After an accidental buddy-read of The Castle of Udolpho (for which I never wrote a review, I was too happy to have just finished it!), Emma @readbynight and I have embarked on a mission to read all the gothic novels since its apparition in the literary landscape. We read The Castle of Otranto last year, which I didn’t review either and of which, one year later, I only remember the giant helmet killing a prince, which was comical enough. This year, we read The Old English Baron, a gothic novel that Clara Reeves wrote to show Horace Walpole how gothic novels were supposed to be written. Well. She tried.
If you’re expecting to feel the gothic frisson, let me warn you right away: you won’t. If The Old English Baron is less absurd than Otranto (no giant helmet will kill our characters), it is not more gothic… Which had Emma and I wondering if our own expectations of gothic may be erroneous, distorted by our imagination of what “gothic” is. Clara Reeve’s story felt more like a familial drama than a ghost story and even when a ghost does appear, it didn’t make our heart beat in the least, and for good reason: the main character itself didn’t feel threatened.
The story of the Old English Baron revolves Edmund Twyford, around a surprisingly accomplished young man, born to a low family around the castle of Lovel and taken in the Baron’s family as a protégé. As the young men of the family grow older and jealousy destroys the protagonist’s friendships, Edmund and some of his remaining friends begin to harbor doubts about his birth and set out to discover his true story. This will involve spending three nights in an apartment of the castle that is said to have been haunted ever since the death of its previous inhabitants.
This novel was written 1777 and it is clearly influenced by theatre. The dialogues often sound artificial, with the same expressions of warning announcing the approach of a new character, and the scenes often get very dramatic, what with many tears being shed in gratitude, people throwing themselves at the feet of their benefactors and swearing to give their lives to them. The characters are closer to stock characters than actual complex, detailed and fully-fleshed novel characters. Most of the time, they can only feel one emotion, the one that will help drive the plot forward. It is clear from the beginning that Clara Reeves adopted a strong moral stance. She develops her story with a heavy focus on religion, holy feelings and the power of prayer. It is precisely because Edmund is deeply religious and sincere in his faith that he does not fear the ghost that appears to him, whereas his two enemies, confronted to the same ghost, completely lose their mind. Clara Reeve’s agenda is to remind the reader that uprightness is always rewarded and that a truly generous and great mind does not seek unnecessary revenge. Which is, well, refreshing!
In terms of plot, it isn’t a spoiler to say that we can guess right from the beginning that the story will end well (hence the impossible shudders). What was genuinely interesting though, to me at least, was how realistic and concrete some aspects were. As the story revolves around Edmund’s quest to uncover the truth of his birth, some quite touchy questions appear: how do you claim your birth right when you have been deprived of it, when you have little to no witnesses and when no scientific DNA test can prove that you are telling the truth? How do you deal with having to expel a family from their castle when said family welcomed you as one of their own (well, not all of them)? Here, Clara Reeves proved very rational and mindful of details, be it in the practical arrangements or the emotions that such a situation stirs, and I read these pages as a historical testimony of how such things were dealt with (assuming that they happened at all!), which was not uninteresting.
With hindsight, The Castle of Udolpho appears as a much more developed novel (if only in terms of pages!), as Ann Radcliffe goes into great efforts to give us the creeps: the setting is definitely bleaker as it is not a family castle, the main character (pure and innocent Emily) is physically and morally isolated, and the villain is a dark and powerful man who will not hesitate to kill. We have none of that in The Old English Baron where most older men are all good, forgiving and generous. This was not the most gripping novel I’ve ever read but as the writing is elaborate, it was still a pleasant and enjoyable read. As for the shivers, well, Emma and I still have a huge list to munch into!