Once while I was taking the bus home from my courses, an intoxicated man awkwardly approached me as I was reading Mistress of Udolpho and said he had enjoyed reading it as well. I was very surprised by this because the book I was reading was a biography of the 18th century gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe, whose works and life are fairly esoteric topics in this day and age. Considering his intoxication, I very much doubt he had actually read it. Nevertheless, he was correct about one thing: the book is quite enjoyable.
Little is known about the “great enchantress” of the gothic but Rictor Norton has done an exemplary job at collecting what we do know about her and fills in the vague areas with a historical context she would have been a part of.
Radcliffe’s novels are notable for not containing the same vehement disdain for Catholicism that characterised many other gothic novels of the time. Instead, organised religion takes on a more ambivalent role, with convents and monasteries frequently acting as both sanctuaries and prisons. For Radcliffe, evil is a function of unrestrained passion and reason serves as the primary means of moderating passion.
While little is known about her own personal religious views, we do know that her family were known Unitarians and it is likely that she was raised as one. In the 18th century, Unitarianism was tied to the ideals of the Enlightenment and the influence can be readily seen in many of Radcliffe’s novels. Reason, equality, women’s rights, and education are prominent themes and are clearly advocated through her protagonists.
One only gets small glimpses into her personal life but it appears that she had a happy marriage and, although she never had children of her own, she saved and took care of several spaniels throughout her lifetime. (As a spaniel owner, I found this detail particularly satisfying.) She was shy and somewhat socially awkward, was sensitive to criticism of her work and shunned public attention. In this way, Radcliffe stood out but considering the popular reactions to gothic novels, it’s becomes quite easy to sympathise for her desire for seclusion. At the time, gothic novels were subjected to very harsh criticism and were scapegoated in much the same way as video games and rock n’ rock music. Criticism became especially harsh after the reign of terror. One critic even went so far as to accuse her of trying to induce terror in much the same way as Robespierre and the Committee for Public Safety had in France. Later only, 10th century critics were utterly dismiss he works as immoral, likely because of the socially and politically progressive attitudes she expressed in her works.
Norton makes a few claims I found to be rather problematic. Firstly, he argues that Radcliffe might have been bisexual because, in The Romance of the Forest, the narrator describes Adelines bosom in very alluring terms. While I cannot deny this as a possibility, I can’t help suspecting this is wishful thinking on the part of Norton because he frequently writes on the history of homsexuality. Secondly, he argues that Radcliffe did not write Gaston De Blondeville and on the basis that the style of diction varies from her other works. However, I do not find the diction to be very different at all.
For those interested in Radcliffe’s works, gothic literature, and the history of feminism, I would highly recommend this book. It is easy to follow, concisely written, and informative. It contains many more details than you are likely to find elsewhere online but sadly, due the sparse existing information we have about her, is still rather thin. Nevertheless, it has earned a special place in my library.