Born to trader William Ward and Ann Oates on July 9, 1764, in England, Ann Radcliffe was a genius in the field of Gothic novels, well known for composing vivid stories by imbuing morbid and rousing elements with the sensibility of the romantic air.
An only child of her parents, she was seven years old when she left them to live with her uncle, Thomas Bentley, in Chelsea. Considered by many as the “Queen of the Supernatural”, in actuality Ann never visited the many horrid places of her imagination.
Ann was twenty-three years old when she married Oxford graduate William Radcliffe in 1787. As an editor of the English Chronicle himself, William encouraged her on her literary career throughout their marriage.
Often returning home late, William would sit down with Ann to read through the writings of the day which she would complete in the absence of her other half. Ann had a mellifluous life as she did not work due to her husband’s hefty income.
She would read and write all day. Although a childless marriage, Ann described William to be “her nearest relative and friend”.
An apex author of the 18th century, Ann led a very quiet and retired life mostly reading and writing away her time. Celebrated amongst the upper class and middle class her, pervasive fans were mainly the young women.
Her published works include The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne in 1789, A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Romance of the Forest (1791) and The Italian (1796). She also published a travelogue in 1795 of her only trip abroad, A Journey through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany.
The Mysteries of Udolpho
Ann’s most prized work of fiction The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794, was released in four volumes. Although the triumphal achievement of The Romance of the Forest established Ann as the frontrunner in Gothic fiction, it was The Mysteries of Udolpho that made her an epitome of the field.
Set in late 16th century France and Italy, the story chronicles Emily and her quest to independence from the cruel shackles of Montoni, her uncle, who has been portrayed as being an ideal Gothic villain. The majority of Ann’s novels include young prodigious women who stumble upon dark places with treacherous owners.
Known for mixing Goth and romance, Ann was an idol for many female writers of her generation and the ones to come, inspiring greats like Jane Austen, Catherine Cuthbertson, and Harriet Lee. Ann played a key role in bringing a transformation in the mechanics of the late 18th century and early 19th-century romance fiction.
Austen’s parody Northanger Abbey (1817) was a satirical take on Ann’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Romance of the Forest. Ann also influenced Lord Byron, Christina Rossetti, and Sir Walter Scott amongst many others who incorporated her literary innuendos into their works of literature.
Ann’s last Gothic novel published before her death, The Italian, was published in the year 1797. The novel was published in three volumes. The story is about the plot to prevent the marriage of Vincentio to Ellena. It was notable for its gruesome depiction of the villain, the sinister Schedoni.
Remarkable work from her bibliography, The Italian was distinct from the other books in that it did not have supernatural elements but a lot of suspense, drama, and romance was involved with the plot. Ann was called an anti-Catholic for her depiction of a malicious monk.
Ann turned to poetry during her later years. She tried experimenting with the supernatural in poetry form and although she did not redeem any success from it, her poetry only extended her love for the paranormal.
The Poems of Mrs Ann Radcliffe, a collected edition of Ann’s poems was released in 1816. Some of the poems that she wrote include Superstition – An Ode, Night, Song, When First the Vernal Morn of Life, and To the Visions of Fancy.
On the Supernatural in Poetry
In 1826, On the Supernatural in Poetry, an essay posthumously came out in the New Monthly Magazine. The essay drew a parallel between ‘horror’ and ‘terror’ and championed Shakespeare as the major proponent of ‘the Sublime’.
She went on to elucidate in her quotes – ‘terror and horror are so far opposite’ and ‘that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them’.
Later years and death
During the last 25 years of her life, she spent most of her time travelling throughout the English countryside with her husband, with the money that she had gained from her publications.
After her father died on July 24, 1798, and her mother on March 14, 1800, Ann stopped writing for publication. She suffered from asthma during her penultimate years and after suffering a chest infection Ann Radcliffe was announced dead on February 7, 1823, and was laid to rest in the Saint George’s Church, Hanover Square, London.
Gaston de Blondeville, her last novel, was published after her death in 1826.