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The Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance online

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was stabbed in the dark, and Falkland, on whom suspicion
naturally fell, was tried, but eventually acquitted without a
stain on his character. Two men - a father and son called
Hawkins - whom Falkland had befriended against the overbearing
Tyrrel, were condemned and executed for the crime. This is the
state of affairs when Caleb Williams enters Falkland's service
and takes up the thread of the narrative. On hearing the story of
the murder, Williams, who has been perplexed by the gloomy moods
of his master, allows his suspicions to rest on Falkland, and to
gratify his overmastering passion of curiosity determines to spy
incessantly until he has solved the problem. One day, after
having heard a groan of anguish, Williams peers through the
half-open door of a closet, and catches sight of Falkland in the
act of opening the lid of a chest. This incident fans his
smouldering curiosity into flame, and he is soon after detected
by his master in an attempt to break open the chest in the
"Bluebeard's chamber." Not without cause, Falkland is furiously
angry, but for some inexplicable reason confesses to the murder,
at the same time expressing his passionate determination at all
costs to preserve his reputation. He is tortured, not by remorse
for his crime, but by the fear of being found out, and seeks to
terrorise Williams into silence by declaring:

"To gratify a foolishly inquisitive humour you have
sold yourself. You shall continue in my service, but
can never share my affection. If ever an unguarded word
escape from your lips, if ever you excite my jealousy
or suspicion, expect to pay for it by your death or
worse."

From this moment Williams is helpless. Turn where he will, the
toils of Falkland encompass him. Forester, Falkland's
half-brother, tries to persuade Williams to enter his service.
Williams endeavours to flee from his master, who prevents his
escape by accusing him, in the presence of Forester, of stealing
some jewellery and bank-notes which have disappeared in the
confusion arising from an alarm of fire. The plunder has been
placed in Williams' boxes, and the evidence against him is
overwhelming. He is imprisoned, and the sordid horror of his life
in the cells gives Godwin an opportunity of showing "how man
becomes the destroyer of man." He escapes, and is sheltered by a
gang of thieves, whose leader, Raymond, a Godwinian theorist,
listens with eager sympathy to his tale, which he regards as
"only one fresh instance of the tyranny and perfidiousness
exercised by the powerful members of the community against those
who are less privileged than themselves." When a reward is
offered for the capture of Williams, the thieves are persuaded
that they must not deliver the lamb to the wolf. After an old
hag, whose animosity he has aroused, has made a bloodthirsty
attack on him with a hatchet, Williams feels obliged to leave
their habitation "abruptly without leave-taking." He then assumes
beggar's attire and an Irish brogue, but is soon compelled to
seek a fresh disguise. In Wales as in London, he comes across
someone who has known Falkland, and is reviled for his treachery
to so noble a master, and cast forth with ignominy. He discovers
that Falkland has hired an unscrupulous villain, Gines, to follow
him from place to place, blackening his reputation. Finally
desperation drives him to accuse Falkland openly, though, after
doing so, he praises the murderer, and loathes himself for his
betrayal:

"Mr. Falkland is of a noble nature ... a man worthy of affection
and kindness ... I am myself the basest and most odious of
mankind."

The inexorable persecutor in return cries at last:

"Williams, you have conquered! I see too late the
greatness and elevation of your mind. I confess that it
is to my fault and not yours that I owe my ruin ... I
am the most execrable of all villains... As reputation
was the blood that warmed my heart, so I feel that
death and infamy must seize me together."

Three days later Falkland dies, but instead of experiencing
relief at the death of his persecutor, Williams becomes the
victim of remorse, regarding himself as the murderer of a noble
spirit, who had been inevitably ruined by the corruption of human
society:

"Thou imbibedst the poison of chivalry with thy earliest youth,
and the base and low-minded envy that met thee on thy return to
thy native seats, operated with this poison to hurry thee into
madness."

At the conclusion of the story, Godwin has not succeeded in
making his moral very clear. The "wicked aristocrat" who figures
in the preface as "carrying into private life the execrable
principles of kings and ministers" emerges at last almost as a
saintly figure, who through a false notion of honour has
unfortunately become the victim of a brutal squire. But, if the
story does not "rouse men to a sense of the evils of slavery," or
"constitute an epoch in the mind of every reader," it has
compensating merits and may be read with unfailing interest
either as a study of morbid psychology or as a spirited detective
story. Godwin's originality in his dissection of human motive has
hardly yet been sufficiently emphasised, perhaps because he is so
scrupulous in acknowledging literary debts.[78] From Mrs.
Radcliffe, whose _Romance of the Forest_ was published the year
before _Caleb Williams_, he borrowed the mysterious chest, the
nature of whose contents is hinted at but never actually
disclosed; but Godwin was no wizard, and had neither the gift nor
the inclination to conjure with Gothic properties. In leaving
imperfectly explained the incident of the discovery of the heart
in _The Monastery_, Scott shielded himself behind Godwin's Iron
Chest, which gave its name to Colman's drama.[79] Godwin's
peculiar interest was in criminal psychology, and he concentrates
on the dramatic conflict between the murderer and the detective.
An unusual turn is given to the story by the fact that the
criminal is the pursuer instead of the pursued. Godwin intended
later in life to write a romance based on the story of Eugene
Aram, the philosophical murderer; and his careful notes on the
scheme are said to have been utilised by his friend, Bulwer
Lytton, in his novel of that name.[80] _Caleb Williams_ helped to
popularise the criminal in fiction, and _Paul Clifford_, the
story of the chivalrous highwayman, is one of its literary
descendants.

Godwin was a pioneer breaking new ground in fiction; and, as he
was a man of talent rather than of genius, it is idle to expect
perfection of workmanship. The story is full of improbabilities,
but they are described in so matter-of-fact a style that we
"soberly acquiesce." After an hour of Godwin's grave society an
effervescent sense of humour subsides. A mind open to suggestion
is soon infected by his imperturbable seriousness, which
effectually stills "obstinate questionings." Even the brigands
who live with their philanthropic leader are accepted without
demur. After all, Raymond is only Robin Hood turned political
philosopher. The ingenious resources of _Caleb Williams_ when he
strives to elude his pursuer are part of the legitimate
stock-in-trade of the hero of a novel of adventure. He is not as
other men are, and comes through perilous escapades with
miraculous success. It is at first difficult to see why Falkland
does not realise that his plan of ceaselessly harassing his
victim is likely to force Williams to accuse him publicly, but
gradually we begin to regard his mental obliquity as one of the
decrees of fate. Falkland's obtuseness is of the same nature as
that of the sleeper who undertakes a voyage to Australia to
deliver a letter which anywhere but in a dream would have been
dropped in the nearest pillar-box. The obvious solution that
would occur to a waking mind is persistently evasive. The plot of
_Caleb Williams_ hinges on an improbability, but so does that of
_King Lear_; and if it had not been for Falkland's stupidity, the
story would have ended with the first volume. Godwin excels in
the analysis of mental conditions, but fails when he attempts to
transmute passionate feeling into words. We are conscious that he
is a cold-blooded spectator _ab extra_ striving to describe what
he has never felt for himself. It is not even "emotion
recollected in tranquillity." Men of this world, who are carried
away by scorn and anger, utter their feelings simply and
directly. Godwin's characters pause to cull their words from
dictionaries. Forester's invective, when he believes that
Williams has basely robbed his master is astonishingly elegant:
"Vile calumniator! You are the abhorrence of nature, the
opprobrium of the human species and the earth can only be freed
from an insupportable burthen by your being exterminated."[81]
The diction is so elaborately dignified that the contempt which
was meant almost to annihilate Caleb Williams, lies effectually
concealed behind a blinding veil of rhetoric. When he has leisure
to adorn, he translates the simplest, most obvious reflections
into the "jargon" of political philosophy, but, driven
impetuously forward by the excitement of his theme, he throws off
jerky, spasmodic sentences containing but a single clause. His
style is a curious mixture of these two manners.

The aim of _St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century_, is to
show that "boundless wealth, freedom from disease, weakness and
death are as nothing in the scale against domestic affection and
the charities of private life."[82] For four years Godwin had
desired to modify what he had said on the subject of private
affections in _Political Justice_, while he asserted his
conviction of the general truth of his system. Godwin had argued
that private affections resulted in partiality, and therefore
injustice.[83] If a house were on fire, reason would urge a man
to save Fénelon in preference to his valet; but if the rescuer
chanced to be the brother or father of the valet, private feeling
would intervene, unreasonably urging him to save his relative and
abandon Fénelon. Lest he should be regarded as a wrecker of
homes, Godwin wished to show that domestic happiness should not
be despised by the man of reason. Instead of expressing his views
on this subject in a succinct pamphlet, Godwin, elated by the
success of _Caleb Williams_, decided to embody them in the form
of a novel. He at first despaired of finding a theme so rich in
interest as that of his first novel, but ultimately decided that
"by mixing human feelings and passions with incredible situations
he might conciliate the patience even of the severest
judges."[84] The phrase, "mixing human feelings," betrays in a
flash Godwin's mechanical method of constructing a story. He
makes no pretence that _St. Leon_ grew naturally as a work of
art. He imposed upon himself an unsuitable task, and, though he
doggedly accomplished it, the result is dull and laboured.

The plot of _St. Leon_ was suggested by Dr. John Campbell's
_Hermippus Redivivus_,[85] and centres round the theories of the
Rosicrucians. The first volume describes the early life of the
knight St. Leon, his soldiering, his dissipations, and his happy
marriage to Marguerite, whose character is said to have been
modelled on that of Mary Wollstonecraft. In Paris he is tempted
into extravagance and into playing for high stakes, with the
result that he retires to Switzerland the "prey of poverty and
remorse." Misfortunes pursue him for some time, but he at last
enjoys six peaceful years, at the end of which he is visited by a
mysterious old man, whom he conceals in a summer-house, and whom
he refuses to betray to the Inquisitors in search of him. In
return the old man reveals to him the secret of the elixir vitæ,
and of the philosopher's stone. Marguerite becomes suspicious of
the source of her husband's wealth: "For a soldier you present me
with a projector and a chemist, a cold-blooded mortal raking in
the ashes of a crucible for a selfish and solitary advantage."
His son, Charles, unable to endure the aspersions cast upon his
father's honour during their travels together in Germany, deserts
him. St. Leon is imprisoned because he cannot account for the
death of the stranger and for his own sudden acquisition of
wealth, but contrives his escape by bribing the jailor. He
travels to Italy, but is unable to escape from misfortune.
Suspected of black magic, he becomes an object of hatred to the
inhabitants of the town where he lives. His house is burnt down,
his servant and his favourite dog are killed, and he soon hears
of the death of his unhappy wife. He is imprisoned in the
dungeons of the Inquisition, but escapes, and takes refuge with a
Jew, whom he compels to shelter him, until another dose of the
elixir restores his youthful appearance, and he sets forth again,
this time disguised as a wealthy Spanish cavalier. He visits his
own daughters, representing himself as the executor under their
father's will. He decides to devote himself to the service of
others, and is revered as the saviour of Hungary, until
disaffection, caused by a shortage of food, renders him
unpopular. He makes a friend of Bethlem Gabor, whose wife and
children have been savagely murdered by a band of marauders. St.
Leon, we are told, "found an inexhaustible and indescribable
pleasure in examining the sublime desolation of a mighty soul."
But Gabor soon conceives a bitter hatred against him, and entraps
him in a subterranean vault, where he languishes for many months,
refusing to yield up his secret. At length the castle is
besieged, and Gabor before his death gives St. Leon his liberty.
The leader of the expedition proves to be St. Leon's long-lost
son, Charles, who has assumed the name of De Damville. St. Leon,
without at first revealing his identity, cultivates the
friendship of his son, but Charles, on learning of his dealings
with the supernatural, repudiates his father. Finally the
marriage of his son to Pandora proves to St. Leon that despite
his misfortunes "there is something in this world worth living
for."

The Inquisition scenes of _St. Leon_ were undoubtedly coloured
faintly by those of Lewis's _Monk_ (1794) and Mrs. Radcliffe's
_Italian_ (1798); but it is characteristic of Godwin that instead
of trying to portray the terror of the shadowy hall, he chooses
rather to present the argumentative speeches of St. Leon and the
Inquisitor. The aged stranger, who bestows on St. Leon the
philosopher's stone and the elixir of life, has the piercing eye
so familiar to readers of the novel of terror: "You wished to
escape from its penetrating power, but you had not the strength
to move. I began to feel as if it were some mysterious and
superior being in human form;"[86] but apart from this trait he
is not an impressive figure. The only character who would have
felt perfectly at home in the realm of Mrs. Radcliffe and "Monk"
Lewis is Bethlem Gabor, who appears for the first time in the
fourth volume of _St. Leon_. He is akin to Schedoni and his
compeers in his love of solitude, his independence of
companionship, and his superhuman aspect, but he is a figure who
inspires awe and pity as well as terror. Beside this personage
the other characters pale into insignificance:

"He was more than six feet in stature ... and he was
built as if it had been a colossus, destined to sustain
the weight of the starry heavens. His voice was like
thunder ... his head and chin were clothed with a thick
and shaggy hair, in colour a dead-black. He had
suffered considerable mutilation in the services
through which he had passed ... Bethlem Gabor, though
universally respected for the honour and magnanimity of
a soldier, was not less remarkable for habits of
reserve and taciturnity... Seldom did he allow himself
to open his thoughts but when he did, Great God! what
supernatural eloquence seemed to inspire and enshroud
him... Bethlem Gabor's was a soul that soared to a
sightless distance above the sphere of pity."[87]

The superstitions of bygone ages, which had fired the imagination
of so many writers of romance, left Godwin cold. He was mildly
interested in the supernatural as affording insight into the
"credulity of the human mind," and even compiled a treatise on
_The Lives of the Necromancers_ (1834).[88] But the hints and
suggestions, the gloom, the weird lights and shades which help to
create that romantic atmosphere amid which the alchemist's dream
seems possible of realisation are entirely lacking in Godwin's
story. He displays everything in a high light. The transference
of the gifts takes place not in the darkness of a subterranean
vault, but in the calm light of a summer evening. No unearthly
groans, no phosphorescent lights enhance the horror and mystery
of the scene. Godwin is coolly indifferent to historical
accuracy, and fails to transport us back far beyond the end of
the eighteenth century. Rousseau's theories were apparently
disseminated widely in 1525. _St. Leon_ is remembered now rather
for its position in the history of the novel than for any
intrinsic charm. Godwin was the first to embody in a romance the
ideas of the Rosicrucians which inspired Bulwer Lytton's _Zicci_,
_Zanoni_ and _A Strange Story_.

_St. Leon_ was travestied, the year after it appeared, in a work
called _St. Godwin: A Tale of the 16th, 17th and 18th Century_,
by "Count Reginald de St. Leon," which gives a scathing survey of
the plot, with all its improbabilities exposed. The bombastic
style of _St. Leon_ is imitated and only slightly exaggerated,
and the author finally satirises Godwin bitterly:

"Thinking from my political writings that I was a good
hand at fiction, I turned my thoughts to novel-writing.
These I wrote in the same pompous, inflated style as I
had used in my other publications, hoping that my fine
high-sounding periods would assist to make the
unsuspecting reader swallow all the insidious
reasoning, absurdity and nonsense I could invent."[89]

The parodist takes Godwin almost as seriously as he took himself,
and his attack is needlessly savage. Godwin's political opinions
may account for the brutality of his assailant who doubtless
belonged to the other camp. When Godwin attempts the supernatural
in his other novels, he always fails to create an atmosphere of
mystery. The apparition in _Cloudesley_ appears, fades, and
reappears in a manner so undignified as to remind us of the
Cheshire Cat in _Alice in Wonderland_:

"I suddenly saw my brother's face looking out from
among the trees as I passed. I saw the features as
distinctly as if the meridian sun had beamed upon
them... It was by degrees that the features showed
themselves thus out of what had been a formless shadow.
I gazed upon it intently. Presently it faded away by as
insensible degrees as those by which it had become
agonisingly clear. After a short time it returned."

Godwin describes a ghost as deliberately and exactly as he would
describe a house, and his delineation causes not the faintest
tremor. Having little imagination himself, he leaves nothing to
the imagination of the reader. In his _Lives of the
Necromancers_, he shows that he is interested in discovering the
origin of a belief in natural magic; but the life stories of the
magicians suggest no romantic pictures to his imagination. In
dealing with the mysterious and the uncanny, Godwin was
attempting something alien to his mind and temper.

In Godwin's _St. Leon_ the elixir of life is quietly bestowed on
the hero in a summer-house in his own garden. The poet, Thomas
Moore, in his romance, _The Epicurean_ (1827), sends forth a
Greek adventurer to seek it in the secret depths of the catacombs
beneath the pyramids of Egypt. He originally intended to tell his
story in verse, but after writing a fragment, _Alciphron_,
abandoned this design and decided to begin again in prose. His
story purports to be a translation of a recently discovered
manuscript buried in the time of Diocletian. Inspired by a dream,
in which an ancient and venerable man bids him seek the Nile if
he wishes to discover the secret of eternal life, Alciphron, a
young Epicurean philosopher of the second century, journeys to
Egypt. At Memphis he falls in love with a beautiful priestess,
Alethe, whom he follows into the catacombs. Bearing a glimmering
lamp, he passes through a gallery, where the eyes of a row of
corpses, buried upright, glare upon him, into a chasm peopled by
pale, phantom-like forms. He braves the terrors of a blazing
grove and of a dark stream haunted by shrieking spectres, and
finds himself whirled round in chaos like a stone shot in a
sling. Having at length passed safely through the initiation of
Fire, Water and Air, he is welcomed into a valley of "unearthly
sadness," with a bleak, dreary lake lit by a "ghostly glimmer of
sunshine." He gazes with awe on the image of the god Osiris, who
presides over the silent kingdom of the dead. Watching within the
temple of Isis, he suddenly sees before him the priestess,
Alethe, who guides him back to the realms of day. At the close of
the story, after Alethe has been martyred for the Christian
faith, Alciphron himself becomes a Christian.

In _The Epicurean_, Moore shows a remarkable power of describing
scenes of gloomy terror, which he throws into relief by
occasional
glimpses of light and splendour. The journey of Alciphron
inevitably challenges comparison with that of _Vathek_, but the
spirit of mockery that animates Beckford's story is wholly
absent. Moore paints a theatrical panorama of effective scenes,
but his figures are mere shadows.

The miseries of an existence, prolonged far beyond the allotted
span, are depicted not only in stories of the elixir of life, but
in the legends centring round the Wandering Jew. Croly's
_Salathiel_ (1829), like Eugene Sue's lengthy romance, _Le Juif
Errant_, won fame in its own day, but is now forgotten. Some of
Croly's descriptions, such as that of the burning trireme, have a
certain dazzling magnificence, but the colouring is often crude
and startling. The figure of the deathless Jew is apt to be lost
amid the mazes of the author's rhetoric. The conception of a man
doomed to wander eternally in expiation of a curse is in itself
an arresting theme likely to attract a romantic writer, but the
record of his adventures may easily become monotonous.

The "novel of terror" has found few more ardent admirers than the
youthful Shelley, who saw in it a way of escape from the harsh
realities and dull routine of ordinary existence. From his
childhood the world of ideas seems to have been at least as real
and familiar to him as the material world. The fabulous beings of
whom he talked to his young sisters - the Great Tortoise in
Warnham Pond, the snake three hundred years old in the garden at
Field Place, the grey-bearded alchemist in his garret[90] - had
probably for him as much meaning and interest as the living
people around him. Urged by a restless desire to evade the
natural and encounter the supernatural, he wandered by night
under the "perilous moonshine," haunted graveyards in the hope of
"high talk with the departed dead," dabbled in chemical
experiments and pored over ancient books of magic. It was to be
expected that an imagination reaching out so eagerly towards the
unknown should find refuge from the uncongenial life of Sion
House School in the soul-stirring region of romance. Transported
by sixpenny "blue books" and the many volumed novels in the
Brentford circulating library, Shelley's imagination fled
joyously to that land of unlikelihood, where the earth yawns with
bandits' caverns inhabited by desperadoes with bloody daggers,
where the air continually resounds with the shrieks and groans of
melancholy spectres, and where the pale moon ever gleams on dark
and dreadful deeds. He had reached that stage of human
development when fairies, elves, witches and dragons begin to
lose their charm, when the gentle quiver of fear excited by an
ogre, who is inevitably doomed to be slain at the last, no longer
suffices. At the approach of adolescence with its surging
emotions and quickening intellectual life, there awakens a demand
for more thrilling incidents, for wilder passions and more
desperate crimes, and it is at this period that the "novel of
terror" is likely to make its strongest appeal. Youth, with its
inexperience, is seldom tempted to bring fiction to the test of
reality, or to scorn it on the ground of its improbability, and


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Online LibraryEdith BirkheadThe Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance → online text (page 9 of 19)