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Master Timothy’s Book-Case: George W. M. Reynolds’ Improvement on Dickens

George W. M. Reynolds (1814-1879) remains little known except by the most persistent readers of Victorian and Gothic Fiction. One reason he is ignored and even disparaged has to do with his rivalry with Charles Dickens, whom he outsold, and also because he tended to pirate ideas from others and then make them his own. I have written numerous blog posts here about many of Reynolds’ other novels, including Pickwick Abroad (1837-8), an unabashed sequel to The Pickwick Papers (1836-7). Most will likely not agree with me, but I frankly enjoyed Pickwick Abroad more than The Pickwick Papers, largely because Reynolds has much more of a plot to his novel.

This ebook edition from Travelyn Publishing is available at Amazon.

Master Timothy’s Bookcase is another example of how Reynolds was able to capitalize upon popular contemporary books and make them his own. In 1840-1, Dickens published Master Humphrey’s Clock, a work largely forgotten and seldom read today, known primarily because within its pages Dickens published The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) and Barnaby Rudge (1841). Dickens set out to write a serial centered around Master Humphrey, an old man with a longcase antique clock, in which he keeps his manuscripts. Master Humphrey gathers about him a group of friends who form a club consisting of them reading their manuscripts to each other. The manuscripts are the short stories in the book. Among the friends is Mr. Pickwick, so in some sense, the book is a sequel to The Pickwick Papers. Within Master Humphrey’s Clock, The Old Curiosity Shop was to be a short story, but Dickens then decided to develop it into a novel, and by the time Dickens got well into the novel, Master Humphrey’s Clock had become little more than a frame. When the novel was completed, Dickens briefly returned to the original format of Master Humphrey’s Clock before starting on Barnaby Rudge, and after Barnaby Rudge was concluded, he quickly wrapped up Master Humphrey’s Clock by having Master Humphrey die.

Honestly, there is little in Master Humphrey’s Clock of interest. The narrator is likeable but hardly fascinating and the short stories are forgettable. Even Dickens apparently realized the faults of the book, choosing that The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge would stand on their own in the future, as stated in the preface to the 1848 edition of The Old Curiosity Shop. Today, Master Humphrey’s Clock is usually published separately from the two novels it launched.

A cover page to the serial of Master Humphrey’s Clock at the time Barnaby Rudge was being serialized.

Reynolds clearly decided to capitalize on the popularity of Dickens’ work when he created the similarly titled Master Timothy’s Bookcase, which began circulating in July 1841, just a month or so before Master Humphrey’s Clock ended. However, in my opinion, Reynolds vastly improved upon Dickens’ format by tying the stories together far more tightly than Dickens. He also weaves in the supernatural to explain how all the stories become known to the main character, Sir Edmund Mortimer, through the supernatural agency of Master Timothy’s Bookcase.

The story begins with a brief history of the Mortimer family and the strange circumstances under which they have operated for centuries. Mortimer House is the family mansion in Canterbury. It has a wing that contains six special rooms. In each room, one of the past heads of the family has died. Each man is said to have learned the day of his death by dire warning and then gone to the appropriate room to die. On January 1, 1830, the sixth head of the family, Sir William Mortimer died, leaving his son Edmund to take up the title.

Sir Edmund does not know the full secret of the house until he inherits it. He does knows the family is watched over by a guardian genius. This genius, Master Timothy, soon appears and explains matters to him. Each past head of the family had been granted a gift as a means to find happiness. However, none of Sir Edmund’s ancestors succeeded in finding happiness with their choices. Most recently, Sir William had sought happiness in Wealth but failed to achieve it. Sir Edmund decides he will choose Universal Knowledge to help him make good decisions. (This is an interesting choice since it is similar to King Solomon choosing Wisdom; Solomon was known for his wise decisions, particularly in the case where two mothers claimed the same child was hers.)

Master Timothy tells Sir Edmund he will receive Universal Knowledge in the form of a supernatural bookcase that only he will be able to see and that will always be with him. Any time he wants to know anything about anyone or any situation, he can consult the bookcase and read the truth.

Master Timothy’s own story is then shared. In 1530, Sir Edmund’s ancestor, Henry Mortimer, was asked by a Mr. Musgrave to take a child to Lord Davenport and tell him it was his. Mr. Musgrave’s daughter, Mary, had apparently given birth to the child, fathered on her by the lord. However, Lord Davenport rejected the child, but when Henry tried to find Mr. Musgrave again, he had left the vicinity. Henry ended up raising the child himself. He named it Timothy after the relative who had raised him. After three years, Mary came to find Henry and Timothy. By then, her father, Mr. Musgrave, had died, and she was very wealthy. She decided to live near Henry and her child while pretending to be a widow. Unfortunately, Timothy died at age sixteen. Then Mary died, leaving all her wealth to Henry. Henry used the wealth to build Mortimer House. Then one night, Timothy’s apparition appeared to him and offered to reword his good deeds by granting him anything he wanted. Henry chose the gift of Glory, ultimately becoming a general and being knighted by King Edward VI. However, he did not find happiness.

Now having inherited the title and received his gift, Sir Edmund is not allowed to stay at Mortimer House. He can only return there to die, so he plans to live elsewhere. He is invited by Sir Ralph Lindsay to stay with him. From here, the plot becomes too complicated to easily summarize. Suffice to say, Sir Ralph’s family has its secrets, which eventually causes Sir Edmund to consult Master Timothy’s Bookcase. He continues to consult the bookcase throughout the novel in his various encounters with people until he begins to learn their secrets and begins to bemoan the gift of Universal Knowledge because it has revealed to him the hypocrisy of people.

While at first the knowledge is a mental burden to Sir Edmund, he never uses it to benefit himself or hurt others. However, he finally determines he can use the knowledge to help another, and so while in France, he tries to persuade a marquis to support his nephew’s wife, who is destitute. After Sir Edmund reveals to the marquis that he knows his secrets—secrets it is impossible anyone can know—the marquis agrees to aid his nephew’s wife. He gives Sir Edmund a box with valuables in it to bring to the widow, and Sir Edmund departs. However, the marquis is so upset that Sir Edmund knows his secret that he immediately cuts his throat with a razor. Sir Edmund is accused of murder and ends up in prison. He realizes his situation is the result of abusing the knowledge he received from the bookcase, and he wonders why the genius of his family would bestow gifts upon his family if they are only to bring misery to the Mortimers.

When Sir Edmund comes to trial, the judge decides he is a lunatic and sends him to an asylum in Paris. By this point, Sir Edmund himself wonders if he is a lunatic. He remains in the asylum until the Revolution of 1830 results in the inmates being freed. Sir Edmund now returns to England with plans to marry the woman he loves (who has her own secret, or rather she is keeping the secret of another, as Sir Edmund learned through the bookcase). But before the wedding can take place, Master Timothy summons Sir Edmund to return to Mortimer House, saying that upon his twenty-fifth birthday, he may peruse the family manuscripts. The servant at the house is alarmed when Sir Edmund arrives because he was not supposed to until the day before he is to die. Sir Edmund, however, assures him all is well. Sir Edmund is then granted the opportunity to read manuscripts that tell him the stories of all his ancestors and the various gifts they had chosen, each one of which brought misery.

Sir Edmund is now struck by the futility of seeking happiness. Then he sees an inscription suddenly appear over the door of the room he is in, making it clear this is the day he will die. Master Timothy appears and explains that man’s life comes to an end when he realizes the futility of the aim that influenced his career. Before he dies, Sir Edmund is allowed to see the largely miserable fates of all those he has known and whose stories he has learned through the bookcase. He remains skeptical he will himself die, waiting almost to the last second, thinking he is safe when an assassin breaks into the house and murders him, someone who bears him a grudge from earlier in the novel.

Sir Edmund dies as Master Timothy declares to him that the gift he should have chosen was Virtue—a curious choice since one can’t help recalling that the subtitle of Pamela (1740), considered the first novel, is “Virtue Rewarded.” This ending makes the novel far from perfect since Sir Edmund has never really done anything terribly unvirtuous or sought to hurt anyone, but apparently prying into people’s secrets is not virtuous. While Reynolds refers to Sir Edmund’s gift as Universal Knowledge, it is also clearly forbidden knowledge—the quest for which is a frequent Gothic plot that always results in disaster for those who seek it and stems back to the story of the Garden of Eden and eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. (For more on the quest for forbidden knowledge and its subsequent punishment in Gothic literature, see my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption.)

While Master Timothy’s Bookcase is not a perfect novel, the stories in it are more intricately weaved together than those in Master Humphrey’s Clock. No driving motive or goal strengthens the plot, but the number of stories, many of which concern crimes or at least secrets, makes the book read like a rehearsal for Reynolds’ much greater work, The Mysteries of London (1844-5), another book whose idea he stole from another author’s work, in this case French novelist Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1842-3). One reason Master Timothy’s Clock has received a little attention is that one of the stories offers a solution to who was the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask. (One is tempted to accuse Reynolds’ of trying to capitalize upon Dumas’ work here, but Dumas’ novel was not published until 1847-1850). Unfortunately, Reynolds’ story of the Man in the Iron Mask is probably the weakest and most predictable story in the novel, and it is the only one Sir Edmund does not learn from the bookcase but from another person he meets. I will not reveal who Reynolds claims the man was, but it is a real stretch that has nothing to do with French royalty. Despite the disappointing treatment of this mystery, I doubt most readers will be disappointed overall by Master Timothy’s Bookcase. In fact, I am surprised it is not one of Reynolds’ best-known works.

Is Master Timothy’s Bookcase great literature? No. Is it an entertaining novel that does reveal some truths about human nature? Yes. Is the morality a bit in your face, if not a little preachy? Yes, but so was the work of most of the Victorians. And if Sir Edmund had chosen Virtue over Universal Knowledge, what a dull novel it would have been. Fortunately, Reynolds was a masterful storyteller, as most of the novel reflects. Consequently, his place in Victorian and Gothic literature deserves far more assessment. After all, if he outsold Dickens, we are missing out on a real understanding of Victorian culture and literature if we overlook him. I look forward to the day when George W. M. Reynolds is hailed as a major author of the period alongside Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Eliot, and the Brontës.

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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 many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, George W.M. Reynolds

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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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Literary Criticism

The Snake’s Pass–Bram Stoker’s First Novel

The Snake’s Pass is one of those pseudo-minor classics that would have been forgotten if it were not the first novel written by the author of Dracula, one of the greatest of the nineteenth century novels. The book was published in 1890, only seven years before Dracula, yet it is a long way from Stoker’s masterpiece in plot and form. A fan of Dracula may not enjoy it, but a literary or Bram Stoker scholar definitely would. It is actually better written than Lair of the White Worm, a later Stoker novel, but not up to the quality of The Jewel of the Seven Stars.

The Valancourt Books edition of The Snake’s Pass, Bram Stoker’s first novel.

What sets the novel off the most from Stoker’s other Gothic works is a real lack of the supernatural in the novel. There is a legend of a snake king driven from Ireland by St. Patrick in the book, but nothing supernatural ever actually occurs in the novel’s pages. The mysterious shifting bog is not supernatural at all, and frankly, the dullest part of the novel since Stoker goes into great detail of the measuring and study of the bog, which is being analyzed to determine where a lost treasure may be found. The conflict exists between the villain, Murdock, who is willing to do anything to find this treasure, and Arthur Severn and his friends. Arthur falls in love with Nora, whose father is cheated by Murdock to gain control of his land which may have the hidden treasure on it.

The first half of the book is bogged down with descriptions of the bog until Arthur falls in love with Nora, and then a tender, but not terribly exciting love story occurs. The book picks up speed halfway, yet still moves relatively slowly until the dramatic ending scene during a storm where Murdock and the protagonists struggle to find the treasure. This final scene makes the book worth reading, both for itself, and as an example of the talent Stoker had already developed for pacing and drama which he would use consistently in Dracula.

The book is not for the general reader, but I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the British or Irish novel—it is the only novel Stoker set in his native Ireland. One wishes Stoker, as a more mature writer, had written another novel of Ireland, perhaps with vampires included.

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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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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula