Of Mrs. Radcliffe’s life few facts are known, and Christina Rossetti, one of her many admirers, was obliged, in 1883, to relinquish the plan of writing her biography, because the materials were so scanty. From the memoir prefixed to the posthumous volumes, published in 1826, containing Gaston de Blondeville, and various poems, we learn that she was born in 1764, the very year in which Walpole issued The Castle of Otranto, and that her maiden name was Ann Ward. In 1787 she married William Radcliffe, an Oxford graduate and a student of law, who became editor of a weekly newspaper, The English Chronicle. Her life was so secluded that biographers did not hesitate to invent what they could not discover. The legend that she was driven frantic by the horrors that she had conjured up was refuted after her death.
It may have been the publication of The Recess by Sophia Lee in 1785 that inspired Mrs. Radcliffe to try her fortune with a historical novel. The Recess is a story of languid interest, circling round the adventures of the twin daughters of Mary Queen of Scots and the Duke of Norfolk. Yet as we meander gently through its mazes we come across an abbey “of Gothic elegance and magnificence,” a swooning heroine who plays the lute, thunderstorms, banditti and even an escape in a coffin—items which may well have attracted the notice of Mrs. Radcliffe, whose first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, appeared in 1789. Considered historically, this immature work is full of interest, for, with the notable exception of the supernatural, it contains in embryo nearly all the elements of Mrs. Radcliffe’s future novels.
The scene is laid in Scotland, and the period, we are assured, is that of the “dark ages”; but almost at the outset we are startled rudely from our dreams of the mediaeval by the statement that
“the wrongfully imprisoned earl, when the sweet tranquillity of evening threw an air of tender melancholy over his mind ... composed the following sonnet, which, having committed it to paper, he, the next evening dropped upon the terrace.”
The sonnet consists of four heroic quatrains somewhat curiously resembling the manner of Gray. From this episode it may be gathered that Mrs. Radcliffe did not aim at, or certainly did not achieve, historical