THE RECESS (1785)

SOPHIA LEE (1750–1824)


The sisters Harriet, Sophia and Ann Lee, following their father’s death in 1781, opened a school at Bath for some 70 daughters of the gentry. To supplement their income, Sophia and Harriet Lee each wrote several novels, dramas, and translations from French and German. Their Canterbury Tales (1796 onwards), a very popular collection of short stories inspired by German sources, dealt with such Gothic subjects as the relationship between science and the supernatural, and figures such as banditti and the Wandering Jew. The Recess was said to be one of Ann Radcliffe’s favourite novels. Historical authenticity is a key feature of the work, whose action is motivated by Queen Elizabeth’s persecution of Mary Queen of Scots, and the seclusion of her two daughters by a secret marriage. The tyranny that Sophia Lee portrays is social and political rather than familial or supernatural, although her use of two sisters as joint heroines, and their concern over their separation from their mother, are themes common to what has been called ‘the female Gothic’. Sophia Lee’s major contribution to the Gothic was the striking surrealistic image of ‘the Recess’, a place of concealment which is simultaneously a sanctuary and a prison, a place of refuge and a den of horror – the ambivalent ‘sequestered spot’ that is central to the (female) Gothic imagination.

Copyright © 2000, 2012 Rictor Norton


My life commenced with an incident so extraordinary as the following facts alone could incline any one to credit. As soon as capable of reflection, I found myself and a sister of my own age, in an apartment with a lady, and a maid older than herself.–– Every day furnished us with whatever was necessary for subsistence or improvement, supplied as it seemed by some invisible hand; for I rarely missed either of the few who commonly surrounded me. This Recess could not be called a cave, because it was composed of various rooms; and the stones were obviously united by labor; yet every room was distinct, and divided from the rest by a vaulted passage with many stairs, while our light proceeded from small casements of painted glass, so infinitely above our reach that we could never seek a world beyond; and so dim, that the beams of the sun were almost a new object to us when we quitted this retirement. These remarks occurred as our minds unfolded; for at first we were content, through habit and ignorance, nor once bestowed a thought on surrounding objects. The lady I have mentioned called us her children, and caressed us both with parental fondnes. – Blest with every charm, it is not wonderful she fully possessed the affections of those who had no one else to idolize. Every morning we met in a larger room than the rest, where a very venerable man performed mass, and concluded with a discourse calculated to endear retirement. From him we learnt there was a terrible large place called the world, where a few haughty individuals commanded miserable millions, whom a few artful ones made so; that Providence had graciously rescued us from both, nor could we ever be sufficiently grateful. Young hearts teem with unformed ideas, and are but too susceptible of elevated and enthusiastic impressions. Time gave this man insensibly an influence over us, as a superior being, to which his appearance greatly contributed. Imagine a tall and robust figure habited in black, and marked by a commanding austerity of manners. – His features bore the traces of many sorrows, and a kind of early old age, which interested every observer. The fire and nobility of his eye, the gracefulness of his decay, and the heart-affecting solemnity of his voice,

While on his reverend temples grew
The blossoms of the grave,

gave an authority almost irresistible to Father Anthony, as we called him from hearing our mamma, to whom we understood he was brother. . . .
          Being deprived of my customary resource, books, to amuse a part of our melancholy leisure, we mutually agreed to invent tales from the many whole-length pictures, which ornamented the best room, and to take them as they came alternately. Ellinor readily invented a ludicrous story upon the portrait of an old man, which made us both laugh heartily. I turned my eyes to consider what I should say about the next; they rested on the figure of a man of noble mien, his dress I then knew no name for, but have since found to be armour; a page held his helmet and his hair, of a pale brown, fell over his shoulders. He was surrounded with many emblems of martial merit, and his eyes, which seemed bent on me, were full of a tender sweetness. A sentiment of veneration, mingled with a surprising softness, pierced my soul at once; my tongue faltered with a nameless idea, and I rested my head against the shoulder of my sister. That dear girl turned to me with quickness, and the beam of her eye was like that of the picture. I surveyed her over and over, and found in every feature the strongest resemblance; when she frowned, she had all his dignity; when she smiled, all his sweetness. An awe, I could not conquer, made me unable to form any tale on that subject, and I directed my attention toward the next. It represented a lady in the flower of youth, drest in mourning, and seeming in every feature to be marked by sorrow; a black veil half shaded a coronet she wept over. If the last picture awakened veneration, this seemed to call forth a thousand melting sensations; the tears rushed involuntarily into our eyes, and, clasping, we wept upon the bosoms of each other. ‘Ah! who can these be? cried we both together. Why do our hearts thus throb before inanimate canvas? surely every thing we behold is but part of one great mystery; when, will the day come, destined to clear it up.’ We walked arm in arm round, and moralized on every portrait, but none interested us like these; we were never weary of surveying or talking about them; a young heart is frequently engrossed by a favorite idea, amid all the glare of the great world; nor is it then wonderful ours were thus possessed when entombed alive in such a narrow boundary. . . .
          ‘My children,’ said Mrs. Marlow, faintly, ‘an unforeseen event obliges us once more to retire to the Recess. Every thing is at this moment preparing for our reception. You are now at years to judge of the importance of its concealment, nor will I longer make it a mystery. – But why thus afflict yourselves for a temporary restraint? If I am willing, for your sakes, to be carried thither, like a corpse into a tomb, surely you will not be so ungenerous as to vent one selfish lamentation?’
          Effectually silenced by this noble reproof, we collected, in confusion and grief, our clothes and ornaments; when, returning to her room, we found there Father Anthony, an old domestick called James, Alice, and the Housekeeper; who, having dispersed the other servants, preceded us to a store-room on the ground floor, and opening a press, unfastened a false back, which conducted us into a closet, dark, but for our torches. She then lifted a part of the floor, fitted very neatly, and discovered a narrow pair of stairs, down which we went, leaving her behind, and effectually secured ourselves, by bolting it firmly on the inside. We past through several subterraneous passages built on arches, and preserved from damps by cavities which passed through every statue that ornamented the garden, ’till at last we reached our prison. But judge of my astonishment, when I found the so often-sought entrance was a door of the size of that portrait which first gave me such singular sensations, and which I perceived was made to fall together, with a spring almost imperceptible.
          Father Anthony silenced the exclamations I would have made, and drew me at once to Mrs. Marlow; who, pale and lifeless with the fatigue of this removal, gave additional terrors to the moment. Whether the agitation of her mind increased her malady, or it was originally beyond cure, I know not; but I saw, with speechless affliction, from the moment of our return to the Recess, she would never leave it alive. Enclosed in a spot without sufficient air, attendance, or advice, we saw her finish her generous attachment to us, by resolutely resisting our intreaties. . . .
          [Mrs Marlow tells of her activity after the departure of Matilda Howard, now Lady Scroope.] In the time of her absence, I spent many hours in reviewing the ruins [of St Vincent’s Abbey] with which this place abounded; the gloomy magnificence of those great remains of art, was more suited to my sadness of soul than the softer and more varied scenes of nature; the liking I had conceived for these places, doubtless first caused the housekeeper to shew me the Recess. She had lived in the family a vast number of years, and knew the secret. How often had I walked through its ruined aisles, without suspecting it could possibly contain one habitable spot! I will now, my dear children, explain its situation and structure: – It was once inhabited by nuns of the order of St. Winifred, but deserted before the abolition of Convents, from its ruinous condition; in this situation it remained many years, shunned by the country people, and devoutly visited by those travellers whom chance or curiosity brought this way. When the Reformation, in the time of Henry, robbed the monks of their vast domains, the ancester of Lord Scroope obtained this land of the King; he pulled down the monastery to erect a convenient mansion in the same taste, and discovered a secret passage from thence to the Convent; it was blocked up without being generally known, and the ruins left as an addition to the prospect; nor till chance gave the communication a value, was it remembered. The nobleman who could obtain so vast a favor, ’tis needless to mention, professed the reformed religion, but not able to forget that in which he had been brought up, his house became the asylum of many of the unrevenued fathers; this circumstance being noticed, he found his views in the world depended on his expelling them, when the secret passage occurred to his remembrance. He had the stones removed cautiously by the holy fathers, and found the place well arched and paved, and free from damps; it terminated in a room they supposed to have been the refectory, and which still remained entire. They removed, by degrees, such accommodations as were necessary into it, and thither the refugees retired, being supplied with food from the Abbey; but finding themselves shut up in too small a place, and in total want of employment, they began working under ground, and by degrees formed two other passages from the Recess, one of which ends in the Hermit’s cave, where the eldest of them lived, and the other in the midst of the ruins. Thus providing against discovery, or rather securing their escape if that should happen. In surveying the ruins, they found several places enclosed, and yet undemolished; from among those, they selected the few we have lived in, chusing them always separated to prevent suspicion. Thus, in a few years, each father had his own cell, and a monastery was hid among the ruins of the convent. At length, the severity of government abating, several of the monks ventured again into the world, and of the eight who made it their asylum, two only ended their days here. Lord Scroope, sensible of the value of such a retirement, carefully kept the secret when its inhabitants were gone; two servants alone knew it, and they were faithful; nor till the house-keeper told me the story, had I an idea of such a place.
          This account appeared almost fabulous to me; – the ruin was at least half a mile from the mansion, which then had a view of its rising plantations daily diminished, till the wood became frequented, or indeed passable only on the side near the Hermit’s cave: I impatiently desired to explore the whole romantic secret.
          The house-keeper did not delay a moment to gratify my curiosity; she summoned an old servant who knew the way, with torches, to lead me through the windings. The arched roof which was by some contrivance in the building, kept astonishingly free from damps, echoed to our very feet. The gloominess of the scene accorded with my ideas, and suggested a scheme which I have since thought a providential one, to my mind. The division of the rooms, the bare walls, and holes in the roof for air, displeased me; but since my affection for Lord and Lady Scroope debarred me from devoting myself to a convent, I resolved to fit this place up, and retire to it whenever the owners, with their guests, made St. Vincent’s Abbey too gay for me. Three times I visited it, and each time found my desire greater. I discoursed with the old man, who, from a considerable reward I offered him, agreed, with the assistance of his son, who was a builder, to render this a comfortable habitation. I was unwilling to admit a third person into the secret, but soon discovered his son James was already acquainted with it. They directly began lodging their implements in the cave, which was altered to give a face to the whole. Three months made it what it now is . . .


[SOURCE: Sophia Lee, The Recess; or, A Tale of other Times, 3 vols (London: T. Cadell, 1785), vol. 1, pp. 2–5, 7–9, 22–4, 43–8]

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