Ann Radcliffe, Pioneer of Gothic Fiction

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Black and white drawing of Ann Ward Radcliffe.
Ann Ward Radcliffe

Ann Ward Radcliffe—hers was a household name in the 18th-century, one that we know next to nothing about. She was a pioneer of Gothic fiction over two hundred years ago, and we still don't know much about her aside from her published works. That portrait above? No one even knows where that came from, other than it probably came from when she was alive. Maybe.

In her early twenties, Ann Ward married a man named William Radcliffe. He often came home late, and to occupy her time, she began to write. She published five novels, then suddenly stopped and hid for twenty-six years. Her own writing drove her insane, and she died in an asylum.

"Happiness arises in a state of peace, not of tumult."

― Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho

Alright, that last part isn't actually true, but it's a widespread rumor that began in the early 1800s and still continues to this day.

Ann Radcliffe created her own style in gothic literature, one that many other authors, films, TV shows, and even cartoons (looking at you, Scooby-Doo, eventually followed: the supernatural explained. There appears to be something supernatural, but her stories wrap up with rational explanations, and she doesn't forget a single loose end that needs to be tied up at the end.

"Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them."

— Ann Ward Radcliffe, On the Supernatural in Poetry

One of Ann Radcliffe's novels, "The Mysteries of Udolpho," was parodied by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey. I haven't read this yet, but it's now near the top of my reading list to find out just how the great Jane Austen writes a parody, mainly because I have read the source material.

If you pick up Ann Radcliffe's work, go into it knowing that she writes slow-burn novels. They tend to start a bit slow with some world and character building before the real mystery and action begins. If you happen to pick "The Mysteries of Udolpho," just wait until you get to the location of Udolpho. You won't be disappointed.

Really, you can pick up any of her works and find a mastery of language and rich descriptions, unlike anything else you'll find in the world.

"As I walked over the loose fragments of stone, which lay scattered and surveyed the sublimity and grandeur of the ruins, I recurred, by a natural association of ideas, to the times when these walls stood proudly in their original splendor, when the halls were the scenes of hospitality and festive magnificence, and when they resounded with the voices of those whom death had long since swept from earth. "Thus," said I, "shall the present generation - he who now sink in misery - and he who now swim in pleasure, alike pass away and be forgotten."

― Ann Radcliffe, A Sicilian Romance

The Problem With Classics

You know what's incredibly disorientating¹ as a reader?

Going straight from this...

"The sound of Inchgower unzipping his fly in preparation for "the quench" was cartoonishly loud and out of place. "But he went to the trouble to dig up the sound of a fly unzipping," Tyler whined. "That's just great. Never mind that there's no way a Dark Ages blacksmith would even have a zipper."

― Scott Meyer, An Unwelcome Quest

The quote above is from book #3 of Scott Meyer's series Magic 2.0. The series is a fun comedy about a group of people who figure out they can manipulate reality with computers. As you can see, the language is modern and easily understandable. But imagine finishing a book like the above and going from that straight into this...

"Can this be in human nature! — Can such horrible perversion of right be permitted! Can man, who calls himself endowed with reason, and immeasurably superior to every other created being, argue himself into the commission of such horrible folly, such inveterate cruelty, as exceeds all the acts of the most irrational and ferocious brute. Brutes do not deliberately slaughter their species; it remains for man only, man, proud of his prerogative of reason, and boasting of his sense of justice, to unite the most terrible extremes of folly and wickedness!"

― Ann Radcliffe, The Italian

Now, I like to read a broad range of authors. In fact, I'll try just about anything. Whenever I'm writing about an author, I always try to pick up one of their works and read it as I'm writing about them, so I have their style fresh on my mind. It can be a bit jarring going from contemporary authors to classics. Like in the example above, going from a comedy published in 2015 straight into a gothic romance published in 1794 requires a slight adjustment from the 221 years of language, cultural, literary, and world changes. I also run nearly everything I write through Grammarly for some basic checks, and every time I do it with classic literature, it underlines just about everything as "hard-to-read" or "wordy sentences."

A screenshot from Grammarly that complains of Ann Radcliffe's writing.
An example of the Grammarly recommendations on Ann Radcliffe's writing. Evidently, the modern reader doesn't understand "sublimity" or "magnificence."

Ann's writing was quite popular with the upper and middle class of her time, so it's unlikely the language she used in her writing was commonplace amongst most people (considering the percentages of the classes at the time and even now.)

"The beauty of her countenance haunting his imagination, and the touching accents of her voice still vibrating on his heart, he descended to the shore below her residence, pleasing himself with the consciousness of being near her, though he could no longer behold her; and sometimes hoping that he might again see her, however distantly, in a balcony of the house, where the silk awning seemed to invite the breeze from the sea."

― Ann Radcliffe, The Italian

Even twenty years ago, the language used in literature was different. Fifty years ago, even more so. The farther back in time you go, the more of an adjustment you need as a reader. Imagine walking into the grocery store and trying to have a conversation with a cashier using the language in any of these quotes. The police might get called, and you might end up having to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Sadly, I'm not really joking. Using old language really can disorientate¹ people.

¹Did You Know?

'Disorientate' is the preferred British English version of the word, while 'disorient' is the preferred American English version. I'm American, so nearly everyone around me becomes disorientated when I use the word 'disorientate,' and usually attempts to "correct" me by politely suggesting I misspoke by saying 'disorientate' when I should have said 'disorient.' However, Americans are missing one key component of why I like 'disorientate' more than 'disorient'—it's more fun to say.

The Classics Are Worth Reading

The real problem doesn't lie with classic literature, though. It lies with us.

"A well-informed mind is the best security against the contagion of folly and vice. The vacant mind is ever on the watch for relief, and ready to plunge into error, to escape from the languor of idleness. Store it with ideas, teach it the pleasure of thinking; and the temptations of the world without, will be counteracted by the gratifications derived from the world within."

― Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho

Right off the top of your head, do you know the meanings of thither and thence? When was the last time you used "countenance" or "affectation?" How would your friends or family react if you said "melancholy memories of past times multiplied" to them? Or if you asked them, "How forlorn did the chateau appear?"

Like foreign languages, the world is vast, and its history even more so. We can't always count on modern language translations of old texts (see: Emoji Dick), and it's up to us to push our own boundaries as readers to have experiences outside of our cushy comfort zones. The same holds true for film, history, and culture in general.

"Yet how is it possible, Annette, I can pass to the terrace at that hour?" said she, recollecting herself, "the sentinels will stop me, and Signor Montoni will hear of the affair."

― Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho

And yet, even over two centuries later, the concepts are still relevant:

"How strange it is, that a fool or a knave, with riches, should be treated with more respect by the world, than a good man, or a wise man in poverty!"

― Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho

If you'd like to read more about Ann Radcliffe, check out Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe by Rictor Norton. You can read a quick summary of Rictor's exceptionally well-researched biography on his own website. There's even a chapter that addresses the rumor of Ann Radcliffe driving herself insane with her own writing.