The perils of aesthetic pleasure in Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest and The Mysteries of Udolpho

Jakub Lipski


In her works, Ann Radcliffe continually expressed an unwavering appreciation of aesthetic pleasure. Accordingly, one significant level of character evaluation in her fictional worlds is the characters’ sensitivity to aesthetic experience, which typically functions as an indicator of virtue. In line with the recent revisionist tendencies in Radcliffe criticism, problematising things that so far have been taken for granted, this article is concerned with a negative, or at least dialectical, evaluation of aesthetic pleasure, which is offered in The Romance of the Forest (1791) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). In particular, by concentrating on a reconciliation of villainy and aestheticism that is indicated in the narratives, the article shows how the seemingly antithetical arrangement of characters becomes destabilised; whereas by problematising the female sensitivity to art, it argues that aesthetic experience may pose a threat to the stability of selfhood. The heroines’ reactions are read as illustrative of an implied dialectic between vulnerability and empowerment, which arguably underpins Radcliffe’s handling of aesthetic pleasure in general.


Ann Radcliffe; aesthetic pleasure; female characters and art; identity

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