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When is a Gothic Novel Not a Gothic Novel?(23 Nov 2015)
By Ms Caroline Winter
Written by Val Derbyshire
School of English, University of Sheffield
The works of Charlotte Turner Smith (1749–1806) abound in gothic imagery. From Orlando and Monimia’s allegedly haunted Old Manor House, to the tyrannical parenting and unjust imprisonments featured in “The Story of Edouarda” in Smith’s final novel, The Letters of a Solitary Wanderer (1799). Yet Smith herself made many attempts to distance herself from the gothic genre. In her Preface to Volume II of The Banished Man (1794), Smith derides the popular taste for “Gothic arch[es], [...] cedar parlour[s], or a long gallery, an illuminated window, or a ruined chapel,...” (p. iv). In a supposed conversation with her “Friend” during this preface, Smith draws the reader’s attention to the fact that in her times, when the revolution in France had descended from its first optimistic herald of a new age of liberty into bloody terror, the author “can be at no loss for real horrors, if a novel must abound in horrors” (p. v). The “author” in this conversation (i.e. Smith herself), then goes on to outline to the “Friend” how “in the various shades of human character, there are almost inexhaustible sources, from when observation may draw materials” in order to “weave into connected narratives”. Gothic horrors and tropes from “children’s story books” and “books of apparitions” are not required by an author of Smith’s calibre (p. xi).
So what are we to make of the Gothic horrors and tropes which Smith utilises in her work? The first point to note is, that like Radcliffe, none of Smith’s apparitions are real. They all have rather mundane explanations. In Marchmont (1796), the ghost turns out to be the eponymous character, hiding from the supernaturally named, but otherwise quite ordinary “Vampyre”, an attorney who wishes to imprison the hero for unpaid debts. In The Old Manor House, the only spirits haunting Mrs. Rayland’s ancient country pile are those which come in bottles, and which are being smuggled by a gang of outlaws who are using the cellars as a convenient storage area for their ill-gotten gains.
In Smith’s novel, Montalbert (1795), the setting is reassuringly homely, taking place in the South Downs of England. Within this pleasant setting, the romantic heroine, Rosalie, has grown up as the daughter of the ever practical Lessinghams; her father, the village curate. The heroine, Rosalie, in keeping with her romantic name, is truly the heroine of sensibility. Rosalie’s romantic leanings cannot even be blamed upon the usual cause of indulging in too much reading of disreputable novels. Her mother’s library only boasts Hannah Glasse’s Cookery and a few back issues of Tatler. When we consider that Mrs Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple (first published 1747) was possibly the first bestselling cook book, by the first domestic goddess, then it can be seen where Mrs Lessingham’s interests lie. Indeed, much of the first volume of Montalbert consists of Rosalie being chided by Mrs Lessingham for being overly romantic, and Rosalie feeling that she does not belong in the family. Surely, she tells herself, there is some mystery surrounding her birth.
Both parties, it transpires, are correct. There is a mystery surrounding Rosalie’s birth (she’s not the daughter of the pragmatic Lessinghams after all) and Rosalie really shouldn’t be so romantic; it leads her into all sorts of trouble. Refusing her parents’ choice of a husband for her, Rosalie falls instead for – and then elopes with - the volatile and frankly unstable Montalbert. From the rather lacklustre setting of the English pastoral opening, Rosalie will then pursue an exciting course of travels including experiencing the Sicilian earthquake of 1783, being kidnapped and held prisoner by an evil Italian (which, admittedly, temporarily solves her homelessness problem after her home was swallowed up in the earthquake), and a short sojourn into madness when Montalbert accuses her of infidelity and takes away her baby son.
In some ways, Rosalie is the literary precursor of Catherine Morland, whose romantic tendencies also lead her into trouble (although Austen is not quite so harsh on her heroine). And like Northanger Abbey, the gothic horrors in Rosalie’s story consist of those which are actually present in her contemporaneous British society. Again, there is parental tyranny as the Lessinghams attempt to force her into a match with a man she can never love, just to dispose of her favourably and get her settled in life. This was something Smith herself knew all about, having been “sold, a legal prostitute, in my early youth" 1 as she termed it, at the age of fifteen, to the profligate Benjamin Smith.
Like Smith, as soon as Rosalie is married to the unhinged Montalbert, she becomes his property and subject to her husband’s control and abuse. His disgraceful treatment of his wife towards the end of the novel, illustrates the very real terrors which a wife could be subject to as the property of an unworthy and unreliable husband. Smith’s “Gothic” horrors, in other words, are all too real, and reflect the really horrible reality of some aspects of some women’s lives in eighteenth-century society. In Smith’s works, the blood, the bodies left sinking in the mud of warzones (as in Smith’s depiction of the French frontline in The Banished Man), the well-intentioned (but with all-too-often disastrous results) parental control, and the mental illness, is portrayed in all its gruesome reality. It is not a phantasmagorical threat hanging over the text to provide the reader with a titillating cheap thrill. Rather, it serves as a warning to Smith’s mainly female readers.
By commencing Montalbert in the very ordinary Lessingham household with its distinctly recognisable library (Mrs Glasse’s Cookery went through twenty editions during the eighteenth-century, and was probably a feature in an abundance of middle-class households), Smith’s readers were in familiar territory. The main message of Smith’s novel seems to be just how easily this territory can become terror-tory. “Gothic arch[es], [...] cedar parlour[s], or a long gallery, an illuminated window, or a ruined chapel,..."2 are not required.
1. Letter to Sarah Rose, June 15th 1804 in The Collected Letters of Charlotte Smith, Ed. Judith Phillips Stanton (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003), pp.624-6
2. Smith, Charlotte, The Banished Man (London: T. Cadell, Jun. & W. Davies, 1794) , Volume II, p. iv