“It is most interesting to watch the progress of evening and its effect on the waters; streaks of light scattered among the dark, western clouds after the sun had set, and gleaming in long reflection on the sea, while a grey obscurity was drawing over the east, as the vapours rose gradually from the ocean. The air was breathless, the tall sails of the vessel were without motion, and her course upon the deep scarcely perceptible; while above the planet burned with steady dignity and threw a tremulous line of light upon the sea, whose surface flowed in smooth, waveless expanse. Then other planets appeared and countless stars spangled the dark waters. Twilight now pervaded air and ocean, but the west was still luminous where one solemn gleam of dusky red edged the horizon from under heavy vapours."
Sometimes her scenes are disappointingly vague. She describes Ingleborough as “rising from elegantly swelling ground,” and attempts to convey a stretch of country by enumerating a list of its features in generalised terms:
“Gentle swelling slopes, rich in verdure, thick enclosures, woods, bowery hop-grounds, sheltered mansions announcing the wealth, and substantial farms with neat villages, the comfort of the country.”
Yet she notices tiny mosses whose hues were “pea green and primrose,” and sometimes reveals flashes of imaginative insight into natural beauty like “the dark sides of mountains marked only by the blue smoke of weeds driven in circles near the ground.” These personal, intimate touches of detail are very different from the highly coloured sunrises and sunsets that awaken the raptures of her heroines.
With all her limitations, Mrs. Radcliffe is a figure whom it is impossible to ignore in the history of the novel. Her influence was potent on Lewis and on Maturin as well as on a host of forgotten writers. Scott admired her works and probably owed something in his craftsmanship to his early study of them. She appeals most strongly in youth. The Ettrick Shepherd, who was by nature and education “just excessive superstitious,” declares:
“Had I read Udolpho and her other romances in my boyish days my hair would have stood on end like that o’ other folk ... but afore her volumes fell into my hauns, my soul had been frichtened by a’ kinds of traditionary terrors, and many hunder times hae I maist swarfed wi’ fear in lonesome spots in muir and woods at midnight when no a leevin thing was movin but mysel’ and the great moon."
There are dull stretches in all her works, but, as Hazlitt justly claims, “in harrowing up the soul with imaginary horrors, and making the flesh creep and the nerves thrill with fond hopes and fears, she is unrivalled among her countrymen."