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Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic

Outlined below are some of the key features of Radcliffe’s use of the Gothic genre. Radcliffe was in many ways distinct from other Gothic novelists, and she helped to define the genre through her various techniques.

Explained Supernatural

Critics have identified Radcliffe’s writing as part of the “female Gothic”, or a “tradition of romance writing produced by women for women” (Miles quoting Moers).[1] One characteristic of this body of writing is the explained supernatural which “evokes a spiritual world through unexplained ghostly visions and sounds, yet finally provides a natural origin for all the effects” (Milbank, 157). This device does not imply Radcliffe’s dismissal of the supernatural in favour of ‘pure’ rationality: Radcliffe often includes references to the divine supernatural through her characters’ religious experiences (Milbank, 158). However, Radcliffe’s novels expose the “false supernatural,” and reveal the “true supernatural” through characters’ relationship to “non-human nature” (Milbank, 58). Emily and Blanche, for example, acknowledge the natural world as a work of the “Deity,” but become disillusioned in their belief in supernatural occurrences such as ghosts.

Terror vs. Horror

A key distinction from Radcliffe’s Gothic to the Gothic fiction of other authors is her use of terror as opposed to horror. Although her works “featured castles, tyrants, abductions and imagined ghosts,… Radcliffe [avoids] scenes of positive horror”[2] . In other words, she privileged imagined evils over actual, physical threats, in accordance with theories of the sublime (terror expands our mind through imagination, while horror contracts it through earthly fears).

Portrayals of the Supernatural

A comparison between the ghosts of Radcliffe’s novels with the works of Matthew Lewis (author of The Monk) illustrates this point, and it also highlights the difference between the female gothic (terror) and male gothic (horror) (A. Smith, 147). While Radcliffe uses ghosts to “expose the [origin] of imaginative and emotional excess,” and uses “subtle and implied terror,” Lewis “focuses on the explicit physicality of horror” (A. Smith, 147). For example, in the Mysteries of Udolpho, the reader is haunted by the possibility of what is behind the black veil, and we are terrified not by a description of what Emily saw, but by her reaction to it. All we know is that what lies behind the veil is “no picture” (Radcliffe, 249), and that it causes Emily to faint. Lewis, however, dwells on sensual descriptions of horror that border on the pornographic (A. Smith, 147). Thus, the authors’ differing portrayal of the supernatural illustrates the different ‘modes’ of the Gothic novel.

Gothic Conventions

Radcliffe plays with stock conventions of Gothic in her novels, raising the reader’s expectations then deflating them (much like she does by the explained supernatural). One such convention is the “mysterious heritage” (N. Smith, 589) of the heroine. Though Radcliffe raises questions about Emily’s parentage, she reverses all doubts at the end of the novel by revealing her identity as completely secure (N. Smith, 590). Radcliffe also consciously refers to her heroine as a heroine (N. Smith, 588), putting her idealism to the test in a very real situation. When Emily defies Montoni, he threatens her with ‘removing his protection’ (Radcliffe, 385). He mocks: “You speak like a heroine…we shall see whether you can suffer like one” (Radcliffe, 381). This self-referencing of Gothic convention will later be echoed by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, whose narrator is constantly critiquing Catherine as a Gothic heroine, measuring her up to the standards of the genre.

Next, we will look at landscape and setting in The Mysteries of Udolpho.


[1] Miles, Robert. “Radcliffe, Ann.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. Ed. David Scott Kastan. © 2005 Oxford University Press. The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature: (e-reference edition).

[2] Ibid.

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