THE NOVICE OF SAINT DOMINICK (1806)

SYDNEY OWENSEN (LADY MORGAN) (1776–1859)


Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan), daughter of an Irish comedian, wrote many popular Irish novels, her best-selling novel being The Wild Irish Girl (1806). She was active in Dublin high society, combining fashionable living with patriotic Irish nationalism. She also wrote poetry, travel books, and a comprehensive biography and catalogue raisonée of Salvator Rosa, the Gothic novelists’ favourite artist. She and her husband (Sir Charles Morgan, physician to the Marquis and Marchioness of Abercorn) moved to London in 1834, where she held brilliant receptions. She was dubbed ‘The Irish de Staël’. Owenson’s first novel St Clair (1802), written in imitation of Goethe’s Werter, was translated into German with a preface asserting that ‘the authoress had strangled herself with an embroidered cambric handkerchief, in a fit of despair and disappointed love’. Maturin, author of Melmoth the Wanderer, became a good friend; when failure followed his initial success, he required Lady Morgan’s influence with publishers and producers to get his later works published.

Copyright © 2000, 2012 Rictor Norton


Chapter 1

The sharp reproof of the pious and learned lady Magdelaine de Montmorell still shone on her keen eye, though it had ceased to murmur on her lip. The little amanuensis received it in silence, hung her head, and sighed – she dared not weep. One solitary intrusive tear alone had escaped from her eye; and glittered on the glowing surface of her cheek, like the dew-drop which the power of repulsion scarcely suffers to embalm the bosom of the rose it spangles. The little amanuensis brushed it lightly off with the feather of her pen, and waited in patient silence till the inspirations of the lady Magdelaine should again command its efforts.
          The lady Magdelaine had already spent four years in composing a voluminous History of the Crusades, whether foreign or domestic, against infidel or apostate, from the first instigation of Peter the Hermit in 1104 to the massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572; of the latter she had herself been a witness. She had retired from Paris to the chateau de Montmorell, which rose on the northern skirts of the forest of Champagne, as a residence more appropriate to the pursuits of one who expected to unite the heathen reputation of an Anna de Commines with the holy fame of a Saint Geneviève: and solitude and a total sequestration from the world, together with the convent-library of the Dominican sisters (then rich in legendary lore and pious tradition), gave boundless scope to the profound meditations of philosophy, and favoured the deep researches of history; and while, with kindling ardour, fanaticism traced the recorded horrors of religious frenzy in the gloomy ‘deeds of other times,’ France still groaned under the struggling efforts of religious prejudice, or bled beneath the uplifted sword of civil dissension.
          It was on the eve of St. Theodora the Martyr, and a few days after Henry the Fourth had invested Neufchatel, that a later hour than usual still found the lady Magdelaine in her study, dictating to her young secretary the most remarkable circumstances of the siege of Beziers, where six thousand obstinate heretics were put to the sword in cold blood, and four hundred committed to the flames, for the love of God. It was a note panegyrical and elucidatory on this instance of religious ardour, which had drawn from the horror-struck amanuensis (a young novice of the order of St. Dominick) such animadversions as seldom failed to elicit the disapprobation of her patroness, and rouse every feeling of pious zeal into action. It was some time ere the lady Magdelaine could rally back that abstracted attention which the unanswerable, but not unreproved, comments of the little secretary had put to flight. A glance into the page of the seraphic doctor, St. Bonaventure, restored the train of her dissipated ideas; and, determined to finish her note with an animated apostrophe, she exultingly exclaimed: ‘Oh! fortunate though deluded creatures, who by the pious zeal of your holy persecutors were forced to return to the fold from when you strayed!’ ‘And did they return, madam?’ interrupted the novice, ‘to the faith they had abjured?’ ‘They were all put to death without distinction,’ said the lady Magdelaine. ‘Kill away, cried the bishop of Citeaux, God will take care of his own!’ ‘Then what became of the bishop of Citeaux?’ demanded the secretary.
          The lady Magdelaine, again immersed in a learned puzzle; made no reply, but cast up her eye, pinched the folds of her ruff, and bit her nails, in vain endeavours to lure back the truant and felicitous thought which was to round the period of her apostrophe: and while the brain of learned dullness in vain gave the torture to exhausted memory, the vivid thought of genius darted through regions of impossibility, and pursued with ardour the glowing phantoms of fancy’s creation. And thine was a genius, young Novice of St. Dominick, that soared far beyond the occupation allotted thee: and thine was an age when the mastery of the attention is seldom obtained; when the mind will admit an image or embrace an idea wholly foreign from the pursuit in which it is engaged, because it steals on its apprehension under the glowing form of joys anticipated, or wears the pensive, grateful semblance of joys elapsed: happy age!
          The brain of the lady Magdelaine still pursued with unwearied diligence the learned trifle that distracted it, while the vagrant fancy of the little amanuensis wandered through scenes of fairy reflection. And never did a strain breathe in stronger unison to a soft and fanciful idea than that which stole on the rapt attention of the young secretary, as, tracing viewless characters with the feather of her pen, she

                    ‘gave to airy nothing
          A local habitation and a name.’

The storm raged loud, yet in every intervening pause the melodious tones of a harp were more distinctly heard. Panting and breathless, the Novice arose, crept softly to the casement, raised herself on a small stool, and flung an inquiring glance through its painted sash; but the stained and narrow panes, lit up by the watery beams of a declining moon, gave no form to her eager eye, except that of an ancient dame of the family de Montmorell praying with sympathetic piety before the faded figure of her lord in armour.
          Yet if her eye was ungratified by the sight of the musician, her ear more distinctly caught the strain, which at first faintly breathed at a distance, now lingered on every passing breeze, now directly ascended from the terrace beneath the casement, and now, gradually fading away, became lost amid the loud howling of the wind.
          Rapt, entranced, the little amanuensis still remained at the casement, even long after the magic spell which had lured her thither was dissolved; while fancy still fed her ear with those tones which distance or the storm had lulled into silence, and amazement was busied in assigning a cause for an effect so singular, so delightful. But even fancy at last ceased to delude; and Imogen, with a sign of disappointment, returned to her seat at the moment when the lady Magdelaine, starting from hers, exclaimed, ‘I must consult the bishop of Beauvais.’
          ‘Did you not hear the sound of music, madam?’ demanded Imogen. – ‘Music!’ said the lady Magdelaine, mechanically speaking the word with a tone and air of abstraction that denoted her absence of mind and her inattention to the demand.
          ‘To me it breathed no human sound,’ said the amanuensis, ‘but such as fancy gives to those aërial strains which waft the souls of dying saints to heaven. In good sooth, it thrilled upon my heart: e’en now methinks I hear it.’ – ‘What?’ demanded the lady Magdelaine, awakening. – ‘Hush! I am not deceived. Yet methinks ’tis in the castle: it steals along the corridor; do you not hear it, madam?’
          The lady Magdelaine (whose auricular faculties were somewhat less acute that those of her companion) now for the first time heard those strains which had awakened raptures beneath the steady tenor of her philosophic mind: they had indeed awakened emotions of a very different nature; and, advancing to a distant part of the chamber, she drew back a sliding door, which opened on the corridor that surrounded the servants’ hall. The grand-dame of the present lady de Montmorell had constructed this door for the purpose of obtaining secret information of all the politics of her domestic system. The lady Magdelaine, whose imagination was less on the qui vive? than that of her young secretary, readily believed that these mysterious strains were not only of human sound, but that they proceeded from some unlicensed merriment in her domestics; and now appropriated the sliding-door to a purpose it had served, for two generations back, to the ladies de Montmorell. Instantly the tones of a harp, accompanied by a fine voice, interrupted by repeated and loud bursts of laughter, arose from the great hall below. Imogen, followed by the lady Magdelaine, sprung forward; and, hanging over the balustrade, with a heart beating in unison to the lively air which had awakened its palpitation, observed the musician surrounded by a group who paid the tribute of boisterous applause to the talents he exerted for their entertainment. Followed by the reluctant and delighted Imogen, the lady Magdelaine, with noiseless step, returned in silence to her study, closed the slide, and rung with some violence the little silver bell which lay on her table; but no ready page obeyed the summons. . . . ‘For twenty years,’ said the lady Magdelaine, throwing herself into her chair, ‘for twenty years the sound of ill-managed mirth, or rude entertainment, has not been heard till this night within the walls of de Montmorell!’ – ‘I can well believe it,’ sighed Imogen.


[SOURCE: Sydney Owenson, The Novice of Saint Dominick, 4 vols (London: Richard Phillips, 1806), vol. 1, pp. 1–12]


Return to Index of Gothic Readings