In 1791, while George Washington served his second year as president and politicians were preoccupied with drafting something called the Bill of Rights, readers across the pond devoured Ann Radcliffe’s hotly anticipated new novel The Romance of the Forest. If foreign affairs consumed their mind, these thoughts were easily vanquished to a fictional world of chilling melodrama and gothic romance.
Radcliffe wasn’t yet a household name—she would become one with her next novel, however—but the majority of literate society was familiar with A Sicilian Romance (1790) which was published only months earlier. This new novel, printed over three volumes, was longer, spookier, more atmospheric and more heart-pounding than her last. No surprise that it became an instant bestseller.
I suspect my reaction, 200+ years later, is similar to Radcliffe’s original audience: YES!!!! This story has everything I want and more. Can’t wait to read her next book!
The first few chapters alone make this a classic. We begin mid-flight, as a man with a habit for Parisian vice flees his creditors under the cloak of night. When it becomes too dark to continue by carriage, he stops at a nearby cottage for assistance. Instead of receiving room and board, however, he’s held prisoner. His jailers then instruct him to become caregiver to a beautiful young girl, or be killed.
Man, his family, and the mysterious maiden depart into the moonlight, traveling far until they at last find refuge in a ruinous, haunted abbey hidden deep in the forest. But with crumbling bricks, labyrinthine passageways and skeletal remains in the recesses, it’s unclear if this abandoned abbey is a source of safety or certain death.
Romantic prisons and eerie dwellings are staples of Radcliffe’s aesthetics and she really finds her footing with this novel. The few issues I had with A Sicilian Romance are directly addressed. The pacing is more luxurious—almost pastoral, but never boring—and twists are appropriately spaced. Her characters are more complex when compared to the caricatures of good and evil in her previous effort and her web of intricate plot is more carefully orchestrated.
What doesn’t change is her brilliance as a storyteller. She effortlessly builds suspense and intrigue, often becoming a downright tease when resolving unexplained mystery. Just as the answer is within reach, something interrupts and postpones resolution. If Radcliffe was as seductive in bed as she was with her writing, her husband was no doubt a happy fellow.
Once again she masterfully uses “uncommon sounds” to fuel her character’s imaginative nightmares. What they envision is often worse than what is actually happening, but sometimes it really is that scary. This uncertainty keeps everything on edge, for character and reader, so that each sentence has significance, suspense, and/or surprise.
Now that I’ve read two of her superb novels, neither of which are considered her best work, it remains puzzling to me that Radcliffe is not as familiar to classrooms as Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters. I’m not singing solo in this opinion, but I’m not exactly joining a chorus either.
“Given the virtuosity of their plotting and the richness of their allusion,” writes Claudia L. Johnson, an academic of 18th century gothic literature, “it is surprising just how little Radcliffe’s works have received in the way of sustained analysis.”
This sentiment is common among us who admire gothic literature, but scarce commentary by literary academia at large. Ask any English major how they feel about Ann Radcliffe and most will probably say they’ve never heard of her. Those who have probably recognized the name only from Jane Austen, E.A. Poe, or H.P. Lovecraft, who were all big fans and reference her works frequently.
As for why she’s less known, I have some thoughts. Stylistically she does reveal her plots in a more summarized manner than most writers, leading to some beautiful descriptions and others which are more generic. For example, a variation of “her emotion cannot easily be imagined” and “her feelings on this occasion were too complex to be analysed” are occasionally tossed in. Out of context these sentences seem particularly egregious, but in actuality she gets by with it because her characters are so cleanly drawn that we don’t need lengthy description to explain how they feel. We can imagine it on our own just fine.
Other potential flaws, by modern standards, include her characters. It is certainly true that none of her characters are iconic figures of personality. They all have clear motivations and realistic psyche, but the women routinely faint at the drop of a pin and the men are limited to certain roles, such as father, lover or villain. There’s a certain cheesiness with which scares are delivered and how she concludes the novel by wrapping up everything neatly with a bow.
Personally I find Radcliffe’s abbreviated storytelling refreshing. She writes with mathematical precision, delivering the exact amount of description needed for the reader to obtain a sense of character, atmosphere, pacing or mood, and does not bother with a word more.
Rather than stand out as an author of great innovation or unprecedented technique, her legacy seems largely based on delivering pop novels which provided audiences with exactly what they wanted. There’s always been a certain stigma placed upon Radcliffe readers. In Northanger Abbey (1803), Jane Austen pokes fun at the young women who read Radcliffe gothics and start imagining intrigue and conspiracy surrounding their mundane lives. The stigma remains to this day, I believe, among those of us who feel Radcliffe deserves a table among other literary giants.
I still have two major works to read, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), which are generally considered her greatest achievements. We’ll see if my strong opinion of Radcliffe is further cemented, or if I become tired of her tried-and-true formula.
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