Archive for ‘Gothic novel’


The Hermitage: A British Story (Part 2)

The 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, the boy 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…



The Hermitage: A British Story (Part 1)

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Prophetic mind”, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This would be that lull I mentioned…

[To be continued…]


Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury

    “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 (unlike Emily’s) so 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.





The Castle Of Otranto: A Gothic Tale

    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 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…



Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, after its restoration in 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.)

(ETA: I did.)

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 realises 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, the best in the book because it is neither anticipated nor undermined: 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 repentance. 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 between 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.