Ann Radcliffe and her tour of the Lake District


Over the years, a great many authors have written about the Lake District. Perhaps one of the lesser-known ones is Ann Radcliffe. She was an immensely famous - and immensely wealthy - writer of Gothic novels, and might perhaps be considered the J.K. Rowling of her time.

Ann Radcliffe (Wiki)

Ann Radcliffe (Wiki)

Born as Ann Ward in 1764 to middle-class parents, she married William Radcliffe when she was 23. Theirs seems to have been a happy marriage, though childless, and he was happy to support her writing life in the early stages by means of his own work as a journalist of radical opinions. When success came to her, her income was vast. The royalty payment for her novel The Mysteries of Udolpho brought in £500 - the equivalent of a wage of rather over £500,000 in modern terms, at a time when most authors earned around £10 for a manuscript. Larger sums were to follow.

Ann had begun writing travel journals, a popular form of literature at the time, and one which easily slid into fiction. So when she and William set off for a tour of the Alps in 1794, it was natural to keep a diary. That trip ended abruptly, and the couple ended up fleeing back to England in haste as the approaching French army seized towns nearby. So instead, they turned north in the autumn, and out of that trip came a manuscript with the catchy title Observations during a Tour to the Lakes of Lancashire, Westmoreland, and Cumberland.

A green spreading circle of mountains embosoms this small lake, and, beyond, a wider range rises in amphitheatre... the village of Grasmere and its very neat white church stand among trees... the lake was clear as glass, reflecting the headlong mountains, with every feature of every image on its tranquil banks.

 Grasmere from the north

Grasmere from the north

That was her impression as she came over Dunmail Raise from what is now Thirlmere, and first saw the lake ahead of her. Her writing style, describing the personal impact of the journey, was in keen contrast to earlier writers such as Thomas West, who described everything with a view to helping artists paint the scene - a writing style known as "picturesque".

Their itinerary took them from Kendal to Penrith and Keswick, then south past Grasmere, Rydal and Windermere to end up crossing Morecambe Bay back to Lancaster. It makes for lively reading - she had an acute eye for both the geography and the human landscape, and describes it all with a sense of drama. Her account of ascending Skiddaw from Keswick makes the journey sound like an epic trek, but every stage is recognisable to anyone who has done the walk recently. 

At the time she was writing, William Wordsworth had just succeeded in getting a poem published, was full of revolutionary fervour, and was just starting to get to know the Lake District. He and Dorothy would move into Dove Cottage about five years later, in 1799. We know that along with many of the famous literary figures of the time, he respected and valued her insight, even though his own writing about the region diverged greatly from hers. Looking ahead, her influence extended far into the nineteenth century, to include the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and many others.
Dove Cottage (Wiki)
Dove Cottage (Wiki)
 

Ann stopped writing at a point in her career when everybody expected her to continue. Very little is known of her later life, except that she died in 1823, and that she suffered from asthma and other chronic ailments. Rumours circulated that she had lost her mind and been confined to a madhouse, but it seems more likely that she simply decided that she did not like publicity. and had earned enough not to need it. The writing style that she had helped create had been swamped by large numbers of inferior - in some cases crude and violent - imitations, and it is easy to imagine that she wanted no more of it.

The chart below shows the comparative lifetimes of Thomas West, Ann Radcliffe and William Wordsworth. The yellow markers show the years when West published A Guide to the Lakes, Ann Radcliffe published Observations, and William Wordsworth came to live at Dove Cottage with Dorothy.

 
Comparative lifetimes of some Lake District writers
Comparative lifetimes of some Lake District writers
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