Ann Radcliffe and Natural Theology

Article excerpt

Even within a critical climate largely sympathetic to its aspirations, the eighteenth-century Gothic is still perceived as fluctuating between peaks of rhetorical hyperactivity and valleys of intellectual torpor--almost as if a Radcliffean villain and heroine, each more caricatured than anything actually seen in Radcliffe, were alternately in control. When we do think of Gothic authors themselves as being in control, we have practical motives for deemphasizing their personal claims: even where biographical concerns are clearly present, the novels are often more convincing as registrants of cultural anxieties than as portraits of literary artists. This tendency has inevitably shaped the study of Ann Radcliffe herself, given both the relative paucity of biographical information and the central problem that confronts the modern reader: how is it possible for a writer as fluent as she, and especially one with such detailed ideas about aesthetics and psychology, to be so blandly chauvinistic, in gender and ethno-religious senses, as she often seems? Materialist, psychoanalytic, and feminist perspectives have indeed offered suggestive complications, revealing significant instabilities within her apparent anti-Catholicism and paternalism, and noting her keen awareness of the politics of domesticity. (1)

Granting the usefulness of such approaches, we are at a moment when it is becoming increasingly possible to say something about Radcliffe's intellectual commitments--specifically, to consider her fiction as a platform for philosophical and religious inquiry. Our goal in this regard should not be simply to test the constancy of stated beliefs--for, as the recent work of Rictor Norton, Robert Miles, Mark Canuel, and Robert J. Mayhew collectively reveals, it is difficult to assign Radcliffe a definitive religious affiliation--but to explore the artistic implications of a frank spirituality that transcends, while also helping to organize, the Gothic's functionalist drive toward "effect." It is not merely fanciful to say that we need, for Radcliffe, something of the critical attitude toward Milton (directly relevant, as a source) and Defoe (indirectly relevant, as a profuse psychological fantasist), in which belief is seen as shaping artistic output.

Several important steps have recently been made in this direction. Norton's groundbreaking biography argues that, despite a shortage of surviving personal writings, we can infer much about Radcliffe's politics from her familial contacts with Unitarianism and, more generally, with the energetic intellectualism of rational Dissent: linkages that corroborate the rights-based discourse seen sporadically in The Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and The Italian (1797). (2) Similarly, Canuel (2002) places Radcliffe's anti-monasticism within a Dissent-driven public debate about the nature of secular governance (55-81). Such reconstructions also open certain doors inward, to the making of the fiction. In tracing Radcliffe's likely contact with the work of Dissenting feminists such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Norton is able to assert a high degree of political intent in her novelistic portrayals of women (32-33 and 167-69). He also celebrates Udolpho, in particular, as "replete with cultural images" that together convey "an extraordinary affirmation of faith in civilization and the liberal arts" (98), especially in the context of Dissenting premiums on rhetorical process, emotive complexity, and dialogic flexibility (66-71). The connection with Dissent underscores the importance not only of aesthetics, but, as Norton rightly argues, of aesthetic analysis to Radcliffe's novels-much to the benefit of Radcliffe's reputation as a thinker.

A very different account of Radcliffe's religious affiliation is presented in a 2003 essay by Mayhew, which directly challenges Norton's reading of Radcliffe's engagement with Dissenting culture, arguing instead that her religious sympathies were primarily shaped by latitudinarian Anglicanism. …