On This Day: Ann Radcliffe is Born

Portrait of Ann Radcliffe, artist unknown. It is likely a portrait that was painted during her lifetime.

On 9 July 1764, Ann Radcliffe (often known as Mrs. Radcliffe during her life) was born in Holborn, London. Her parents William Ward and Ann Oates were of humble origins despite the fact that they had some famous connections. Her great uncle was William Cheselden, a surgeon to King George II of Great Britain. On her mother’s side, she was descended from the prominent DeWitt family of Holland. Her cousin, Sir Richard Jebb, was a popular London physician who was known to attend to the needs of the royal family.

Ann distinguished herself as the most famous and beloved writer of Gothic fiction in her time. She was celebrated by many others, including Jane Austen. (Jane actually alluded to Ann’s work in her own writings.) She was called “the mighty enchantress and the Shakespeare of Romance writers” by her contemporaries. John Keats called her “Mother Radcliffe” and Sir Walter Scott referred to her as “the first poetess of romantic fiction.” For those of us who love the Regency era or gothic fiction, she needs no preamble. Centuries later and we are still discussing this fascinating woman. One of her most famous works was The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794.

We don’t know a lot about her personal life. She married William Radcliffe, a journalist in 1787. History tells us that they had a happy marriage. The couple never had any children of their own. He encouraged his wife in her writing endeavors, and in time, she was so successful that he was able to quit his job.

Due to the fact that not much was known about her, people spun all kinds of strange and bizarre fictional tales about her. Some of the stories told were thus: “it was reported that she had gone mad as a result of her dreadful imagination and been confined to an asylum, that she had been captured as a spy in Paris, or that she ate rare pork chops before retiring to stimulate nightmares for her novels; several times she was falsely rumored to be dead.”

Needless to say, Ann Radcliffe continues to leave her mark on the world. Gothic romance novels are still quite popular in our modern age. In the 2007 film, Becoming Jane, about the formative years of Jane Austen before she became famous, the two authors meet. Ann was portrayed by late actress, Helen McCrory and Jane by Anne Hathaway, respectively. There is no proof that Ann and Jane ever met one another. It’s still quite a lovely image to imagine of two beloved authors.

McIntyre, Clara Frances. Ann Radcliffe in Relation to Her Time. Yale University Press, 1920.

Melani, Lilia. “Ann Radcliffe.” The City University of New York, 2003. http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/novel_18c/radcliffe/index.html

Miles, Robert. “Radcliffe [née Ward], Ann (1764-1823), novelist.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Online Edition). Oxford University Press, 2005.

Rogers, Deborah D. Ann Radcliffe: A Bio-Bibliography. Westpost, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996.