Biography of Ann Radcliffe

Radcliffe was born Ann Ward on July 9, 1764. Her father was a haberdasher (someone who sells items related to sewing, dressmaking, and knitting); when Radcliffe was still a child, the family moved to the town of Bath, but she regularly spent time in London with relatives. In 1787, Radcliffe married a man named William Radcliffe. He was a journalist who had been educated at Oxford University, and who was involved with a number of periodicals and newspapers, as well as political causes. Radcliffe seems to have started writing fiction some time after her marriage, possibly with her husband's encouragement, and in 1789, she published her first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne. This work was set in Scotland and featured some elements that would reappear in Radcliffe's later works, such as a young heroine who is threatened and pressured to make undesired marriages by men trying to secure access to her wealth and property.

Radcliffe's first novel did not attract much attention, but her second novel A Sicilian Romance (1790) proved much more popular. This novel incorporated an Italian setting, and extended sections of landscape description, which would become some of her trademark features. By the time Radcliffe published her third novel, The Romance of the Forest in 1791, she was well on her way to becoming one of the most successful living writers in Britain. Radcliffe published two more novels, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797); she was paid 500 pounds for the former novel, and 800 pounds for the latter, at a time when a novelist in England received an average of 80 pounds. Moreover, while the Gothic genre had existed prior to Radcliffe's career, she took the genre to new heights, popularizing it to the extent that the marketplace was flooded with novels imitating Radcliffe and sometimes exaggerating what had become the trademark features of the genre.

Radcliffe's prosperity allowed her and her husband to live a comfortable life; in 1794, they travelled to Germany and the Netherlands, and Radcliffe published a book describing these travels in 1795. Despite the frequent use of Italian and French settings in her novels, Radcliffe never visited either country, and this trip marked the only time that she left England. With the publication of her fifth novel in 1797, Radcliffe seemed to be at the peak of her career—at which time she abruptly stopped publishing, and largely withdrew from public life. No one knows why she stopped writing at this point. She lived a quiet and secluded life for another 25 years, suffering from gradually declining health, and died of complications related to asthma on February 7, 1823 in London. After her death, a final novel Gaston de Blondeville was published in 1826, as well as a narrative poem, and an essay describing her use of the supernatural in literature.

Study Guides on Works by Ann Radcliffe