Gothic Novel Day takes place annually on 9 July to commemorate the birth of English Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe (Ann Ward) who was born on 9 July 1764 in Holborn, London, on 9 July 1764. Her father was William Ward (1737–1798), a haberdasher, who moved the family to Bath to manage a china shop in 1772. Her mother was Ann Oates (1726–1800) of Chesterfield Radcliffe occasionally lived with her Uncle, Thomas Bentley, in Chelsea, who was in partnership with, Josiah Wedgwood, maker of the famous Wedgwood china. Sukey, Wedgwood’s daughter, also stayed in Chelsea. Sukey later married Dr Robert Darwin and had a son, Charles Darwin. In 1787, Ward married the Oxford graduate and journalist William Radcliffe (1763–1830), part-owner and editor of the English Chronicle. Radcliffe began to write and to read her work to him when he returned.
Little is known of Ann Radcliffe’s life however she travelled widely at first gradually led a more retired life, never visiting the countries where the fearful happenings in her novels took place. Her only journey abroad, to Holland and Germany, was made in 1794 after most of her books were written. The journey was described in her A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 (which was written in 1795) . Ann Radcliffe also published five other novels during her lifetime, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1 vol.) in1789, A Sicilian Romance (2 vols) 1790, The Romance of the Forest (3 vols) in 1791, The Mysteries of Udolpho (4 vols) in 1794, The Italian (3 vols) in 1797 and Gaston de Blondeville which was published posthumously in 1826. Radcliffe did not like the direction in which Gothic literature was heading – one of her later novels, The Italian, was written in response to Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk. Radcliffe portrayed her female characters as equal to male characters, allowing them to dominate and overtake the typically powerful male villains and heroes, creating new roles for women in literature previously not available. Jane Austen also parodied The Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey.
Radcliffe’s fiction is marked by seemingly supernatural events that are then provided with rational explanations, traditional moral values are asserted, the rights of women are advocated, and reason prevails. Radcliffe stated that terror aims to stimulate readers through imagination and perceived evils while horror closes them off through fear and physical dangers. “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.”
Radcliffe courted controversy by presenting a prejudiced view of catholics. Her works, especially The Italian, often have Catholic ideas portrayed negatively including the Inquisition, negative depictions of convents and nuns, monks as villains, and ruined abbeys. The confessional is often portrayed as a danger zone controlled by the power of the priest and the church The Italian and The Mysteries of Udolpho are both set in Italy, a land historically predisposed towards Catholicism and against Protestantism. Radcliffe’s works would have left her contemporary readers with an impression of Catholicism as something ultimately cruel and corrupt, and of the author as alienated from the denomination and its practitioners.
Radcliffe sadly died on 7 February 1823 and was buried in a vault in the Chapel of Ease at St George’s, Hanover Square, London. In 1823, the Edinburgh Review said, “She never appeared in public, nor mingled in private society, but kept herself apart, like the sweet bird that sings its solitary notes, shrouded and unseen. Christina Rossetti attempted to write a biography of her, but abandoned it for lack of information. Nevertheless Radcliffe influenced many later authors, including the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814), Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), and Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), Harriet Lee and Catherine Cuthbertson and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Jane Austen’s parodies The Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey and Honoré de Balzac’s novel of the supernatural L’Héritière de Birague (1822) also parodies Radcliffe novels. After Radcliffe’s death, her husband also released her unfinished essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry”, which details the difference between the sensation of terror and horror.