Literary Notes: No mad genius but a Radical Dissenter

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ANN RADCLIFFE, author of the Gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, was one of the most famous women of her time - and the least known. She kept no diaries, other than some travel journals, and her contemporaries left virtually no reminiscences of her. Her life resembles a manuscript discovered in a Gothic novel: its leaves faded or indecipherable, pages torn in half, whole chapters missing, spurious passages by other hands.

Contemporary literary circles, finding it intolerable that the most famous woman writer in England should live a completely sequestered life, amused themselves with rumours that Ann Radcliffe had been driven mad by her efforts to conjure up horror and had been locked up in an insane asylum. Notices appeared in the papers that she had died and she took no steps to contradict them.

The public image of the mysterious Mrs Radcliffe as a mad genius contrasts sharply with the ordinary preoccupations of her middle-class domestic life, her love of dogs and music, her pleasure excursions to Dover and Worthing. However, a scrupulous and neurotic sense of propriety eventually compelled her to withdraw from the world as journalists attacked her as a sorceress.

The popularity of her novels - and the host of her "horrid" imitators - provoked a debate about how contemporary fiction tended to deprave and corrupt its readers. Attacks upon "The Terrorist School of Writing" appeared in the journals, relating Gothic Romances, including hers, to the French Revolution and the subsequent Terror. Her husband may have been so scandalised by the public discussion of his wife's works and implied lack of morals that he persuaded her to stop writing at the very height of her powers. She suffered severe melancholic depression from 1811, culminating in a mental breakdown in winter 1812. After two and a half years of secluded convalescence in Windsor, she returned to London, and her husband, in 1815, but never fully recovered her spirits.

Because of the genteel respectability of Ann Radcliffe's novels, her contemporaries did not suspect - nor are modern readers fully aware - that her family background was full of Radical Dissenters, specifically Unitarians with their sympathy for revolutionary reform.

Her uncle Dr John Jebb, Unitarian rector and controversial political writer, was notorious for heading the delegation seeking repeal of the Toleration Act in 1771 (specifically relief from subscribing to the Thirty- Nine Articles). Dr Jebb's wife Ann was a "virago", who sent numerous "petitions" to the newspapers and to politicians advocating parliamentary reform and hailing the dawn of the French Revolution. She is one of the women, along with Mary Wollstonecraft, abused in Richard Polwhele's 1798 attack The Unsex'd Females.

The Jebbs were good friends of Joseph Priestley, the Unitarian and scientist whose home was destroyed by the reactionary mob (who equated Unitarianism with Jacobinism), eventually forcing him to emigrate to America. Priestley had been a tutor at Warrington Academy, the leading educational institution for Rational Dissenters or Nonconformists. One of the founders of Warrington was Thomas Bentley: Ann Radcliffe's uncle, with whom she was sent to live at the age of seven, when her parents moved to Bath. Bentley and his fellow Unitarian Josiah Wedgwood became partners of the ceramics firm of Wedgwood & Bentley, whose retail outlet in Bath was managed by Ann Radcliffe's father. Her husband, William Radcliffe, was the editor of a newspaper with strong republican sympathies which annually published a poem celebrating the French Revolution.

So, in fact, the allegedly "bourgeois" attitudes of her novels should really be seen in the context of the "liberal" and "anti-Establishment" ideals of this dissenting culture.

Rictor Norton is the author of `Mistress of Udolpho: the life of Ann Radcliffe' (Leicester University Press, pounds 45/pounds 17.99)