AN INTRODUCTION TO ANN RADCLIFFE
ELIZABETH CARTER (17171806)
Elizabeth Carter, famous for her brilliant translation of Epictetus, friend of Dr Johnson, Hannah More, Elizabeth Montagu and many notables in the literary and intellectual world, was the archetypal Bluestocking. But like many of the late Augustans, she was sensitive to the appeal of romantic melancholy and sublime scenery, and visited the gloomy ruins of Fountains Abbey and the solemn shades of Rippon Minster in the 1780s. She became an avid reader of novels in the 1790s, and made a special effort to meet Mrs Radcliffe, by an introduction through Henrietta Maria (Harriet) Bowdler, the sister of the man who ‘bowdlerized’ Shakespeare’s plays to make them less dangerous for young readers.
(Copyright © 2000, 2022 Rictor Norton
(11 December 1759)
I have not read the History of the Penitents, except a little extract, with which I was greatly pleased. It is much to be wished indeed that the general fashion of novel reading did not render such antidotes very necessary. Various kinds of antidotes perhaps are necessary to the various kinds of poison imbibed in the study of these wretched books*, by which the understanding, the taste, and the heart are equally in danger of being vitiated. Those which are writ in the most specious manner, with great appearance of delicacy, and high pretensions to virtue, are of all others the most destructive;; they form a jumble of right and wrong, so entangled together, that it requires exactness of judgment to separate them, which seldom or never belongs to young people, who take all together; and thus their heads become a mere chaos of confused ideas, and their hearts are cheated out of every fixed principle of action.
[*Note by Mrs Carter’s Nephew: It will be obvious to the reader, how great has been the improvement which has taken place in writing novels, since the date of this letter. Mrs. Carter highly approved of many that have since been written by authors of considerable genius, as well as of strict morals, such as Mrs. West and Mrs. Radcliffe, and others who might be named; and she found the reading of such works a very pleasing relaxation from her severer studies.]
[Letters from Mrs. Elizabeth Carter to Mrs. Montague, ed. Rev. Montagu Pennington, 3 vols (London: F.C. and J. Rivington, 1817), vol. 1, pp. 6970]
(15 December 1790)
I have been reading with much pleasure the Sicilian Romance. The language is elegant, the scenery exquisitely painted, the moral good, and the conduct and conclusion of the fable, I think, original. Have you read it? And do you know the name of the authoress? I do not.
[Letters from Mrs Elizabeth Carter to Mrs Montagu, vol. 3, pp. 3234]
(15 September 1794)
Lady B[eaumont] recd. a letter to-day from Mrs Carter, who expresses herself in a very strong manner in favour of the Mysteries of Udolpho and of the talents of Mrs Radcliffe, the author.
[The Farington Diary (1922), vol. 1, p. 71]
After the publication of the third edition of her Poems, in which some were added which had not appeared before, she [i.e. Mrs Carter] wrote nothing for the press. Her head-aches were very frequent and violent, and often prevented her from reading or writing any thing which required much attention. At such times, when she was able to sit up, she was glad to have recourse to any novel, or modern romance, provided the tendency, or moral, of it was good. These she read with much pleasure, especially if removed from real life, from the delineations of which she did not derive much satisfaction. The novels of Mrs. D’Arblay [i.e. Fanny Burney] are indeed exceptions to this rule; for she thought very highly of them, especially of Evelina, the first published; she had them all, and read them with increasing approbation more than once.
[Montagu Pennington, Memoirs of the Life of Mrs Elizabeth Carter (London: F. C. and J. Rivington, 1807), pp. 298301]
If Mrs Radcliffe is not engaged, Mrs Carter will have the pleasure of calling upon her about twelve o’clock tomorrow morning.
(18 April 1799)
P.S. If Mrs Carter does not deliver this letter herself, she will, I believe, take an early opportunity of waiting on you, with a very amiable friend of mine, Miss Shipley, who has promised to carry her in her carriage.
Mrs Radcliffe is extremely sorry that an engagement to go into the country to-morrow, for some time, on account of Mr R’s state of health, which is very critical, will deprive her of the honour intended her by Mrs Carter; for which she requests Mrs C. to believe that she has a full and proper respect.
[Annual Biography and Obituary, for the Year 1824, vol. 8, pp. 1034]
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