was studying law at the time of their marriage, but he soon abandoned his studies to become the editor of the English Chronicle. William worked very long hours in this new position, and Ann began to write to pass the time while he was away. Her literary career lasted less than ten years. Some speculate that she quit writing after her parents died, resting on the laurels of her success and her inheritance. In reality it probably had more to do with the fact that later in life she suffered from spasmodic asthma.

Like most authors of gothic novels, Radcliffe chose France and Italy as the settings of her stories. Sitting alone by the fire, pen in hand, she created incredibly detailed descriptions of places she had never been. The pictures she drew of the France and Italy of the time were not particulary accurate, but she described her settings in such carefully exquisite detail that her readers were more than willing to suspend disbelief. But just as important as describing a mysterious and vaguely sinister scene, was the well developed main character, a virgin heroine far from home and unprotected, who experiences all manner of terrifying and apparently supernatural occurances. I say apparently because by the end of the story, Radcliffe would explain away all of these events as natural phenomena or a deliberate creation of man. Anyone who has seen an episode of Scooby-Doo should find the end of a Radcliffe novel very familiar. Characters who were recently scared out of their minds by some apparition can suddenly explain the occurence in a perfectly rational manner.

Although her career as a novelist was short, Radcliffe had a lasting influence on English fiction. As late as 1840 authors still used references to her novels in their own stories. She had many imitators, but the secret to her success was simply that she was a better writer than most of the people producing gothic fiction in her day. As always, success brought criticism as well. Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey was more or less a satire of gothic fiction, and contained many references to The Mysteries of Udolpho. Austen also used references to The Romance of the Forest in Emma to help develop the somewhat ignorant and impressionable character of Harriet Smith. But even Austen's less than flattering references to her writing are an indication of the enduring influence of Radcliffe's work.

The Novels of Ann Radcliffe:

The introduction to The Mysteries of Udolpho, published by Oxford University Press World's Classics
Emma and Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

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