Tag Archives: Gothic

The Female Freke: Crossdressing, the Gothic, and Female Education in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda

Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) is a curious novel that, despite feeling disjointed in its plot, is perhaps Edgeworth’s greatest, being more fully developed than other works like Castle Rackrent (1800) and The Absentee (1812). It is novel of manners with Gothic elements, much like Fanny Burney’s Camilla (1796) and The Wanderer (1814), and belongs on the same bookshelf as the works of Mrs. Radcliffe, Fanny Burney, Charlotte Smith, and Jane Austen, who refers to the novel in Northanger Abbey. While Belinda is very much a traditional romance novel, detailing how the heroine, Belinda, ends up marrying the hero, Sir Clarence Hervey, after they overcome the obstacles to their relationship, two far more interesting women, Lady Delacour and Harriet Freake, are at its core.

Belinda (1801) by Maria Edgeworth

Belinda Portman is rather a bore to the reader. Her character is not well developed and she has no real adventures. Her only purposes in the novel are to fall in love with Clarence Hervey and reform Lady Delacour. It is Lady Delacour who first brings life to the novel when Belinda is sent by her aunt to stay with her. Lady Delacour introduces Belinda to the world of fashion, including Clarence Hervey, but she also introduces her to her own dysfunctional life. Lord Delacour is a drunk whom Lady Delacour cannot abide. Her thirteen-year-old daughter, Helena, she ignores and shoves off on friends or relatives. She also associates with the wrong people, most notably Harriet Freake. Harriet thinks nothing of behaving in unruly ways, as seen when she instigates events that lead to Lady Delacour fighting a female duel with her great society rival Mrs. Luttridge. Of course, the women dress as men in the process. Neither woman dies in the duel, but the pistol backfires and hurts Lady Delacour’s breast, causing her to be convinced she has cancer. Ultimately, however, everything will be improved for Lady Delacour because the sweet Belinda will reconcile her to her husband and daughter. Unfortunately, her good behavior also brings upon Belinda the wrath of Harriet Freake.

Harriet now befriends Mrs. Luttridge, Lady Delacour’s enemy. She then involves herself in several adventures to harass Belinda and her set. When Belinda learns that Clarence Hervey has another love interest, a young woman named Virginia, she allows Mr. Vincent, a gentleman from the West Indies, to pay court to her. Mr. Vincent has a negro servant, Juba. Harriet shares apartments in the same building as Mr. Vincent, and when a dispute occurs over who has rights to the building’s coach house, Harriet swears she will punish Juba. Juba fears her, referring to her as a “man-woman” and an “obeah-woman” (a West Indian witch). It’s death to mention an obeah-woman so Juba becomes convinced he will die. Soon he is seeing an apparition at night of a woman in flames at the foot of his bed, and he believes this woman will kill him. Belinda, however, realizes the flaming woman is a head drawn in phosphorus by children and that Harriet is playing a trick on him. Because Belinda ruined her fun, Harriet is now out to get revenge on her.

Harriet’s behavior suggests she may be a lesbian. She is not above dressing in men’s clothes. In one scene, she is out shooting with the men. In referring to her past, she remarks upon when she was a “schoolboy.” She also states that when a woman likes a man, she should tell him so, although she makes no professions of love to any man. I suspect she’s just not interested in men, although her forwardness and directness are in keeping with that of literary women who throw themselves at men, such as Lady Olivia in Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753-4), Joanna, Countess of Mar in Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1809), and Elinor Joddrel in Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814). (See also my previous blog post “Male Imprisonment and Female Wanderers: Sir Charles Grandison’s Influence on the Gothic Novel.”) Edgeworth is really more daring than these other novels in suggesting Harriet is a lesbian. Not only does Harriet show no interest in men, but she lives with Miss Moreton, a young lady who ran away from home, and who may be Harriet’s lesbian partner; we are told Harriet leads Miss Moreton a rough life, getting her to dress up like a man. Belinda concludes that Harriet is obviously unhappy. However, no analysis is given to the cause of her unhappiness. I suspect it’s because her society has no place for lesbians, and her feelings of rejection by her society result in her anger and meanness. Even Edgeworth is not on Harriet’s side, having given her the name Freke to emphasize to readers what a freak she is.

It is hard to feel any sympathy for Harriet, a woman who uses the supernatural to terrify others. Besides frightening Juba, she plays upon Lady Delacour’s fears. Lady Delacour eventually sees a doctor and learns she does not have cancer, but she does need an operation. She is fearful she might die from the operation and turns to religion. At this point, Harriet decides to dress up like a man whom Lady Delacour previously wronged and appear outside her window to haunt her. Fortunately, she is caught in the act, actually having her leg caught in a trap in the yard and being found by the gardener.

Later, Harriet and Mrs. Luttridge decide to get revenge on Belinda by ruining her engagement to Mr. Vincent. They lure Mr. Vincent into gambling at the Luttridges’ house where the tables are fixed so that he cannot possibly win. Clarence Hervey tries to step in and save Mr. Vincent from ruin, but Mr. Vincent refuses, seeing Clarence as his rival for Belinda’s hand, even though Clarence is planning by this point to marry Virginia. Ruined by gambling, Mr. Vincent attempts to borrow money in secret from a Jew to pay his gambling debts, but when his gambling addiction is revealed, Belinda decides to break off the engagement.

This gambling plot is interesting for several reasons. First, gambling is considered a transgression against God, as I’ve discussed at length in my book The Gothic Wanderer. A long tradition of gamblers appear in Gothic novels, the most notable being Valancourt in Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). His gambling causes Valancourt problems with the novel’s heroine, Emily St. Aubert, but in the end, Emily still marries him. In William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799), the title character also brings his family to ruin through gambling. Edgeworth had Godwin’s novel in mind as evidenced when at the end of Chapter 15 she has Lady Delacour ask Belinda whether she’d rather have rouge or the philosopher’s stone and whether she’s read St. Leon. St. Leon actually acquires the philosopher’s stone in the novel, which is itself a form of gambling since it can turn lead into gold, thus disrupting national economies. Also of interest in Belinda’s gambling plot is how the Jew is a stereotype in the novel, wanting to extort unreasonable interest from Mr. Vincent. This and similar depictions of Jews in Mrs. Edgeworth’s novels resulted in a Jewish-American reader complaining about such depictions, leading to her writing Harrington (1817), perhaps the first novel to contain positive depictions of Jewish characters, predating Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) by two years.

Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) was an English born author who lived in Ireland and created the first Irish regional novels, which ultimately inspired Sir Walter Scott to write his novels.

Although Belinda is now unengaged, her true love, Clarence Hervey, is not. Up to this time, we’ve heard little about his betrothed Virginia, but the end of the novel goes into detail about how Clarence found the orphan Virginia as a child and decided to raise her in the forest and educate her with the view of someday making her his wife. Her name isn’t even really Virginia, but he calls her that as a tribute to Paul et Virginia (1788) by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de St. Pierre.

Virginia grows up respecting Clarence and feeling obligated to love him, but she has seen the picture of a young man whom she believes is a hero, and that is what she grows to want—a hero. She has not been allowed to read novels because novel-reading is what caused her mother to lose her virtue; however, she does grow up reading romances, which distort her understanding of the world, especially since she grows up in isolation save for the woman who cares for her and occasional visits by Clarence. (Edgeworth based this story of a man educating a young woman with the intent to marry her on the real-life story of her father’s friend Thomas Day, the author of Sandford and Merton (1788). Day, inspired by Rousseau’s Emile (1762), raised two young ladies, Sabrina and Lucretia, but Lucretia he decided to discard as not suitable for him. Sabrina he eventually also gave up on ever becoming his wife and she ended up marrying another.)

Lady Delacour, determined that Belinda shall marry Clarence, now steps in to resolve matters by revealing that Virginia does not love Clarence. She does this by showing Virginia a picture behind a curtain. Virginia faints when the picture is revealed. This scene is a play on the horror behind the veil in Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, but with better, if fanciful results. When Virginia faints, Clarence realizes she does not love him but the imaginary hero pictured in the image. Clarence has just recently discovered Virginia’s father is Mr. Hartley, a man who, like Mr. Vincent, has made his fortune in the West Indies. Mr. Hartley now comes forward to reveal to Virginia that the man in the portrait that she found in the forest is none other than Captain Sunderland. The captain had watched her through a telescope and fallen in love with her. He had left behind his portrait for her to find before going to the West Indies, where he saved Mr. Hartley’s life during a slave rebellion. Consequently, he is a hero and worthy of Virginia’s hand.

Clarence is now free to marry Belinda, and everyone lives happily ever after, except Harriet Freake. We are never told what becomes of her, but we are left with the feeling that she will continue to cause trouble. Even though her efforts to appear as an apparition and frighten people in the novel have been unsuccessful, she continues to haunt the reader long after the book is finished. One wishes Edgeworth had written another novel from Harriet’s perspective, but this female Gothic wanderer, even in the eyes of her creator, was unredeemable.

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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, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and numerous other books. For more information about Tyler and his books, visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com, www.GothicWanderer.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Michelle Pillow’s New Novel Reflects that Gothic Romance Is Alive and Well

As a scholar of the classic Gothic novel of the nineteenth century, from time to time I like to read twenty-first century Gothic novels to see how well the seeds that Mrs. Radcliffe planted are flourishing. I’m happy to report that authors like Michelle Pillow are keeping the Gothic tradition alive and well by utilizing standard Gothic plot devices but making them their own as the Gothic evolves into something more spiritual and less terrifying than its originators may have first imagined.

Michelle Pillow's new novel Forget Me Not blends regency fiction with the paranormal for some surprising romance.

Michelle Pillow’s new novel Forget Me Not blends regency fiction with the paranormal for some surprising romance.

Forget Me Not has all the classic Gothic elements a reader could want, and it draws heavily upon those early novels for its setting and atmosphere. We can also define it as a regency novel—since it’s set in England in 1812—when George IV was still Prince Regent of England. Readers today might call it paranormal rather than Gothic, and, of course, it also falls into the romance novel category.

The story begins when Isabel Drake and her sister Jane are speculating about whether Rothfield Park is haunted. The family has let the manor house from its owner, the Marquis of Rothfield. Legend says that during a fire, a child and servant died in the house. Jane claims that she has seen evidence of hauntings in the castle, but Isabel thinks Jane has just let her imagination get the better of her after reading a “shilling shocker.” (Shilling shockers were popular short books in the nineteenth century that often plagiarized longer best-selling Gothic novels and were abridged to be affordable, costing only a shilling.) This scene recalls Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and the thrills that Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe have over reading “horrid” novels by Mrs. Radcliffe and others.

Isabel, however, has bigger problems than ghosts. Her parents do not like how she treats her governess so they have decided to hire a tutor approved by the colonel, nephew to the Marquis of Rothfield, whom they plan for her to marry. Isabel wants nothing to do with marrying the colonel or with a new tutor.

In anger, Isabel goes riding and comes to the woods, where a heavy mist is setting in. She meets there a mysterious child who asks her to play with her, but Isabel refuses, feeling spooked. As she tries to return home, she has an accident with a tree branch and falls from her horse.

Isabel has no memory of the accident, but by the time she recovers, she finds her parents have left her alone at Rothfield with her new tutor, Dougal Weston. Here, I admit, my willing suspension of disbelief was a bit challenged—no self-respecting noble family of this time would leave their daughter alone with just the servants and a handsome male tutor—but Michelle Pillow will provide some surprising and ultimately believable explanations for this chain of events before the novel is over.

Dougal Weston turns out to be unlike any tutor Isabel ever expected. He really doesn’t teach her much of anything—just asks her to read and then discuss with him what she read. Isabel soon starts to suspect he isn’t a tutor but someone with an ulterior motive for being at Rothfield.

Nevertheless, Isabel finds herself falling in love with him and confesses to him that she is now repeatedly seeing the ghost child. Dougal appears interested in the history of the house and the ghost child, but he also tries to comfort Isabel and calm her fears. His comforting eventually goes a bit too far—though Isabel doesn’t object—and you guess it, they have quite enjoyable sex. Before long, Isabel is starting to consider how she might shirk off her social status and marriage expectations to run off and live in a cottage with Dougal.

Eventually, however, Isabel begins to suspect Dougal is just using her to learn more about the ghost child. Dougal then asks Reverend Stillwell to speak to Isabel about the ghosts. Reverend Stillwell is a sort of medium who can communicate with the dead; he explains things to Isabel about ghosts that make her feel more comfortable and realize she isn’t crazy. He also will encourage Isabel and Dougal to seek happiness.

I can’t say more without giving away all the plot twists, but I will just say that I love how Michelle Pillow takes old Gothic themes and makes them new. Before the story is over, there’s even a cursed man who has made a Faustian pact to obtain knowledge from evil wizards in exchange for his soul. However, he can prevent himself from going to hell if he captures other souls for the devil—a classic Victorian twist previously used by authors like George W.M. Reynolds in The Necromancer (1852). Pillow also draws on regency novel conventions—there’s even a runaway marriage to Gretna Green, worthy of a Jane Austen novel. Finally, I didn’t see the final plot twist at the end, though I think I should have, but in any case, I was delighted by it.

Forget Me Not is not quite Jane Austen, but if you enjoyed books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, then Forget Me Not should give you plenty of ghostly pleasure. If you’re a fan of television shows like The Ghost Whisperer or films like The Sixth Sense, you’ll also find more enjoyable modern spins on ghosts and the Gothic in these pages. After you finish Forget Me Not, I suspect you will want to read more of Michelle Pillow’s novels—fortunately, she has written plenty in both the romance and paranormal genres.

For more information about Forget Me Not and Michelle Pillow, visit www.MichellePillow.com.

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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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