Meet the mysterious Ann Radcliffe, a pioneering author who helped create the genre we know today as Gothic literature. As you learn more about her works and style, we'll also look at what constitutes a Gothic novel.
The Reclusive Radcliffe
Ann Radcliffe was born in 1764 in London. She was the only child of a haberdasher which is a fancy word for someone who sells clothing stuff, like zippers and buttons and whatnot. We don't really know that much about her personal life because she was kind of a reclusive person. Actually, even in her own time people didn't know that much about her, so much that she was actually falsely reported to be dead twice - this didn't just happen once, this happened twice. Not to mention rumors that she'd gone totally insane, that she was suffering from incessant terrors brought on by her obsession with Gothic literature.
In actuality, she probably had a pretty happy marriage - she didn't have any children, but that's not everything. Her husband encouraged her writing, and she just probably died of an asthma attack, is what people think, in 1823. So she had a pretty humdrum life in a lot of ways.
The 1823 Edinburgh Review had this to say about her: She never appeared in public, nor mingled in private society, but kept herself apart, like the sweet bird that sings its solitary notes, shrouded and unseen. That's kind of a nice description of basically a hermit. She was so secretive that there's no known images or likenesses of her - we don't really know what she looks like, although people say she was attractive, so there's that I guess. Unlike many writers who we've talked about who achieve posthumous fame - they only get famous after they're dead - she was super famous while she was living. Her books sold well and she was very popular.
She's considered to be, if not the founder, the propagator of Gothic literature. She's known as the Mother of the Gothic or even the Great Enchantress, which is a very sexy name for someone who writes about ghosts.
This doesn't mean she was the first author to write Gothic works; there was a few that came before her (that's why I backed off from saying 'founder'), but her style and approach went a long way towards legitimizing the genre as something that wasn't just pop-fluff essentially.
She did write some poetry, but she's really considered a far superior novelist than poet. She churned out six novels during her long and illustrious career. Her first novel is called The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne published in 1789. You should note the 'castles' in the title; this is pretty much a dead giveaway that we're dealing with a Gothic work - we're going to get into more later a little bit what the specific elements of the Gothic are, but castles are one of them. The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne basically just covers a family feud between two medieval Scottish clans (which I love because that usually means kilts and haggis which are two of my favorite things). It's against a backdrop of passion, revenge, extreme landscapes and cool stuff like that. It also covers an extended romance between Mary, who's a girl of noble birth who tends to faint all the time, that's kind of her distinguishing trait, and Alleyn (not Elaine), a handsome commoner who saves her from villains and stuff. Luckily, it turns out that Alleyn is actually of noble birth, so then they're able to get married at the end and that ends the strife between those two castles. So that's her first book.
Next she publishes A Sicilian Romance anonymously in the following year. Like its predecessor, it has romance, it has aristocrats, it has these really vivid, striking landscapes; there's castles, there's a villain, there's extended romance that ends in a happy wedding...
This novel is notable for being the point where Radcliffe starts developing her mixture of terror and also of poetic descriptions that really help to extend her influence. Like I said, she really legitimized the genre, and part of that is her writing style - she was good at it. She wasn't just writing pulp.
She kept up her publishing pace. She released The Romance of the Forest in 1791. This third novel was really her first major success. It's pretty similar to the first two novels, but it's well-known for its use of suspense to really immerse the reader in the story's structure. It follows the heroine Adeline, who is introduced as an orphan but later finds out that she's of noble birth (which probably sounds familiar from that other dude from the castle one that found out that he was of noble birth - Alleyn). The Romance of the Forest also involves the supernatural and a whole bunch of gloomy ruins and terrifying rooms. It also has Radcliffe's typical fairytale ending with lovers being reunited and whatnot.
It's her fourth book that is the most famous, what she's best known for. This is The Mysteries of Udolpho and it's published in 1794, and this really cements her reputation as the Mother of the Gothic.
In this one, The heroine is Emily St. Aubert, and she falls in love with a dashing young man named Valancourt (which is an awesome name), but she fears that she will never see him again after her father's death. She's forced to live with her unsympathetic Aunt who marries Montoni, who is a sinister Italian nobleman. Montoni is just a bad dude. He has these calculating plans for Emily, and he's really considered to be THE Gothic villain. He's strong-willed, he's brooding, he seeks to just dominate everybody else (sounds a little sexy to me, but who am I to say it). She describes him as this, she says:
He delighted in the energies of the passions; the difficulties and tempests of life, which wreck the happiness of others, roused and strengthened all the powers of his mind, and afforded him the highest enjoyments, of which his nature was capable.
It sounds like Ann Radcliffe thought he was sexy, too, but I don't know. And yes, Montoni also lives in a remote castle because, like I said, castles are everywhere with this stuff. There's a series of terrifying and seemingly-supernatural-but-eventually-explained stuff that happens. Emily is eventually able to end up with Valancourt, so don't worry, she escapes the evil, sinister Montoni. The Mysteries of Udolpho is actually also significant because it plays a big role in Jane Austen's book Northanger Abbey. Austen's heroine is reading the book and then comes to see everyone around her as characters in a Gothic novel and the place where she's at as being a scary, Gothic place. So it's kind of a little riff on Ann Radcliffe that Austen picks up.
The last novel published in Radcliffe's lifetime was The Italian in 1797. It's very similar to her past four novels. There's a memorable villain called Schedoni, who is also Italian (she thought Italians were evil, I don't know). Her sixth novel Gaston de Blondeville was published posthumously in 1826 but wasn't that successful. It's notable because unlike in all of the other ones, the supernatural stuff actually isn't explained at the end. Her other works are kind of a lot like Scooby-Doo in that sense - like you think it's a ghost but then it gets unmasked at the end, and it's actually some old dude. That doesn't happen in this final one which is one of the reasons why it's interesting, but other than that, nothing really that cool happens.
What is Gothic Literature?
I've told about you the basic plot lines of a lot of her novels, and you've probably gotten a sense from that what Gothic literature is. We should probably clarify that in a couple of points. So, let's say we decide one rainy Sunday afternoon we're going to take a break from playing Call of Duty and we're going to sit down and write ourselves a Gothic novel. What do we include?
First we need a castle. I've been saying it all along. We definitely need a castle. It can either be in great shape or it can be in ruins - it just needs to be imposing and foreboding, that's it. Why stop there though, right? We can have crypts, we can have catacombs, dungeons, labyrinths, winding passages - really any kind of terrifying place would be great. Any place you wouldn't want your candle or your torch to go out is ideal. It's sort of like any where that if a horror movie character was going in there, you'd be like, 'Don't go in there! Stop!' That's the kind of stuff we need in a Gothic novel. To complete the setting, we probably want some extreme landscapes, like jagged mountains or shadowy forests or wastelands. All that stuff is good. Nasty weather is a plus - that just kind of helps set the scene. 'A dark and stormy night' and all that - that's super Gothic. We also need some black eye makeup... No, wrong Gothic!
As for characters, the young, virginal, oppressed heroine is clearly key - we saw that in all of her books. She's virtuous, she's inquisitive, but she has the unfortunate tendency maybe to faint a lot and need rescuing. We also definitely need a villain, possibly Italian like Montoni. We don't have to worry about making him that sinister because that's just in his nature to be sinister - he'll take care of that himself. Of course we need a dashing hero to add to the romance. He has to be brave, he has to be willing to save the heroine and have no expectations whatsoever because it's all about the romance and not about them actually getting married at the end.
At this point, we've got all of our elements of our future bestseller Gothic novel. We can't forget though that mystery, suspense and terror - they're kind of regular features; omens, curses, gloom and doom - all of that is all great. Our characters will probably find themselves in thrilling, dangerous situations, probably not keep their emotions in check. Passion and high emotions - all of that is great. Finally, to be absolutely sure we've got a Gothic novel, we need supernatural events - that is important. It could a suit of armor coming to life, could be a creepy painting watching you with its eyes. Whether or not we choose to give it a rational explanation at the end, that's fine - we don't have to.
I mentioned before that Ann Radcliffe isn't the first one to do this, but she's the one to really make it legitimate. I just kind of want to give a shout-out to some of the other dudes that do the Gothic novel. The first guy to really do it is a guy named Horace Walpole who writes The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (see that castle again, right?). He publishes this actually in the same year that Ann Radcliffe was born in 1764, and it has all of these elements.
Mother of the Gothic
But one of the things that she does that he doesn't do, or that a lot of people don't do - she's the Mother of the Gothic, I've been saying this all along - is that she makes it a bit more high-brow. People weren't really that into stories about romance and supernatural elements, they thought that was a little tacky. But what Ann Radcliffe does is when she adds the explained supernatural a la Scooby-Doo where it's actually just a guy in a ghost mask, this goes a long way towards making people think that this is a legitimate genre (which is funny because Scooby-Doo is not a legitimate TV show). But that's sort of how she gets away with it and how she makes it into something that Walpole maybe didn't have as much success with.
She influences lots of people, like Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Sir Walter Scott... Anywhere from Dracula to Harry Potter to Twilight, we see the Gothic influence. And that's all thanks to Ann Radcliffe.
I'm just going to sum up a little bit about her life again because it's been a while. We don't actually know much about her, but she definitely shaped Gothic literature and made it a socially acceptable genre. She used the supernatural but she always explained, except in that last book, what it really was - it wasn't just a ghost. She uses imposing castles, vivid landscapes. She's got these sinister villains, tender, innocent heroines and there's always going to be terror, mystery, suspense - all that jazz. And of course, a romance to tie it all together in the end. So that's Ann Radcliffe and the Gothic - a little crash course.