Ann Radcliffe: Mother of the Gothic Novel

Ann Radcliffe was an English author, a pioneer of the gothic novel. She was born Ann Ward in Holborn, July 9, 1764. Her father was William Ward, a haberdasher; her mother was Ann Oates. At the age of 22, she married journalist William Radcliffe, owner and editor of the English Chronicle, in Bath in 1788. The marriage was childless and, to amuse herself, she began to write fiction, which her husband encouraged.

She published The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne in 1789. It set the tone for the majority of her work, which tended to involve innocent, but heroic young women who find themselves in gloomy, mysterious castles ruled by even more mysterious barons with dark pasts.

Her works were extremely popular among the upper class and the growing middle class, especially among young women. In time, they included A Sicilian Romance, The Romance of the Forest, beloved by Emma’s Harriet Smith, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and The Italian. She published a travelogue, A Journey Through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany in 1795.

The success of The Romance of the Forest established Radcliffe as the leading exponent of the historical Gothic romance. Her later novels met with even greater attention, and produced many imitators, and famously, Jane Austen’s burlesque of The Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey, as well as influencing the works of Sir Walter Scott.

They determined on walking round Beechen Cliff, that noble hill whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath.

“I never look at it,” said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, “without thinking of the south of France.”

“You have been abroad then?” said Henry, a little surprised.

“Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Stylistically, Radcliffe was noted for her vivid descriptions of exotic and sinister locales, though in reality the author had rarely or never visited the actual locations. Shy by nature, she did not encourage her fame and abandoned literature as a pursuit.

She died on February 7, 1823 from respiratory problems probably caused by pneumonia. She was buried in Saint George’s Church, Hanover Square in London.

After her death it was written of her that, “She never appeared in public, nor mingled in private society, but kept herself apart, like the sweet bird that sings its solitary notes, shrouded and unseen…She was more than repaid by the enjoyments which were fostered in the shade; and perhaps few distinguished authors have passed a life so blameless and so happy…her countenance indicated melancholy. She had been, doubtless, in her youth, beautiful.”

In the film Becoming Jane, she is portrayed by Helen McCrory, in a scene where she meets Jane Austen and encourages her to embark on a writing career (there is no historical evidence of such a meeting, though as noted Radcliffe’s works had clearly influenced Austen’s).

This information was supplied by Wikipedia.
Further information about the life of Ms. Radcliffe and her impact on literature can be found at The City University of New York.

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  1. By Jane Austen: what books were on her reading list? | on January 25, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    […] Radcliffe (1764-1823) was the pioneer of the Gothic novel and well-known in her day. Her vivid descriptions of landscapes, travel and romance mixed with the […]

  2. By In Good Books | Tangerine and Cinnamon on April 20, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    […] twentieth- and twenty-first century. Victorian novelists argued that in the case of both sweets and Mrs Radcliffe, they could be too much of a good […]

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