The ‘horrids’

She was paid more for her manuscript than any other writer of her century. The book was a bestseller, reprinted multiple times. It was translated into French, Italian, Russian and German. It received rave reviews with one reviewer (Sir Walter Scott, no less) calling it “The most interesting book in the English language.” Yet I’d never heard of Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ until recently when I was reading Jane Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’ and a footnote mentioned that all the titles of the novels Isabella Thorpe recommends to Catherine Morland in chapter six were real works of 18th century fiction.

And they were among Jane Austen’s favorite reading.

They were the ‘horrids.’ Novels of suspense, terror, and horror written in the last decades of the 18th century. They were believed to be fictional titles until researchers discovered there really was a book called ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ published in 1794. And that all the other ‘horrid’ novels referenced in Austen’s book were also real. And they were the most popular type of novel in England between 1770 and 1800.

But their popularity was short lived, since readers’ taste after 1800 changed to realism, and ‘the horrids’ were forgotten. Ironically Jane Austen’s own novels helped speed the demise of the ‘horrids’, the novels she herself enjoyed reading.

Still, stories of sensation will never entirely disappear, witness Frankenstein in 1818, Wuthering Heights in 1847, Woman in White in 1860, the Body Snatcher in 1884, The Time Machine in 1895, and of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897.

Even in the most realistic of the realist novels ‘horrid’ villains could be found. In George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Mr. Grandcourt’s treatment of Mrs. Glasher in chapter XXX, is monstrous (if subtle) torture. And the husband selling his wife in Chapter I of Hardy’s Mayor of Castorbridge, is just as monstrous as anything in the horrids.

Despite the acceptance of 19th century literature as the benchmark for classic English novels, the 18th century ‘horrids’ still enchant, with their grandiose settings, vaporous plots, lachrymose heroines, florid heroes, and gentle terrors.

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