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The Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance online

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we may be sure that Shelley and his cousin, Medwin, as they hung
spellbound over such treasures as _The Midnight Groan, The
Mysterious Freebooter_, or _Subterranean Horrors_ did not pause
to consider whether the characters and adventures were true to
life. They desired, indeed, not to criticise but to create, and
in the winter of 1809-1810 united to produce a terrific romance,
with the title _Nightmare_, in which a gigantic and hideous witch
played a prominent part. After reading Schubert's _Der Ewige
Jude_, they began a narrative poem dealing with the legend of the
Wandering Jew,[91] who lingered in Shelley's imagination in after
years, and whom he introduced into _Queen Mab, Prometheus
Unbound_, and _Hellas_. The grim and ghastly legends included in
"Monk" Lewis's _Tales of Terror_ (1799) and _Tales of Wonder_
(1801) fascinated Shelley;[92] and the suggestive titles
_Revenge_;[93] _Ghasta, or the Avenging Demon_;[94] _St. Edmund's
Eve_;[95] _The Triumph of Conscience_ from the _Poems by Victor
and Cazire_ (1810), and _The Spectral Horseman_ from _The
Posthumous Poems of Margaret Nicholson_ (1810), all prove his
preoccupation with the supernatural. That Shelley's enthusiasm
for the gruesome and uncanny was not merely morbid and
hysterical, the mad, schoolboyish letter, written while he was in
the throes of composing _St. Irvyne_, is sufficient indication.
In a mood of grotesque fantasy and wild exhilaration, Shelley
invites his friend Graham to Field Place. The postscript is in
his handwriting, but is signed by his sister Elizabeth:

"The avenue is composed of vegetable substances moulded
in the form of trees called by the multitude Elm trees.
Stalk along the road towards them and mind and keep
yourself concealed as my mother brings a blood-stained
stiletto which she purposes to make you bathe in the
lifeblood of your enemy. Never mind the Death-demons
and skeletons dripping with the putrefaction of the
grave, that occasionally may blast your straining
eyeballs. Persevere even though Hell and destruction
should yawn beneath your feet.

"Think of all this at the frightful hour of midnight,
when the Hell-demon leans over your sleeping form, and
inspires those thoughts which eventually will lead you
to the gates of destruction... The fiend of the Sussex
solitudes shrieked in the wilderness at midnight - he
thirsts for thy detestable gore, impious Fergus. But
the day of retribution will arrive. H + D=Hell

That Shelley could jest thus lightly in the mock-terrific vein
shows that his mind was fundamentally sane and well-balanced, and
that he only regarded "fiendmongering" as a pleasantly thrilling
diversion. His _Zastrozzi_ (1810) and _St. Irvyne_ (1811) were
probably written with the same zest and spirit as his harrowing
letter to "impious Fergus." They are the outcome of a boyish
ambition to practise the art of freezing the blood, and their
composition was a source of pride and delight to their author. A
letter to Peacock (Nov. 9, 1818) from Italy re-echoes the note of
child-like enjoyment in weaving romances:

"We went to see heaven knows how many more palaces - Ranuzzi,
Marriscalchi, Aldobrandi. If you want Italian names for any
purpose, here they are; I should be glad of them if I was writing
a novel."

_Zastrozzi_ was published in April, 1810, while Shelley was still
at Eton, and with the £40 paid for the romance, he is said to
have given a banquet to eight of his friends. Though the story is
little more than a _réchauffé_ of previous tales of terror, it
evidently attained some measure of popularity. It was reprinted
in _The Romancist and Novelist's Library_ in 1839. Like Godwin,
Shelley contrived to smuggle a little contraband theory into his
novels, but his stock-in-trade is mainly that of the
terrormongers. The book to which Shelley was chiefly indebted was
_Zofloya or the Moor_ (1806), by the notorious Charlotte Dacre or
"Rosa Matilda," but there are many reminiscences of Mrs.
Radcliffe and of "Monk" Lewis. The sources of _Zastrozzi_ and
_St. Irvyne_ have been investigated in the _Modern Language
Review_ (Jan. 1912), by Mr. A. M. D. Hughes, who gives a complete
analysis of the plot of _Zofloya_, and indicates many parallels
with Shelley's novels. The heroine of _Zofloya_ is clearly a
lineal descendant of Lewis's Matilda, though Victoria di
Loredani, with all her vices, never actually degenerates into a
fiend. Victoria, it need hardly be stated, is nobly born, but she
has been brought up amid frivolous society by a worthless mother,
and: "The wildest passions predominated in her bosom; to gratify
them she possessed an unshrinking, relentless soul that would not
startle at the darkest crime."

Zofloya, who spurs her on, is the Devil himself. The plot is
highly melodramatic, and contains a headlong flight, an
earthquake and several violent deaths. In _Zastrozzi_, Shelley
draws upon the characters and incidents of this story very
freely. His lack of originality is so obvious as to need no
comment. The very names he chooses are borrowed. Julia is the
name of the pensive heroine in Mrs. Radcliffe's _Sicilian
Romance_. Matilda carries with it ugly memories of the lady in
Lewis's _Monk_; Verezzi occurs in _The Mysteries of Udolpho_;
Zastrozzi is formed by prefixing an extra syllable to the name
Strozzi from _Zofloya_. The incidents are those which happen
every day in the realm of terror. The villain, the hero, the
melancholy heroine, and her artful rival, develop no new traits,
but act strictly in accordance with tradition. They never
infringe the rigid code of manners and morals laid down for them
by previous generations. The scenery is invariably appropriate as
a setting to the incidents, and even the weather may be relied on
to act in a thoroughly conventional manner. The characters are
remarkable for their violent emotions and their marvellously
expressive eyes. When Verezzi's senses are "chilled with the
frigorific torpidity of despair," his eyes "roll horribly in
their sockets." When "direst revenge swallows up every other
feeling" in the soul of Matilda, her eyes "scintillate with a
fiend-like expression." Incidents follow one another with a wild
and stupefying rapidity. Every moment is a crisis. The style is
startlingly abrupt, and the short, disconnected paragraphs are
fired off like so many pistol shots. The sequence of events is
mystifying - Zastrozzi's motive for persecuting Verezzi is darkly
concealed until the end of the story, for reasons known only to
writers of the novel of terror. Shelley's romance, in short, is
no better and perhaps even worse than that of the other disciples
of Mrs. Radcliffe and "Monk" Lewis.

_St. Irvyne: or the Rosicrucian_ (1811), though it was written by
a "Gentleman of the University of Oxford" and not by a schoolboy,
shows slight advance on _Zastrozzi_ either in matter or manner.
The plot indeed is more bewildering and baffling than that of
_Zastrozzi_. The action of the story is double and alternate, the
scene shifts from place to place, and the characters appear and
disappear in an unaccountable and disconcerting fashion. This
time Godwin's _St. Leon_ has to be added to the list of Shelley's
sources. Ginotti, whose name is stolen from a brigand in
_Zofloya_, is not the devil but one of his sworn henchmen, who
has discovered and tasted the elixir vitae. Like Zofloya, he is
surrounded by an atmosphere of mystery. So that he may himself
die, Ginotti, like the old stranger in _St. Leon_, is anxious to
impart his secret to another. He chooses as his victim,
Wolfstein, a young noble who, like Leonardo in _Zofloya_, has
allied himself with a band of brigands. The bandit, Ginotti, aids
Wolfstein to escape with a beautiful captive maiden, for whom
Shelley adopts the name Megalena from _Zofloya_. While the lovers
are in Genoa, Megalena, discovering Wolfstein with a lady named
Olympia, whose "character has been ruined by a false system of
education," makes him promise to murder her rival. In Olympia's
bedchamber Wolfstein's hand is stayed for a moment by the sight
of her beauty - a picture which recalls the powerful scene in Mrs.
Radcliffe's _Italian_, when Schedoni bends over the sleeping
Ellena. After Olympia's suicide, Megalena and Wolfstein flee
together from Genoa. In the tale of terror, as in the modern
film-play, a flight of some kind is almost indispensable.
Ginotti, whose habit of disappearing and reappearing reminds us
of the ghostly monk in the ruins of Paluzzi, tells his history to
Wolfstein, and, at the destined hour, bestows the prescription
for the elixir, and appoints a meeting in St. Irvyne's abbey,
where Wolfstein stumbles over the corpse of Megalena. Wolfstein
refuses to deny God. Both Ginotti and his victim are blasted by
lightning, amid which the "frightful prince of terror, borne on
the pinions of hell's sulphurous whirlwind," stands before them.

"On a sudden Ginotti's frame, mouldered to a gigantic
skeleton, yet two pale and ghastly flames glared in his
eyeless sockets. Blackened in terrible convulsions,
Wolfstein expired; over him had the power of hell no
influence. Yes, endless existence is thine, Ginotti - a
dateless and hopeless eternity of horror."

Interspersed with this somewhat inconsequent story are the
adventures of Eloise, who is first introduced on her return home,
disconsolate, to a ruined abbey. We are given to understand that
the story is to unfold the misfortunes which have led to her
downfall, but she is happily married ere the close. She
accompanies her dying mother on a journey, as Emily in _The
Mysteries of Udolpho_ accompanied her father, and meets a
mysterious stranger, Nempère, at a lonely house, where they take
refuge. Nempère proves to be a less estimable character than
Valancourt, who fell to Emily's lot in similar circumstances. He
sells her to an English noble, Mountfort, at whose house she
meets Fitzeustace, who, like Vivaldi in _The Italian_, overhears
her confession of love for himself. Nempère is killed in a duel
by Mountfort. At the close, Shelley states abruptly that Nempère
is Ginotti, and Eloise is Wolfstein's sister. In springing a
secret upon us suddenly on the last page, Shelley was probably
emulating Lewis's _Bravo of Venice_; but the conclusion, which is
intended to forge a connecting link between the tales, is
unsatisfying. It is not surprising that the publisher, Stockdale,
demanded some further elucidation of the mystery. Ginotti,
apparently, dies twice, and Shelley's letters fail to solve the
problem. He wrote to Stockdale: "Ginotti, as you will see, did
_not_ die by Wolfstein's hand, but by the influence of that
natural magic, which, when the secret was imparted to the latter,
destroyed him."[97] A few days later he wrote again, evidently in
reply to further questions: "On a re-examination you will
perceive that Mountfort physically did kill Ginotti, which must
appear from the latter's paleness." The truth seems to be that
Shelley was weary of his puppets, and had no desire to extricate
them from the tangle in which they were involved, though he was
impatient to see _St. Irvyne_ in print, and spoke hopefully of
its "selling mechanically to the circulating libraries."

Shelley took advantage of the privilege of writers of romance to
palm off on the public some of his earliest efforts at
versification. These poems, distributed impartially among the
various characters, are introduced with the same laborious
artlessness as the songs in a musical comedy. Megalena, though
suffering from excruciating mental agony, finds leisure to
scratch several verses on the walls of her cell. It would indeed
be a poor-spirited heroine who could not deftly turn a sonnet to
night or to the moon, however profound her woes. Superhuman
strength and courage is an endowment necessary to all who would
dwell in the realms of terror and survive the fierce struggle for
existence. Peacock, in _Nightmare Abbey_, paints the Shelley of
1812 in Scythrop, who devours tragedies and German romances, and
is troubled with a "passion for reforming the world." "He slept
with _Horrid Mysteries_ under his pillow, and dreamed of
venerable eleutherarchs and ghastly confederates holding midnight
conventions in subterranean caves... He had a certain portion of
mechanical genius which his romantic projects tended to develop.
He constructed models of cells and recesses, sliding panels and
secret passages, that would have baffled the skill of the
Parisian police." His bearing was that of a romantic villain: "He
stalked about like the grand Inquisitor, and the servants flitted
past him like familiars."

Although Shelley outgrew his youthful taste for horrors, his
early reading left traces on the imagery and diction of his
poetry. There is an unusual profusion in his vocabulary of such
words as ghosts, shades, charnel, tomb, torture, agony, etc., and
supernatural similes occur readily to his mind. In _Alastor_ he
compares himself to

"an inspired and desperate alchymist
Staking his very life on some dark hope,"

and cries:

"O that the dream
Of dark magician in his visioned cave
Raking the cinders of a crucible
For life and power, even when his feeble hand
Shakes in its last decay, were the true law
Of this so lonely world."

In the _Ode to the West Wind_ his memories of an older and finer
kind of romance suggested the fantastic comparison of the dead
leaves to

"ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,"

and in _Prometheus Unbound_ Panthea sees

"unimaginable shapes
Such as ghosts dream dwell in the lampless deeps."

The poem _Ginevra_, which describes an enforced wedding and the
death of the bride at the sight of her real lover, may well have
been inspired by reading the romances of terror, where such
events are an everyday occurrence. The gruesome descriptions in
_The Revolt of Islam_, the decay of the garden in _The Sensitive
Plant_, the tortures of Prometheus, all show how Shelley strove
to work on the instinctive emotion of fear. In _The Cenci_ he
touches the profoundest depths of human passion, and shows his
power of finding words, terrible in their simple grandeur, for a
soul in agony. In the tragedies of Shakespeare and of his
followers - Ford, Webster and Tourneur - Shelley had heard the true
language of anguish and despair. The futile, frenzied shrieking
of Matilda and her kind is forgotten in the passionate nobility
or fearful calm of the speeches of Beatrice Cenci.


A conflict between "sense and sensibility" was naturally to be
expected; and, the year after Mrs. Radcliffe published _The
Italian_, Jane Austen had completed her _Northanger Abbey_,
ridiculing the "horrid" school of fiction. It is noteworthy that
for the _Mysteries of Udolpho_ Mrs. Radcliffe received £500, and
for _The Italian_ £800; while for the manuscript of _Northanger
Abbey_, the bookseller paid Jane Austen the ungenerous sum of
£10, selling it again later to Henry Austen for the same amount.
The contrast in market value is significant. The publisher, who,
it may be added, was not necessarily a literary critic, probably
realised that if the mock romance were successful, its tendency
would be to endanger the popularity of the prevailing mode in
fiction. Hence for many years it was concealed as effectively as
if it had lain in the haunted apartment of one of Mrs.
Radcliffe's Gothic abbeys. Among Jane Austen's early unpublished
writings were "burlesques ridiculing the improbable events and
exaggerated sentiments which she had met with in sundry silly
romances"; but her spirited defence of the novelist's art in
_Northanger Abbey_ is clear evidence that her raillery is
directed not against fiction in general, but rather against such
"horrid" stories as those included in the list supplied to
Isabella Thorpe by "a Miss Andrews, one of the sweetest creatures
in the world."

It has sometimes been supposed that the more fantastic titles in
this catalogue were figments of Jane Austen's imagination, but
the identity of each of the seven stories may be established
beyond question. Two of the stories - _The Necromancer of the
Black Forest_, a translation from the German, and _The Castle of
Wolfenbach_, by Mrs. Eliza Parsons (who was also responsible for
_Mysterious Warnings_) - may still be read in _The Romancist and
Novelist's Library_ (1839-1841), a treasure-hoard of forgotten
fiction. _Clermont_ (1798) was published by Mrs. Regina Maria
Roche, the authoress of _The Children of the Abbey_ (1798), a
story almost as famous in its day as _Udolpho_. The author of
_The Midnight Bell_ was one George Walker of Bath, whose record,
like that of Miss Eleanor Sleath, who wrote the moving history of
_The Orphan of the Rhine_ (1798) in four volumes, may be found in
Watts' _Bibliotheca Britannica_. _Horrid Mysteries_, perhaps the
least credible of the titles, was a translation from the German
of the Marquis von Grosse by R. Will. Jane Austen's attack has no
tinge of bitterness or malice. John Thorpe, who declared all
novels, except _Tom Jones_ and _The Monk_, "the stupidest things
in creation," admitted, when pressed by Catherine, that Mrs.
Radcliffe's were "amusing enough" and "had some fun and nature in
them"; and Henry Tilney, a better judge, owned frankly that he
had "read all her works, and most of them with great pleasure."
From this we may assume that Miss Austen herself was perhaps
conscious of their charm as well as their absurdity.

Sheridan's Lydia Languish (1775) and Colman's Polly Honeycombe
(1777) were both demoralised by the follies of sentimental
fiction, as Biddy Tipkin, in Steele's _Tender Husband_ (1705),
had been by romances. It was Miss Austen's purpose in creating
Catherine Morland to present a maiden bemused by Gothic romance:

"No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would
have supposed her born to be a heroine." In almost every detail
she is a refreshing contrast to the traditional type. Two
long-lived conventions - the fragile mother, who dies at the
heroine's birth, and the tyrannical father - are repudiated at the
very outset; and Catherine is one of a family of seven. We cannot
conceive that Mrs. Radcliffe's heroines even at the age of ten
would "love nothing so well in the world as rolling down the
green slope at the back of the house." Her accomplishments lack
the brilliance and distinction of those of Adela and Julia, but,

"Though she could not write sonnets she brought herself
to read them; and though there seemed no chance of her
throwing a whole party into raptures by a prelude on
the pianoforte, she could listen to other people's
performances with very little fatigue. Her greatest
deficiency was in the pencil - she had no notion of
drawing, not enough even to attempt a sketch of her
lover's profile, that she might be detected in the
design. There she fell miserably short of the true
heroic height...Not one started with rapturous wonder
on beholding her...nor was she once called a divinity
by anybody."

She had no lover at the age of seventeen,

"because there was not a lord in the neighbourhood - not
even a baronet. There was not one family among their
acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy
accidentally found at their door - not one whose origin
was unknown."

Nor is Catherine aided in her career by those "improbable
events," so dear to romance, that serve to introduce a hero - a
robber's attack, a tempest, or a carriage accident. With a sly
glance at such dangerous characters as Lady Greystock in _The
Children of the Abbey_ (1798), Miss Austen creates the inert, but
good-natured Mrs. Alien as Catherine's chaperone in Bath:

"It is now expedient to give some description of Mrs.
Alien that the reader may be able to judge in what
manner her actions will hereafter tend to promote the
general distress of the work and how she will probably
contribute to reduce poor Catherine to all the
desperate wretchedness of which a last volume is
capable, whether by her imprudence, vulgarity or
jealousy - whether by intercepting her letters, ruining
her character or turning her out of doors."

Amid all the diversions of the gay and beautiful city of Bath,
Miss Austen does not lose sight entirely of her satirical aim,
though she turns aside for a time. Catherine's confusion of mind
is suggested with exquisite art in a single sentence. As she
drives with John Thorpe she "meditates by turns on broken
promises and broken arches, phaetons and false hangings, Tilneys
and trapdoors." This prepares us for the delightful scene in
which Tilney, on the way to the abbey, foretells what Catherine
may expect on her arrival. The hall dimly lighted by the expiring
embers of a wood fire, the deserted bedchamber "never used since
some cousin or kin had died in it about twenty years before," the
single lamp, the tapestry, the funereal bed, the broken lute, the
ponderous chest, the secret door, the vaulted room, the rusty
dagger, the cabinet of ebony and gold with its roll of
manuscripts, prove his intimacy with _The Romance of the Forest_,
as well as with _The Mysteries of Udolpho_. The black chest and
the cabinet are there in startling fulfilment of his prophecies,
and when, just as with beating heart Catherine is about to
decipher the roll of paper she has discovered in the cabinet
drawer, she accidentally extinguishes her candle:

"A lamp could not have expired with more awful
effect... Darkness impenetrable and immovable filled
the room. A violent gust of wind, rising with sudden
fury, added fresh horror to the moment... Human nature
could support no more ... groping her way to the bed
she jumped hastily in, and sought some suspension of
agony by creeping far beneath the clothes... The storm
still raged... Hour after hour passed away, and the
wearied Catherine had heard three proclaimed by all the
clocks in the house before the tempest subsided, and
she, unknowingly, fell fast asleep. She was awakened
the next morning at eight o'clock by the housemaid's
opening her window-shutter. She flew to the mysterious
manuscript, If the evidence of sight might be trusted
she held a washing bill in her hands ... she felt
humbled to the dust."

Even this bitter humiliation does not sweep away the cobwebs of
romance from Catherine's imaginative mind, but the dark
suspicions she harbours about General Tilney are not altogether
inexplicable. He is so much less natural and so much more stagey
than the other characters that he might reasonably be expected to
dabble in the sinister. This time Catherine is misled by memories
of the _Sicilian Romance_ into weaving a mystery around the fate
of Mrs. Tilney, whom she pictures receiving from the hands of her
husband a nightly supply of coarse food. She watches in vain for
"glimmering lights," like those in the palace of Mazzini, and
determines to search for "a fragmented journal continued to the
last gasp," like that of Adeline's father in _The Romance of the
Forest_. In this search she encounters Tilney, who has returned
unexpectedly from Woodston. He dissipates once and for all her
nervous fancies, and Catherine decides: "Among the Alps and
Pyrenees, perhaps, there were no mixed characters. There, such as
were not spotless as an angel, might have the dispositions of a
fiend. But in England it was not so."

Miss Austen's novel is something more than a mock-romance, and
Catherine is not a mere negative of the traditional heroine, but
a human and attractive girl, whose fortunes we follow with the
deepest interest. At the close, after Catherine's ignominious
journey home, we are back again in the cool world of reality. The
abbey is abandoned, after it has served its purpose in
disciplining the heroine, in favour of the unromantic country

In _Northanger Abbey_, Jane Austen had deftly turned the novels
of Mrs. Radcliffe to comedy; but, even if her parody had been
published in 1798, when we are assured that it was completed, her
satirical treatment was too quiet and subtle, too delicately
mischievous, to have disturbed seriously the popularity of the
novel of terror. We can imagine the Isabella Thorpes and Lydia
Bennets of the day dismissing _Northanger Abbey_ with a yawn as
"an amazing dull book," and returning with renewed zest to more

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