Women Writers and the English Nation in the 1790s: Romantic Belongings

By Angela Keane | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Domesticating the subLime: Ann RadcLiffe and
Gothic dissent

In the context of recent debates about the EngLish Literary canon, the case of Ann RadcLiffe provides a formuLa that is aLmost as cLichéd as the imitations her fictions spawned. Her work was wideLy read and criticaLLy respected in the 1790s and the earLy nineteenth-century. However, Like that of nearLy aLL of her contemporary writers of prose fiction, RadcLiffe's romances found no pLace in a Romantic canon based on poetry, and merited no more than a footnote in the rise of the noveL and the great tradition. Our own Gothic revivaL – which has come about LargeLy under the aegis of cuLturaL studies, women's studies and psychoanaLytic criticism – has thrown new Light on RadcLiffe's work. In our increasingLy historicaLLy sensitive canons, 'The Great Enchantress' takes her pLace with other noveLists, poets and prose writers in Romantic period studies. 1 Without rehearsing the history of RadcLiffe's period of criticaL exiLe from the canons of EngLish Literature, I want to foreground aspects of her work that might account for it. RadcLiffe's prose offers rationaL, didactic Literary tourism through picturesque Landscapes; in form, aesthetic and aspiration it had no pLace in a canon that, from the Late nineteenth century, was represented by a poetry of nature mediated by the poet's speciaLised access to subLime experience. Perhaps understandabLy, the aspects of RadcLiffe's fiction that I focus on here remained underrepresented when criticaL interest in the Gothic genre was revived in the 1970s and 1980s. RadcLiffe's new feminist critics were keen to dismantLe the image of middLebrow, perhaps counter-revoLutionary Mrs RadcLiffe and to unearth the 'anti-patriarchaL', subversive psychodramas of her narratives. 2 To retrieve what I see as the manifest designs of RadcLiffe's texts is not to reject the psychoanaLytic readings that have unearthed their Latent content. However, to understand RadcLiffe in the context of Literary nationaLism requires a historicaL context, and that context iLLuminates the nuanced perspective of EngLish middLe-cLass dissent – and RadcLiffe's own feminised version of it – in the 1790s. 3

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