Barbara Burns speaks to Professor Angela Wright (University of Sheffield), General Co-Editor of the new Cambridge University Press edition of the works of Ann Radcliffe, with Professor Michael Gamer, University of Pennsylvania, and Dr Rosie Whitcombe, the project’s MHRA Research Associate this year.
BB. Angela, Ann Radcliffe was a highly successful and influential writer of Gothic fiction in the late eighteenth century. Can you give us a flavour of her creative work?
AW. Ann Radcliffe was born in 1764, the year that Horace Walpole first published what is now viewed, arguably, as being the first Gothic novel in Britain, The Castle of Otranto. Radcliffe’s first Gothic romance, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, was published anonymously in 1789. Set in Scotland, it featured two aristocratic families, one feudal, the other more progressive, who are at war with each other. The progressive family of course prevails, and the ending is sealed by fortuitous marriages. This proved to be the only novel that Radcliffe set in Britain; thereafter, she moved her romances to the continent, at a safer distance from unfolding political events in Britain.
In 1790, she published A Sicilian Romance. One of the heroines is nearly forced by her father into an arranged marriage, and the narrative unfolds as she attempts to escape from this fate. In so doing, she comes across convents and examples of monasticism, both compassionate and otherwise. The following year, she published The Romance of the Forest, set in France and Switzerland, where, unusually, the heroine is introduced to us as a figure of virtue in distress, imprisoned, and seemingly lacking the fortitude and inner resources of Radcliffe’s other female protagonists. This was so successful that a second edition swiftly followed, and it was there that Radcliffe first put her name to the title page.
BB. Angela, which volume are you contributing to the edition?
AW. I’m working on Radcliffe’s fourth work, the four-volume romance The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794. It’s a huge task due to its length and the complexity of tracing epigraphs, and so forth. It is perhaps her best known romance, and she earned the enormous advance of £500 for it. The young Mary Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley read it together in 1815; Byron commented upon never being able to look upon the bridges of Venice without thinking of Radcliffe’s representation of them in Udolpho, and of course Jane Austen has both her heroine Catherine Moreland and her hero Henry Tilney discussing it in Northanger Abbey (1817) where Henry confesses that he could not put it down, and that his hair stood on end while he was reading it.
In the cool of the evening the party embarked in Montoni's gondola, and rowed out upon the sea. The red glow of sun-set still touched the waves, and lingered in the west, where the melancholy gleam seemed lowly expiring, while the dark blue of the upper aether began to twinkle with stars. Emily sat, given up to pensive and sweet emotions. The smoothness of the water, over which she glided, its reflected images—a new heaven and trembling stars below the waves, with shadowy outlines of towers and porticos, conspired with the stillness of the hour, interrupted only by the passing wave, or the notes of distant music, to raise those emotions to enthusiasm. As she listened to the measured sound of the oars, and to the remote warblings that came in the breeze, her softened mind returned to the memory of St. Aubert and to Valancourt, and tears stole to her eyes. The rays of the moon, strengthening as the shadows deepened, soon after threw a silvery gleam upon her countenance, which was partly shaded by a thin black veil, and touched it with inimitable softness. — The Mysteries of Udolpho, II, chapter III
BB. Angela, can you tell us a bit about the scope and context of your project?
AW. To date, there has been no complete edition of the works of Ann Radcliffe. Other presses have published the most popular romances, but there has been no consistent editing of her works. Radcliffe, unlike those she influenced such as Byron, the Shelleys, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, has disappeared from the canon. This, in spite of being called the ‘Shak[e]spear of Romance Writers’ of her day by Dr Nathan Drake (1798) and ‘the first poetess of romantic fiction’ by Sir Walter Scott. This edition seeks to recapture her innovation and rightly resituate her reputation at the heart of Romantic culture. The general editors (myself and Professor Michael Gamer of the University of Pennsylvania) are taking the plunge and going first, bringing out our volumes The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian first in 2024. Thereafter, two volumes per year are scheduled for publication.
BB. Angela, why were Gothic novels so popular in their day, and what resonance do they still have in the literary scene now?
AW. In 1974, Angela Carter observed that ‘we live in Gothic times’. Judging from the fiction shelves of book shops, that insight persists today. In its heyday, Gothic was figured by the Marquis de Sade ‘as the inevitable fruit of the revolutionary shocks across Europe’. The same is true for each century and decade where we find the Gothic: there, we find a genre that responds, directly or indirectly, to the traumas and anxieties of its moment, that seeks to apprehend, consume and reflect upon historical upheaval. Sarah Perry’s 2018 Gothic novel Melmoth, for example, took Charles Robert Maturin’s 1820 work Melmoth the Wanderer as inspiration, but transmuted the tale to the Eastern bloc of Europe, grappling with the aftershocks of the second world war and communist upheaval. Whether it be Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is set in the sixteenth century, or Perry’s Melmoth, they all explore the aftershocks that past historical events transmit to their present days.
BB. Rosie, you were appointed in October 2022. Can you tell us a bit about your educational background and how it prepared you to undertake this project?
RW. I studied for my BA and MA at the University of Sheffield, so it was a joy to return to the department. I did my PhD on the letters of Romantic poet John Keats at Birmingham City University. During this time, I also co-edited the biography of a Victorian Sheffield circus performer called Harvey Teasdale, a project that sent me to various archives and libraries to hunt for hidden manuscripts and materials. I also worked with manuscript texts in online archives during my PhD. Having experience with archival research, both online and in person, really helped prepare me for this role, as one of my main jobs so far has been to scour online newspaper databases for contemporary articles about Radcliffe.
BB. Rosie, what is your specific role on the project? Which aspects are you particularly enjoying?
RW. I am here to assist the editors, which means the scope of my work is broad. I loved searching for contemporary reviews of Radcliffe’s novels because they provided a fascinating glimpse not only into how she was received by the reading public as a female Gothic writer, but into wider theories and ideas about reading and writing at the time. I’m currently investigating the politics of Radcliffe’s husband, William. My favourite thing about my role is that so much of it feels like detective work – going down a rabbit hole looking for a particular review, quote, or piece of evidence is exciting, and discovering new material is very rewarding. That said, I’ve learned to strike a balance between continuing the search and knowing when my time would probably be better spent elsewhere.
BB. Rosie, in what ways has being part of the academic community at Sheffield this year been useful to you in terms of your early career development?
RW. I had the opportunity to cover some MA teaching on the Gothic last semester which was wonderful. The students were a joy to teach. I feel very supported by the editors I work with, who offer guidance while encouraging me to do my own research and follow the approach I think is best – to that end I hope to be travelling to the National Archives in the coming months to undertake some research that will hopefully yield interesting results.
BB. Rosie, Angela, how would you sum up the importance of this project?
RW. It makes me sad that Radcliffe isn’t a household literary name in the same way that other writers are, like Dickens, the Brontë sisters, or Austen, for example. When I speak to people outside my immediate field about Radcliffe, most of them don’t know who she is, though some of them know the name. Working on this project means so much to me because I’m helping to (hopefully) restore the reputation of an under-appreciated female writer who wrote enduringly suspenseful novels and created a school of literature that has a prevailing influence today.
AW. In recovering the works of Ann Radcliffe, we recover an author central to Romanticism, whose influence pervades the work and inspirations of more canonical Romanticists, but whose influence has been unjustly overlooked. This edition begins the work of recovering her reputation, and we hope that in repositioning her, we will remind readers how her thematics of the heroine in distress, but who nonetheless discovers strength in adversity, resonates today. We also want to recover her humour, of course. Despite her novels being haunted by scenes of persecution, she has a light and delicate sense of humour. Her heroines often reflect, for example, about being caught up in situations that resemble romances rather than real life. Recovering Radcliffe, and offering a fully edited version of her through the edition, is in many ways like restoring a Gothic manuscript. In so doing, we uncover an essential but overlooked fragment of our literary history, and are in turn able to reflect upon the canonisation of English literature, and who has been unjustly excluded. I am honoured to be working on this alongside such a great general editor (Michael), a great MHRA Research Associate (Rosie) and a fantastic team of scholars, and I’m hugely grateful to the MHRA for offering this assistance to us.