Ann Radcliffe

The most famous of the 18th century Gothic novelists, Ann Radcliffe is not everybody's Wordcandy. As I do not feel that I can improve upon this truly masterful description of Mrs. Radcliffe's favored storylines, I have included Harrison R. Steeves's summary (from the introduction to the 1931 collection Three Eighteenth Century Romances) of her novels:

"In pattern Mrs. Radcliffe's romances are curiously similar. The story is built typically about the adventures and mishaps of a heroine of gentle and sensitive nature, in the background of whose history is some deep, and generally irrelevant, mystery. She is thrown into the power of sinister villains, and exposed continuously to both real and fancied terrors. But although she is constantly threatened with death- "or worse," as Mrs. Radcliffe puts it- her virtue and a certain blind but lucky courage carry her through the perils of her situation. In the end she is found affectionately but modestly united to the genteel young lover from whom destiny has separated her in her moments of trial. This heroine is, in the eighteenth century tradition, an object of great sentimental solicitude, and a model of feminine deportment. Her emotional life is troubled and even melancholy, but her outward poise reflects the best of breeding. She sketches, paints, plays the lute, embroiders, sings, reads romances, walks- but not beyond the limits of an interestingly frail constitution; and in her most exalted moments she writes poetry, specimens of which, hopelessly pedestrian, Mrs. Radcliffe gives us in all her stories. The heroine is a skilled casuist in the proprieties, too. Witness the episode in The Italian in which Ellena questions whether she should permit her affianced lover to lead her from urgent danger, or even death, except with proper chaperonage."

While the above summary might understandably fail to entice you, Mrs. Radcliffe's books are definitely worth reading. Early pulp fiction or not, people loved these books, and reading them gives us an glimpse of what might have tugged at the collective imagination of fiction lovers in an earlier age. Mrs. Radcliffe's books also gave us a stockpile of Gothic contrivances--hidden passageways, ominous distant relatives, gloomy tumbling-down castles--that are still being ripped off by everyone from romance novelists to Lemony Snicket. And for all you Jane Austen fans, trust me on this: Northanger Abbey is, like, fifty times funnier if you've read The Mysteries of Udolpho.

None, so long as you paid attention to the passage quoted above.

Everywhere, although I'd look in used bookstores first. You can also (so long as your eyes can handle the strain) read Mrs. Radcliffe's books online here.

Other Recommendations:
Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

Castle Rackrent, by Maria Edgeworth

Anything written by a Bronte sister, the sillier the better

Nine Coaches Waiting, by Mary Stewart
Posted by: Julia


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