Heroes to Swoon over; Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe. by Rictor Norton (Leicester University Press, Pounds 17.99). Reviewed by Christine Barker

By Barker, Christine | The Birmingham Post (England), April 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Heroes to Swoon over; Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe. by Rictor Norton (Leicester University Press, Pounds 17.99). Reviewed by Christine Barker


Barker, Christine, The Birmingham Post (England)


As the 18th century melded gently into the 19th in an England on the verge of an industrial revolution and both a political and religious explosion, young ladies of the town had a new subject for gossip.

With their reading skills honed by an army of governesses, they had discovered the novel. But not any old romance.

The sagas that had them huddled in chattering groups in fashionable drawing-rooms and kept their bedside candles burning through half the night were the outpourings of a certain Mrs Radcliffe.

But who was Mrs Radcliffe whose 1794 publication The Mysteries of Udolpho had fashionable society swooning with delight and agog with curiosity?

Had a woman really created a hero like Valancourt, part devil, part angel and a forerunner for every other mysterious and saturnine sex object from Sir Percy Blakeney to D'Arcy, Rochester and even Scaramouche?

As the bookshops sold out - Udolpho has the distinction of being the first bestseller - the reading public realised the gothic novel had arrived.

But try as they would, her fans - and in her day Mrs Radcliffe was lionised like some literary Beatle, rather to the chagrin of contemporary authors like Sir Walter Scott - could find out very little about her.

Rumour suggested she was a melancholic, haunted by her satanic heroes and the damp and mouldering ruins they lived in.

At one point, society even had her confined to an asylum for the irretrievably insane.

The facts of her life are very different but it has taken almost 200 years for a really satisfactory biography to be written.

Christina Rossetti made an attempt in the 1880s but gave up when she realised just how hard it was to find out anything concrete about Ann Radcliffe. Even the novels were difficult to come by.

Now Rictor Norton, who has made a study of the gothic literary tradition and gained a doctorate from Florida State University, has managed to sweep away some of the cobwebs.

His conclusions - scholarly and often bitingly penetrating - offer some extraordinary insights into one of the literary giants of her age.

Ann Radcliffe, he concludes, was the Greta Garbo of the day.

She really did want to be left alone. But the press had other ideas. …

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