Ann Radcliffe: An Evaluation

David Cody, Associate Professor of English, Hartwick College

Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) was enormously popular in her day. Her use of Gothic techniques, her ability to arouse terror and curiosity in her readers by introducing events which are apparently supernatural, but which are afterwards carefully explained by natural means, was widely imitated but never surpassed. Her creation of tastefully imaginary horrors and her emphasis on the supernatural looked forward to the Romantics, while her rationalistic explanations hearkened back to the ordered world of the Augustans: her novels offered contemporary readers an opportunity to indulge their predeliction for the bizarre, the outre and the unconventional by broadly hinting at the immoral and the supernatural while ultimately rectifying matters (from a societal point of view) by vindicating the Neoclassical virtues.

Radcliffe had read Burke on the sublime and the Picturesque, and became a pioneer in the fictional use of landscape. By placing her characters in carefully constructed "artificial" environments, by employing vivid contrasts and decorous chiaroscuro effects allied to those found in the pictorial arts, she learned to employ the "Natural" Sublime as a theater within which her plots could be satisfactorily managed, while at the same time greatly enhancing her ability to psychologically manipulate her readers.


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