This lady was, in a literary sense, and though, like the sire of Evelina, he cast her off, the daughter of Horace Walpole. Just when King Romance seemed as dead as Queen Anne, Walpole produced that Gothic tale, “The Castle of Otranto,” in 1764. In that very year was born Anne Ward, who, in 1787, married William Radcliffe, Esq., M.A., Oxon. In 1789 she published “The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne.” The scene, she tells us, is laid in “the most romantic part of the Highlands, the north-east coast of Scotland.” On castles, anywhere, she doted. Walpole, not Smollett or Miss Burney, inspired her with a passion for these homes of old romance. But the north-east coast of Scotland is hardly part of the Highlands at all, and is far from being very romantic. The period is “the dark ages” in general. Yet the captive 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. He had the pleasure to observe that the paper was taken up by the ladies, who immediately retired into the castle.” These were not the manners of the local Mackays, of the Sinclairs, and of “the small but fierce clan of Gunn,” in the dark ages.
But this was Mrs. Radcliffe’s way. She delighted in descriptions of scenery, the more romantic the better, and usually drawn entirely from her inner consciousness. Her heroines write sonnets (which never but once are sonnets) and other lyrics, on every occasion. With his usual generosity Scott praised her landscape and her lyrics, but, indeed, they are, as Sir Walter said of Mrs. Hemans, “too poetical,” and probably they were skipped, even by her contemporary devotees. “The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne” frankly do not permit themselves to be read, and it was not till 1790, with “A Sicilian Romance,” that Mrs. Radcliffe “found herself,” and her public. After reading, with breathless haste, through, “A Sicilian Romance,” and “The Romance of the Forest,” in a single day, it would ill become me to speak lightly of Mrs. Radcliffe. Like Catherine Morland, I love this lady’s tender yet terrific fancy.
Mrs. Radcliffe does not always keep on her highest level, but we must remember that her last romance, “The Italian,” is by far her best. She had been feeling her way to this pitch of excellence, and, when she had attained to it, she published no more. The reason is uncertain. She became a Woman’s Rights woman, and wrote “The Female Advocate,” not a novel! Scott thinks that she may have been annoyed by her imitators, or by her critics, against whom he defends her in an admirable passage, to be cited later. Meanwhile let us follow Mrs. Radcliffe in her upward course.