“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 emmisaries 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 surpised 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. On the other hand, she does again become obsessed with a single word, and proceeds 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.
Most amusingly of all, however, 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, perserverence, 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 ingenius; 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…