Last reviewed: June 2018
English novelist and poet who established many conventions of the gothic novel.
July 9, 1764
February 7, 1823
Ann Radcliffe was considered the greatest romanticist of her age, both for her imaginative plotting and for her poetic prose. Her novels became a minor landmark in English literary history because their author formulated a gothic school of writing that owed more to her invention than to the influence of contemporaries in the same genre. Her tales of terror are unblurred by the awkward supernaturalism of Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto, 1764), the sentimentality of Clara Reeve (The Old English Baron, 1778), or the turgid horrors of Matthew Gregory Lewis (The Monk, 1796). Ann Radcliffe.
Born Ann Ward, the only child of Ann Oates and William Ward, Radcliffe was related on her mother's side to the celebrated classical scholar and physician Dr. Samuel Jebb, and through him to Samuel Hallifax, bishop of Gloucester, and Dr. Robert Hallifax, physician to George IV. She was stimulated by her wide reading as a child, even then delighting in daydreams of things supernatural. She was, however, a shy, asthmatic girl, isolated in a society of adults, and she was not encouraged to exercise her abilities or to express herself.
At the age of twenty-three she married William Radcliffe, who became the editor of the English Chronicle. It was while living in London, where she was intimate with literary people, that Radcliffe began to write. Her first book, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), was published anonymously and went almost unnoticed; her second, A Sicilian Romance (1790), also published anonymously, established her as a brilliant writer of suspense and description. With The Romance of the Forest, published in 1791, she attracted the attention of a wide reading public. For the publication of her fourth novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), she received £500.
The Mysteries of Udolpho typifies Radcliffe’s greatest strengths: her ability to suggest imminent evil at the same time that she creates an atmosphere of refinement and beauty. By contrasting descriptions of a beautiful Eden with vague references to impending doom, the novel transports the reader into a world of mystery and terror. Radcliffe discriminates carefully between terror and horror, and her ability to evoke the first while avoiding the second points up her skillful handling of atmosphere and dramatic situation.
Radcliffe’s novels all share the same basic plot: a chaste, helpless young woman achieves a good marriage after a series of attempts on her life by sinister villains in an exotic setting. Although the plots are improbable and the characters often two-dimensional, the novels had great influence on other writers of the time, notably Sir Walter Scott and George Gordon, Lord Byron; early in Scott’s career he was hailed as Radcliffe’s successor, and certainly Schedoni, the villain of The Italian; or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents (1797), is the forerunner of the Byronic hero.
After the publication of The Italian, for which she received £800—more than three times her husband's yearly income at the time—Radcliffe was often said to have gone mad from "the horrors" about which she wrote, and several times her death was prematurely reported. The Poems of Ann Radcliffe, which collected the various poems she had included in her novels, was published in 1816 without authorization on the assumption that the author was dead. However, Radcliffe was neither dead nor insane; rather, according to literary scholar Nick Groom, "financially independent and jaded by criticism of her work, in the wake of the publication of The Italian she had, at the age of 32, simply retired into genteel affluence and obscurity." She reportedly lived a quiet, happy life with her husband and their dog until her actual death in 1823, possibly due to pneumonia.