Posts tagged ‘Clara Reeve’

15/02/2013

The Castle Of Otranto: A Gothic Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for a double wedding.

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

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

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

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

walpole2b

Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, after its restoration in 2012

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05/08/2012

The Old English Baron

    This Story is the literary offspring of the Castle of Otranto…a work which, as already has been observed, is an attempt to unite the various merits and graces of the ancient Romance and modern Novel… Yet, with all these brilliant advantages, it palls upon the mind (though it does not upon the ear); and the reason is obvious, the machinery is so violent, that it destroys the effect it is intended to excite. Had the story been kept within the utmost verge of probability, the effect had been preserved, without losing the least circumstance that excites or detains the attention.
    For instance; we can conceive, and allow of, the appearance of a ghost; we can even dispense with an enchanted sword and helmet; but then they must keep within certain limits of credibility…

During the second half of the 18th century, as we have seen, there was a literary protest against the tenets of the Age of Reason, which expressed itself in an outbreak of fictional and poetical writings that saw virtue in emotion and supported simplicity and naturalism over the artifices of civilised society. One of the most influential works of this period was, however, no part of a conscious “movement”, but rather an expression of the idiosyncratic tastes and interests of a single individual. Published anonymously (at least initially) in 1764, and presented as a true story translated from ancient manuscripts, The Castle Of Otranto is a story of supernatural justice, in which the usurper-lord of an Italian principality is exposed through a series of ghostly manifestations.

The short novel was an enormous success; so much so that for the second edition, its author took the double risk of revealing his own identity, and dropping the pretence of a true story. This prompted a backlash from the reading public, which began to find all sorts of faults in it that had not been evident previously; but nevertheless, the novel was one of the most widely-read and best-known works of its day. In the long run, it not only indirectly inspired a new genre of novel-writing, but won its author a permanent fame; for in spite of his political, antiquarian, and architectural accomplishments, it seems safe to say that today, Horace Walpole is best known as the author of The Castle Of Otranto.

The Castle Of Otranto is often called “the first Gothic novel”, but that isn’t accurate: the Gothic novel, as we now understand it, did not appear for another quarter of a century, the joint offspring of novelist developments and social upheaval. It is more correct to say that The Castle Of Otranto was the inadvertent progenitor of the Gothic novel, inasmuch as it was less Walpole’s authorial choices than the reaction of others to those choices that paved the way for the eventual emergence of the true Gothic novel; and it is with the most significant response to Horace Walpole’s supernatural tale that we begin this particular journey: Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron.

(Those of you who feel I ought to be starting with The Castle Of Otranto anyway have a point, but the truth is I helped a friend through it earlier this year, and I don’t feel up to dwelling on it in depth twice in six months. I will probably come back to it at a later time, however.)

Born in 1729, one of a family of eight, Clara Reeve was the daughter of a minister, and brought up in a household both rigidly Protestant and determinedly high-brow, with works of philosophy and history the favoured “light” reading. Unusually for her day, she was taught both Latin and Greek, and got her literary start with a translation of Lionel Barclay’s Argenis, which was published in 1772 as The Phoenix. Reeve’s view of contemporary fiction was ambivalent. That she did read novels, and plenty of them, we are aware from her The Progress Of Romance; and further, that she read critically, with a stern eye on the morality of any given work. She considered fiction a double-edged sword, capable of conveying a moral message under the sugar-coating of entertainment, but too often failing in this duty and using its attractions to corrupt.

We know that Clara Reeve read The Castle Of Otranto; we know, too, that she had strong opinions about it—which are important for two very distinct reasons. First, unlike many of the views expressed after the revelation of Horace Walpole’s authorship of The Castle Of Otranto, Reeve’s criticisms of the novel are neither personal dislike nor political emnity in disguise, but purely literary; and second, she not only articulated her criticisms, but put them in writing. The Old English Baron carries a preface in which Reeve explains exactly what she thinks is right and wrong with The Castle Of Otranto, and how she tried to correct its faults in her own novel. It is not too much to say that this preface is almost more important than the novel that follows it: as a window into the mindset of the English Protestant middle-classes of the late 18th century, and the forces that shaped contemporary novel-writing, it is an invaluable document.

Amusingly for such an opinionated lady—and in contrast to the forceful arguments she makes in her preface—Clara Reeve seems to have undertaken her first venture into fiction in an unwontedly tentative spirit. Her manuscript, then titled The Champion Of Virtue, was first published in 1777, in Colchester, at her own expense. Presumably she did not tell her friends of her venture until after the event, because the next thing we know is that the novel is being revised prior to its re-release. For this exercise, Reeve accepted the guidance of a friend, Mrs Brigden—Samuel Richardson’s second daughter, Martha. When Reeve’s second edition appeared in 1778, it carried a dedication of fulsome praise for Mrs Brigden’s contribution. In its new form (and under a new title), The Old English Baron was a great success—even to an extent that might strike modern readers as puzzling, for this is a work whose historical importance is a lot more obvious than its literary virtues.

(The second edition text is that used for all modern editions of this work, but for those interested there is a copy of The Champion Of Virtue at the Internet Archive. I haven’t gone that road myself; perhaps when I get back to The Castle Of Otranto, I’ll take a look at that, too.)

In her preface, Reeve does not stint her praise for what she considers the admirable qualities of The Castle Of Otranto:

The opening excites the attention very strongly; the conduct of the story is artful and judicious; the characters are admirably drawn and supported; the diction polished and elegant…

(Ironically, it is the very aspects of that novel that Reeve praises, and reproduces in The Old English Baron, that make both novels such a chore to read: the “admirably drawn and supported” characters are boring cardboard cut-outs, and the “polished and elegant diction” is stiff and artificial.)

The problem with The Castle Of Otranto, in Reeve’s opinion if not necessarily the reader’s, lies elsewhere: not in the fact that Walpole resorts to supernatural manifestations, but that he overdoes it:

A sword so large as to require an hundred men to lift it; a helmet that by its own weight forces a passage through a court-yard into an arched vault, big enough for a man to go through; a picture that walks out of its frame; a skeleton ghost in a hermit’s cowl:—When your expectation is wound up to the highest pitch, these circumstances take it down with a witness, destroy the work of imagination, and, instead of attention, excite laughter. I was both surprised and vexed to find the enchantment dissolved…

It’s true enough that Walpole doesn’t stint in this respect: The Castle Of Otranto opens with a young man being crushed to death by a gigantic stone helmet that suddenly falls out of the sky. Many modern readers would, I imagine, offer tacit support to Reeve’s contentions by laughing rather than quaking in the face of Walpole’s excesses—but in all likelihood their laughter would be delighted rather than derisive, since it is this very extravagance that keeps the novel fun and readable.

As we have said, Clara Reeve did not disapprove of the supernatural per se, but—creature of her time that she was—she felt that even ghosts should have their limits. (Walter Scott wrote a piece on Reeve for the Ballantyne’s Novelists series, in which he dwells with some amusement upon her contention that supernatural manifestations should remain within the bounds of credibility…but concedes that Reeve was wise not to write material that she herself couldn’t believe in.) There are supernatural events in The Old English Baron, but they are few in number and mild in nature, and unlikely to provoke in the reader even the mixed praise of laughter.

However—it is important to keep in mind the fact that for the most gifted exponent of the Gothic novel, Ann Radcliffe, even Clara Reeve’s well-mannered and inobstrusive spectre was going too far; and while Radcliffe’s novels contain many scenes of terror, invariably any apparent supernatural event is at length explained in rational terms—a lead followed by most subsequent Gothic novelists. While many readers these days are disappointed by this apparent cop-out—besides finding Reeve’s ghost easier to believe in than the tortuous, volume-long explanations of how the heroine didn’t see what she thought she saw offered by Radcliffe and her imitators—this rejection of the supernatural is an important illustration of late 18th century English thinking, including the prevailing views on religion: a subject probably better dealt with in the context of specific novels.

The Old English Baron begins “in the minority of Henry the Sixth”; later details place the action in the mid-1430s. The story opens with Sir Phillip Harclay, the “champion of virtue” of the original text; a far more appropriate title, it will later turn out, if not as commercially attractive. In his youth, Sir Philip contracts one of those lifelong, devoted friendships so beloved of sentimental novelists, that neither time not separation can diminish, for the Lord Lovel. Their respective military duties divide the two for a long period, during which Sir Philip ceases to receive answers to his letters. After many years abroad, Sir Philip returns to England and makes it his first business to discover what happened to his friend. He journeys from his own seat in Yorkshire to the west of England, where he learns that Lord Lovel was killed on his way home from a battle against “the Welch Rebels”; that his heavily pregnant wife died of grief; and that the title and estates were inherited by a cousin, the present Lord Lovel. Subsequently, taking a dislike to his sadly won estate, Lord Lovel sold it to his brother-in-law, the Lord Fitz-Owen (the “old English baron”), and retired with his wife to a property in Northumberland. Sir Philip is greatly shocked by all this, but decides to press on to the Castle of Lovel, as it is still known.

One of the most exasperating things about The Old English Baron is Clara Reeve’s refusal to build suspense. Instead, she repeatedly undermines her own story by granting her characters prophetic dreams of the Thuddingly Obvious variety, so that there are very few surprises for her readers on their journey through her novel. Sir Philip is the first to have one:

He thought he received a message from his friend Lord Lovel, to come to him at the Castle; that he stood at the gate and received him, that he strove to embrace him, but could not; but that he spoke to this effect.—Though I have been dead these fifteen years, I still command here, and none can enter these gates without my permission; know that it is I that invite, and bid you welcome; the hopes of my house rest upon you. Upon this he bid Sir Philip follow him; he led him through many rooms, till at last he sunk down, and Sir Philip thought he still followed him, till he came into a dark and frightful cave, where he disappeared, and in his stead he beheld a complete set of armour stained with blood, which belonged to his friend, and he thought he heard dismal groans from beneath…

Sir Philip takes as a guide the son of one of Lord Fitz-Owen’s tenants, from whom he hears of his family: three sons and a daughter, various nephews and cousins—and Edmund Twyford, who though only “the son of a cottager” exceeds his superiors in terms of looks, disposition and talents, and is being bred up by the baron to be his sons’ attendant when they eventually embark upon a military career.

The Suspiciously Superior Peasant is one of the most cherished tenets of this form of literature, in which aristocracy is considered, in essence, a genetically inheritable condition, and anyone with the right kind of blood will show his true origins no matter what the circumstances of his actual upbringing. Perhaps the most insightful and credible aspect of The Old English Baron is the shifting relationship between Edmund and the sons and nephews of the Lord Fitz-Owen. When they are only boys, the baron’s sons embrace Edmund as their friend and equal, admiring rather than jealous of his skill with the sword and the bow and arrow; but as they all grow older, the eldest Fitz-Owen, Robert, gets tired of being shown up by a mere peasant, and with the help of his cousin and hanger-on, Richard Wenlock, beings to plot ways of ridding himself of the upstart. The second Fitz-Owen boy, William—who has less to lose—remains steadfast in his friendship for Edmund.

Introduced to Edmund, Sir Philip feels a suspiciously immediate and profound interest in him; and, seeing trouble brewing about him, promises the boy his friendship, inviting him to come to him if he is ever in need of help.

The Old English Baron then spends some time dwelling upon Edmund’s increasingly untenable position in the Fitz-Owen household, as Robert and Richard attack him in a variety of ways, from undermining the baron’s good opinion of the boy to trying to get him killed in battle; but everything they try backfires on them, enhancing Edmund’s reputation rather than damaging it. Richard Wenlock is particularly virulent in his persecution, for a very good reason: he is in love with his cousin, Emma Fitz-Owen, but she only has eyes for Edmund, and he for her. Most novelists would get mileage out of this forbidden love—Edmund being a mere peasant, and all—but not Clara Reeve. Such patterns of perfection are her hero and heroine that, accepting it can never be, they disguise and suppress their emotions (alleged emotions; we see very little of them), apparently with a minimum of effort.

In the spirit of water dripping on stone, the attacks on Edmund do finally begin to poison Lord Fitz-Owen’s opinion of him, which almost makes his misery complete. Edmund’s one friend is the family’s confessor, Father Oswald, who does what he can to uphold him with the baron. He also, apropos of some building work around the castle, tells to Edmund the story of the disused east wing, which was abandoned following the deaths of the previous Lord and Lady Lovel:

Soon after, it was reported that the Castle was haunted, and that the ghosts of Lord and Lady Lovel had been seen by several of the servants. Whoever went into this apartment were terrified by uncommon noises and strange appearances; at length this apartment was wholly shut up, and the servants were forbid to enter it, or to talk of any thing relating to it: However, the story did not stop here; it was whispered about, that the new Lord Lovel was so disturned every night that he could not sleep in quiet; and, being at last tired of the place, he sold the Castle and estates of his ancestors, to his brother-in-law the Lord Fitz-Owen…

This conversation and Edmund’s comments on the story are repeated and misrepresented to the baron. The upshot of the following confrontation is that Edmund is challenged to spend three nights in the haunted wing, both to prove his courage and to disprove the stories of ghosts. He accepts, and the first night experiences a dream that makes Sir Philip’s look like a model of subtlety:

…the door opened, and there entered a Warrior, leading a Lady by the hand, who was young and beautiful, but pale and wan: The Man was dressed in complete armour, and his helmet down. They approached the bed; they undrew the curtains. He thought the Man said, — Is this our child? The woman replied,—It is; and the hour approaches that he shall be known for such…

In the course of his ordeal, Edmund acquires a supporter in the form of Joseph, one of the servants, who is loyal to the memory of Lord and Lady Lovel and knows various helpful, confirmatory details which will emerge in due course. The baron is impressed by Edmund’s bearing through the adventure of the haunted wing, and finally confesses to him that although he knows he is being slandered by Robert and his myrmidons, for the sake of peace and because he is compelled to take his relatives’ side, he is going to send Edmund away. He promises, however, to provide for Edmund in a respectable way, so that no disgrace will attach to him, and a military career is agreed upon. However, before the time slated for Edmund’s departure has come, the point is moot.

On his second night in the haunted rooms, Edmund is secretly joined by Father Oswald and Joseph, the latter of whom beguiles the night by telling what he knows of the circumstances of the Lovels’ deaths, including a strange incident involving the glimpsing of what was either Lady Lovel or her ghost, after the new Lord Lovel was overheard offering marriage to the widow, and also after the lavish funeral held for her a short time later. The wandering lady was crying out in pain; Lady Lovel was due to give birth at the time of her husband’s death, though her death was not attributed to her labour. Joseph wraps up his story by pointing out what he has long silently observed: Edmund’s resemblance to the late Lord Lovel.

The three are digesting Joseph’s story when, from the rooms beneath them comes the sound of “clashing arms”, and something heavy falling over. Edmund immediately decides to investigate. Behind a door is a staircase leading below. In the lower room are the portraits of the Lovels, and Edmund’s likeness to the late lord is confirmed. There is a closet in the room, locked but with the key present—a key which which will turn under no hand but Edmund’s. Inside is Lord Lovel’s bloody armour, and a ring that Joseph recognises as his. Edmund then discovers some loose boards in the floor, hidden by a table. At that moment:

…a dismal hollow groan was heard as if from underneath. A solemn silence ensued, and marks of fear were visible upon all three; the groan was thrice heard: Oswald made signs for them to kneel, and he prayed audibly, that Heaven would direct them how to act; he also prayed for the soul of the departed, that it might rest in peace. After this he arose; but Edmund continued kneeling: He vowed solemnly to devote himself to the discovery of this secret, and the avenging the death of the person there buried…

A visit to Margery Twyford confirms the suspicion that Edmund was a foundling, discovered by the river in which the body of a richly dressed woman was found dead. Andrew Twyford brought the baby (and its many identifying artefacts) home to his wife, but buried the woman in the woods, for fear of being blamed for her death.

Edmund decides that he needs a champion—a “champion of virtue”, as it were—and decides that during his third night in the rooms, he will slip away and carry his story to Sir Philip Harclay. His disappearance causes a stir in the family, but the attempt by Richard Wenlock to make mileage out of it ends with him and his partner in crime, Jack Markham, being ordered to spend a night in the haunted rooms themselves. The inhabiting spirit is not pleased by this intrusion:

As they stood with their fists clenched, on a sudden they were alarmed with a dismal groan from the room underneath. They stood like statues petrified by fear, yet listening with trembling expectation: A second groan increased their consternation; and, soon after, a third compleated it. They staggered to a seat, and sunk down upon it, ready to faint; presently all the doors flew open, a pale glimmering light appeared at the door from the staircase, and a man in compleat armour entered the room: He stood with one hand extended, pointing to the outward door; they took the hint, and crawled away as fast as fear would let them; they staggered alone the gallery, and from thence to the Baron’s apartment, where Wenlock sunk down in a swoon…

From this point, The Old English Baron resolves itself exactly as you would expect; the interest of the rest of the novel lies not in what happens, but how it happens, as we shall see. Clara Reeve does manage one more effective supernatural moment, however: when the vindicated Edmund approaches the seat of his ancestors, all the doors fly open in welcome.

The conclusion of this novel is often inadvertently amusing. The action comprises Sir Philip Harclay challenging the false Lord Lovel to combat; Lovel is defeated and, thinking he will die, confesses to the assassination of his cousin, and to hiding his body beneath the floorboards in the east wing. Reeve’s presentation of this material grows increasingly diverting, as she shows herself much more interested in the ritual details of the combat—how many servants Sir Philip and his opponent are allowed to have in attendance, for example—than in the combat itself. In a marvellous piece of anticlimax, Walter Lovel does not in fact die of his injuries; instead, when he begins to recover, he tries to retract his confession. This fails, but still Walter shows no sign of repentence. Instead, growing confident that his relatives won’t publicly expose his iniquities, he simply gives himself up to a massive fit of the sulks.

Most amusing of all, the process of actually restoring Edmund to his rightful position requires Lord Fitz-Owen and Sir Philip sitting down like a pair of accountants and figuring out who owes who what. (Let’s see: Edmund is owed twenty years’ income from his property; but on the other hand, for twenty years the baron has paid to maintain that property… Hmm…) The books don’t quite balance, but in the end quits are called when Edmund, Lord Lovel, is married to Emma Fitz-Owen—and yes, Emma’s only real purpose in this story is to be Edmund’s “reward”. It is not hard to imagine that a great deal of the appeal of the Gothic novel lay in the fact that it was the first genre in which the heroine was also the focus of the story.

The place of The Old English Baron as a bridge betweem The Castle Of Otranto and the true Gothic novel is clear enough from this synopsis (I hope). We find here a number of plot details lifted from the earlier novel that would go on be stock conventions of the Gothic novel, including a peasant mysteriously superior to his birth and upbringing, a castle with underground vaults and passageways, family lineages revealed through portraits, the righting of an injustice after the discovery of a body, and abandoned rooms with the reputation (justified or otherwise) of being haunted. Clara Reeve’s supernatural manifestations, however, mild as they are, would only rarely reappear in the novels of her literary descendants.

One significant aspect of The Old English Baron in which it differs from The Castle Of Otranto and from the later Gothic novel is its being set in England. In this, I suspect, we see Clara Reeve’s jingoism; but we also see an indication of a second novelistic trend becoming increasingly important in the late 18th century: the historical novel. From the beginning of fiction, writers had used historical material in their works, but usually in order to push a particular political position. The idea of a novel being an accurate representation of times and people, intended to make clear the course of significant events, was quite late coming. When it did, it became another strong influence upon the evolution of the Gothic novel.

What this means in practice is that, before I go forward, I have to go back. There are three important novels that need to be addressed in this context, each of which played an important part in the development of the sentimental novel in the second half of the 18th century, and particularly in the emergence of the true Gothic novel:

  • Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury by Thomas Leland, the first true historical novel, which was published in 1762, before The Castle Of Otranto or The Old English Baron
  • The Recess by Sophia Lee, from 1783, which proved that as long as your story was sufficiently entertaining, people wouldn’t care so much about historical accuracy
  • The Castles Of Athlin And Dunbayne, Ann Radcliffe’s first novel from 1789, significantly enough an historical novel.
30/10/2010

Sisters under the dust-jacket

“I propose to trace Romance to its Origin, to follow its progress through the different periods to its declension, to shew how the modern Novel sprung up out of its ruins, to examine and compare the merits of both, and to remark upon the effects of them.”
— Clara Reeve (1785)

I have learned, over the years, to keep my hobbies to myself – at least out there in the real world. I’ve learned to dread the look; that combination of puzzlement, pity and discomfort that seems to accompany any public admission of how I spend my time. Its bad enough, it seems, that I read at all, without reading, you know, old stuff. I shudder to think what a confession of my chronobibliographical aspirations would get me.

So it was with feelings of pleasant surprise and some comfort that I read Clara Reeve’s The Progress Of Romance Through Times, Countries, and Manners; With Remarks On The Good And Bad Effects Of It, On Them Respectively; In A Course Of Evening Conversations, which seems to have been inspired by an impulse similar to that which led to this blog.

Clara Reeve turned to writing comparatively late in life: her first novel, The Champion Of Virtue, written in disapproving reaction to Horace Walpole’s The Castle Of Otranto, was published in 1777, when she was forty-eight; it was revised and reissued the following year under the title by which it is now much better known, The Old English Baron. Reeve subsequently wrote half a dozen more novels, none of which were anywhere near so successful as her first, and which today are virtually unknown. In between, she also published some poetry, translations and non-fiction. (Like every other woman writer of the time, or so it seems, she had a plan for the education of the young.)

The Progress Of Romance, published in 1785, had a double purpose and a unique structure to go with it. The book is fashioned as a series of conversations between three friends, the well-read Euphrasia (Reeve’s alter-ego), Hortensius, her main antagonist, and Sophronia, who acts as an arbitrator between them. This was a clever move on Reeve’s part, turning what otherwise might have resembled a series of lectures into a more easily absorbable form. It also allows Reeve to argue against many of the prevailing opinions of the day, most of which just happen to be Hortensius’s.

The premise of this work is that Hortensius has taken exception to, or at least been startled by, some remarks of Euphrasia’s in which she seemed to denigrate epic poetry. Euphrasia explains that, rather, she was merely expressing her opinion that romances are by no means necessarily inferior to “the works of the great Ancients”, as is usually asserted, but may be regarded as essentially the same works in a different format.

Hortensius is affronted by this comparison of the classics and a form of writing that he has no hesitation in condemning as “trash”. It turns out, of course, that he hasn’t actually read most of the works he condemns – plus ça change. Reeve’s response to this revelation, which she puts into the mouth of Sophronia – “I have generally observed that men of learning have spoken of them with the greatest disdain, especially collegians” – is, I suspect, an expression of her opinion of the narrowness and inutility of the classical male education. It is evident throughout this work that Reeve considers the results of her own autodidactism far more satisfactory, although she never says so outright. She does, however, while admitting the often pernicious effects of novel-reading on girls, take issue with basing the education of boys on the classics – thus familiarising them at a young age with the Ancients and, “Their Idolatry – their follies – their vices – and everything that is shocking to virtuous manners.”

Euphrasia then proceeds to make her case by examining the origins of epic poetry, romantic prose, and other related works such as ballads, tracing fiction of all kinds across countries and centuries, highlighting their handling of the same historical events and demonstrating how the same story-telling impulses underlie each.

We emerge from this section of her book with a mental picture of Clara Reeve as highly intelligent, astonishingly well-read and amusingly opinionated. She also strikes us as very much a woman of her time, a stern judge who condemns any work that seems to her to have an immoral tendency. Her main argument in favour of the old romances is that they were almost always aspirational works, which celebrated courage and fortitude, and featured heroes and heroines of unimpeachable virtue, and which therefore were appropriate works “to put into the hands of young people”. The same cannot always be said, alas, for the romance’s descendant, the novel.

One of the purposes of The Progress Of Romance is to tackle the question that so obviously greatly bothered so many analysts of the time – just what is the difference between “a romance” and “a novel”? The definitions offered here seem to have guided opinion on the subject for many years afterwards. At the outset, we have Hortensius (prior to his conversion to Euphrasia’s point of view) asserting that a romance is, “A wild, extravagant, fabulous story”, to which Sophronia adds the rider, “Those kind of stories that are built upon fiction, and have no foundation in truth.” The conversationalists return to the point following Euphrasia’s dissertation of the history of the romance, with Euphrasia giving her own definition:

“The romance is an heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things. The novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written. The romance in lofty and elevated language, describes what never happened nor is likely to happen. The novel gives a familiar relation of such things, as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves; and the perfection of it, is to represent every scene, in so easy and natural a manner, and to make them appear so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading) that it is all real, until we are affected by the joys or distresses, of the persons in the story, as if they were our own.”

It is the “reality” of the novel that makes it such a double-edged sword. Its familiarity makes it a far more effective vehicle of “instruction” than the romance, but it also makes it more likely to do harm. We get the usual sketch here of “young persons”, particularly young women, being mindlessly influenced by what they read. The fear of what novel-reading could do to girls was so widely expressed at the time that I suppose people actually believed it – although we notice that “Euphrasia” seems to have emerged from the reading of the works she subsequently condemns without suffering any particular moral damage. Reeve must have been aware of this inherent contradiction in her stance, although she avoids engaging with it directly, merely having Euphrasia observe, not of her own but of Sophronia’s reading, that certain works are, “Apt to give a romantic turn to the reader’s mind, unless she has as much discretion as Sophronia.” Discretion, we gather, is a quality largely lacking in novel-readers.

The second section of The Progress Of Romance is one of the earliest serious studies of the novel, and a fascinating snapshot of the mindset of the time. To my infinite amusement, Euphrasia / Reeve starts out by expressing a doubt I know only too well, as she contemplates with obvious dismay, and possibly some feeling of panic, the magnitude of the task she has undertaken:

“At our last meeting, I mentioned some difficulties I apprehended in my progress…and I must now confess, upon relexion they increase… It is now that I begin to be sensible in how arduous an undertaking I have engaged, and to fear I shall leave it unfinished.”

Sister! I cried.

“I purpose in future to take notice only of such novels as are originals, or else of extraordinary merit… I will endeavour to go forward warily and circumspectly…”

Okay, I muttered, obviously one of us was adopted…

But even Reeve’s cut-down history of the novel is extensive and impressive. She starts out tracing its origins out of Italy and Spain, before discussing its flowering in France. Here she does something that many later critics are strangely loath to do (a point I’ll be returning to in a subsequent post), and admits candidly the strong influence of the French writers of that century and the preceding one upon the development of the English novel.

Of the English novelists, she starts, inevitably, with “the Fair Triumverate of Wit”, and offers an interesting perspective on the three ladies who would suffer so much abuse over the succeeding centuries. Poor Delariviere Manley comes off the worst, being dismissed as a mere scandalmonger. Reeve admits Aphra Behn’s “genius” but, striking the key-note of the rest of her analysis, argues that her genius does not make up for her immorality.

It is Reeve’s opinion of Eliza Haywood that is the most intriguing. As you might imagine, she condemns her early writings utterly – but then insists that Haywood be given a pass, “Because she repented of her faults, and employed the latter part of her life in expiating the offences of the former.” Haywood’s reinvention of herself in the 1750s as a didactic novelist is indeed one of the most remarkable phases of the lady’s serpentine career, regardless of whether it represents her “repentence” or merely her pragmatism; while The History Of Miss Betsy Thoughtless is one of the most important novels of its time, as I hope to be discussing at some unspecficied future date…

As you will have gathered, at all times in this review, it is less the quality of the novel that is considered important than its morality. Not surpringly, then, it is a discussion of the relative merits of Richardson and Fielding, those twin kings of the 18th-century novel, that shapes the rest. Reeve concedes that in Fielding’s novels, “Virtue has always the superiority she ought to have”, and that his books are superior to Richardson’s in terms of “wit and learning”. However, “As I consider wit only as a secondary merit”, Reeve contends that Fielding’s work is, “Much inferior to Richardson’s in morals and exemplary characters.” And indeed, “To praise the works of Mr. Richardson is to hold a candle to the sun.”

Reeve then goes on to consider most of the more successful novelists of the preceding fifty years. (She chooses discretion over valour, and refrains from giving an opinion of the writings of her immediate contemporaries.) Reeve praises Sarah Fielding, Charlotte Lennox, Frances Sheridan, Frances Brooke, Sarah Scott, Oliver Goldsmith and (with reservations) Tobias Smollett. The latter allows her to take another pot-shot at Hortensius: when he praises Humphry Clinker she marvels, “Then you do condescend to read novels sometimes, especially when they are written by men?” Hortensius also asks her opinion of Tristram Shandy, which she condemns – although not with as much certainty in her own judgement as she usually displays: “What value posterity will set upon [his writings] I presume not to give my opinion of, it is time that must decide upon them.” Sterne’s more sentimental works, however, she does approve.

From my own peculiar point of view, I was somewhat disappointed that Reeve did confine herself to the better-known novelists; I was hoping for a few more obscure works to add to The List, but for the most part it was not to be. The closest we get is some praise for Elizabeth Griffith, whose novels are allowed to be, “Moral and sentimental, though they do not rise to the first class of excellemce”; and on the other hand, a dismissal of “Miss Minifie’s novels”, which are tartly summed up as being, “In the class of mediocrity, if I were to mention such, it would make our talk too long and tedious.”

Given Reeve’s general reticence  in this respect, one does wonder why the unfortunate Margaret Minifie was chosen to represent “the class of mediocrity”. This probably wasn’t the reaction she wanted, but…I’m sorely tempted to go and find out…