Archive for ‘Gothic novel’

12/01/2017

Miscellaneous Pieces, In Prose

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To date we have seen the various tropes that would finally come together to form the Gothic novel appear in fits and starts, usually putting in only brief appearances within the framework of the sentimental novel. The next fictional step in the process was a mere fragment of prose, an experimental piece of writing that appeared amongst a number of non-fiction essays and critical writings that comprise 1773’s Miscellaneous Pieces, In Prose.

John Aikin was a qualified doctor who practised for some years in the north of England before relocating to Norfolk and finally to London, where he gave up his medical career to concentrate on writing. Initially Aikin was known for his pamphlets of social criticism and his views on the liberty of the conscience, but later he became the first editor of The Monthly Magazine.

Anna Laetitia Aikin, now better known by her married name of Barbauld, is an important figure in late 18th century literature, until her political opinions (viewed as “radical” and “unpatriotic”) killed her popularity in the early 19th century, and saw her largely expunged from the record; although various feminist writers are now attempting to re-establish her. At the outset of her career, she worked as a teacher while publishing treatises on childhood education and stories for children; her theories on education were widely adopted. She was one of the first female literary critics, and later the editor of an anthology of 18th century British novels; she was also a poet and essayist of note. In conjunction with her brother, John, across 1792-1795 she wrote and published Evenings At Home, a set of writings intended to encourage family readings, particularly amongst the newly literate, which were hugely popular all over Europe.

However, John and Anna Laetitia Aikin first published together in 1773. Their Miscellaneous Pieces, In Prose is exactly what its title suggests, a collection of writings of various themes and approaches, but mostly focused upon how art and literature achieve their effects. It has been asserted that Anna Laetitia wrote the bulk of these pieces, and while no justification for this view has been forthcoming, I’m inclined to agree with it for reasons of my own. Reading these essays close together, it is evident that there are two different voices within the writings, and that the major contributor (i) is familiar with the state of English popular fiction; and (ii) has a sense of humour.

Though only a sliver of this volume is relevant to our purposes, here is a brief overview of the rest of the contents:

On The Province Of Comedy: – an essay describing the functioning of “the ludicrous” in plays, and distinguishing between the effects achieved through character, and those achieved through incident.

The Hill Of Science, A Vision: – an allegorical sketch (populated with symbolic characters, a la John Bunyan) differentiating the pursuit of fame and the pursuit of happiness.

Seláma; An Imitation Of Ossian: – a florid tale of medieval conflict and doomed love. Although this passage doesn’t get highlighted in discussions of this collection (possibly because of the still-ongoing debate about “Ossian”), it too presents a number of the themes and situations that would later sustain the Gothic novel.

Against Inconsistency In Our Expectations: – a philosophical essay arguing for reasonable expectations and ambitions as the basis of happiness and content (and warning about the reverse).

The Canal And The Brook. A Reverie: – a romantic piece defending the irregular beauty of the brook against the sterile utility of the canal (with both bodies of water speaking for themselves).

On Monastic Institutions: – an essay arguing that despite the inherent failings of the whole Catholics-and-monks arrangement (the Aikins were Nonconformists), monasteries played an important role in education and the preservation and propagation of fine literature and art; and were also important in a broad moral sense.

On The Heroic Poem Of ‘Gondibert’: – the toughest piece of the lot, an overlong examination of the criticisms made of William Davenant’s epic poem, Gondibert, and an equally overlong defence of it.

A Tale: – another allegorical story, about the coming to earth of the children of the gods: Love, Joy, Hope, Sorrow, etc., etc.

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The remaining three pieces need to be examined in more detail, as they both shed some light on the peculiar mindset which we have noticed in many of the novels of this period, and point forward to the further development of this branch of writing.

On Romances, An Imitation is an essay commenting upon the peculiar place occupied in society by the writer of popular fiction, pointing out that while the products of most professions (concrete or theoretical) reach only a limited and pre-defined audience, the writer of fiction can reach almost everyone. It then segues into the question (so very pertinent in the second half of the 18th century, when the sentimental novel was at its peak and the Gothic novel on the horizon) of why reading about other people’s miseries should be so attractive to so many:

It is, indeed, no ways extraordinary that the mind should be charmed by fancy, and attracted by pleasure; but that we should listen to the groans of misery, and delight to view the exacerbations of complicated anguish, that we should chuse to chill the bosom with imaginary fears, and dim the eyes with fictitious sorrow, seems a kind of paradox of the heart…

(“Complicated anguish”—goodness me, what a perfect summation of 18th century fiction!)

An Enquiry Into Those Kinds Of Distresses Which Excite Agreeable Sensations is an examination of a phenomenon which we have noticed often enough at this blog: the tendency of sentimental novels to pile on the misery, not infrequently to the extent of a thoroughly unhappy ending, and featuring scenes wherein other people’s sufferings are not only treated as a kind of performance art, a perverse “entertainment”, but as a source of empathetic emotion so strong that it can induce crying and fainting in the other characters: which is, however, tacitly viewed as a desirable, even pleasurable, outcome. The underlying implication is that readers would, likewise, find scenes of misery pleasurable:

It is undoubtedly true, though a phenomenon of the human mind difficult to account for, that the representation of distress frequently gives pleasure; from which general observation many of our modern writers of tragedy and romance seem to have drawn this inference, that in order to please they have nothing to do than paint distress in natural and striking colours. With this view, they heap together all the afflicting events and dismal accidents their imagination can furnish; and when they have half broke the reader’s heart, they expect he should thank them for his agreeable entertainment…

(“Afflicting events and dismal accidents”— Note to self: write an analysis of 18th century sentimental literature and publish it under that title.)

Anna Laetitia (and I’m quite sure this is Anna Laetitia talking) goes on to reprove contemporary authors for overdoing it; or at least, for being indiscriminate in the kinds and degrees of miseries that they pile into their novels:

The view or relation of mere misery can never be pleasing. We have, indeed, a strong sympathy with all kinds of misery; but it is a feeling of pure unmixed pain, similar in kind, though not equal in degree to what we feel for ourselves on the like occasion; and never produces that melting sorrow, that thrill of tenderness, to which we give the name of pity. There are two different sensations, marked by very different external expression. One causes the nerves to tingle, the flesh to to shudder, and the whole countenance to be thrown into strong contractions; the other relaxes the frame, opens the features, and produces tears…

Of the latter she then goes on to add:

…there must be some other sentiment combined with this kind of instinctive sympathy, before it becomes in any degree pleasing, or produces the sweet emotion of pity. This sentiment is love, esteem, the complacency we take in the contemplation of beauty, of mental or moral excellence, called forth and rendered more interesting, by circumstances of pain and danger. Tenderness is, much more properly than sorrow, the spring of tears; for it affects us in that manner whether combined with joy or grief; perhaps more in the former case than the latter. And I believe we may venture to assert that no distress which produces tears is wholly without a mixture of pleasure…

While she is speaking in the context of the novel, we note that Anna Laetitia is here referring to the social theories expounded by the Deists (which we considered in detail with respect to James R. Foster’s History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England), who contended that the indulgence of positive emotions – those name-checked here, love, esteem, pity, tenderness – made the individual a better, a more moral person. (The downside of this is that the pursuit of “sensibility” produced a lot of ridiculous posturing, both fictional and in reality.)

The essay then goes on to argue that in this arena, the novel has a great advantage over the drama, because it is able to focus upon the small and the delicate, whereas plays have to strive for big effects. Yet it is the following criticism of where novels tend to get it wrong that really grabs the attention:

Tragedy and romance-writers are likewise apt to make too free with the more violent expressions of passion and distress, by which means they lose their effect. Thus an ordinary author does not know how to express any strong emotion otherwise than by swooning or death; so that a person experienced in this kind of reading, when a girl faints away at parting with her lover, or a hero kills himself for the loss of his mistress, considers it as the established etiquette upon such occasion, and turns over the pages with the utmost coolness and unconcern…

More ‘Advice To Aspiring Writers’ follows:

Scenes of distress should not be too long continued… It is…highly necessary in a long work to relieve the mind by scenes of pleasure and gaiety; and I cannot think it so absurd a practice as our modern delicacy has represented it, to intermix wit and fancy with the pathetic, provided care be taken not to check the passions while they are flowing… Those who have touched the strings of pity with the finest hand have mingled light strokes of pleasantry and mirth in their most pathetic passages. Very different is the conduct of many novel writers, who by plunging us into scenes of distress without end or limit, exhaust the powers, and before the conclusion either renders us insensible to every thing, or fix a real sadness upon the mind…

…or induce uncontrollable giggling, as the case might be.

Interestingly enough, the essay concludes by suggesting that the over-indulgence of “sensibility” tends to blunt the capacity for sympathy and pity, rather than augment it—as was contended by many of the Deists, who viewed the novel as a sort of training exercise, to be used to keep the emotions flexible when no real circumstances of misery were available. Specifically, it is argued, novels raise virtuous emotions without offering an outlet for them in action, and this in turn blunts and inhibits those emotions. Furthermore, by making misery too “pretty”, novels tend to give people a disgust of the real thing, killing the charitable impulse.

But the best novels do exactly what they are intended to do, make people better for reading them:

Yet there is a species of this kind of writing which must ever afford an exquisite pleasure to persons of taste and sensibility; where noble sentiments are mixed with well fancied incidents, pathetic touches with dignity and grace, and invention with chaste correctness.

Alas! – no examples are offered. Instead, the allegorical A Tale follows.

But while these views on the state of literature, circa 1770, are fascinating, what we’re really here for is a related essay.

One of the most influential pieces of writing published during the 18th century was Edmund Burke’s 1757 essay, A Philosophical Enquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime And Beautiful, which first argued for the inherent pleasure of apparently negative situations and emotions. His arguments, much more thoroughly and emphatically argued, are generally those we have just seen used by Anna Laetitia in her contention that, No distress which produces tears is wholly without a mixture of pleasure. Burke, too, is the origin of the argument for two different physical reactions to different kinds or degrees of misery: One causes the nerves to tingle, the flesh to to shudder, and the whole countenance to be thrown into strong contractions; the other relaxes the frame, opens the features, and produces tears.

Here, however, we are concerned with the first reaction. It was Burke’s belief that:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature…is Astonishment; and Astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.

Critically in respect of the development of the Gothic novel, which seized this idea and ran with it, Burke further contended that the ruling principle of the sublime was terror—that is, the sublime could be so overwhelming as to induce a fear that was nevertheless pleasurable.

This is the point picked up in On The Pleasures Derived From Objects Of Terror. Having considered in the previous essay the pleasures of misery, this one considers the still more perverse pleasures of terror, at least in the realm of literature. An argument is made here that the power of the tale of terror—one shared by all fiction, to a greater or lesser extent–is its capacity to create suspense and raise curiosity:

We rather chuse to suffer the smart pain of a violent emotion than the uneasy craving of an unsatisfied desire. That this principle, in many instances, may involuntarily carry us through what we dislike, I am convinced from experience. This is the impulse which renders the poorest and most insipid narrative interesting when we once get fairly into it; and I have frequently felt it with regard to our modern novels, which, if lying on my table, and taken up in an idle hour, have led me through the most tedious and disgusting pages, while, like Pistol eating his leek, I have swallowed and execrated to the end. And it will not only force us through dullness, but through actual torture…

(Hey, we’ve all been there!)

But is this really sufficient to account for the willingness, eagerness, of readers to be scared?

    This solution, however, does not satisfy me with respect to the well-wrought scenes of artificial terror which are formed by a sublime and vigorous imagination. Here, though we know before-hand, what to expect, we enter into them with eagerness, in quest of a pleasure already experienced. This is the pleasure constantly attached to the excitement of surprise from new and wonderful objects. A strange and unexpected event awakens the mind, and keeps it on the stretch; and where the agency of invisible beings is introduced, of “forms unseen, and mightier far than we”, our imagination, darting forth, explores with rapture the new world which is laid open to its view, and rejoices in the expansion of its powers. Passion and fancy co-operating elevate the soul to its highest pitch; and the pain of terror is lost in amazement.
    Hence, the more wild, fanciful, and extraordinary are the circumstances of a scene of horror, the more pleasure we receive from it…

(So the next time someone asks me why I like horror movies, I’ll have an answer.)

In this context, we are given some examples—One Thousand And One Nights (aka The Arabian Nights), in particular the stories of Aladdin and Sinbad; The Castle Of Otranto (naturally); and a particular segment of Tobias Smollett’s Ferdinand, Count Fathom:

…where the hero, entertained in a lone house in a forest, finds a corpse just slaughtered in the room where he is sent to sleep, and the door of which is locked upon him…

But is not this essay in itself which qualifies Miscellaneous Pieces, In Prose for a place in the timeline of the Gothic Novel, but the fact that it is appended by an attempt at the sort of writing just described.

Sir Betrand, A Fragment finds its eponymous hero lost on the moors with night closing in. He is close to despair when he hears a tolling bell, and sees too a distant light. He follows these welcome signals to the edge of a moat surrounding a desolate and crumbling castle. He ventures across the draw-bridge into the courtyard, and finally works up the courage to knock upon the massive doors of the castle proper; even as the faint light comes and goes, sometimes plunging him into total darkness:

A third time he knocked, and a third time all was still. He then fell back to some distance that he might discern whether any light could be seen in the whole front—It again appeared in the same place and quickly glided away as before—at the same instant a deep sullen toll sounded from the turret. Sir Bertrand’s heart made a fearful stop—He was a while motionless; then terror impelled him to make some hasty steps towards his steed—but shame stopt his flight; and urged by honour, and a resistless desire of finishing the adventure, he returned to the porch; and working up his soul to a full steadiness of resolution, he drew forth his sword with one hand, and with the other lifted up the latch of the gate. The heavy door, creaking upon its hinges, reluctantly yielded to his hand—he applied his shoulder to it and forced it open—he quitted it and stept forward—the door instantly shut with a thundering clap. Sir Bertrand’s blood was chilled—he turned back to find the door, and it was long ere his trembling hands could seize it—but his utmost strength could not open it again…

Forced to go onwards, Sir Bertrand finds more strange and terrifying adventures awaiting him, including an encounter with a ghostly figure with a bloody stump instead of a hand. He makes his way into a huge room occupied only by a coffin:

At the same moment the lid of the coffin flew open, and the bell tolled. The flame still glided forwards, and Sir Bertrand resolutely followed, till he arrived within six paces of the coffin. Suddenly, a lady in a shrowd and black veil rose up in it, and stretched out her arms towards him…

And so on…but, critically, to no conclusion. Sir Bertrand, A Fragment is just a fragment, with no beginning or end, and no explanation of its events—and it is precisely this, the context-free and therefore disorientating nature of Sir Bertrand’s adventures, that gives it its power. (Whereas the later Gothic novels, feeling obliged to explain themselves, very often fall apart at the last.) This piece of short fiction, only 1500 words long, packing into its narrow confines an amusing plethora of touches later to become tropes, has long been recognised as an important step in the evolution of literary horror in Britain: no other piece of writing at this time is so intent upon horrors for their own sake.

We should note too that Sir Bertrand’s behaviour mirrors that attributed to readers by the author when explaining the attractions of the horror story, wherein he chooses to enter the castle rather than flee by, A resistless desire of finishing the adventure. Knowing, however terrifying, is better than not knowing.

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28/06/2015

The History Of Lady Barton

griffith1b    Yes, Fanny, I confess it! you have searched my bosom, and found the arrow rankling in my heart! Too cruel sister! better, sure far better, that you had remained ignorant of my disease, unless you can prescribe a cure! I now detest myself; and all that generous confidence, which is the true  result and firm support of real virtue, is for ever fled! I shrink even from the mild eye of friendship—The tender, the affectionate looks of Harriet and Lucy, now distress me! How then shall I endure the stern expression of contempt and rage, from an offended husband’s angry brow! There is but one thing that could be more dreadful—I mean his kindness—That alone could add new horrors to my wretched state, and make me feel the humiliating situation of a criminal still more than I now do.
    I am, I am a criminal! Alas! you know not to what degree I am so! But I will tell you all, lay bare my heart before you, and beg you not to soothe, but to probe its wounds…

I can only apologise for the recent deluge of lugubrious sentimental novels at this blog—it certainly wasn’t intentional, as evidenced by the fact that each of these novels has emerged from a different reading category. In the case of The History Of Lady Barton, A Novel In Letters it turns out that the categorisation was not really accurate. This novel came to my attention at the same time as The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley, and like it was characterised as a proto-Gothic novel; but while the eponymous Sophia does indeed undergo various experiences that hearken forward to the travails of the typical Gothic heroine (including being abducted and imprisoned herself, while her fiancée is kidnapped by “pyrates”), the sufferings of Lady Barton are of an entirely domestic nature.

There are, however, a couple of distinctly Gothicky subplots along the way, chiefly affecting the supporting characters, which are the kind of thing that the Gothic novelists later seized upon and expanded into major narratives. In this respect we may indeed consider this novel another of the later genre’s forebears.

The History Of Lady Barton was the second novel published by Elizabeth Griffith, one of the more popular exponents of sentimentalism. (The title of her first novel, The Delicate Distress, suggests that Griffith hit the ground running.) Griffith is an interesting literary figure, and one who possibly deserves to be better known than she is. She was born in Dublin, and became an actress at the age of only seventeen, after her family fell on hard times following the death of her theatre-managing father. Her stage career lasted until her marriage to Richard Griffith (no relation), which occurred secretly due to the disapproval of the groom’s family—disapproval centred in the bride’s lack of fortune, ironically enough: Richard subsequently suffered a string of business failures associated with bankruptcy and debt, and Elizabeth, like so many of her literary sisters, took up writing in order to support herself and her two children.

It seems that Elizabeth Griffith may have been a case of “spoiled by success”, although given her circumstances we can hardly blame her for writing to the marketplace. She began as a playwright, and reports suggest that her early plays were startlingly feminist for the time, featuring strong-willed, intelligent female characters and overtly attacking the double standard and the social and legal inequities that attended woman’s place in society. However, after Griffith left Dublin for London in order to further her career, she found that her plays were attracting harsh criticism from the influential London critics. She responded by reining herself in, and although she continued to foreground her female characters, on the whole they stopped challenging the status quo and instead triumphed through patience and submission. (The History Of Lady Barton is something of an exception to that generalisation.)

Griffith ultimately had quite a varied and successful career. In addition to her plays and novels, she produced many translations of French novels, memoirs and collections of letters, and she became one of the first women to find success as a literary critic. And while at the time Griffith’s The Morality of Shakespeare’s Drama Illustrated was her most well-received work, of more note around these parts is that she also edited a collection of works by female dramatists – including Aphra Behn – in which she tried to show how the plays in question, far from being “immoral” as accused, were intended to illustrate and criticise immorality.

The History Of Lady Barton is a three-volume epistolary novel originally published in 1771; it carries a preface which pretty much spells out for us the perceived “dangers of novel-reading”, namely, the powerful influence of fiction upon the minds and morals of the young (by implication, particularly young women), but which also argues for the power of the novel – the moral novel – as a force for good:

    Works of this kind are in general of so captivating a nature to young readers, that let them run through but a few pages of almost any Novel, and they will feel their affections or curiosity so interested, either in the characters or the events, that it is with difficulty they can be diverted to any other study or amusement, till they have got to the end of the story.
    From the experience then of this sort of attraction, such sort of writings may be rendered, by good and ingenious authors, extremely serviceable to morals, and other useful purposes of life—Place the magnet low, and it will degrade our sentiments; hold it high, and it elevates them…

In short, the didactic purpose of The History Of Lady Barton is made clear—which may strike us as rather amusing, considering that the novel’s plot features countless incidences of seduction, attempted rape, illicit sex, forbidden love and various other transgressions. Nevertheless, the unexpected aspect of The History Of Lady Barton is that it’s story is told from the perspective of a woman who (all the preceding notwithstanding) commits the ultimate sentimental-novel sin of marrying without love.

Additionally, in Sir William Barton we have a convincingly exasperating portrait of a man who marries a woman who he knows does not love him—and then gets mad because she doesn’t love him. Worse—in this case, it seems, Louisa told him outright before accepting his proposal that she did not love him—but he didn’t believe her—she was just being shy, delicate, modest; how could she not love him? When the penny drops, Sir William becomes morose, domineering, capricious and insulting; so that, with the best will in the world to be a properly dutiful wife and to love her husband, Louisa finds it impossible—which in turn makes Sir William even more self-defeatingly unkind:

Yet this I am convinced of, that had Sir William persevered, perhaps a few months longer, in wishing to obtain that heart, it might, I doubt not, have been all his own. But can it now bestow itself unsought, and trembling yield to harshness, and unkindness? Impossible! The little rebel owns as yet no lord, and it may break, but it will never bow, beneath a tyrant’s frown!

Louisa’s chief correspondent is her sister, Fanny Cleveland, who is concerned by what she call’s Louisa’s “propensity to unhappiness”, revealed in her remarks about her husband and her marriage; although her advice is unexpectedly pragmatic (not to say cynical) coming from the individual who will act generally as the novel’s moral touchstone:

    I very sincerely join with you in wishing, since you have not yet, that you may never feel the passion of love, in an extreme degree; for I am firmly persuaded, that it does not contribute much to the happiness of the female world—and yet, Louisa, I will frankly tell you, that I am extremely grieved at some hints you have dropped, in your letters, which speak of a want of affection for Sir William.—It is dangerous to sport with such sentiments; you should not suffer them to dwell even upon your own mind, much less express them to others—we ought not be too strict in analysing the characters of those we wish to love—if once we come to habituate ourselves to thinking of their faults, it insensibly lessens the person in our esteem, and saps the foundation of our happiness, with our love.—
    I am perfectly convinced that you have fallen into this error, from want of reflection, and through what is called une maniere de parler; for I will not suppose that my Louisa, tho’ persuaded by her friends and solicited most earnestly by Sir William, gave him her hand without feeling in her heart that preference for his person, and esteem for his character, which is the surest basis for a permanent and tender affection…

She did, though:

How often have my brother, Sir William, and you, seemed to doubt my sincerity, when I have declared I knew not what love was! and, O! how fatal has that inexperience been to my peace, since! Yes, Fanny, your sister is a wretch! and gave away her hand, before she knew she had a heart to transfer.—

This is simultaneously the most interesting thing about the novel, and its elephant in the living-room—because Louisa Cleveland’s decision to marry Sir William Barton is never satisfactorily accounted for, in spite of those references to her friends’ “persuasion” and Sir William’s “solicitation”. Certainly Louisa does not marry for title or position, nor is she pressured into it by her family (although Sir William neatly uses her conventional put-off of “I cannot do anything without my brother’s consent” against her, ingratiating himself with the brother and intimating that Louisa has given a conditional ‘yes’ to his proposal). The only thing that really approaches an explanation is a reference to Sir William’s “obstinate perseverance”; presumably he simply wore Louisa down and, in her ignorance, she thought it didn’t much matter, since of course she would learn to love her husband…

And while its overarching theme is a typical sentimental novel stance against marriage without love, this, I think, is what Griffith really intended to be the focus of her novel—an exposure and condemnation of the prevailing belief that any truly “good” woman would inevitably “learn” to love her husband – and, even more so, of the attending implication that a woman who cannot is bad – but the point ultimately remains frustratingly muted.

Be that as it may, right from the beginning of the novel we find Louisa courting disaster, attitudinally speaking:

    You desired me, my Fanny, to write to you from every stage—this is the first moment I have had to myself—one of Sir William’s most favourite maxim’s, is, that women should be treated like state criminals, and utterly debarred from the use of pen and ink—he says, that “those who are fond of scribling, are never good for anything else; that female friendship is a jest; and that we only correspond, or converse, with our own sex, for the sake of indulging ourselves in talking of the other.”
    Why, Sir William, why will you discover such illiberal sentiments, to one who has been so lately prevailed upon to pronounce those awful words, “love, honour, and obey”! The fulfilling the first two articles of this solemn engagement, must depend upon yourself, the latter only, rests on me; and I will most sanctimoniously perform my part of the covenant…

Immediately after their wedding, Sir William carries Louisa off to his estate in Ireland. They pass through Wales (the narrative stopping for a brief instance of rhapsodising about nature: a touch also seen in William Hutchinson’s The Hermitage, published the following year, and something which became increasingly common in the sentimental novel before being adopted as a hallmark of the Gothic), and along the way collect two friends of Sir William’s: Colonel Walter, who owns a neighbouring estate, and to whom Louisa takes an immediate dislike; and the young Lord Lucan*, by whom, conversely, she is impressed…though perhaps not quite as impressed as he is with her

(*No relation, I’m sure.)

Disaster strikes on the party’s sea-journey to Ireland, and very nearly tragedy: as they approach their destination, a violent storm breaks, which lasts for hours, during which time their ship is in danger of being driven onto rocks. This situation provokes an extreme reaction from one of the party:

There was a great number of passengers on board, and their groans and lamentations would have affected me extremely, in any other situation; but the violent and continued sickness which I suffered, rendered me insensible, even to my own danger; nor did I feel the smallest emotion when Lord Lucan, who had seldom left my bedside, caught hold of my hand, with a degree of wildness, and pressing it to his lips, said, “We must perish!—but we shall die, together!”

Alas, the narrative does not reveal whether Louisa responded by throwing up on him; we can only hope.

Our main characters make it into a lifeboat and are cast ashore on a small island off the coast, from where they are shortly rescued. This experience has somewhat torn down the barriers between them, for good or ill.

A variety of new characters and sub-plots are now introduced, most of them acting as a compare-and-contrast backdrop to Louisa’s situation, as we are introduced to various people who are genuinely in love and miserable because of it.

Fanny Cleveland herself is engaged, but has the disturbing experience of her fiancée, Lord Hume, not merely spending much time on the Continent away from her, but now beginning to hint at a three-year Grand Tour. Lord Hume is a close friend of Lord Lucan, and through their correspondence we will learn that Hume has fallen in lust with a beautiful Italian adventuress and lost his taste for Fanny’s pallid perfections. Hume writes to Fanny and breaks off their engagement (without getting into specifics), with the result that her correspondence becomes all about the miseries of love, even as Louisa’s continues to be about the miseries of un-love.

Meanwhile, Sir George Cleveland, brother and guardian to Louisa and Fanny, is himself engaged to a Miss Colville (another bundle of pallid perfections). Here the impediment is Miss Colville’s ghastly mother, who refuses to consent to their marriage—because (we later discover) she wants Sir George for herself…and badly enough to facilitate her pursuit of him by immuring her daughter in a convent while faking her death to the world at large, while she tries to convince the stricken Sir George (via forged letter) that it was Delia’s last wish that they should be married.

This is, self-evidently, one of the Gothic-like subplots I referred to earlier, made even more so by the associated sub-sub-plot about the identity of the young woman buried as Delia Colville; but it is only a digression in the novel as a whole.

Back in Ireland, Harriet Westley, a young niece of Sir William’s, is received into the Bartons’ home and becomes a friend and companion to Louisa—who soon concludes that the girl is suffering from unrequited love. This sub-plot touches upon an interesting point from the literature of this time, the seriousness with which what to modern eyes is just a first crush tends to be treated. But then, in a society where girls were considered marriageable at fifteen, I suppose it’s not unreasonable to treat their emotions as likewise mature.

The object of Harriet’s passion is Lord Lucan—who has fallen in love with Louisa; while Colonel Walter, who is supposed to be engaged to a wealthy widow, Mrs Layton, also begins pursuing Louisa, though not out of “love”, exactly.

Fanny correctly deduces Lord Lucan’s secret passion from Louisa’s oblivious descriptions of his behaviour and change in demeanour—but that isn’t all she has deduced. Louisa’s letters have begun to evince an increasing tendency to compare Sir William with Lord Lucan, to the former’s discredit; perhaps not altogether surprisingly, since Sir William keeps going out of his way to behave like a dick an upright magistrate:

    Lord Lucan flew directly into the garden, and explained the phenomenon, by bringing the basket and its contents into the parlour, which was an infant, about a week old, clean, though poorly clad, with a note pinned to its breast, which said, this child has been baptised by its father’s name, William.
    This circumstance disconcerted Sir William who, after many unnecessary asseverations of his innocence, upon this occasion, at which the whole company smiled, as they knew he had been above a year out of the kingdom, determined to prove his virtue, at the expense of his humanity, by ordering the child to be left again in the garden where it was found, till the parish officers should come to take charge of it; and by commanding a strict search to be made for the mother, that she might be punished, according to law.
    We all opposed the severity of this resolution, as the poor infant appeared almost perished with cold, and hunger; but Sir William persisted in acting like an upright magistrate, according to the letter of the law—till Lord Lucan declared that he was ready to adopt the little foundling, and promised to take care of it for life, though his name was Thomas…

In this particular instance, Louisa’s sensitivity to the situation and the behaviour of the two men may be enhanced by the fact that she is pregnant—something which, due to the increasing estrangement between herself and Sir William, she delays in telling him, with ultimately disastrous consequences.

Our main characters remove to Waltersburgh, Colonel Walters’ neighbouring estate, chiefly so the gentlemen can have some hunting, and there Louisa has a terrifying experience when a man intrudes into her bed-chamber and, um, takes liberties; though voices nearby stop things from going too far, and the intruder flees while Louisa faints. Since all the other men of the party are supposedly out, Louisa can only conclude that Lord Lucan (who has done an amusingly heroine-like thing by spraining his ankle) finally succumbed to his passion, and is both deeply shocked and bitterly disappointed:

    I determined, on the instant, to return to Southfield directly, let the consequence be what it would; and never to suffer Lord Lucan to come into my sight again; but, alas! when I attempted to rise, I found it impossible; the agitation of my mind, had disorder’d my whole frame; my illness encreased every moment, a messenger was dispatched for a physician, but before he could arrive—
    When Sir William was informed of my misfortune, he raved and stamped like a mad-man; said I must have designed to destroy his heir, out of perverseness, or I would certainly have acquainted him with my situation…

The estrangement between the Bartons naturally worsens from this point, and Colonel Walter, pursuing his own ends, is not slow to take advantage of it; intimating to Sir William, for instance, that the reason Louisa didn’t tell him about her pregnancy is that he was not the father…

While Louisa is recuperating, she receives a letter from Lord Lucan, full of regret and distress at her illness, but without the slightest hint of awareness of the cause, which makes her rethink her assumption; although in the circumstances she cannot see how anyone came to her room.

A secret passage, perhaps?—a rather Gothicky touch; while at this point our second Gothicky subplot also puts in an appearance. Via her maid, Louisa learns that a small child is a mostly-unseen resident of Colonel’s Walter’s house, and manages to make contact with her. The girl, who speaks no English, reveals to Louisa that her mother also is living in the house. First through an exchange of smuggles letters, then in a secret meeting, Louisa learns that the woman is Colonel Walter’s wife – possibly legally, possibly through a false marriage; she isn’t sure herself – and that out of fear for her own life and, even more so, for that of her daughter, she lives concealed in the attic, while her husband pursues various affairs and even tries to marry – or “marry” – a fortune.

(Paging Charlotte Bronte…)

As is common in sentimental novels, we then the get interpolated narrative of Mrs Walter’s entire life-story, and her escalating miseries at the hands of Colonel Walter and of society at large. Louisa of course repeats it all to Fanny in her letters and (showing a pleasing degree of backbone) the sisters plot to remove the unfortunate Olivia and her daughter from the Colonel’s dubious “protection”. In fact, in an unexpected and amusing touch, we get a full-on female conspiracy here, with Harriet Westley and Louisa’s friend Lucy Leister let in on the secret and offering their assistance, in addition to Benson the maid who has been the women’s go-between. Louisa succeeds in smuggling her new friends away from Waltersburgh and into a tenant-cottage at Southfield (Sir William’s property), and from there to Fanny in London.

Her interaction with Olivia provokes Louisa to the following suggestion—a topic that became quite common in sentimental novels, but which led to nothing in reality because of the stubborn refusal to see further than women’s refuge = convent = Catholic (the tone here makes me wonder if Griffith had been reading Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall, an entire novel on the subject; particularly considering the radical suggestion of marital separation):

I should approve extremely of an establishment of this kind, in our own country, under our own religion and laws; both equally free from tyranny—An asylum for unhappy women to retreat to—not from the world, but from misfortunes, or the slander of it—for female orphans, young widows, or still more unhappy objects, forsaken, or ill treated wives, to betake themselves to, in such distresses…

Meanwhile, the continuous references in Louisa’s correspondence to Lord Lucan, her final conclusion that he could not have been guilty of the bedroom outrage, and her speculation about his connection with a Miss Ashford, a neighbourhood beauty to whom rumour has him attached, prompts Fanny to issue a stern warning:

    Vigilant and watchful must that woman be, who has so many foes to shield against—the unkindness of Sir William—the passion and merits of Lord Lucan—the arts and malice of Colonel Walter—but the last and most formidable—shall I venture to speak of it?—is your own heart.
    You have not yet begun to suspect it. It is therefore the more dangerous enemy. Examine it, my sister; call it to strict account; and if you find one sentiment or wish, that lurks in secret there, unworthy of yourself, banish it, I beseech you: thoughts, even without purposes, are criminal, where our honour is in question. Consider the slightest idea of this kind, as a young serpent; though stingless now, its growth will give it strength and power to wound the breast that nursed and cherished it! crush it, betimes, Louisa; and be at peace for life…

Louisa confesses that Fanny is right and suffers an agony of guilt and shame; although she cannot help wandering into the might-have-been, and offering another radical suggestion:

Flattering sophistry! Alas! I would deceive myself, but cannot! Have I not vowed, even at the altar vowed, to love another? Yet can that vow be binding, which promises what is not in our power, even at the time we make it? But grant it were, the contract sure is mutual; and when one fails, the other should be free…

(…particularly considering the countless 18th and 19th century novels in which an unhappy wife is told firmly by some authority figure or another that her husband’s neglect / cruelty / infidelity does not justify any failure in marital duty of her part.)

Much back and forth between the sisters follows, but for all of Louisa’s good intentions her practice keeps wandering away from her theory…until finally a concurrence of circumstances leads to a mutual declaration between Lord Lucan and herself, although also to a mutual resolve to do nothing dishonourable. They try to avoid one another, but their network of friends keeps unwittingly throwing them together, keeping both secret passions alive.

Meanwhile, Colonel Walter, experienced in intrigue, has seen what is going on between Louisa and Lord Lucan—sort of: he is incapable of believing that they might be in love without having sex; and likewise the type who assumes that if a woman is having illicit sex with one man, she’ll willingly have illicit sex with any man. When Louisa spurns his advances, he makes it his business to cause as much trouble as he can, partly as a way of blackmailing Louisa into his bed, partly out of sheer bastardry. The stresses of the situation bring about a collapse, and Louisa begins to suffer recurrent bouts of ill-health…

The History Of Lady Barton must necessarily devote much time and effort to the resolution of its almost innumerable romantic complications—although this doesn’t stop Elizabeth Griffith from taking up much of the third volume with yet another interpolated narrative, in this case the (of course) sad history of the young lady who ends up buried in Delia Colville’s grave (which contains yet another interpolated narrative). The true fate of Delia herself is revealed when Olivia finally decides to retreat into a convent, and discovers that she is a prisoner there, confined on the basis of false charges of immorality made by her mother.

Sir George Cleveland comes racing to the scene, in company with his new friend—Lord Hume, who was bled dry by his Margarita and her family and then, having outlived his usefulness to them, nearly murdered; a fate from which Sir George rescued him. Sir George is unaware of the former engagement between Hume and his sister, and unknowingly reunites them. By this time Hume has learned to appreciate Fanny’s modest virtues, and the two are married.

And so at last there is only our central complexity to resolve: will Elizabeth Griffith kill off the inconvenient Sir William Barton and let her secret lovers be happy, or will it be a case of broken hearts and ruined lives all around? Will Colonel Walter succeed in his evil machinations, or will he get his comeuppance? The matter stills hangs in the balance with very few pages to go:

About eight o’clock, this morning, there arrived a messenger from Waltersburgh, and in a few minutes after, Sir William rushed into my room, with an appearance of frenzy in his air and countenance.— “Vilest of women! cried he out, “you have now completed your wickedness—But think not that either you, or your accomplice, shall escape—That pity, which pleaded in my weak heart, even for an adultress, will but increase my rage against the murderess of my friend.” He then quitted me abruptly, as if bent upon some horrid purpose…

19/10/2014

Barford Abbey

barfordabbey1How was I surpris’d at ascending the hill!—My feet seem’d leading me to the first garden,—the sweet abode of innocence!—Ten thousand beauties broke on my sight;—ten thousand pleasures, before unknown, danced through my heart.—Behold me on the summit;—behold me full of surprise,—full of admiration!—How enchanting the park! how clear the river that winds through it1—what taste,—what elegance, in the plantations!—How charmingly are Nature’s beauties rang’d by art!—The trees,—the shrubs,—the flowers,—hold up their heads, as if proud of the spot they grow on!—Then the noble old structure,—the magnificent mansion of this antient family, how does it fire the beholder with veneration and delight! The very walls seem’d to speak; at least there was something that inform’d me, native dignity, and virtues hereditary, dwelt within them.

Susannah Gunning’s 1768 publication, Barford Abbey, A Novel. In A Series Of Letters, is another work that has been mentioned as a potential proto-Gothic novel, though as it turns out there is very little in the book itself to support this assertion; except perhaps (as is evident from its earliest pages) there is a secret to do with her parentage in the background of the novel’s heroine. However, since it eventually becomes evident that almost everyone except the heroine herself is in on that particular secret, it hardly constitutes the kind of mystery that would eventually become a trope of the Gothic novel proper. In fact, my suspicion is that Barford Abbey ended up on the list of Gothic progenitors purely because it had the word “abbey” in its title; thirty years later, this would indeed constitute a fairly reliable marker.

One thing that Barford Abbey does have in common with a surprising number of the proto-Gothics is that it was first published in Dublin, with a second edition appearing in England some three years later. However, its author was English: Susannah Minifie was born in Somerset, the daughter of a poor clergyman. Susannah’s sister, Margaret, was also a novelist (and attracted pointed criticism from Clara Reeve in her The Progress Of Romance, for reasons I have yet to investigate), while her daughter, Elizabeth, would likewise become a writer.

In 1768, the same year that she wrote Barford Abbey, her first novel, Susannah Minifie married John Gunning, brother to the famous Irish Gunning sisters, who became the Countess of Coventry, and the Duchess of Hamilton and later the Duchess of Argyll, respectively. (John Gunning is a story unto himself, to which I might return sometime…)

Barford Abbey was, as I say, a first novel, and it shows. Some things, however, it does do well. Unlike the earlier The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley, this is an epistolary novel proper, with correspondance in various voices, and differing perspectives on the same events, so that the reader is aware of various facts while the characters – or at least the heroine – remain in ignorance of them. This novel also does a good job creating suspense, albeit rather mild, by writing as people do write—that is, the correspondents don’t tell each other things that they already know. This is a an area where many epistolary novels fail, even falling into the fatal trap of including entire back-stories for certain characters under the guise of “dear friends” demanding to know each other’s life-histories.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that this approach sometimes makes Barford Abbey simply confusing—although in retrospect this might be more correctly attributed to another rookie mistake. Rarely for a novel of this type, sometimes there is simply not enough detail in the description of the characters. One subplot involves an estrangement between father and son. The context in which this plot-point is raised suggests that the son is a young man, perhaps in his early twenties; in fact he is some twenty years older, a detail which alters the implications of the situation altogether.

There’s also the fact that all of the novel’s correspondents favour the same peculiar punctuation style.

Overall, Barford Abbey is a sentimental novel par excellence, inasmuch as while very little actually happens, endless pages are devoted to the characters reporting and analysing their feelings. Its main failing is that the two people doing most of the analysing are neither of them very interesting. Our hero and heroine are, alas!—respectively a prat and a bore.

With respect to both, Mrs Gunning falls into the trap of the “informed attribute”. Every man who comes near Fanny falls in love with her; through their correspondence we hear not only of her beauty and grace, but of her sensibility, intelligence and wit; of how “angelic”, how “bewitching” she is…but her own correspondence, which makes up the bulk of the novel, gives us no hint of anything out of the thoroughly ordinary. We are left to assume that everyone is reading whatever they want to into the tabula rasa of a pretty face. Likewise, though we hear from his first appearance about how Lord Darcy’s mind is “illumin’d with uncommon understanding, sweetness, and refinement”, what he reveals of himself directly and in his letters makes the reader want to slap him.

(Most exasperatingly, this novel repeatedly contends that no-one who isn’t perfectly beautiful can expect to be loved, even to the point of creating a plain spinster character in every other respect even more boringly perfect than Fanny herself. At some points it even suggests that no-one who isn’t beautiful is capable of loving. I suppose this attitude may have been consequence of Mrs Gunning having seen first-hand what her sisters-in-law achieved via beauty alone, unsupported by birth or money, though it seems an odd and hurtful assertion coming from someone who does not seem to have been more than borderline pretty herself.)

The opening of Barford Abbey gave me what proved to be unfounded hopes that it was going to be an exercise in hilarious misery like Valentine:

How distressing, how heart-rending, is my dear Fanny’s mournful detail!—It lies before me; I weep over it!—I weep not for the departed saint: no; it is for you, myself, for all who have experienced her godlike virtues!

But this was largely misleading, although though we do get a few agreeably absurd flourishes from time to time. The novel’s opening correspondents are Miss Fanny Warley and the Lady Mary Sutton; the latter, for her health, has been for some time residing at “the German Spaw”, although she now holds hopes of being permitted by her physician to return to England. Fanny’s dismal letter (not included) reports the death of one Mrs Whitmore, with whom she has been living. Lady Mary begs Fanny to join her on the Continent by travelling with Mr and Mrs Smith, who will be wintering at Montpelier; in the meantime, she is to be taken in by Mr and Mrs Jenkings, the former the steward to Sir James and Lady Powis of – ah-ha! – Barford Abbey.

What we notice chiefly about the early multiplicity of names is the distinct lack of Warleys in the immediate vicinity of Fanny Warley. In fact, Fanny is an orphan, and without either birth or money. Not to worry, though!—she’s beautiful, so I’m sure fate has something pleasant in store for her.

Fanny has barely arrived at the Jenkings’ before she finds herself an object of interest to Sir James and Lady Powis. The two ladies immediately discover that they are kindred spirits:

Then addressing herself to me, Will you, Madam, give me the pleasure of your company often at the Abbey?—I mean, will you come there as if it was your home?—Mr and Mrs Jenkings have comforts, I have not,—at least that I can enjoy.—Here she sigh’d deeply;—so deep, that I declare it pierced through my heart;—I felt as if turn’d into stone;—what I suppose I was a true emblem of.—The silent friends that trickled down my cheeks brought me back from my inanimate state…

The comfort that Lady Powis cannot enjoy is her son, who due to a disagreement with his father lives on the Continent (it’s crowded over there) and has not been home since his departure. Mr Jenkings also has a son, Edmund, of whom he is inordinately proud—to which, or so Fanny assumes (comparing her penniless condition to Edmund’s expectations from his well-heeled father), we can attribute the disapproval he evinces when he realises that (sigh) Edmund is falling in love with their visitor.

Fanny’s first visits to Barford Abbey serve to make the reader aware of another potential mystery, in addition to the vagueness of our heroine’s background. In conversation she naturally makes several references to “Lady Mary”; her subsequent revelation of her de facto guardian’s identity has a strange effect:

    A similitude of manners between your Ladyship and Lady Powis, particularly in doing the honours of the table, struck me so much, that I once or twice call’d her Lady Mary.—Pray, Miss Warley, ask’d she, who is this Lady Mary?
    What could occasion her confusion!—what could occasion the confusion of Sir James!—Never did see any thing equal it, when I said it was Lady Mary Sutton!—The significant looks that were interchang’d, spoke some mystery;—a mystery it would be presumption in me to dive after. Her Ladyship made no reply,—Sir James was eager to vary the subject,—and the conversation became general…

No explanation is forthcoming for some considerable time, while Fanny is reassured by Lady Mary’s evasive assertion that Lady Powis is worthy of her love. Meanwhile, we learn that the estrangement between Sir James and his son was caused by the failure of the latter to marry the wealthy woman his father picked out for him; though as it turns out, the lady refused his loveless offer.

Though separated from her son, Lady Powis does take some comfort from the visits to the Abbey of the young Lord Darcey, who Fanny is invited to meet, and of whose circumstances she first hears from Mrs Jenkings:

Mrs Jenkings informed me, his Lordship was a ward of Sir James’s just of age;—his estate genteel, not large;—his education liberal,—his person fine,—his temper remarkably good.—Sir James, said she, is for ever preaching lessons to him, that he must marry prudently;—which is, that he must never marry without an immense fortune…

So…a handsome young peer needing to marry for money thrown together with a beautiful but penniless young woman…what could possibly go wrong?

Barford Abbey’s second major correspondence is between Lord Darcey and his cousin, George Molesworth. While the letters exchanged between Fanny Warley and Lady Mary Sutton are full of sentiment and sensibility, those of the two young men offer a more cynical, if no less emotive, commentary upon the workings of society, in particular its attitude to love, marriage and money. Through these exchanges we also learn more of Lord Darcey’s position, and his relationship with Sir James Powis. Though “just of age”, Darcey is still subject to Sir James’s will thanks to a promise made to his father on the latter’s death-bed:

    Without his consent never can I give my hand;—the commands of a dying father forbid me.—Such a father!—O George! you did not know him; —so revered, —so honour’d,—so belov’d! not more in public than in private life.
    My friend, behold your son!—Darcey, behold your father!—As you reverence and obey Sir James, as you consult him on all occasions, as you are guided by his advice, receive my blessing.—These were his parting words, hugg’d into me in his last cold embrace…

Ew!

(So his last earthly thoughts were not of God or heaven, but of keeping his son in a state of permanent subjection? Such a father, indeed…)

But as Molesworth is quick to deduce from his cousin’s letters, Darcey has already fallen in love with Fanny. He helpfully clarifies the situation by explaining why Darcey’s raptures indicate more than mere friendship, using his unfortunate cousin as a negative example:

So it is necessary for every woman you think capable of friendship, to have fine eyes, fine hair, a bewitching smile, and a neck delicately turn’d.—Have not I the highest opinion of my cousin Dolly’s sincerity?—Do I not think her very capable of friendship?—Yet, poor soul, her eyes are planted so deep, it requires good ones to discover she has any.—Such a hand, George!—Such a hand, Darcey!—Why, Lady Dorothy too has hands; I am often enough squeez’d by them:—though hard as a horse’s hoof, and the colour of tanned leather, I hold her capable of friendship.—Neck she has none! yet need I the determination of another, to tell me whether my regard for her proceeds from love or friendship?

Some regard.

This is the point when Darcey begins to evince some very unlovely character traits. In the first place, though he knows that Sir James will never permit their marriage—though Sir James has specifically and directly warned him away from Fanny—though he repeatedly declares that, as a consequence, he cannot marry her—Darcey not only declines to do anything as sensible (or unselfish) as remove himself from Fanny’s orbit, he continues to court her until she falls in love with him. Fanny’s letters become full of hope mingled with confusion, and eventually distress: Darcey’s behaviour seems to promise everything, but he does not speak…

This situation reaches an unexpected crisis when, thanks to the meddling of a busy-body visitor, Darcey is forced to make a public declaration that he has no intention of offering for anybody… Hurt and humiliated (not least because the circumstances ensure that everyone knows exactly who Darcey has “no intention” of offering for), Fanny tries to cut him out of her heart, evading him whenever she can, and treating him coldly when she cannot—which is most of the time. Despite his declaration, Darcey continues to pursue her, protesting (both to her and in his letters) about her “coldness” and “indifference”, repeatedly addressing her in public as “my angel” and “my dearest life”, and forcing his company upon her no matter how often or how firmly she lets him know it’s not wanted.

But this isn’t even the worst of it! Since every man who comes near Fanny falls in love with her, and since most of them are under no restriction about who they marry, from the very first Darcey is wracked with jealousy, which becomes even worse after his public crying off:

    Where are those looks of preference fled,—those expressive looks?—I saw them not till now:—it is their loss,—it is their sad reverse that tells me what they were. She turns not her head to follow my footsteps at parting;—or when I return, does not proclaim it by advancing pleasure tip-toe to the windows of her soul.—No anxiety for my health! No, she cares not what becomes of me.—I complain’d of my head, said I was in great pain;—heaven knows how true! My complaints were disregarded.—I attended her home. She sung all the way; or if she talked, it was of music:—not a word of my poor head
    Shall she be another’s?—Yes, when I shrink at sight of what lies yonder,—my sword, George;—that shall prevent her ever being another’s

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen!

(Actually, this aspect of Barford Abbey put me very much in mind of Fanny Burney’s last novel, The Wanderer, which also features a “hero” so intent upon claiming his romantic privileges, he all but ruins the life of the woman he’s supposed to be in love with.)

Finally Fanny is driven to drastic action. Keeping her intentions a strict secret until, as she knows is to happen, Darcey is forced to leave Barford Abbey for a time on account of business associated with his own estates, she makes arrangements to travel to London to join Mr and Mrs Smith, who are to escort her to Montpelier. Her hope is to be out of the country before Darcey even knows she’s left the Abbey. She sets out…

A flurry of shocks and revelations follow, with the correspondence flying back and forth between several parties and almost bewildering the reader. Some of this is intentional, some due (as I alluded to at the beginning) to insufficient set-up. In the latter category we have the abrupt revelation of Fanny’s true identity: she is the granddaughter of Sir James and Lady Powis, the daughter of the estranged Mr Powis and his wife. (You will now appreciate my confusion over Mr Powis’s apparent age.)

This aspect of Barford Abbey is nothing less than absurd. It turns out that the woman Mr Powis did not marry was – surprise! – Lady Mary Sutton who, though “possess’d of every virtue” (including the whacking great fortune that attracted Sir James’s attention in the first place), had the misfortune to be plain:

    Mr Powis’s inclinations not coinciding,—Sir James throws himself into a violent rage.—Covetousness and obstinacy always go hand in hand:—both had taken such fast hold of the Baronet, that he swore—and his oath was without reservation—he would never consent to his son’s marrying any other woman.—Mr Powis, finding his father determin’d,—and nothing, after his imprecation, to expect from the entreaties of his mother,—strove to forget the person of Lady Mary, and think only of her mind…
    The two Ladies set out on their journey, attended by Sir James and Mr Powis, who, in obedience to his father, was still endeavouring to conquer his indifference.—Perhaps, in time, Lady Mary might have found a way to his heart,—had she not introduc’d the very evening of their arrival at the Lodge, her counter-part in every thing but person:—there Miss Whitmore outshone her whole sex…

Well, now…that was silly.

Lady Mary, though in love with Mr Powis (God only knows why), accepts that he can never love her, and generously makes it look to Sir James as if she has rejected him. Furthermore, she then enters into a conspiracy to get Mr Powis married off to the beautiful Miss Whitmore, binding everyone involved to a solemn oath of silence. The plotters go so far as to (i) fake Miss Whitmore’s death; (ii) have her live on the Continent under an assumed name, never acknowledged as Mrs Powis, and (iii) giving up their child to be raised by her grandmother, Mrs Whitmore, with assistance from Lady Mary, rather than give away their secret.

All of which makes a lot more sense than Mr Powis saying openly, “Screw you, Dad, I’ll marry who I damn well please!”

(So if I’m understanding it correctly, the moral of Barford Abbey is: It’s fine to disobey your father, as long as he doesn’t find out you’ve done it…)

Anyway— The revelation that Fanny is his granddaughter reconciles the avaricious Sir James to pretty much everything, including her marriage to Lord Darcey. (The fact that Fanny is in fact neither an orphan nor penniless might also have something to do with it.) Darcey is instantly cast up into the heights of ecstasy—and then, this being the kind of novel that it is, instantly afterwards cast down into the depths of despair—for reasons conveyed by George Molesworth to another of our supporting characters, Captain Richard Risby:

    Oh Dick! the most dreadful affair has happen’d!—Lord Darcey is distracted and dying; I am little better.—Good God! What shall I do?—what can I do?—He lies on the floor in the next room, with half his hair torn off.—Unhappy man! fatigue had near kill’d him, before the melancholy account reach’d his ears.—Miss Warley, I mean Miss Powis, is gone to the bottom.—She sunk in the yacht that sailed yesterday from Dover to Calais.—Every soul is lost.—The fatal accident was confirm’d by a boat which came in not ten minutes before we arriv’d.—There was no keeping it from Lord Darcey.—The woman of the Inn we are at has a son lost in the same vessel: she was in fits when we alighted.—Some of the wreck is drove on shore.—What can equal this scene!—Oh, Miss Powis! most amiable of women, I tremble for your relations!—But Darcey, poor Darcey, what do I feel for you!—He speaks:—he calls for me:—I go to him.—
    Oh, Risby! my heart is breaking; for once let it be said a man’s heart can break.—Whilst he raved, whilst his sorrows were loud, there was some chance; but now all is over. He is absolutely dying;—death is in every feature.—His convulsions how dreadful!—how dreadful the pale horror of his countenance!—But then so calm,—so compos’d!—I repeat, there can be no chance—

Oh, really?

Sentimental novels, as we know, enjoy nothing better than wallowing in extreme emotion, and they frequently do kill off their heroes and heroines in order to dwell upon the misery of the survivors (kind of the literary equivalent of, Shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die…); but it usually happens towards the end of the novel, not only three-fifths of the way through. However, Barford Abbey lingers so long upon the grief of its characters that I began to be lulled into a belief in Fanny’s death, which a combination of cynicism and experience had previously prevented. Curiously, what restored my instinctive scepticism was this, also from George Molesworth:

I have neither leisure or spirits to tell you in what manner the body was found, and how I knew it to be Miss Powis’s…

A ship lost with all hands is one thing; a body washed ashore quite some time afterwards and identified via (presumably) clothing or jewellery is something very different. Sure enough, eventually we learn about an unfortunate young woman called Frances Walsh, who favoured initialled handkerchiefs…

So where is Fanny? Why has she not been in contact?

Having slipped away from Barford Abbey and Lord Darcey, Fanny is escorted to London by Mr Smith (remember him?), who on the way reveals himself to be—A VILLAIN!! Or at least an idiot, making improper proposals on the strength of his wife being sure to die sooner or later; hiding under the bed in Fanny’s room at an inn, in order to do it again; and then threatening to shoot himself if she won’t listen to him. Fanny’s screams bring an elderly gentleman also staying at the inn to the scene, who turns out to be Lady’s Mary’s banker. Mr Delves carries her to his own house in London, where almost immediately she falls ill with smallpox. There, after a series of coincidences, George Molesworth finds her—and relieves our minds of their most pressing concern in a letter to Captain Risby:

But let me tell you, Miss Powis is just recover’d from the smallpox;—that this was the second day of her sitting up:—let me tell you too her face is as beautiful as ever…

Phew! For a moment there I was afraid she might now be less than perfectly beautiful!

But as long as Barford Abbey spent dwelling on the misery of its characters following Fanny’s death, it spends twice as long dwelling on their incredulous joy after her resurrection. The only event of note that occurs in the final one hundred pages of the novel is Fanny’s marriage to Lord Darcey; although this is supported by a flurry of engagements amongst the minor characters—those of George Molesworth, Captain Risby and Lord Hallum to, respectively, the Lady Elizabeth Curtis, the Lady Sophia Curtis, and Miss Delves; all three young ladies being—I’m sure you’ll be astonished to hear—perfectly beautiful.

    How infinite,—how dazzling the beauty of holiness!—Affliction seems to have threatened this amiable family, only to encrease their love,—their reverence,—their admiration of Divine Omnipotence.—Blessings may appear, as a certain great man remarks, under the shape of pain, losses, and disappointment;—but let us have patience, and we shall see them in their own proper figures.
    If rewards even in this world attend the virtuous, who would be deprav’d?—Could the loose, the abandon’d, look in on this happy mansion, how would their sensual appetites be pall’d!—How would they hate,—how detest the vanity,—the folly, that leads to vice!—If pleasure is their pursuit, here they might see it speaking at mouth and eyes:—pleasures that fleet not away;—pleasures that are carried beyond the grave…

28/05/2014

The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley (Part 2)

SophiaBerkley1O heavens! what was my amazement; I rose and flew into his arms. Joy and astonishment at once took possession of all my faculties. Every power of expression was lost—I only breathed forth, My Horatio! and sunk upon his bosom, unable to proceed: he casting a look of inexpressible delight upon me, clasped me to his breast, with all the enraptured transport that attends the return of a once enjoyed, but long lost blessing. It was with difficulty I could persuade myself, this was not all a vision. How inferior is all language to the varied emotions of my soul! I was even doubtful whether I should believe my senses; but my fond, flattering heart, confessed its loved possessor. The dear, the faithful Horatio, whose death I had so greatly mourned, was again restored to me. Conceive, my Constantia, conceive the mutual transport that filled us…

Having escaped from Castilio, Sophia goes cross-country and into some surrounding fields, where she feels safe enough to have a bit of a meltdown. She is found by an elderly shepherd who takes her home to his wife. The couple care for her until her health and nerves are restored. They are (rather improbably) sufficiently lettered to have paper, pen and ink in their cottage, allowing Sophia finally to get a letter away to Mrs Williams…and another…and another. When she does not hear from her friend, Sophia is despairing; but the cottagers come to her rescue once again, diffidently offering to adopt her, in effect, as they have no children of their own. She accepts with gratitude, and lives nearly a year with the elderly couple.

Here too The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley has more in common with the sentimental novels of the time than with the Gothics to come, as we get extended passages devoted to extolling the simple life and how happiness and virtue are to be found in a cottage, not a mansion. (We do get this in Gothic novels too, but generally from a safe distance, not when the heroine is actually living it.) But this idyll doesn’t last, as Typhoid Sophia strikes again. The old woman is killed when a cow kicks her in the head. The grieving widower decides he cannot bear to go on living at the cottage without his wife, and conveniently enough prepares to go to London, where after making sure Sophia has a safe refuge—

…the old shepherd, who was the only friend I had in the world, was taken ill, and died about three weeks after he came to London. At his death, he gave me all he had in the world, which consisted of about fifty pounds…

Sophia has already tried and failed to get word of Mrs Williams, though with a not unnatural fear of falling once again into the hands of Castilio or his myrmidons she restricts her public movements. Finally she decides that she will have to support herself by going into service. At this point she remembers the existence of the useful Juliet, in service herself some distance out of town:

She sent me an answer, expressing her sorrow for my misfortunes; she told me she knew nothing about Mrs Williams, to whom she had wrote, but that she never received any answer. She concluded her letter by telling me, that if she could be any use to me, she would leave her place and come to town…

We note with relief that Sophia does not accept this offer, but continues to seek a position as lady’s maid on her own account. She hears of a place that she thinks will suit her, but before she is able to act upon it, she is seized by a bailiff. Her bewilderment turns to horror when she discovers that she has been arrested for a debt supposedly owed to Castilio, who has forged her signature upon an IOU for one hundred pounds. Her protests and pleadings attract a crowd, but they hesitate to interfere with the law. However, a passing gentleman observes the commotion and intervenes, giving the bailiff a bank bill for the debt (whether he is in on the plot or not, the bailiff is disappointed with this outcome), and carrying the fainting Sophia away from the scene.

The gentleman, Dorimont by name, falls in love with Sophia at first sight (of course), which puts her in an awkward situation: she is grateful to him, and in his debt; but after her loss of Horatio she resolved never to marry. She is at least geographically rescued from her dilemma by an accidental encounter with Mrs Williams, not only hale and hearty but in possession of a small legacy that allows her to live independently. Sophia takes up residence with her friend, but this does not protect her from the inevitable declaration – not Dorimont from the inevitable can’t-we-just-be-friends? response:

A death-like paleness overspread his face: he let go my hand, which he had yet held between his; and reclining his head upon his breast, he remained for some time in that mournful posture. O Constantia, what various emotions filled my soul! To behold Dorimont, in a situation like this; to see his soul struggling between love and honour; to be witness to his agony, and to know myself the cause, overcame all my resolution. Tears filled my eyes. O Dorimont, said I, taking his hand, I cannot see you thus. Let not this unhappy passion for me—I was proceeding, but he interrupted me. O Sophia, said he, I am ashamed of my weakness: but who renounces calmly the fondest wishes of his soul? I foresaw what you would say, but no preparation was sufficient to guard me from the cruel conflict. You must, you shall be obeyed, even though my life should be the sacrifice…

Or not. Dorimont drops into an armchair and communes with himself for about half an hour:

He then on a sudden assumed a calm and serene air; and coming up to me, he again took my hand, and pressed it to his lips. What a victory you have gained, madam! said he; in Dorimont you are no longer to behold a lover, but a friend…

It’s just that easy!

Just as well, too:

…a servant came up, and told me there was a gentleman below, that asked to see me immediately. As I was still apprehensive of Castilio’s contrivances, I began to fear this was some new treachery of his, as I could by no means guess what gentleman should enquire for me. I entreated Dorimont to go down and see who it was. He was hardly gone, when he returned, leading in his hand, O Constantia, you will hardly believe it—My Horatio! my long lost Horatio!

Some credit is due here to our anonymous author, who again (as in her description of the practical means taken by Sophia and Fidelia to escape from Castilio) reveals a practical bent in conflict with the demands of her chosen genre: in spite of “sinking” onto Horatio’s bosom, Sophia does not actually faint. In fact, she pulls herself together in a remarkably short space of time, and starts making the necessary introductions. We are a far cry here from the absurdities of something like Munster Abbey, with its repeated scenes in which a character almost dies of joy. (And nor, for that matter, can Munster Abbey touch The Man Of Feeling, which actually does have someone die of joy.)

We then hear all about Horatio’s adventures among the “pyrates”. Of course he had only fainted from loss of blood when he was carried off; and also of course, when he is in danger of being tossed overboard his life is spared by one of the band, “having more humanity than the rest”. However, it turns out that one of the pyrates killed by Horatio during the initial fight was, ahem, “one of the favourites” of the captain, Rodolpho, who is so determined on revenge that he rejects the offer of a large ransom in preference for making Horatio’s life a living hell:

I was not without hopes that when we came to land, I might find some way to escape and return to England. I determined therefore to wait patiently, and arm myself with all my resolution to bear the insults of the inhuman Rodolpho, who took pleasure in making me sensible I was in his power. But I was always superior to my ill fortune, and treated Rodolpho with a contempt which provoked him beyond expression…

Not too smart on Horatio’s part, we might think, particularly when it turns out that the pyrates are slave-traders…

And here we might pause for a flashback. Those of you who were around in the very earliest days of this blog might recall that in the very first novel I ever considered for Reading Roulette, Elizabeth Jervis’s Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events, the hero (or at least, the man with whom the heroine was in love) was also captured by pirates and enslaved. Now, this did happen during the 18th century; but I can’t help wondering whether it’s one of those things that happened much more frequently in novels than in actuality?—and how many novelists did use this as a device for separating their lovers? Mrs Jervis does at least pay lip-service to the real circumstances, with ships from Christian countries being attacked by Muslim pirates operating out of North Africa. Our anonymous “young lady”, on the other hand, gives us a band of predominantly English “pyrates” operating rather improbably off the south coast of England. Either way, it should be kept in mind that after peaking during the first half of the 18th century, the activities of the Barbary pirates were severely curtailed mid-century onwards, first by an increasing multi-national naval presence in the Mediterranean, and then by the Barbary Wars of the 1780s.

In fact, most captives during this time were ransomed rather than enslaved. However, Horatio has ticked off Rodolpho to such an extent that not only does he refuse a ransom, he enslaves Horatio personally, setting him with a number of others to work in a marble quarry hewing rock from which he, Rodolpho, intends to have a luxurious house built. (The pyrates are based in Algiers, which is at least an accurate detail.) Horatio finds an escape plan already brewing – one rather questions the wisdom of Rodolpho in giving his slaves free access to tools – and becomes part of the band building a boat out of the flotsam and jetsam tossed up upon the coast. The men save up their scanty rations to make provisions and, under the leadership of a former sailor, make their escape.

And here we see how entirely Horatio and Sophia are made for each other: he, too, tends to walk away unscathed, while leaving death and disaster in his wake:

    The third day of our navigation there arose a violent tempest; the sea was prodigiously agitated; the waves tost up to an amazing height: the whole heavens were darkened; horrid peals of thunder roared over our heads; and a prodigious flash of lightning every now and then furnished us with light sufficient to behold our danger; for we were thrown into the midst of a great number of rocks, against some of which we expected every moment to strike…
    A horrid blast of wind, stronger than the first, now arose, and whirled us round and round for a few minutes; then it threw us with a redoubled violence against the same rock; at which instant, our ship split into a thousand pieces. I was thrown by the force of a wave upon the side of a rock, and was so bruised by the blow that I had the utmost difficulty to rise, which, however, I did; and finding there was a small neck of land adjoining to the rock, I made a shift to crawl a few paces forward, and got at last upon firm ground…

Horatio is the only survivor (of course) and finds himself not so badly off: his island offers fresh water, fish and fruit to eat, and flints for a fire; and he lives there for six months until picked up by a passing French ship that spots his distress signal. On board he makes a friend, who will be the linchpin of his next set of adventures:

    His name was the Marquis de Bellville: he was the only son to the Duke de Bellville, one of the oldest families in France. This young nobleman was possessed of a thousand good qualities. He had an uncommon elevation of soul, an untainted honour, and the utmost generosity.
    But with so many amiable qualities, he had one, which threw a shade upon them all, and was the source of the misfortunes that since befel him. He was naturally excessive passionate: the violence of his temper would so totally get the better of his reason, that, in a fit of rage, he would have committed the most extravagant actions imaginable…

The Marquis carries Horatio to his family seat. The two make plans to travel together to England, and in the meantime, via a friend, Horatio tries but fails to get some word of Sophia. His only thought is to go in search of her, but events intervene: the Marquis has a sister who (of course) falls desperately in love with Horatio. (If Sophia’s adventures owe something to Clarissa, Horatio’s own smack of Sir Charles Grandison.) Discovering his sister’s secret, the Marquis – despite the fact that he knows about Sophia! – proposes a marriage. When Horatio (of course) refuses, the Marquis does not take it well – to say the least:

Ah! my dear Marquis, said I, how distressful is the situation in which I find myself. I am truly penetrated with the distinguishing mark of honour I have just now received—but, O Belville! it is impossible for me—Enough, enough, interrupted the Marquis, whose eyes sparkled with indignation; and this is the return you make me; my sister, it seems, is unworthy your acceptance. Alas! Belville, replied I, you blame me most unjustly; Mademoiselle de Bellville deserves all that heaven, in its utmost profusion of blessings, can bestow—but you know that I am—A villain, replied he fiercely. How! Bellville!—But do not hope, continued he, transported with rage, do not hope to boast of having refused and insulted my sister, this very moment shall avenge her. At these words he drew his sword…

At first Horatio fights only defensively, hoping to disarm his psychotic young friend, or at least hold him off until he cools down; but finally there is only one way he can save his own life…

Then we meet the Duke de Bellville, and find out where the Marquis got all his rationality and sense of proportion:

…a letter de cachet was procured by the Duke against me; and I was conducted into a dark and horrible dungeon, where I was put in chains, as if I had been a common malefactor…

After four days of this, Horatio is hauled before the King; but since he won’t reveal the cause of the fight between himself and Bellville, he is condemned in short order.

Then something weird happens: Horatio literally has his head upon the block when there is an uproar nearby, and he is reprieved. He is taken back to the palace, where he learns to his bewilderment that someone else has confessed to the killing of the Marquis and, furthermore, that the two peasants who stumbled into the scene at the conclusion of the duel and were the main witnesses for the prosecution, are now insisting that the second young man, Clerimont by name, was responsible. Clerimont testifies that he and Horatio have been life-long friends, and that taking the blame for the Marquis’s death was Horatio’s way of repaying his friend for once saving his life. The peasants, meanwhile, were bribed by Horatio to remain silent over Clerimont’s guilt, Clerimont himself having been wounded in the duel and oblivious to his friend’s machinations.

Horatio being Horatio, he continues to insist upon his own guilt and that, furthermore, he has never seen his “life-long friend” before. The King, at first inclined to be admiring of his sacrifice, grows angry at what he comes to interpret as a plot to help Horatio escape retribution. Finally, losing his temper, he condemns both young men to death, and at once. Horatio and Clerimont are therefore hustled back to the place of execution. On the way, all Horatio’s thoughts are taken up with the question of just who this person is, but Clerimont does not explain, merely passing him a note with strict instructions not to read it until he, Clerimont, has been executed.

Clerimont now prepared himself to receive the fatal blow: but what words can paint the horror and surprise that filled me; when, as he was fixing his head upon the block, in the posture which the executioner thought most convenient, I beheld a mask, made so artificially, as to represent a human face, fall to the ground, and discover the lovely features of Mademoiselle de Bellville!

The young lady has stood up unshaken to the prospect of being executed, but being exposed like this before the mob causes her to be overcome with maidenly shame; naturally, she faints. A lieutenant who has had charge of Horatio, and become attached to him, obeys his pleas to carry Mademoiselle de Bellville to a safe place, and then accompanies his charge back to the palace once again – I know not, said the lieutenant, what effect this may have upon the king; but I think he will hardly send you to the scaffold a third time – and in fact, His Majesty has a mood swing, exonerating Horatio and trying to make it up to him for the whole repeatedly-trying-to-cut-your-head-off thing.

By this time the Duke has also cooled down; he is further appeased by Horatio offering him his sword, so that he might take his life if he chooses. Escaping this peril, Horatio nevertheless concludes that, all things considered, he is in honour bound to Mademoiselle de Bellville if she wants him; but she – so to speak – pulls an Isabella:

    After what I have done, Horatio, it would be vain for me to deny my real sentiments with regard to you. I shall own, without a blush, that you are the only man I ever did, or ever can love. But do not imagine my affection for you is attended by any of that weakness which generally accompanies this passion. I would have died for you, Horatio—Did that resolution appear noble? The one I have taken is much nobler.—Your heart, your vows, can never be mine; your gratitude is—your esteem shall be—You imagine, perhaps, that I shall accept the sacrifice you have prepared to make me of yourself; but here you are mistaken; for I swear by heaven I will never give my hand to any man…
    Mademoiselle de Bellville begged me to leave France immediately, and return to my native country; from whence I had been too long absent. Do not think, said she, to stay any longer here on my account, for after to-morrow you will not again see me; I shall retire into a convent…

Horatio, off the hook in both respects, wastes no time fleeing France for England (and who can blame him?). He immediately seeks out the friend who he tasked with trying to get news of Sophia, but he has learned nothing of her beyond the death of her father.

But not to worry! In a marvellous bit of anticlimax, after all their adventures Horatio and Sophia are reunited thus:

…but it happened very fortunately, that I took a lodging in that very house which my Sophia left when she came here. As I was asking the man of the house what lodgers he lately had, he mentioned several, and amongst them a young lady, who, by the description he gave me of her, I soon discovered to be Sophia. I asked him eagerly, if he knew where she now lodged; he told me that he did, and then gave me a direction here…

Horatio and Sophia are then married. This isn’t quite the end of things, but – in a touch that finally, out of all its possible genres, places The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley firmly in the camp of the novel of sentiment – it concludes with a paean to friendship, which novels of this kind commonly exalt above love. And in this spirit, although two of the friends in question are Dorimont and Mademoiselle de Bellville (whose father finally insists upon her leaving the convent), the novel surprises us just a little by declining to marry them off:

    Prepared as I was to admire and love Mademoiselle de Bellville—I was struck with the distinguishing graces of her appearance and manners. She treated me with the most polite distinction; she honoured me with her friendship; and never, I believe, was there a more perfect one than that which we contracted together.
    It is only souls of a certain kind that can conceive the happiness flowing from a society like ours.
    Friendship unmixed—confidence unbounded—reigned among us, and reigned uninterrupted…

25/05/2014

The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley (Part 1)

SophiaBerkley1

    The hated Castilio renewed his unmanly treatment. He swore by heaven, he would no longer be imposed upon. Prepare, said he, in a menacing voice, to receive me this night to your bed; for may eternal perdition seize me, (that was his horrid expression) if I allow you another night; you abuse my complaisance, but I will no longer be trifled with. Having said this, the inhuman monster left me.
    I threw myself upon the floor, and gave myself up to the most agonising despair: I tore my hair, and bathed the earth with my tears. I now saw the fatal hour approach, when death or infamy must be my portion. I lay some minutes in this situation; then summoning all my resolution to my assistance, I reproached myself severely for my want of courage. What, thought I, do I hesitate between death and dishonour! I threw myself upon my knees, and poured out the bitterness of my anguish to heaven, resolving to die at once, and by that means relieve myself from the horrors that surrounded me…

While I was researching Thomas Leland’s Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury, I came across something both fascinating and frustrating. To start at the end, there has recently been a push to show that a number of the tropes we take for granted in English Gothic literature may be found, at least in embryonic form, in mid-18th century Irish writing. Academics working in this area argue that most such regional works are overlooked almost as a matter of course, with mainstream dogma taking it for granted that this school of writing started in England; and that even when such studies include Longsword as a proto-Gothic, rather than starting with The Castle Of Otranto, they rarely identify Thomas Leland as an Irish writer.

Which brings me to the point I wanted to make, the following remark in a piece by Deborah Russell titled, Generic Restrictions And The ‘Female Gothic’:

Morin also argues that “scholars of British Gothic fiction generally ignore the fact that two Irish Gothic novels were published before The Castle of Otranto”, the most significant of which is Thomas Leland’s Longsword (1762).

This, as you might imagine, sent me off on a frantic hunt for “Morin”, and the identity of that second novel…

After some hunting, I identified the source of this remark as a paper by Christina Morin, Forgotten Fiction: Reconsidering the Gothic Novel in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, and the novel in question as The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley, published in Dublin in 1760 by “a young lady”, and therefore pre-dating Longsword by two years, and Otranto by four.

The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley is a short novel, a single volume of only around 170 pages; but it is sufficiently entertaining, if not always in the way in which its anonymous author intended. By far the most interesting thing about it is how many different genres intersect within its pages. It has a number of features in common with the picaresque novel that flourished during the 18th century, although since its focus is a young woman the “adventures” are of a different kind (in this, its author may have been influenced by the earlier works of Penelope Aubin). It is an early example of the novel of sentiment, dwelling at length upon the moral superiority of its characters, and having them exhibit that superiority through their emotions; although it never reaches the heights, or depths, of something like Mackenzie’s The Man Of Feeling. It is an epistolary novel – sort of – which from mid-century onwards became perhaps the dominant novelistic form; and it is (albeit unknowingly) a proto-Gothic novel.

No more than Longsword is The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley a true Gothic, but its placing at the earliest point (so far) in the timeline of Gothic literature is justified. The usual historical and geographical settings are missing, but this is a woman-in-peril novel par excellence. However, the plot offers no mystery to be solved, and the narrative is quite as devoted to lengthy descriptions of its characters’ “exalted sentiments” as it is to its heroine’s adventures. Furthermore, in spite of its general popularity, the true Gothic novel would eschew the epistolary form, presumably since having someone to correspond with in the first place would undermine the sense of the heroine’s isolation and danger that is one of the genre’s hallmarks.

So the upside of The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley is that it is consistently interesting, even though it is extremely doubtful that its author intended any of the qualities that make it so. The downside is – if you consider it a downside – it’s not very good.

I say that this is “sort of” an epistolary novel because the correspondence presented is entirely one-sided. In fact, this is really just a first-person narrative broken up into letters rather than chapters. The main effect of this choice is to add a welcome note of the ludicrous to the proceedings, as without a third-person narrator to tell the reader how beautiful and accomplished and full of “delicacy of sentiment” Sophia is, she’s forced to tell us so herself:

I was then just nineteen, my person was graceful, and I was universally reckoned handsome by the men [who] all paid me the homage, that is in general so delightful to a young heart… As for me, I was totally unacquainted with the arts of my sex…

Similarly, the first-person narration of The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley adds an unintentional comic edge to the action of the novel. It is not uncommon in this genre for the heroine’s beauty and goodness to win her partisans on her difficult journey through the world, but ordinarily we hear about their motivations from themselves. Here, with everything filtered through Sophia’s self-absorption, we hear only about her problems, as the people who help her drop like flies along the way.

Sophia’s letters, as so often in the novels of this period, comprise her attempt to fulfil a request from her dearest friend, Constantia, who signifies her attachment in the usual way:

You insist upon my giving you a circumstantial account of all that has happened to me, from my infancy to the time when I was so happy as to be acquainted with you…

However, Sophia starts with a background sketch of her parents: he an army officer and a younger son, she the daughter of an objecting nobleman, both of already feuding families; they eloped, and remained unforgiven by both sides (thus explaining why, later on, Sophia has no relatives to turn to in her travails). Sophia was the only child of the marriage, her mother dying young. She grows up happy in her father’s love and care, but regrets that she has no true friend:

I had naturally a turn for friendship. I found something in this passion more consistent with my ideas than any other; I wished to meet with one who could think on this head like myself; but here I was always disappointed. The young women of my acquaintance looked upon me as a romantic girl, and were incapable of conceiving those joys which flow from the sacred influence of friendship. I began at last to persuade myself that my ideas were perhaps chimerical, when I fortunately became acquainted with a young lady, who had a soul superior to her sex, and whose delicacy of sentiments were upon a level with my own…

Fortunate for Sophia, perhaps; not so much for Isabella. In a distinctly Gothic-y touch, we are told (not quite casually enough) that Isabella has been raised in her mother’s Roman Catholic faith – A religion which, as it addresses itself to the passions of mankind, can never chuse a better opportunity of taking possession of the mind, than when it is weakened by grief – thus immediately clueing us in on her eventual fate. Isabella is naturally of a “spritely” disposition, so Sophia notices at once when she suddenly grows grave and sad. Isabella finally confesses to unrequited love for the heir to a neighbouring estate. Sophia herself is unacquainted with the young man, Horatio, and when she expresses a curiosity to meet him, Isabella suffers a qualm at the thought of introducing them.

And not without cause:

O Constantia! how shall I teach you to conceive what a sight of this lovely youth inspired me with. His form and person was perfectly pleasing: the bloom of youth sat upon his cheeks. His eyes were a fine blue, and sparkled with a gentle lustre… His conversation was full of good sense, and perfectly consistent with that modesty of soul so little known among men, and yet the greatest charm they can possess. He seemed particularly struck with me…

And of course, he is; so much so that the very next day he asks permission to address her. This creates something of a dilemma for our perfect Sophia:

…the only obstacle I saw, was my friendship for Isabella; and to such a height did I carry this friendship, that I secretly resolved, let the consequence be what it would, never to marry Horatio, unless I could do so without making her miserable. To purchase my own happiness at the expence of my friend’s, was a meanness I should have despised myself for. No one, I believe, ever carried their ideas higher upon these heads than I did…

…except, luckily for her, Isabella, who seeing the writing on the wall, takes herself off to a convent, which we’ve been expecting since her religion was mentioned. Sophia suffers such qualms of conscience over Isabella’s sacrifice that it is a full six hours after hearing of her resolution before she accepts Horatio’s proposal.

Now—the fact that the hero and heroine come together so quickly and easily at the outset of The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley is of course an unmistakable sign that they’re about to be separated, lengthily and painfully.

Only a couple of days before the wedding, our young lovers are late arriving home after sitting in the dying light by the sea. Sophia then finds that she has lost her watch. Horatio goes to look for it, and gets attacked by pirates. Naturally.

When Horatio fails to return to the house, a frightened Sophia sends her father after him; he returns some time later in a state of despair, bringing with him the dead body of Horatio’s servant. The servant did live long enough to describe the attack by “a crew of pyrates who frequently infested these coasts”, and how Horatio accounted for four of the pirates before succumbing to his own wounds. The pirates were looting his body when some villagers ran up and, rather than lose their valuable prize, they carried his body away with them…

Sophia suffers agonies of grief, though it is surprisingly never suggested that she is dying of it. In fact, she has just regained something resembling tranquillity of spirits when she suffers the loss of her father, from “a violent fever”. As he lies dying, he is forced to make a confession:

I have been too profuse in my manner of living—my whole estate is gone, and you are left to poverty and distress! At these words he fell into convulsions. The violent agitation which his tenderness for me threw him into, was too great for his strength to support…

Yes, well. It’s a pity his “tenderness” for Sophia didn’t lead him to save a buck or two, but I guess you can’t have everything. When her father’s affairs are settled, not without input from some rapaciously dishonest creditors who take advantage of her ignorance, Sophia finds herself in possession of a mere one hundred pounds, and without a roof over her head. Having dismissed all of the servants except a maidservant called Juliet, Sophia braces herself and resolves to move to—the most expensive and dangerous place she can think of:

I determined to go to London, though I had no acquaintance there… Thus, at the age of twenty, you behold me destitute of money or friends; having already undergone two of the severest trials that can happen to a woman upon the point of entering the place in the world, where, for a female, experience and protection are the most necessary.

Luckily for Sophia, she has Juliet. It is Juliet who does know something of London; who arranges the journey; who finds a safe place for Sophia while she goes out to look for lodgings for her; who finds those lodgings, and at a price Sophia can afford; and who takes every opportunity to express her profound devotion to her mistress:

…adding, with tears in her eyes, that if I chose to have her live with me, she would never leave me; that she should be sufficiently paid in being with me; and as she had saved money in service, she would never take any wages…

The woman with whom Sophia lodges, a Mrs Williams, is a distressed gentlewoman reduced to running a milliner’s shop. When she hears the particulars of Sophia’s situation, she offers to take the girl into partnership. Sophia eagerly accepts, and, well—

…having no longer an occasion for Juliet, I dismissed her…

Sophia has a peaceful interlude with Mrs Williams, but, as she says herself, she is simply being set up for another fall. A wealthy young rake named Castilio (an unlike name for an Englishman, one would think, but moving on) drops into the shop looking for lace for some ruffles. His reputation precedes him:

Never, said she, was the power and will of doing ill, so completely joined as in Castilio. He is just come to the possession of an immense estate, which he spends in the gratification of every inordinate desire. He has been the ruin of several young women; and is so far from being ashamed of it, that he publickly boasts of it. There are no vile arts and contrivances he does not put in practice for the execution of his projects: I tremble whenever he comes into my house, and yet I dare not deny him entrance; for, if I did, he would never rest till he had revenged himself upon me…

But alas, this warning comes too late—for Castilio has already caught sight of the incomparable Sophia…

Sophia’s persecution by Castilio, which escalates from harassment and improper suggestions to her being decoyed away and abducted and imprisoned in his isolated estate, makes clear the claim of The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley for a place in the Gothic timeline. Yet perhaps more obvious still are the differences between this novel and its descendants: not just the domestication of the action in England, and Castilio’s “anything but marriage” attitude, which owes more than a little to Clarissa – with true Gothic villains, it’s usually either marriage or murder – but the sense of authorial uncertainty over how far Sophia should be active in her own defence, or whether helpless passivity is more attractive in a heroine. Thankfully, though she is not the prime mover, Sophia does not just sit and cry while someone else does the heavy lifting, but does her part, and with surprising physicality.

Ultimately Sophia owes her salvation to her predecessor in Castilio’s, uh, “affections”, who though discarded remains in his service. Given the task of persuading Sophia into compliance with Castilio’s “I’d rather you gave in gracefully, but if I have to I’ll rape you” scheme, the subtly named Fidelia, in spite of the fate that she knows awaits her should Castilio discover her betrayal of him, gives Sophia advice on how to hold him at arm’s-length for long enough for the two of them to hatch and execute an escape plan. Sophia discovers a bricked-up window behind some hangings, and the two girls set to work digging out the mortar. They manage to dislodge enough bricks to pull loose the iron bar that blocks their way (Sophia is never more likeable than when violently attacking the brickwork), and squeeze through the gap into the garden beyond. There’s a handy tree with branches extending over the high wall of the estate, and Sophia makes it to the top of the wall. Then disaster strikes:

I called Fidelia to follow me, which she prepared to do; but most unfortunately, when she had just got to the top of the tree, the branches on which she stood gave way and she fell backwards. I was shocked beyond imagination; I asked her if she was hurt. Alas! said she, in a feeble voice, I have, I believe, broke my leg, for I cannot rise; make haste, continued she, save yourself and leave me to my fate; I shall die in peace, since I have been a means of preserving your life and honour. My heart bled within me to see the poor creature, to whom I owed so much, in such a condition. I determined not to leave her; and was preparing to go back again, when I observed some people in the garden, and heard Castilio’s voice crying, This way, this way! This, you may believe, threw me into a terrible fright; I knew I could be of no use to Fidelia, and therefore resolved to get away as fast as I could…

So much for heaven protecting the working girl. We never find out what happens to Fidelia, though we are aware that she was in fear of her life from Castilio. Nor, as far as we know, does Sophia ever waste another thought upon her.

But, hey!—Sophia gets away safely, and that’s what really matters, right?

[To be continued…]

 

 

18/11/2013

The Hermitage: A British Story (Part 2)

Hutchinson1The rays of the onyx confounded Lord Albon; they were too radiant for his eye to gaze on! He stopt—He thought he saw the spirit of his friend, deck’d in angelic lustre! But Astianax relieved his confusion, and cries out: “My noble Lord, this meeting affords me infinite delight. My pilgrimage is ended: My vow is fulfiled: Behold, I have borne the ashes of the Hermit, Paul Du’Monte, to this their resting place! And, my Lord, the will of Providence sends forth unhop’d for circumstances to aid the completion of the prophecy. Hence, departing, I shall approach the throne, and crave from royal bounty, the restoration of my lost possessions…”

Astianax’s fourteen-year occupation of the Hermitage is carried out in obedience to Paul Du’Monte himself, who appears in corporeal form, allowing Astianax to recognise him as – surprise! – the mysterious hermit who lectured him on the right way to live. (Although if he had lived the right way, he would never have had to flee into the mountains. Hmm…) Paul orders Astianax to remain in the cell, to devote himself to prayer and meditation, and to read the book – the one book – that the cell contains:

“On the day in which thou shalt attain the last of these few folios, on that day the will of Heaven shall lead thee hence. When thou departest, carry forth my ashes, and let them rest amidst my ancestors.”

One book that lasts fourteen years, hey? I’m betting it’s George Reynolds’ The Mysteries Of London. Both volumes.

Paul then makes a dramatic exit by crumbling into his component parts, leaving Astianax to gather up the dust and transfer it into an urn prepared for that purpose. A quick prayer later, and he settles in for a good read—

Already were fourteen years elapsed in this abode; the book of wisdom yet remained unfinished, and the latest page of knowledge was far distant—

(“Book of wisdom”? Okay, not George Reynolds…)

—but all good things must come to an end, and finally:

The book of knowledge turned as leaves toss’d by the breeze, and shewed this last most sacred sentence: “The essence of all human wisdom is religion; in prosperity, it guides the giddy spirits to the paths of rectitude; and, in adversity, it blesseth us with confidence in God.” Astianax perused the lines; no sooner were they read, than the book closed…

And immediately, Astianax hears someone calling him by the name he has carefully concealed from his mountain friends. He hurries out of the Hermitage to find himself face to face with – surprise! – Grinvil, the rumours of whose death were greatly exaggerated. The disappearance of Astianax in the wake of his attack upon his friend had him written off as a suicide in most quarters, but Grinvil never believed it and kept searching for him. At last, after hearing the story of Paul Du’Monte from some mountain men, and also that “the promised one was come”, he was certain he had finally discovered the retreat of Astianax.

After explaining that it was Polidore who arranged for him to be at the bath house at that particular time, Grinvil reveals that Lord Melvil was killed by lightning during the terrible storm that accompanied Astianax’s flight into the mountains, and that his heir, Geoffrey, “contemning the bigotry and insolence of churchmen”, subsequently refused to hand Astinanax’s estate over to the church. Furthermore, the treacherous Polidore is also dead, having keeled over after taking communion: either struck down by God for his sacrilege or, more prosaically, by a poisoned wafer, courtesy of his old friend Father Paul.

That’s the good news; the bad news is, Grinvil has been unable to discover what happened to Jessalind.

But first things first: a group of noblemen, including the new Lord Melvil, are rebelling against the king. Grinvil insists that Astianax accompany him back to civilisation, to take up arms on the royal side. Accordingly, having carefully packed up Paul’s ashes, Astianax bids farewell to the Hermitage.

Now—ever since Astianax’s retreat into the mountains some fourteen years ago, passages describing his surroundings have been appearing more and more frequently in the text. Some of these passages are quite lengthy, but none of them to date are a patch on what Astianax bursts forth with – and forces Grinvil to listen to; hasn’t he suffered enough? – as they pitch their tents after joining the forces of the loyal Lord Albon.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you—a man who has had no-one to talk to for the past fourteen years:

“Whilst we attend to the works of Nature, we receive innumerable testimonies of the benevolence of that great Existence, whose eye superintends, and whose breath pervades the universe. Every landscape is the manifestation of the presence of its all-powerful Author: Every individual object in this scene bears inexpressible beauties, which exceed human imagination, leading us at once to astonishment and adoration: See how the velvet-verdant carpet, which overspreads the lawn, is embroidered with flowers, and fringed with shrubs, irregularly scattered round: The autumn dresses yonder woods in a variety of colours: The foliage of the shadowy sycamore is gilded, the oak puts on his russet, the holly half conceals her ripened berries with her evergreen, the trembling poplar mixes its silvery hue amidst the dusky elms, and, here, and there, thro’ the thick grove, the white-skin’d birch seems to conceal its nakedness. Amidst the windings of the woods, the river shews its shining lakes, where the glad spirit of the streams, laughs at the dancing myriads of the sun beams. Their fleecy multitudes whiten the extended pasture, browsing around the hillocks, and with their bleating wake solitary echo from her Silvan grot; all intermixed, the lazy oxen stand sullenly, and recollect the flowery feast, whilst the gay fantastic colts play round their dams, vaulting in airy sport, the dams cast looks askance, and neigh maternal cautions to their frantic rounds. On this hand, golden furrows gladden the ascent, and load the reapers arms with wealthy sheafs. The yellow hills stretch out the distant view to yonder heathy mountains, where Barrenness sits sullenly, and frowns on Sloth; and, whilst she eyes her haggard bosom, furrowed over by storms, with extended arms she grasps the cumbersome clouds, to veil her desolation. Wilder the aspect on the other hand, which terminates the prospect; the vale extends itself to such a distance, that, tinged with azure hue, it seems to mix with Heaven; the nearer objects are o’ertop’d in gay perspective with objects still behind. Hamlets and rills, and cottages delightfully dispersed, and mingled with the various tints of trees and streams, of pastures, corn, and fallow. The church spire thrusts its head above the smoak which clouds the town; and there the solemn ruins of a castle nod upon the cliff and precipice, and tremble o’er the brook below, whose frighted Nereides hide them in the reeds which wave along the marsh. Oh! thou most splendid, thou descending orb of light, how wonderful, how delighting! From thy abounding glory are shed forth the golden streams which paint the western Heavens: To thy blazing chariot wheel gay vegetation, ever young, and fair fertility, with joys prolific wait: Now the slant rat overstretches all the valley, and there, behind the hill, the beams shoot up aloft, and skirt the pale grey, and the crimson clouds, with rich embroidery: But, whilst we contemplate the beauties of the scene, behold, far east, the horizon stands crouded with ascending vapours; and thou day-imparting constellation, hastenest thy career, and drives the rosy-footed hours beneath the mountains: As objects are withdrawing from our view, another sense finds pleasure: The bleating of the sheep, the voice of cattle trudging down the plain, and mourning for the pail, salute my ear; the song of yonder blackbird perch’d upon the thorn, the calling notes of every tenant of the spray; the cooing of the doves that lodge in dusky pines, the rustling gales which wanton with the alpine leaves, the ivy-cover’s sage, who whoots his trembling prayer to deities of darkness, the deep ton’d cadence of the distant water-fall, the voice of busy men who hear the harvest home, the clangour of the smith’s laborious hammer from his hovel, the dashing of the streams which turn yon mill, the barking of the cottage cur, who waits impatiently the long protracted steps of his dear peasant master, with the solemn sound of curfew bell which dies along the dale, as thus united or intermixed, afford delightful harmony. Through all thy glorious works, almighty Lord, the enraptured spirit of the human mind wanders forth, and full of wonder, full of praise, dwells on each object, till in itself enlarged with the pure flame of adoration; through unbounded space it bends inspired imagination, and presents itself prostrate at thy throne, full of humiliation, reverence, and gratitude; paying to thy divine existence, that worship which human language never can express.”

“Which human language never can express”!? Quite the comedian, our Astianax. On the other hand, Grinvil proves sadly lacking in a sense of humour, letting slip the opportunity to respond, “What? Sorry, I wasn’t really listening.”

(In the original edition of this novel, one of the physically small but large-fonted publications typical of this era, that paragraph runs for nine and a half pages. My giggling fit started on page 3…)

However, the novel itself provides a punchline of sorts: the inspiration of Astianax’s rhapsodising is also the scene of battle, and the beauties of nature are soon obscured by piles of mutilated human bodies, a great many of them put there by Astianax himself; after a three-page speech about the horrors of war, of course.

But not all of the bloodshed is to Astianax’s, uh, credit, even though he “slaughtered like a pestilence”:

One competitor alone fought for the King, and almost equal’d the hero in his claim for glory! Mounted on a dappled roan, a gallant steed, that toss’d his silver main aloft in air, a young man braved the greatest terrors of the war! The red teints on his horse’s glossy skin, seem’d like a shower of blood! A crimson plume covered his helmet, and crimson ribbons bound his armour: Amidst the carnage of his sword, he was known only by the name of the Bloody Knight! Where’er the foes rush’d on, and gained upon the royal troops, there he attacked!… He forced his way, and, meeting with Lord Melvil, braved him to engage; unhors’d him, and, amidst his amazed vassals, severed his head from off his body; and bore it by the hair aloft to view! The spectacle dismayed the rebel troops;—they fled!—Whilst he approach’d the King, and made the offering which ensured the peace! The rout was general!

Gee, I wonder who this could be?

By the way: I hope you see, what I mean!—about colons, commas, and, exclamation marks!

The king, whoever he may be, wishes to reward the homicidal youngster appropriately, and sends one Lord Morton to inquire after the boy’s condition. We learn that his name is Leo Du’Monte and that, in addition to bearing on his shield, A lion argent on a bloody field, supported on a rising sun; the coat of the Du’Montes, and therefore being a descendent of the Dukes of Belfort, he is the grandson of one Alfred of Normandy. However, one of his distant forbears having managed to forfeit the family title, and a more recent one the family estate, he has been compelled to make his own honour in combat. Hearing Leo’s history from Morton, the king restores to him both his family’s title and lands.

And it is via the young Leo (“young”, indeed! – given the exigencies of the plot, he can’t be more than fourteen! [And now I’m doing it!!]) that we learn what fate befell Father Paul, after the miscarrying of all his dastardly plots:

“The disappointment drove the monk to madness: For many years a raving horror harrowed up his soul; and, in his malady, the most distracting desperation wore down his carcase to the grave.”

Like I said at the outset, this isn’t a proper Gothic novel; otherwise, we would have seen Father Paul’s soul being harrowed up, and his carcase being worn down to the grave by distracting desperation. In graphic close-up.

Meanwhile, Astianax is wandering around for apparently no reason but to rhapsodise over nature for another ten pages or so (although not all in one paragraph). Eventually he reaches the old mansion house, which is a ruin except for the wing containing Norban’s armour, where he offers up the following Ode To A Pelican Who Might Be My Ancestor (?):

    Thence there seem’d to awake, a slumbering pelican, which sat supported on the casque, and shook its snowy plumes; then stretching forth its fair white wings, as if preparing for her flight, on either side the vast extended plumage reach’d, displaying all her ample breast, where every silver feather shone, spotless and burnish’d as the Seraph’s heavenly buckler, when he stands array’d in the glowing arms of light; with a mighty sound she took her way aloft, and, as she mounted to the realms of Heaven, a lucid train, such as the sun beams shoot from out the evening cloud, traced her passage to the skies.
     Astianax, gazing upon the vision, breathed this short ejaculation: “Blessed spirit of the mighty Norban, have the labours of Astianax gained thy approbation? Have these accomplished toils procured thee peace? Is the hour at hand, which shall restore thee to the regions of felicity?”

Having taken care of the burial of Grinvil, who in the course of battle sustained yet another fatal injury, Astianax goes to his own family vault to fulfil his obligations to the saintly Paul:

    Amidst the hallelujah, and the chorus, Astianax lifted up his face, and, to the strain, accompanied his voice. Forth from the urn a livid lambent flame arose, which shot its quivering point aloft, and fill’d the vault with fragrance. On the breast of Astianax, the onyx spread a blaze of light, such as surrounded the heavenly form of Gabriel, when sped to earth on errands of divine import, to patriarchs of old.
     Over the urn two cherubs, with their lucid pinions, hovered; and, catching the ascending flame, wafted it to Heaven: Whilst all above, the choir of aereal voices, with the sounds of many trumpets, sung his requiem…

A “noble youth” is watching all this with great interest, but before he can speak Astianax is accosted by Lord Albon, who announces that he has become enamoured of a certain female taken captive in the wake of the battle, and plans to marry her immediately – whether she likes it or not.

Gee, I wonder who this could be?

The bride, with collected resolution, at length looks up. Her looks struck on Astianax, the lustre of whose amulet had reach’d her eye! She started! stretch’d her arms to catch assistance! shriek’d and fell! And, as she fell, from her fair hand drop’d a dagger, which she had concealed, to prevent the odious espousal! Odious, as contrary to inclination!

Gratuitous, as unnecessary for clarity!

All this is rather mortifying for the prospective bridegroom:

Lord Albon thought himself abused, and called to his attendants for his sword: “Here are tricks,” cries he, “and subtleties, and holy frauds, which interpose between me and my purpose, and would deprive me of my bridal joys.”

This, mind you, is after about five minutes of “My husband!” “My wife!” “My mother!” “My son!” “My father!” “Your father!?”

However, Astianax has by now patched things up with Heaven, and as Lord Albon draws his sword, another terrible thunderstorm breaks directly overhead. When the panic subsides there is an opportunity for explanations, and at length, Lord Albon – who doesn’t exactly seem like the sharpest knife in the drawer – was convinced that this was more than artifice. Leo is embarrassed to discover that he has inadvertently usurped his father’s lands and title and immediately offers them back, but Astianax replies that he wants only the mansion house and its grounds. By this stage Lord Albon has had a chance to pull himself together and, rather oddly, gets the final word:

“Above the selfish sentiments of partiality for my own happiness, sincere joy fills all my soul for your restored felicity, and your rewarded merit. And you, Lord Belfort, full of valour, and warm with principles of honour; go on and scorn the little gains of self-enjoyment, when an emulation of the God, whose image it is you wear, prompts to the exercise of virtues, in the field of life. For in virtue only true nobility consists, and self approving conscience calls it happiness.”

And, oh yeah, sorry for trying to hack you to death with my sword back there…

16/11/2013

The Hermitage: A British Story (Part 1)

Hutchinson1“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 leads 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…]

15/06/2013

Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury

Leland1    “Great Earl!” cried Randolph, “and do I really behold thee? Do I embrace the man, under whose command my last days of honourable war saw glory and victory? Hath my leader survived the dreadful night of tempest which dispersed our ships! He whom we imagined buried in the seas! Is he at length returned in safety? But why this garb? Are these wretched weeds, befitting the son on an illustrious monarch, the conqueror of Gascoigne, the glory of England? Thou art come, but not to peace and repose: danger, difficulty, and distress, are still prepared for that undaunted spirit!”
    “Am I not in England?” replied the stranger. “Have I not, at length, happily escaped the insidious attempts of my enemies? What dangers have I now to fear? No, my dearest ELA! illustrious dame! tenderest wife! In thy arms shall I now forget my dangers. To thee I fly, to wipe away those tears, which burst forth at my departure, and must have flowed in full streams, during this melancholy interval of my absence. In thee and thy endearments shall all my future hopes be centred: and never, no, never more shall WILLIAM be deluded by the smiling promises of glory, to hazard the chance of arms!”

Published in 1762 – two years before The Castle Of Otranto – Thomas Leland’s Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury is often described as “the first true historical novel”…but it isn’t, not really. Curiously enough, very recently in a different context I had reason to try and define the difference between “an historical novel” and “an historical romance”, at least at it exists in my own mind, and this is exactly the issue here. The distinction is not a judgement call, in spite of that use of the r-word: unlike some (many?), I don’t happen to consider the term “romance” a pejorative. Rather, I tend to define an historical novel as a work that makes a genuine effort to engage with the past and to provide a context for real people and real events; whereas an historical romance uses the past chiefly as a colourful backdrop, even if it does feature real people and events.

As far as I have been able to determine, this novel belongs in the latter category—and in fact, Thomas Leland admits as much in his novel’s rather charming preface, which I am moved to quote in full:

The out-lines of the following story, and some of the incidents and more minute circumstances, are to be found in the antient English historians. If too great liberties have been taken in altering or enlarging their accounts, the reader who looks only for amusement will probably forgive it: the learned and critical (if this work should be honoured by such readers) will deem it a matter of too little consequence to call for the severity of their censure.—It is generally expected that pieces of this kind should convey some one useful moral: which moral, not always perhaps, the most valuable or refined, is sometimes made to float on the surface of the narrative; or is plucked up at proper intervals, and presented to the view of the reader, with great solemnity. But the author of these sheets hath too high an opinion of the judgement and penetration of his readers, to pursue this method. Although he cannot pretend to be very deep, yet he hopes to be clear. And if anything lies at the bottom, worth the picking up, it will be discovered without his direction.

In spite of the “liberties” for which the preface prepares us, the central characters of Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury are real enough. William Longsword (or Longespée) was an illegitimate son of Henry II—Leland assumes by the Fair Rosamond (who gets a tut-tut name-check), but in fact by Ida de Tosny, one of Henry’s royal wards; she was later safely married off to the Earl of Norfolk. Longsword rose to prominence under his half-brother, Richard the Lion-Heart; Richard married him to Ela, the daughter and heiress of the 2nd Earl of Salisbury, and granted him his father-in-law’s title. Longsword and Ela were major contributors to the re-building of Salisbury Cathedral, and his tomb and effigy may be found there today.

In the publisher’s series Bell’s Cathedrals, Gleeson White’s entry, The Cathedral Church Of Salisbury, presumably quoting those same “antient English historians” to whom Thomas Leland refers, has some things to say about the Earl himself and, more importantly, at least in the context of this novel, about the mysterious circumstances of his death:

    On the Nativity of our Lord following, the King and his justice Hubert de Burgh came to Sarum on the day of the Holy Innocents, and there the King offered one gold ring with a precious stone called a ruby, one piece of silk, and one gold cup of the weight of ten marks; and when the mass was celebrated the King told the dean that he would have that stone which he had offered and the gold of the ring applied to adorn the text which the justice had before given; and then the justice caused the text which he had given to be brought and offered with great devotion on the altar.
    On the 10th of January, 1226, William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, returned from Gascoigne, where he had resided twelve months with Richard, the King’s brother, for the defence of Bordeaux (after three months on the channel between the Isle of Rhè and the coast of Cornwall, owing to the tempestuous weather, that so long delayed his landing), “and the said Earl came that day after nine o’clock to Sarum, where he was received with great joy, with a procession for the new fabric.” The scandalous account of his death (as given by Stow), which occurred at the castle of Old Sarum, on the 7th of March in the same year, and the part played in the transaction by Hubert de Burgh cannot be told here, beyond the fact that the justice was strongly suspected of poisoning him.
    On the 8th of March, at the same hour of the day on which he had been received with great joy, he was brought to New Sarum with many tears and lamentations, and honourably buried in the new church of the Blessed Virgin. Matthew Paris gravely records that at his funeral, despite gusts of wind and rain, the candles furnished a continual light the whole of the way. Of all secular figures connected with this cathedral his is perhaps the most prominent, nor is his fame merely local. He was active in public affairs during the reign of King John, and one of the noticeable heroes in an expedition to the Holy Land in 1220, when, at the battle of Damietta, Matthew Paris tells us, he resisted the shock of the infidels like a wall. He fought both in Flanders and in France, was at his King’s side at Runnymede, and a witness to Magna Charta—a copy of which famous charter, made probably for his special use, is still preserved in the cathedral library.

(Matthew Paris was a 13th century Benedictine monk, a cartographer, an illuminator of manuscripts, and an historian—albeit not an entirely reliable one, apparently. John Stow was a 16th century antiquarian and historian.)

From this account, it will come as no great surprise that we find Hubert de Burgh playing the role of villain in Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury. De Burgh was another prominent figure at the time, effectively becoming Regent of England during the minority of Henry III, and created Earl of Kent and appointed Justiciar of England and Ireland after Henry’s coronation (though he later suffered a sharp falling out of favour). I have not been able to identify any particular reason why de Burgh should have murdered Longsword, if indeed he did. Other accounts explicitly contradict the suggestion, asserting that the two men were close comrades, and that Longsword’s death was the result of an illness contracted during his difficult journey back to England.

Thomas Leland gives us a lengthy (and mostly invented) account of Longsword’s adventures on the Isle of Rhè, where he is hunted by the forces of various French noblemen, but finds a lifelong friend in the form of a Frenchman named Les Roches, an honourable man in the service of dishonourable masters who recognises in Longsword a kindred spirit.

While this is going on, back in England Hubert de Burgh is taking advantage of Longsword’s absence and abusing his influence with the king not directly for his own gain, but for that of his nephew, Raymond, as part of a scheme for the general enrichment of his family.

It eventually falls to the unfortunate Sir Randolph to tell Longsword what has been going on:

“We all know with what uncontrouled power Hubert rules in the court of England: how his subtile arts of insinuation have penetrated into the inmost heart of our Henry; and now direct all its motions and designs. Already too dangerous, he seeks but to extend his influence and authority, and to heap wealth and honours on his family and dependents. These are his great purposes; and to these he sacrifices the reputation of his master, and the welfare of his country. To him was soon conveyed the false intelligence, that Earl William and his Knights, separated from our fleet in the tempestuous tumult, had perished in the deep. The King heard the tidings with kind concern, and paid just tribute of sorrow to his unhappy kinsman, and brave soldier. The crafty Hubert assumed the semblance of grief, whilst his soul was busy in contriving the means of turning this event to his own interested purposes. He seized the easy and complying moment, when the King lay most open to his influence: he represented the close alliance, in which Raymond stood to the illustrious house of Salisbury: he reminded him, that by the royal bounty, Lord William had obtained the heiress of that house with her possessions, and urged that the same royal bounty ought now to confer this gift on him, whom nature seemed to point out as the true inheritor. In a word, he asked this boon, that Raymond should be permitted to wed the Countess, now supposed a widow, and to enjoy her ample fortunes and her honours.”

Backed by his uncle’s authority and the king’s complacence, Raymond de Burgh has taken up residence at Salisbury Castle. Over time, he begins to replace Ela’s people with his own, progressively cutting her off from anyone she can rely upon for support and finally isolating her altogether. Rumours soon abound that he and Ela are betrothed: the people are surprised, even shocked, but see no reason to doubt it, particularly not in light of Raymond’s prolonged occupancy of the castle. Ela herself, increasingly desperate, tries every way she can think of to get a message out of the castle; and here Thomas Leland gives us a series of suspenseful scenes, as Ela tries to determine who, if anyone, she can trust, and as her chosen representatives try to find a way to elude the watchfulness of Raymond’s guards.

History has little to say about the real Raymond, or “Reymond”, de Burgh, but this novel presents him as weak, selfish and greedy, rather than actively evil. Though without his uncle’s craft, he is sufficiently lacking in morals to throw himself with fervour into Hubert’s scheme for his enrichment, his enthusiasm not one whit abated by the undisguised revulsion of Ela herself, as he variously tries wooing, coaxing, arguing, threatening, tricking and forcing her into marriage. The only thing that can be said in his defence is that he is genuinely smitten with the beautiful Ela—so much so that on occasion he hesitates to take decisive action against her: he would rather have a willing bride, if only that were possible. However, it is eventually made clear to him that it is not possible; and finally the reluctant Raymond is driven to compel Ela’s compliance by exploiting what he knows is her one weak point: she and Longsword have a young son…

Meanwhile, Longsword is making his way home to Salisbury Castle—not without a certain trepidation. There is a contrast, both amusing and exasperating, between how Longsword and Ela each receive the tidings of the other. Ela, for her part, simply refuses to believe that her husband is dead, and therefore treats Raymond’s courtship as an unmitigated insult:

“And dost though know me? Hast thou ever heard that the greatness of soul which hath invariably distinguished my long train of noble ancestry, is lost in me? One year hath not yet elapsed, since these arms embraced my honoured lord. But had the grave long since received him; had time dried up my widow’s tears, thinkest thou that the widow of a Plantagenet— But why talk I thus?—How knowest thou? What officious babbling slave hath flattered thee with the lying story that Lord William lives no longer; that the great light of England is extinguished, and that Raymond may now rise and shine?—It is false—I will not think it. Yet, yet will I hope for his return. Should he find thee here, (and this thy purpose) what could defend Lord Raymond from his resentment? Thou knowest the mighty spirit of Earl William. Fly this moment; and tempt not thy fate.”

Would that I could say that Longsword is worthy of his wife’s loyalty!—but when Sir Randolph, who has heard the disturbing rumours issuing from the castle, reluctantly explains the situation as he understands it, this is Longsword’s immediate reaction:

“Heavens!” exclaimed the Earl, “this man admitted to her bed!—Am I so soon forgotten? What? not a few months of sorrow?”

He pulls himself together moments later, telling himself sternly that it cannot be true, but clearly his doubts remain. Then, just as he is setting out from Sir Randolph’s estate, garbled word is brought that Ela has married Raymond. Immediately, Longsword begins planning a vengeful assault upon his former home:

“No,” cried the Earl, hastily interrupting him, “the attempt is not rash, nor the purpose desperate. What tho’ my wife hath so soon forgotten me? What tho’ the absence of a few months was too great for her impatience? What tho’ she hath accepted a second husband? Have my numerous dependents too been false? Have they forgotten me? No! let us collect them! let us fire their brave spirits to revenge their injured Lord; and let his fury fall with its due force upon this adulterous pair… Foolish and wretched is the man who builds his happiness on the frail and unstable affection of a woman. O my friend! how securely did I conceive our loves to have been founded! how firmly did her heart seem linked to mine!… And did our loves ever decrease? Was my heart ever estranged? Was it one moment seduced by any other object?—And yet, so soon to be forgotten! the false tidings of my death so eagerly received!”

In fact, what is going on at the castle is that Raymond, having gotten tired of waiting for Ela’s consent, has decided to go ahead without it, having found a monk not too scrupulous about the details:

He conjured the Countess by all her hopes of peace, all the tenderness she felt for her darling son, no longer to delay her own happiness; no longer to continue thus perversely insensible of his just pretensions to her love. He now stood before her, he declared, to claim those rights which the royal favour had conferred upon him; that neither his honour, nor his love, permitted him, any longer, to flatter her pride, or to indulge her weak scruples.—She fell upon her knees, and began to utter an earnest vow, that she never would accept his hand; but Raymond and his associates quickly intervened and raised her from the ground. Nor was her great spirit yet subdued by this rude violence: she turned upon them with looks of astonishment and disdain. Raymond entreated; Grey reproved; and Reginhald denounced the vengeance of heaven against her obstinacy… Raymond still held the hand of Ela; and the impious Monk, who had waited for the signal from Grey, suddenly began to pronounce the marriage rites; but was instantly interrupted by loud and piercing shrieks frequently and violently repeated both by the Countess and her attendant. The unhappy Lady could not long support this violent emotion; she sunk down upon her couch…

Sir Randolph manages to persuade Longsword that it’s really all Hubert de Burgh’s fault, and that he should carry his wrongs to the king, who is holding court at Marlborough. Longsword’s sudden resurrection is more embarrassing than gratifying to Henry, who is uneasily aware that he allowed himself to be overpersuaded by de Burgh. Hubert himself intervenes with a smooth explanation of the situation, insisting on the honourable nature of Raymond’s courtship, the loyalty of Ela’s steadfast refusal, and that in any case it was a condition of Henry’s consent that she should not in any way be coerced (which, to Henry’s credit, is actually true; the de Burghs have simply chosen to ignore the fact). This is on the outside; on the inside, de Burgh is seething with hatred and thwarted ambition, besides having a very good idea of the form that Raymond’s “honourable courtship” has taken:

Conscious of his own artifice and hypocrisy, he naturally suspected that readiness of belief, with which Salisbury seemed to yield to his declarations, as well as that sudden calm of peace and reconciliation, in which his fury appeared to subside. He had injured, and therefore hated him: he had affirmed boldly to divert the present storm; but, whether the Countess had already yielded to Raymond, or whether he had forcibly possessed himself of her bed, as yet he knew not…

Recognising that he must at all cost stop Longsword from reaching Salisbury Castle, de Burgh confers with the treacherous monk, Reginhald:

    Reginhald, with an awkward and abject abasement, declared that he was totally unable to advise, but ready to follow the directions of Lord Hubert with implicit submission. The subtle courtier seized him by the hand, applauded his zeal, lavished the amplest promises upon him. “Be bold,” said he, “and be happy.—There is but one way— Let us prevent the attempts of our common enemy—by destroying him.”—Reginhald took fire at this proposal: he at once freely offered himself to be the agent, and seemed impatient to learn the means of executing a design so suited to a heart that never felt humanity or remorse.
    Hubert hastily produced a phial filled with a deadly poison. “Behold,” said he, “the sure means of destroying our enemy. Let it be thy care to present Lord William with this fatal draught…”

Despite its title, the focus of Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury is Ela rather than her husband. Not without good reason is this novel commonly included on the timeline for the development of the Gothic novel: the middle section of the narrative describing Raymond’s persecution of Ela, even granting that it takes place under her own roof and in England, could be the template for any number of Gothic novels featuring besieged maidens and ruthless villains. No less than Emily St. Aubert is Ela, Countess of Salisbury, a victim; no less than Udolpho, situated high amongst the Pyrenees, is Ela’s own home of Salisbury Castle a prison. The difference is that Ela is no inexperienced girl, but a mature woman of dignity and courage. It is a measure of Thomas Leland’s skill that we fear for her every bit as much as for Emily; even more, perhaps, given that her situation is distressingly credible.

Two other aspects of this novel mark it as a progenitor of the Gothic proper. The spineless Raymond is the forefather of all those many villains who are “cowed” and “subdued” by the very virtues of their chosen victim. Left to himself, Raymond would have bailed on the plot against Ela—but of course he is not left to himself, but caught between the political scheming of his uncle and the desperation of his own minions, who are only too well aware that their own lives and fates hang in the balance with his, and so refuse to let him back out.

One of those minions, who soon breaks away into evil scheming on his own behalf, is Reginhald. Over the second half of Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury, the narrative is progressively dominated by the machinations of a figure that in time would become one of the defining tropes of the Gothic novel: the Wicked Monk. In the character of Reginhald, Thomas Leland may have made his most significant contribution to the evolution of this branch of fiction…even granting that, correctly enough in historical terms but somewhat joltingly even so, his “wicked monk” is English. In future years this stock character would of course be used to express English Protestant hostility towards “foreigners” in general and Catholics in particular; here, the same sentiment would seem to lurk behind the jaundiced eye which Thomas Leland casts over England’s own past.

Leland3b

15/02/2013

The Castle Of Otranto: A Gothic Tale

Walpole1b    It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former, all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success. Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life. But if in the latter species Nature has cramped imagination, she did but take her revenge, having been totally excluded from old romances. The actions, sentiments, conversations, of the heroes and heroines of ancient days were as unnatural as the machines employed to put them in motion.
    The author of the following pages thought it possible to reconcile the two kinds. Desirous of leaving the powers of fancy at liberty to expatiate through the boundless realms of invention, and thence of creating more interesting situations, he wished to conduct the mortal agents in his drama according to the rules of probability; in short, to make them think, speak and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions. He had observed, that in all inspired writings, the personages under the dispensation of miracles, and witnesses to the most stupendous phenomena, never lost sight of their human character: whereas in the productions of romantic story, an improbable event never fails to be attended by absurd dialogue…

My inability to make any forward progress in 2013 continues unabated as, rather than move onto the next novel in the timeline of the development of the Gothic novel, I succumb to the inevitable and step back to examine the genre’s undisputed progenitor work, The Castle Of Otranto: a short novel which, due quite as much to its artistics failures as to its strengths, inspired and provoked the composition of a number of key works that ultimately paved the way for the birth of the Gothic novel proper.

It is important to recognise at the outset that the use of the word “Gothic” in the subtitle of The Castle Of Otranto carried for readers of 1764 none of the literary implications that it did and does for readers of later times. Prior to Horace Walpole’s rehabilitation of the word, “Gothic” was a pejorative term, used to imply that something was primitive, even barbaric. Walpole didn’t care: he was an antiquarian with a passion for earlier styles of architecture, particularly that of medieval Europe, which was dominated by dramatic vertical lines, high ceilings, pointed archways, turrets and spires. Used predominantly in churches and cathedrals, the Gothic design was employed to create a sense of reaching up to heaven.

Horace Walpole’s enthusiasm for this long-superseded architectural style led him to adopt its tenets in the design and construction of a villa eventually known as Strawberry Hill, which – to its owner’s mingled pride and exasperation – eventually became a popular tourist attraction. It was living within this Gothic “castle” of his own imagining that inspired Horace Walpole to pen what he would eventually dub “A Gothic Tale”.

As with the first work to be written in response to The Castle Of Otranto, Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron, these days it may be fairly argued that the preface (or in this case, prefaces) to the novel are of almost as much value as the novel itself. Upon its first appearance, The Castle Of Otranto was presented as a “found manuscript”, supposedly originally penned in 1529 by one “Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St Nicholas”, and translated into English by “William Marshall, Gent.” It also carried a preface by “William Marshall”, in which he explains how he happened to come across the manuscript in the first place, and offers his own views upon its contents.

For today’s informed audience, this preface is an amusing mixture of self-exculpation and self-promotion. It panders to the likely anti-Catholic prejudices of its readers, in particular pointing out where Father Onuphrio’s Catholicism may have overcome his judgement and/or veracity, while offering some fairly fulsome praise of the work in general:

It is natural for a translator to be prejudiced in favour of his adopted work. More impartial readers may not be so much struck with the beauties of the piece as I was… However, with all its faults, I have no doubt but the English reader will be pleased with a sight of this performance. The piety that reigns throughout, the lessons of virtue that are inculcated, and the rigid purity of the sentiments, exempt this work from the censure to which romances are but too liable…

The problem is, all this piety, virtue and sentiment exists within a framework of the supernatural. “Marshall” is skating on thin ice here, and knows it. He therefore offers an apriori apology of sorts, which tries to deflect potential criticism on the grounds of artistic integrity:

The solution of the author’s motives is however offered as a mere conjecture. Whatever his views were, or whatever the effects the execution of them might have, his work can only be laid before the public at present as a matter of entertainment. Even as such, some apology for it is necessary. Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances. This was not the case when our author wrote; much less when the story itself is supposed to have happened. Belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages, that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the time who should omit all mention of them. He is not bound to believe them himself, but he must represent his actors as believing them.

While it is doubtful than anyone believed that The Castle Of Otranto was indeed a true account of events from 13th century Italy, the secret of its authorship was kept, and Horace Walpole had the pleasure of seeing the work he had sent out into the world so hesitatingly become a runaway best-seller. The Age of Reason, supposedly so coldly rational, so contemptuous of anything that fed the emotions, ate up this story of ghosts and miracles and curses coming home to roost. Quite inadvertently, Horace Walpole had struck the nerve that was quivering under the surface detachment of his times.

The phenomenal success of The Castle Of Otranto gave Walpole the courage to drop his mask. When his novel was reissued, it carried both a different title page and a different preface. The pretence of “William Marshall” and his translated manuscript was gone; in its place was an explanation of what Horace Walpole had intended when putting pen to paper in 1764 (quoted above), and a quick mea culpa for the deception practised:

The favourable manner in which this little piece has been received by the public, calls upon the author to explain the grounds on which he composed it. But before he opens those motives, it is fit that he should ask pardon of his readers for having offered his work to them under the borrowed personage of a translator. As diffidence of his own abilities, and the novelty of the attempt, were his sole inducements to assume that disguise, he flatters himself that he shall appear excusable. He resigned his performance to the impartial judgement of the public; determined to let it perish in obscurity, if disapproved; nor meaning to avow such a trifle, unless better judges should pronounce that he might own it without a blush.

The mock-modesty of this new preface fooled no-one in 1765, any more than it fools us today. In reality preening himself upon his “trifle”, Horace Walpole was unprepared for the virulence of the attack that followed his unmasking. Some of it was, undoubtedly, genuine anger at the deception—but most of it was personal or political dislike of Walpole himself masquerading as literary criticism. From being very generally, and warmly, praised, The Castle Of Otranto became almost overnight the target of ridicule and contempt, a work too flawed in execution and foolish in premise to have any entertainment value, let alone literary merit.

History is on the side of Horace Walpole in this respect: his fame today rests largely upon his authorship of his sole novel; and nor, for that matter, did the abrupt switch in critical tone have any real effect upon the success of his book at the time, which continued to be read and enjoyed by a wide audience in spite of those suddenly obvious “flaws”. What the criticism did do was make Horace Walpole retreat into his shell (or at least into his Gothic villa). Apart from penning a single play, The Mysterious Mother, which was not performed in his lifetime, The Castle Of Otranto was his only venture into fiction.

The obvious agenda in most of the criticism of The Castle Of Otranto following the revelation of authorship renders it worthless for informational purposes (in the literary sense, at any rate). However, one significant exception is the preface to Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron, in which, like a good critic should, she keeps her eyes chiefly on the text – capturing the contemporary mindset with admirable clarity in the process. Reeve is blunt about what she considers the artistic successes and failures of Otranto: she praises in particular the characters and dialogue, and the structure of the story. However, while admitting the attraction of the story’s supernatural elements, she feels that Walpole took them took far, and that his extravagance in this respect ultimately undermines the effectiveness of his tale.

It is unlikely that modern readers will agree with Miss Reeve’s criticism—or rather, it is unlikely that they will feel that Horace Walpole’s extravagance detracts from his story. On the contrary: it is precisely the frequency – and, I might add, magnitude – of the supernatural manifestations in Otranto that holds the reader’s interest. In spite of what both Walpole and Reeve thought at the time, the characters of Otranto are almost uniformly one-dimensional; their behaviour is largely improbable; and their dialogue is some of the most unnatural on record. It is incredible that even the most partial author could have thought otherwise. Horace Walpole could not have summed up his novel better than he did in attempting to describe what it was not:

The actions, sentiments, conversations, of the heroes and heroines of ancient days were as unnatural as the machines employed to put them in motion…

(In the Oxford University Press release of The Castle Of Otranto, the editor W. S. Lewis also shakes his head over Walpole’s authorial blindness, quoting the line, “Stop, audacious man, and dread my displeasure!” as an example of the novel’s extreme unnaturalness of dialogue. My own favourite example of unnatural behaviour and dialogue comes when Theodore and Isabella, he in danger of his life and she of her virtue, are hiding in an underground cavern from their pursuers. When Theodore tries to persuade Isabella that they should go deeper into the cave, her reaction is outraged propriety: “Alas! what mean you, sir? Though all your actions are noble, though your sentiments speak the purity of your soul, is it fitting that I should accompany you alone into these perplexed retreats? Should we be found together, what would a censorious world think of my conduct?”)

On the other hand, one might safely defy the modern reader not to react with startled delight to The Castle Of Otranto‘s bizarrely Monty Python-esque opening scene, in which the young Conrad, only son and heir of Manfred, Prince of Otranto, is crushed to death on the morning of his wedding-day when a gigantic, black-plumed helmet suddenly drops from the sky.

(Python-esque indeed: the more we learn of the unfortunate Conrad, the more we are put in mind of the “almost embarrassingly unattractive” Prince Herbert of The Holy Grail.)

Manfred’s reaction to this inexplicable tragedy puzzles the shocked witnesses: he is clearly more interested in the helmet than he is in his dead son, on whom he bestows hardly a glance as the mangled corpse is carried into the castle. Furthermore, the only orders he issues concern not Conrad, nor his bereaved wife and daughter, Hippolita and Matilda, but Conrad’s fiancée, Isabella.

A gawping crowd quickly around the helmet, the circumstances of Conrad’s death reminding the local peasantry of an ancient prophecy:

That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it…

Many speculations are offered on the helmet’s origin. One ill-starred young man is overheard by Manfred when he comments that the helmet itself looks exactly like the one that sits upon the statue of one of the previous princes of Otranto, the saintly Alfonso, in the nearby church of St Nicholas. To the astonishment of all, Manfred flies into a rage, accusing the young man of treason and trying to stab—sorry, to poignard him. While this kerfuffle is being broken up, some of the spectators run off to St Nicholas’s, and come back with the unwelcome news that the helmet is indeed missing from the statue of Alfonso. The charge against the young man, Theodore, abruptly switches from treason to necromancy: on Manfred’s orders, he is placed in a makeshift prison – under the helmet – and left without food or water, on the grounds that his “infernal arts” can no doubt supply his wants in that respect. (Prompting the inevitable, Yes, but if he really is a necromancer— reaction from the reader.)

Inside the castle, Isabella is helping Matilda to look after the devastated Hippolita. Although sorry for Conrad’s demise, Isabella is less than heartbroken on her own account; but her hopes of avoiding a marital connection with the house of Otranto are abruptly shattered when, before the unfortunate Conrad is even cold, Manfred is proposing – literally proposing – an alternative husband to her:

Dry your tears, young lady—you have lost your bridegroom:—yes, cruel fate, and I have lost the hopes of my race!—But Conrad was not worthy of your beauty… Think no more of him; he was a sickly puny child, and heaven has perhaps taken him away that I might not trust the honours of my house on so frail a foundation. The line of Manfred calls for numerous supports. My foolish fondness for that boy blinded the eyes of my prudence—but it is better as it is. I hope in a few years to have reason to rejoice at the death of Conrad… In short, Isabella, since I cannot give you my son, I offer you myself— Hippolita is no longer my wife; I divorce her from this hour. Too long she has cursed me by her unfruitfulness: my fate depends on having sons,—and this night I trust will give a new date to my hopes.

Isabella is shocked and horrified – by Manfred’s callousness, by his cruelty to the devoted Hippolita, and by the overtones of incest in the proposal – and she is not the only one:

…the moon, which was now up, and gleamed in at the opposite casement, presented to his sight the plumes of the fatal helmet, which rose to the height of the windows, waving backwards and forwards in a tempestuous manner… At that moment the portrait of his grandfather, which hung over the bench where they had been sitting, uttered a deep sigh and heaved its breast… Manfred [was] still looking backwards on the portrait, when he saw it quit its pannel, and descend on the floor with a grave and melancholy air… The vision sighed again, and made a sign for Manfred to follow him. Lead on! cried Manfred; I will follow thee to the gulph of perdition. The spectre marched sedately, but dejected, to the end of the gallery, and turned into a chamber on the right hand…

The supernatural manifestations in The Castle Of Otranto are, as we have said, plentiful and frequent: the gigantic helmet is soon joined by an equally gigantic foot and leg, and a gigantic hand resting on a bannister. The ensemble is almost complete when the entire formal entourage of a certain knight demands entrance at Otranto; the knight has come to Otranto to defend the rights of Frederic, Marquis of Vicenza, the father of Isabella, who is presumed dead in the Holy Land. Amongst the parade intended to support the dignity of the newcomer are, An hundred gentlemen bearing an enormous sword, and seeming to faint under the weight of it.

(As for the knight himself, he gives no actual name, but has himself announced as “The Knight Of The Gigantic Sabre”. You can only admire his chutzpah.)

Meanwhile, the plumes on the helmet continue to express approval and disapproval of various events by bowing gravely or waving in an agitated manner. Similarly – in a touch that even the biggest fans of Otranto felt was an artistic blunder – when Manfred confronts Hippolita inside the church of St Nicholas and demands a divorce, the statue of Prince Alfonso reacts by bleeding from its nose. The novel’s climax involves the various gigantic bits and pieces resolving themselves into a suitably gigantic apparition of Alfonso who, after pointing out his true heir, literally ascends to heaven.

For the most part, however, subsequent novelists rejected Horace Walpole’s enthusiastic deployment of ghosts (whole and partial). Indeed, even Clara Reeve’s single, briefly-appearing spectre, which haunts only the site of its body’s secret burial, was disapproved by many, with most Gothic novelists either settling for the overt terrorisation of their heroines by their evil characters, or following Ann Radcliffe’s lead by explaining away any apparently supernatural phenomena. In this respect, The Castle Of Otranto‘s influence upon the development of the Gothic novel was almost entirely negative.

Conversely, the various plot devices lifted by Clara Reeve from Horace Walpole – none of which orginated with him, although you probably wouldn’t find them all in one place before Otranto – would go on to become staple elements of the Gothic genre. One of these devices is the anti-hero central character, who wages a desperate battle against his fate. It is soon made clear to the reader of Otranto that Manfred is a usurper-prince, and that his continued occupation of his throne is dependent upon certain conditions—including having sons. Isabella, meanwhile, is the last of the blood of Alfonso; by marrying her into his family one way or another, Manfred hopes to forestall his manifest destiny.

Other elements of Otranto are still more familiar, including the vocabulary. Isabella becomes the persecuted heroine, literally pursued by Manfred through his gloomy castle and threatened with a fate worse than death. Fleeing him, she finds herself first in “several intricate cloisters” that make up “the lower part of the castle”; one of these opens into “a cavern”, which in turn has in its floor the “hidden trap-door” that leads to a “secret passageway”, a “subterraneous passage which led from the vaults of the castle to the church of saint Nicholas”. By the church itself is a forest, where Theodore seeks out “the gloomiest shades, as best suited to the pleasing melancholy that reigned in his mind”. Behind the forest are the caves already mentioned, “which had formerly served as a retreat to hermits, and were now reported round the country to be haunted by evil spirits”.

Theodore himself is, perhaps, the novel’s most typically Gothic character. Supposedly a peasant, from the moment he frees himself from the grasp of the furious Manfred “with a mixture of grace and humility”, the reader casts upon him a suspicious eye. His dialogue – you couldn’t really call it “conversation” – with Isabella, who he helps to discover and use the secret trap-door, is hardly that of a peasant – “I will never quit you till I have placed you in safety—nor think me, princess, more generous than I am: though you are my principal care…” – and it is no surprise whatsoever when he turns out to be quite other than he appears. Indeed, the novel pulls a double-whammy here, having Father Jerome recognise Theodore as his own long-lost son (courtesy of his distinctive birthmark, of course), before further revealing that before taking his vows he was himself the noble Count of Falconara. And the secret identities don’t end there

Meanwhile, a Gothic novel would hardly be a Gothic novel without an overwhelming yet completely chaste passion. Here, too, Otranto outdoes most of its followers by managing to construct an overwhelming yet completely chaste love triangle—with Isabella falling in love with the mysterious stranger in the cloisters, Matilda and Theodore falling in love at first sight, Isabella thinking that she is the object of Theodore’s affections and then realising her mistake, Father Jerome aka the Count of Falconara going ballistic over Theodore’s “guilty passion” for Matilda, and Theodore committing the profound novelistic sin of defying the father he met for the first time about five minutes ago.

It’s all done with a completely straight face, of course.

The majority of the characters in The Castle Of Otranto are simply one-dimensional puppets pushed around by Walpole as his plot requires. This is particularly true of the women, who are all so perfect and self-denying that you just want to slap them; Hippolita’s determination to sacrifice herself to Manfred’s immoral ambition is particularly exasperating. It comes as a thorough relief from all this sickening nobility when Isabella and Matilda, formerly BFFs and almost sisters, recognise each other as rivals and begin having a well-mannered but quite determined tug-of-war over Theodore, one charged with mixed motives and self-deception. Likewise, Theodore being temporarily led astray by his passion (“The lovely Matilda had made stronger impressions on him than filial affection”) is a welcome ripple of reality in someone who is otherwise the most cardboard of heroes.

However, to Horace Walpole’s credit, when it comes to Manfred there is a definite if not quite successful attempt at psychological complexity, which points forward to the often conflicted villains of the Gothic novel proper. To be fair to Manfred, he is not himself the usurper: it turns out to be his grandfather, Ricardo (he of the walking portrait), who murdered and forged his way to the throne of Otranto; it is upon Manfred and his children, however, the proverbial third and fourth generations, upon whom his sins are visited. Knowing full well that he has no right to it, Manfred is nevertheless determined to hang onto his ill-gotten throne. When a string of related prophecies start coming true, he reacts with a mixture of anger, fear and hilarious why-me self-pity.

So obsessed with his situation is Manfred that he begins to read confirmation of his worst fears into the most innocent words and gestures of others, culminating in a scene in which he interrogates Matilda’s maid, Bianca, and takes her incoherent admissions about Matilda’s secret feelings for Theodore as proof positive of an illicit passion between Theodore and Isabella. He also manages to convince himself that Father Jerome is not only privy to the relationship between Isabella and his son, but encouraging it.

The novel’s only other mixed character is – *snicker* – The Knight Of The Gigantic Sabre, who turns out to be Frederic of Vicenza himself, not dead in the Holy Land after all and in pursuit of both his daughter (bought from her guardians by Manfred) and what he considers his rights: his own grandfather, in the absence of a direct heir of Alfonso, should have inherited Otranto. A dying hermit, encountered in Joppa, both directed Frederic to the whereabouts of the giant sword – which has another prophecy regarding Otranto engraved upon it – and informed him that he was destined to play a part in restoring Alfonso’s rightful heir to his throne.

At first full of righteous rage and challenging Manfred to combat in order to prove his right to the throne, Frederic quickly becomes infatuated with Matilda and begins to think that maybe being related to the throne will be enough. Manfred, for his part, is willing and eager to sell Matilda to get what he wants, and starts hinting at a double wedding—making it quite clear that Frederic won’t get Matilda unless he gets Isabella. Frederic agrees, subject to Manfred securing his divorce, of course—only to be terrified into retraction and repentance by a supernatural encounter of his own (the novel’s best and most unexpected):

The marquis, expecting the holy person to come forth, and meaning to excuse his uncivil interruption, said, Reverend father, I sought the lady Hippolita.—Hippolita! replied a hollow voice: camest thee to this castle to seek Hippolita?—And then the figure, turning slowly around, discovered to Frederic the fleshless jaws and empty sockets of a skeleton, wrapt in a hermit’s cowl… Wast though delivered from bondage, said the spectre, to pursue carnal delights? Hast thou forgotten the buried sabre, and the behest of heaven engraven on it?

So much for a double wedding.

Frederic’s subsequent repulse of Manfred pushes that already unstable individual almost to breaking-point. He reaches it when word reaches him of a secret meeting in St Nicholas’s between Theodore and a lady, which seems to him the confirmation of his darkest suspicions. Overcome by rage and seeing his world toppling around him, Manfred rushes to the church:

Manfred, whose spirits were inflamed, and whom Isabella had driven from her on his urging his passion with too little reserve, did not doubt but the inquietude she had expressed had been occasioned by her impatience to meet Theodore. Provoked by this conjecture, and enraged at her father, he hastened secretly to the great church. Gliding softly between the aisles, and guided by an imperfect gleam of moonshine that shone faintly through the illuminated windows, he stole towards the tomb of Alfonso, to which he was directed by indistinct whispers of the persons he sought. The first sounds he could distinguish were—Does it, alas, depend on me? Manfred will never permit our union.—No, this shall prevent it! cried the tyrant, drawing his dagger…

At the time of its publication, The Castle Of Otranto was a complete anomaly: a work of romantic fiction that unabashedly lent itself to conventions and beliefs that the Age of Reason had supposedly banished once and for all; its success was a clear indication that the reading public’s taste for wonders and terrors had not in fact been banished, but merely temporarily suppressed. “Reason”, it appeared, was not the be-all and end-all of it; in literary terms at least, “miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events” were not quite as “exploded” as William Marshall’s original preface assumed.

It is a commonplace these days to hear The Castle Of Otranto called “the first Gothic novel”, but in truth there was another twenty-five-years’ worth of literary trial and error to go before the Gothic genre as we now understand it appeared upon the stage. However, though it differs in intent, execution and tone from its distant offspring, it is inarguably possible to trace a line of descent from Horace Walpole’s architecturally-inspired tale of supernatural vengeance, and Ann Radcliffe’s works of polite terror: a line that passes through some strange and unexpected territory…

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Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, after its restoration in 2012

05/08/2012

The Old English Baron

    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.