The Hermitage: A British Story (Part 1)

“I am now a stranger to you; some little time will reveal my real character… But, young man, beware; for ere we meet again, a multitude of perils will beset thee. Arm thy breast with every virtue; cloath thee with patience; trust in Heaven; loose not thy confidence in God, even in the very moments of thy greatest afflictions. The hand of Providence conducts the events of this life, by ways so mysterious to man, that what we esteem the greatest evils, often prove the passage to prosperity and happiness… Virtue consisteth not in wrestling with the will of fate, but in sustaining the trials of life with fortitude and resignation; supporting the mind from falling through lassitude into despair, or from impatience being severed with rashness and headstrong resolution. The Author of every event trieth the heart of man; and, in his own good time, bringeth forth the fruits of virtue and of honour. To wait with patience, to submit with resignation, and without complainings, to sustain the evils of mortality with perseverance, and with piety, to stand erect before the frowns of life’s adversity, scorning to incline to either hand, either to forlornness, or to impetuosity; but, looking forward with faith, depending on the will of Heaven, is to work out the labours of propriety: For God ordaineth, and his minsters execute. What ever is, derives its origin from Heaven.”



Though it is by no stretching of definitions a Gothic novel itself, William Hutchinson’s The Hermitage: A British Story is a valid and important inclusion in the timeline of Gothic fiction. Published in 1772 (and popular enough to run to a second edition, which was reissued in 1775 as The Hermitage Of Du Monte), this short novel seems to be the first overt literary response to The Castle Of Otranto, pre-dating Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron by five years.

The Hermitage was published anonymously, but its author was later identified as William Hutchinson, an antiquarian and topographer. In addition to publishing a number of non-fiction works in these fields, Hutchinson edited the poetry of his brother, Robert, wrote three plays (only one of which was ever performed), and produced several works of fiction. One of them, most frustratingly unavailable, is listed as A ‘Romance’ After The Manner Of ‘The Castle Of Otranto’ – which if nothing else lays to rest any doubt about Horace Walpole’s influence on Hutchinson.

Whatever the non-fiction that was his bread and butter may have looked like, as a novelist Hutchinson’s writing style might best be described as “idiosyncratic”. The early stages of this work are rather stiff, but as he warms to his task Hutchinson lets fly with exalted sentiments, overflowing emotions, adjective-laden descriptions, and wildly over-used punctuation – he’s particularly addicted to commas, colons and exclamation marks; not so much to full-stops – the latter of which helps him to construct some run-on sentences of truly awesome magnitude. All this contributes to an oddly structured novel, with flourishes of action at the beginning and the end, and an extended lull in the middle; although I’m sure William Hutchinson wouldn’t be pleased with my saying so, given that the middle section deals with the redemption from sin of his central character.

Historically, the importance of The Hermitage lies in the way it shows us how writers would begin to pick the eyes out of The Castle Of Otranto, working and re-working its tropes and playing variations on a theme until, some twenty years later, a new genre of novel was born. There are supernatural elements in this novel, but – like Clara Reeve after him – William Hutchinson shies away from Walpole’s enthusiastic embrace of the unearthly, confining them to a few scattered flourishes. All three authors do agree, however, that any such manifestations must emanate from God in the service of Providence. Religious themes are prominent in The Hermitage, with a nobleman withdrawing from the world to expiate his sins through prayer and repentance, and much emphasis placed upon complete submission to God’s will; although frankly, I take issue with the novel’s assertion that good must necessarily come out of evil. (If something terrible happens to you, that’s just God paving the way for a nice surprise.)

Sharing billing with God in this novel is Nature, with impassioned descriptions of the landscape becoming more and more frequent as the narrative progresses (if you thought Ann Radcliffe invented that sort of thing, think again), so that on the whole The Hermitage sits comfortably under the deist / sentimental umbrella; although it goes further than most deist novels by not merely decrying the church as corrupt, but managing to be virulently anti-Catholic despite being set in pre-Reformation England. It also differs from most other pseudo-historical works of this period in that it never specifies when its events are taking place, nor the identity of the king whose affairs figure on the fringe of the story; although given that when a clash occurs between the monarch’s forces and those of certain rebellious nobles towards the end of the novel, the king is backed up by forces from Normandy, we might infer that this novel is set a great many years earlier than the language and behaviour of its characters tends to imply.

Nevertheless, and with a wonderful disregard of the historical record (particularly for an antiquarian), William Hutchinson gathers up all of late 18th century England’s religious prejudices and dumps them several hundred years in the past, opening his novel with a bitter clash between a certain nobleman who, From a mind enlarged with learning and benevolence, had embraced certain principles differing from the Romish church, and the Abbott of a nearby monastery who, From the contracted habits of his education, had hardened his soul with every severity of superstition.

Hmm. I’m not altogether sure that “the Romish church” was an expression much in use in England prior to the 17th century, but that doesn’t stop William Hutchison:

His blind bigotry induced him to think, that, in distressing one who dissented from the church of Rome, he rendered essential service to the God of all; through zealous frenzy he devised a thousand treacheries, and a thousand snares to oppress and injure Periander.

Father Peter’s first manoeuvre is to forge a title deed to Periander’s estate and to use it to convince the local liege lord that he has a claim on the property. (It is later revealed that Father Peter is working on the fears and superstitions of Lord Melvil, convincing him to buy salvation by endowing the church with land and money.) Nothing loath, Lord Melvil institutes legal proceedings against Periander, while Father Peter rounds up some Catholics, “deluded through their blindness into zeal”, to swear to whatever he tells them to. Periander, for all that his knowledge of God exceeds that of the existing church, is so shocked that his enemies are not instantly struck down by Divine retribution that he, well, dies:

    He confided in the God of justice, and smiled at the devices of his enemies: But too late he perceived, that the workers of iniquity were not always corrected by the instant hand of Providence. He was at length alarmed with the reality of his danger; his paternal bosom felt apprehensions for his son; his age was disturbed in the midst of its infirmities, and the hand of care grasped at his fainting soul.
    Periander did not long sustain the shock, he sunk into the arms of death. With filial devotion, his beloved son Astianax laid him in the vault amidst his ancestors.

And it is Astianax who will be The Hermitage‘s central character; I hesitate to say “hero”. Astianax shares his father’s religious views – and then some – musing thus:

Already learning gains a rapid progress in the land: The shades of ignorance are dispersing, as the vapours in the valley mount upon the morning rays, to bring on a serene meridian. The crafts and artifices by which the church have hitherto held the vulgar in bigotry and superstition, (an iron arbitrary reign), are gradually dissipating under the beams of learning; the darkness is stricken, the terrors and goblins vanish, the authority of Rome wasteth away!… My prophetic mind presages to me many degradations of the church… The insolence of priesthood will exist to the last verge; till at length the total dissolution of these monasteries, these convents, these cathedrals and colleges, like shackles on the hand of liberty, worn in ages of supine indolence, will be torn off…

“Prophetic mind”, indeed.

With the battle for the estate still ongoing, Astianax defiantly takes up residence in the halls of his ancestors, and immediately has a strange experience:

As he walked pensive to and fro, on a sudden, behind him, at the further end of the gallery, he heard a clash of armour: Turning hastily, he observed the buckler and shield to shake, which once his great ancestor Norban wore; and in which, in Palestine, he testified his valour to the Saracens. He regarded the event as accidental, and on pursued his melancholy walk: Hearing the sound again, he looked up, and perceived the coat of mail to tremble on the crooks where it hung, and the gauntlet moved as if it beckoned him…

Obeying the strange command, Astianax discovers a small cross of onyx concealed within the armour, which throughout the story operates like a sort of holy mood ring, warning of danger or heralding triumph. As soon as Astianax puts it on:

from every point of the cross, there fell warm drops of blood; and, with a horrid clangour, the armour shook in every joint! Surprise now changed to fear. Have I, says he, with sacrilegious hands, polluted this fair gem? and is the spirit of the mighty Norban offended at my rashness? Again the armour shook! These uncommon appearances increased his amazement; as, if danger was near, he laid his hand upon his sword, and, looking around, seemed to expect an enemy. His enemy was there! The insatiable ecclesiastic, not being content with the slow progress of the laws, in the oppression of Astianax, and not being appeased by the death of the good Periander; but taking advantage of the liberty which these times of bigotry afforded to the churchmen, he past through the apartments of the house uninterrupted, and sought the heir of Periander in his retirement, to accomplish his infernal purposes by his assassination…

Finding Astianax on his guard, the monk is thwarted; but he is nothing if not persistent:

Conscious evil filled the guilty mind of Father Peter with terror and self-condemnation. His soul let go its bloody purpose, and, for a moment, relaxed into remorse; but for a moment only: For the succeeding thought turned on a future time to execute his project…

Soon afterwards, Astianax meets an ecclesiastic of a different stripe. While he is out hunting, he encounters a mysterious hermit who utters the speech quoted up above, essentially counselling a game of “moral statues”: whatever happens, just put up with it; you’ll be glad you did. Astianax vows to follow the hermit’s advice, but of course does nothing of the kind, otherwise we wouldn’t have a novel.

Astianax marries the lovely Jessalind, and for a time is blissfully happy and content. He also forms a close friendship with a young man called Polidore, who one day, with a great show of reluctance, tells Astianax that his wife is unfaithful, and that the other man is his own kinsman, Grinvil. Almost mad with jealousy, Astianax listens only too eagerly to Polidore’s revelation of a secret assignation at the bath house (!). Waiting hidden from sight, he watches as Jessalind approaches. No sooner has he heard a man’s voice address her than he—

…bursting into the anti-chamber of the bath, discovered the disconcerted and alarmed Jessalind, with the treacherous Grinvil! For jealousy, for madness, this was evidence sufficient. The emotions of Astianax’s breast stifled his words; he only had power left him to call Grinvil to defend himself. Grinvil would have parlay’d, but Astianax rushed on. The terrified Jessalind fainted! Sword met with sword, and, in the bosom of Grinvil, the horrid steel was plunged!

But Grinvil isn’t quite dead, and he manages to declare Jessalind innocent before losing consciousness through loss of blood. The appalled Astianax is left to realise that he has forfeited everything by his act of insanity. Expecting every moment to be arrested for murder, he bolts, determined to find some retreat where he can conceal himself until things cool down, and he can petition the king for clemency. He heads into the surrounding hills with Lord Melvil’s men in hot pursuit. A thunderstorm of the most tremendous violence engulfs the land, which Astianax immediately interprets as a sign from a justly wrathful God…

Meanwhile, Lord Melvil confiscates Astianax’s estates, turning the heartbroken – and pregnant – Jessalind out of the mansion-house; while Father Peter meets with his co-conspirator, Iago Polidore.

Astianax’s erratic steps lead him up into the mountains, into a scattered community of shepherds. His behaviour causes most of the inhabitants to believe him mad, but the patriarch of the community reads him correctly and gives him a stern lecture about bowing to the will of God that recalls to Astianax’s guilty mind the hermit’s precepts. He then resolves to try and expiate his sins by withdrawing from the world:

    “I seek some place for my retirement, where Innocence and Truth have formed their habitation; if they, ere this, are not escap’d to Heaven. I have forsworn the busy world, and seek to form some Hermitage, where I may spend my life in prayer and meditation, by penitence to purchase expiation of my crimes. Some Hermitage where few men come, and yet where human steps may tread, that seeing them I may remember what I am; and renewing to my mind the history of mankind, I may daily, to the throne of Heaven, put up petitions for mercies on them; to repat evil with good, and close this life of misery and care, in supplications for the pardon of the world.”
    “An Hermitage you seek,” replies the shepherd, “the Hermitage of Paul Du’Monte, as old tradition goes, was near this place.”
    The name Du’Monte struck Astianax with horror! His own surname…

Astianax does not reveal his identity to the shepherd, but encourages him to tell all he knows of the saintly Paul, the youngest son of Lord Du’Monte; a monk who separated himself from his order because of his disgust with the avarice and hypocrisy of his brethren. Blessed with the gift of healing, Paul established himself in the mountains, living in a cave transformed into a cell, and devoting himself to the care of the scattered population.

After passing many years in this manner, Paul’s regular inquiries as to whether any stranger had been seen in the area were answered when he received a visit from his brother, Norban. To his flock Paul announced that Norban’s coming was a sign of his own approaching death; to his brother, he gave the onyx cross that he wore about his neck, declaring that “swords, pestilence, and storms” could never harm him while he wore it. He further instructed him not to say a word about it to any of their family, but to ensure that after his death the cross was hung with his armour in their ancient home:

“There it shall hang for ages, till one of thy good race, whom Heaven appoints to give rest unto my ashes, shall reassume it, and with it all its virtues… In that period of time, when my ashes shall rest in the sepulchre of the Du’Montes, thy issue Norban will again reassume their ducal title, and possess the large demains which Norman William granted to our ancestor, as a reward for his illustrious virtues.”

Now, you might think that Astianax’s next move would be to transport Paul’s remains to the family vault, prior to fighting – and, presumably, winning – a battle for the family estate. You’d be wrong. Instead, he finds his way to Paul’s, yes, Hermitage—and stays there for fourteen years.

This would be that lull I mentioned…

[To be continued…]

9 Responses to “The Hermitage: A British Story (Part 1)”

  1. run on sentences indeed. I need a flow chart to follow some of them.

    • Ah, I do love me a good run-on sentence!

      And may I say, You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. There’s a reason I broke this one into two parts… 🙂

  2. I love how it’s a spook story about the rise of science over superstition.

      • “Superstition” is one of those all-purpose anti-Catholic abuse words. I think it was actually meant to apply to a belief in saints and miracles, but it gets thrown around fairly indiscriminately in these novels. I gather it’s okay to accept heavenly manifestations but not anything performed by a demonstrable mortal.

        Given how heavily deistic this book is, it’s interesting that it places such an emphasis on the power of “learning”..

  3. Hmm! I hadn’t heard of this one at all.

    I wonder how much significance one can read into that subtitle — “a British story”. It seems to me that it’s a reason or at least a justification for both the removal of the blatantly supernatural (divine events, of course, not being supernatural at all) and the thoroughly increased anti-Catholicism.

    Some of this also seems very Malory-like, particularly all that going mad and rushing off into the mountains to find a hermit.

    • The Hermitage is not mentioned in the major studies of the Gothic novel, but I have found it in a couple of more obscure studies dealing with this lead-up period, along with one or two other forgotten novels that are now on the TBR pile.

      I agree that the subtitle is significant. I would suggest it’s a dig at Walpole for Italian-ing up his story – as well as indicative of the novel’s anti-Catholicism.

      I rather like the pragmatism of Astianax’s determination to evade justice, The madness and the hermit come well after, “Aw, crap, I gotta get outta here!” 🙂

  4. “to wait with patience, to submit with resignation” – for the end of the sentence!


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