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The Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance online

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Wanderer had worn about his neck. "Melmoth and Monçada exchanged
looks of silent and unutterable horror, and returned slowly

This extraordinary romance, like _Montorio_, clearly owes much to
the novels of Mrs. Radcliffe, and "Monk" Lewis. Immalee, as her
name implies, is but a glorified Emily with a loxia on her
shoulder instead of a lute in her hand. The monastic horrors are
obviously a heritage from _The Monk_. The Rosicrucian legend, as
handled in _St. Leon_, may have offered hints to Maturin, whose
treatment is, however, far more imaginative and impressive than
that of Godwin. The resemblance to the legend of the Wandering
Jew need not be laboured. Marlowe's _Dr. Faustus_ and the first
part of Goethe's _Faust_ left their impression on the story. The
closing scenes inevitably remind us of the last act of Marlowe's
tragedy. But, when all these debts are acknowledged they do but
serve to enhance the success of Maturin, who out of these varied
strands could weave so original a romance. _Melmoth_ is not an
ingenious patchwork of previous stories. It is the outpouring of
a morbid imagination that has long brooded on the fearful and the
terrific. Imbued with the grandeur and solemnity of his theme,
Maturin endeavours to write in dignified, stately language. There
are frequent lapses into bombast, but occasionally his rhetoric
is splendidly effective:

"It was now the latter end of autumn; heavy clouds had
all day been passing laggingly and gloomily along the
atmosphere, as the hours pass over the human mind and
life. Not a drop of rain fell; the clouds went
portentously off, like ships of war reconnoitring a
strong fort, to return with added strength and fury."

He takes pleasure in coining unusual, striking phrases, such as:
"All colours disappear in the night, and despair has no diary,"
or "Minutes are hours in the _noctuary_ of terror," or "The
secret of silence is the only secret. Words are a blasphemy
against that taciturn and invisible God whose presence enshrouds
us in our last extremity."

Maturin chooses his similes with discrimination, to heighten the
effect he aims at producing:

"The locks were so bad and the keys so rusty that it was like the
cry of the dead in the house when the keys were turned," or:

"With all my care, however, the lamp declined,
quivered, flashed a pale light, like the smile of
despair, on me, and was extinguished ... I had watched
it like the last beatings of an expiring heart, like
the shiverings of a spirit about to depart for

There are no quiet scenes or motionless figures in _Melmoth_.
Everything is intensified, exaggerated, distorted. The very
clouds fly rapidly across the sky, and the moon bursts forth with
the "sudden and appalling effulgence of lightning." A shower of
rain is perhaps "the most violent that was ever precipitated on
the earth." When Melmoth stamps his foot "the reverberation of
his steps on the hollow and loosened stones almost contended with
the thunder." Maturin's use of words like "callosity,"
"induration," "defecated," "evanition," and his fondness for
italics are other indications of his desire to force an
impression by fair means or foul.

The gift of psychological insight that distinguishes _Montorio_
reappears in a more highly developed form in _Melmoth the
Wanderer_. "Emotions," Maturin declares, "are my events," and he
excels in depicting mental as well as physical torture. The
monotony of a "timeless day" is suggested with dreary reality in
the scene where Monçada and his guide await the approach of night
to effect their escape from the monastery. The gradual surrender
of resolution before slight, reiterated assaults is cunningly
described in the analysis of Isidora's state of mind, when a
hateful marriage is forced upon her. Occasionally Maturin
astonishes us by the subtlety of his thought:

"While people think it worth while to torment us we are never
without some dignity, though painful and imaginary."

It is his faculty for describing intense, passionate feeling, his
power of painting wild pictures of horror, his gifts for
conveying his thoughts in rolling, rhythmical periods of
eloquence, that make _Melmoth_ a memory-haunting book. With all
his faults Maturin was the greatest as well as the last of the


Beckford's _History of the Caliph Vathek_, which was written in
French, was translated by the Rev. Samuel Henley, who had the
temerity to publish the English version - described as a
translation from the Arabic - in 1786, before the original had
appeared. The French version was published in Lausanne and in
Paris in 1787. An interest in Oriental literature had been
awakened early in the eighteenth century by Galland's
epoch-making versions of _The Arabian Nights_ (1704-1717), _The
Turkish Tales_ (1708) and _The Persian Tales_ (1714), which were
all translated into English during the reign of Queen Anne. Many
of the pseudo-translations of French authors, such as Gueulette,
who compiled _The Chinese Tales_, _Mogul Tales_, _Tartarian
Tales_, and _Peruvian Tales_, and Jean-Paul Bignon, who presented
_The Adventures of Abdallah_, were quickly turned into English;
and the Oriental story became so fashionable a form that didactic
writers eagerly seized upon it as a disguise for moral or
philosophical reflection. The Eastern background soon lost its
glittering splendour and colour, and became a faded, tarnished
tapestry, across which shadowy figures with outlandish names and
English manners and morals flit to and fro. Addison's _Vision of
Mirza_ (1711), Johnson's _Rasselas_ (1759), and various essays in
_The Rambler_, Dr. Hawkesworth's _Almoran and Hamet_ (1761),
Langhorne's _Solyman and Almena_ (1762), Ridley's _Tales of the
Genii_ (1764), and Mrs. Sheridan's _History of Nourjahad_ (1767)
were among the best and most popular of the Anglo-Oriental
stories that strove to inculcate moral truths. In their
oppressive air of gravity, Beckford, with his implacable hatred
of bores, could hardly have breathed. One of the most amazing
facts about his wild fantasy is that it was the creation of an
English brain. The idea of _Vathek_ was probably suggested to
Beckford by the witty Oriental tales of Count Antony Hamilton and
of Voltaire. The character of the caliph, who desired to know
everything, even the sciences which did not exist, is sketched in
the spirit of the French satirists, who turned Oriental
extravagance into delightful mockery. Awed into reverence ere the
close by the sombre grandeur of his own conception of the halls
of Eblis, Beckford cast off the flippant mood in which he had set
out and rose to an exalted solemnity.

Beckford's mind was so richly stored with the jewels of Eastern
legend that it was inevitable he should shower from his treasury
things new and old, but everything which passes through the
alembic of his imagination is transmuted almost beyond
recognition. The episode of the sinners with the flaming hearts
has been traced[66] to a scene in the _Mogul Tales_, where Aboul
Assam saw three men standing mute in postures of sorrow before a
book on which were inscribed the words: "Let no man touch this
divine treatise who is not perfectly pure." When Aboul Assam
enquired of their fate they unbuttoned their waistcoats, and
through their skin, which appeared like crystal, he saw their
hearts encompassed with fire. In Beckford's story this grotesque
scene assumes an awful and moving dignity. From _The Adventure of
Abdallah, Son of Hanif_, Beckford derived the conception of a
visit to the regions of Eblis, whom, however, by a wave of his
wand, he transforms from a revolting ogre to a stately

To read _Vathek_ is like falling asleep in a huge Oriental palace
after wandering alone through great, echoing halls resplendent
with a gorgeous arras, on which are displayed the adventures of
the caliph who built the palaces of the five senses. In our dream
the caliph and his courtiers come to life, and we awake dazzled
with the memory of a myriad wonders. There throng into our mind a
crowd of unearthly forms - aged astrologers, hideous Giaours,
gibbering negresses, graceful boys and maidens, restless, pacing
figures with their hands on their hearts, and a formidable
prince - whose adventures are woven into a fantastic but distinct
and definite pattern around the three central personages, the
caliph Vathek, his exquisitely wicked mother Carathis, and the
bewitching Nouronihar. The fatal palace of Eblis, with its lofty
columns and gloomy towers of an architecture unknown in the
annals of the earth, looms darkly in our imagination. Beckford
alludes, with satisfaction, to _Vathek_ as a "story so horrid
that I tremble while relating it, and have not a nerve in my
frame but vibrates like an aspen,"[68] and in the _Episodes_
leads us with an unhallowed pleasure into other abodes of
horror - a temple adorned with pyramids of skulls festooned with
human hair, a cave inhabited by reptiles with human faces, and an
apartment whose walls were hung with carpets of a thousand kinds
and a thousand hues, which moved slowly to and fro as if stirred
by human creatures stifling beneath their weight. But Beckford
passes swiftly from one mood to another, and was only momentarily
fascinated by terror. So infinite is the variety of _Vathek_ in
scenery and in temper that it seems like its wealthy, eccentric,
author secluded in Fonthill Abbey, to dwell apart in defiant,
splendid isolation.

It is impossible to understand or appreciate _Vathek_ apart from
Beckford's life and character, which contain elements almost as
grotesque and fantastic as those of his romance. He was no
visionary dreamer, content to build his pleasure-domes in air. He
revelled in the golden glories of good Haroun-Alraschid,[69] but
he craved too for solid treasures he could touch and handle, for
precious jewels, for rare, beautiful volumes, for curious, costly
furniture. The scenes of splendour portrayed in _Vathek_ were
based on tangible reality.[70] Beckford's schemes in later
life - his purchase of Gibbon's entire library, his twice-built
tower on Lansdown Hill, were as grandiose and ambitious as those
of an Eastern caliph. The whimsical, Puckish humour, which helped
to counteract the strain of gloomy bitterness in his nature, was
early revealed in his _Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary
Painters_ and in his burlesques of the sentimental novels of the
day, which were accepted by the compiler of _Living Authors_
(1817) as a serious contribution to fiction by one Miss Jacquetta
Agneta Mariana Jenks. Moore,[71] in his _Journal_, October 1818,

"The two mock novels, _Azemia_ and _The Elegant
Enthusiast_, were written to ridicule the novels
written by his sister, Mrs. Harvey (I think), who read
these parodies on herself quite innocently."

Even in the gloomy regions of Eblis, Beckford will not wholly
repress his sense of the ridiculous. Carathis, unawed by the
effulgence of his infernal majesty, behaves like a buffoon,
shouting at the Dives and actually attempting to thrust a Soliman
from his throne, before she is finally whirled away with her
heart aflame. The calm politeness with which the dastardly
Barkiaroukh consents to a blood-curdling murder, the sardonic
dialogue between Vathek on the edge of the precipice and the
Giaour concealed in the abyss, the buoyantly high-spirited
description of the plump Indian kicked and pursued like "an
invulnerable football," the oppressive horror of the subterranean
recesses, the mischievous pleasantry of the Gulchenrouz idyll
reveal different facets of Beckford's ever-varying temper. In
_Vathek_, Beckford found expression not only for his devotion to
the Eastern outlook on life, but also for his own strangely
coloured, vehement personality. The interpreter walks ever at our
elbow whispering into our ear his human commentary on Vathek's
astounding adventures.

Beckford's pictures are remarkable for definite precision of
outline. There are no vague hints and suggestions, no lurking
shadows concealing untold horrors. The quaint dwarfs perched on
Vathek's shoulders, the children chasing blue butterflies,
Nouronihar and her maidens on tiptoe, with their hair floating in
the breeze, stand out in clear relief, as if painted on a fresco.
The imagery is so lucid that we are able to follow with
effortless pleasure the intricate windings of a plot which at
Beckford's whim twists and turns through scenes of wonderful
variety. Amid his wild, erratic excursions he never loses sight
of the end in view; the story, with all its vagaries, is
perfectly coherent. This we should expect from one who "loved to
bark a tough understanding."[72] It is the intellectual strength
and exuberant vitality behind Beckford's Oriental scenes that
lend them distinction and power.

_The History of the Caliph Vathek_ did not set a fashion. It is
true that the Orient sometimes formed the setting of nineteenth
century novels, as in Disraeli's _Alvoy_ (1833), where for a
brief moment, when the hero's torch is extinguished by bats on
his entry into subterranean portals, we find ourselves in the
abode of wonder and terror; but not till Meredith's _Shaving of
Shagpal_ (1856) do we meet again Beckford's kinship with the
East, and his gift for fantastic burlesque.


When Miss Austen was asked to write a historical romance
"illustrative of the house of Coburg," she airily dismissed the
suggestion, pleading mirthfully:

"I could not sit down seriously to write a serious
romance under any other motive than to save my life,
and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and
never relax into laughing at myself or at other people
I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the
first chapter."[73]

If Godwin had been confronted with the same offer, he would have
settled himself promptly to plot out a scheme, and within a few
months a historical romance on the house of Coburg, accompanied
perchance by a preface setting forth the evils of monarchy, would
have been in the hands of the publisher. Unlike Miss Austen,
Godwin had neither a sense of humour nor a fastidious artistic
conscience to save him from undertaking incongruous tasks. He
seems never even to have suspected the humour of life, and would
have perceived nothing ludicrous in the spectacle of the author
of _Political Justice_ embarking on such a piece of work. Those
disquieting flashes of self-revelation that more imaginative men
catch in the mirror of their own minds and that awaken sometimes
laughter and sometimes tears, never disturbed Godwin's serenity.
He brooded earnestly over his speculations, quietly ignoring
inconvenient facts and never shrinking from absurd conclusions.
In theory he aimed at disorganising the whole of human society,
yet in actual life he was content to live unobtrusively,
publishing harmless books for children; and though he abhorred
the principle of aristocracy, he did not scruple to accept a
sinecure from government through Lord Grey. Notwithstanding his
stolid inconsistency and his deficiency in humour, Godwin is a
figure whom it is impossible to ignore or to despise. He was not
a frothy orator who made his appeal to the masses, but the leader
of the trained thinkers of the revolutionary party, a political
rebel who, instead of fulminating wildly and impotently after the
manner of his kind, expressed his theories in clear, reasonable
and logical form. It is easy, but unprofitable, to sneer at the
futility of some of Godwin's conclusions or to complain of the
aridity of his style. His _Political Justice_ remains,
nevertheless, a lucidly written, well-ordered piece of
intellectual reasoning. Shelley spoke of Godwin's _Mandeville_ in
the same breath with Plato's _Symposium_[74] and the ideas
expressed in _Political Justice_ inspired him to write not merely
_Queen Mab_ but the _Revolt of Islam_ and _Prometheus Unbound_.
Godwin's plea for the freedom of the individual and his belief in
the perfectibility of man through reason had a far-reaching
effect that cannot be readily estimated, but, as his theories
only concern us here in so far as they affect two of his novels,
it is unnecessary to pursue the trail of his influence further.

That the readers of fiction in the last decade of the eighteenth
century eagerly desired the mysterious and the terrible, Mrs.
Radcliffe's widespread popularity proved unmistakably. To satisfy
this craving, Godwin, who was ever on the alert to discover a
subject which promised swift and adequate financial return,
turned to novel-writing, and supplied a tale of mystery, _The
Adventures of Caleb Williams_ (1794), and a supernatural,
historical romance, _St. Leon_ (1799). As he was a political
philosopher by nature and a novelist only by profession, he
artfully inveigled into his romances the theories he wished to
promote. The second title of _Caleb Williams_ is significant.
_Things As They Are_ to Godwin's mind was synonymous with "things
as they ought not to be." He frankly asserts: "_Caleb Williams_
was the offspring of that temper of mind in which the composition
of my _Political Justice_ left me"[75] - a guileless confession
that may well have deterred many readers who recoil shuddering
from political treatises decked out in the guise of fiction. But
alarm is needless; for, although _Caleb Williams_ attempts to
reveal the oppressions that a poor man may endure under existing
conditions, and the perversion of the character of an aristocrat
through the "poison of chivalry," the story may be enjoyed for
its own sake. We can read it, if we so desire, purely for the
excitement of the plot, and quietly ignore the underlying
theories, just as it is possible to enjoy Spenser's sensuous
imagery without troubling about his allegorical meaning. The
secret of Godwin's power seems to be that he himself was so
completely fascinated by the intricate structure of his story
that he succeeds in absorbing the attention of his readers. He
bestowed infinite pains on the composition of _Caleb Williams_,
and conceived the lofty hope that it "would constitute an epoch
in the mind of every reader."[76] A friend to whom he submitted
two-thirds of his manuscript advised him to throw it into the
fire and so safeguard his reputation. The result of this
criticism on a character less determined or less phlegmatic than
Godwin's would have been a violent reaction from hope to despair.
But Godwin, who seems to have been independent of external
stimulus, was not easily startled from his projects, and plodded
steadily forward until his story was complete. He would have
scorned not to execute what his mind had conceived. Godwin's
businesslike method of planning the story backwards has been
adopted by Conan Doyle and other writers of the detective story.
The deliberate, careful analysis of his mode of procedure, so
characteristic of his mind and temper, is full of interest:

"I bent myself to the conception of a series of
adventures of flight and pursuit: the fugitive in
perpetual apprehension of being overwhelmed with the
worst calamities and the pursuer by his ingenuity and
resources keeping the victim in a state of the most
fearful alarm. This was the project of my third volume.
I was next called upon to conceive a dramatic and
impressive situation adequate to account for the
impulse that the pursuer should feel incessantly to
alarm and harass his victim, with an inextinguishable
resolution never to allow him the least interval of
peace and security. This I apprehended could best be
effected by a secret murder, to the investigation of
which the innocent victim should be impelled by an
unconquerable spirit of curiosity. The murderer would
thus have a sufficient motive to persecute the unhappy
discoverer that he might deprive him of peace,
character and credit, and have him for ever in his
power. This constituted the outline of my second
volume... To account for the fearful events of the
third it was necessary that the pursuer should be
invested with every advantage of fortune, with a
resolution that nothing could defeat or baffle and with
extraordinary resources of intellect. Nor could my
purpose of giving an overpowering interest to my tale
be answered without his appearing to have been
originally endowed with a mighty store of amiable
dispositions and virtues, so that his being driven to
the first act of murder should be judged worthy of the
deepest regret, and should be seen in some measure to
have arisen out of his virtues themselves. It was
necessary to make him ... the tenant of an atmosphere
of romance, so that every reader should feel prompted
almost to worship him for his high qualities. Here were
ample materials for a first volume."[77]

Godwin hoped that an "entire unity of plot" would be the
infallible result of this ingenious method of constructing his
story, and only wrote in a high state of excitement when the
"afflatus" was upon him. So far as we may judge from his
description, he seems to have realised his story first as a
complex psychological situation, not as a series of disconnected
pictures. He thought in abstractions not in visual images, and he
had next to make his abstractions concrete by inventing figures
whose actions should be the result of the mental and moral
conflict he had conceived. Godwin's attitude to his art forms a
striking contrast to that of Mrs. Radcliffe. She has her set of
marionettes, appropriately adorned, ready to move hither and
thither across her picturesque background as soon as she has
deftly manipulated the machinery which is to set them in motion.
Godwin, on the other hand, first constructs his machinery, and
afterwards, with laborious effort, carves the figures who are to
be attached to the wires. He cares little for costume or setting,
but much for the complicated mechanism that controls the destiny
of his characters. The effect of this difference in method is
that we soon forget the details of Mrs. Radcliffe's plots, but
remember isolated pictures. After reading _Caleb Williams_ we
recollect the outline of the story in so far as it relates to the
psychology of Falkland and his secretary; but of the actual
scenes and people only vague images drift through our memory.
Godwin's point of view was not that of an artist but of a
scientist, who, after patiently investigating and analysing
mental and emotional phenomena, chose to embody his results in
the form of a novel. He spared no pains to make his narrative
arresting and convincing. The story is told by Caleb Williams
himself, who, in describing his adventures, revives the passions
and emotions that had stirred him in the past. By this device
Godwin trusted to lend energy and vitality to his story.

Caleb Williams, a raw country youth, becomes secretary to
Falkland, a benevolent country gentleman, who has come to settle
in England after spending some years in Italy. Collins, the
steward, tells Williams his patron's history. Falkland has always
been renowned for the nobility of his character. In Italy, where
he inspired the love and devotion of an Italian lady, he avoided,
by "magnanimity," a duel with her lover. On Falkland's return to
England, Tyrrel, a brutal squire who was jealous of his
popularity, conceived a violent hatred against him. When Miss
Melville, Tyrrel's ill-used ward, fell in love with Falkland, who
had rescued her from a fire, her guardian sought to marry her to
a boorish, brutal farm-labourer. Though Falkland's timely
intervention saved her in this crisis, the girl eventually died
as the result of Tyrrel's cruelty. As she was the victim of
tyranny, Falkland felt it his duty at a public assembly to
denounce Tyrrel as her murderer. The squire retaliated by making
a personal assault on his antagonist. As Falkland "had perceived
the nullity of all expostulation with Mr. Tyrrel," and as
duelling according to the Godwinian principles was "the vilest of
all egotism," he was deprived of the natural satisfaction of
meeting his assailant in physical or even mental combat. Yet "he
was too deeply pervaded with the idle and groundless romances of
chivalry ever to forget the situation" - as Godwin seems to think
a "man of reason" might have done in these circumstances. Tyrrel

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Online LibraryEdith BirkheadThe Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance → online text (page 8 of 19)