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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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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Mary Shelley

Anne of Geierstein: Sir Walter Scott’s Most Gothic Novel

Anne of Geierstein (1829) is Sir Walter Scott’s most Gothic novel and probably the last true masterpiece that he wrote. It was well-received in its time and holds up remarkably well still today. Despite Scott’s typical slow-pacing, the reader is moved on from one dramatic scene to the next so that the novel makes an overall powerful impression.

An illustration of Arthur Philipson trying to cross over the ravine. Illustrator and source unknown.

The story begins with a merchant named Phillipson and his son Arthur who are English but traveling through Switzerland in the 1470s. When the son takes a path that results in his nearly falling off a cliff, he finds himself perched in a tree with a ravine below him that he dare not try to cross. Enter Anne, our heroine, who, as nimble as a mountain goat, jumps across to the tree and convinces him he can jump back, which makes him feel a bit silly considering we will soon find out he is a brave knight and that he and his father are traveling in disguise.

The Philipsons continue their journey with the party of Anne’s uncle, whom they learn was the rightful heir to Geierstein, a nearby castle, but he had given up his title to his brother, Albert of Arnheim, who is rather a villain. Anne is under her uncle’s protection. Of course, young Arthur soon falls in love with Anne.

But Arthur and his father have other concerns. Arthur’s father is the Earl of Oxford and they are traveling to the Duke of Burgundy to enlist his aid in the Lancastrian cause. This eventually leads them also to Anjou where lives Margaret of Anjou in exile now that her husband Henry VI and her son Edward have both died. She lives at her father’s court in misery while her father tries to distract her with frivolous entertainments.

Enough about the plot. Let’s get to the Gothic moments. The moment Arthur finds himself facing jumping from the tree across a gulf might be termed the first Gothic moment, for it is a moment of fear for Arthur, even though there is nothing supernatural about it. Switzerland with its mountains and sublime landscape had already been a popular setting for other Gothic novels, notably Frankenstein (1818), so it is an appropriate Gothic setting in which the landscape creates fear and awe.

Next, Arthur’s interest in Anne results in his hearing the history of her family. Her grandfather, Herman, Baron of Arnheim, took a stranger into his castle who needed his protection. Although the stranger, a Persian named Dannischemend, says he could only live for a year and a day, he begs the Baron to protect him during that time. The baron agrees in exchange that Dannischemend teach him his secrets since he’s a member of the Sacred Fire. The Persian agrees to this, but when the year comes to an end, he asks for his daughter to have shelter in the castle, and in exchange, she will then also teach the baron. However, the Persian warns the baron not to fall in love with her. Despite this warning, they do fall in love and are eventually wed. The legend then says that they had a daughter, and at the christening, the baron allowed a drop or two of holy water to fall on his bride, who then turned to ash. The story recalls that of the French medieval fairy Melusine, and many other fairy-type characters who were pagan and unable to be baptized or to live as Christians. Although later Arthur hears the truth of what happened to Anne’s grandmother and knows he should dismiss this story as a false legend, his next encounter with Anne makes him wonder whether there may be some truth to Anne having a supernatural parentage.

Several illustrations from the Collier Books edition of The Waverley novels. These illustrations for Anne of Geierstein depict scenes of Switzerland and Arthur being visited in the dungeon by Anne.

More specifically Gothic is the moment when Arthur finds himself imprisoned in a castle, only to have Anne and another woman appear to him through means inexplicable at first, making her appear like an elemental spirit. He cannot explain how these women entered the prison, and being under a vow, Anne cannot speak to him, which adds to the mystery. Of course, Anne leads Arthur out of the prison. Eventually, Anne explains how she was able to appear in Arthur’s prison, and any hint at the supernatural is resolved, just as it would be in one of Radcliffe’s novels.

Perhaps the most stunning Gothic moment in the novel is when Arthur’s father rents a room in an inn. As he is lying in the bed, he finds himself suddenly strapped to the bed as a prisoner. The bed is then lowered through the floor into a mysterious subterranean chamber where he becomes the prisoner of the Holy Vehme, a secret organization that has taken upon itself to judge men for their crimes. It is also known as the Initiated, the Wise Men, and the Secret Tribunal. Dressed as monks, the members of the Holy Vehme interrogate Philipson in a manner that recalls scenes of the Inquisition in Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Although accused of slandering the Holy Vehme, Philipson is finally set free.

Scott now begins to cast aside the love story and focus on Arthur and his father’s mission. They travel to Anjou to meet Margaret and her father. These scenes are some of the most powerful in the novel as we are introduced to a King Rene who engages in merriment and a Queen Margaret who is grieving her losses. Margaret, unable to enjoy her father’s frolicsome ways, does not live in his castle but at the nearby monastery. In a dramatic scene, Arthur meets with Margaret at the monastery to tell her what luck they’ve had negotiating with the King of Burgundy to aid the Lancastrian cause. Margaret is willing to make sure Burgundy gets Provence from her father in exchange for his aid, though her father is less willing to agree to it. Margaret and Arthur meet on a parapet where Arthur finds her seated with her disheveled hair tossing about in the wind. She is described as noble and beautiful, yet having ghastly and wasted features. Arthur feels terror because a storm is approaching, and he beseeches her to go inside, but she refuses because monks and walls have ears.

Margaret tells Arthur that there is a cavern beneath the monastery where in pagan days people went to consult an oracle whose voice comes up from the cavern and is known as Lou Garagoule. Roman generals once consulted it, but this oracle is deaf to Margaret’s inquiries. This scene shows the desperation the queen feels in seeking supernatural aid. It reminds one of Gothic wanderer figures willing to sell their soul to the devil to achieve what they desire, including forbidden knowledge of the future. Margaret, in her desperate and bereaved state, certainly wins the prize as the most Gothic wanderer type character in the novel. Soon after Arthur’s meeting with her, Margaret dies.

The central illustration depicts Arthur and Margaret on the parapet.

The novel seems to lose its impact once Margaret dies. Anne is absent from the novel for about a third of it during this time. Toward the end there are some battles that then lead to a happy ending with Arthur and Anne being married. For a while the couple live in Switzerland until Henry VII gains the throne of England, and then they travel there to live and Anne becomes an ornament at the English court.

Sir Walter Scott, though we might consider him the father of the historical novel, takes many liberties with history in Anne of Geierstein, so we might term this book more akin to a Gothic romance in keeping with Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels than just historical fiction, despite the introduction of many historical characters. I consider it romance because of the broad use Scott makes of history to serve his narrative purposes rather than letting history create the outline for his narrative. No self-respecting present-day historical novelist would play fast and loose with history to the extent Scott does. He allows Margaret to die in 1476 when she did not actually die until 1482, and he allows King Rene to outlive her when he actually died in 1480. Worse, while the Earl of Oxford did support the Lancastrian cause, he never even had a son named Arthur so our main hero and our heroine are completely fictional.

Regardless, Scott’s portraits of his characters are remarkable, and I think his depiction of Margaret of Anjou easily rivals that of Shakespeare in the Henry VI plays. Also fascinating is Scott’s use of the Holy Vehme in the novel which surely must have inspired George W. M. Reynolds’ Faust, or The Secret of the Tribunals (1847), which also features the Holy Vehme in its plot. Scott also knows how to take a fascinating moment in history and make it come alive in complex ways as reflected in his depictions of the court of Burgundy, the court of King Rene, and the various political implications involved. Scott may not always be historically accurate, but he makes history come alive, and he inspires the reader to want to learn more about the history behind his novels. At the same time, his characters reflect the true pathos and the broken hearts that result from some of history’s most tragic moments in a way few reliable historians can accomplish.

A volume of the 9 volume set of Waverley novels published by Collier in New York. No date is printed in the book but a former owner wrote a date of 1887 in one volume. I have owned them since 1993.

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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.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Sir Walter Scott