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Conference report for Ann Radcliffe at 250: Gothic and Romantic Imaginations

It was a question that had eighteenth-century, gothic and Romantic scholars and enthusiasts scratching their heads: how exactly should one celebrate the 250th birthday of Ann Radcliffe, one of the best-selling and most influential writers of the Romantic period? As this conference report reveals, the University of Sheffield had the answer.

The Ann Radcliffe at 250: Gothic and Romantic Imaginations conference was held at the University of Sheffield’s Humanities Research Institute and ran from the 27–29 June 2014, with additional sponsorship by BARS (British Association for Romantic Studies) and the University of Stirling. The principal organisers of the event were Angela Wright (Sheffield) and Dale Townshend (Stirling), who were assisted by a larger steering committee that included numerous Sheffield faculty members and postgraduate students. As well as celebrating Radcliffe’s birthday, the conference also marked the launch of a ground-breaking co-edited collection of essays devoted to the Great Enchantress, Ann Radcliffe, Romanticism and the Gothic, edited by Townshend and Wright (CUP, 2014). The event’s keynote speakers comprised some of the most significant voices in eighteenth-century, gothic and Romantic studies, including critics whose publications have helped to reinvigorate Radcliffe scholarship in recent years. Delegates from all over the world attended the conference, offering a fitting tribute to the importance of Radcliffe in a range of literary, historical and philosophical fields.

Friday, 27th June

Delegates began to arrive at the Humanities Research Institute for registration from around 10am. The first plenary was given by Jane Stabler from the University of St Andrews and was entitled ‘Ann Radcliffe and Romantic Poetry’. Stabler talked about the legacy of Radcliffe’s poetry and the major impact that she had on the development of Romanticism. For example, she discussed how Radcliffe’s representation of Venice (which, of course, she had never actually visited) inspired Byron, and examined her innovative use of the colour purple to describe twilight, dusk and sunsets. Stabler also pointed out how the pauses, interruptions and procrastinations that characterise Radcliffe’s works influenced the poetry of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. She suggested that Radcliffe’s verse offered an important link (and point of contact) between the Graveyard poets and Romantic poetry, where her influence is at its most visible. Stabler provided a fitting start to the conference by stimulating debates about Romantic verse, aesthetics and Radcliffe’s contribution to Romanticism. The transition from the plenary to the ‘Ann Radcliffe and Poetry’ panel was seamless. Papers from Samuel Baker, Janet Chu and Carly Stevenson about Radcliffe’s poetry complemented, reiterated and developed (significantly) many of the themes explored in the preceding keynote. This panel concluded with an excellent question and answer session.

Conference delegates

Conference delegates

I can, of course, only comment on the panel that I attended, but my discussions with other delegates suggested that the other sessions were popular and led to interesting discussions, which flowed over into the lunch break. The ‘Ann Radcliffe and the Publishing World’ panel featured Anthony Mandal (Cardiff), ‘Publish and Be Damned!: The Literary Marketplace in the Age of Radcliffe’ and JoEllen DeLucia (Central Michigan), ‘Radcliffe and her Publisher: George Robinson, the Book Trade and the Radcliffean Gothic’. These papers complemented each other very well and sparked lengthy exchanges regarding the dynamics of the Romantic publishing market, imitations of Radcliffe’s works and the difficulties of balancing femininity with a desire to publish and engage in the public sphere. Mandal spoke about an exciting collaborative project that he is currently working on. The Palgrave Guide to Gothic Publishing: The Business of Gothic Fiction, 1764–1835 will examine the authors and publishers who were collectively responsible for the creation of the Gothic and promises to be an indispensable resource for scholars, students and enthusiasts interested in the gothic’s inception, evolution and context(s).

After coffee, there were panels on ‘Ann Radcliffe’s Philosophical Tendencies’ and ‘Ann Radcliffe and the Natural World’. I was preparing to give my paper on the first panel and so, unfortunately, I am unable to comment on the second session. Nicky Lloyd (Cardiff) joined me on my panel and presented a paper entitled ‘Ann Radcliffe: Enlightenment Philosophy, Gothic Sensation and Romantic Selfhood’. She spoke about Radcliffe’s engagement with Enlightenment philosophy, suggesting that the novels construct a paradigm of sociability grounded in moral sense theory which ultimately gives way to a more conventionally Romantic aesthetic of fragmented and unstable selfhood in The Italian. My own paper, ‘Fragmentation and Femininity: Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791) and Edmund Burke’s Gendered Aesthetics’, discussed how Radcliffe destabilises the traditional eighteenth-century association of the feminine and the fragmentary by subtly reversing, rejecting and revising various aspects of Burke’s gendered conceptions of the sublime and the beautiful. Both papers worked very well together and provoked some interesting questions from the audience, leading to discussions of female conceptualisations of the sublime, Romantic identities, and the complex relationship between the Enlightenment and Romanticism.

In the evening, Professor Emma Clery (Southampton) delivered the second keynote of the conference, which was entitled ‘Ann Radcliffe meets Jane Austen: A Fine Romance’. This was delivered as a public lecture and dealt with the subject of Radcliffe’s influence on Austen. Clery’s paper used the fictional meeting between the two women in the film Becoming Jane (2007) as the starting point for her paper, before moving on to show how Radcliffe’s and Austen’s works are in dialogue with each other. For example, there are numerous references to The Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey, and, in Emma, Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest plays a part in the courtship of Harriet Smith and Robert Martin. Traditionally, Radcliffe’s influence on Austen has been marginalised or dismissed, with critics pointing to Northanger Abbey—a parody of Gothic conventions—as evidence that Austen had little respect for her fellow writer. Clery contested this critical stance by pointing out that the satire in Northanger Abbey is more affectionate than cruel, and that the novel suggests that there are bad readers, rather than poor texts. She discussed how Austen reacts to Radcliffe’s work and her readers, and examined how both writers employ innovative fictional techniques, such as free indirect discourse. Clery’s paper raised interesting questions about Romantic readers, narration, intertextuality and legacies.

Saturday, 28th June

The first session of the day began with panels on ‘Dialogues with the Dead’, ‘Radcliffe, Others, Alterity’ and ‘Radical Radcliffe’. I heard three excellent papers by Carol Margaret Davison (Windsor), ‘Trafficking in Death and (Un)dead Bodies: Necro-Politics and Poetics in the Works of Ann Radcliffe’, Agnieszka Łowczanin (Instytut Anglistyki) ‘“That body is now cold”: The Apprehension of Death in Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian’ and Lucy Linforth (Edinburgh), ‘“The Great Enchantress” and “The Enchanter of the North”: Radcliffe, Scott, and Writing Beyond the Grave’. These papers stimulated interesting debates about emotion, reason, Catholicism and Romantic representations of death. After coffee, there were panels on ‘Radcliffean Spaces’, ‘French Appropriations’ and ‘Reading Radcliffe’s Politics’. I attended the panel on Radcliffe’s politics, which featured Rhonda Ray (East Stroudsburg), ‘Church Politics Unveiled in Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian’, and Kathleen Hudson (Sheffield), ‘The Pauper and the Provider: Exploring masculinity, service, and class in Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest’. Ray discussed the influence of William Pitt’s authoritarian social policies on Radcliffe’s representations of class and Catholicism, while Hudson talked about Radcliffe’s representations of chivalry, sensibility and masculinity. Both papers were incisive, well researched and thought-provoking. The discussion following the papers tied them together nicely, with questions about Radcliffe’s politics, attitudes towards class and representations of religion. Lively debate continued over lunch and, at around 3pm, a large group of conference delegates embarked on the conference excursion to Hardwick Hall, which is located West of Mansfield.

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

Hardwick Hall was the creation of the celebrated Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, four times married, who stamped her initials on walls and on parterres throughout her estate. It is one of the grandest Elizabethan houses, with a vast expanse of window glass, and has a magnificent position on cliffs overlooking the valley of the river Doe Lee. In front of the main building is the Old Hall, which is in ruins. The trip to Hardwick Hall, which Radcliffe herself visited and described at the beginning of A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794, was one of the highlights of the conference. In her travelogue, Radcliffe does not devote much attention to Hardwick Hall’s imposing physical appearance or its beautiful location. Indeed, her account consists mainly of an imaginative identification with the experiences of Mary, Queen of Scots, whose alleged (and historically incorrect) imprisonment in the Hall was still reported to visitors in the eighteenth century. It was a great pleasure to retrace Radcliffe’s footsteps and reflect on the architectural spaces that inspired her work. Conversations about Gothic and Romantic engagements with history and architecture ensued amongst conference delegates. After the tour of Hardwick Hall, a drinks reception was held in the East Court, where the conference dinner was also held.

Sunday, 29th June

The last day of the conference began with Robert Miles’s plenary, which was entitled ‘La Voisin and Dream Time in The Mysteries of Udolpho’. Miles’s paper made a significant contribution to recent Romantic reassessments of Radcliffe’s work by identifying the Gothic and Romanticism as productive sites of exchange, rather than as distinctive and antithetical categories. He suggested that Radcliffe’s Romanticism lies in the expression that she gives to deeply embedded attitudes in which past and present—and modern and pre-modern—frequently overlap and destabilise each other. As well as drawing on the anthropological and philosophical work of Charles Taylor, Miles also expertly applied the concept of ‘dream time’ in his reading of The Mysteries of Udolpho. After his paper, there were discussions about canonicity, history, the explained supernatural and the status of poetry and prose in conceptions of Romanticism. Morning coffee followed the day’s first plenary.

After refreshments, there were panels on ‘Radcliffean Afterlives’ and ‘Radcliffean Stylistics’. I attended the third session, which was entitled ‘Ann Radcliffe’s European Travels’. This panel featured Marianna D’Ezio (Roma), ‘Ann Radcliffe and Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi’, and Mark Bennett (Sheffield), ‘Radcliffe’s Silent Landscapes and the Picturesque Conversation’. Both papers were excellent and engaged with the historical, cultural and aesthetic contexts of Radcliffe’s works. D’Ezio’s paper explored fascinating intersections between Radcliffe’s and Piozzi’s texts, while Bennett spoke about the de-historicising aspects of the picturesque and the extent to which Radcliffe’s heroines enact the role of the picturesque tourist. Bennett provided a particularly humorous moment when, for the purposes of his paper, he temporarily rebranded the conference as ‘William Gilpin at 290’! Fred Botting’s provocatively titled paper, ‘Fifty Shades of Ann Radcliffe’, offered the final plenary of the conference and triggered debates about the Gothic, Romanticism and the legacy of Radcliffe’s works.

The conference concluded with a goodbye speech by the organisers and a round of applause for everyone who had worked so hard to plan, arrange and host this event. Packed lunches were provided for departing delegates and, as everyone filtered out of the Humanities Research Institute and into the sunshine, the air was abuzz with conversations about Radcliffe and her contribution to Romanticism. From the organisation of the panels, to the birthday cake specially prepared in the Great Enchantress’s honour, to the novelty conference bags (complete with bottles of the local condiment, Henderson’s Relish), this was an event that was notable for its attention to detail, expert planning and slick execution. The three days were a triumph and the bar has been set very high indeed for future events. The University of Sheffield’s Ann Radcliffe at 250: Gothic and Romantic Imaginations conference was the perfect way to celebrate the Great Enchantress’s birthday and will live long in the memories of those who attended.

The Great Enchantress’s birthday cake


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