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).
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.
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.
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.