In an essay written in 1920, Clara McIntyre argues that the very term Gothic is a misnomer, that:
The novels of Mrs Radcliffe and her followers … are not an expression of the life and spirit of the Middle Ages, if this is what the term Gothic means. They are, rather, an expression of the life and spirit of the Renaissance, as Elizabethan England had interpreted the Renaissance.
Haunted castles, violent and unnatural murder and bloody revenge are the stuff of Renaissance tragedy, and they are also the essence of Gothic literature. In our modern understanding of the term Gothic this can be traced from characters such as Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, through to Edgar in King Lear, and from Shakespeare’s earliest to his later plays, from Titus Andronicus to The Tempest. There is a strong cross-fertilisation between Shakespeare and the Gothic novel. The novels of Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, are so dependent on this cross-fertilisation as to make the two forms near inseparable with regards to the conception of character, plot, and textual choices.
Essayist Nathan Drake referred to Ann Radcliffe as ‘the Shakespeare of Romance writers.’ Ann Ward was born in Holborn, London, in 1764 – the same year as the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Her most famous novel is probably The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794. Her portrayal of the rapture and terrors of her characters’ imaginations is vivid and compelling, and she is one of the first novelists to use descriptions of landscape, weather, and the effects of light as mirrors to the emotions and circumstances of her leading characters. Although Otranto is considered the first Gothic novel, it was Radcliffe who took up the mantle, defined the genre and inspired other writers in new form. As Camille Paglia pointed out, ‘it is a rare example of a woman creating an artistic style.’
In 1826, Radcliffe wrote an essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry,” for The New Monthly Magazine which not only helped define the Gothic but espoused Shakespeare as the major proponent of ‘the Sublime’ as described by Edmund Burke in his 1757 treatise on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. The essay took the form of a dialogue between Willoughton, “the apostle of Shakespeare,” and Mr. Simpson, “the representative of Philistine common sense”:
[W____:]”Who ever suffered for the ghost of Banquo, the gloomy and sublime kind of terror, which that of Hamlet calls forth? though the appearance of Banquo, at the high festival of Macbeth, not only tells us that he is murdered, but recalls to our minds the fate of the gracious Duncan, laid in silence and death by those who, in this very scene, are reveling in his spoils. There, though deep pity mingles with our surprise and horror, we experience a far less degree of interest, and that interest too of an inferior kind. The union of grandeur and obscurity, which Mr. Burke describes as a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror, and which causes the sublime, is to be found only in Hamlet; or in scenes where circumstances of the same kind prevail.”
“That may be,” said Mr. S____, “and I perceive you are not one of those who contend that obscurity does not make any part of the sublime.” “They must be men of very cold imaginations,” said W____, “with whom certainty is more terrible than surmise. Terror and Horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul and awakens 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 where lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil?
Radcliffe’s knowledge of Shakespeare was encyclopaedic, her books permeated with borrowings from the Bard – direct quotes, borrowed language, plot devices, castle and forest settings. She regularly prefaces her chapters with quotes from Shakespeare and she displays a particular love of Hamlet. This love may well be traced to a period in her youth when, staying at Bath she was fortunate enough to see the great actress Sarah Siddons act in some of her most famous roles. At a special benefit performance at Bristol Theatre Royal, on 27 June 1781, Sarah Siddons performed Hamlet for the sixth time, and this performance may well have had a profound effect on the future novelist. An examination of her novels shows the extent to which, what may be called ‘the Siddons effect’, informed Radcliffe’s creative imagination. In her essay ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ she writes:
Mrs Siddons, like Shakspeare, always disappears in the character she represents, and throws an illusion over the whole scene around her, that conceals many defects in the arrangements of the theatre. I should suppose she would be the finest Hamlet that ever appeared, excelling even her own brother in that character; she would more fully preserve the tender and refined melancholy, the deep sensibility, which are the peculiar charm of Hamlet, and which appear not only in the ardour, but in the occasional irresolution and weakness of his character – the secret spring that reconciles all his inconsistencies. A sensibility so profound can with difficulty be justly imagined, and therefore can very rarely be assumed. Her brother’s firmness, incapable of being always subdued, does not so fully enhance, as her tenderness would, this part of the character. The strong light which shows the mountains of a landscape in all their greatness, and with all their rugged sharpness, gives them nothing of the interest with which a more gloomy tint would invest their grandeur; dignifying, though it softens, and magnifying, while it obscures.’(p.163)
The last part of this is instructive. Radcliffe, echoing Edmund Burke, likens the light upon a mountain to the light that an actor – in this case Siddons – and indeed she herself, throws upon her heroines. She eschews ‘rugged sharpness’ in favour of a gloomy tint which magnifies ‘while it obscures’. The conditional ‘would’ here, covers the fact that the seventeen year old Ann Radcliffe did see Sarah Siddons as Hamlet at the Theatre Royal Bristol on 27 June 1781, and that on that night the Radcliffian heroine was born in the mind of the author. James Boaden ‘imagined that she [Siddons] must have far surpassed her brother Philip in communicating the Prince’s “real feminine alarm”.’ This Siddonsesque ‘tender and refined melancholy’ and ‘deep sensibility’ and, most of all, ‘real feminine alarm’, are keynotes to the characters of Julia in A Sicilian Romance, and are developed further in Adeline in The Romance of the Forest, and Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Where there’s a Hamlet there’s a Ghost and in Udolpho, the ghost of Hamlet’s father is summoned at the start of the novel by Radcliffe’s use of the epigraph to Volume 1 Chapter 2, ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul’. Following Emily’s father’s death, Emily’s fancy that she ‘almost … saw him before her’ is reminiscent of Hamlet’s mental vision of his father before he sees his ghost, ‘in my mind’s eye, Horatio.’ (1.2.184).
The dead St. Aubert appears before Emily in an armchair – and she is immediately after described, like Hamlet, as being susceptible to the ‘thick coming fancies of a mind greatly enervated’ (memories of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth also obviously playing in Radcliffe’s memories here).
As ever, Ann Radcliffe meters up the gloom, tension and fear for her central protagonist. Udolpho, like Elsinore, continues to be bedevilled by mysterious sightings. Emily herself perceives the mysterious figure on the ramparts which has so petrified the watch. Radcliffe writes:
Her scattered thoughts were now so far returned as to remind her, that her light exposed her to dangerous observation, and she was stepping back to remove it, when she perceived the figure move, and then wave what seemed to be its arm, as if to beckon her, and, while she gazed, fixed in fear, it repeated the action.
Parallels with Hamlet continue when it becomes clear that the villain of the piece, Montoni, is a Claudius-type character. He usurps St. Aubert and inherits Udolpho by villainous means – in much the same way that Claudius inherits Elsinore. He murders his wife and plans to bury her ‘hugger-mugger’ so to speak, until Emily entreats him otherwise. Radcliffe is at her sublime best in the ensuing description of the pitiable Madame Montoni’s funeral. She cites the painter Dominico Zampieri openly as an influence, but she scarcely needs to. Her plangent gothic description, as gleams of light play in and out of the vault surrounding the torch lit grave, suffices to give the scene an almost filmic quality, as if Radcliffe wants to stage Ophelia’s burial with proper decorum.
Radcliffe’s Shakespearean Gothic had a massive influence on literature and her contemporaries – one need only look at the affect she had on Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. Matthew Gregory Lewis was born in London on 9 July 1775, the son of a Deputy Secretary at the War Office. He left Oxford University intending to follow a career in the diplomatic office like his father, but on his journey towards the Hague where he was due to take up a position as attaché, he read a novel which was to change his life. The nineteen-year-old Lewis picked up Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho whilst on the boat over to the Netherlands and fell under it’s spell declaring it to be ‘one of the most interesting books ever published’. It was during this period, before his father recalled him back to England, that he wrote The Monk in the space of ten weeks. Lewis’s The Monk caused so much of a sensation that the title even worked itself into his name. The Monk, which scandalised late-eighteenth century literary society, is partly driven by a Shakespearean osmosis. Indeed, as if prepared for the storm the novel would provoke, Lewis apes Hamlet in his Preface ‘An Imitation of Horace’:
Go then, and pass that dangerous bourn
Whence never Book can back return:
Book One of the novel proper opens appropriately with a quotation from Measure for Measure:
Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy; Scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone.
… thus signalling to us the incipient hypocrisy and underlying concupiscence of the eponymous Monk Ambrosio, who in the course of the novel sells his soul to the Devil with fatal results having along the way indulged himself in obscene occult and sexual practices.
Radcliffe received an unprecedented £500 advance for The Mysteries of Udolpho. Udolpho. She outsold every other author of her day. Unfortunately, unlike Shakespeare, very little documentary evidence remains of Radcliffe’s life. Gothic scholar Robert Miles commented:
Ann Radcliffe was, in her day, the obscurest woman of letters in England. Her contemporaries despaired of learning anything about her, while Christina Rossetti abandoned her planned biography for lack of materials.
In the British Library’s 2014 exhibition on the Gothic ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’ a rare letter from Radcliffe to her mother-in-law was displayed for the first time – one of the few personal documents of her life remaining.
Newly discovered Ann Radcliffe letter, 31 August, London. Photography (c) British Library Board
In the 20th century Gothic studies have revived an interest in the works and life of Radcliffe and especially her relationship to the works of Shakespeare::
Shakespearean Gothic / Christy Desmet and Anne Williams.
Cardiff : University of Wales Press, 2008 (SI Library PR2973)
Gothic Shakespeares / edited by John Drakakis, Dale Townshend.
London : Routledge, 2008 (SI Library PR2976)
For more information check out the British Library’s Introduction to Ann Radcliffe.
You can also read more about editions of her work in this piece by Chawton House Library.
A audio version of Udolpho can be found on Box of Broadcasts: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
Karin Brown (Shakespeare Institute Librarian) & David Brown (Alumni of the Shakespeare Institute)