Ann Radcliffe at 250: Gothic and Romantic Imaginations

Posted by Carly Stevenson on August 05, 2014 in Blog, Carly Stevenson tagged with , , , ,

A review by the University of Sheffield’s Gothic Reading Group:

Last month marked a special occasion for the history of the Gothic, as the University of Sheffield celebrated Ann Radcliffe’s 250th birthday with the first ever international academic conference dedicated entirely to ‘the great enchantress’ and her works. Ann Radcliffe at 250: Gothic and Romantic Imaginations ran for three days, between the 27th and 29th of June. The event was the result of long-planning and hard work on the part of its chief organisers, The University of Stirling’s Dr. Dale Townshend and Sheffield’s own Dr. Angela Wright, alongside a wider steering committee that included several Sheffield Faculty members and postgraduates. The event’s keynote speakers comprised some of the most important voices in Gothic and Romantic scholarship, including critics whose work laid the foundation for the academic study of authors like Radcliffe. Other delegates represented a truly global range of responses to Radcliffe’s work, offering a fitting testament to her continuing importance in a range of academic research projects and the timeliness of the conference itself (which marked the publication of the first volume of essays dedicated to Radcliffe: Ann Radcliffe, Romanticism and the Gothic, edited by Dale Townshend and Angela Wright).


Radcliffe Conference photo

Conference Delegates

The event also featured contributions from a number of PhD students at Sheffield, including all of the Gothic Reading Group’s organisers. It would be slightly immodest to use this platform to praise our own papers and presentations, but it’s hopefully within the limits of academic restraint to note that the presence of so many fellow research students spoke to the breadth of work being done on Radcliffe and related topics at Sheffield. It also coincided nicely with the official launch of the University’s Centre for the History of the Gothic, which took place at the event and with which the Reading Group is associated.

Having individually presented on and attended a range of panels across the conference, the Reading Group team came away with a fairly comprehensive impression of the event. Being a nice bunch, we’ve collaborated and put together the following conference report for the benefit of those not fortunate enough to be in Sheffield during those three wonderful (though slightly overcast) days in South Yorkshire. The number of papers included in the conference and the range of topics they covered makes it impossible to offer a breakdown of every single presentation. Instead, we offer some personal highlights, related to each of our research interests. Your guide for this armchair ‘tour’ of the conference is Mark Bennett, who is currently writing about himself in the third person and wondering whether or not to shoehorn in a ‘tour’ / travel writing pun. Best not.

We’ll begin with Carly Stevenson, on Radcliffe and Poetry:


Radcliffe and Poetry

Carly Stevenson

Radcliffe 250 began with Jane Stabler’s keynote on ‘Ann Radcliffe and Romantic Poetry’, which was a perfect prelude to the first panel on the same topic and a testimony to Radcliffe’s legacies and enduring presence beyond the eighteenth century – something that the organisers Dr Angela Wright and Dr Dale Townshend felt was of particular importance to an international conference on the ‘first lady of the Gothic’.

Stabler divided her paper according to Radcliffe’s innovations and her extraordinary contributions to Romantic literature, from her construction of Venice (which she never actually visited) and its reverberations in Byron’s work, to her pioneering use of the colour purple to describe dusk, twilight and sunsets – all of which would later become part of the aesthetic toolbox of the Romantic imagination. Stabler explored Radcliffe’s elongation of moments – her characteristic interruptions, pauses and procrastinations that we can see repeated particularly in the poetry of Keats and Shelley. She also referred to Radcliffe as a conduit between the early Graveyard Poetry of the eighteenth century and Romantic poetry, where we can see her influence is most visibly manifested. Stabler gave us a Radcliffe who was anything but formulaic. She lifted the veil from Radcliffe’s often neglected poetic works and prompted us to perceive these fragments as separate entities to the novels in which they are interspersed. As Stabler talked, I scribbled furiously all over my own paper, which was on Keats and Radcliffe. Everything in Stabler’s paper chimed perfectly with my own reading of Radcliffe’s poetry and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to quiz her on Keats’ use of ‘purple-stain’d mouth’ in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and its potentially Radcliffian undertones. The transition from Stabler’s keynote to the Panel I: Ann Radcliffe and Poetry (1/3 in first the parallel panel) was seamless; the three of us who spoke about Radcliffe’s poetry complimented and reiterated many of the themes explored in the preceding keynote and the panel concluded with a promising array of questions.

For me, Jane Stabler’s keynote was one of the highlights of the conference – the others being our visit to Hardwick Hall, which Kathleen discusses in more detail below, and Fred Botting’s fabulously titled concluding keynote: ‘Fifty Shades of Ann Radcliffe’. Beyond the papers, Radcliffe at 250 provided Gothicists, Romanticists, eighteenth-century specialists and Radcliffe scholars with a platform to voice ideas, discuss her body of work and network with other enthusiasts within these fields. It was a hugely successful conference that piqued my previously modest interest in Ann Radcliffe and prompted me to explore the idea that Radcliffe can be read as a channel between the Gothic precursors in the Graveyard School of Poetry and the more recognisable waves of Romantic Poetry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


The event’s second keynote was delivered by Professor Emma Clery of the University of Southampton. Professor Clery’s 1995 monograph on The Rise of Supernatural Fiction has continued to be a key text for scholars of Gothic writing and other imaginative engagements with the supernatural during the eighteenth-century and Romantic period. Her paper was delivered as a public lecture and dealt with the subject of Radcliffe’s influence on Austen. The Reading Group’s own resident Austen expert (I’m not sure if she’ll allow me to call her an ‘Austenite’) is Lauren Nixon:


The Austen Connection

Lauren Nixon

I’m often teased by my reading group colleagues for somehow managing to bring up Jane Austen no matter what text we’re discussing, but this time I have valid reasons [editor’s note: Lauren always has valid reasons for bringing up Austen. Less so Sean Bean]. The strength of the connection between Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen is evident throughout the latter’s work. The most obvious instance is of course Northanger Abbey’s numerous mentions and allusions to The Mysteries of Udolpho, but Radcliffe’s earlier novel Romance of the Forest also has a small but important role to play in the courtship of Emma’s Harriet Smith and Robert Martin.

When the programme appeared and the Emma Clery’s keynote speech (and public lecture) was revealed to be on Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen- A Fine Romance, it was already evident that the two writers would be discussed at length. This was, for me, a relief; my paper, ‘Reading Writers and Writing Readers: Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen and Catherine Morland’ wasn’t going to be completely off base! But then the realisation that it would be a source of deep discussion and exploration subsequently led to an intense panic and frantic redrafting of said paper. As both an Austen enthusiast/specialist/whatever and a Gothicist, it was excellent to be a part of so many lively, unique and thought provoking discussions about the Radcliffe-Austen connection. My own paper and, as it turned out, Emma Clery’s keynote speech (thank god I went first), questioned the fictional meeting between the two women in the 2007 film Becoming Jane. So often, Radcliffe’s influence on Austen seems to be either dismissed or forgotten, the parody of Northanger Abbey leading most to conclude Austen had little respect for her fellow writer. But dig a little deeper and we find a direct discourse between the two, as Austen reacts to both Radcliffe’s work and her readers. Discussion at my panel ranged from picking out subtle influences, such as the similarities between Julia Mazzini of A Sicilian Romance and Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility, to questioning if Austen was ‘de-Gothicising’ Radcliffe, turning readers attentions to the dangers to be found at home rather than in the ruined castles of old Italy and France.

Personally, I was reminded of something I occasionally struggle to keep in mind: it can often be hard to saying something new when it comes to writers like Jane Austen and even more so when it comes to getting it heard or taken seriously. However, this conference proved that there is always a new discussion to be had and a space made for new ideas. It reaffirmed that the Gothic, and writers like Radcliffe, had a huge impact on authors and topics we don’t always expect.


As excellent as the papers and keynotes were, another clear highlight of the Radcliffe anniversary event was the traditional conference excursion. Given Radcliffe’s own connections to the South Yorkshire region, the organisers had plenty of options to choose from in planning a memorable and instructive trip. In the end the decision was made to spend an afternoon and evening at Hardwick Hall, a stately home Radcliffe herself visited and described at the beginning of the domestic leg of her sole non-fictional work, the travelogue A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794.

Radcliffe’s response to Hardwick is particularly interesting, as it consists primarily of an imaginative identification with the supposed experiences of Mary, Queen of Scots, whose alleged (and historically incorrect) captivity at the Hall was still reported to visitors in the eighteenth-century. This runs against the grain of much contemporary domestic travel-writing and picturesque tourism (a genre Radcliffe was highly conversant with and which her Journey participates within). For the majority of such tourists and travel-writers, history – particularly ‘Gothic’ history – is elided or occluded when speaking of physical sites and the emphasis of a description should be on present aesthetic qualities rather than an imaginative sojourn into affective narrative. Yet, though Radcliffe provides a cursory description of Hardwick’s situation and prospects, her account of the house itself is structured around the story of Mary’s habitation of it. As the reader follows Radcliffe through the Hall’s rooms, they are also following the sequence of Mary’s supposed life there, from captivity to removal and execution; the ghost of Mary accompanies them in a manner that is, arguably, as affective (if not more so) than one of Radcliffe’s novels. This concludes on a striking note as Radcliffe describes a portrait of Mary herself, ‘frowning with suspicion.’

Though camera phones were duly-brandished outside the house (with Instagram filters presumably standing in for the Claude Glass) our own tour of Hardwick was also suitably affective. As we proceeded in our exploration of the house, we had the privilege of following in Radcliffe’s own footsteps and thinking about the space’s that inspired and reflected her works. Kathleen Hudson has more to say about this experience:


Hardwick Hall: Radcliffe in Space(s)

Kathleen Hudson

The conference was a really exciting experience on another level for me because the program included a trip to Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. I’d never been before and as a newbie (and an American who privately thinks all of England is basically Disneyland with its myriad castles) I was completely tickled by the ruins, the landscapes, the imposing turrets, all the things I think a ‘Hall’ should be. They even had tree-lined lanes…lanes! Like in Jane Austen. Bwahaha!

A formidable structure with an insane amount of windows and covered with the initials and family crests of the original owner and builder, the infamous Bess of Hardwick, the house itself is one of historical and fictional miss-appropriations. Built from 1590-1597 and full of incredible and, in some cases, over the top examples of life in Derbyshire throughout history, visiting the Hall was an amazing experience in and of itself. In many ways, also, it demonstrates how people create gothic spaces, even in places where they’re not necessarily accurate representations.

One of Hardwick’s main claims to fame is the assertion that Mary, Queen of Scots was hosted / imprisoned there, in spite of the fact that construction of the house wasn’t started until after her death. The tour guide wryly pointed out that that didn’t stop anyone from capitalizing on the idea of a persecuted royal staying in the Hall. This tendency bespoke a fictionalization and Gothicizing and politicizing of spaces as part of a larger step towards building a cultural history. Given the conference’s focus on Radcliffe, then, it was an interesting place to visit.

In fact, throughout the conference there was a lot of focus on ‘appropriations’ of Radcliffian ideology, and of the structuring of Gothic spaces both within Radcliffe and in response to Radcliffe. Much as Hardwick Hall is a space to examine the conflicts between formidable women such as Bess of Hardwick, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I, so are gendered constructions of self and reactions to the world based on those constructions crucial to reading Radcliffe’s novels. My own presentation was on how male servants in Radcliffe complicate perceptions of positive, chivalric middle class men of sensibility. Jonathan Dent similarly gave an amazing paper on gendered aesthetics in Edmund Burke and The Romance of the Forest, and Marie Comisso talked about feminine empowerment as it connected to nature and landscape in the Mysteries of Udolpho. While many of the stories about Bess of Hardwick and her contemporaries are now largely conjectural, they still suggest gothic elements that anchor them in specific physical and temporal spaces. Similarly, ‘political’ Radcliffe was also a topic of discussion at the conference, and it was interesting to see how liberal and conservative historical developments influenced specific people and areas throughout history, and how indeed the Gothicizing of history by authors such as Radcliffe defined both her specific literary genre and the manner in which we view historical adaptations.

It can be easy sometimes to only see certain genres – particularly the sometimes dated ones like the early Gothic genre – as relevant to other areas of reading and culture and as having a profound impact on constructions of a national identity. The trip to Hardwick Hall was really a great way to help anchor the Radcliffe at 250 conference, providing a new context for why Radcliffe should still be explored 250 years later.


Selective as they necessarily are, we hope the above responses offer a glimpse into an appropriately memorable event. There was a myriad of topics explored across the three days, with discussion of Radcliffe’s place in the eighteenth-century publishing marketplace, her relationship with contemporary pictorial and dramatic practices and her connections to a host of other famous and not-so-famous ‘Romantic’ writers, including Hester Piozzi, William Godwin and William Gilpin (the subject of my own paper on Radcliffe’s revision of discursive tourism in Udolpho). Though it may seem a peculiar note to end on, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the conference was that Radcliffe was appraised as a significant writer whose works played a key role in producing and defining the Romantic period; the term ‘Gothic’ was used almost incidentally, no longer the sole measure of Radcliffe and her literary value, but one facet of her achievement.

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