Ann Radcliffe was the Gothic whisperer. She wrote some of the most important, electrifying works of her day, inspiring plays, operas, and imitations and influencing the development of the novel, especially the detective and horror genres. If editions, adaptations, reviews, and translations are any indication, she was the most popular novelist in Great Britain from 1789 to 1815, hands down.
Radcliffe's historical importance has always been acknowledged. Exploring women's dependence, isolation, fear, confinement, and sexuality in a patriarchal culture, her Gothic is a disturbing metaphor for female anxiety. Yet like many other early women novelists, Radcliffe has been relatively ignored. Since her death in 1823, only some 15 full-length studies of her (not including the volumes in Devendra Varma's dissertation series in the 1980s) have been published. Compare that to hundreds of full-length studies of male novelists like Richardson and Fielding.
Given the lack of attention paid to Radcliffe, this volume is especially welcome. It follows Ann Radcliffe, Romanticism and the Gothic (2014), a collection of essays edited by British scholars Dale Townshend and Angela Wright who wrote the foreword to this new volume. Both collections commemorate the 250th anniversary of Radcliffe's birthday in 1764, the very year in which the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, was published and the year in which Radcliffe's own novel The Italian begins.
Placing Radcliffe in a Romantic context, the earlier Townshend and Wright volume covers her entire oeuvre. This new volume highlights parts of it. Besides one chapter on A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 that complements an essay in the earlier volume and one on Beckford's Modern Novel Writing, contributors focus on The Mysteries of Udolpho and, to a lesser extent, The Italian (in my opinion her finest work).
Since the contributors to this volume include Polish and French scholars, it attests to Radcliffe's continuing and far-reaching cultural presence. Nevertheless, though the editors' preface briefly mentions the French influence on Radcliffe's reception in Poland, few of the essays by French and Polish scholars treat Radcliffe's impact on the literature of their respective nations. For this reason, Dariusz Pniewski does well to explain the relation between Polish translations of Radcliffe and Polish Romantic literature. (Although there are very few Polish translations and adaptations of Radcliffe, they helped popularize Polish literature of terror generally.)
The title of this volume promises a study of Radcliffe's "words, sounds, and images," but only a few of its essays actually probe her aesthetics. Jakub Lipski, who argues that Radcliffe creates a "poetics of the in-between, both magical and realistic" (19), suggestively asks why her works have been adapted for the screen only once, in Le confessional des pénitents noir (1977), a French TV mini-series based on The Italian. (Actually, Radcliffe partially inspired at least one other film, Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak , according to the its director.) Lipski provocatively concludes that Radcliffe's "in-betweeness" does not allow for the visual concretization of film adaptation, which would rob the text of its blurred boundaries and ambiguity.
Other insightful considerations of Radcliffe's aesthetics include chapters by Joanna Kokot and Alice Labourg that complement essays in the Townshend-Wright volume. Kokot's chapter on Radcliffe's music and poetry (both her use of epigrams from other authors and her own interspersed verses) supplements Edward Jacob's article on Radcliffe's incorporation of poetry. Kokot convincingly argues that music and poetry, which signal joy, harmony, and remembrance, cannot be composed during the terrifying episodes that take place in Udolpho.
Likewise, Joseph Bray's discussion of Radcliffe's real and imagined portraiture in the Townshend-Wright volume is complemented here by Labourg's examination of Radcliffe's metapictorial naming. References to Salvator Rosa and Domenichino in Udolpho and to Guido Reni in The Italian, he argues, are metatextual signifiers that speak to the "word-painting" quality of Radcliffe's texts, "freezing the action into a picturesque tableau which the reader is asked to visualize according to the aesthetical codes conjured by the painter's name. . ." (22).
Most of the other essays, however, depart from the main theme announced in the volume's title. They use a variety of critical approaches, especially reception theory, to explore Radcliffe's villains (charmingly called her "black" characters) and heroines, her continuing influence, and her own presence in her novels--a tricky proposition at best. In a linguistic analysis informed by Derrida, for instance, Thomas Dutoit argues that Radcliffe subliminally signs a trace of her authorship--her own name-- into the text of Udolpho. But however intriguing this argument may be, it is finally unconvincing.
Altogether, this volume presents a varied collection of scholarship on Radcliffe. Though it fails to consider some of the most exciting work in the field, such as Queer Gothic, it includes many new and interesting ideas about Udolpho and The Italian. If, like many of the contributors here, you view Radcliffe's novels as educational conduct books--and really, who doesn't?--you will find much here to delight and instruct.
Deborah D. Rogers is Professor of English at the University of Maine.