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The Husband as Horror: Charlotte Smith’s Montalbert

Charlotte Smith’s 1795 novel Montalbert, although not strictly a Gothic novel, uses many Gothic themes and elements to create a somewhat uneven but still powerful story. Smith (1749-1806) was the author of several late eighteenth century novels that use Gothic elements. She was a contemporary of Fanny Burney and Mrs. Radcliffe and wrote largely in the same vein as them. She was also a precursor to Jane Austen, and her poetry had an influence on the Romantics. Previously, I blogged about her novel Ethelinde (1789).

The most affordable edition of Montalbert, although a poor edition without page numbers and many typos. Good editions of her novels are hard to find.

At the center of Montalbert is young Rosalie Lessington. She is the youngest daughter in her family, but experiences a sort of coldness from her parents, a situation that is exasperated when her father dies and omits her from his will. Soon after, Rosalie learns she is really the daughter of Mrs. Lessington’s friend, Mrs. Vyvian. Mrs. Vyvian, before she married her current husband, had loved an Irishman named Ormsby, but her father, named Montalbert, opposed the marriage and forcefully had them separated. Mrs. Vyvian was then coerced into marrying her current husband, whom she has always had a bad relationship with. When she gave birth to Ormsby’s illegitimate daughter, Rosalie, she asked Mrs. Lessington to raise the child as if she were her own. Rosalie eventually learns the truth of her birth, and Mrs. Vyvian tells her a detailed story of love and separation from Ormsby, including the horrible belief that her father had Ormsby killed. Mrs. Vyvian’s story is one of the most Gothic sections of the novel.

In Mrs. Vyvian’s illicit romance, Smith seems to be drawing upon Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753-1754). Richardson’s novel focuses on Englishman Sir Charles’ love for the Italian Clementina. Because he is Anglican and she Catholic, and because of familial opposition, they cannot be married. In Montalbert, both Mr. and Mrs. Vyvian are Catholic, although he later leaves the church while she remains Catholic. Her lover, Ormsby, being Irish, is also likely Catholic, so it is not religion but social and financial status that cause Mrs. Vyvian’s father’s opposition to the marriage. Regardless, the family’s Catholicism will affect Rosalie’s own future marriage.

Rosalie’s illegitimacy plays on Gothic and Sensibility novel themes as well. In Burney’s Evelina (1778), the title character is illegitimate and seeking her father’s recognition. Later, in Burney’s The Wanderer (1814), the main character is assumed illegitimate. In other novels like Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791), the main character’s father remains unknown and, consequently, an incestuous relationship almost results for her.

Smith uses illegitimacy and incest as themes in Montalbert. Before Rosalie learns the truth about her identity, Mrs. Vyvian’s son returns to England with his cousin, Montalbert (for whom the novel is named). Rosalie and Montalbert become smitten with each other, but everyone else assumes Rosalie and the young Vyvian are attached and both the Lessingtons and Mrs. Vyvian oppose the match. Mrs. Vyvian finally tells Rosalie that young Vyvian is her half-brother. Fortunately, Rosalie is instead involved with her cousin Montalbert, and marriages between cousins are permissible.

Rosalie was raised Protestant and Montalbert Catholic, but she agrees to marry him regardless. However, the marriage must be secret because while he had an English father, his mother is a wealthy Italian of noble birth who would not approve because she has already picked another young woman to be his bride. Montalbert assures Rosalie they can be married by a priest and later he’ll make peace with his mother. Rosalie agrees to the secret marriage. This section of the novel is one of the weakest. Smith does not develop Rosalie and Montalbert’s relationship enough to convince us of their love, but before we know it, not only are they married but Rosalie is pregnant.

Smith is less interested in romance than in putting her heroine in a precarious situation so the rest of the novel’s plot will work. However, it should be noted that Montalbert is typical of other men in Gothic novels by women. Like Valancourt in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Montalbert is charming but ultimately impotent in his ability to act like a real man. Valancourt fails to rescue Emily St. Aubert when she is imprisoned in Udolpho—he doesn’t even go after her but instead becomes mixed up in gambling and ends up in prison. Montalbert is far from being a manly man, being under the thumb of his rich mother. He brings Rosalie to Italy in secret, then leaves her at Messina with his friend while he goes to wait on his mother. Rosalie is now separated from Montalbert for nearly half the novel, constantly awaiting his return. Like Valancourt, Montalbert becomes an absent presence as the reader keeps wondering where he is and when he will finally come to Rosalie’s aid.

While at Messina, Rosalie’s troubles begin. Smith, unlike other Gothic novelists, does not set her novel in the distant past but in more recent times. Later, she even reveals it’s the year 1784. Rosalie experiences one of the real earthquakes that occurred at Messina in February and March 1783 (1784 actually but the old calendar was used in Italy at this time when the new year began on March 25). During the earthquake, Montalbert’s friend, Count Alozzi, has his villa destroyed, as is the building where Rosalie resides. Fortunately, she and her child survive, as does the count. The count then takes her to his home in Naples, although she does not want to go but would rather wait for Montalbert to return. Later, we learn Montalbert thinks she died in the earthquake, and only after he learns she lives, does he begin to follow her.

The most Gothic scenes of the novel follow when the count takes Rosalie and her child to Calabria to a fortress, the Castle of Formiscusa. Not surprisingly, the castle is haunted by a murdered knight. But Smith shies away from introducing the supernatural. Instead, we are reminded of confinement scenes in other Gothic novels like Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) as well as Mrs. Radcliffe’s works. Rosalie is served by a rather unfriendly nun and confined to the castle and its grounds, basically the count’s prisoner, unable to leave or send word to Montalbert of her whereabouts.

Outside the castle, Rosalie meets Walsingham, an Englishman who befriends her and helps her escape to Marseilles. From there, they book passage to England. Rosalie understands the impropriety of traveling with a man who is not her relative, but she feels she has no choice and Walsingham appears to be honorable. Most people who see them together assume they are married. Walsingham quickly falls in love with Rosalie, but being a gentleman, he represses his feelings and promises to help her reunite with her husband. Walsingham has his own past, having loved a lady named Leonora, who has died. Consequently, he lives the melancholy life of a wanderer and even tells Rosalie that once he helps her reunite with Montalbert, he will return to the life of a “dissipated wanderer,” seeking a way to replace the happiness she has given him.

Charlotte Turner Smith. Her bad marriage forced her to write for money and she used her marriage as source material.

Eventually, Montalbert catches up with Rosalie and Walsingham in England, but by the time he does, he’s heard rumors that Rosalie is with Walsingham and believes she has been unfaithful to him. In a moment of true horror for Rosalie, Montalbert sees her on the beach and calls out her name, but when she tries to approach him, he runs from her, saying she is lost to him forever. Rosalie is shocked and beside herself; soon after, she becomes completely immobilized when Montalbert sends men to remove her son from her. Montalbert’s temper and assumption she is unfaithful make him a sorry excuse for a husband and father, and his rejection of her becomes the greatest cause of horror for Rosalie in the novel.

Rosalie now becomes very ill. During this time, her half-brother, Vyvian, and her adopted brother, Lessington, find her and bring her father Ormsby to her. Ormsby was not killed by Mrs. Vyvian’s father but has been in India all these years, becoming filthy rich.

Montalbert now shows himself at Rosalie’s residence to state he has killed Walsingham. In truth, he has confused Walsingham with a cousin of the same name whom he killed in a duel. When the correct Walsingham now arrives, Montalbert shoots him. Walsingham, in great pain, pleads his innocence and forgives Montalbert for killing him, wishing Rosalie and Montalbert only happiness.

Fortunately, Walsingham recovers from his wound. Montalbert is now reunited with Rosalie and allows her to see her child. However, being estranged from his mother, he is financially cut off from his inheritance. Ormsby is willing to support his daughter and her family, but Montalbert and Ormsby don’t get along, resulting in Ormsby hoping Montalbert will go abroad as a fugitive after the murder he committed, so he can have his daughter and her son to himself.

However, Walsingham saves the day. He goes to Montalbert’s mother and manages to work out a reconciliation between her and her son so that Montalbert will have an income and she will leave her wealth to her grandchildren. Everyone is now happy except Walsingham, who decides he will wander to Spain, Portugal, and the East Indies, seeking science and knowledge; the only thing that softens the sadness of his destiny is knowing Rosalie is happy.

Talk about unrequited love. Smith’s novel is full of coincidences and plot twists that feel rather unrealistic, but where she excels is in creating in Walsingham a true Gothic wanderer figure. While most Gothic wanderers commit transgressions, he is innocent yet his grief over Leonora and now his inability to be with Rosalie make him an outcast from the human race. In his altruistic behavior, Walsingham is an early version of Dickens’ Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) who gives his life to save the husband of the woman he loves. Similarly, Walsingham acts always for Rosalie’s happiness even when her husband behaves like a maniac. Rosalie is, frankly, a fool to have married Montalbert in the first place, and one cannot help but think her married life will be miserable with such a man. This is a weak man who cannot stand up to his own mother, who has a violent temper, and who easily jumps to assumptions and accuses his wife of infidelity. Even though Smith resolves Rosalie’s current marriage problems, we can only imagine the horror and perhaps terror of living with such a man for life.

Like many of Smith’s other novels, Montalbert was influenced by her own unhappy marriage. Her father forced her into a marriage that she said made her a “legal prostitute.” Her husband was a violent, immoral man. Montalbert does not seem immoral in his activities, but he certainly has a temper. I’m actually surprised Smith allows Rosalie to stay with Montalbert in the end, but to have Rosalie run off with Walsingham or in some way kill off Montalbert might have been too indecorous or unrealistic an ending, even if it’s the ending the reader would prefer.

After finishing the book, Walsingham is the character the reader remembers. Although not a transgressor, his going off to seek knowledge and science finally links him to transgressive Gothic wanderers who seek forbidden knowledge like the title character of William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799). I wish Smith were more specific in what Walsingham seeks—he is not the type to delve into the supernatural, but rather, he is likely seeking the meaning of life—while his sadness makes his life appear pointless and existential. Smith’s use of religion in the novel only causes problems for her characters. The novel is devoid of any sense of Christian redemption, which is at odds with many of the more religious Gothic novels of the time. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) is often cited as perhaps the first existential novel. However, Montalbert predates it by thirty-one years, and while Smith does not wax philosophical in it, much can be read between the lines.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love, which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. He also writes history and historical fiction about Upper Michigan. You can learn more about Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde: A Missing Link to Romanticism and the Gothic

This blog might well be titled, “Charlotte Smith, where have you been all my life?” because Smith was a major influence on the development of the early novel, and yet I only just discovered Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806) about a year ago when my friend Ellen Moody began blogging about her. Then I began to wonder why I had never heard of her. She was a poet much respected by the Romantics—in fact, she was a distant relative by marriage of Wordsworth and gave him letters of introduction when he went to France. She also wrote ten novels that were very popular and influential in their day. She wrote them all between 1788 and 1798. The first, Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle, was a bit immature in style and structure, but it set the tone for much of her later work. The plot concerns an orphan, the believed illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, who, to make a long story short, discovers she is the legitimate daughter of her father and therefore the rightful heir to the castle, despite the manipulations of a rather sinister uncle. Emmeline also has a series of troublesome suitors before she marries the man she loves. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Radcliffe when I read it—the sinister uncle, the illegitimacy, all feel very Gothic, although it is not a Gothic novel.

Charlotte Smith's second novel, Ethelinde, has just been released by Valancourt Books as a critical edition with an introduction by Ellen Moody.

Charlotte Smith’s second novel, Ethelinde, has just been released by Valancourt Books as a critical edition with an introduction by Ellen Moody.

Then I read Smith’s second novel, Ethelinde, or The Recluse of the Lake (1789). By her second novel, Smith had matured into an accomplished novelist. The novel has just been released for the first time in a critical edition by Valancourt Books, complete with an introduction and notes by Ellen Moody. Upon reading this book, I could well see why Moody feels such enthusiasm for Smith.

Moody had previously told me that Smith uses Gothic elements in her novels, although none of the novels can be rightly termed Gothic. I would certainly not consider Ethelinde to be Gothic, but there are some Gothic elements in it, and Moody says that it was an influential novel upon Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen, which I can well believe. In her introduction, Moody draws parallels between the novel and Austen’s Mansfield Park specifically.

When I read Ethelinde, I really felt like it was a bridge between the earlier eighteenth century novelists and Radcliffe and Austen. There is much in the novel that owes a debt to earlier sentimental or sensibility novels and the novel of manners. At one point, Ethelinde is in danger of being raped, a clear nod to Richardson’s Clarissa (1748). Ethelinde is also subjected to a host of disagreeable relatives, which reminded me a great deal of Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778). In Evelina, the title character is more or less persecuted by her middle class relatives who lack genteel manners. In this novel, Ethelinde has both middle class and wealthy relatives, none of whom are quite as comical as in Evelina, but who still have comical elements and some of them are far more cruel in their snobbery and putting on airs once Ethelinde finds herself largely without a protector and penniless.

But what most interested me about this novel was how it is a precursor to Romanticism and Radcliffean Gothic. The Romantic Movement is usually dated from 1798 when Wordsworth and Coleridge published The Lyrical Ballads, but there is much in Smith that shows Romanticism was already alive a decade earlier. Ethelinde opens at Grasmere Castle, a fictional castle in the Lake District. It was so popular with readers that many went to the Lake District and came away disappointed that it wasn’t real. It’s possible that the depiction of the castle inspired Wordsworth later to settle in Grasmere. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge were admirers of Smith’s poetry as well, which often focused on nature.

Ethelinde is at the castle with a pleasure party that includes her cousin, Lady Newenden, and her husband Sir Edward Newenden. The first volume of this five-volume novel takes place at the castle and concerns Ethelinde enjoying nature while also being courted by some disagreeable young, rich men who are friends of her relatives. Eventually, she meets a young man, Montgomery, who seems to be at one with nature and develops a connection with him, especially after he saves her from drowning while all the other men stand and watch or yell at the servants to save her. Montgomery is the character whom I believe is referred to in the subtitle as the recluse. He and his mother live humbly and isolated in Grasmere, but they are of genteel blood. Ethelinde is immediately taken with Montgomery, who at first seems like a character right out of Wordsworth.

The attention to nature in this first volume of the novel also predates Radcliffe’s focus on nature in her novels. In Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Emily St. Aubert is constantly admiring the beauty of nature and feeling how it calms the soul. By comparison, the villains in the novel, especially Montoni, do not notice nature or see it as a solace or inspiration to the soul. In Ethelinde, the title character enjoys nature, while her obnoxious cousin, Lady Newenden, can find no pleasure in it, constantly complaining she is cold or hot when she is outdoors and fretting over her health—often for attention. Lady Newenden quickly becomes one of the villains of the novel when it is revealed she is likely to or already cheating on her husband. Before the novel is over, Sir Edward will separate from his wife; he will also be accused by her parents of being the adulterer because it becomes obvious that he has feelings for Ethelinde. While in time Sir Edward admits to such feelings, Ethelinde remains true to her love for Montgomery.

Another significant theme in the novel is that of illegitimacy. Smith had already played with this theme in Emmeline, and it was a common theme in earlier novels such as Evelina. Smith, however, does not make illegitimacy so shocking or detrimental as does Burney. In Evelina, the heroine is concerned that her father will not recognize her as his legitimate daughter. In Ethelinde, while Ethelinde is clearly legitimate, many of the supporting cast of characters are not, including Mrs. Montgomery’s brothers and her niece. Nor is illegitimacy something that leads to Gothic situations of incest as in Radcliffe where it nearly leads to a marquis raping his niece in The Romance of the Forest (1791). In her book Art of Darkness, the critic Ann Williams remarks, “Gothic plots are family plots; Gothic romance is family.” The same is true in Ethelinde, minus the Gothic elements. There are twists and turns and surprises along the way for the relatives, most notably when Montgomery’s illegitimate cousin ends up being married to Ethelinde’s brother, Harry Chesterville.

Smith, although focusing on a female main character, and therefore writing what could be considered feminine Gothic, if the book were truly Gothic, also plants the seeds for the masculine Gothic in two of her characters, Harry Chesterville and Sir Edward Newenden. In masculine Gothic novels, such as Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1795), William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799), and Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), the male characters are often tormented by guilt over their past crimes, by how their poor decisions destroy their families, and by longing for what they cannot obtain. In the novel, gambling, which will be a major transgression in Gothic literature (see Chapter 4 of my book The Gothic Wanderer), leads to the destruction of Ethelinde’s family’s wealth. Her father cannot control his gambling and thus loses most of the family fortune. Then her brother goes on spending sprees that ultimately bankrupt them. While Ethelinde’s father, Colonel Chesterville, feels great guilt over what he has done and fears for Ethelinde’s wellbeing as a result, it is her brother, Harry Chesterville, who becomes the true Gothic wanderer figure who commits transgression through his inability to curb his spending. He ends up in debtor’s prison, leading to his father’s worries turning into illness and his eventual demise. Harry is tormented, describing himself as the “murderer” of his own father. At one point, he becomes so consumed with guilt that he attempts suicide. Harry is like other men in Gothic fiction who seem unable to stop their addictions—fortunately, he is Ethelinde’s brother and not lover. Radcliffe would allow Emily St. Aubert, her Gothic heroine, to marry Valancourt, who also falls into the gambling transgression in The Mysteries of Udolpho, although Valancourt is, thankfully, not a villain and has all the attractions, initially, of Montgomery in his love for nature.

Charlotte Smith, whose own life with an abusive husband she had to leave, causing her to turn to her pen to support herself and her children, included many autobiographical elements into her novels.

Charlotte Smith, whose own life with an abusive husband she had to leave, causing her to turn to her pen to support herself and her children, included many autobiographical elements into her novels.

While Ethelinde will love and eventually marry Montgomery, his forest god appeal wears off as the novel continues and he is seen as a bit more one-dimensional. The really interesting male in the novel, who also is a forefather to the masculine Gothic wanderer figure, is Sir Edward Newenden. In her introduction to the novel, Moody compares Sir Edward to Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), who is tormented by love for the woman he cannot have. In the end, Sir Edward is in the same situation, loving Ethelinde, torn between his love for her and social proprieties that make him try to work things out with his wife. When Lady Newenden dies and Sir Edward is finally free to marry Ethelinde—she believes Montgomery has died at sea at this point—Montgomery dramatically reappears and Sir Edward is forced to step aside to see another man marry the woman he loves. Actually, even if Montgomery hadn’t reappeared, Ethelinde makes it clear that her love for Montgomery would make it impossible for her to marry Sir Edward.

Sir Edward is interesting because he is mentally tormented, but not quite a transgressor. I would argue that he did commit a transgression in marrying Lady Newenden for her money, but we are definitely intended to sympathize with him. He is also an early version of several other characters who haunt the pages of near-contemporary novels because they cannot have the love they desire. Interestingly, those characters are usually women. In Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1800), Harriet Freke cannot have the man she loves because she is too outspoken and even crossdresses—her last name is no accident—women who are not feminine are freaks. In Burney’s The Wanderer (1814), the outspoken Elinor, believed to be a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, also fails to obtain the hero’s love. Both women are examples of transgressing against the patriarchal code while the true heroines of the novels are sufficiently feminine and well-bred enough to know their place in society. Sir Edward, by being a divorced man and having married for money, has also transgressed against society and morality, and therefore, is not worthy of winning the heroine’s hand.

Finally, I would add that the novel has many interesting references to the colonies. Many of the male characters go to the colonies to seek their fortunes. While Smith does not overtly speak out against the exploitation that occurs because of the colonies, they are, to some extent, depicted as dangerous or immoral places. It is in the West Indies that Mrs. Montgomery’s brother, Harcourt, ends up having an illegitimate daughter (not that that can’t happen in England, but it is a sign that morals are lessened in the colonies), and Montgomery nearly dies when returning to England from India. Later novelists would be more brutal in the threat the colonies pose to morality in England—especially the Bronte sisters in Jane Eyre (1847), Wuthering Heights (1847), and Villette (1853), H. Rider Haggard in She (1886), and Bram Stoker in Dracula (1897).

In short, Ethelinde and Charlotte Smith played a central role in the development of the novel of manners, the Gothic, and Romanticism. I would refer people to Moody’s introduction for more about Smith’s influence on Jane Austen. Certainly, Ethelinde has been neglected for far too long. It is a missing link between Richardson, Burney, and Radcliffe. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Romanticism, the Gothic, and the development of the novel.

You can purchase the new edition of Ethelinde from Valancourt Books at or at most online or local bookstores.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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