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  • “Her mind had that happy art”:Acting sensibility in Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest
  • Katherine Richards (bio)

When Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth of the witches’ prediction and they begin to discuss their plan to kill Duncan, she tells him, “To beguile the time, / Look like the time” (5.65–66). “To beguile the time,” that is, Macbeth needs to make those around him feel as if everything is normal, that he is still Duncan’s loyal subject; in order to do that, he must “look like the time,” or comport himself in a way that portrays loyalty. He must, in other words, act. These are some of the earliest lines Lady Macbeth speaks, and no doubt when Sarah Siddons, probably the most famous embodiment of the character, delivered them, her own ability to beguile the time was palpably clear. It is equally clear that Ann Radcliffe was one of the audience members touched by Siddons’s performance. Whether or not she was touched by these particular lines is relatively unimportant, but as her biographer Rictor Norton has proven, Radcliffe did in fact see Siddons play Lady Macbeth, and her description of Siddons’s affect on her is one of the few personal recollections we have:

Whenever the poet’s witch condescends, according to the vulgar notion, to mingle mere ordinary mischief with her malignity, and to become familiar, she is ludicrous, and loses her power over the indignation; the illusion vanishes. So vexatious is the effect of the stage-witches upon my mind, that I should possibly have left the theatre when they appeared, had not the fascination of Mrs Siddons’s influence so spread itself over the whole play, as to overcome my disgust, and to make me forget even Shakespeare himself; while all consciousness of fiction was lost, and his thoughts lived and breathed before me in the very form of truth. Mrs Siddons, like Shakespeare, always disappears in the character she represents, and throws an illusion over the whole scene around her, that conceals many defects in the arrangements of the theatre.

(Radcliffe qtd. in Norton 50–51)1 [End Page 83]

It is highly likely that Radcliffe saw Siddons perform on several occasions including in The Tempest and Hamlet, and she seems to have also been affected by the performances and by the theater in general (Norton 62). While Radcliffe did become more of a recluse as her publications became more successful, initially she spent quite a lot of time at the opera and theater both in Bath and in London (see Norton 50). Radcliffe was careful to pay attention to the ways in which acting made the audience feel, which we see when she imagines Siddons in the role of Hamlet:

I should suppose she would be the finest Hamlet that ever appeared, excelling even her own brother in that character; she would more fully preserve the tender and refined melancholy, the deep sensibility, which are the peculiar charm of Hamlet, and which appear not only in the ardour, but in the occasional irresolution and weakness of his character…. Her brother’s firmness, incapable of being always subdued, does not so fully enhance, as her tenderness would, this part of the character.

(qtd. in Norton 50)

We see here that she is thinking about how certain actors act and comparing them, and in that comparison she pays attention to the subtlety of Siddons’s acting technique; she values her “deep sensibility.” These types of comments from Radcliffe are not easily found because of how little material there is from her life, but from reading her fiction, we can also see that she understood and appreciated the sensibility of the theater, as is evident in the character of Adeline in Radcliffe’s first success, her 1791 The Romance of the Forest. By examining exactly what that acting sensibility consisted of, in connection to the everyday performances of Adeline, I argue that Radcliffe creates in Adeline a representation of the sensory relationship between Gothic writers and readers, revealing a powerful affect in both the character and the text that otherwise might be neglected.

The Romance of the Forest launched Radcliffe’s career as an author...


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pp. 83-98
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