Women’s History Month Guest Post: Morgan Elektra on The Mysterious Mrs. Radcliffe

Hi friends! We’re back with a WHM post! As you know I welcome any and everyone fro Smithsonian [Heritage] Month posts, and Morgan was someone who stepped up. Thank you, Morgan! I have to say – I didn’t know much about Mrs. Radcliffe. Of course I knew she was a very popular author. It seemed for a while you couldn’t read a historical romance that didn’t snark about her in some way – so I appreciated Morgan providing her take and more information. I also desperately need to know more about ~what happened to her … but that seems like something we’ll never know. Anyway – read on!

The Mysterious Mrs. Radcliffe
by Morgan Elektra

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe book coverMost of you don’t know the name Ann Radcliffe, despite the fact that, in her heyday (1789-1797), she was the most popular novelist in perhaps all of Europe. However, this sad oversight is hardly your fault. Unlike names like Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and the Brontë sisters, Radcliffe’s name is hardly ever uttered in a classroom setting. Prior to college and any specialization classes taken at that time, there is very little attention paid to the Gothic novel at all, despite how those authors, like Radcliffe, helped shape the world of both horror and romance.

So, who is Ann Radcliffe and why should you know her name? Born Ann Ward in Holborn, London on July 9, 1764, she moved with her mother and father to Bath as a small girl, where her father managed a china shop for the Wedgewoods. She married William Radcliffe, a lawyer who would go on to edit The English Chronicle newspaper. The two lived in seclusion in London and had no children. Little more is known of her life, aside from a few quotes about her shyness. 

In fact, Radcliffe would attempt to avoid the public eye entirely, even during the height of her fame. She published six works in a period of eight years, several of which became best sellers, all while avoiding going about in society. While celebrity culture was nothing then compared to what it is now, it was still an oddity. Lord Byron was also quite popular at the time and he is said to have embraced the public side of fame. Ann Radcliffe cared little for the writing profession beyond creating stories of castles and maidens in distress overcoming evil. Had she published only one novel to such acclaim, would we still be talking about her now? After all, Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger both have their names bandied about high school classrooms, while Radcliffe is a name only scholars love.

The Complete Works of Ann Radcliffe book cover

Perhaps her shyness was an attempt to lessen the scandal that merely being a woman author was. At the time, novels were considered at best frivolous and at worst dangerous for women to read, let alone write. But shy or not, Ann chose to write and put her work out there in the world. And she chose the Gothic fiction genre. Gothic fiction is characterized by description of eerie landscapes, labyrinthine castles, supernatural occurrences, overpowering men and virtuous women. What is considered the first of the genre, Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, laid out these tropes, but Radcliffe arguably perfected them with works such as The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, and helped catapult the genre to popularity. Often referred to as “the Great Enchantress” and “the Shakespeare of romance writers” by her contemporaries, she was lauded and often mimicked. In fact, Austen’s Northanger Abbey is considered a satire of the Gothic genre and Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho in particular. She inspired many well-known male writers as well, such as the Marquis de Sade, Sir Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Fyodor Dostoevesky, who was vocally “obsessed” with her writings. According to her biographer, Rictor Norton, “There cannot be many writers of terror literature who have not been influenced by the novels of Ann Radcliffe.” 

Not only did she gain immense popularity and acclaim, but she was reportedly the highest paid author in Europe at the time, an amazing feat for the shy, young girl. Records show she was paid five hundred pounds for The Mysteries of Udolpho, an enormous sum compared to her contemporaries such as Jane Austen, who received only ten pounds for Northanger Abbey. She was being paid more than the likes of Austen and Shelley. Not that she seemed to be doing it for the money. As the final lines of The Mysteries of Udolpho attest, the story was paramount and sharing it was a reward. “And if the weak hand, that has recorded this tale, has, by its scenes, beguiled the mourner of one hour of sorrow, or, by its moral, taught him to sustain it — the effort, however humble, has not been in vain, nor is the writer unrewarded.” 

The Italian by Ann Radcliffe book coverAnd yet, despite all of that, she’s little known today. Perhaps it’s because she stopped publishing after her sixth work and dropped completely off the public radar with such efficiency that rumors abounded regarding her fate. Some said she was plagued by night terrors and sent to an asylum or have died outright, which I’m sure many thought was a deserved outcome for publishing such books as hers. However, there is little evidence that any of these rumors were true, or that she did anything but live out the rest of her days in quiet solitude with her husband. Yet she was remembered fondly by many, such as English author William Makepeace Thackeray, who once, many years after her popularity had waned, waxed rhapsodic about her work, saying “The beauty and elegance of Valancourt made your young grandmamas’ hearts to beat with respectful sympathy. He and his glory have passed away.” Such praise from such well known and respected people, and somehow she is still virtually unknown these days. 

Some argue that her writing just isn’t as good as those she inspired, like Austen, who maintains rampant popularity to this day. And it’s true that her style isn’t as pithy and easy to read as Austen. However, her style of prose is poetic and her descriptions are sublime. Not only that, but her storylines, for the time, are forward-thinking. Unlike a great many gothic novels, which pioneered the idea of the damsel in distress being rescued by the dashing hero, Radcliffe generally wrote women who figured things out for themselves. Though spectors haunted her characters, she often had them explained away by the end of the story by rational means, and the true evil–a man–thwarted by the heroine. The Mysteries of Udolpho, perhaps her most famous work, ends with the young, orphaned Emily St. Aubert not only wed to Valancourt, the man she loves, but in control of several inheritances and returned the home from which she left. This is characteristic of Radcliffe’s happy endings, in which women triumph. 

Even prior to her actual death in London in February of 1823, her legacy was being unwritten and dismissed by her detractors. In the biography Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe, Rictor Norton notes, “Her images shaped experiences and perceptions, and governed the way people viewed ruins on their travels, or felt enchanted by moonlight or disturbed by low hollow sounds. And yet the pedestal of Romance upon which she stood was inexorably dismantled and replaced first by the pedestal of the male Romantic poet, and then by that of the male novelist.” Her very womanhood was, he believes, the reason she was so overlooked. Maybe this Women’s History Month, we can rectify that. 

Radcliffe, Ann. The Complete Works of Ann Radcliffe. Amazon, 2014.
Rictor Norton. Mistress of Udolpho : The Life of Ann Radcliffe. Leicester University Press, 1999.

I’m curious – did you know about Mrs. Radcliffe? Have you ever read one of her books? I’m pretty sure I picked up one in HS … Do you know any facts about her? Inquiring minds wish to know!

2 thoughts on “Women’s History Month Guest Post: Morgan Elektra on The Mysterious Mrs. Radcliffe

  1. Pingback: FYI March 14, 2021 – Instagatrix

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