Male Imprisonment and Female Wanderers: Sir Charles Grandison’s Influence on the Gothic Novel

Samuel Richardson’s final novel Sir Charles Grandison (1753-1754) is his least known and least read today, but its significance in literary history should not be underestimated. It is particularly important as a source for Gothic literature. While Richardson’s earlier novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748) may at first seem more likely predecessors of Gothic literature because of their depictions of abducted women—a theme that recurs in Sir Charles Grandison when Harriet Byron is abducted by Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, and subsequently rescued by Sir Charles, thus bringing about the two lovers’ introduction—Sir Charles Grandison has many additional elements that influenced the Gothic tradition a generation or two after its publication.

Sir Charles Grandison – the Oxford University Press edition runs about 1600 pages. The novel was originally published in seven volumes.

The most obvious influence of Sir Charles Grandison is that it was the first major English novel to have scenes set in Italy. In the novel, Sir Charles travels the continent and ends up in Italy where he has a romantic relationship with Clementina della Porretta after he befriends her brother Jeronymo. A large chunk of the novel concerns whether or not he will marry her while Harriet Byron waits, admiring Clementina but secretly hoping in the end she will be Sir Charles Grandison’s wife. Clementina’s family is against the marriage and sends Clementina off to her cousin Laurana, who ends up locking her up and mistreating her. Clementina consequently suffers from mental problems for the remainder of the novel. Clementina eventually decides she cannot convert from Catholicism to marry Sir Charles and he refuses to convert to Catholicism. Clementina then desires to become a nun, but her family is against this decision, for which she suffers more bouts of mental illness. In the end, the novel is left unresolved whether she will marry the Count of Belvedere as her family wishes, although she does agree not to enter the convent.

These issues all were sources for Gothic literature. Italy would soon be depicted in the novels of Ann Radcliffe—specifically The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797)—as a place of intrigue and horror. Catholicism would also be negatively portrayed in Gothic novels. Radcliffe’s The Italian and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) are among the countless Gothic novels filled with corrupt and even sex-crazed priests and nuns. Other novels like Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) would depict the injustices of Catholicism, specifically through the Spanish Inquisition and scenes of men and women being held as prisoners and specifically men being tortured by the Church.

Themes of female abduction were more common in Gothic novels, but scenes of men being tortured were not uncommon, and Sir Charles Grandison early on brings such an idea to the forefront. In Volume V, Letter XL, Sir Charles fears that the Italian Lady Olivia, who is in love with him, will kill him or abduct him and hold him as a prisoner in her castle. (The Oxford University Press edition of the novel edited by Jocelyn Harris notes of this scene that Grandison may be remembering a scene from Handel’s opera Rinaldo in which the hero is abducted by Armida. Handel’s opera, in turn, was based upon Jerusalem Delivered by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso. In the poem, the Saracen sorceress Armida abducts the crusader Rinaldo, planning to kill him, but then she falls in love with him and takes him to an island where her love for him makes him forget about the crusade.) Of course, there are sorceresses and seductresses throughout medieval and classical literature. Lancelot is captured by Morgan le Fay and kept as a prisoner in her castle. Odysseus is held captive by Calypso. Regardless, Grandison’s fears provided a more modern setting for such an abduction that might have influenced Gothic novelists.

Samuel Richardson reading Sir Charles Grandison aloud to friends

Although Clementina might be seen as an early version of the female Gothic wanderer for how she is mistreated by Laurana and falls into madness (madness is a common theme in later Gothic novels such as The Woman in White (1859) and Dracula (1897), Lady Olivia is perhaps the truest Gothic wanderer figure in the novel. Olivia is already jealous that Grandison is in love with Clementina. She wants him for herself, but while he continues to be polite to her, he refuses her love. Not only does she attempt to abduct him in Italy, but twice, once in Italy and once when she travels to England, does she attempt to stab him with a poniard. She is unable to handle her passion and the unrequited love and rejection that result. At another point in the novel, Sir Charles learns that she is threatening to have the Holy Tribunal (inquisition) arrest him—imagine Sir Charles, a Protestant Englishman, held captive by the Catholic Church as a heretic. As Fox’s Book of Martyrs shows, such situations did happen when Protestants from abroad entered foreign countries. Fortunately, Olivia’s threats and even murderous actions never amount to any real danger for Sir Charles, who continues to be kind and act like a gentleman toward her. (Today, he could and should get a restraining order against her.) In the end, she gives her consent (not that he needs it) to Sir Charles to marry Harriet, but she continues to hate Clementina, wishing they could both enter into a nunnery where she could exult over Clementina for the heartbreak she has caused her. The Gothic possibilities of her tormenting Clementina only add to Olivia’s Gothic wanderer aspects. She is a character lost and unable to prevent herself from acting irrationally and cruelly, to her own detriment. She is also a wanderer to some degree in that in the novel’s finale (an appendix featuring letters to readers discussing what became of the characters), she is one of the characters of whose futures Richardson does not bother to give us an account.

Dueling and crossdressing are featured in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, one of Sir Charles Grandison’s literary descendants

Lady Olivia is not a major character in Sir Charles Grandison, and readers are likely to forget about her over time, but she may have set a precedent for several other women in literature who were also unable to deal with their passions. In Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801), the title character is in love with Sir Clarence Hervey, who in many ways resembles Sir Charles Grandison. He is a perfect gentleman but torn between loving two women. While he ultimately marries Belinda, he has been raising his ward Virginia to be the perfect wife. Notably, Sir Charles Grandison has a ward, Emily Jervois, who is in love with him. Edgeworth’s plot is obviously influenced by Richardson’s. Lady Olivia has a literary sister in the character of Harriet Freke, who although not the victim of unrequited love, nevertheless is violent and aggressive like Olivia. Her outlandish and unfeminine behaviors extend to crossdressing and encouraging Belinda’s friend Lady Delacour to dress as a man and engage in a duel. Harriet lives up to her surname of being a “freak” because of her far from ladylike behavior. The reader is left haunted by Harriet Freke, a villain in the novel, and yet a modern reading can be more sensitive to her. She is an early feminist character in a world not ready for her; as a result, she is a Gothic wanderer of the first degree.

The influence of Sir Charles Grandison upon Fanny Burney’s novel Evelina (1778) has been noted by many critics since Evelina largely follows Sir Charles Grandison’s pattern of being a conduct book disguised as a novel. Evelina finds herself pursued by the obnoxious Sir Clement Willoughby, a literary descendant of Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, while secretly being in love with the Grandison-like Lord Ormond. Personally, however, I believe the influence of Sir Charles Grandison upon Burney is most apparent in her last novel, The Wanderer, or Female Difficulties (1814). In that novel, the title character is Juliet, who flees from France to England after being forced into marriage to a French officer. Similarly, Clementina flees Italy, crossing in secret to England when her parents try to force her to marry the Count of Belvedere. Later, Clementina’s family follows her to England and her brother Jeronymo makes a point of saying they travel “incognito.” In The Wanderer, Juliet also travels incognito and the narrator even refers to her as “the incognito.” Juliet falls in love with Harleigh, another seemingly perfect male and literary descendant of Sir Charles Grandison. Harleigh has his own Lady Olivia in Elinor Jodrell, a young woman madly in love with him, although he does not return her affections. Once rejected, Elinor goes a bit crazy. She dresses up like a man and also threatens to commit suicide. While in the end she renounces her suicidal attempts, the reader is left haunted by her passion and her pain over her unrequited love. (For more on the Gothic elements of The Wanderer, see my book The Gothic Wanderer.)

Burney’s The Wanderer examines the plight of women trying to survive through work in a hostile male world.

Finally, in Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1809) there is Joanna, Countess of Mar, madly in love with Sir William Wallace. She is a true female Gothic wanderer who resorts to treachery as well as crossdressing to try to win the man she loves, even though he repeatedly rejects her. I have previously written at this blog about The Scottish Chiefs.

One final element of Sir Charles Grandison that may have inspired the Gothic is Sir Charles’ cousin Everard Grandison. Although a minor character, he is a male Gothic wanderer in his own dissolute behavior. Not only does he get a woman into trouble, resulting in having to marry her, but he develops a gambling addiction. Gambling is a major form of transgression in Gothic novels. Characters like Valancourt in The Mysteries of Udolpho fall into debt through gambling. (For more on gambling in Gothic literature, see my book The Gothic Wanderer).

Many critics both in Richardson’s time and since have argued that Sir Charles Grandison was too perfect a character as a model of male conduct. Among his literary descendants is Valancourt, a man so seemingly perfect that in 1860, William Makepeace Thackeray wrote “‘Valancourt? And who was he?’ cry the young people. Valancourt, my dears, was the hero of one of the most famous romances which ever was published in this country. The beauty and elegance of Valancourt made your young grandmammas’ gentle hearts to beat with respectful sympathy. He and his glory have passed away.” When Emily St. Aubert first meets Valancourt, he does indeed seem like the perfect young man. Later, when she accompanies her aunt and her aunt’s new husband, Montoni, to the castle of Udolpho, Emily imagines Valancourt following her and then later thinks he must be a prisoner in the castle (just as Sir Charles imagined being Olivia’s prisoner). Valancourt never got to Udolpho, though. Instead, he gets caught up in gambling debts and ends up in debtor’s prison. As Sir Charles’ literary descendant, Valancourt ends up a disappointment, but not so much that Emily doesn’t marry him regardless.

The Gothic, indeed, was not interested in perfect men like Sir Charles. Rather, the flawed men like Sir Hargrave Pollexfen become the notorious villains of the Gothic, although a Sir Charles Grandison-like character would often step in to save the heroine, but even then, they sometimes proved ineffective, just as Valancourt does, and even Harleigh, in The Wanderer does not resolve Juliet’s problems, though he does end up marrying her.

Samuel Richardson, regarded by some literary critics, as author of the first true novel, Pamela, or Vertue Rewarded.

In conclusion, I don’t think one can minimize the influence of Sir Charles Grandison on Gothic literature. It was likely read by all the major Gothic novelists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was a book read repeatedly as a source of morals and good conduct and, therefore, likely instilled into its readers’ brains until its repetition had the influence that Stars Wars or Star Trek in their repeated reimaginings have upon movie-goers today. It is hard to imagine the Gothic would be what it was if Sir Charles Grandison had not been written.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.

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2 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Literary Criticism

2 responses to “Male Imprisonment and Female Wanderers: Sir Charles Grandison’s Influence on the Gothic Novel

  1. ellenandjim

    This is a new point of view for me — well not quite as decades ago Margaret Anne Doody wrote a famous essay: Deserts, Ruins and Troubled Waters: Female dreams and the development of the gothic novel, Genre 19 (1977), where she dealt at length with Grandison, just the elements you single out and brought it into the Radcliffe-Lee gothic tradition. She has Burney there too. You are going further; what feels odd is that the tone of at least half of Grandison is not at all gothic, there is no supernatural, no dwelling on death. But this does not undermine what is there — in the 18th century there were those who much preferred Clementina to Harriet Byron, the Italian to the English worlds of the book. Ellen

    • Hi Ellen,
      Thank you for the comment. Yes, I figured if anyone saw the Gothic in Sir Charles Grandison it would be Margaret Anne Doody though I never read that essay of hers, but I do know her as the expert on Fanny Burney and see she has written on Richardson a lot too, so I plan to look up more of her work. I’ll see if I can find the famous essay you reference. I just could not warm up to Clementina myself and found her rather annoying, but overall I love
      the novel.
      Tyler

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