Archive for May, 2011


Senseless sensibility

Ah, the rewards of virtue!

I was doing some housework over the weekend – no, really – and as part of that I started culling my old, endless piles of photocopies, clippings, notes: all the detritus of the pre-electronic communication age; and in the middle of this process, I unearthed something I had been hunting for for literally years; something I knew I’d photocopied, but could never find again.

The bad news is, there’s no indication at all what I photocopied it from; no header, no footer; no scribble. Uncharacteristically slack of me, I must say. The good news, however, is that The Thing I Was Looking For is just as wonderful as I remembered.

Even back then I was reading books on books, although not at that time inflicting them on others. The book in question – whatever it is – wraps up one chapter with a lengthy quote from a novel called Munster Abbey, by Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, published in 1797. The author could not bring himself / herself to cut this masterpiece, and neither can I:

    At length arriving at the garden-gate, which, with equal precipitation, they entered, Mrs Belford, who was seated on a bench by her husband, at the foot of a sheet of water which parted them from the house, suddenly beheld her mother.
   Elated with joy at the unexpected visit, which hurried innumerable hopes and reflections over her tender mind in an instant, and forgetting all thought but that of flying swiftly to the embraces of a beloved parent, she rushed directly forward, pursuing as she fancied at the time, from the straightness of her course, the readiest road; and with her eyes fixed on Mrs Melville, whose appearance had thrown aside the usual caution of her footsteps, she plunged into the centre of the pond. Oh, Heavens!—what a moment!—Belford attempted to fly to her assistance; but he had not proceeded many steps before horror overwhelmed him, and he fell senseless to the ground: Mrs Melville and Julia, swooned in the same state of insensibility.
    The servant, unacquainted with the art of swimming, and apprehensive of his own fate, should he venture into water of such considerable depth, hurried with all imaginable swiftness to the house for assistance. What an awful moment was this!—what was to be hoped!—all aid for a time suspended, and yet not an instant to be lost!—The mind prone to vice would have despaired: but the soul endowed with morality and confidence in the mercy of Him whom we are justified in believing is all merciful, can never cherish hopeless reflections. All help was still suspended—the struggling fair, unable any longer to contend for life, yielded to her fate with that composure, which the virtuous only can experience in the moments of departing life.—She cast her eyes towards Heaven, where her mind and soul surely were directed. In this moment of serious meditation, she was perfectly sensible of her danger, but the blessings of a pure conscience constituted her a stranger to every fear; and, when she had reason to believe her dissolution was near at hand, it was with pleasure she reflected that soon she would be relieved of her dying agonies.
    At length, when on the verge of closing her eyes from the dim light of this world, to open them in a pure and perfect atmosphere, the kind and liberal hand of Providence waved its influence o’er the dismal scene, and cast away the gloom.
    How was it contrived?—Next to a miracle were the means by which the amiable Mrs Belford was restored to her distracted and disconsolate friends.
    Faithful Munster, an old favourite Newfoundland dog of Belford’s, named after the place, was the welcome instrument of deliverance.
    Approaching the pond in the critical moment, and viewing his mistress helpless in the humid space, he sagaciously plunged into the pool, and, seizing the end of her sash which floated, drew her cautiously to the side of the bank, where he contrived to raise her head above the surface of the water, by quitting the sash, and with anxious care holding her hat in his teeth, until more assistance could be procured.

It appears that this passage comes at the end of a consideration of the sublime and the ridiculous in the novels of the late 18th century. We get the feeling that the latter had come to predominate, and that our author had had enough. “Thirty-three pages of ladies and gentlemen, twelve hundred and fifty or more of them,” s/he comments in mingled exasperation and disbelief, “suscribed to this nonsense in 1797 because they thought it was written by a gentleman. They could tell he was a gentleman because he called a pond ‘a humid space’, and because when one of his characters wanted to say of another, ‘if he had died I should have known it’, the nearest he can come to it is:

“…had the well constructed organs of life ceased to play within his callous bosom, and had his heart, which never fluttered with compassion, yielded its long exerted pulse of the chill embraces of death, I should, doubtless, through some channel, have been apprised of the event.”

As for me, naturally my first thought was to make it twelve hundred and fifty-one…but as it turned out, I had already, and quite independently, added Munster Abbey to The List. (I think I may have been adding novels with “Abbey” in the title.) So instead of that, I sat down and came up with a new reviewing category: Novels I Have To Read RIGHT!! NOW!!!!


The church in a state

The Victorian English left us, in the form of fiction, a picture of themselves more complete than any we possess for other nations or other generations. But historians have almost ignored this vast mine of humane knowledge, a source of insight, if not indeed of fact. The view of the intellectual movement presented by men of unquestioned honesty to a public too well acquainted with the subject to accept obvious misrepresentation, should be valuable—not only for what is stated, but also for what is unconsciously revealed of bias, assumption, of the spiritual atmosphere of the time. Moreover, the Victorians were tremendously concerned with religion, lest it vanish, and their chief instrument of propaganda (in fact, their favorite means of presenting serious psychological or social study) was the novel.






Those of us who love the Victorian novel nevertheless face certain challenges in absorbing from it all that it has to offer. For the modern reader, one of the greatest of these may well be coming to terms with not merely the religious content, which is almost ubiquitous, but the terminology that goes along with it. In Victorian Britain, religion was a very public thing: this was a time of strife, not only between the church and its enemies – or at least its disputants – but between the various factions within the church itself. One of the pleasures for me of Joseph Ellis Baker’s The Novel And The Oxford Movement is that it allowed me finally, seriously, to begin to get my head around the vocabulary of the age, and to understand the allusions that for the Victorian reader were clear and self-explanatory: High Church, Low Church, Evangelicalism, Tractarianism, Puseyism, High Anglicanism, High And Dry, Anglo-Catholicism, Roman Catholicism— AAACCKK!!!!

Grateful as I am to Joseph Ellis Baker, I have, nevertheless, certain qualms about trying to review this book. As he declares in his preface, Baker was himself Catholic – or as I should say in this context, Roman Catholic – and even with my limited knowledge, I can see how this tends to skews his presentation of his material. Another issue is that, writing in 1932, Baker makes certain assumptions, and takes certain things for granted, that some eighty-odd years later we might not be inclined to accept. This presents a problem – one I don’t intend to try and overcome. Call it tolerance or call it cowardice, but I’ve decided not to engage with Baker at that level.

Instead, I’ll stick to talking about what I most took out of this book, a better understanding of the various religious movements of 19th-century Britain, and an awareness of some now extremely obscure novelists. And,  well, you know me: obscure novels, and obscure novelists, are my stock-in-trade; and I confess that these peculiar, clumsy, ponderously sincere, ephemeral texts hold a strange fascination for me.

(While I can say I have a better understanding of this subject, that’s certainly not to say it’s flawless. So if I get anything wrong here, or misuse any of the terminology, please feel free to set me straight.)

By Baker’s account, the so-called Oxford Movement grew out of a backlash against the liberalism of the 1830s, which saw various reforms passed giving greater rights and opportunities to the lower and middle classes, and an increasing distance placed between Church and State. A key moment came in 1833, with a Bill introduced in parliament to reduce the number of bishoprics in Ireland. Although this was part of a reform under which the money saved would be applied to other church business, the Bill was preceived in some quarters as an outrageous secular meddling in religious matters. The most notable reaction came from John Keble, the author of The Christian Year and, from 1831, the Chair of Poetry at Oxford. In 1833, Keble’s Assize Sermon was entitled “National Apostasy”. In it he denounced both the Irish Bill and the interference by the state in church affairs. This sermon is now generally regarded as the beginning of the Oxford Movement.

Following Keble’s sermon, a group of English clerics banded together and produced a series of papers that they called Tracts For Our Times, which expounded upon the principles of what they called “the English branch of the Holy Catholic Church”. These Tracts became the focus of a move away from the Low Church, or Evangelical, form of worship, which then dominated England, and towards what would be known as Anglo-Catholicism: a stricter, more traditional approach that, while not recognising the authority of the Pope or the Catholic hierarchy, or incorporating confession and absolution, adopted Catholic procedures and rituals. It was Anglican, but not Protestant.

This movement was and for a decade remained based around Oxford. In the first instance it was often called “Tractarianism”, in reference to the publications which the Anglo-Catholics used to fire the first barrages in what would become a decades-long conflict. In line with their horror of liberalism and reform, the Tractarians advocated a return to an England under the joint paternalistic rule of the church and the aristocracy: a realm where everyone was content to stay where God had seen fit to place them; where the poor were  “looked after”, in the feudal sense, and thus kept passive and obedient, and where an uppity middle-class was to learn submission to God’s will whether it liked it or not.

Even as it is generally accepted that civil war is the most internecine, this battle not between different religions, but between degrees of the same religion, was a bitter if bloodless conflict, a war fought from the pulpit, and in the newspapers – and in the novel. By the time of the birth of the Oxford Movement, the novel was an accepted although not entirely approved form of recreation. While in general novels were still held to be a threat to the weak-minded of society – women, servants, the working-class – it was nevertheless recognised that if written with strict purpose, the novel could be a powerful weapon. So it was that during the 1840s, the religious novel was born, as each of the various factions tried to reach, to educate, to sway the English public through its favourite form of entertainment – not, however, without certain qualms.

It is to these qualms that we owe the most peculiar characteristics of the novels of this time. Many writers, uneasy at adopting a form often denounced for its pernicious influence to favour their cause, actually took pains to make their novels as unentertaining as possible. (Or at least, that’s the story they’re sticking with.) It became a matter of pride, for instance, not to include anything resembling a love-story: a convention perhaps easier for the Anglo-Catholics, one of whose tenets was the celibacy of the ministry. Indeed, many of the earliest religious novels are essentially sermons in prose. But over time, it was conceded that the power of the novel lay in its ability to engage the imagination and the emotions; that soapbox shouting defeated its own purpose. Finally, the more talented of the religious novelists began weaving their themes and their arguments into stories that carried conviction through their grounding in a recognisable reality.

Most readers today, I imagine, if asked to name a religious 19th century English novelist, would probably nominate Anthony Trollope, specifically his Barchester books. Ironically, although he gives Trollope his own section in his book, Joseph Ellis Baker essentially dismisses him as a religious novelist, arguing that his clergymen are predominantly creatures of society and not the church. This is, of course, to a large extent true, as Trollope himself admitted; it is not private religion but public duty with which he mostly concerned himself. Baker also points out that in Trollope’s novels, the Oxford Movement seems almost not to have happened – that he spends most of his time satirising the Evangelicals from a High (but not too High) Church perspective, exactly as his mother, Frances Trollope, was doing in her novels of the 1830s. This, however, Baker subscribes largely to the fact that Trollope was writing his novels after the first great wave of religious controversy had subsided, during a period of greater tolerance and reduced disputation.

Nevertheless, for the modern reader, Trollope is still a good place to start – and quite complicated enough, with his Proudie / Grantley – Low Church / High Church brawling. We do in fact find in his novels a few references to the earlier religious controversies, including the unanticipated and most unwanted climax of the Oxford Movement, which saw several of its leading exponents, most notoriously John Henry Newman, convert to Roman Catholicism: exactly what the Movement’s Lower Church enemies had warned would be its natural consequence.

Thus in Barchester Towers, Francis Arabin is described as “an ardent disciple” of Newman, and, So high, indeed, that at one period of his career, he had all but toppled over into the cesspool of Rome. In Doctor Thorne we have Caleb Oriel, who represents a mild form of another frequent accusation made against Catholicism: that it was a religion of the senses and not of the spirit. Caleb’s initial calling was, we learn, Rather to the outward and visible signs of religion than to its inward and spiritual graces. He is also an advocate of celibacy in the church: a belief which scarcely outlasts his first meeting with Beatrice Gresham. Trollope is indulgent with those who go a little too “High”, believing that this is something they will simply grow out of; but he has little patience with those who go Low. For Trollope, Evangelicalism is the refuge of the ungentlemanly.

That Anthony Trollope is an enduringly popular novelist, and that Anthony Trollope was not, in Joseph Ellis Baker’s opinion, a religious novelist, are probably not unrelated. Most of the propagandistic novels produced during this time were so narrow in scope, so humourless in execution, so specific in respect to time and place – and, let’s face it, so poor in quality – that very few of them outlived the brief period of their initial release.

A few good – or at least, interesting – novelists, albeit ones not much read these days, did emerge from this controversy. Benjamin Disraeli’s works reflect his “Young Englishism”, a form of Toryism than looked yearningly back at the forms of Old English tradition, and thus found some parallels with the conservatism of the Oxford Movement. Significantly, Disraeli’s novels came in two waves, matching the two great outbreaks of religious controversy, during the 1840s and the 1870s.

On the other side of the fence, Charles Kingsley used the novel to launch scathing attacks upon the Tractarians, but from a rather unique perspective. Kingsley took issue with the notion that human nature was inherently sinful, believing that what was “natural” was “good” – including sex. While decrying celibacy and asceticism, Kingsley finds God equally in nature and in science. On the other hand, he held grave views about the possibility of rebellion by the lower classes, which like his religious enemies, the Anglo-Catholics, he viewed as defiance of God’s will.

But it was the Anglo-Catholics who first seized upon the novel as a means of propaganda, their leading lights in this respect during the 1840s being William Gresley and Francis Edward Paget. Both of these men were exponents of the dissertation school of novel-writing, avoiding love interest and concentrating instead on topics such as church restoration and the removal of pews. Stories of individuals who inherit estates and make them over in religious / feudal terms were also popular.

Another recurrent theme was the pernicious influence of the Mechanics’ Institutes and the like, which not only educated the poor and the working-class, but educated them in science; thus moving from being merely foolish to the outright sinful. In her 1855 novel, S. Alban’s; or, The Prisoners Of Hope, Felicia Skene offers a dire warning about what was going on in these Institutes, giving an example of the kind of lecture the lower classes were listening to: They were all equal, and men were not to be bought and sold like slaves, whose labour was to be made use of; and all this wicked sophistry [was] remarkably palatable to the proud unchastened spirit of the man…

But as the fight heated up, the novels became more and more thunderous against democracy or liberalism in any form; against reform; against social progress; and above all against anything that questioned the “natural authority” of the church in the first instance, but also of the aristocracy. This attitude is illustrated in William Gresley’s Clement Walton, wherein the English Church – i.e. the Anglo-Catholic Church – is praised for producing men who are “loyal, faithful, peaceable, and intelligent”; while conversely, in those who follow other tenets there is, An absence of that humble submission to authority, which is so amiable a feature of the Christian character… Corresponding with this spiritual defect there is a political disaffection to civil government; a democratic, arrogant temper; an anxiety to maintain rights rather than to perform duties.

Most of the early Tractarian novels were written by men about men; but later in the century, the novel of domestic manners became prominent, and gave women writers an acceptable framework within which to tackle religious matters. Perhaps the most significant aspect of these novels is their profound anti-intellectualism. The same advocacy of submission is present in these novels, but it goes hand-in-hand with an overt suspicion of the intellect. “Thinking”, generally, is viewed as a form of wicked wilfullness that will inevitable lead to sin: to think is to question; to question is to doubt; to doubt is to disbelieve. And “thinking” is doubly sinful when it is done by women, who along with the church will usually have an array of fathers, brothers and husbands to whom they should be submitting without hesitation or reflection.

Perhaps the most well-known, and indeed the most talented, of this particular school of novel-writing is Charlotte Yonge. The Clever Woman Of The Family, as we might guess from its title – the 19th century produced no more damning term for a woman than “clever” – is the story of a woman who has the temerity to think for herself, and who must suffer a proper and thorough humiliation as a consequence and thus learn her place. Meanwhile, Yonge’s Hopes And Fears has a young woman who has learned to be deeply suspicious of her own intelligence, which she fears will lead her into sin, looking wistfully at her mentally disabled sister and praying to be, As silly as she.

It is, however, Elizabeth Missing Sewell who represents the most extreme form of this stance, embracing a creed of absolute, unthinking obedience to authority. Obstacles are sent by God not to be striven against, but as a sign that we should stop whatever it is that we are doing and sit still: in Margaret Percival, when a character cannot afford to go to university and become a clergyman because of his brother’s gambling debts, it does not mean that he should work and strive and overcome these difficulties, but a sign that God does not want him to be a clergyman.

Also in Margaret Percival, we find the heroine hesitating over donating money for church restoration, as to do so would give her pleasure and is thus in all likelihood a sin. When she wavers towards Rome she is lectured bluntly about, “The duty of remaining where God has placed you, unless you have absolute demonstration, which you never can have, that the English Church is no true Church…” – and further warned that doing what is right “in her own eyes” will likely land her in Hell.

“Thinking” is a form of self-will, and therefore a sin. “Conscience”, likewise, is setting our own judgement against that of a proper authority and a sin of pride. Acts such as these are dangerous for anyone, but unforgiveable in a woman, for whom the safest way is to fill her life entirely with religion – the right religion – so that she is in no danger of thinking about anything else, and therefore in no danger of thinking at all. In Ursula, a woman who has suffered an illness that leaves her “weak-minded” finds that obedience to authority now comes much more easily to her, and recognises that what she at first viewed as an affliction is a gift from God.

After all this, it was, I confess, with some relief that I turned to Baker’s account of the opposing Evangelical novels. It is a given in these novels that Anglo-Catholicism is all about the externals – of the senses, not the spirit, as we have said. As a religion, it leads people away from inner grace to a fixation on forms and ceremonies; while the decoration of churches reflects a sinful adherence to worldly pleasures. Evangelical novels do not generally express the same kind of suspicion of the intellect per se as the Tractarian novels, but what we find instead is a dismissal of art and literature as having any value in and of themselves.

That the Tractarians are, one way or another, deluded is the catch-cry of these novels. Girls are shown to be at particular risk of being drawn in: it is, we are told gravely, a short step from embroidering an altar-cloth to “going over to Rome”. Unlike the Anglo-Catholics, the Evangelicals tended to make a point of including a love-story in their novels. A number of Evangelical novels, including Emma Jane Worboise’s Overdale; or, The Story Of A Pervert, suggest that the attraction of Catholicism (Anglo or Roman) to young women is that its public display affords them – ahem – an outlet for their emotions. Once a nice young man turns up, all that nonsense is quickly forgotten.

Another danger is celibate churchmen, who amusingly enough are presented as being like catnip for their female parishioners. Celibacy is viewed with great suspicion, as evidence of the fundamental “unnaturalness” of Catholicism; and as it leads women away from love and marriage, it becomes not just wrong but wicked.

Despite all this, however, the Evangelical novels tend to be more generous to the Anglo-Catholics than vice-versa: they admit the good intentions of their spiritual enemies, even that they do much good amongst the poor; but all of this is as nothing beside such transgressions as encouraging amusements on Sundays – or frequenting theatres and other such places at any time. Thus, in Experience; or, The Young Church-Woman, an anonymous novel from 1854, we have the heroine refusing an invitation to the opera, her rule being, “Never to go anywhere to which I would not take my Saviour.”

The controversy surrounding the Oxford Movement died away during the 1850s, giving us a period of comparative calm and tolerance in the 1860s, in which religious novelists of all camps, although holding their ground, became more willing to present both sides of an argument, and to allow that their enemies, however misguided, were sincere. It was during this period that Anthony Trollope flourished. Things changed during the 1870s, however, on the back of a severe agricultural depression that put enormous pressure on the traditional landowners and brought about widespread unemployment. Life was hard for many, and it is perhaps because of this that the second wave of the Oxford Movement manifested itself as Ritualism, with an emphasis not only on ceremony, but on the emotional aspects of worship, including belief in supernatural manifestations and an embrace of mysticism.

When the Evangelicals hit back, as they inevitably did, against these “Catholic extravagances”, their retaliation was in its own way just as extravagant: whereas once religious novelists had shied away from the conventions of the form, this second wave found them using the scandalous framework of the sensation novel to make their case, telling lurid stories about religiously mixed marriages and scheming priests.

Oddly, this movement produced, or at least attracted, a talented novelist in the form of Eliza Linn Lynton; perhaps she was just glad of an excuse to write a sensation novel. In any case, her Under Which Lord? is the definitive study of an Anglo-Catholic wife torn between her duty to her husband and her duty to her church. The scheming priest in this case is an advanced Ritualist, and condemned by the narrator as, A Roman Catholic in all save name and obedience…one who was contemptuous of modern science, sceptical of modern progress, and opposed to all forms of mental freedom. The distance between Lynton’s creed and that of Elizabeth Missing Sewell is staggering to contemplate.

Amusingly, this new form of Evangelical attack brought the Victorian religious novel full circle, as Francis Edward Paget, one of the pioneering Tracterian novelists of the 1840s, reacted by publishing in 1868 Lucretia; or, The Heroine Of The Nineteenth Century, a bitter and heavy-handed satire of the sensation novel, which is accused of not merely exploiting, but actively promoting all manner of sin – chiefly adultery and murder. Paget has no doubt where this novelistic trend was leading: France is not the only country in the annals of the world in which a reign of lust has been followed by a reign of terror…

The most horrifying aspect of the sensation novel, however, is that so many of them are written by – gasp! – women:

—and the worst of them, UNMARRIED WOMEN!

Emphasis his.

But this wave, too, died away. In the 1880s, novels were still dealing with religious matters, but those themes were being woven into the story instead of being the story: the era of the overt propaganda vehicle was gone. Not surprisingly, many of the novelists who had entered this particular battle subsequently sank into oblivion. Their works, equally crude and sincere, are the very definition of “an acquired taste”…yet some of us have acquired it. I shudder to reflect what The Novel And The Oxford Movement – in combination with Margaret Maison’s Search Your Soul, Eustace, which I read shortly pre-blog – has done to my wishlist. All the novels mentioned here are in there, people – it’s only a matter of time…



And she sat back with a sigh of relief…

That sigh of relief is in recognition of the fact that, when I posted my review of Romance Of The Pyrenees, I had finally caught up all of my outstanding reviews: something I’ve been struggling with, and panicking over, since Aphra Behn took over my life at the beginning of the year. It took many library renewels, much scribbling of notes on the train, great cruelty to my poor suffering eyes, and in the case of The London Jilt, having to re-borrow and re-read the whole book, but I finally got myself up to speed.

And having done so, I then proceeded to do what I always seem to do in these situations, which is celebrate by plunging straight back into the mire I’d just fought my way out of. I’ve finished two books since that last post, both of which require a response. Thankfully, they are neither of them major works (or what counts for a “major work” around here, like a convoluted 4-volume Gothic novel), so I’m hopeful this won’t be too much of an issue.

Yeah, I know – Famous Last Words.

In the meantime, here’s what we have by way of Upcoming Attractions:

  • Chronobibliography:  The London Bully – Anonymous (1683)
  • Reading Roulette:  Lily, The Lost One – K.M. Weld (1881)
  • Authors In Depth:  Retribution – E.D.E.N. Southworth (1849)
  • Reading Challenge:  Rookwood – William Harrison Ainsworth (1834)

Romance Of The Pyrenees

Victoria and Octavia were first lifted out of the boat; but both, subdued by agonising terrors, were unable to support themselves, and sunk against some of the projections of the rock; when the boatmen, seeing they were unable to walk, bore them, as well as Hero, in their arms, preceded by the torch-bearers, up winding ascents, through narrow passages, trap-doors, and strange-formed iron works, into an immense kitchen of Gothic or rather Saracen architecture, where a deformed and melancholy-looking old woman was employed, as they entered, in washing the stain of blood from a table and the floor…







Only weeks after the death of the Duca di Manfredonia in a shipwreck, his widow Elvira scandalises his household and the surrounding countryside by marrying the dissolute Conte di Vincenza. Universally condemned, the newlyweds at first try to brazen it out, but finally retreat to Versailles, where the Conte owns an estate, and where their conduct goes from bad to worse. Tragically, word of their behaviour does not reach Elvira’s brother, the Conte Ariosto, who has lived in seclusion since losing his beloved wife, Clementina; and when he knows himself to be dying, he leaves his two young children, Alphonso and Victoria di Modena, to their aunt’s guardianship. However, the tutors already chosen for the children by their father, Father Alberti and the Signorina Ursuline Farinelli, are also received into the Vincenza household, and prove worthy of their trust. Alphonso and Victoria, kept in ignorance of their guardians’ true natures, grow up fine in character and devoutly religious.

To Victoria’s dismay, when Alphonso turns twenty-one he demands to be permitted to pursue a military career, and soon departs in company with Father Alberti to take up his new duties. No sooner has Alphonso left the household than the Conte di Vincenza allows his long-hidden passion for the lovely Victoria to consume him, making her a proposition of the most dishonourable and insulting kind. Shocked and horrified, Victoria flies to her aunt for protection, only to find herself condemned as a willing participant in an illicit liaison, and Signorina Farinelli accused of acting as a go-between. The Signorina is banished, and Victoria is confined to her rooms and subjected to sneers and insults from her aunt’s servants. Her confinement ends only with her being sent away altogether, to be immured in a convent as punishment for her supposed sins. She departs in company of a young maidservant, Hero, who replaces her own childhood companion, Roselia, and the Signora Octavia Beroni, the sister of Elvira’s own woman, Bianca, who to Victoria’s relief is well-mannered and kind.

The travellers’ destination is the Convent of San Jago in Catalonia, a journey that requires them to cross the Pyrenees. Assured by Octavia that the Mother Superior of the convent is an agreeable woman who will make her welcome and comfortable, Victoria tries to resign herself to her fate, being comforted also by the reflection that Alphonso is in Spain. Hero, however, astonishes her companions by insisting that they will never reach the convent, but rather will be rescued and returned to Marseilles by the Conte Urbino, nephew to the Conte di Vincenza, who, Hero asserts, is very, very handsome, although sadly, sadly poor, and has been secretly in love with Victoria for weeks.

Indeed, so convinced is Hero that the Conte Urbino must be riding to Victoria’s rescue, she is not at first alarmed when the carriage, having reached the summit of the Pyrenees, is suddenly stopped by a party of horsemen; but to the womens’ terror, a violent struggle breaks out between their postillions and outriders, and the horsemen, who are clearly banditti. The women are dragged from the carriage and lifted onto the horses of three of the marauders, who ride off with them through the forest and to the banks of a river, where they are transferred into a boat. The journey by water leads them into an underground cavern, from where they are carried by dark and secret passageways into the bowels of an immense castle on the border between France and Spain, the stronghold of the banditti.

Victoria and the others are placed in the care of the elderly Teresa, a captive of the banditti who was once a teacher but now acts as a servant. She does little to comfort the newcomers, explaining to them the history and impregnability of the castle, the acts of violence that are daily perpetrated there, its secret passages and torture chambers, and the inexplicable manifestations that occur from time to time, which Teresa believes to be visitations from the unquiet souls of the banditti‘s numerous victims. Indeed, the women are soon witness to one such manifestation themselves, a booming voice with no obvious source, which bids them have faith in the protection of God.

At first in terror for their lives, the women are not in the least reassured when one of the band, Juan, comments darkly that pretty young women are not killed at the castle, but regarded as a prize; and indeed, before long Victoria faces an imminent threat when after his first look at her, Don Manuel, the leader of the banditti, announces to his followers that they must treat her with the greatest respect, as she will soon be the mistress of the castle…

Ah, Romance Of The Pyrenees…the novel that broke my heart. However— Before it did that, it did a lot of other things, and we should probably talk about those first.

Romance Of The Pyrenees is such a convoluted novel that it’s very hard to know where to start with it. It is in almost every respect a post-Ann Radcliffe Gothic novel – and in every respect a first novel, full of rookie mistakes, the main one being  Catherine Cuthbertson’s determination to cram every single genre trope possible into her tale, whether there’s really room for them all or not. The result is a bewildering hodge-podge of aristocrats, banditti, castles, convents, mountains, forests, shipwrecks, trap-doors, secret passages, dark and noisome dungeons, disappearances, imprisonments, poison-tipped poinards, murders, escapes, recaptures, swoonings, forbidden love, illicit passion, plots, counterplots, revenge, multiple identities, substituted children, deathbed confessions, reappearing supposedly dead people, supernatural (or are they?) manifestations, and the Inquisition. This novel is a mess, but a hugely entertaining mess. You can understand why the critics despised it – and why the public ate it up.

What’s more, were this novel more freely available today, I can imagine that a certain class of reader would continue to eat it up. You’ll notice that I said that this is in almost every respect a post-Ann Radcliffe Gothic. The one thing that is missing from Romance Of The Pyrenees is the usual obsession with the scenery. There are few readers today, I suspect, who although sitting down to The Mysteries Of Udolpho in all good faith, don’t struggle with Mrs Radcliffe’s chapter-long dissertations on the “sublimity” of her heroines’ surroundings.

There are any number of amusing things about Romance Of The Pyrenees, but chief amongst them is the fact that this is the one place where Catherine Cuthbertson dug in her heels and refused to follow her leader. Victoria’s journey to the convent leads her away from Marseille, out of France and into Spain, and from the foothills of the Pyrenees to their summit. You can imagine what Mrs Radcliffe would have made of such a journey. Miss Cuthbertson, on the other hand, surprises us – and, perhaps, delights us – with what in terms of the Gothic novel amounts to nothing less than a declaration of open rebellion:

Since this is not a tour we are attempting to write, our readers will not expect a particular account of all the places our travellers passed through and stopped at for rest and refreshment in this compulsatory journey…

And indeed, she sticks to her guns afterwards, giving no full descriptions of Victoria’s surroundings, but contenting herself with various references to, “The gloomy horrors of the scenery.” This omission makes me wonder whether, for all the extremities of her Gothic tale, Miss Cuthbertson’s heart was really in it, or whether, like her contemporary, Mary Meeke, she was simply writing what she thought would sell.

That comparison with Mrs Meeke holds good in a couple of other areas, too. I’ve shaken my head over Meeke’s tendency to load her characters with multiple identities and titles, but as it turns out, she’s got nothing on Catherine Cuthbertson, who in Romance Of The Pyrenees managed to write a vastly populated four-volume novel in which almost nobody is simply who they seem to be. Instead, along with the usual confusion caused by multiple marriages and title inheritances, we’ve got people masquerading as other people, abductees kept ignorant of their true identities, people taking new names when they enter convents or monasteries, banditti who are mostly Italian but prefer to use names that make them seem Spanish, and best of all, people who enter monasteries and take a new name and who then become Italian banditti who pretend to be Spanish banditti (bandeleros?). And on top of all this, we have Catherine Cuthbertson’s tendency, seen also in Rosabella, to mention characters early in her novel and then expect us to remember who they are and their relationships to everyone else four volumes later.

In all seriousness, if you do decide to read Romance Of The Pyrenees, I recommend keeping a scorecard. In lieu of this, readers will have to content themselves with Miss Cuthbertson’s other rookie mistake, her compulsion to wrap up her novel by giving us first the history and then the fate of every single character mentioned in the novel, no matter how minor or (probably) long-forgotten – an exercise which takes her a chunk of her third volume and all of her fourth volume. Granted, much of this is the three-generational explanation of how our heroine, Victoria, and our hero, the Conte Urbino – who of course is not actually the Conte Urbino at all – came into existence; but the rest of it is best illustrated by the fact that Romance Of The Pyrenees opens with the Duca di Manfredonia’s manservant, Fidato, mourning his late master, and closes with him dying of joy upon discovering that – surprise! – the Duca isn’t dead after all: he’s just been living under another name…

While in writing her Gothic novel, Catherine Cuthbertson went along with the conventions that placed her story in Catholic countries and demanded that it be populated with wicked and, indeed, outright criminal monks, there isn’t the same sense here that you get from Mary Meeke’s novels of an author who personally objected to Catholicism.

Particularly interesting is a certain ambivalence in the depiction of the Inquisition. Most Gothic novels, including those by the staunchly Protestant Ann Radcliffe, paint the Inquisition as an unmitigated evil, the corruption of the Catholic church personified. In Romance Of The Pyrenees, it is also taken for granted that the Inquisition is corrupt – but when the good guys are finally at their wits’ end, it is to the Inquisition that they turn for help – and they get it. No-one else has the power to finally confront and destroy the banditti; and it is entirely due to the infiltration and occupation of the castle by the emissaries of the Inquisition that the life of the supposed Conte Urbino is saved. 

On the other hand, there’s certainly an implied comparison here between the Inquisitors and the banditti, in their ruthlessness, their secret ways and their bloody hands; and we are not perhaps much surprised when the co-leader of the banditti, the mysterious, mostly unseen but all-powerful Francisco, turns out to be a member of the Inquisition.

But if the Inquisitioners are two-sided, even more so are the banditti themselves While a few of them are outright evil, most have fallen into a criminal way of life after suffering disappointments or betrayals; while a significant number of the castle’s occupants are in fact “good” people who have been rescued by the banditti from an even worse fate, usually slavery under the Turks, and sworn to secrecy and fealty.

Victoria’s arrival at the castle has an interesting effect upon its residents, many of whom find forgotten morals and beliefs reawakened by her beauty, her innocence, her piety and her generosity, and who begin to form a faction in her defence against their more hardened criminal brothers. Even Manuel himself is not proof against Victoria’s goodness, although there are other reasons for his inability to follow through on his threats against her. One of Manuel’s lieutenants, Diego, turns out to have been raised in the household of Victoria’s father. Caught between his oath to Manuel, which is, as he declares to Victoria at the outset, incorruptible, his grateful and affectionate memories of the late Conte Ariosto, and his ever-growing admiration of Victoria herself, Diego suffers moral torments that are convincing and more psychologically complex than you might expect to find in a novel of this kind.

Re-reading Catherine Cuthbertson’s reaction to the various criticisms of her novel, it must be conceded that some of them, at least, were valid. The repetitions are of most concern in the first two volumes of this novel, and are of a particular kind, which we might again attribute to Miss Cuthbertson’s debut novel nerves.

Victoria is, of course, profoundly religious, and in reaction to the horrors of the castle:

…she devoutly sunk upon her knees, and, with all the pure fervor of sincere piety, presented the petitions of her spotless soul before the throne of mercy. She found in her devotion that healing balm which true religion ever proves to the wounded mind; and when she arose from her knees, she felt her agitated spirits soothed to calmness, her hopes of succour revived, and awakened fortitude pervading her whole frame with a degree of courage before unknown to her…

Which is fine in and of itself, of course – except that Cuthbertson feels the need to repeat this passage, in almost the same words, again and again and again and again…until most readers, I suspect, will also feel the need to pray for a little mercy. Fortunately, Victoria’s supplications eventually do taper off to a more reasonable frequency – and in retrospect, I can’t help feeling that Cuthbertson’s initial over-insistence on Victoria’s piety was due to her nervous awareness of what she had planned for the character later on in the novel.

As we might also remember from Cuthbertson’s third edition preface, she promised at that time to “soften the horrors” of her novel. It was above all the implications of that phrase that determined me to read the first edition, and in spite of the early repetitions, I am so very glad I did. The later stages of this novel contain an extended passage which is one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever read in a work of this vintage, in which, having all too much reason to believe that the man she loves has been murdered by the banditti, Victoria allows herself to be led away by the mysterious Francisco on a journey that might well end in her death, but which also offers the faintest of faint hope that she will discover her lover imprisoned but still alive. During this midnight expedition, Victoria is confronted by terrors both all too real and possibly supernatural, as she follows Francisco through the dark and winding passages of the castle; over dangerous crags and narrow, swaying bridges; and through the ancient charnel house where the banditti have for decades disposed of their victims…

This last ordeal Victoria must face alone – and not only does she pass through the charnel house, she stops there and inspects the freshest corpses…just in case one of them is her lover. But even this is not the most extraordinary part of her adventure, which occurs earlier out on the rocky crags above the castle:

    At length the winding path brought Victoria and her guide as near this furiously agitated creature as safety would permit anyone to approach, when every feeling of humanity was tortured by dreadful amazed commiseration at the horrid spectacle she saw—a creature, partaking in resemblance both of the human species and the quadruped, infuriated to the direst pitch of phrensy that malady and hunger could excite. Its head was like that of a man, covered with long black matted hair; but it moved on all its limbs, like a quadruped; and its body was enveloped in fur.
    The inquisitor stopped, and for a moment looked in horrid silence upon the dreadful object; and then loudly, though in a tone of pity, exclaimed, “Sanguinario! Poor Sanguinario!”
    The wretched creature instantly ceased its rapid motion; and, erecting its body, Victoria, shuddering, beheld clad in fur a human being before her, who was suffering under all the direful horrors of lycanthropy…

Did I mention that there’s a werewolf in this novel? Because there is.

And what’s more, it’s a werewolf that plays no real role in the story, but which exists wholly and solely to horrify the heroine and the reader. I can’t tell you how much I admire Catherine Cuthbertson for that. (Or for allowing her heroine to look squarely at a naked man, albeit a fur-covered one.)

By this point in my reading of this novel, I was having to stop fairly frequently to pick my jaw up off the floor. And manually lower my eyebrows.

As with every other character in this novel, we eventually learn the story of “poor Sanguinario” – and yes, conveniently enough, he was always called “Sanguinario” – and it becomes evident that Miss Cuthbertson considered his condition to be, not a supernatural manifestation, but an extreme form of mental derangement, which is fair enough. “Poor Sanguinario” loses his mind after being sent to assassinate someone, and finding out late who it was he assassinated… 

But what I really want to know is, where did Miss Cuthbertson learn the term “lycanthropy”? What on earth had she been reading, before she sat down to write Romance Of The Pyrenees?—because obviously, it couldn’t have just been the novels of the refined Ann Radcliffe.

And if, as I suspect, this was one of the “horrors” that Catherine Cuthbertson was compelled by critical disapproval to “soften” in the later editions of her novel—well, that’s a tragedy. Should any of you out there be thinking of reading Romance Of The Pyrenees, do make sure you get a copy of the first edition. This protracted nighttime adventure makes up for all its other flaws.

(I can tell you one thing— When this novel was translated into Dutch, it was a later scene describing Elvira not only murdering her own father but gloating over him as he dies that was censored.)

Whatever else Romance Of The Pyrenees is, it is finally “a Catherine Cuthbertson novel”; and part of my enjoyment during my reading of it was spotting early examples of the authorial quirks that would later enliven Rosabella (and provoke Jane Austen). There’s far too much crying here – and by the oddest people – which, granted, is hardly a sin confined to Miss Cuthbertson’s novels. More to the point, we have various characters – but mostly Victoria – falling into “death-like swoons”, while naturally, both the hero and heroine are “transcendently” handsome / beautiful; although interestingly, at this early stage of her career Miss Cuthberston overdoes neither of these touches.

However, she does again become obsessed with a single word, and proceed to flog it to death – in this case, “respiration”. No-one just breathes in this novel: they “respire”; and when they fall into a “death-like swoon”, they are rather alarmingly “deprived of respiration”. As with “insulation” in Rosabella, this repetition finally reaches such proportions as to jerk the reader out of the novel.

But most amusing of all is the fact that an entire major subplot of this novel, nothing less than the central love story, is built upon Victoria’s misinterpretation of the relationship between “the Conte Urbino” – his first name eventually turns out to be Orlando, so I’ll call him that, if that’s okay with you – and a young woman for whom he has made himself responsible. Romance Of The Pyrenees offers a rare example of the heroine falling in love with the hero via gazing at his portrait – although of course it is the “sublimity of soul” she sees behind the “transcendently handsome” face for which she falls.

When she later meets the original of the portrait lurking in the ruins of a church beneath the castle, some guarded words of his lead her to conclude that his hand, if not his heart, is pledged elsewhere. Later, she sees the stranger in company with a beautiful young woman, another prisoner of the banditti, who chides him for his neglect of her and accuses him of thinking of another woman. All this convinces Victoria that while Orlando loves her, he cannot in honour be hers; and she sternly holds him off until late in the novel – rather than just asking for an explanation, which I’m sure either he or the young woman, Matilda, would have been more than happy to give. Cuthbertson almost ties herself in knots providing alternative explanations for Orlando’s and Matilda’s behaviour, in order to avoid this quick and simple resolution of the situation.

As it turns out, Orlando and Matilda are brother and sister, which they believe but do not know for certain when Victoria meets them. In their youths, they were thrown together in ignorance of their relationship as part of an elaborate revenge-plot against their father, the culmination of which was to be the incestuous marriage of his children.

That the wedding does not take place is the result of yet another of this novel’s remarkable passages. Shortly before the marriage of Orlando and Matilda, each of them experiences a vision of a beautiful woman who warns them of the sin they are unwittingly about to commit, and who speaks the name “Elfridii”, that of their father’s implacable enemy. They recount their experiences to their guardian, who is none other than Father Francisco – and in reality, the very Conte Elfridii who plots their destruction. Having hidden his true name for many years, the awed and frightened Francisco must accept that his ultimate revenge plot has failed, thanks to this visitation from a dead woman who he knows to be the mother of Orlando and Matilda, brutally murdered at Francisco’s own instigation when her children were only infants.

There are numerous “supernatural” events in this story, all of which are painstakingly explained away by Miss Cuthbertson towards the conclusion of her story; all but this one. This single manifestation is allowed to stand, with heaven literally intervening to prevent the marriage of brother and sister – and more importantly, to prevent the marriage of the novel’s hero to a woman other than than its heroine.

So after all this good stuff, why is Romance Of The Pyrenees the novel that broke my heart?

Fairly early on in her imprisonment in the castle, Victoria acquires the devoted services of a young man called Hippolyto – a “negro”. Black characters are not common in novels of this period, and certainly not black characters introduced like this:

…he was habited like Diego and Juan; his person was of a commanding height, of graceful and striking symmetry; while his face, in despite of the dark cloud that shaded it, beamed with benignity and intelligence… Victoria…took an opportunity of stealing a look at the negro, and caught him in earnest gaze at her. The transient glance of his eyes which modesty allowed her to take seemed beaming with pity and good-will… She could by no means tell how far this young man might have it in his power to befriend her, yet she had read of such instances of fidelity, courage, perseverance, and ingenuity among negroes, that she could not divest herself of the flattering hope of his exerting himself in her behalf…

Now, you don’t have to have read many 19th-century novels to know that not only is this passage nearly unprecedented, it’s nearly unimitated as well, and would remain so for a depressing number of years.

Victoria quickly learns to trust herself to Hippolyto’s care. His manners are refined, his demeanour unfailingly respectful, and he proves to be quite as intelligent and brave as she dared to hope. And when – for reasons that are far, far, far too complicated to get into here – Elvira tries to force Victoria to marry Hippolyto, she objects not because he is black, but because he is a servant. (Which is entirely out of character for Victoria, by the way, but never mind that for the moment.)

And yet…my hopes for Hippolyto were not high. We’re all familiar, I’m sure, with the pernicious Rule Of Cinema which states that “the brother dies first”; and it was not long after Hippolyto’s introduction that I became convinced that we were dealing with a version of that, and that he was indeed destined to die, probably heroically, probably protecting Victoria.

But then the longer that Hippolyto survived, and the more the text insisted upon his manifold virtues, the more I became convinced that—


he was really a white man in disguise.

And so it proves to be. Our hero Orlando, in fact, finding a way to infiltrate the castle and guard Victoria. Apparently the whole “black face” thing is so very distracting that it prevents you from recognising THE MAN THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH.

Broke – my – heart.

BUT— Well, let’s be fair to Catherine Cuthbertson. Despite this unfortunate revelation, despite her heroic black man turning out to be a heroic white man instead, her text still does insist that a black man can be faithful, courageous, perservering and ingenious; can display good breeding; can be honourable; can, in short, be a gentleman. There is a real Hippolyto, whom Orlando is impersonating, and no-one has any trouble believing that our perfect hero and he are one and the same person. That in itself is rather extraordinary. And I suppose it would be unreasonable of me to demand more than this of a novel published in 1803.

Mind you…I would like to know exactly what Orlando’s “disguise” consisted of, seeing that it was capable of withstanding the rigours of imprisonment in a “dark and noisome dungeon”, of violent rainstorms, and of a shipwreck, but could be divested in five minutes flat, once the dramatically valid moment had arrived…