I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word Would harrow up thy soul. -- William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Fate sits on these dark battlements, and frowns, And, as the portals open to receive me, Her voice, in sullen echoes through the courts, Tells of a nameless deed. -- Ann Radcliffe
Dark power! With shudd'ring, meek submitted thought Be mine to read the visions old Which thy awak'ning bards have told, And, lest thou meet my blasted view, Hold each strange tale devoutly true. -- William Collins, Ode to Fear
Rocks on rocks piled, as if by magic spell, Here scorch'd by lightnings, there with ivy green. -- James Beattie
With many a foul, and midnight murder stain'd. -- Ann Radcliffe (adapted from Gray)
unfold What worlds, or what vast regions, hold The' immortal mind, that hath forsook Her mansion in this fleshy nook! -- John Milton
Such are those thick and gloomy shadows damp, Oft seen in charnel-vaults and sepulchres, Hovering, and sitting, by a new-made grave. -- John Milton
Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakes the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them. I apprehend that neither Shakespeare nor Milton by their fictions, nor Mr. Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and there lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreader evil. -- Ann Radcliffe
When a family was numerous, the volumes always flew, and were sometimes torn, from hand to hand, and the complaints of those whose studies were thus interrupted, were a general tribute to the genius of the author. Another might be found of a different and higher description, in the dwelling of the lonely invalid, or unregarded votary of celibacy, who was bewitched away from a sense of solitude, of indisposition, of neglect of the world, or of secret sorrow, by the potent charm of this mighty enchantress. -- Sir Walter Scott
Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), novelist and poet, was born in London the daughter of a tradesman. Through his and his wife's connections she had contacts in artistic circles. When she and her family moved to Bath (1772), she may have attended a school run by Sophia and Harriet Lee and been influenced to write Gothic fiction. Her novel The Mysteries of Udolpho was one of the first Gothic novels and a masterpiece of the genre.
Following her first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), Ann Radcliffe published A Sicilian Romance (1790) which was regarded by Sir Walter Scott as the first English poetical novel. This was followed by The Romance of the Forest (1791), dramatised by John Boaden (d 1839). For The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), upon which her reputation rests, Ann Radcliffe was offered the unheard of sum of £500 by her publisher. The Mysteries of Udolpho was a huge success, and for her next novel, The Italian (1797), she was offered £800. Gaston de Blondeville (written 1801, published 1826), published posthumously, achieved little success.
After writing a travel book of her trip through Holland and Germany, A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 (1795), Ann Radcliffe retired from the literary scene. In 1816, she was assumed dead, and a compilation published of her verse, The Poems of Ann Radcliffe. Earlier, in 1810, 'Ode to Terror' was published, in which it was claimed that Ann Radcliffe had gone mad and died of the 'terrors'.
In later life Ann Radcliffe suffered from asthma and died of an attack (7 February 1823). It was claimed in the Monthly Review that 'she died in a state of mental desolation not to be described'.
The Mysteries of Udolpho is one of the classics of Gothic horror. Together with The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764) by Horace Walpole (1717-1797) and The Monk (1776) by Mathew Lewis (1775-1818), it helped to create the genre. It was to influence both Mathew Lewis and Mary Shelley (1797-1851).
As Mathew Lewis noted in a letter to his mother, The Mysteries of Udolpho, which he had recently read (May 1794), inspired him to continue with his work on The Monk (1796), 'I was induced to go on with it by reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is in my opinion one of the most interesting books that ever have been published'.
Other writers who were strongly influenced by Ann Radcliffe included The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), who described her as 'the first poetess of romantic fiction', a 'mighty magician', and 'the Great Enchantress'.
The Italian gentleman Montoni (in The Mysteries of Udolpho), is the Gothic villain. The character of Montoni reappears as the Brontë villains and the Byron demonic hero. Montoni's attempts to bully Emily into marriage is seen in Le Fanu's Uncle Silas (1864). Ann Radcliffe may have been influenced by the Italian villains of Jacobean tragedies, Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost and the evil Prince Manfred in Walpole's The Castle of Otranto.
The dark, brooding Montoni is the prototype Brontë hero:
The airy groups, which had danced all night along the colonnade of St. Mark, dispersed before the morning, like so many spirits. Montoni had been otherwise engaged; his soul was little susceptible of light pleasures. 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.
And seen following a visit by Signor Orsino:
After these visits, Montoni was often more thoughtful than usual; sometimes the deep workings of his mind entirely abstracted him from surrounding objects, and threw a gloom over his visage that rendered it terrible, at others, his eyes seemed almost to flash fire, and all the energies of his soul seemed to be roused for some great enterprise.
Emily, whose virtue, humility, tenderness and kindness is repaid many times over with violence and brutality has much in common with Sade's Justine.
They brought a retrospect of all the strange and mournful events, which had occurred since she lived in peace with her parents. And to Emily, who had been so tenderly educated, so tenderly loved, who once knew only goodness and happiness - to her, the late events, and present situation - in a foreign land - in a remote castle - surrounded by vice and violence - seemed more like the visions of a distempered imagination, than the circumstances of truth. She wept to think of what her parents would have suffered, could they have foreseen the events of her future life.
Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1817) is a parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho. It is also self-referential with her gullible heroine, Catherine Morland, being handed a copy of The Mysteries of Udolpho to read. The original is vastly superior to its parody.
Ann Radcliffe's style of writing is extremely variable. In the beginning of The Mysteries of Udolpho where we are introduced to Monsieur St Aubert and and his homely surroundings it is extremely wooden, it positively plods, and yet by the time we reach the Alps it soars:
Emily, often as she travelled among the clouds, watched in silent awe their billowy surges below; sometimes, wholly closing upon the scene, they appeared like a world of chaos, and, at others, spreading thinly, they opened and admitted partial catches of the landscape - the torrent, whose astounding roar had never failed, tumbling down the rocky chasm, huge cliffs white with snow, or the dark summits of the pine forests, that stretched mid-way down the mountains.
Emily's first glimpse of Montoni's castle is the centrepiece of any Gothic novel:
Emily gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle, which she understood to be Montoni's; for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. As she gazed, the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin vapour crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipped with splendour. From those too, the rays soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign. As the twilight deepened, its features became more awful in obscurity, and Emily continued to gaze, till its clustering towers alone were seen, rising over the tops of the woods, beneath whose thick shade the carriages soon after began to descend.
A castle fit for Dracula himself. A description only matched by Poe's first glimpse of the melancholy House of Usher.
The incident of the black veil is pure Hitchcock:
Emily passed on with faltering steps, and having paused a moment at the door, before she attempted to open it, she then hastily entered the chamber, and went towards the picture, which appeared to be enclosed in a frame of uncommon size, that hung in a dark part of the room. She paused again, and then, with a timid hand, lifted the veil; but instantly let it fall - perceiving that what it had concealed was no picture, and, before she could leave the chamber, she dropped senseless to the floor.
The vivid picture of Hannibal crossing the Alps conjured up by Emily's vivid imagination may have led Turner (1775-1851) to paint Snow Storm - Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812), later exhibited at the Royal Academy:
... Montoni and Cavigni renewed a dispute concerning Hannibal's passage over the Alps, Montoni contending that he entered Italy by way of Mount Cenis, and Cavigni, that he passed over Mount St Bernard. The subject brought to Emily's vivid imagination the disasters he had suffered in this bold and perilous adventure. She saw his vast army winding among the defiles, and over the tremendous cliffs of the mountains, which at night were lighted up by his fires, or by the torches which he caused to be carried when he pursued his indefatigable march. In the eye of fancy, she perceived the gleam of arms through the duskiness of night, the glitter of spears and helmets, and the banners floating dimly on the twilight; while now and then the blast of a distant trumpet echoed along the defile, and the signal was answered by a momentary clash of arms. She looked with horror upon the mountaineers, perched on the higher cliffs, assailing the troops below with broken fragments of the mountain; on soldiers and elephants tumbling headlong down the lower precipices; and, as she listened to the rebounding rocks, that followed their fall, the terrors of fancy yielded to those of reality, and she shuddered to behold herself on the dizzy height, whence she had pictured the descent of others.
The power in Ann Radcliffe's writing is not the Gothic horror, in the first third of The Mysteries of Udolpho the only Gothic mention is a view through a Gothic window, though their are dark hints, it is the vivid description, as seen through the eyes of Emily, of countryside, mountains and the approach to Venice, and the description of people's feelings and their interactions. The strength of her characterisations is excellent.
Ann Radcliffe was greatly influenced by the Italian landscape painter, Salvator Rosa. Where Rosa applied brush strokes, Radcliffe wove words.
Ann Radcliffe's writing was referred to as 'the Terrorist System of Writing', 'the hobgoblin-romance' and later, as a tribute to her influence, the Gothic genre was referred to as 'the Radcliffe romance'.
The Mysteries of Udolpho is a masterpiece of the English language and deserves to be rescued from the obscurity in which it now languishes.
Salvator Rosa (1615-73), 17th century Italian landscape painter, created dramatic landscapes peopled with peasants and banditti. Like the works of Ann Radcliffe, who he heavily influenced, Rosa intended to create a feeling of awe and the sublime in the minds of his audience. The works of Rosa, together with those of less dramatic landscape artists, Claude Lorraine (1600-82), Gaspard Poussin (1615-75), Domenico Zampieri (1581-1641), were very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. The landscapes of the Italian artist and architect Domenico Zampieri greatly influenced those of Claude and Poussin. All receive mention in the novels of Ann Radcliffe.
The scene of barrenness were here and there interrupted by the spreading branches of the larch and cedar, which threw their gloom over the cliff, or athwart the torrent that rolled in the vale. No living creature appeared, except the izard, scrambling among the rocks, and often hanging on points so dangerous, that fancy shrunk from the view of them. This was such a scene as Salvator would have chosen, had he then existed, for his canvas; St Aubert, impressed by the romantic character of the place, almost expected to see banditti start from behind some projecting rock, and he kept his hand upon the arms with which he always travelled.
After the pause of a moment, she went on, and, as she entered the vaults, saw between the arches, at some distance, the men lay down the body near the edge of an open grave, where stood another of Montoni's men and a priest, whom she did not observe, till he began the burial service; then, lifting her eyes from the ground, she saw the venerable figure of the friar, and heard him in a low voice, equally solemn and affecting, perform the service for the dead. At the moment, in which they let down the body into the earth, the scene was such as only the dark pencil of a Domenichino, perhaps, could have done justice to. The fierce features and wild dress of the condottieri, bending with their torches over the grave, into which the corpse was descending, were contrasted by the venerable figure of the monk, wrapt in long black garments, his cowl thrown back from his pale face, on which the light gleaming strongly shewed the lines of affliction softened by piety, and the few grey locks, which time had spared on his temples: while, beside him, stood the softer form of Emily, who leaned for support upon Annette; her face half averted, and shaded by a thin veil, that fell over her figure; and her mild and beautiful countenance fixed in grief so solemn as admitted not of tears, while she thus saw committed untimely to the earth her last relative and friend. The gleams, thrown between the arches of the vaults, where, here and there, the broken ground marked the spots in which other bodies had recently been interred, and the general obscurity beyond were circumstances, that alone would have lead on the imagination of a spectator to scenes more horrible, than even that, which was pictured at the grave of the unfortunate and misguided Madame Montoni.
Whate'er Lorraine light-touched with softening hue, Or savage Rosa dashed, or learned Poussin drew -- James Thomson, The Castle of Indolence
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Marilyn Butler, The Woman at the Window: Ann Radcliffe in the Novels of Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen, Women and Literature, 1, 1980
Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, 1757
Daniel Cottom, The Civilized Imagination: A Study of Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott, 1985
William Patrick Day, In the Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of Gothic Fantasy, 1985
Mathew Lewis, The Monk, ed Christopher Maclachlan, Penguin, 1998
Roger Lonsdale (ed), The Poems of Thomas Gray: William Collins: Oliver Goldsmith, 1969
Robert Miles, Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress, 1995
Charles C Murray, Mrs Radcliffe's Landscapes: The Eye and the Fancy, University of Windsor Review, 18, 1984
Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite, 1959
Rictor Norton, Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe, Leicester University Press, 1999
David Punter, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fiction from 1765 to the Present Day, 1980
Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, ed Bonamy Dobrée intr Terry Castle, Oxford University Press, 1998
Ann Radcliffe, On the Supernatural in Poetry, New Monthly Magazine, No 7, 1826
Bette B Roberts, The Horrid Novels: The Mysteries of Udolpho and Northanger Abbey [in Kenneth Graham (ed) Gothic Fiction, 1989]
Sir Walter Scott, Lives of Eminent Novelists
John F Stoler, Ann Radcliffe: The Novel of Suspense and Terror, 1980
Montague Summers, The Gothic Quest: A History of the Gothic Novel, 1938
Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, ed W S Lewis intr E J Clery, Oxford University Press, 1998