Born Ann Ward in 1766, she married William Radcliffe, a journalist and newspaper publisher, in Bath in 1788. Like her heroines, she was beautiful, quiet, and virtuous. She turned to writing for amusement and was amazed at her own success. She hated being in the limelight so much that, when she ventured to the opera with her husband, she sat in the pit rather than in a box so no one would recognize her.
But she understood that fine line between being terrified and being horrified. Because of her success, she inspired countless imitators, some of whom took their suspense stories like those she penned and added gruesome murders or detailed tortures.
But Ann drew the line at such things. She saw a huge difference between enjoying a good scare and being grossed out. “Terror and horror,” she wrote in a preface to her book of poetry, “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.”
That is perhaps the true power of the Gothic novel. It titillates and teases us, suggests something amazing is afoot, and keeps us turning the pages to find out. Her stories epitomize that philosophy. Take this description of a spooky ruined abbey from The Romance of the Forest (1791), her most popular work:
He entered what appeared to have been the chapel of the abbey where the hymn of devotion had once been raised and the tear of penitence had once been shed sounds which could now only be recalled by imagination--tears of penitence which had been long since fixed in fate. La Motte paused a moment for he felt a sensation of sublimity rising into terror, a suspension of mingled astonishment and awe. He surveyed the vastness of the place and as he contemplated its ruins fancy bore him back to past ages. And these walls, said he, where once superstition lurked and austerity anticipated an earthly purgatory now tremble over the mortal remains of the beings who reared them.
Not horror, then, but a fascination of things beyond them is what drove young ladies to read Gothic novels long into the night. And isn’t that what all good books do today?