This Story is the literary offspring of the Castle of Otranto…a work which, as already has been observed, is an attempt to unite the various merits and graces of the ancient Romance and modern Novel… Yet, with all these brilliant advantages, it palls upon the mind (though it does not upon the ear); and the reason is obvious, the machinery is so violent, that it destroys the effect it is intended to excite. Had the story been kept within the utmost verge of probability, the effect had been preserved, without losing the least circumstance that excites or detains the attention.
For instance; we can conceive, and allow of, the appearance of a ghost; we can even dispense with an enchanted sword and helmet; but then they must keep within certain limits of credibility…
During the second half of the 18th century, as we have seen, there was a literary protest against the tenets of the Age of Reason, which expressed itself in an outbreak of fictional and poetical writings that saw virtue in emotion and supported simplicity and naturalism over the artifices of civilised society. One of the most influential works of this period was, however, no part of a conscious “movement”, but rather an expression of the idiosyncratic tastes and interests of a single individual. Published anonymously (at least initially) in 1764, and presented as a true story translated from ancient manuscripts, The Castle Of Otranto is a story of supernatural justice, in which the usurper-lord of an Italian principality is exposed through a series of ghostly manifestations.
The short novel was an enormous success; so much so that for the second edition, its author took the double risk of revealing his own identity, and dropping the pretence of a true story. This prompted a backlash from the reading public, which began to find all sorts of faults in it that had not been evident previously; but nevertheless, the novel was one of the most widely-read and best-known works of its day. In the long run, it not only indirectly inspired a new genre of novel-writing, but won its author a permanent fame; for in spite of his political, antiquarian, and architectural accomplishments, it seems safe to say that today, Horace Walpole is best known as the author of The Castle Of Otranto.
The Castle Of Otranto is often called “the first Gothic novel”, but that isn’t accurate: the Gothic novel, as we now understand it, did not appear for another quarter of a century, the joint offspring of novelist developments and social upheaval. It is more correct to say that The Castle Of Otranto was the inadvertent progenitor of the Gothic novel, inasmuch as it was less Walpole’s authorial choices than the reaction of others to those choices that paved the way for the eventual emergence of the true Gothic novel; and it is with the most significant response to Horace Walpole’s supernatural tale that we begin this particular journey: Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron.
(Those of you who feel I ought to be starting with The Castle Of Otranto anyway have a point, but the truth is I helped a friend through it earlier this year, and I don’t feel up to dwelling on it in depth twice in six months. I will probably come back to it at a later time, however.)
Born in 1729, one of a family of eight, Clara Reeve was the daughter of a minister, and brought up in a household both rigidly Protestant and determinedly high-brow, with works of philosophy and history the favoured “light” reading. Unusually for her day, she was taught both Latin and Greek, and got her literary start with a translation of Lionel Barclay’s Argenis, which was published in 1772 as The Phoenix. Reeve’s view of contemporary fiction was ambivalent. That she did read novels, and plenty of them, we are aware from her The Progress Of Romance; and further, that she read critically, with a stern eye on the morality of any given work. She considered fiction a double-edged sword, capable of conveying a moral message under the sugar-coating of entertainment, but too often failing in this duty and using its attractions to corrupt.
We know that Clara Reeve read The Castle Of Otranto; we know, too, that she had strong opinions about it—which are important for two very distinct reasons. First, unlike many of the views expressed after the revelation of Horace Walpole’s authorship of The Castle Of Otranto, Reeve’s criticisms of the novel are neither personal dislike nor political emnity in disguise, but purely literary; and second, she not only articulated her criticisms, but put them in writing. The Old English Baron carries a preface in which Reeve explains exactly what she thinks is right and wrong with The Castle Of Otranto, and how she tried to correct its faults in her own novel. It is not too much to say that this preface is almost more important than the novel that follows it: as a window into the mindset of the English Protestant middle-classes of the late 18th century, and the forces that shaped contemporary novel-writing, it is an invaluable document.
Amusingly for such an opinionated lady—and in contrast to the forceful arguments she makes in her preface—Clara Reeve seems to have undertaken her first venture into fiction in an unwontedly tentative spirit. Her manuscript, then titled The Champion Of Virtue, was first published in 1777, in Colchester, at her own expense. Presumably she did not tell her friends of her venture until after the event, because the next thing we know is that the novel is being revised prior to its re-release. For this exercise, Reeve accepted the guidance of a friend, Mrs Brigden—Samuel Richardson’s second daughter, Martha. When Reeve’s second edition appeared in 1778, it carried a dedication of fulsome praise for Mrs Brigden’s contribution. In its new form (and under a new title), The Old English Baron was a great success—even to an extent that might strike modern readers as puzzling, for this is a work whose historical importance is a lot more obvious than its literary virtues.
(The second edition text is that used for all modern editions of this work, but for those interested there is a copy of The Champion Of Virtue at the Internet Archive. I haven’t gone that road myself; perhaps when I get back to The Castle Of Otranto, I’ll take a look at that, too.)
In her preface, Reeve does not stint her praise for what she considers the admirable qualities of The Castle Of Otranto:
The opening excites the attention very strongly; the conduct of the story is artful and judicious; the characters are admirably drawn and supported; the diction polished and elegant…
(Ironically, it is the very aspects of that novel that Reeve praises, and reproduces in The Old English Baron, that make both novels such a chore to read: the “admirably drawn and supported” characters are boring cardboard cut-outs, and the “polished and elegant diction” is stiff and artificial.)
The problem with The Castle Of Otranto, in Reeve’s opinion if not necessarily the reader’s, lies elsewhere: not in the fact that Walpole resorts to supernatural manifestations, but that he overdoes it:
A sword so large as to require an hundred men to lift it; a helmet that by its own weight forces a passage through a court-yard into an arched vault, big enough for a man to go through; a picture that walks out of its frame; a skeleton ghost in a hermit’s cowl:—When your expectation is wound up to the highest pitch, these circumstances take it down with a witness, destroy the work of imagination, and, instead of attention, excite laughter. I was both surprised and vexed to find the enchantment dissolved…
It’s true enough that Walpole doesn’t stint in this respect: The Castle Of Otranto opens with a young man being crushed to death by a gigantic stone helmet that suddenly falls out of the sky. Many modern readers would, I imagine, offer tacit support to Reeve’s contentions by laughing rather than quaking in the face of Walpole’s excesses—but in all likelihood their laughter would be delighted rather than derisive, since it is this very extravagance that keeps the novel fun and readable.
As we have said, Clara Reeve did not disapprove of the supernatural per se, but—creature of her time that she was—she felt that even ghosts should have their limits. (Walter Scott wrote a piece on Reeve for the Ballantyne’s Novelists series, in which he dwells with some amusement upon her contention that supernatural manifestations should remain within the bounds of credibility…but concedes that Reeve was wise not to write material that she herself couldn’t believe in.) There are supernatural events in The Old English Baron, but they are few in number and mild in nature, and unlikely to provoke in the reader even the mixed praise of laughter.
However—it is important to keep in mind the fact that for the most gifted exponent of the Gothic novel, Ann Radcliffe, even Clara Reeve’s well-mannered and inobstrusive spectre was going too far; and while Radcliffe’s novels contain many scenes of terror, invariably any apparent supernatural event is at length explained in rational terms—a lead followed by most subsequent Gothic novelists. While many readers these days are disappointed by this apparent cop-out—besides finding Reeve’s ghost easier to believe in than the tortuous, volume-long explanations of how the heroine didn’t see what she thought she saw offered by Radcliffe and her imitators—this rejection of the supernatural is an important illustration of late 18th century English thinking, including the prevailing views on religion: a subject probably better dealt with in the context of specific novels.
The Old English Baron begins “in the minority of Henry the Sixth”; later details place the action in the mid-1430s. The story opens with Sir Phillip Harclay, the “champion of virtue” of the original text; a far more appropriate title, it will later turn out, if not as commercially attractive. In his youth, Sir Philip contracts one of those lifelong, devoted friendships so beloved of sentimental novelists, that neither time not separation can diminish, for the Lord Lovel. Their respective military duties divide the two for a long period, during which Sir Philip ceases to receive answers to his letters. After many years abroad, Sir Philip returns to England and makes it his first business to discover what happened to his friend. He journeys from his own seat in Yorkshire to the west of England, where he learns that Lord Lovel was killed on his way home from a battle against “the Welch Rebels”; that his heavily pregnant wife died of grief; and that the title and estates were inherited by a cousin, the present Lord Lovel. Subsequently, taking a dislike to his sadly won estate, Lord Lovel sold it to his brother-in-law, the Lord Fitz-Owen (the “old English baron”), and retired with his wife to a property in Northumberland. Sir Philip is greatly shocked by all this, but decides to press on to the Castle of Lovel, as it is still known.
One of the most exasperating things about The Old English Baron is Clara Reeve’s refusal to build suspense. Instead, she repeatedly undermines her own story by granting her characters prophetic dreams of the Thuddingly Obvious variety, so that there are very few surprises for her readers on their journey through her novel. Sir Philip is the first to have one:
He thought he received a message from his friend Lord Lovel, to come to him at the Castle; that he stood at the gate and received him, that he strove to embrace him, but could not; but that he spoke to this effect.—Though I have been dead these fifteen years, I still command here, and none can enter these gates without my permission; know that it is I that invite, and bid you welcome; the hopes of my house rest upon you. Upon this he bid Sir Philip follow him; he led him through many rooms, till at last he sunk down, and Sir Philip thought he still followed him, till he came into a dark and frightful cave, where he disappeared, and in his stead he beheld a complete set of armour stained with blood, which belonged to his friend, and he thought he heard dismal groans from beneath…
Sir Philip takes as a guide the son of one of Lord Fitz-Owen’s tenants, from whom he hears of his family: three sons and a daughter, various nephews and cousins—and Edmund Twyford, who though only “the son of a cottager” exceeds his superiors in terms of looks, disposition and talents, and is being bred up by the baron to be his sons’ attendant when they eventually embark upon a military career.
The Suspiciously Superior Peasant is one of the most cherished tenets of this form of literature, in which aristocracy is considered, in essence, a genetically inheritable condition, and anyone with the right kind of blood will show his true origins no matter what the circumstances of his actual upbringing. Perhaps the most insightful and credible aspect of The Old English Baron is the shifting relationship between Edmund and the sons and nephews of the Lord Fitz-Owen. When they are only boys, the baron’s sons embrace Edmund as their friend and equal, admiring rather than jealous of his skill with the sword and the bow and arrow; but as they all grow older, the eldest Fitz-Owen, Robert, gets tired of being shown up by a mere peasant, and with the help of his cousin and hanger-on, Richard Wenlock, beings to plot ways of ridding himself of the upstart. The second Fitz-Owen boy, William—who has less to lose—remains steadfast in his friendship for Edmund.
Introduced to Edmund, Sir Philip feels a suspiciously immediate and profound interest in him; and, seeing trouble brewing about him, promises the boy his friendship, inviting him to come to him if he is ever in need of help.
The Old English Baron then spends some time dwelling upon Edmund’s increasingly untenable position in the Fitz-Owen household, as Robert and Richard attack him in a variety of ways, from undermining the baron’s good opinion of the boy to trying to get him killed in battle; but everything they try backfires on them, enhancing Edmund’s reputation rather than damaging it. Richard Wenlock is particularly virulent in his persecution, for a very good reason: he is in love with his cousin, Emma Fitz-Owen, but she only has eyes for Edmund, and he for her. Most novelists would get mileage out of this forbidden love—Edmund being a mere peasant, and all—but not Clara Reeve. Such patterns of perfection are her hero and heroine that, accepting it can never be, they disguise and suppress their emotions (alleged emotions; we see very little of them), apparently with a minimum of effort.
In the spirit of water dripping on stone, the attacks on Edmund do finally begin to poison Lord Fitz-Owen’s opinion of him, which almost makes his misery complete. Edmund’s one friend is the family’s confessor, Father Oswald, who does what he can to uphold him with the baron. He also, apropos of some building work around the castle, tells to Edmund the story of the disused east wing, which was abandoned following the deaths of the previous Lord and Lady Lovel:
Soon after, it was reported that the Castle was haunted, and that the ghosts of Lord and Lady Lovel had been seen by several of the servants. Whoever went into this apartment were terrified by uncommon noises and strange appearances; at length this apartment was wholly shut up, and the servants were forbid to enter it, or to talk of any thing relating to it: However, the story did not stop here; it was whispered about, that the new Lord Lovel was so disturned every night that he could not sleep in quiet; and, being at last tired of the place, he sold the Castle and estates of his ancestors, to his brother-in-law the Lord Fitz-Owen…
This conversation and Edmund’s comments on the story are repeated and misrepresented to the baron. The upshot of the following confrontation is that Edmund is challenged to spend three nights in the haunted wing, both to prove his courage and to disprove the stories of ghosts. He accepts, and the first night experiences a dream that makes Sir Philip’s look like a model of subtlety:
…the door opened, and there entered a Warrior, leading a Lady by the hand, who was young and beautiful, but pale and wan: The Man was dressed in complete armour, and his helmet down. They approached the bed; they undrew the curtains. He thought the Man said, — Is this our child? The woman replied,—It is; and the hour approaches that he shall be known for such…
In the course of his ordeal, Edmund acquires a supporter in the form of Joseph, one of the servants, who is loyal to the memory of Lord and Lady Lovel and knows various helpful, confirmatory details which will emerge in due course. The baron is impressed by Edmund’s bearing through the adventure of the haunted wing, and finally confesses to him that although he knows he is being slandered by Robert and his myrmidons, for the sake of peace and because he is compelled to take his relatives’ side, he is going to send Edmund away. He promises, however, to provide for Edmund in a respectable way, so that no disgrace will attach to him, and a military career is agreed upon. However, before the time slated for Edmund’s departure has come, the point is moot.
On his second night in the haunted rooms, Edmund is secretly joined by Father Oswald and Joseph, the latter of whom beguiles the night by telling what he knows of the circumstances of the Lovels’ deaths, including a strange incident involving the glimpsing of what was either Lady Lovel or her ghost, after the new Lord Lovel was overheard offering marriage to the widow, and also after the lavish funeral held for her a short time later. The wandering lady was crying out in pain; Lady Lovel was due to give birth at the time of her husband’s death, though her death was not attributed to her labour. Joseph wraps up his story by pointing out what he has long silently observed: Edmund’s resemblance to the late Lord Lovel.
The three are digesting Joseph’s story when, from the rooms beneath them comes the sound of “clashing arms”, and something heavy falling over. Edmund immediately decides to investigate. Behind a door is a staircase leading below. In the lower room are the portraits of the Lovels, and Edmund’s likeness to the late lord is confirmed. There is a closet in the room, locked but with the key present—a key which which will turn under no hand but Edmund’s. Inside is Lord Lovel’s bloody armour, and a ring that Joseph recognises as his. Edmund then discovers some loose boards in the floor, hidden by a table. At that moment:
…a dismal hollow groan was heard as if from underneath. A solemn silence ensued, and marks of fear were visible upon all three; the groan was thrice heard: Oswald made signs for them to kneel, and he prayed audibly, that Heaven would direct them how to act; he also prayed for the soul of the departed, that it might rest in peace. After this he arose; but Edmund continued kneeling: He vowed solemnly to devote himself to the discovery of this secret, and the avenging the death of the person there buried…
A visit to Margery Twyford confirms the suspicion that Edmund was a foundling, discovered by the river in which the body of a richly dressed woman was found dead. Andrew Twyford brought the baby (and its many identifying artefacts) home to his wife, but buried the woman in the woods, for fear of being blamed for her death.
Edmund decides that he needs a champion—a “champion of virtue”, as it were—and decides that during his third night in the rooms, he will slip away and carry his story to Sir Philip Harclay. His disappearance causes a stir in the family, but the attempt by Richard Wenlock to make mileage out of it ends with him and his partner in crime, Jack Markham, being ordered to spend a night in the haunted rooms themselves. The inhabiting spirit is not pleased by this intrusion:
As they stood with their fists clenched, on a sudden they were alarmed with a dismal groan from the room underneath. They stood like statues petrified by fear, yet listening with trembling expectation: A second groan increased their consternation; and, soon after, a third compleated it. They staggered to a seat, and sunk down upon it, ready to faint; presently all the doors flew open, a pale glimmering light appeared at the door from the staircase, and a man in compleat armour entered the room: He stood with one hand extended, pointing to the outward door; they took the hint, and crawled away as fast as fear would let them; they staggered alone the gallery, and from thence to the Baron’s apartment, where Wenlock sunk down in a swoon…
From this point, The Old English Baron resolves itself exactly as you would expect; the interest of the rest of the novel lies not in what happens, but how it happens, as we shall see. Clara Reeve does manage one more effective supernatural moment, however: when the vindicated Edmund approaches the seat of his ancestors, all the doors fly open in welcome.
The conclusion of this novel is often inadvertently amusing. The action comprises Sir Philip Harclay challenging the false Lord Lovel to combat; Lovel is defeated and, thinking he will die, confesses to the assassination of his cousin, and to hiding his body beneath the floorboards in the east wing. Reeve’s presentation of this material grows increasingly diverting, as she shows herself much more interested in the ritual details of the combat—how many servants Sir Philip and his opponent are allowed to have in attendance, for example—than in the combat itself. In a marvellous piece of anticlimax, Walter Lovel does not in fact die of his injuries; instead, when he begins to recover, he tries to retract his confession. This fails, but still Walter shows no sign of repentence. Instead, growing confident that his relatives won’t publicly expose his iniquities, he simply gives himself up to a massive fit of the sulks.
Most amusing of all, the process of actually restoring Edmund to his rightful position requires Lord Fitz-Owen and Sir Philip sitting down like a pair of accountants and figuring out who owes who what. (Let’s see: Edmund is owed twenty years’ income from his property; but on the other hand, for twenty years the baron has paid to maintain that property… Hmm…) The books don’t quite balance, but in the end quits are called when Edmund, Lord Lovel, is married to Emma Fitz-Owen—and yes, Emma’s only real purpose in this story is to be Edmund’s “reward”. It is not hard to imagine that a great deal of the appeal of the Gothic novel lay in the fact that it was the first genre in which the heroine was also the focus of the story.
The place of The Old English Baron as a bridge betweem The Castle Of Otranto and the true Gothic novel is clear enough from this synopsis (I hope). We find here a number of plot details lifted from the earlier novel that would go on be stock conventions of the Gothic novel, including a peasant mysteriously superior to his birth and upbringing, a castle with underground vaults and passageways, family lineages revealed through portraits, the righting of an injustice after the discovery of a body, and abandoned rooms with the reputation (justified or otherwise) of being haunted. Clara Reeve’s supernatural manifestations, however, mild as they are, would only rarely reappear in the novels of her literary descendants.
One significant aspect of The Old English Baron in which it differs from The Castle Of Otranto and from the later Gothic novel is its being set in England. In this, I suspect, we see Clara Reeve’s jingoism; but we also see an indication of a second novelistic trend becoming increasingly important in the late 18th century: the historical novel. From the beginning of fiction, writers had used historical material in their works, but usually in order to push a particular political position. The idea of a novel being an accurate representation of times and people, intended to make clear the course of significant events, was quite late coming. When it did, it became another strong influence upon the evolution of the Gothic novel.
What this means in practice is that, before I go forward, I have to go back. There are three important novels that need to be addressed in this context, each of which played an important part in the development of the sentimental novel in the second half of the 18th century, and particularly in the emergence of the true Gothic novel:
- Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury by Thomas Leland, the first true historical novel, which was published in 1762, before The Castle Of Otranto or The Old English Baron
- The Recess by Sophia Lee, from 1783, which proved that as long as your story was sufficiently entertaining, people wouldn’t care so much about historical accuracy
- The Castles Of Athlin And Dunbayne, Ann Radcliffe’s first novel from 1789, significantly enough an historical novel.