Gothic romance has never been a favorite of literary critics of any age, and that was especially true in the late 18th century.
And yet, even then, they loved the work of Ann Radcliffe, one of the genré founders and chief perpetrators.
As Dale Townshend has written in an article for the British Library website:
Even as critics and reviewers in the 1790s castigated Gothic fiction as the ‘trash of the circulating libraries’ – that is, as a cheap and tawdry form of popular entertainment that, in its formulaic and highly repetitive nature, fell foul of the emphasis that emergent Romantic aesthetics placed upon the category of ‘original genius’ – (Ann) Radcliffe was consistently singled out an exception, as the one writer who was deservedly exempt from the general condemnation of Gothic writing in Romantic-period culture. Source: An introduction to Ann Radcliffe – The British Library
Ann Radcliffe should be better known than she is today, although there has been a revival of interest in her among 21st-century scholars. One of the problems with Radcliffe is that we really don’t know much about her.
Radcliffe was born (nee Ann Ward) in 1764, coincidentally the same year that Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, which is considered to be the first Gothic novel. In 1787 she married William Radcliffe, an Oxford graduate and part-owner of the journal the English Chronicle.
It is said that her husband often worked late into the night, and to relieve her loneliness and boredom, Radcliff began writing novels. She would read what she had written to him, and apparently he liked what he heard and encouraged her in her writing.
She rarely appeared in public and had no significant friendships outside of her marriage. Beyond that, we know little about her personal life.
She published five novels during her lifetime. The first, The Castles of Athlin and Dubayne, was published anonymously in 1789. Her second novel The Romance of the Forest, published in 1791, was her first success.
A measure of that success was the advances she received from her publishers for her subsequent novels. Normally, during that time, novelists got about 10 pounds for their novels. In 1794 her London publishers bought the copyright for The Mysteries of Udolpho for 500 pounds. Three years later she was paid 800 pounds by a different set of publishers for her novel The Italian.
That kind of money made her the highest-paid writer of her day.
Not only was Radcliffe highly paid, but she was also highly influential on a subsequent generation of authors. Sir Walter Scott praised her work (“She led the way in a peculiar style of composition, affecting powerfully the mind of the reader, which has since been attempted by many, but in which no one has attained or approached the excellencies of the original inventor. . . “), as did Edgar Allan Poe, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas.
Jane Austen paid so much attention to her that she wrote a parody of Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho and Northanger Abbey in 1817.
The money Radcliffe made from her writing allowed her and her husband to travel extensively. In addition to her novels, she wrote poetry and travel articles for contemporary journals. In her later years, she retired completely from society and was rarely seen. She died in 1823.
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