Gothic Readings, compiled by Rictor Norton


MARY ALCOCK (c. 1742–98)

Another Novel! Pray, have you read it, Sir? or you? Who the deuce would? cried an elderly gentleman (laying down the news-paper, and taking off his spectacles). I have already, Sir, waded through such an inundation of hobgoblin nonsense, of haunted castles, mysterious caverns, yawning graves, bleeding ghosts, &c. that, had they not a ready passage out of my head, I should expect to find my night-cap rise perpendicular from it, and every hair turned white with horror; yes, yes, Sir, such would be the effect every bloody-minded novel-writer wishes to inflict upon you; but I no sooner see the drift and cruelty of his intention, than I grow enraged at my author, arm myself with a coat of mail, not like Don Quixote, to fight my opponents as giants, but prepared to dispute the pass with them, to strip off their white sheets, to pluck out their goggle eyes, and shew them as nature designed them. There are another species of novel writers, rejoined a pale-faced and emaciated lady, far more difficult to combat, I mean your professed sentimental authors, who most ingeniously rack every corner of their brain to invent new tortures for your nerves; who deliberately probe every fibre in your heart, where, if any recent sorrow is lulled or suppressed, it is again torn open. Against these writers there is no appeal, for whilst there are readers found who not only chuse to waste their time, but like to be made unhappy into the bargain, there will ever be plenty of authors to assist them to the utmost of their wishes in the accomplishment of both. At the conclusion of this harrangue, I observed the gentleman who had unintentionally brought on this volley of abuse (by simply asking, have you read the new novel) slily slip two volumes into the chaos of trash upon the counter, and take two others from the shelf, saying, as he hobbled out, there, Mr. Librarian, I have taken Joe Miller’s Jests and the Pilgrim’s Progress, as I begin to think it is better after all to be merry and wise than sad and silly. And a good exchange he has made indeed, replied a lady; for the two books he had before singled out, I perceive, were the Sorrows of Werter, and the Self-Tormentor. As I had gotten possession of an arm-chair by the fire-side, to observe the important business of a circulating library, I found myself too comfortable, and too well entertained, to quit my seat hastily, particularly as at that instant three beautiful young ladies pressed in, and with animated and inquiring countenances requested the catalogue to chuse their studies from, when all crowding over it, the tallest of the three called out, Oh, my dearest Lydia, I have now met with the book I have been mad after, and absolutely dying for. I am told by Mrs. Dozer (who reads every thing) it is a most enchanting novel, and so affecting, it is enough to break your heart. She assured me she was blind with crying, and that poor Counsellor Winifred declared it had destroyed his appetite, and broke his night’s rest for some time, for there are seven volumes. Seven volumes! repeated my elderly gentleman; seven plagues and seven furies! No sooner had this exclamation escaped his lips, than the three young ladies burst into a loud laugh, and cried, ‘What a gig he is, I quizzed him the instant I came in.’
          A young lady in a loose morning dress now tripped in, and whispered [to] a young man behind the counter, but not so low but I could hear her enquiry was for the Monk; and on the man assuring her all his sets were from home, she cried, ‘that is deplorable indeed; to be kept just at the most critical and interesting part waiting for the last volume; I wish your master would buy more sets of a novel on which so much is said and written.’ I was sorry to hear my friend in the corner had not overheard the whisper of the fair enquirer, being well assured he would not have suffered a book of such an alarming tendency (particularly in the hands of so young a student) to have been named without his admonition to the reader, and his anathema against the writer. I felt pained (on contemplating the innocent countenance of the young lady) to think that blasphemy and obscenity should ever meet her eye? I wished to speak and stop the contagion of the evil, as it semed as yet not to have diffused its baneful influence; but to accost her, and to counsel her, would be uncommon, and be deemed impertinent. How superior, thought I, are those characters, who, regardless of the punctilios of breeding, will dare to do good to their fellow creatures, by obtruding their advice unasked. With this reflection I arose dissatisfied with myself, and having lost all the comfort, quitted the amusements, of my arm-chair. In my way home I tried to divert my mind by a walk through the park; it was in vain; the young lady and her companion the Monk occupied my mind too much to admit of it. I now accused myself of a breach of christianity in not warning her of the dangerous tendency of such studies to young and unformed minds; I lamented the fashions of the world, which lead us to comply with the follies and vices of it, instead of guarding ourselves and others from them.

[SOURCE: Mary Alcock, Poems (London: C. Dilly, 1799), pp. 173–6]

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