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Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), A Sicilian Romance

Our third writer, Ann Radcliffe, is best known for her leading role in shaping the Gothic romance genre, popular during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By the age of 33 she had become the most popular writer in England.

Castles

Radcliffe was born in London before moving to Bath with her family at the age of 8. She married William Radcliffe, a young journalist, at the age of 23 and began writing around the same time. Her first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, was published anonymously at the age of 25. Her second novel, A Sicilian Romance, our choice for the book club this month, was also published anonymously, when Radcliffe was 26.

She went on to write a further four novels: The Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797) were published during her lifetime, and her final novel, Gaston de Blondeville was published three years after her death in 1826. While she also wrote a travel book about the Lake District, the Alps and the Rhineland, poetry, and a biography, she is most well-known today for her Gothic romances.

The Gothic genre is, broadly speaking, preoccupied with the supernatural. A newspaper columnist satirising the Gothic novel in 1797 described the key ingredients thus:

A novel now…is nothing more

Than an old castle – and a creaking door –

A distant hovel –

Clanking of chains – a gallery – a light,

Old armour – and a phantom all in white –

And there’s a Novel. [1]

The Ghost Scene from 'The Castle of Otranto' null by Susanna Duncombe (née Susanna Highmore) 1725-1812
Ghost scene from The Castle of Otranto by Susanna Duncombe (1725-1812), Tate T04244

Gothic novels vary in how they engage with a supernatural realm. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is usually seen as representing the birth of the genre. Published in 1764, initially posing as a rediscovered manuscript from 1529, the work is set in a medieval castle and contains many of the ingredients that came to make up a Gothic text. The novel is particularly fantastical. It was shortly followed by Clara Reeve’s The Champion of Virtue (the title later changed to The Old English Baron) in 1778. Reeve sought to make her work more believable than Walpole’s after writing that she, and several other readers, were disappointed that the events of the novel were so improbable that the story ‘destroys the effect it is intended to invite.’[2] Conversely, Horace Walpole wrote that he was disappointed with Reeve’s work, suggesting that ‘it is the most dull thing you ever saw’, as it was not supernatural enough.

However, it is Radcliffe who made the genre her own, crafting a distinct style in relation to the supernatural (which we will explore in more detail in our final blog post, to avoid spoilers!) In part her approach was influenced by her powerful engagement with ideas of the sublime, popularised during the Enlightenment with Edmund Burke’s text of 1757, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

Perhaps most importantly for our book club, Radcliffe’s Gothic romances, and particularly A Sicilian Romance, are concerned with women’s status in society and particularly women’s agency, or ability to drive their own choices and make their own decisions within a wider framework of male power. Set in a historic past, A Sicilian Romance follows the story of two sisters, Julia and Emilia, who live on the island of Sicily. The novel focuses upon Julia, who is being forced by her father into an arranged marriage, and proceeds to escape.

Despite her immense success, Radcliffe stopped publishing at the height of her fame, aged 33. She died relatively young at the age of 58 following an asthma attack. Her Gothic novels have been republished many times and continue to be celebrated today.

We hope you enjoy A Sicilian Romance and look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Further reading:

Ann Radcliffe, Romanticism and the Gothic. Edited by Dale Townshend and Angela Wright. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

E. J. Clery. The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762 – 1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Vanessa D. Dickerson. Victorian Ghosts in the Noontide: Women Writers and the Supernatural. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press,1996.

[1] Morning Post and Fashionable World, London, Tuesday 4 April 1797.

[2] Clara Reeve, ‘Preface’ in The Old English Baron, edited by James Trainer with an Introduction and Notes by James Watt, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 3.

2 comments on “Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), A Sicilian Romance

  1. Third book but the first author I’ve actually read before- a couple of years ago I decided to try some proper Gothic novels after rereading Northanger Abbey and I started with the Mysteries of Udolpho. I’m feeling pretty good about A Sicilian Romance (though very glad it’s shorter than Udolpho!)

    I hadn’t realised how young Radcliffe was when she stopped writing though- or how young she was when she died.

    Like

  2. Pingback: A Sicilian Romance: Our Readers’ Verdicts – Emotions Book Club

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