Ann Radcliffe's Gothic Narrative and the Readers at Home

By Mackenzie, Scott | Studies in the Novel, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Ann Radcliffe's Gothic Narrative and the Readers at Home


Mackenzie, Scott, Studies in the Novel


Many trips to Scotland are undoubtedly projected and executed, and many unfortunate connections formed, from the influence which novels gain over the mind.

-- Catherine MacAulay, Letters on Education

I. The Scene of Reading

During much the same period that the French Revolution horrified the public imagination of England, the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe terrified English private imaginations. As Edmund Burke and others fought Jacobin sentiments (and lack of sentiment) in the political theater, Radcliffe claimed an altogether easier conquest of the hearth. Her novels are Gothic-really the apogee of the form's early ascendancy-but they are also domestic; home is ever-present, ever-discussed, ever-sought. Home is also the cover to which Radcliffe's obscure lire in letters has generally been critically consigned. Bonamy Dobree's introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho says simply, "she never entered the literary lire, preferring to live quietly at home, writing by the fireside, not enjoying very good health."(1) The scene described is a commonplace, a default visioning of the publicly invisible domesticity Radcliffe herself helped invent.(2) Aline Grant, in her 1951 biography, feels licensed to embroider, as it were: "waiting for William's return in these long evening hours, with all her household duties done and complete freedom from interruption assured, Ann began beguiling the time with putting down on paper some of the romantic scenes on which her imagination loved to dwell."(3)

Grant and Dobree are heirs to the critical tradition which has identified, in uncritical fashion, both the Gothic and domestic strands of later-eighteenth-century novel discourse with a sphere of English public life separated from the realm of politics and enclosed upon a gendered bourgeois privacy. Gothic fiction was representative of the coincidence between feminized, formally chaotic fantasy and the woman's world of domesticity which lacked most kinds of classical formal unity or structure save the boundaries which sealed it off from the masculine territories of commercial and political endeavor. Gothic art (especially Radcliffean "women's Gothic fiction") and the private home shared the distinction of definition by negation. Reading Radcliffe has forever been an exegesis of domesticity, registering the tremors from across the channel as faintly felt behind closed doors. She has been given custody of the flip side of public life during the revolution decade.(4) And, of course, Gothic fiction and private domesticity shared not just a homology in the rhetorics of their respective ideologues, but often enough the ideologues themselves, whose numbers include Maria Edgeworth, Catherine MacAulay, Elizabeth Montagu, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Mary Wollstonecraft and, I hope to demonstrate, Ann Radcliffe.

Within the carefully patrolled--though not hermetically sealed--confines of discussions on Gothic fiction, domesticity, education, sentiment and other feminized topoi, a politics was assembled whose voices were no less published and circulated than those speaking on matters germane to public politics. In truth, the development of middle-class domesticity was constitutive of political discourse, and productive of oppositions within political discourse. Domesticity remains, nonetheless, definitionally outside the national political sphere. Harriet Guest speaks of a "redefinition of the boundaries between public and private, to describe the opposition between the public and commercial world outside and the domestic sphere it is imagined to enclose, so that the power of private and commercial wealth gains an audible voice in the real, manly world of politics."(5) Home, on the other hand, is not in the same way constrained, because a collateral shift in the structures of British nationality at the end of the eighteenth century brought about a more directly instrumental identification between home in its private bourgeois practice and in its national guise. …

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