Mistress of Udolpho

The Life of Ann Radcliffe

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Mistress of Udolpho is the first full-scale biography of the famous Gothic novelist, Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), author of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), the world's first "best-seller." Rictor Norton has unearthed new information about Radcliffe, has run to ground leads other scholars have missed, and has given us a contextual picture of Radcliffe's life that is unlikely to be superseded. The author clarifies Radcliffe's emergence from a Dissenting Unitarian, rather than a conventional Anglican, background. This discovery redraws the literary historical map to include Radcliffe within the circle of other women writers nurtured in radical Dissenting backgrounds (such as Wollstonecraft, Hays, Inchbald and Barbauld). Full of fascinating detective work, Norton's scholarly biography fully documents Radcliffe's childhood and family background, investigates the rumours of her madness and her extraordinary reclusiveness, and evaluates the reasons for her probable mental breakdown. But it also constitutes a "cultural history" of a writing woman, fully demonstrating her place within radical culture, within literary tradition and aesthetic discourse, and examining her crucial role in the rise of the professional woman writer. Her novels are analysed mainly in the context of her biography and in the context of her sources, and some new dates for her posthumous work are established.

Ann Radcliffe was, in her day, the obscurest woman of letters in England. Her contemporaries despaired of learning anything about her, while Christina Rossetti abandoned her planned biography for lack of materials. Through patient and resourceful scholarship Rictor Norton has thrown light on Radcliffe's life and background for the first time. Full of new material and amazing discoveries, Norton's book will transform our understanding of Radcliffe — an absolute must for anyone with an interest in the subject.

Robert Miles, President, International Gothic Association

Rictor Norton earned his Ph.D. in 1973 from Florida State University, where he first began studying the Gothic literary tradition. He has written articles on the Gothic novel and on writers such as William Beckford, and has published five books on English literature and history, including Gothic Readings (Leicester University Press, 2000). He has contributed biographies of several Georgian and Victorian figures to the New Dictionary of National Biography.


PUBLICATION DATE: January 1999.
PRICE: £17.99 Paperback ISBN 0 7185 0202 7
£45.00 Hardback ISBN 0 7185 0201 9.
EXTENT: 320pages, 8 plates of illustrations.

PUBLISHER: Leicester University Press. Order online from Amazon.co.uk or from Amazon.com or from the publisher Continuum International.

Also Blackwell's Online Bookshop.


New York Times Book Review

April 25, 1999, by Diane Jacobs
Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), creator of the female Gothic romance, was among the most esteemed and highest-paid novelists of her time. Unlike Charlotte Smith and Jane Austen, she wrote for pleasure rather than money, and she was praised by a wide range of important late-18th-century figures, from Mary Wollstonecraft to the Marquis de Sade. At the height of the Age of Reason, she made a case for the redeeming power of art and the imagination. Her works greatly affected all the male Romantic poets, so why has their reputation waxed while hers has waned? This is one of many issues explored by Rictor Norton in his ingeniously researched biography. Radcliffe is a biographer's nightmare. She had few friends, wrote few letters, and the only diaries she kept were narrowly focused travel journals. After producing five immensely popular novels, at the age of 32 she suddenly stopped writing Gothics. With its quotations from remote archives bolstered by sensitive analysis of Radcliffe's books, ''Mistress of Udolpho'' reads at times like a scholarly detective novel. The heroine remains an enigma, but her world comes vividly to life. Diane Jacobs

Review of English Studies review (extract)

It is the origin and extent of the mysteries surrounding Ann Radcliffe which form the substance of Norton's resourceful and entertaining account. ... But in Norton's hands the circumstantial life can be made to yield a great deal. This is the case with the densely mapped Unitarian family background from which the young Ann Ward is seen to emerge ... If Norton is right, then the evidence he brings forward transforms our reading of her works in several significant ways. It gives Radcliffe a recognizable because shared identity within the broad intellectual and democratic environment that produced Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, and Anna Barbauld ... One of Norton's most suggestive proposals is the substitution of the republican Joseph Priestley for the conservative Edmund Burke as the originator of Radcliffe's ideas of the sublime, together with the possibility that her notorious dual commitment to reason and enthusiasm is rooted in the crucial debate between rational and evanglical dissent. ... this is a fascinating account, full of curious details that witness to the quite remarkable investigative labour which underpins it.
by Kathryn Sutherland in The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 51, No. 202 (2000), pp. 308-10.

Eighteenth-Century Studies review (extract)

"a highly readable and thoroughly researched biography of Radcliffe. ... Rictor Norton ... is exceptionally thorough and insightful in uncovering new and fascinating information on Ann Radcliffe. ... Norton has approached Radcliffe's biography in the spirit of a detective uncovering information through scholarship that is as absorbing and perceptive as it is resourceful. ... Norton is both fascinating and provoking in his tendency for speculation. Frequently, Norton's scholarship is impressive and meticulous, his conclusions logical and couched in the language of probability. ... Rictor Norton has produced not only our best biography of Radcliffe to date, but also a scintillating compilation of Gothic materials."

by Deborah D. Rogers in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Fall 2000), pp. 147-50.


S y n o p s i s

MISTRESS OF UDOLPHO
The Life of Ann Radcliffe

by Rictor Norton

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Chapter 1 The Mighty Enchantress

The first biographical memoir of Mrs Radcliffe was written three years after her death by a man who never met her, using material supplied solely by her husband and his own intuition. It is clear that no one knew her intimately — or at all. Mrs Radcliffe was shy to the point of neurosis, and seems to have had no friends or acquaintances. Her travel journals contain very few personal details. There are no diaries and virtually no reminiscences by any of her contemporaries. She set herself up as an enigma in the manner of Greta Garbo. What we know of her life resembles one of those manuscripts discovered in a gothic novel: passages faded and almost indecipherable, pages torn in half, whole chapters missing, spurious passages interpolated by other hands, all hinting at a secret mystery at the centre.

Christina Rossetti was offered the opportunity of writing a biography in the "Eminent Women Series" in 1882, and decided upon Mrs Radcliffe as one who "takes my fancy more than many." But after a cursory survey of the known material, some discussion with a few literary friends, and a letter to The Athenaeum that elicited no response, she abandoned the project because she felt that the lack of material made a biography impossible. All subsequent critics seem to have been scared off by Christina Rossetti's failure, though Rossetti herself was not a scholar and did not have the health necessary for the drudgery of research. Virtually no scholarly effort has been made to identify, for example, "the Tour through England" in which Mrs Radcliffe is said to have been confined in a madhouse in Derbyshire, or "an Ode to Terror published by a clergyman in 1810" saying that she died in "the horrors," referred to in Talfourd's Memoir of 1826. These sources, and many other facts and rumours, will be uncovered for the first time in my study.

Literary circles found it intolerable that the most famous novelist of the time should live a completely sequestered life. The result of their unassuaged curiosity is best summed up by Jeaffreson in 1858: "Leading a life of domestic seclusion, ... Mrs Radcliffe was utterly unknown to the thousands of English who, in London and in the country, were burning to learn something about her. At last, society, tired of being kept in such an ignominious state of ignorance, determined no longer to acknowledge herself unacquainted with the person, history, and circumstances of Mrs Radcliffe, but to borrow from imagination the facts which the lady was so impertinent as to keep to herself."

The public image of the mysterious Mrs Radcliffe as a mad genius, and the sensational nature of her novels are in sharp contrast to the ordinary preoccupations of her middle-class domestic life. She loved dogs and music, enjoyed excursions to Dover and Worthing, was fond of the sound of Greek though she could not understand the language, and felt it more important to be valued as a gentlewoman than a genius. Contemporaries remarked upon her scrupulous sense of propriety, which is borne out by her journals and her novels and the few people who met her, but it is clear that she also felt constrained by the pressures placed upon women to preserve an unblemished reputation of bland passivity. She eventually lost this battle to unite "desire and decorum," and withdrew from the world as journalists attacked her as a veritable sorceress.

Chapter 2 Dissent versus Decorum

Throughout the eighteenth century, one's pedigree was more important than one's talent, and the French Revolution had little impact upon this method of estimating one's character. Any writers who wished to establish their merit, had first of all to establish their respectable family connections. Mrs Radcliffe's most respectable connections were mostly collateral and mostly maternal — her paternal grandmother was a sister of a celebrated surgeon, her maternal grandmother's sister married a celebrated physician, and her maternal grandmother's father was a celebrated merchant and member of the minor gentry — but she and her husband made the most of what was available. The future novelist was born on 9 July 1764, the only child of Ann Oates and William Ward, haberdasher. William Radcliffe in his contribution to his wife's obituary was careful to note that her parents, "though in trade, were nearly the only persons of their two families not living in handsome, or at least easy independence."

Through her father she was related to the Cheseldens of Leicestershire, her paternal grandmother being the sister of William Cheselden, surgeon to King George II and noted for his skill in operating for "the stone." Through her mother she was related to the Jebbs of Derbyshire, who dominated the political, religious and medical life of Chesterfield for almost a century, notably the rapacious Sir Richard Jebb, physician to the fashionable in London, who was fond of reciting ribald verses to Mrs Thrale (Piozzi); and John Jebb the controversy-loving Unitarian and his strong-minded and equally controversial wife. The Dissenting and Unitarian commitments of many of her relatives may have contributed to her anti-Catholicism and to her fairly weak commitments to the Church of England (the deity of her novels is essentially the deity of the Unitarians). Collateral relations included Dr Samuel Hallifax, Bishop of Gloucester for a short while before becoming Bishop of St Asaph, and Dr Robert Halifax, physician to the Prince of Wales. Ann Ward and her mother cherished their distinguished pedigree, and traced their roots to the burgomasters John and Cornelius De Witt whose sons came over from Holland to drain the Lincolshire fens for Charles I. Ann Oates must have been distressed by her new circumstances when she married William Ward, a haberdasher who lived and worked in the same location on Holborn street for twenty-one years.

Many of Radcliffe's relatives had literary talent and were very individualistic and radical in their views, and she inherited their talent and their daring. But in daily behaviour she was very formal and straight-laced, and condescending towards the lower classes not only in her novels but also in real life, as when she makes fun of the housekeeper at Knole for not admitting that her mistress was a commoner. Radcliffe's family background of Rational Dissent, notably the intellectual élite of the Unitarians, is thoroughly documented, and its influence upon her writing is explored.

Chapter 3 Taste versus Trade

In 1771-2 Ann Ward stayed with her uncle Thomas Bentley in Turnham Green while her parents prepared for their removal to Bath, where her father was to manage the Wedgwood showroom, a position obtained for him by Bentley, who was Wedgwood's partner and a man of refined taste. At Bentley's her consciousness of her superior relatives would have been strengthened, and there she is said to have met Mrs Piozzi, Mrs Ord, Mrs Montague, Athenian Stuart, and the Wedgwoods. Bentley's home in Turnham Green (demolished in 1880) is undoubtedly the model for the Marquis de Montalt's villa in The Romance of the Forest. But Ann's creative life seems to be virtually a reaction against this early Neoclassical background. This visit to her uncle may have been experienced as a traumatic experience, which finds its expression in themes of abduction and avuncular incest in her novels. Surely it is more than a coincidence that Adeline in The Romance of the Forest is cruelly rejected by her father and sent to a convent at the age of seven, the same age at which Ann Ward was sent to stay with Bentley.

The themes of childhood disappointment and sense of rejection by her parents in her first three novels must reflect her own childhood. The major traits of her character can be found in her childhood: neurotic shyness, docility, and primness, due perhaps to being surrounded always by much older people (her mother was 38 years old when Ann was born) and the ancien regime of the Augustans. On the other hand, she must have sought escape and refuge in reading romances and poetry, as do all of the heroines in her novels; her literary taste was formed at a very early age, for she seldom alludes to anything written later than 1775 in her novels. The private life of her imagination, as expressed in her novels, ran directly counter to this classical Augustan childhood, but her personal behaviour matched it throughout her life, and people who met Mr and Mrs Radcliffe regarded them as figures from a bygone era.

Chapter 4 Miss Nancy

William Ward's Wedgwood showroom in Bath was an outlet for poorer quality ware, and the evidence indates that he was a second-rate tradesman. Ann Ward Radcliffe's life in Bath has been almost totally suppressed, as if she were ashamed of it, and especially ashamed of her father. Her parents are portrayed in her novels as a middle-aged ineffective woman and a rapacious but failed tradesman. I suggest that she probably never returned from Bentley's home to live with her parents, and therefore never lived in Bath. It is often assumed that Ann Ward attended the school of Harriet and Sophia Lee at Bath, but I produce evidence and argument to show that this would have been impossible and has to be abandoned as wishful thinking. Her books suggest that she was self-educated through a circulating library; contemporary reviewers noted with embarrassment her gaffes regarding history and manners while they admired her natural good breeding.

Chapter 5 A Literary Establishment

In 1787 Ann Ward married William Radcliffe, a graduate of Oriel College who gave up the study of law in favour of literature. I suggest that William Radcliffe came from a Unitarian Dissenting family, and he met Ann through her Dissenting uncle Jebb. William earned some money by mediocre translations, and became editor of The Gazetteer, a radical newspaper, and then proprietor of the English Chronicle. The Gazetteer under Radcliffe's editorship was closely linked to the Revolution Society and radical Unitarians. Mrs Radcliffe began her first literary efforts through boredom as much as anything else, while her husband attended the Parliamentary debates and remained out late most evenings. Writing and reading were the only intellectual pursuits open to many women, and one of the reasons for the popularity of the novel. The daily routine could be very boring for the middle class woman, whose abilities were by no means stretched by the two or three servants under her command, and whose round of pleasures was circumscribed by earned rather than inherited wealth. For women with an imaginative stamp, the writing of novels and poetry would follow on quite naturally from the reading of them. Mrs Radcliffe was just such a woman, and fortunately she was encouraged by a husband sympathetic to literary pursuits. He is said to have read her manuscripts with a delicious shudder when he came home after work. A look at her first two novels, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne and A Sicilian Romance, and the influences upon them. The early years of her marriage were culturally active, with time spent going to operas — notably operas by Handel and Paesiello whose influence can be shown upon her novels — and picture exhibitions, but Mrs Radcliffe was never able to mix easily in society.

Chapter 6 The Aesthetics of Terror

In Radcliffe's first novel her critical vocabulary and aesthetic techniques are already well in place. The union of the sublime with the beautiful is the goal towards which she strives, by means of careful obscurity. The vocabulary of the Gothick is fixed: "the ruins of an abbey, whose broken arches and lonely towers arose in gloomy grandeur through the obscurity of evening." The images are fixed: decayed ivy- clad cloisters, violent storms, vivid flashes of lightning, ruffians, assassins, shipwrecked survivors, mysterious figures, candles and torches blown out by gusts of wind, the sounds of breathing close beside one in the pitch darkness, horrible caverns, castles whose "lofty towers still frowned in proud sublimity," with abandoned apartments, intricate passages, dark galleries, winding flights of stairs, gloomy vaults, trap doors, secret panels, and a subterranean labyrinth in which one-fifth of the action of the novel takes place. The images come from the Graveyard School of poetry, the aesthetic comes from the contemporary debate about the picturesque and the sublime, and the sensibility of her characters comes from the Novels of Sentiment.

But it is equally important to note that discussions about the Sublime are part of intellectual Unitarian culture, particularly in works by Joseph Priestley, close friend of Radcliffe's uncle Bentley, whose works may have influenced her. Her background in Rational Dissent accounts for her signature hallmark, "the explained supernatural." The most important aesthetic influences upon her work are examined. The clearest literary influences upon The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne and her next novel A Sicilian Romance (1790) are Shakespeare's Hamlet, The Tempest, Macbeth, Richard III, Collins' Ode to Fear, Milton's Comus and Paradise Lost, Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, Smollett's Ferdinand Count Fathom, Aikin's Sir Bertrand, Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron, Sophia Lee's The Recess and Charlotte Smith's Emmeline, The Orphan of the Castle, all of which contributed to the formation of the distinctive gothic genre. Both novels (published anonymously) were well reviewed, and established Mrs Radcliffe's fame as an elegant and original writer.

Chapter 7 Portrait of the Artist

Many readers regard The Romance of the Forest (1791), her third novel, as her most wholly satisfying work, because the balance between characterization, description, sentiment and mystery is just right, her use of "the explained supernatural" is fully convincing and natural, and the plot is intriguing without being unduly complicated, and it is in this novel that Mrs Radcliffe's skill in constructing an intricate and suspenseful plot can be most fully recognized and analyzed. Here also we have a single heroine for the first time, and it is in this novel that we come to appreciate most fully that the real heroine of her novels is in a sense the reader, particularly the young female reader seeking independence. Adeline is a self-portrait of Mrs Radcliffe declaring her personal worth independent of men, with which pre-feminist readers would identify: "The observations and general behaviour of Adeline already bespoke a good understanding and an amiable heart, but she had yet more — she had genius." This novel is essentially a portrait of the artist as a gothic heroine, and it is of central importance in understanding Ann Radcliffe's theory of creativity, and how she went beyond the eighteenth-century critique of the beautiful/ the picturesque/ the sublime and developed a theory of the Romantic Imagination rather than simply Augustan Fancy; the forest itself symbolizes the "wild illusions of creative mind" that break down and then re-shape the structures of society and civilization (just as the tree-stump catches the wheel and overturns the carriage, forcing the La Motte family to take up habitation in the abbey tower). Although Ann Radcliffe is essentially a "transitional" and "pre-Romantic" figure, there are nevertheless numerous instances in which she prefigures the central concerns of the Romantic poets.

The reviewers accorded the novel an extraordinarily high critical acclaim, possibly leading to some professional jealousy between Mrs Radcliffe and Charlotte Smith, and the former was established as the creator and finest practitioner of a distinctively new school of fiction. It was enthusiastically read by the public, who were requiring stronger stuff in their novels as the French Revolution was making domestic life more terrifying. During the Terror of 1794, Mrs Piozzi and her circle were reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, and in her diary she noted that "the people are gaping for Wonders of every kind, and expect Marvels in the Natural World to keep Pace with the strange Events observed in the Civil & Political World." One of the stranger manifestations of this millennialism was the belief that ancient prophecies were now being fulfilled. Even Mrs Piozzi, an educated middle class woman, began a serious study of the prophecies in Revelations and Isaiah, and believed that the French government of early 1794 could be identified with "the third part of the sun" that would be smitten when the fourth angel sounded in St John's Apocalypse. For some people Mrs Radcliffe was more than just an exemplar of the spirit of the times: she was herself a prophet. Joanna Southcott, the well-known religious mystic, was among several readers who believed that The Romance of the Forest was divinely inspired, and the Spirit of God actually dictated to her a divine analysis of the novel in 1803. The unpublished autograph manuscript is in the library of the University of Texas. The Spirit told Joanna that Mrs Radcliffe became the channel for God's prophecies, and went on to analyze the novel as an allegory of Joanna's followers being persecuted, and as a "history" of God's plans for the future. The villain, Phillipe de Montalt, is identified as Satan, while Adeline is identified with Joanna; her slanderers are the criminal henchmen hired by Montalt; the mystery over Adeline's father parallel Joanna's confusion over whether she should conform to society or trust in "the Voice" which speaks to her.

Chapter 8 Unrivalled Genius

The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) is Mrs Radcliffe's most compelling novel, which has prompted a rich range of modern criticism, and I shall review the most fruitful approaches. I would disagree with Elizabeth Napier who in The Failure of Gothic (1987) argues that disjunction and imbalance are inherent to the gothic genre, but Napier does at least recognize that Mrs Radcliffe comes closer to achieving a successful unity than any of her colleagues. Wylie Sypher (1945) sees in the novel a skilful attenuation of tension rather than resolution of her contradictory bourgeois and bohemian impulses, and several critics see it as a case of internalized hysteria. Many of these approaches are illuminating, but depend too heavily upon psychological and social analysis. I believe that in The Mysteries of Udolpho Mrs Radcliffe succeeded in creating an aesthetic out of her personal conflict between order and disorder, harmony and passion, the Augustan and Romantic impulses, and that this fundamentally imaginative achievement is the hallmark of her genius and the secret of her appeal to some seven generations of readers.

For this novel Mrs Radcliffe received £500 (the contract was discovered in 1966), an unprecedented amount for a novel. An important consequence of the high royalty was its cultural impact: serious money dignified what might otherwise have been dismissed as yet another silly novel. Literature, the patrimony of men, already under threat by working women novelists such as Charlotte Smith, was struck another humiliating blow: never before had such an amount been paid to a woman, and the male literary establishment was astonished. It was almost wildly received by the general public, and was praised in hyperbolic terms by major critics. Modern critics too often compare her to other novelists, but her contemporaries more accurately compared her to dramatic poets, particularly Ariosto, Milton and Shakespeare. The Mysteries of Udolpho is examined as one of the great works of European literature, replete with cultural signifiers. For example, the epigraphs function as imprimaturs which allow the learned and the wise to read her books with the satisfaction that they are taking their pleasure from a worthwhile source. The fact that she wrote her own poems proved her high morals and distanced her from charges of being merely frivolous or sensationalist. The poetry — from a formal point of view, without being read or reflected upon — was essential for her success with the critical establishment and the literary world, and also accounted for her success among ladies as well as their self-respecting maids. The poetry rendered Mrs Radcliffe's novels genteel, and it is very illuminating to review how civilized ladies and gentlemen responded to the kind of romances read by their valets and ladies maids. It is due to Mrs Radcliffe that the gothic novel became literary as well as popular. At the same time there is an important secondary theme about the importance of property, female inheritance and independence.

Chapter 9 Picturesque Tours

In 1794 Mr and Mrs Radcliffe travelled through Holland and the western frontier of Germany, returning along the Rhine, possibly using the royalty from The Mysteries of Udolpho to cover expenses. They intended to proceed into Switzerland and France, but were turned back at the border due to a confusion over passports. So instead, they finished off with a trip through the Lake District. This was the only time Mrs Radcliffe ever left England, though many people believed she visited Italy because her descriptions of that country were so vivid, and it was even said that her husband worked at one of the British embassies in Italy (wholly untrue). There is a marvellous anecdote about Mrs Radcliffe being arrested as a spy in France and thrown into a Gothic dungeon, again wholly untrue. Her notes on these travels, with political comments contributed by her husband, were published in 1795 as A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 (though many early critics incorrectly believed the journey was made before she wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho), which was given an excellent critical reception.

Not only does the book demonstrate that she had enough spirit to travel to such places at a time of political upheaval, but it also contains interesting examples of her wider political and social views (demonstrating sympathy with the common people, and harsh anti- Catholicism). The book was published at a time that Unitarians were being imprisoned for treason and fomenting rebellion (1794), yet she clearly aligns her opinions with those of the Radical Dissenters and praises, for example, the Glorious Revolution.

Her main purpose was to describe the picturesque landscape; she was highly influenced by the theorists of the Picturesque such as Gilpin, and she even made direct borrowings from works such as Hester Lynch Piozzi's Observations and Reflections made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy and Germany (1789). Her own book had a powerful influence upon later picturesque travellers and topographical writers (such as Ebenezer Rhodes' Peak Scenery and Joseph Farington's massive project Britannia Depicta). Many critics feel that Mrs Radcliffe's most important contribution to the development of the English novel was the introduction of extensive scenic description (landscape has the force of a psychological character in her works), and she deliberately created word-paintings to match the canvasses of Salvator Rosa, Claude and Poussin.

Chapter 10 The Mighty Magician

Mrs Radcliffe's publisher gave her a grand dinner to mark the success of Udolpho, but this was followed soon after by her mysterious flight from the public eye, as if she were a Pythoness retreating into her cave. In 1796 The Italian was published, which contains her most successful examples of characterization, particularly Schedoni brooding over his secret guilt, upon whom the Byronic Hero would be modelled, and it is possibly her best novel in terms of structure and unity. At this time the very highly respected critic Thomas Mathias compared her to the Pythoness of Apollo both because of the terror which she inspired and because he saw her as a fitting medium of the god of poetry. This set the establishment's seal of approval upon her, and it became possible for the most respectable persons to read and discuss her novels in public. In Mrs Radcliffe's day, poetry was literature and novels were trash; by interspersing her fictions with poetry, she elevated the novel into a higher literary form. But then, at the height of her fame, Mrs Radcliffe decided to cease publishing. Mrs Barbauld felt that in The Italian Mrs Radcliffe had taken her peculiar art as far as it could go, that after portraying the horrors of the Inquisition the next step could only have been a portrayal of Hell, which she shrank back from. The novel is essentially an analysis of identity, self-realization, and thwarted development of a full personality — the buried self.

Chapter 11 Behind the Veil

Because Gothic novels confront issues of horror and sexual violence, it is common to interpret them using the tools of Freudian (and more recently Lacanian) psychoanalysis, reducing literary style to strategies for dealing with tabooed material (such as repetition compulsion, splitting, projection, and so on). Daniel Cottom suggests that Radcliffe's idealization of a neurasthenic sensibility is itself evidence of a severe internal conflict, and David Punter has argued that The Italian, for example, "fits in" with Melanie Klein's analysis of narcissism and the child's fantasies about the father inside the mother. The novels sometimes contain hints of a autobiographical allegory. For example, The Italian opens in the year 1764, the year of Ann Radcliffe's birth; in The Mysteries of Udolpho, we can deduce that Emily was born in 1564 and meets her future husband Valancourt in 1584 when she is twenty, just as the author was born in 1764 and met William Radcliffe in 1784 when she was twenty; the heroines' names Emilia and Emily may have been suggested by her grandmother Amelia Jebb and by her ancestor Amelia De Witt. Even without the more extreme insistence upon the romantic identification of the author with his or her works, Ann Radcliffe's novels betray a heady mix of morbidity, guilt, repression, and a stifling sense of frustration and confinement. A melancholia that goes beyond the requirements of fashion is everywhere in evidence. The preternatural secrecy which Ann Radcliffe cultivated, the controlled hysteria of her novels, and the melancholy depression of her journals, inevitably prompt questions about her inner life.

An examination of the autobiographical elements in her imaginative writings prompts me to follow two lines of analysis that I acknowledge are frankly speculative: first, that she was perhaps sent to stay with her uncle Bentley as a way of protecting her from sexual abuse by her father; and second — but not necessarily related — that she suppressed lesbian emotions, possibly related to love-hate relations with her mother. In the repeated patterns of family life in all her novels we are justified in seeing a reflection of the author's own childhood. The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, for example, contains curiously pessimistic allusions to apathetic and condemnatory parents; the characterization of the mother-figures suggests that her own mother was a manic- depressive and ineffectual, and there are suggestions that her father was avaricious and mean-spirited. Within this first novel there are two separate households, each occupied by a widow with a son and daughter, both households united under the oppression of a brother-in-law and an uncle. The parallels suggest that a personality has been split and duplicated, and the problem of childhood abuse is being dealt with by means of projection. A peculiar characteristic of Ann Radcliffe's novels is that most of the protagonists are on the verge of madness. Nearly every character loses consciousness at the height of an intense emotion, possibly indicative of severe repression. It is clear that Ann Radcliffe failed to establish any bonds of friendship throughout her life, perhaps concluding, like Adeline in Romance of the Forest, that "no person is to be trusted" — particularly her parents.

Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho tears aside the veil and penetrates the recess of the mother figure who is simultaneously the Shadow, the Other. Emily is male-willed, fascinated by powerful or passionate women such as Lady Laurentini/Sister Agnes, and the Marchioness de Villeroi, and courted by young women such as the peasant girl Maddelina, "whose gentle countenance and manners soothed her more than any circumstance she had known for many months," and eighteen-year-old Lady Blanche, who "became impatient for her new friend" when Emily spends some time in the convent: "She had now no person, to whom she could express her admiration and communicate her pleasures, no eye, that sparkled to her smile, or countenance, that reflected her happiness." The veil is suffused with sexuality, but it is a narcissistic and quasi-lesbian sexuality. In a fleeting early episode in the novel, Emily is attracted to a Venetian girl, Signora Herminia, who sings and plays on her lute, "with her veil half thrown back," whose picture Emily draws and gives to her "as a pledge of her friendship." Emily is similarly attracted to the Lady Abbess, whose veil is "thrown half back," suggesting some half-hidden mystery.

A lesbian theme first appears in The Romance of the Forest, when Adeline wakes from a fever to discover her protector Clara La Luc: "the bed curtain on one side was gently undrawn by a beautiful girl. ... Adeline gazed in silent admiration upon the most interesting female countenance she had ever seen." In The Italian the relationship between Ellena and Sister Olivia adumbrates the problematical relationship between Ann Radcliffe and her own mother. The first meeting between Ellena and Olivia is a highly charged depiction of erotic love at first sight, connected with the image of throwing back the veil; later, Olivia gives Ellena an unambiguous love-token, "a knot of fragrant flowers"; when Ellena finally escapes the convent, by disguising herself in Olivia's veil, their separation is the parting of lovers, explicitly recognized as such by Vivaldi, her supposed fiancé: "'Ah Ellena!' said Vivaldi, as he gently disengaged her from the nun, 'do I then hold only the second place in your heart?'" It is a mistake to dismiss this as "merely" a sentimental friendship convention typical of the "romantic friendship" literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The possibility that Ann Radcliffe suppressed lesbian emotions goes some way towards explaining some of the mysteries of her novels; for example, Jane Spencer points out that her three major novels all "end with defeat for the authoritarian male and the heroine's marriage to a feminized hero"; and analysis of Radcliffe's posthumous poetry shows that she clearly identified herself as the male figure of Prospero the magician.

Chapter 12 Horrid Mysteries

Ann Radcliffe's immense popularity gave rise to an extensive debate, found in contemporary diaries as well as literary journals, as to whether or not gothic novels, including hers, tend to deprave and corrupt their readers. The influence of German sources upon the later gothic tradition, especially Lewis's The Monk, which in turn influenced The Italian, were felt to be unpatriotic, blasphemous and unhealthy. Her works were attacked as promoting republican and egalitarian sympathies; even the wild mountain scenery of her landscapes, which was in a sense her signature, was suspected — was not Liberty "the mountain Goddess"? Attacks upon "The Terrorist School of Writing" appeared in the journals, relating Gothic Romances, including hers, to the Terror raging in France. The imitations of her work, by writers such as Mary Meeke and Isabella Kelly and numerous anonymous writers, were more blatantly revolutionary than her own, and probably made her ashamed of begetting such ill-bred progeny. The view held by Sir Walter Scott and other contemporaries is that she was shocked into silence. Her husband was so scandalized by the public discussion of his wife's works and her implied lack of morals, that he persuaded her to stop writing for publication.

Whatever the cause of her total withdrawal from the world, the study of the reaction to Mrs Radcliffe's novels is interesting in itself, as a study of public taste, and as a study of critical reception, closely aligned to the attack upon the "unsexed females" such as Wollstonecraft, Barbauld, Robinson, Smith, Yearseley, and Mrs Mary Ann Radcliffe, author of The Female Advocate; or, An Attempt To Recover the Rights of Women from Male Usurpation, which was attributed to our Mrs Radcliffe. She was systematically attacked by a conspiracy of critics from the Anglican Establishment. But by the 1820s Mrs Radcliffe was being praised for the very qualities for which she had been criticized in the 1790s, for the Revolution of politics had been matched by a revolution of reading, and her works do in fact prefigure the Romantics and their love of liberty, the natural man, passion, and the darker side of individualism. It was Mrs Radcliffe who established the female novelist's claim to an equal rank with men in the literary world; it was she as much as Mary Wollstonecraft who was responsible for establishing the rights of literary women, and the rights of heroines to move through their fictional domains with as much liberty as heros.

Chapter 13 The Gothic Tourist

Mr and Mrs Radcliffe took two holidays each year, and Mrs Radcliffe kept a travel journal for each of these. Her excursions in search of the Picturesque and the Sublime in Kent and the South Downs are amusing and interesting examples of the new middle-class fashion for visiting country-houses and taking holidays by the seaside, which also illuminate her character and her creative and emotional sensitivities. From 1797 through 1801 she visited Rochester castle, Feversham, Canterbury Cathedral, Dover (where she climbed Shakespeare's Cliff), Folkestone, Portsmouth, the Isle of Wight (perhaps her favourite resort), Winchester, Arundel Castle, and Worthing (where they enjoyed watching the frolics of the day-trippers from Brighton). I suggest that Carisbrook Castle on the Isle of Wight is the model for the Castle of Udolpho. She was always keen to see the latest "modern castles" as well as genuine castles and ancient churches. It was characteristic of Mrs Radcliffe that she always climbed to the very top of a precipice or turret in order to gain the sublimest view possible; like her heroines, if there was anything more to see, she was game to see it. She loved hiking, climbing hills, and listening to the mighty sound of the waves lapping the shore; walking around Windsor Castle and Windsor Forest in the moonlight; and the exhilaration of sailing in boats. The journals are very interesting for showing her extremely fine visual receptivity to colours and the beauty of landscapes. Although she had a painterly eye, her critical judgment and vocabulary when dealing with paintings seen in country house collections are limited entirely to an evaluation of realism and the representation of emotions in portraits. She records the occasional humorous incident, such as walking with her favourite dog Chance at Beachy Head, being given bad service at a hotel and anticipating with some humorous malice the service that other diners will similarly receive, exulting with childish glee when a cliff returns her echo.

On the other hand, a growing melancholy colours her writing. Her journals are notable for her frequent reflections upon the ghost in Shakespeare's Hamlet and the nature of sublimity and awful solitude. The journals reveal virtually no human contact with any fellow travellers or the locals; on the contrary, they include very sad references to the deaths of both of her parents during this period, and contain ample proof of withdrawal, advancing melancholia, and severe depression. Her aunt died in 1797, her father died in 1798, and her mother died in 1799. Her mother made an extraordinary will leaving her estate to her daughter solely as if she were unmarried, and prohibiting her husband William from "intermeddling" in her affairs, and her sentiments on female inheritance clearly parallel those of Madame Montoni in The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Chapter 14 Olden Times

It seems clear that after that after the furore caused by The Italian, and possibly the fear of confronting her own demon, Mrs Radcliffe had determined to abandon the Terrorist School and to redirect her enthusiasms into a more acceptable channel. During 1802-1807 she visited Kenilworth, Warwick Castle, Blenheim, and Knole, for which she made detailed historical notes and comments on their collections of paintings. Her antiquarian enthusiasms can be traced through all of her work, but are especially well illustrated by Gaston de Blondeville, which was written as a result of a trip to Kenilworth in 1802. Her journals suggest that the urge to write was irrepressible, and I would suggest that her husband directed this urge toward this more acceptable historical outlet. But her imagination was constricted by this effort to achieve accuracy and realism, and the novel is a failure. Her husband claimed this novel was written for her personal amusement, but it can be established that she withdrew it from publication at the last moment, for reasons not altogether clear. She took it out of the bottom drawer on at least two occasions to reconsider its merits, and was very nearly persuaded by a friend finally to allow it to be published, but something went wrong at the publisher's office, and it never appeared in her lifetime. Its more archaeological approach to the gothic prefigures the transition from Georgian Gothic to Victorian Gothic, from gothic romances to the more "nationalist" and vernacular school of romance exploited by Sir Walter Scott, upon whom she was a powerful influence. On the other hand, it is notable for its use of the genuine supernatural, which ironically proves to be less terrifying than the mysterious sounds of her earlier novels. Another result of these antiquarian travels was the long poem St Alban's Abbey, also published posthumously; it is difficult to date, but it shows a falling-off of her imagination, if not a breakdown of her mental powers. I assemble evidence to indicate that the main text of Gaston was a joint effort between her and her husband in 1802; and that the important Introduction to the novel (which contains her theory about use of the supernatural in fiction) was written separately, entirely by Radcliffe, and was significantly revised between 1812-1815.

Chapter 15 Construction of the Legend

Although Mrs Radcliffe made more Gothic Tours to Penshurst, Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight in 1811, and Malvern in 1812, she had withdrawn from society to such an extent that there were widespread rumours of her death — which she declined to contradict. It was conjectured that her wild imagination had preyed upon itself, that her effort to create visions of horror had finally driven her into a lunatic asylum. Madness and an early death were the two great ideas that seized upon the public imagination. Many of the rumours about her death, particularly the numerous reports that appeared in France, can be traced to a newspaper notice of the death of her mother-in- law Mrs Deborah Radcliffe in 1809. Around 1809-1811 several publications declared that Mrs Radcliffe had either died insane or that she was currently locked up in a madhouse, which I have traced to a rumour prevalent in her native Derbyshire, possibly fostered by the Duke of Rutland in order to promote tourism at Haddon Hall, which many readers believed was the model for the Castle of Udolpho. The existence of some of these rumours has always been known, but I identify the actual publications in which they occurred for the first time, and also trace other rumours not previously known about. Mrs Radcliffe did not repudiate any of these scandalous reports — probably because they were too close to the truth, as her journals demonstrate an advancing melancholia. This chapter is essentially a study of how "the legend" of Mrs Radcliffe was created by the literary world. It has always been denied that Radcliffe visited Derbyshire before she wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho, but I establish that at the age of thirteen she stayed with her uncle Bentley's wife's parents in Derby, only a few miles away from Haddon Hall, and I reopen the possibility that Haddon Hall is indeed the model for the Chateau-le-blanc in the novel.

Chapter 16 Retirement at Windsor

I examine factual evidence that does indeed suggest that Ann Radcliffe suffered clinical depression during late 1811 and suffered a nervous breakdown in 1812. I speculate that it was her reading of the Letters of Anna Seward published in 1812, wherein she accused Radcliffe of falsely claiming to have written the Plays on the Passions actually written by Joanna Bailey, that triggered the breakdown, and I establish the source of this rumour. It is a measure of Mrs Radcliffe's ill health at the time that she reacted towards this gossip with such acute sensitivity, and similar suggestions of slander preyed upon her mind for the rest of her life. Talfourd in his memoir of her acknowledged "the morbid delicacy of feeling which is acquired and nourished by living in great retirement." For two and a half years she retired to Windsor to recover, and did not return to London to live with her husband until 1815. While walking in the Windsor Great Park she met several of the Princesses and struck up a friendship with Mary Berry (lesbian lover of the sculptor Anne Seymour Damer). And during her stay there, a ghost appeared on the Terrace of Windsor Castle. The poems in two of her novels were collected and published in 1815, bearing all the hallmarks of being intended as a posthumous publication. This was probably authorized by her husband, who may have believed Ann Radcliffe was on her deathbed; in the event, she made a miraculous recovery in late 1815 and returned to London, where they moved into a new home.

Chapter 17 The Final Years

The last twelve years of Mrs Radcliffe's life were marred by declining physical health, in particular increasingly severe asthma, and by deteriorating mental health. She now made only day trips as she could not take the strain of long excursions, though in 1823 she went to Ramsgate, probably in search of healthy air, where she caught a chest infection which caused her death. Towards the end of her life, gasping for breath was her daily nightmare, though contemporary works said she deliberately induced horrifying visions by eating raw carrots before going to bed. During this period asthma was almost a fashionable disease, and the subject of articles in the Gentleman's Magazine; several contemporary treatises describe the treatment she probably would have endured. William Radcliffe's main concern was to defend his wife from charges of Raving Madness, which is the image of her in the popular imagination. He admitted that she went into delirium just before she died, and a contemporary journal defended its claim that she died in a state of mental alienation. There exists a journal in Ann Radcliffe's own hand, recording the details of her illness during the last few months; a study of the doctor's prescriptions suggests that she had a long-term bronchial infection rather than asthma, and also that medical treatment of her may have put undue stress upon her heart, though clearly she died of pneumonia.

Shortly after his wife's death, William Radcliffe married their housekeeper. Talfourd in private correspondence noted that William Radcliffe was over-scrupulous about his more illustrious wife's reputation, and burst into tears whenever her name was mentioned, probably due to some unexplained guilt. When one realizes the constant presence of William Radcliffe as censor of Talfourd's memoir, it becomes relatively easy to read the true story between the lines, for Talfourd very skilfully implied more than he said. I have discovered that William Radcliffe inexplicably moved to Versailles, where he died in 1830, leaving a substantial estate to his new wife.

Chapter 18 Mother Radcliffe

The Romantic poets were deeply indebted to Ann Radcliffe for some of their most powerful imagery (Byron and Shelley plagiarized her outright), and poets such as Scott, Wordsworth and especially Coleridge still mined the superstitious vein, but the mainstream of The English Novel, the novel of realism and fashionable manners, had reasserted itself, and the Horrid Novels of spectres and mysteries had fallen from their position of dominance in the market. Gothic novels declined in popularity, from the first rush of more than a dozen titles per year for 1794-7 to a high point of around two dozen per year for 1798-1810, to little more than half a dozen for 1811-20, to only 3 or 4 for 1821-30. The torrent became a trickle (though this should not mislead us into thinking that Mrs Radcliffe stopped writing at the right time: she could have ridden the crest of the wave for a good ten years longer had she chosen not to stop publishing after 1797). There was always something deliberately archaic about the gothic school of romance, and it is not surprising that its own traditions lasted little more than a single generation. As early as 1818 a contributor to Blackwood's felt that the supernatural branch of fiction had taken its place upon the shelf of literary history. The gothic genre had fallen into disrepute due to the unskilfulness of most of its practitioners and the overworked machinery of their haunted castles and presentiments. The most severe judgement always comes from the generation immediately following the death of an artist, and so it was with Mrs Radcliffe. By the 1850s it had become the fashion to speak of her works with contempt and to point to them "as the best possible representatives of stupidity." This unjust scorn is ironically due to the very fact that her success made her remembered while her contemporaries lay forgotten in oblivion. But she nevertheless influenced works by Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Brockden Brown, William Thackeray, Charles Dickens, Charles Maturin, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Bulwer-Lytton, Wilkie Collins, Sheridan Le Fanu, Henry James, Edgar Allen Poe, Swinburne, and many French writers including Stendahl.


Copyright © 1998 Rictor Norton. Updated 4 November 2000.


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