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Ann Radcliffe’s Delicate Ghosts In Gothic Fiction

Ann Radcliffe’s Delicate Ghosts In Gothic Fiction
Copyright © Photograph by Kaia Pieters

Ellena, the heroine of Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Italian’ (1797), is kidnapped to a convent to prevent her marriage to Vivaldi, a young aristocrat. He finds her and plots a daring rescue, taking advantage of a festive event held one night at the convent. Monks, nuns, pilgrims, and well-dressed dignitaries attend the gathering, a room-length partition segregating them by gender. Vivaldi disguises himself as a pilgrim, while Ellena dons a nun’s habit and veil. In order for the plan to succeed, they must identify each other through their costumes and across the dividing grate.

For Ellena, the terror of the moment exceeds the prospect of exposure and punishment: “Though she had taken a station near the grate, she had not courage indecorously to withdraw her veil before so many strangers.” When a man materializes on the other side of the partition, his face “partly muffled in his cloak,” Ellena has no choice but to proceed: “having reached the grate, [she] ventured to lift her veil for one instant. The stranger, letting his cloak fall, thanked her with his eyes for her condescension, and she perceived, that he was not Vivaldi! Shocked at the interpretation, which might be given to a conduct apparently so improper, as much as by the disappointment, which Vivaldi’s absence occasioned, she was hastily retiring, when another stranger approached with quick steps, whom she instantly knew, by the grace and spirit of his air, to be Vivaldi; but, determined not to be exposed a second time to the possibility of a mistake, she awaited silently for some further signal of his identity.”

To the reader swept up in the suspense of the plot, this brief exchange is almost unnoticeable. The stranger does not expose Ellena, and she and Vivaldi soon flee as planned. Her mistake remains only a social gaffe — embarrassing but carrying no real consequences. Why, then, did Ann Radcliffe include it?

The heroine who gravely ponders etiquette while running for her life is a peculiar feature of Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic. Perhaps the best-known example occurs in Ann Radcliffe’s previous novel, ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794) when Emily halts in mid-flight from the Castle of Udolpho to buy a hat because her bare head shocks the peasants. These moments possess an odd hybridity, as though two very different narratives suddenly intersect and are straining against one another. Their incongruity evokes puzzlement, if not laughter: how can anyone fret about a bare head or a misunderstood gesture while fleeing captivity, rape, and death? But the decorous management of the body is not a trivial matter, to the heroine or her creator. Neither is it extraneous to the kind of fiction Ann Radcliffe produced: the ideology of the polite body and the challenges it presents to women are woven into the very fabric of her writing.

Although many scholars have noted Ann Radcliffe’s commitment to propriety, much remains to be understood about its impact on her Gothic, a genre whose sensationalism placed it in an uneasy relationship with “polite” eighteenth-century writing. This article and furthermore, will examine Ann Radcliffe’s portrayal of the body through the prism of decorum, and I begin by looking at the concept of “delicacy” as a code that seeks to regulate female interaction with the body’s verbal representations. The era’s conduct manuals alert female readers to the dangers of including even “innocent” aspects of corporeal life in public conversation. Exceeding the restrictions placed on sexual conduct and speech, the code of delicacy severely limits women’s ability to represent the body at all in language, a matter of obvious consequence for the woman writer. Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic, I then argue, is engaged in a two-tiered dialogue with this ideology. The conventions of the Gothic genre vividly mirror the corporeal fantasies underwriting the code of bodily propriety; at the same time, Ann Radcliffe’s unique deployment of these conventions is itself shaped by the constraints of “delicate” authorship. I then focus on ‘The Italian,’ Ann Radcliffe’s response to Matthew Lewis’s ‘The Monk’ (1796), whose scandalous treatment of the body was a challenge to her polite Gothic. In ‘The Italian,’ Ann Radcliffe explores the tension between the body and decorum on the level of plot, while also grappling with it in the act of writing. The result is a startlingly open commentary on the rationale for her artistic choices.

Ann Radcliffe’s aesthetic agenda is by now a familiar voice in the ears of Gothic scholars: “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them,” she wrote in a much-cited essay, published posthumously in 1826. Geared towards the Burkean sublime, her fiction avoided the direct portrayal of shocking actions and objects, for “where lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in the uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil?3” Ghosts, for example, were much more likely to achieve the desired effect if suggested, but never shown; hence the delicate, evasive presence of the supernatural in Ann Radcliffe’s fiction.

As Emma Clery has suggested, Ann Radcliffe’s ghosts were not only the product of an aesthetic consciousness but also the echo of a socio-cultural one, reflecting the precariousness of the author’s position and reputation. Associated with unenlightened, lower-class vulgarity, a supernatural plot exposed the eighteenth-century author to critical disapproval; therefore, as Emma Clery puts it, “A woman wishing to publish fiction in a supernatural vein needed to be prepared to negotiate.” By providing a rational explanation for uncanny events, Ann Radcliffe’s narratives didactically mirrored the move from superstition to enlightenment and thereby claimed a greater respectability. The social usefulness of this strategy was perhaps one reason why Ann Radcliffe continued to use it despite much criticism on aesthetic grounds6. It enabled her to include the supernatural while signalling her distance from it; to incorporate ghosts into her text and at the same time qualify, and ultimately negate, their presence.

Ghosts were not the only culturally suspect component of eighteenth-century Gothic writing. Prefiguring the modern horror film, authors of Gothic literature were intrigued by the possibility that the body, normally closed and neat, would be disordered, penetrated, exposed — that it would be made a spectacle for the protagonists and, through them, for the reader as well. Sex, torture, rape, and death were ever-present in the Gothic, whether they actually occurred or only hovered as ominous possibilities. For an eighteenth-century woman author seeking respectability and acceptance, writing about the disrupted, sensational body — or, for that matter, about the body at all — was no simple matter, and it likewise called for quite a bit of “negotiation.” As in the case of the supernatural, this negotiation manifests itself in Ann Radcliffe’s subtle blend of evocation and denial, which allowed the text to disavow what it simultaneously suggested. Like her ghosts, Ann Radcliffe’s bodies are often equivocal figures, whose evanescence, beyond its thematic meanings, was also a useful defence against critical and social censure.

Previous studies have focused on the Gothic body as a site of intense sensation (such as pain or sexual desire) that evoked a similarly powerful response in the fascinated observer — a mode of representation that, it has been argued, carried a particular resonance within the aesthetic and political climate of the period. Yet Ann Radcliffe’s corporeal images had another immediate context: they were embedded in a matrix of contemporary ideas about women’s proper interaction with the body. Ann Radcliffe’s own polite identity, as well as the presumed propriety of her largely female readership, required that corporeality is shown in her novels through a particular filter, constructed according to the norms of her time.

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