On this day in 1764, the pioneering Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe was born. I’ll be honest, I’m not that fond of the Gothic novel. But Radcliffe had a great influence on novelists who I don’t even think of as writing in this style. Part of this is because a lot of her work wasn’t exactly Gothic. So she influenced Jane Austen, although not directly. She parodied her in Northanger Abbey where Catherine just loves the novels of Radcliffe. Austen did this sort of thing a lot. Most people miss it today, but Sense and Sensibility is a scathing attack on the Romantics and what Austen thought was an affected love of nature.
One thing is for sure: we would not know of the Bronte sisters if it weren’t for Radcliffe. Jane Eyre definitely has that Gothic thing going on in the middle of the book with the mysterious estate. But the worst part of book is the most Gothic when Jane’s considering marrying St John and she hears Rochester’s voice from the ether, “Jane! Jane! Jane!” If I were to rewrite the the novel, she would hear, “Jane, come back to me! But first kill St John because he is the most annoying character ever!” But certainly, it was Emily Bronte who perfected that Gothic novel with Wuthering Heights. To this day, while I admire that book, I feel very strongly that Emily Bronte needed to be slapped.
The middle section of Jane Eyre is actually more in keeping with what Radcliffe wrote. In her novels, things seem strange but there is always a rational reason for it. Intellectually, she was definitely part of the Enlightenment, even if she was a big source of inspiration for the Romantics. Edgar Allan Poe was clearly aware of her work, although (as usual) he didn’t think much of her. And she was an influence far past that. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is clearly influenced by her.
Like a lot of the early novelists, I think that Radcliffe thought of herself as more a poet than a novelist. Just like Cervantes, she peppered her novels with poetry. And just like with Cervantes, everyone agrees she was a mediocre poet. Walter Scott, who was an admirer of her, noted that “her prose was poetry and her poetry was prose.” But you have to give artists credit who, while slogging out what the people want, still take the time to do what they love. I’ve always admired that about about Thomas Hardy, although in his case it is generally admitted that he was a rather good poet. And anyway, given his trajectory, any novel after Jude the Obscure was certain to cause widespread suicide.
As you can probably tell, I’ve never read any of her novels. It’s just not my kind of thing. I have read some of her poems, however. They aren’t bad — at least in a technical sense. In fact, she a fine feel for the formalism of the time. But given her reputation for evocative descriptions in her novels, it is shocking how banal her poetry is. Again, as with Cervantes, I think that the rigidity of the form suppresses the great creativity that existed in her. So I think you can take a pass on reading any of her poetry. But if you are in love the Brontes, Ann Radcliffe is probably worth checking out.
Happy birthday Ann Radcliffe!