The Mother of Gothic Literature

Before Mary Shelley and Frankenstein there was another woman who wrote of supernatural horrors.

Ann Radcliffe, born in England in 1764 and was a pioneer of the Gothic genre and influenced many women writers after her, including Jane Austen and Mary Shelley.  She was the most popular and well-paid novelist of the eighteenth century in England. Not much is known about Radcliffe’s personal life but her influence on her chosen genre is great.

Ann_RadcliffeBorn in London to a haberdasher named William Ward, when Ann was eight years old the family moved to Bath. She mixed in some distinguished circles, her childhood friend Susannah was the mother of Charles Darwin and her uncle Thomas Bentley was a well-known porcelain manufacturer. Radcliffe was said to have been too shy to have made a lasting social impact at the time, despite being friends and relations to a group of people who were so well known. The Edinburgh Review, in the announcement of her death, wrote:  “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.”

In 1786, Radcliffe married journalist William Radcliffe. He would often return home late from work and to occupy her time during the day Radcliffe began to write. Her writing was deeply encouraged by her husband, whom she called her “nearest relative and friend”.

Her influence on the Gothic genre and horror is unquestionable. Radcliffe brought poetry to the genre as well as helped set the mood for gothic novels through concentrating on the landscapes of aged castles and monasteries. Her settings weren’t just backgrounds for the story but built an atmosphere of suspense and tension that affected the characters moods and dominated the plot of her stories. The monasteries and castles that the characters inhabit are alive with noises and shadows and are even characters themselves.

Radcliffe desired to evoke terror in her writing, not horror, two themes which she saw as distinct opposites, which she wrote about in her essay On The Supernatural in Poetry, which was published after her death in 1826.

“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.” Her aim with writing was not to frighten readers with physical dangers but channel the readers’ imaginations through perceived evils. 

She wrote five novels in her life as well as essays and poems. Her most notable work, The Mysteries of Udolpho, was published in 1794 and was such as huge success that she became the most popular novelist in England at the time.  Her next book, The Italian, was also her last.  She spent her later years focusing solely on her poetry.

Radcliffe died at the age of 58 in 1823. Though she faded into obscurity during the 19th century her legacy as the Mother of Gothic literature still remains. As H.P Lovecraft noted her influence over modern horror, Radliffe added: “a genuine sense of the unearthly in scene and incident which closely approached genius; eery touch of setting and action contributing artistically to the impression of illimitable frightfulness which she wished to convey” to the genre.


 

Learn more about women who were first in their field by exploring the Women’s Museum of California’s digital timeline

 

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