Mrs Radcliffe was despised and revered in about equal measure at the beginning of the nineteenth century. She wrote some of the gothic novels referred to by Jane Austen in her own novels and was the most famous writer in that genre. For many, novels of any kind were considered frivolous and gothic novels were more frivolous than the rest. In this regard Mrs Radcliffe was not well-served by her fame, as she represented the gothic novel in the mind’s of most people and came in for a lot of criticism. Mrs Radcliffe’s novels are representative of the genre in that the plots are labyrinthine; they have casts of thousands and there is usually a strong supernatural element, although in her case this is always explained later. It’s probably due to her that the gothic novel survived as long as it did as a genre.
Mrs Radcliffe was born Ann Ward in 1764 in London and married William Radcliffe in 1787. He was the owner of a weekly newspaper. Her mother was 38 when she was born and it was her relationships with her parents and her mother-in-law that are believed to have had most influence on her as a writer, since these relationships were very fraught. Ann Ward grew up with an uncle, not with her parents, and Mrs Radcliffe senior was very difficult, demanding that money be sent to her for her support even though it would have been easier for everyone if she had moved in with Ann and William.
Ann Radcliffe was a Unitarian. This was a religion that did not have its first church in England until ten years after her birth. Since I had to look it up, I can share that Unitarians, at least in Mrs Radcliffe’s day, were theists who did not accept the Trinity, nor did they accept that Jesus was God. There were Unitarians in England from the middle of the seventeenth century, but it was only in 1774 that they became a formal denomination. This is of some importance to her readers, as the deity in her works is the Unitarian deity. She was very anti-Catholic, which is quite a feature of the Gothic genre.
Her first book The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne was published in 1789. It was, apparently, dreadful and attracted no attention. A Sicilian Romance was published in the following year and Sir Walter Scott said it was the finest English example of the poetical novel. Another year brought The Romance of the Forest, the book that Harriet Smith was so desperate to read in Emma.
Mrs Radcliffe’s most famous books were The Mysteries of Udolpho in 1794 and The Italian in 1797. The Mysteries of Udolpho is parodied in Northanger Abbey and there are those who see her influence in other books by Jane Austen. This rather implies that Jane Austen was a fan, both of Mrs Radcliffe and the gothic genre. She must have read and liked a number of such books in order to produce a good parody.
I have tried to reflect the way in which her novels were received in two of my own novels. In The Heart That Lies the earl of Meldon is a fan and has even tried to meet the woman whose writing he admires. His closest friend, Edmund Finch, is dismissive of her talents in The Heart That Hides and would rather have someone read a laundry list to him than one of her novels.
The reason that fans like Meldon didn’t meet their heroine was because she became a recluse in her later years. Very little was known about her and Christina Rossetti had to abandon her plan to write a biography due to the lack of material.
After producing five very popular novels, she stopped writing in 1797 at the age of 32. There is some suggestion that this was due to pressure from her husband, but there are also clues that she was not entirely stable mentally. She appears to have had a mental breakdown in 1812 and there were rumours that she died in a lunatic asylum. For some months after her breakdown it was believed that she was near to death, but she recovered and returned to London and her husband in 1815.
Mrs Radcliffe died in 1823 from some kind of respiratory problem. It’s not known if it was asthma, pneumonia or a chest infection; it seems each is equally possible.
Her contemporaries regarded her as a dramatic poet and it was the poetry that established her in the literary world. Women novelists were considered frivolous, but she rose above this. The poems in her novels aided her readers’ understanding of the story.
She was a strong influence on Sir Walter Scott and he acknowledged his debt to her.
Her novels are long and rambling for today’s tastes, but still worth investigating.