In The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Ann Radcliffe dramatizes the experience of psychological conflict and trauma. Like many authors of Gothic fiction, Radcliffe places her characters and readers in unsettling situations—appearing to depart from the conventions of novelistic Realism. Instead of placing her story in an English town or village, she takes us to France and Italy, countries that many of her readers still associated with medieval superstition. Similarly, instead of focusing on contemporary life, Radcliffe and her characters seem to be preoccupied with the secrets of the past.
As Radcliffe moves out of England and into the past, she takes us into something like a dream world, exposing her heroine to extreme forms of emotional and psychological distress. Over the course of the story, as secrets are uncovered and mysteries resolved, the past loses its hold on the present—and something like sanity and order is restored. Each of the work’s most mysterious and troubling events is shown to have a reasonable explanation. The heroine is eventually freed to marry her sweetheart, a Venetian nobleman, and to take her rightful place in society. In the end, then, Radcliffe affirms the importance of Realism and effectively embraces the form of the novel.
Like Sterne and Burney, Radcliffe has had an enormous influence on later writers. Her most obvious influence is on the tradition of Gothic fiction, which includes writers from Mary Shelley to the Brontës to Stephen King. In her concern with the relationship between past and present, and her negotiation of the boundaries between the romance and the novel, Radcliffe also helped to inspire the historical fiction of Sir Walter Scott.
[Courtesy: Professor Timothy Spurgin]