Sunday, May 27, 2012

The First Lady of Gothic Literature

There once was a very talented woman who possessed a great imagination and a penchant for spinning dark, haunting Gothic tales that thrilled readers and had them up late at night, reading by candlelight and longing for her next great work.

I'm not talking about Laurel K. Hamilton, although, I have read many of her Anita Blake stories and enjoyed them immensely.

The First Lady of Gothic Literature is not Anne Rice, either, in case that was your next guess. I have read many of Rice's wonderful vampire chronicles, starting with Interview with the Vampire and going on through to Blood and Gold. While Rice may be a close second when discussing women who write delicious Gothic stories, there is someone who came along a few centuries earlier and made a big splash in the literary pond with her intriguing tales.

Here's a clue: Jane Austen tried to emulate her works when she wrote "Northanger Abbey." 

If you haven't guessed who I'm talking about, let me introduce you: it's none other than Ann Radcliffe. Mrs. Radcliffe lived from 1764 to 1823, in England. She was a married woman of moderate wealth, childless, who found succor and fulfillment in her writing. She also found a willing audience for her works among the London Elite of the 1790's.

As there are no known paintings of her, this a sketch depicting the author. 

There is not a lot known about this wonderful writer's personal life. She was married to a lawyer, and they did not have children. She was reputed to be a recluse. She wrote stories with dark, threatening men set in mysterious, sometimes bleak landscapes, such as dark, haunted forests, or lonely castles or abbeys. The heroine was often in danger from these brooding men, and had to solve some mysterious and paranormal event. Her writing is also very poetic, with long, vivid descriptions of landscapes and creepy, abandoned abbeys sufficient enough to make us worry for our heroine as she investigates the odd goings on in a rather foreboding, disconcerting setting.

Sound familiar? It should, because many later writers following her into the 19th century would emulate and build upon her works; writers such as Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Mary Shelley, and even Edgar Allan Poe & Bram Stoker.  Radcliffe's works always stirred the imagination, and left a definite 'chill' factor in her audiences, much as our modern horror writers do for us today. 
Here is a caricture of women enjoying one of Radcliffe's Gothic Novels by candlelight drawn by James Gilray, caricurist for the London Newspapers, and printed in 1802. Note the expressions of suspense on the faces of the listeners.
My favorite by Radcliffe is "The Romance of the Forest." It is the story of young woman who was raised in a convent. One day, her nefarious father comes to take her home as she has turned 18 years of age. He takes her to an abandoned farmhouse, locks her in a room for days, and then shoves her off onto some travelers who happen by the farm in the middle of the night, travelers who are fugitives from the law.  She is forced to enter their coach and go with them by her rather nasty father. They take her deep into the forest, where they set up camp in an abandoned old Abbey that is reputed to be haunted and inundated with some mysterious tragedy. The heroine, Adelaide, looks about the ruins as night is falling, seeing and sensing that something is watching them, that danger is mere waiting for them to fall asleep . . . 

That is just the first few chapters. Need I say more?  As a fan of Ann Radcliffe myself, I have given tribute to this wonderful writer in my own Gothic Romance; Dark Hero. The heroine in my story is fascinated with Radcliffe's writings, as my book is set in the late 1790's and my heroine has grown up in London. In Dark Hero, the heroine's Irish grandmother will cast a spell to summon a dark hero to rescue her, a hero based on the girlish fantasies the heroine nurtures from devouring Mrs. Radcliffe's delicious Gothic horror novels with relish. Thus, my own endeavor of publishing a Gothic Romance in 2012 has also been influenced by the daring Ann Radcliffe and her writings from the late eighteenth century.

Anne Radcliffe liked to intersperse lines of her own poetry into her stories, a technique that later writers would also emulate, particularly Mr. Poe.  

Here are a couple of delicious quotes from the lady herself: 

 "He, wrapt in clouds of mystery and silence,
Broods o'er his passions, bodies them in deeds,
And sends them forth on wings of Fate to others,
Like the invisible Will, that guides us,
Unheard, unknown, unsearchable."
Ann Radcliffe Poem, from cover page of "The Italian", 1797

"Fate sits on these dark battlements, and frowns,
And, as the portals open to receive me,
Her voice, in sullen echoes through the courts,
Tells of a nameless deed." 
From "The Mysteries of Udolpho" 1794

Ann Radcliffe's works have fallen into obscurity, yet, you can still purchase her novels through Penguin Press. Mostly, they have become required reading for college literature, but for those who like a truly poetic, wordy, and descriptive Gothic story, they may be worth your time. I have them on my bookshelf. 
Here is a list of her works. Look for them on  

A Sicilian Romance, 1790

The Romance of the Forest, 1791

The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794

The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents, 1797

Gaston de Blondeville (published post-humously) 1826.

Click here or more info on Radcliffe: Wikipedia

 Chills to you,

Lilith Bloodrose

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