‘Mother Radcliff’: Ann Radcliffe and the Female Gothic
In his essay on Walpole Walter Scott proves once again that he is the master of the even-handed insult. He acknowledges that ‘Mrs. Radcliffe’ was ‘a name not to be mentioned without the high respect due to genius’, but then observes that she adopted the wrong solution to the problem posed by the supernatural in fiction. Walpole ‘details supernatural incidents as they would have been readily believed and received in the eleventh and twelfth century’. Radcliffe rejected this simple expedient in favour of explanation: ‘the precaution of relieving our spirits from the influence of supposed supernatural terror, seems as unnecessary in a work of professed fiction, as that of the prudent Bottom’ reassuring the ladies that he is not really a lion.2 Even as he praises Radcliffe, Scott eroded the foundations of her literary reputation. When he comes to write about her, for his Lives of the Novelists (1821–1824), he returns to his task. He simultaneously praises her as the founder of her own ‘class or school’ (she is the ‘first poetess of romantic fiction’ ), and then defends her against a charge that he admits ought not to be levelled against her: that she should be tarred with the same critical brush that blackened ‘the crowd of copyists who came forward in imitation of Mrs. Radcliffe’, assuming ‘her magic wand, without the power … ‘ (111). If the tar sticks, it is because of her incautious wish to make like Bottom, and reassure her readers ‘that all the circumstances of her narrative, however mysterious, and apparently superhuman, were to be accounted for on natural principles (115).
KeywordsPublic Sphere Cultural Capital Critical Work Woman Writer Magic Wand
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