How was I surpris’d at ascending the hill!—My feet seem’d leading me to the first garden,—the sweet abode of innocence!—Ten thousand beauties broke on my sight;—ten thousand pleasures, before unknown, danced through my heart.—Behold me on the summit;—behold me full of surprise,—full of admiration!—How enchanting the park! how clear the river that winds through it1—what taste,—what elegance, in the plantations!—How charmingly are Nature’s beauties rang’d by art!—The trees,—the shrubs,—the flowers,—hold up their heads, as if proud of the spot they grow on!—Then the noble old structure,—the magnificent mansion of this antient family, how does it fire the beholder with veneration and delight! The very walls seem’d to speak; at least there was something that inform’d me, native dignity, and virtues hereditary, dwelt within them.
Susannah Gunning’s 1768 publication, Barford Abbey, A Novel. In A Series Of Letters, is another work that has been mentioned as a potential proto-Gothic novel, though as it turns out there is very little in the book itself to support this assertion; except perhaps (as is evident from its earliest pages) there is a secret to do with her parentage in the background of the novel’s heroine. However, since it eventually becomes evident that almost everyone except the heroine herself is in on that particular secret, it hardly constitutes the kind of mystery that would eventually become a trope of the Gothic novel proper. In fact, my suspicion is that Barford Abbey ended up on the list of Gothic progenitors purely because it had the word “abbey” in its title; thirty years later, this would indeed constitute a fairly reliable marker.
One thing that Barford Abbey does have in common with a surprising number of the proto-Gothics is that it was first published in Dublin, with a second edition appearing in England some three years later. However, its author was English: Susannah Minifie was born in Somerset, the daughter of a poor clergyman. Susannah’s sister, Margaret, was also a novelist (and attracted pointed criticism from Clara Reeve in her The Progress Of Romance, for reasons I have yet to investigate), while her daughter, Elizabeth, would likewise become a writer.
In 1768, the same year that she wrote Barford Abbey, her first novel, Susannah Minifie married John Gunning, brother to the famous Irish Gunning sisters, who became the Countess of Coventry, and the Duchess of Hamilton and later the Duchess of Argyll, respectively. (John Gunning is a story unto himself, to which I might return sometime…)
Barford Abbey was, as I say, a first novel, and it shows. Some things, however, it does do well. Unlike the earlier The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley, this is an epistolary novel proper, with correspondance in various voices, and differing perspectives on the same events, so that the reader is aware of various facts while the characters – or at least the heroine – remain in ignorance of them. This novel also does a good job creating suspense, albeit rather mild, by writing as people do write—that is, the correspondents don’t tell each other things that they already know. This is a an area where many epistolary novels fail, even falling into the fatal trap of including entire back-stories for certain characters under the guise of “dear friends” demanding to know each other’s life-histories.
On the other hand, it must be admitted that this approach sometimes makes Barford Abbey simply confusing—although in retrospect this might be more correctly attributed to another rookie mistake. Rarely for a novel of this type, sometimes there is simply not enough detail in the description of the characters. One subplot involves an estrangement between father and son. The context in which this plot-point is raised suggests that the son is a young man, perhaps in his early twenties; in fact he is some twenty years older, a detail which alters the implications of the situation altogether.
There’s also the fact that all of the novel’s correspondents favour the same peculiar punctuation style.
Overall, Barford Abbey is a sentimental novel par excellence, inasmuch as while very little actually happens, endless pages are devoted to the characters reporting and analysing their feelings. Its main failing is that the two people doing most of the analysing are neither of them very interesting. Our hero and heroine are, alas!—respectively a prat and a bore.
With respect to both, Mrs Gunning falls into the trap of the “informed attribute”. Every man who comes near Fanny falls in love with her; through their correspondence we hear not only of her beauty and grace, but of her sensibility, intelligence and wit; of how “angelic”, how “bewitching” she is…but her own correspondence, which makes up the bulk of the novel, gives us no hint of anything out of the thoroughly ordinary. We are left to assume that everyone is reading whatever they want to into the tabula rasa of a pretty face. Likewise, though we hear from his first appearance about how Lord Darcy’s mind is “illumin’d with uncommon understanding, sweetness, and refinement”, what he reveals of himself directly and in his letters makes the reader want to slap him.
(Most exasperatingly, this novel repeatedly contends that no-one who isn’t perfectly beautiful can expect to be loved, even to the point of creating a plain spinster character in every other respect even more boringly perfect than Fanny herself. At some points it even suggests that no-one who isn’t beautiful is capable of loving. I suppose this attitude may have been consequence of Mrs Gunning having seen first-hand what her sisters-in-law achieved via beauty alone, unsupported by birth or money, though it seems an odd and hurtful assertion coming from someone who does not seem to have been more than borderline pretty herself.)
The opening of Barford Abbey gave me what proved to be unfounded hopes that it was going to be an exercise in hilarious misery like Valentine:
How distressing, how heart-rending, is my dear Fanny’s mournful detail!—It lies before me; I weep over it!—I weep not for the departed saint: no; it is for you, myself, for all who have experienced her godlike virtues!
But this was largely misleading, although though we do get a few agreeably absurd flourishes from time to time. The novel’s opening correspondents are Miss Fanny Warley and the Lady Mary Sutton; the latter, for her health, has been for some time residing at “the German Spaw”, although she now holds hopes of being permitted by her physician to return to England. Fanny’s dismal letter (not included) reports the death of one Mrs Whitmore, with whom she has been living. Lady Mary begs Fanny to join her on the Continent by travelling with Mr and Mrs Smith, who will be wintering at Montpelier; in the meantime, she is to be taken in by Mr and Mrs Jenkings, the former the steward to Sir James and Lady Powis of – ah-ha! – Barford Abbey.
What we notice chiefly about the early multiplicity of names is the distinct lack of Warleys in the immediate vicinity of Fanny Warley. In fact, Fanny is an orphan, and without either birth or money. Not to worry, though!—she’s beautiful, so I’m sure fate has something pleasant in store for her.
Fanny has barely arrived at the Jenkings’ before she finds herself an object of interest to Sir James and Lady Powis. The two ladies immediately discover that they are kindred spirits:
Then addressing herself to me, Will you, Madam, give me the pleasure of your company often at the Abbey?—I mean, will you come there as if it was your home?—Mr and Mrs Jenkings have comforts, I have not,—at least that I can enjoy.—Here she sigh’d deeply;—so deep, that I declare it pierced through my heart;—I felt as if turn’d into stone;—what I suppose I was a true emblem of.—The silent friends that trickled down my cheeks brought me back from my inanimate state…
The comfort that Lady Powis cannot enjoy is her son, who due to a disagreement with his father lives on the Continent (it’s crowded over there) and has not been home since his departure. Mr Jenkings also has a son, Edmund, of whom he is inordinately proud—to which, or so Fanny assumes (comparing her penniless condition to Edmund’s expectations from his well-heeled father), we can attribute the disapproval he evinces when he realises that (sigh) Edmund is falling in love with their visitor.
Fanny’s first visits to Barford Abbey serve to make the reader aware of another potential mystery, in addition to the vagueness of our heroine’s background. In conversation she naturally makes several references to “Lady Mary”; her subsequent revelation of her de facto guardian’s identity has a strange effect:
A similitude of manners between your Ladyship and Lady Powis, particularly in doing the honours of the table, struck me so much, that I once or twice call’d her Lady Mary.—Pray, Miss Warley, ask’d she, who is this Lady Mary?
What could occasion her confusion!—what could occasion the confusion of Sir James!—Never did see any thing equal it, when I said it was Lady Mary Sutton!—The significant looks that were interchang’d, spoke some mystery;—a mystery it would be presumption in me to dive after. Her Ladyship made no reply,—Sir James was eager to vary the subject,—and the conversation became general…
No explanation is forthcoming for some considerable time, while Fanny is reassured by Lady Mary’s evasive assertion that Lady Powis is worthy of her love. Meanwhile, we learn that the estrangement between Sir James and his son was caused by the failure of the latter to marry the wealthy woman his father picked out for him; though as it turns out, the lady refused his loveless offer.
Though separated from her son, Lady Powis does take some comfort from the visits to the Abbey of the young Lord Darcey, who Fanny is invited to meet, and of whose circumstances she first hears from Mrs Jenkings:
Mrs Jenkings informed me, his Lordship was a ward of Sir James’s just of age;—his estate genteel, not large;—his education liberal,—his person fine,—his temper remarkably good.—Sir James, said she, is for ever preaching lessons to him, that he must marry prudently;—which is, that he must never marry without an immense fortune…
So…a handsome young peer needing to marry for money thrown together with a beautiful but penniless young woman…what could possibly go wrong?
Barford Abbey’s second major correspondence is between Lord Darcey and his cousin, George Molesworth. While the letters exchanged between Fanny Warley and Lady Mary Sutton are full of sentiment and sensibility, those of the two young men offer a more cynical, if no less emotive, commentary upon the workings of society, in particular its attitude to love, marriage and money. Through these exchanges we also learn more of Lord Darcey’s position, and his relationship with Sir James Powis. Though “just of age”, Darcey is still subject to Sir James’s will thanks to a promise made to his father on the latter’s death-bed:
Without his consent never can I give my hand;—the commands of a dying father forbid me.—Such a father!—O George! you did not know him; —so revered, —so honour’d,—so belov’d! not more in public than in private life.
My friend, behold your son!—Darcey, behold your father!—As you reverence and obey Sir James, as you consult him on all occasions, as you are guided by his advice, receive my blessing.—These were his parting words, hugg’d into me in his last cold embrace…
(So his last earthly thoughts were not of God or heaven, but of keeping his son in a state of permanent subjection? Such a father, indeed…)
But as Molesworth is quick to deduce from his cousin’s letters, Darcey has already fallen in love with Fanny. He helpfully clarifies the situation by explaining why Darcey’s raptures indicate more than mere friendship, using his unfortunate cousin as a negative example:
So it is necessary for every woman you think capable of friendship, to have fine eyes, fine hair, a bewitching smile, and a neck delicately turn’d.—Have not I the highest opinion of my cousin Dolly’s sincerity?—Do I not think her very capable of friendship?—Yet, poor soul, her eyes are planted so deep, it requires good ones to discover she has any.—Such a hand, George!—Such a hand, Darcey!—Why, Lady Dorothy too has hands; I am often enough squeez’d by them:—though hard as a horse’s hoof, and the colour of tanned leather, I hold her capable of friendship.—Neck she has none! yet need I the determination of another, to tell me whether my regard for her proceeds from love or friendship?
This is the point when Darcey begins to evince some very unlovely character traits. In the first place, though he knows that Sir James will never permit their marriage—though Sir James has specifically and directly warned him away from Fanny—though he repeatedly declares that, as a consequence, he cannot marry her—Darcey not only declines to do anything as sensible (or unselfish) as remove himself from Fanny’s orbit, he continues to court her until she falls in love with him. Fanny’s letters become full of hope mingled with confusion, and eventually distress: Darcey’s behaviour seems to promise everything, but he does not speak…
This situation reaches an unexpected crisis when, thanks to the meddling of a busy-body visitor, Darcey is forced to make a public declaration that he has no intention of offering for anybody… Hurt and humiliated (not least because the circumstances ensure that everyone knows exactly who Darcey has “no intention” of offering for), Fanny tries to cut him out of her heart, evading him whenever she can, and treating him coldly when she cannot—which is most of the time. Despite his declaration, Darcey continues to pursue her, protesting (both to her and in his letters) about her “coldness” and “indifference”, repeatedly addressing her in public as “my angel” and “my dearest life”, and forcing his company upon her no matter how often or how firmly she lets him know it’s not wanted.
But this isn’t even the worst of it! Since every man who comes near Fanny falls in love with her, and since most of them are under no restriction about who they marry, from the very first Darcey is wracked with jealousy, which becomes even worse after his public crying off:
Where are those looks of preference fled,—those expressive looks?—I saw them not till now:—it is their loss,—it is their sad reverse that tells me what they were. She turns not her head to follow my footsteps at parting;—or when I return, does not proclaim it by advancing pleasure tip-toe to the windows of her soul.—No anxiety for my health! No, she cares not what becomes of me.—I complain’d of my head, said I was in great pain;—heaven knows how true! My complaints were disregarded.—I attended her home. She sung all the way; or if she talked, it was of music:—not a word of my poor head…
Shall she be another’s?—Yes, when I shrink at sight of what lies yonder,—my sword, George;—that shall prevent her ever being another’s…
Our hero, ladies and gentlemen!
(Actually, this aspect of Barford Abbey put me very much in mind of Fanny Burney’s last novel, The Wanderer, which also features a “hero” so intent upon claiming his romantic privileges, he all but ruins the life of the woman he’s supposed to be in love with.)
Finally Fanny is driven to drastic action. Keeping her intentions a strict secret until, as she knows is to happen, Darcey is forced to leave Barford Abbey for a time on account of business associated with his own estates, she makes arrangements to travel to London to join Mr and Mrs Smith, who are to escort her to Montpelier. Her hope is to be out of the country before Darcey even knows she’s left the Abbey. She sets out…
A flurry of shocks and revelations follow, with the correspondence flying back and forth between several parties and almost bewildering the reader. Some of this is intentional, some due (as I alluded to at the beginning) to insufficient set-up. In the latter category we have the abrupt revelation of Fanny’s true identity: she is the granddaughter of Sir James and Lady Powis, the daughter of the estranged Mr Powis and his wife. (You will now appreciate my confusion over Mr Powis’s apparent age.)
This aspect of Barford Abbey is nothing less than absurd. It turns out that the woman Mr Powis did not marry was – surprise! – Lady Mary Sutton who, though “possess’d of every virtue” (including the whacking great fortune that attracted Sir James’s attention in the first place), had the misfortune to be plain:
Mr Powis’s inclinations not coinciding,—Sir James throws himself into a violent rage.—Covetousness and obstinacy always go hand in hand:—both had taken such fast hold of the Baronet, that he swore—and his oath was without reservation—he would never consent to his son’s marrying any other woman.—Mr Powis, finding his father determin’d,—and nothing, after his imprecation, to expect from the entreaties of his mother,—strove to forget the person of Lady Mary, and think only of her mind…
The two Ladies set out on their journey, attended by Sir James and Mr Powis, who, in obedience to his father, was still endeavouring to conquer his indifference.—Perhaps, in time, Lady Mary might have found a way to his heart,—had she not introduc’d the very evening of their arrival at the Lodge, her counter-part in every thing but person:—there Miss Whitmore outshone her whole sex…
Well, now…that was silly.
Lady Mary, though in love with Mr Powis (God only knows why), accepts that he can never love her, and generously makes it look to Sir James as if she has rejected him. Furthermore, she then enters into a conspiracy to get Mr Powis married off to the beautiful Miss Whitmore, binding everyone involved to a solemn oath of silence. The plotters go so far as to (i) fake Miss Whitmore’s death; (ii) have her live on the Continent under an assumed name, never acknowledged as Mrs Powis, and (iii) giving up their child to be raised by her grandmother, Mrs Whitmore, with assistance from Lady Mary, rather than give away their secret.
All of which makes a lot more sense than Mr Powis saying openly, “Screw you, Dad, I’ll marry who I damn well please!”
(So if I’m understanding it correctly, the moral of Barford Abbey is: It’s fine to disobey your father, as long as he doesn’t find out you’ve done it…)
Anyway— The revelation that Fanny is his granddaughter reconciles the avaricious Sir James to pretty much everything, including her marriage to Lord Darcey. (The fact that Fanny is in fact neither an orphan nor penniless might also have something to do with it.) Darcey is instantly cast up into the heights of ecstasy—and then, this being the kind of novel that it is, instantly afterwards cast down into the depths of despair—for reasons conveyed by George Molesworth to another of our supporting characters, Captain Richard Risby:
Oh Dick! the most dreadful affair has happen’d!—Lord Darcey is distracted and dying; I am little better.—Good God! What shall I do?—what can I do?—He lies on the floor in the next room, with half his hair torn off.—Unhappy man! fatigue had near kill’d him, before the melancholy account reach’d his ears.—Miss Warley, I mean Miss Powis, is gone to the bottom.—She sunk in the yacht that sailed yesterday from Dover to Calais.—Every soul is lost.—The fatal accident was confirm’d by a boat which came in not ten minutes before we arriv’d.—There was no keeping it from Lord Darcey.—The woman of the Inn we are at has a son lost in the same vessel: she was in fits when we alighted.—Some of the wreck is drove on shore.—What can equal this scene!—Oh, Miss Powis! most amiable of women, I tremble for your relations!—But Darcey, poor Darcey, what do I feel for you!—He speaks:—he calls for me:—I go to him.—
Oh, Risby! my heart is breaking; for once let it be said a man’s heart can break.—Whilst he raved, whilst his sorrows were loud, there was some chance; but now all is over. He is absolutely dying;—death is in every feature.—His convulsions how dreadful!—how dreadful the pale horror of his countenance!—But then so calm,—so compos’d!—I repeat, there can be no chance—
Sentimental novels, as we know, enjoy nothing better than wallowing in extreme emotion, and they frequently do kill off their heroes and heroines in order to dwell upon the misery of the survivors (kind of the literary equivalent of, Shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die…); but it usually happens towards the end of the novel, not only three-fifths of the way through. However, Barford Abbey lingers so long upon the grief of its characters that I began to be lulled into a belief in Fanny’s death, which a combination of cynicism and experience had previously prevented. Curiously, what restored my instinctive scepticism was this, also from George Molesworth:
I have neither leisure or spirits to tell you in what manner the body was found, and how I knew it to be Miss Powis’s…
A ship lost with all hands is one thing; a body washed ashore quite some time afterwards and identified via (presumably) clothing or jewellery is something very different. Sure enough, eventually we learn about an unfortunate young woman called Frances Walsh, who favoured initialled handkerchiefs…
So where is Fanny? Why has she not been in contact?
Having slipped away from Barford Abbey and Lord Darcey, Fanny is escorted to London by Mr Smith (remember him?), who on the way reveals himself to be—A VILLAIN!! Or at least an idiot, making improper proposals on the strength of his wife being sure to die sooner or later; hiding under the bed in Fanny’s room at an inn, in order to do it again; and then threatening to shoot himself if she won’t listen to him. Fanny’s screams bring an elderly gentleman also staying at the inn to the scene, who turns out to be Lady’s Mary’s banker. Mr Delves carries her to his own house in London, where almost immediately she falls ill with smallpox. There, after a series of coincidences, George Molesworth finds her—and relieves our minds of their most pressing concern in a letter to Captain Risby:
But let me tell you, Miss Powis is just recover’d from the smallpox;—that this was the second day of her sitting up:—let me tell you too her face is as beautiful as ever…
Phew! For a moment there I was afraid she might now be less than perfectly beautiful!
But as long as Barford Abbey spent dwelling on the misery of its characters following Fanny’s death, it spends twice as long dwelling on their incredulous joy after her resurrection. The only event of note that occurs in the final one hundred pages of the novel is Fanny’s marriage to Lord Darcey; although this is supported by a flurry of engagements amongst the minor characters—those of George Molesworth, Captain Risby and Lord Hallum to, respectively, the Lady Elizabeth Curtis, the Lady Sophia Curtis, and Miss Delves; all three young ladies being—I’m sure you’ll be astonished to hear—perfectly beautiful.
How infinite,—how dazzling the beauty of holiness!—Affliction seems to have threatened this amiable family, only to encrease their love,—their reverence,—their admiration of Divine Omnipotence.—Blessings may appear, as a certain great man remarks, under the shape of pain, losses, and disappointment;—but let us have patience, and we shall see them in their own proper figures.
If rewards even in this world attend the virtuous, who would be deprav’d?—Could the loose, the abandon’d, look in on this happy mansion, how would their sensual appetites be pall’d!—How would they hate,—how detest the vanity,—the folly, that leads to vice!—If pleasure is their pursuit, here they might see it speaking at mouth and eyes:—pleasures that fleet not away;—pleasures that are carried beyond the grave…