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September / October 2003


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Raising Radcliffe: The Roots of Gothic Tradition

Photo Illustration by Valerie Williams


Raising Radcliffe: The Roots of Gothic Tradition
UMaine literary scholar explores the mystery and macabre in Ann Radcliffe's 18th-century novels

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The roots of the Gothic novel tend to resurface this time of year, rattling pop culture's bones with fierce echoes of the past.

As summer stretches into fall and the landscape thins to reveal its own skeleton, pop culture confirms — whether with the success of the latest Stephen King novel or with the newest horror movie headlining at the local cineplex — that our culture remains seduced by the same qualities that sparked fear and dread in so many more than 200 years ago.

Windswept landscapes, haunted castles and a profound awareness of the supernatural all began their literary journey in the Gothic, which Horace Walpole pioneered in 1764 when he published The Castle of Otranto on Christmas Eve.

That day also marked the birth of Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823), whose hugely influential books came to redefine the genre as a metaphor for the female experience.

The author of such works as The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, Radcliffe was one of England's first and most popular novelists. Today, however, she has largely been forgotten.

According to Deborah Rogers, professor of English at the University of Maine and an internationally known scholar of the author, Radcliffe is like many important women writers who were wildly famous in their own day, but have since almost disappeared. Rogers' three books on Radcliffe represent part of an international project to uncover forgotten 18th-century women writers.

"By the end of the 18th century, women had written some 500 novels," says Rogers. "Yet even after almost 20 years of feminist revisionist history of 18th-century literature, relatively few women have made their way into a canon dominated by the so-called ‘fathers of the novel.'"

According to Rogers, not only did Radcliffe's books inspire plays, operas and imitations, they also influenced Romantic and Victorian literature, the detective, psychological and horror genres, and a wealth of individual authors — from Jane Austen and Mary and Percy Shelley to Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, Edgar Alan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. They also, at least indirectly, influenced a host of contemporary authors, including Anne Rice, Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King.

At the peak of her fame, Radcliffe's influence reached beyond England; her books were translated into Italian, German, French, Russian and Spanish. And yet she was something of an enigma, withdrawing from social engagements as she feared ordinary social contact.

Her estrangement from society was extreme enough to make Rogers wonder whether Radcliffe, like her characters, suffered from anxiety and depression, particularly since, at age 34, she virtually stopped publishing, thus throwing away a prized career and leading some to assume that she was either dead or insane.

"In the total absence of documentation, contemporaries were willing to believe, presumably because she was the reserved female author of Gothics, that Radcliffe was crazy," says Rogers. "Such interpretations are common problems in constructing a woman's life without proper evidence. Given her fame and her connections with publishers, Radcliffe would presumably have had easy access to the press. Still, remarkably, she never corrected wild rumors of her madness or death."

In constructing her own biography of Radcliffe, Ann Radcliffe: A Bio-Bibliography, Rogers contributed new material by extensively analyzing the one substantial existing Radcliffe manuscript (located in the Boston Public Library), which had previously been ignored.

"In general, writing life stories of women, who, in many cases, were not taken seriously, invites problems," says Rogers. "It's difficult because many of their important papers have vanished, perhaps because they were considered too insignificant to preserve. A special problem in writing about Radcliffe is that most of the information we have about her was originally furnished by her husband, William, who manipulated her image for posterity."

Since 18th-century women arguably contributed more to the novel than their male counterparts, it's important to recover female-authored texts and to recognize the female influence on our literary heritage, Rogers says. "Only then can we ensure the accuracy of literary history."

To describe Radcliffe's works, Rogers has coined the term "Matrophobic Gothic." By matrophobia, Rogers means more than fear of mothers. She also means fear of becoming a mother, as well as fear of identification with and separation from maternal figures. "I read matrophobia as the central metaphor for women's relationships with each other within the context of a male-dominated culture," she says. "My hope is that my research will help to confront, re-envision and revalue the mother-daughter connection."

Part of that research involves exploring how Radcliffe's Matrophobic Gothic examines gender differences and the problems involved in being female. "By emphasizing women's dependence, isolation and sexuality in terms of mother-daughter bonds, Radcliffe focuses on the dangers of female anxiety and paranoia," says Rogers. "The female tradition in literature has long been defined in terms of its focus on the character of the deluded heroine who reforms. I believe that very tradition also is distinguished by its matrophobic heroines."

While Radcliffe's novels are filled with fantastic details, such as ghosts, gloomy architecture, disembodied voices and mysterious manuscripts, they also follow patterns that allow heroines to test their inner powers in the face of persecution, to fight against confinement, thwart male domination and reconcile with their mothers — not unlike themes in some of today's romantic fiction, films and soap operas.

For instance, in The Italian, when the heroine, Ellena, finds herself locked in a convent, she discovers that the mother she once thought was dead is actually alive and living as a nun named Sister Olivia. When Olivia helps Ellena flee the convent, Ellena comes to accept not only her mother's position, but she identifies with her. Ultimately, both mother and daughter escape patriarchal violence and reconcile.

It's the sort of plot element that might be found in an episode of Days of Our Lives, a Gothic echo that continues to plunge through the sands of the hourglass and reverberate in other works.

Strengthening her link to the present is the fact that Radcliffe's heroines, like so many today, are not generally rescued by men. Also, they maintain their independence in romantic relationships, leaving some to observe that in spite of their perceived weaknesses, Radcliffe's women actually are rather strong and her books hint toward a sort of Gothic feminism.

"They seem more inspired by landscape than by love," says Rogers of the heroines. "The source of their strength and inspiration is not a man, but, rather, the scenery and the quest for maternal reconciliation."

Key in achieving this were Radcliffe's rich landscape descriptions, which, at the time, were both praised for being gorgeous and poetic, and maligned for being verbose and redundant. She was deeply influenced by the travel literature of the time and by painters such as Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin and Salvator Rosa. While she never visited Italy, she set three of her novels there.

"If her heroines experienced extreme reactions to the supernatural, they also experienced extreme reactions to landscape," says Rogers. "Her scenery not only reflects and enhances the plot, it also defines and summarizes character, powerfully evoking the elevated emotions associated with the idea of the ‘sublime': only good guys appreciate nature."

In the same understated — and as Rogers argues, unappreciated — way, Radcliffe shaped the landscape of the Gothic novel and, in turn, the direction the novel itself would ultimately take.

by Chris Smith
September-October, 2003

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