Gothic Readings, compiled by Rictor norton



Eaton Stannard Barrett was a political writer, prolific satirical poet and occasional writer of farces. His best novel, The Heroine, is a series of letters written by 15-year-old Cherry to her former governess, recording her attempts to find a romantic alternative to her middle-class respectability. Her father burns all the novels in the house, so she runs away from home. After a series of adventures, she mistakes Covent Garden Theatre for a castle, and falls in love with the mad actor Abraham Grundy, who claims his real name is Lord Altamont Mortimer Montmorenci. The novel has large set-piece parodies of scenes from Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (and some plagiarism), and some amusing one-liners: Lady Bontein has 'one shoulder of the Gothic order', and Jerry O'Sullivan, a woolen-draper whom Cherry takes on as her servant, is renamed Jeronymo, for 'Nothing can equal Italian names ending in O.' By the end of the third volume Cherry inherits a genuine Gothic castle, but lacking the money for feudal splendour manages to decorate only one room, dubbed 'THE BLACK CHAMBER'. Unable to endure the cold and damp of her dilapidated Castello, she returns to a comfortable life of 'balls, operas, and familiar parties' and gives up reading novels. Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra on 2/3 March 1814: 'I finished the Heroine last night & was very much amused by it. I wonder James did not like it better. It diverted me exceedingly. – We went to bed at 10. . . . It is Eveng [3 March]. We have drank tea & I have torn through the 3d vol. of the Heroine, & do not think it falls off. – It is a delightful burlesque, particularly on the Radcliffe style.'

(Copyright 2000, 2013, 2020 Rictor Norton)

But you must naturally wish to learn what has happened here since your departure. I was in my boudoir, reading the Delicate Distress, when I heard a sudden bustle below and 'Out of the house, this moment,' vociferated my father. The next minute he was in my room with a face like fire.
          'There!' cried he, 'I knew what your famous romances would do for us at last.'
          'Fie!' said I, playfully spreading my fingers over his face. 'Don't frown so, but tell me what these famous romances have done?'
          'Only a kissing match between the Governess and the Butler,' answered he. 'I caught them at the sport in the pantry.'
          I was petrified. 'Dear Sir,' said I, 'you must surely mistake.'
          'No such thing,' cried he. 'The kiss was too much of a smacker for that. – Egad, it rang through the pantry like the smash of twenty plates. But she shall never darken my doors again, never. I have just packed the pair of wrinkled sweethearts off together; and what is better, I have ordered all the novels in the house to be burnt, by way of purification. They talk so much of flames, that I suppose they will like to feel them.' He spoke, and ran raging out of the room.
          Adieu, then, ye dear romances, adieu for ever. No more shall I sympathize with your heroines, while they faint and blush, and weep, through four half-bound octavos. Adieu, ye Edwins, Edgars, and Edmunds; ye Selinas, Evelinas, Malvinas: ye inas all adieu! The flames will consume all. The melody of Emily, the prattle of Annette, and the hoarseness of Ugo, will be confounded in one indiscriminate crackle. The Casa and Castello will blaze with equal fury; nor will the virtue of Pamela aught avail to save; nor Wolmar delighting to see his wife in a swoon; nor Werter shelling peas and reading Homer, nor Charlotte cutting bread and butter for the children. . . .

Soon after my last letter, I was summoned to dinner. What heroine in distress but starves? so I sent a message that I was unwell, and then solaced myself with a volume of the Mysteries of Udolpho, which had escaped the conflagration. Afterwards I flung myself on my bed, in hopes to have dreams portentous of my future fate; for heroines are remarkably subject to a certain prophetic sort of night-mare. You remember the story which Ludovico read, of a spectre that beckons a Baron from his castle in the dead of night, and leading him into a forest, points to his own corpse, and bids him bury it. Well, owing, I suppose, to my having just read this episode, and to my having fasted so long, I had the following dreams.
          Methought a delicious odour of viands attracted me to the kitchen, where I found an iron pot upon the fire simmering in unison with my sighs. As I looked at it with a longing eye, the lid began to rise, and I beheld a half-boiled turkey stalk majestically forth. It beckoned me with its claw. I followed. It led me into the yard, and pointed to its own head and feathers, which were lying in a corner.
          What a vulgar, what a disgusting vision, when I ought to have dreamt of nothing but coffins and ladies in black! . . .

[Abraham Grundy begins to tell his tale to Cherry:]
          'All was dark. The hurricane howled, the wet rain fell, and the thunder rolled in an awful and Ossianly manner.
          'On a beetling rock, lashed by the Gulph of Salerno, stood Il Castello di Grimgothico.
          '"My lads, are your carbines charged, and your sabres sharpened?" cried Stiletto.
          '"If they an't, we might load our carbines with this hail, and sharpen our sabres against this north wind," cried Poignardi.
          '"The wind is east-south-east," cried Daggeroni.
          'At that moment the bell of Grimgothico tolled one. The sound vibrated through the long corridors, the spiral staircases, the suites of tapestried apartments, and the ears of the personage who has the honour to address you. Much alarmed, I started from my couch; but conceive my horror when I beheld my chamber filled with banditti! They were sent by Napoleon (that awful oddity) to dispatch me, because of my glorious struggle against him in Italy.
          'Snatching my faulchion, I flew to the armoury for my coat of mail. The bravos rushed after me; but I fought and dressed, and dressed and fought, till I had perfectly completed my unpleasing toilette. . . .
          'At length I murdered my way down to my little skiff, embarked in it, and arrived at this island. As I first touched foot on its chalky beach, "Hail, happy land," cried I, "hail, thrice hail!"
          '"There is no hail here, Sir," said a child running by; "but come with me, and I will shew you a wedding."
          '"And who are to be married," asked I, lifting the little innocent in my arms.
          '"The Marquis de Furioso, and the Lady Sympathina, daughter to Baron Hildebrand," answered little Billy. . . .'

[Cherry discovers her supposed mother in the subterranean dungeon:]
          When I retired to rest, I found this note on my toilette.

To the Lady Cherubina.

          Your mother lives! and is confined in a subterranean vault of the villa. At midnight two men will tap at your door, and conduct you to her. Be silent, courageous, and circumspect.

          What a flood of new feelings gushed upon my soul, as I laid down the billet, and lifted my filial eyes to heaven! Mother – endearing name! I pictured that unfortunate lady, stretched on a mattrass [sic] of straw, her eyes sunken in their sockets, yet retaining a portion of their youthful fire; her frame emaciated, her voice feeble, her hand damp and chill. Fondly did I depict our meeting – our embrace; she gently pushing me from her, and baring my forehead to gaze on the lineaments of my countenance. . . .
          [My conductor] stopped, and unlocked a door.
          'Enter,' said he, 'and behold your mother!'
          He led me forward, tore the bandage from my eyes, and retiring, locked the door after him.
          Agitated already by the terrors of my dangerous expedition, I felt additional horror in finding myself within a dismal cell, lighted with a lantern; where, at a small table, sat a woman suffering under a corpulency unparalleled in the memoirs of human monsters. Her dress was a patchwork of blankets and satins, and her grey tresses were like horse's tails. Hundreds of frogs leaped about the floor; a piece of mouldy bread, and a mug of water, lay on the table; some straw, strewn with dead snakes and sculls, occupied one corner, and the distant end of the cell was concealed behind a black curtain.
          I stood at the door, doubtful, and afraid to advance; while the prodigious prisoner sat examining me all over.
          At last I summoned courage to say, 'I fear, Madam, I am an intruder here. I have certainly been shewn into the wrong room.'
          'It is, it is my own, my only daughter, my Cherubina!' cried she, with a tremendous voice. 'Come to my maternal arms, thou living picture of the departed Theodore!'
          'Why, Ma'am,' said I, 'I would with great pleasure, but I am afraid – Oh, Madam, indeed, indeed, I am quite sure you cannot be my mother!'
          'Why not, thou unnatural girl?' cried she.
          'Because, Madam,' answered I, 'my mother was of thin habit; as her portrait proves.'
          'And so was I once,' said she. 'This deplorable plumpness is owing to want of exercise. But I thank the Gods I am as pale as ever!'
          'Heavens! no,' cried I. 'Your face, pardon me, is a rich scarlet.'
          'And is this our tender meeting?' cried she. 'To disown me, to throw my fat in my teeth, to violet the lilies of my skin, with a dash of scarlet? Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle! Tell me, girl, will you embrace me, or will you not?'
          'Indeed, Madam,' answered I, 'I will presently.'
          'Yes, depend upon it I will. Only let me get over the first shock.'
          Dreading her violence, and feeling myself bound to do the duties of a daughter, I kneeled at her feet, and said:
          'Ever respected, ever venerable author of my being, I beg thy maternal blessing!'
          My mother raised me from the ground, and hugged me to her heart, with such cruel vigour, that, almost crushed, I cried out stoutly, and struggled for release.
          'And now,' said she, relaxing her grasp, 'let me tell you of my sufferings. Ten long years, I have eaten nothing but bread. Oh, ye favourite pullets, oh, ye inimitable tit-bits, shall I never, never taste you more? It was but last night, that maddened by hunger, methought I beheld the Genius of dinner in my dreams. His mantle was laced with silver eels, and his locks were dropping with soups. He had a crown of golden fishes upon his head, and pheasants' wings at his shoulders. A flight of little tartlets fluttered about him, and the sky rained down comfits. As I gazed on him, he vanished in a sigh, that was impregnated with the fumes of brandy. Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle.'
          I stood shuddering, and hating her more and more every moment. . . .
          Such was the detestable adventure of to-night. Oh, Biddy, that I should live to meet this mother of mine! How different from the mothers that other heroines rummage out in northern turrets and ruined chapels! I am out of all patience. Liberate her I must, of course, and make a suitable provision for her too, when I get my property; but positively, never will I sleep under the same roof with (ye powers of filial love forgive me!) such a living mountain of human horror.

[SOURCE: Eaton Stannard Barrett, The Heroine, or Adventures of Cherubina, 2nd edn, 3 vols (London: Henry Colburn, 1814), vol. 1, pp. 33–5, 44–6, 153–6; vol. 2, pp. 151–2, 156–60, 163#150;4]

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