Ann Radcliffe: A Sicilian Romance, The Mysteries of the Forest, Udolpho and The Italian


Walpole may have started it, but it’s really Radcliff who gave us the Gothic we love today.

Radcliff gave her readers what they wanted.  And what she gave them, superficially or not, was what they needed. By her readers I’m not really talking about Gothic geeks like myself, but her huge fan base amongst the literate Georgian middle-classes.  Men and women of all ages read her books, but she was marketed at what would now be considered the chic-lit or Young Adult demographics.  She was so successful at this, it makes her an excellent lens through which to view the reality of life for her young female target audience.

Her novels feature heroines.  The are intelligent, beautiful and modest, exactly the kind of women Austen mocked in ‘Lesley Castle’ when presenting the difficulties of first person narration:

Tho’ retired from almost all the World … we are neither dull nor unhappy; on the contrary there never were two more lively, more agreable or more witty girls, than we are; not an hour in the Day hangs heavy on our hands. We read, we work, we walk and when fatigued with these Employments releive our spirits, either by a lively song, a graceful DAnce, or by some smart bon-mot, and witty repartée.  We are handsome my dear Charlotte, very handsome and the greatest of our perfections is, that we are entirely insensible of them ourselves.

They are also a bit like Princess Jasmine from Disney’s ‘Aladdin’, devoted to their incompetent parents and utterly obedient except for when it goes again their ideas of independence.  It must have been a welcome relief from the morals of published sermons (the other best-sellers of the time) for girls to read that paragons of perfection were still stubborn and single-minded when arguing with their guardians.

Radcliffe’s heroines are active.  They explore mysterious underground caverns, they’re unafraid of wandering in the woods at night.  It’s true they faint a lot as well, but they usually do this after (or during) exciting adventures.  The faints are never a sign of physical weakness, they’re more likely to be moral superiority – who wouldn’t faint after looking upon a damned soul?  The more I learn about the constricted lives nearly all of Radcliffe’s young reader would have lead, the less I want to begrudge them their adventures by proxy through her indomitable (if over-virtuous) heroines.

Radcliffe’s heroines chose their own fates.  Stupid women around them might marry for money or superficial good looks, but her heroines see through this.  It is true, their lovers always turn out to be amazingly good looking and rich as well, but that’s not why they love them.  We all know that if the singing young man in Sleeping Beauty hadn’t turned out to be a prince (I’m thinking Disney again), she’d still have loved him – right?

On a more serious note, there is a theory that such literature will serve to further enforce, rather than subvert societal conventions.  All of these novels take place in exotic locations; it’s clear such behaviour wouldn’t work in contemporary English.  Maybe the purpose of these novels is to allow the readers to live out their fantasies safely, a bit like watching violent films rather going out and killing people.  Contemporary critics were down on her, but Radcliffe did not precipitate a Feminist revolution.  Girls read novels, dreamed of being heroines, then stayed at home as spinsters or married young to escape their parents just as they had been doing before.  Maybe by shutting off such exciting women between the pages of novels actually inhibited their appearance on the world stage … the best and brightest women of the time would not have wanted to be compared with their trashy fictional counterparts.

Politically, I’m ambiguous about Ann Radcliffe.  I desperately want her to be subversive, unlike her readers she did live and travel widely and had really seen the sublime foreign landscapes that she then repackaged for her constrained fans.  The good news is that she doesn’t have to be political.  She can always be read for the Scooby-do appeal of the supernatural.  It’s nearly always a man in a mask and he would have got away with it too – if it wasn’t for that pesky heroine!

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