RADCLIFFE AND THE SCHOOL OF TERROR


If Horace Walpole was the father of the Gothic novel, Ann Radcliffe was certainly its mother. The publication of her novel A Siclian Romance in 1790 marks the real beginning of the full-fledged Gothic novel. Very few Gothic novels were published before then, but a flood of them appeared afterwards. The medieval trappings used by Walpole acted as a constraint upon creativity, but once writers jettisoned antiquarian authenticity in favour of vaguely late-medieval or Renaissance exoticism, they felt freer to follow their imagination. Sir Walter Scott in 1824 recalled that when A Sicilian Romance appeared, it ‘attracted in no ordinary degree the attention of the public’, and it was on the basis of its poetic imagery and scenery – ‘like those of a splendid oriental tale’ – that Scott awarded Radcliffe the title of ‘the first poetess of romantic fiction’.
          The publication of Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest the following year (1791) established the rage for the Gothic novel. It immediately became a classic of ‘modern romance’, and was plundered by imitators. For example, the Critical Review in May 1794 noted that George Walker’s The Romance of the Cavern; or, the History of Fitz-Henry and James (1792) was ‘copied from various popular novels. The Romance of the Forest gave it the name; the Recess its heroes; and Ferdinand Count Fathom has supplied some of its most interesting events.’ Jane Austen’s aunt Cassandra Cooke in the preface to her Battleridge: An Historical Tale (1799), makes the point: ‘She is the Queen of the tremenduous [sic]; and alas! is most copiously, most inadequately imitated by almost every writer since her Romance of the Forest appeared.’ This ‘romance’ played a significant role in spreading the popularity of the very genre of ‘romance’. The Critical Review, which for years had published a Monthly Catalogue under the heading ‘Novels’, for the first time in March 1794 expanded the heading to ‘Novels and Romances’. We sometimes fail to appreciate that in the 1790s, Gothic novels were ‘modern’ novels.
          Most of the novels in the Radcliffe School bear the imprint of their progenitor. About a third of all the novels published between 1796 and 1806, and many serials in ladies’ magazines, had scenes inspired by A Sicilian Romance and The Romance of the Forest. Radcliffe’s earliest works were imitated in The Mysteries of the Forest, a Minerva novel by Mary Houghton (1810); Ann Ker’s Adeline St Julian (1799); and The Mysteries of the Castle by Miles Peter Andrews (1795), though, as the Critical Review remarked, ‘we fear that lady will not feel herself flattered by the relationship’. John Palmer Jr. was said to have had The Romance of the Forest beside him as he wrote The Haunted Cavern (1795). Radcliffe’s Marquis de Montalt and his abbey of St Clair fathered the novels Montaldo (no date); Montalva by Mary Ann Hamilton (1811); The Mysteries of St Clair by Catherine Ward (1824); and The Convent of St Clair by Mary Martha Sherwood (1833). Adeline, in Romance of the Forest, gave birth to Adeline de Courcy (1797); Adeline St Julian by Mrs Ann Ker (1799); and Adeline; or, The Grave of the Forsaken (1841). The ‘hideous progeny’ of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) included The Monk of Udolpho by T.J. Horsley Curties (1807); Montoni; or, The Confessions of the Monk of Saint Benedict by Edward Mortimer (1808); and St Aubin; or, The Infidel (1821). And the offspring of Radcliffe’s The Italian (1796) boasted Vivonio; or, The Hour of Retribution by Sophia Francis (1806); Italian Marauders (1807); The Castle of Vivaldi; or, The Mysterious Injunction by Catherine Harwood (1810); Italian Banditti (1811); Italian Mysteries (1820); The Mysterious Novice; or, Convent of the Grey Penitents by Mrs Sarah S. Wilkinson (1809); and The Convent of Grey Penitents; or, The Apostate Nun (1810), again by Mrs Wilkinson. The prolific Mrs Wilkinson, who knew when she was on to a good thing, also imitated ‘Monk’ Lewis in The Castle Spectre (1820) and The Mysteries of the Castle Del Carino (no date), and she imitated both Radcliffe and Lewis together in The Priory of St Clair; or, Spectre of the Murdered Nun (1811). The list goes on and on.
          Imitations, derivative adaptations, plagiarisms, borrowings and inspirations drew upon Radcliffe’s works to an unprecedented degree. Innumerable chapbooks stripped away Radcliffe’s sentiment and aesthetic taste and transformed Radcliffean terror into Lewisian horror. The four-volume The Mysteries of Udolpho was reduced to a seventy-two page shilling shocker called Lewis Tyrrel; or, The Depraved Count (1804). In Isaac Crookenden’s chapbook The Vindictive Monk; or The Fatal Ring (1802) Sceloni is obviously modelled on Schedoni and the plot abbreviates that of Radcliffe’s The Italian, except that Sceloni now works for a lascivious nobleman rather than a wicked Marchesa, and the scene in which Sceloni is about to plunge a dagger into the sleeping hero is plagiarized from Schedoni’s forestalled murder of Ellena. Thus, by the simple means of changing the gender of the key characters, the ‘female Gothic’ is transformed into the ‘male Gothic’. In the pages of the the Marvellous Magazine in 1802–3, The Italian became The Midnight Assassin, or Confessions of the Monk Rinaldi; A Sicilian Romance became The Southern Tower, or Conjugal Sacrifice and Retribution; The Romance of the Forest became The Secret Oath; or Blood-Stained Dagger; Mysteries of Udolpho became The Veiled Picture, or the Mysteries of Gorgono; and The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne became Highland Heroism, or the Castles of Glencoe and Balloch. Whereas Historical Gothic novels were set mainly in medieval England, the novels of the Radcliffe School were set mainly in sixteenth-century France and Italy; by moving from the domestic or native scene to foreign places, these novelists evoked an exotic sense of the past which was more appealing to their readers’ imaginations. Travel literature, particularly records of travels to Italy such as Henry Swinburne’s Travels in the Two Sicilies (1783, 1785) and John Smith’s Select Views of Italy (1792), and also William Coxe’s Travels in Switzerland (1789), was mined for romantic settings. Allusions to old English ballads were replaced by the refined poetry of Tasso or the fantasies of Ariosto. By setting their tales in an idealized late-medieval transitional period, novelists could raise images of splendour, mystery, high passions and exquisite taste. At the same time this justified portraying less feudal, more egalitarian manners, which permitted greater identification by the modern young women and men reading such novels in the revolutionary 1790s.
          Beautiful and ‘romantic’ descriptions of nature were important features of the Radcliffean tradition. Evocations of the paintings of Claude Gelée (Lorrain), Salvator Rosa, Nicholas Poussin – whose works represented respectively the Beautiful, the Sublime and the Grand – became almost a cliché, and the five elements of a proper ‘landskip’ were consciously employed: foreground, middle ground, background, flanking sides, and the obscure distant view. Theories of the Sublime in Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) and theories of the Picturesque in William Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, &c. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (dated 1782 but published 1783) informed Radcliffe’s writing, and hence that of her imitators. The juxtaposition of opposite extremes, particularly soft Beauty and hard Sublimity, creates a chiaroscuro of effects whose ultimate aim is illustrated by an evocative phrase in The Mysteries of Udolpho – ‘The landscape, with the surrounding Alps, did indeed present a perfect picture of the lovely and the sublime, of “beauty sleeping in the lap of horror”.’ Obscurity – and its world of terrible shadows – was an especially powerful aesthetic technique for stimulating the reader’s imagination. Gilpin in Remarks on Forest Scenery (1791) calls this process ‘sublimication’, by which the skilful writer throws out vague hints that are taken up by the readers and worked into sublime images in their own minds, thereby becoming all the more powerful for being the joint creation of writer and reader. The anticipation of terror, rather than the full face of horror, became the hallmark of the Radcliffe School.
          Other key features of the Radcliffe School include the use of the explained supernatural, in which apparently supernatural occurrences are eventually found to have natural causes (sometimes involving deliberate trickery); a heroine of preternatual sensibility and suggestibility, a kind of tasteful reflection of the superstitious gullibility of her maidservant; the haunting image of the sequestered mother; abandoned apartments in castles or mansions, previously occupied by the mother of the heroine, presumed murdered, a trope often symbolizing a lost birthright; the heroine’s resolute determination in the face of patriarchal tyranny; and the use of premonitory dreams, as illustrated in the first excerpt in this selection, from the anonymous Fate of Velina de Guidova.

Copyright © 2000, 2012 Rictor Norton


2 Radcliffe and the School of Terror

1790Velina de Guidova by Mary Anne Radcliffe
1793The Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons
1794The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
1793–7 Grasville Abbey George Moore
1796 Camilla by Fanny Burney
1796 The Children of the Abbey by Regina Maria Roche
1797 The Italian by Ann Radcliffe
1798 The Orphan of the Rhine by Eleanor Sleath
1798 Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown
1803 Romance of the Pyrenees by Catherine Cuthbertson
1806 Secrets of the Castle by David Carey
1809 Manfroné by Mary Anne Radcliffe
1837 Rookwood by William Harrison Ainsworth
1839 "The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe


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