Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Radcliffe, Ann
RADCLIFFE, ANN (1764–1823), novelist, the only daughter of William and Ann Ward, was born in London on 9 July 1764. Her father was in trade, but she was connected on his side with the family of William Cheselden [q. v.], the famous surgeon, and more remotely with the Dutch family of De Witt. Her mother, whose maiden name was Oates, was niece of Dr. Samuel Jebb [q. v.], and first cousin of Sir Richard Jebb [q. v.], physician to George III. Great part of her youth was passed in the society of relatives in easy circumstances; she was particularly noticed by Bentley, the partner of Josiah Wedgwood [q. v.], and she met at his house, among others, Mrs. Piozzi, Mrs. Montagu, and ‘Athenian Stuart.’ At the age of twenty-three she married, at Bath, William Radcliffe, an Oxonian, and a student of law, who abandoned his intention of being called to the bar, and subsequently became proprietor and editor of the ‘English Chronicle.’
Her first novel, ‘The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne,’ a short story of little merit, appeared in 1789, and was followed in the ensuing year by ‘A Sicilian Romance,’ which Scott considers the first modern English example of the poetical novel, and of which several Italian versions have appeared. The interest, however, depended entirely upon incident and description, to which in its successor, ‘The Romance of the Forest’ (London, 1791, 12mo), something like a study of the effect of circumstance upon character was added. ‘The Romance of the Forest’ reached a fourth edition by 1795, and was translated into French and Italian, while a dramatised version, by John Boaden, entitled ‘Fountainville Forest,’ appeared in 1794. Its success paved the way for ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho, a Romance interspersed with some pieces of Poetry’ (London, 1794, 4 vols. 12mo), for which the publisher offered what was then the unprecedented sum of 500l. Conscious of her strength, Mrs. Radcliffe had adopted a broader and more ambitious style of treatment. ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ was translated into French by Chastenay, and proved the most popular of novels. Its success was such that she obtained 800l. for her next novel, ‘The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents’ (London, 1797, 3 vols. 12mo), a romance of the inquisition, usually regarded as her best work. It was received with enthusiasm at home. Badly dramatised by John Boaden as the ‘Italian Monk,’ it was produced at the Haymarket on 15 Aug. 1797 (Genest, vii. 323); it was, moreover, immediately translated into French by the Abbé Morellet. From this time Mrs. Radcliffe wrote no more, except the little-known novel of ‘Gaston de Blondeville, or the Court of Henry III keeping Festival in Ardenne’ (London, 1826, 4 vols. 8vo), composed in 1802, but not published until after her death, whence it may perhaps be inferred that she considered it unworthy of her powers. It was, however, translated into French by Defauconpret, the translator of Scott, in 1826, and it is interesting because in it the author has recourse not to the supernatural naturally explained, but to the actual supernatural, a method which Scott regretted that she had not followed, unaware that she had actually attempted it.
After her retirement from the world of letters Mrs. Radcliffe lived almost unknown to her literary contemporaries, amusing herself with the occasional composition of poetry, and delighting in the long carriage excursions she was accustomed to make with her husband in the summer months. She had already (1795) published an account of ‘A Journey made in the Summer of 1794 through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany,’ which is rich in pictorial description, and also in political and economical observations, probably contributed by her husband. She also made copious notes of her English excursions, specimens of which, admirable as pieces of description, were incorporated in the memoir prefixed to ‘Gaston de Blondeville.’ With them also appeared ‘St. Alban's Abbey,’ a long metrical romance, the date of which is not given, but which must have been written after Scott and Southey had begun to publish. A little volume of poems which appeared under her name in 1816, and was reissued in 1834 and 1845, is merely a collection of the verses inserted in her novels, made by an anonymous compiler, who seems to have thought that she was dead, and who took the liberty to add poems of his own. Her retirement from society also accredited a report of her insanity, which was distinctly asserted in a book entitled ‘A Tour through England,’ and was made the subject of ‘An Ode to Terror,’ published in 1810. There was not the slightest foundation for it. Mrs. Radcliffe appears to have possessed a cheerful and equable temper, and to have manifested no peculiarity except the sensitive aversion to notice which she shared with many other authoresses. For the last twelve years of her life she suffered from spasmodic asthma, and succumbed to a sudden attack on 7 Feb. 1823. She was interred at the chapel-of-ease in the Bayswater Road (the resting-place of Laurence Sterne and of Paul Sandby) belonging to St. George's, Hanover Square. Her posthumous works appeared in 1826, along with a slight but interesting memoir, apparently from the pen of her husband, whose testimony to her amiable qualities, personal attractions, and musical accomplishments bears the impress of strict truth. The memoir also contains some very discriminating criticism, which may be read with pleasure, even after the accurate but cordial estimate of her genius which Sir Walter Scott had already given in his preface to the edition of her novels published in 1824.
Mrs. Radcliffe's novels may not be much read, either now or in the future, but she will always retain in English literature the important position due to the founder of a school who was also its most eminent representative. In her peculiar art of exciting terror and impatient curiosity by the invention of incidents apparently supernatural, but eventually receiving a natural explanation, she has been surpassed by two Americans, Brockden Brown and Poe, but it is doubtful whether many English writers have rivalled her. The construction of her tales is exceedingly ingenious, and great art is evinced in the contrivances by which the action is from time to time interrupted and the reader's suspense prolonged. The spell which she exerts, however, arises no less from the manifestation of a higher artistic faculty, the creation of an environment for her personages in which their actions and adventures appear not violently improbable, and almost natural. No stories are more completely imbued with a romantic atmosphere, or are more evidently the creations of a mind instinctively turned to the picturesque side of things. To this day she has had few superiors in the art of poetical landscape, which she may almost be said to have introduced into the modern novel, and in the practice of which, as Scott remarks, she showed herself as competent to copy nature as to indulge imagination. Except, indeed, for the ingenuity of her plots, she is rather to be ranked among prose poets than among storytellers, and is especially interesting as a precursor of that general movement towards the delineation and comprehension of external nature which was to characterise the nineteenth century. Her weak side is the want of human interest, to which, however, the character of Schedoni, in ‘The Italian,’ is a marked exception. If the general conventionality of her personages disentitles her to rank among great novelists, she cannot be excluded from a place among great romancers. Her letters and journals abound with beautiful natural descriptions in the style of her novels. Her poems, mainly from imperfection of expression, are the least poetical portion of her writings. In her romances, says Leigh Hunt, she was, in the words of Mathias, ‘the mighty magician of Udolpho;’ ‘in her verses she is a tinselled nymph in a pantomime, calling up commonplaces with a wand’ (Men, Women, and Books, 1878, p. 278).
[Memoir prefixed to Gaston de Blondeville, 1826; Scott's Introduction to Mrs. Radcliffe's novels in Ballantyne's Novelist's Library, 1824; Jeaffreson's Novels and Novelists; Allibone's Dict. of English Literature; Chambers's Cyclop. of English Literature; Lefévre-Deumier in Célébrités Anglaises, 1895. Christina Rossetti wished to have written the biography of Mrs. Radcliffe, whom she greatly admired, but was obliged to relinquish her intention from lack of materials.]