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Ann Radcliffe was born Ann Ward in London on July 9, 1764. During her childhood, Radcliffe was immersed in the culture of Unitarian Dissent. She sometimes lived with her maternal uncle, Thomas Bentley, who was partners with his fellow Unitarian, Josiah Wedgwood, in producing English fine china, porcelain and related luxury accessories. Sukey, Wedgwood’s daughter and Radcliffe’s childhood companion, would go on to marry Dr. Robert Darwin and have a son, the naturalist Charles Darwin. In 1787, Ward married the Oxford graduate and liberal journalist William Radcliffe (1763–1830), whose father may have been the dissenting minister the Rev. Ebenezer Radcliffe, who supported Joseph Priestley’s work.
Radcliffe is best known for three gothic novels: The Romance of the Forest (1791); The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance (1794); and The Italian: or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents (1796), among other novels. She was a popular and profitable author, making large sums of money for her works beginning with the Mysteries of Udolpho. She spent the last twenty-six years of her life out of public view and not publishing, causing much speculation about possible mental illness, her husband’s disapproval of her working, or her personal discomfort with being villainized in some corners of the media as a “sorceress” out to ruin the minds of the young. Nonetheless, she achieved much critical acclaim. Thomas De Quincey called her “the great enchantress” of her generation, and John Keats called her the “great Mother,” suggesting the degree to which she influenced the later Romantic movement. Her reputation as an author suffered some during the moralistic Victorian age, and her prose can be challenging to contemporary readers. Even her affectionate critic Terry Castle wrote in 1998 that “some readers—put off outright by Udolpho’s artificial conventions, local incoherencies, and languorous challenge to recuperation—will undoubtable prefer Prozac to this most intransigent of eighteen century best sellers.” Indeed, some are baffled by the long, plotless reveries that separate her works’ more exciting moments. Yet, Radcliffe’s ability to create literary atmospherics is beyond par, and was likely inspired by the early scientific experiments around the nature of air, such as those conducted by the Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley.
Radcliffe’s works are commonly discussed in relationship to the “explained supernatural.” The most dramatic, apparently supernatural moments in her works tend, in the very end, to have naturalistic explanations: the “ghost” was actual a pirate under a sheet, the discovered corpse a wax effigy, the mysterious sounds, smugglers storing their goods in an unused part of the castle. Exposing the apparently supernatural as fraudulent was an important part of the project of early Protestant gothic fiction. Early gothic authors disapproved of the Catholic Church, and they felt that priests promoted belief in miracles and other “superstitions” as one of the many tools of the “priestcraft” through which a uniformity of belief could be enforced on individuals and nations.
Their distaste for the flamboyantly supernatural does not mean that Radcliff did not believe in God. Like Joseph Priestley, Radcliffe and many of the early Unitarian gothic authors believed God to be deeply infused in nature, rendering the “supernatural” as an almost irrelevant category. Radcliff’s novels are full of persons who receive consolation, delight, and even revelation from the contemplation of nature.
Read more about it: Susan Ritchie, Dark and Stormy: Unitarian Theology in Gothic and Ghostly Literature 1789-1912, An Anthology and Critical Introduction (Harvard Square Library Press, 2022). Available on Amazon.