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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

Miss Reeve had previously published 1772 The Phoenix

Walpole's tragedy, "The Mysterious Mother," has not even that degree of importance which secures his romance a niche in literary history. The subject was too unnatural to admit of stage presentation. Incest, when treated in the manner of Sophocles (Walpole justified himself by the example of "Oedipus"), or even of Ford, or of Shelley, may possibly claim a place among the themes which art is not quite forbidden to touch; but when handled in the prurient and crudely melodramatic fashion of this particular artist, it is merely offensive. "The Mysterious Mother," indeed, is even more absurd than horrible. Gothic machinery is present, but it is of the slightest. The scene of the action is a castle at Narbonne and the _chatelaine_ is the heroine of the play. The other characters are knights, friars, orphaned damsels, and feudal retainers; there is mention of cloisters, drawbridges, the Vaudois heretics, and the assassination of Henri III. and Henri IV.; and the author's Whig and Protestant leanings are oddly evidenced in his exposure of priestly intrigues.

"The Castle of Otranto" was not long in finding imitators. One of the first of these was Clara Reeve's "Champion of Virtue" (1777), styled on its title-page "A Gothic Story," and reprinted the following year as "The Old English Baron." Under this latter title it has since gone through thirteen editions, the latest of which, in 1883, gave a portrait of the author. Miss Reeve had previously published (1772) "The Phoenix," a translation of "Argenis," "a romance written in Latin about the beginning of the seventeenth century, by John Barclay, a Scotchman, and supposed to contain an allegorical account of the civil wars of France during the reign of Henry III."[15] "Pray," inquires the author of "The Champion of Virtue" in her address to the reader, "did you ever read a book called, 'The Castle of Otranto'? If you have, you will willingly enter with me into a review of it. But perhaps you have not read it? However, you have heard that it is an attempt to blend together the most attractive and interesting circumstances of the ancient romance and modern novel. . . The conduct of the story is artful and judicious; and the characters are admirably drawn and supported; the diction polished and elegant; yet with all these brilliant advantages, it palls upon the mind. . . The reason is obvious; the machinery is so violent that it destroys the effect it is intended to excite. Had the story been kept within the utmost _verge_ of probability, the effect had been preserved. . . For instance, we can conceive and allow of the appearance of a ghost; we can even dispense with an enchanted sword and helmet, but then they must keep within certain limits of credibility. A sword so large as to require a hundred men to lift it, a helmet that by its own weight forces a passage through a court-yard into an arched vault . . . when your expectation is wound up to the highest pitch, these circumstances take it down with a witness, destroy the work of imagination, and, instead of attention, excite laughter. . . In the course of my observations upon this singular book, it seemed to me that it was possible to compose a work upon the same plan, wherein these defects might be avoided."

Accordingly Miss Reeve undertook to admit only a rather mild dose of the marvelous in her romance. Like Walpole she professed to be simply the editor of the story, which she said that she had transcribed or translated from a manuscript in the Old English language, a now somewhat threadbare device. The period was the fifteenth century, in the reign of Henry VI., and the scene England. But, in spite of the implication of its sub-title, the fiction is much less "Gothic" than its model, and its modernness of sentiment and manners is hardly covered with even the faintest wash of mediaevalism. As in Walpole's book, there are a murder and a usurpation, a rightful heir defrauded of his inheritance and reared as a peasant. There are a haunted chamber, unearthly midnight groans, a ghost in armor, and a secret closet with its skeleton. The tale is infinitely tiresome, and is full of that edifying morality, fine sentiment and stilted dialogue--that "old perfumed, powdered D'Arblay conversation," as Thackeray called it--which abound in "Evelina," "Thaddeus of Warsaw," and almost all the fiction of the last quarter of the last century. Still it was a little unkind in Walpole to pronounce his disciple's performance tedious and insipid, as he did.

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