Eliza Parsons wrote about twenty novels, including The Castle of Wolfenbach and The Mysterious Warning – two of the ‘horrid’ novels listed in Austen’s Northanger Abbey. According to a contemporary account, ‘It was imperious necessity, not inclination, or vanity, that led Mrs. Parsons to take up the pen.’ Her husband was a turpentine merchant whose business was destroyed when his warehouses had to be pulled down to prevent the spread of a fire in Bow, London, in 1782. A few months earlier their eldest son had died in Jamaica, and Mr Parsons’ health broke. He had a heart attack and survived in a paralytic affliction for three years before he died, leaving his wife and seven children unprovided for (the remaining two sons and one daughter were to die in unhappy circumstances). ‘The liberal indulgence she met with from her friends and public encouraged her to proceed in her employment, while struggling with many sorrows and heavy afflictions.’ Many elements in The Castle of Wolfenbach are derived from Radcliffe’s early novels, especially the exploitation of the explained supernatural. A review in the British Critic for February 1794 noted: ‘This novel is opened with all the romantic spirit of the Castle of Otranto, and the reader is led to expect a tale of other times, fraught with enchantments, and spells impending from every page. As the plot thickens, they vanish into air – into thin air, and the whole turn out to be a company of well-educated and well-bred people of fashion.’ The sequestered mother, one of the archetypes of ‘the female Gothic’, in the following extract explains how she was forced to play the role of a ghost.

Copyright © 2000, 2012 Rictor Norton

I had been in the castle about three weeks, when, one evening, as I was sitting in my room, at the close of the day I heard a little noise at the window. I was startled, but recovering myself, I took a chair and got upon the window seat; I saw the figure of a man, I shrunk down; again the window rattled, I recovered and looked up; presently I distinctly perceived a man, who, with a diamond, was cutting a small strip out of a pane of glass; he accomplished his work, thrust a letter in, and disappeared behind the battlements in a moment; I secured the letter, with a beating heart, and on opening it, found it came from the Chevalier De Montreville. I was surprised and agitated; I perused this fatal letter; it was filled with the tenderest expressions of regret at my unhappy fate. His own misery he could have borne, he said, had I been happy; but to see the woman he adored treated so unworthily, was more pain than he had philosophy to support; he entreated I would write a few lines, to tell him in what manner my husband behaved to me, and if there was a possibility of his doing me either service or pleasure. I shed floods of tears over this epistle: I found, though I had suppressed, I had not subdued my affection for him; yet what would it avail to encourage a correspondence I felt was improper: I hesitated, – I considered for some time whether I should write or not; at length I took up my pen. I acknowledged myself obliged for the interest he took in my happiness, but at the same time assured him any attentions of his never could do me service; on the contrary, I had reason to believe the Marquis was very jealous of him, and that possibly all his motions might be watched, I therefore besought him to return to Vienna, and leave me to my destiny. The following day, nearly at the same hour, I heard the noise at the window repeated; trembling for fear of interruption, I hastily got up, and slid my answer through, resolved at the same time to run no such risks, nor receive any more letters, – happy had it been could I have kept my resolution. The next evening I did not go to my room till accompanied by Margarite. I trembled every moment, lest the signal should be repeated, but I heard nothing. The next day I was peevish and dissatisfied; the Count gloomy and sullen. After dinner, as usual, he went out among the people he had at work in the wood: involuntarily I hastened to my apartment; I will own the truth, I wished, though I dreaded hearing the signal. Towards the close of the day the sounds at the window were repeated: scarce knowing what I did, I got on the window seat, and secured the letter: fancying I heard footsteps coming up stairs, I too hastily stept back on the chair, which gave way, and I came with violence to the ground; at the same instant my door opened: I had received a dreadful blow on the side of my head, though it did not altogether deprive me of life, yet I was unable to speak. The Count ran to me, he snatched the fatal paper from my hand, and then rang for assistance; Margarite came up. With his help I was placed on the bed; she bathed my head, gave me drops and water, and I was soon restored to sense and misery. He ordered the nurse out of the room, and then coming up to me, ‘Wretch!’ cried he, furiously, ‘behold a proof of thy guilt and falsehood: I could sacrifice thee to my vengeance, but I will have more exquisite satisfaction, and complete revenge, such as shall strike thee with remorse and endless sorrow.’ I besought him to hear me; I repeated what I have told you, and added it was the last I ever intended to receive. He smiled with disdain, ‘Doubtless it was, and I take upon me to say it will be the last you shall ever receive from him.’ He never left me the whole evening, but used every cruel malicious expression it was possible to conceive. I continued very ill and agitated that night and great part of the day. In the afternoon my persecutor left me, but Margarite remained; I got up, and was under the most dreadful apprehensions of what might happen; my eyes were continually turned to the window; I suffered the most agonizing terrors, when in a moment they were realized beyond whatever I could conceive of horror. A violent noise was heard on the stairs, like persons struggling, and in a moment the door was burst open; the Count and his man appeared, dragging in the Chevalier, with his mouth bound, his hands tied, and every mark of cruel treatment; I screamed, and clasped my hands, but could not speak; he made several desperate efforts to free himself – alas! to little purpose. Let me hasten over the dreadful catastrophe. ‘Now,’ said the cruel Count, ‘you have your minion where you wished him to be, in your bed chamber, nor shall he ever quit it alive.’ I tried to speak, I threw myself on my knees, ‘Spare, O spare!’ was all I could say, and fell senseless, but I was soon recovered by the officious Margarite, to still greater horror. ‘We have waited your recovery,’ said the barbarian; ‘I would not deprive you of so great a pleasure as seeing your lover’s last breath expire for you.’ He was then dragged into the closet opposite to where I sat, and immediately repeated stabs were given with a short dagger, by the Count, through several parts of his body; his blood flowed in torrents, and with groans he fell on his face and expired. Great God! cried he, here the scene never will be absent from my remembrance. I sat like one petrified; I neither spoke, shrieked, or groaned, but with my eyes fixed on the closet I appeared insensible to every thing. The inhuman Count was not satisfied; he came and dragged me to the closet, and seated me by the side of the body, the blood flowing round me. ‘Now,’ said he, ‘clasp your beloved Chevalier – now despise the old and cross looking Count,’ – words I had once said in his hearing, long before I was married – ‘and now enjoy the company of him for whom you despised your husband.’ Saying this, he ordered Margarite and Peter to leave the room; and finding I was still unable to speak or move, he pushed me farther into the closet, locked the door, and left me. How long I continued in this state, I know not; I believe I swooned, for it was day light when I found myself on the floor, my clothes covered with blood, and the unhappy murdered Chevalier dead before me. ’Tis impossible to describe the horror of that moment; I found myself seized with violent pains; I began to think the monster had poisoned me – the idea gave me pleasure, and I endeavoured to bear my pangs without a groan; nature however asserted its claims; I became so very ill, I could be silent no longer, I groaned, I cried aloud. Presently the door was unlocked, – the Count and Margarite appeared; they saw me in agonies; ‘I am dying, barbarian; you will be satisfied, you have murdered a worthy man who never injured you – you have killed an innocent wife.’ I could say no more. Margarite cried out, ‘My Lord, my dear mistress is in labour, for God’s sake assist her to her apartment.’ He seemed to hesitate, but she urging her request, between them I was conveyed to the bed, and without any other assistance than hers delivered of a boy. When a little recovered, the Count entered the room, Peter with him. ‘I do not design to destroy you; no, you may live a life of horror, but dead to all the world; yet your infant shall be sacrificed.’ I screamed, I cried for mercy to my child and instant death to me. He paused and I expected the welcome stroke at last; ‘On one condition you child may live.’ ‘Oh! name it,’ I said; ‘any conditions.’ ‘Remember what you say: you shall join with these two persons, in taking a solemn oath, with the sacrament, that without my permission, you will never reveal the transactions of this night and day – never mention the Chevalier’s name, nor ever presume to contradict the report I shall make of your death to the world.’ I shuddered, but alas! there was no alternative; he fetched a prayer book, and making the two poor creatures kneel, we all joined in the solemn oath, and received the sacrament from his polluted hands. Methinks at this moment I tremble at the impiety of that horrid wretch. My child was delivered to me; Peter was ordered to assist Margarite in making a fire and getting necessaries for me. How I survived such horrors is astonishing! The curtains were drawn, and that night the body was removed, but where it was carried to, heaven only knows, for Margarite never was informed. A coffin and every necessary for a funeral was bespoke and brought home. It was given out I had died in child bed, and therefore in decency my own women only could attend me. A figure or bundle, wrapt in a sheet, was placed in the coffin (Margarite used to think it was the Chevalier’s body) and the whole ceremony took place without any one’s presuming to doubt the truth. Judge what must have been my feelings, and what an excellent constitution I must have had, to bear such dreadful scenes without dying of distraction. In a few days I was removed to another room, and, as I heard, the fatal closet was cleaned out by Peter; the rooms locked up, and orders given no one should enter them. The Count never appeared before me until I was up, and able to walk about the room; one morning he entered, just as I had done breakfast. I forgot to tell you I had no sustenance for my poor babe, consequently it was brought up by hand. The dear infant was laying on my lap; I started with surprise and terror. ‘Come, madam,’ said he, with a look that made me tremble, ‘come and view your former apartment.’ ‘God God!’ I cried, ‘why must I return there? ‘’Tis my pleasure,’ answered he; then bidding Margarite take the child, he ordered me to follow him. I tottered across the gallery, and on entering the room saw the windows barricaded with iron bars, the pictures and toilet taken away, and the whole appearance gloomy to excess. ‘This is once more your bed chamber; no more Chevaliers,’ said he, with horrid grin, ‘can convey letters here – here you are to reside for ever.’ ‘Oh! kill me!’ I cried, ‘rather than shut me up here – death is far more desirable.’ ‘That is the reason I chuse you shall live, to repent every hour of your life the wrongs you have done me: and now hear me – your child you will see no more.’ At these words, overcome with the unexpected shock, I dropped senseless on the floor; I was soon recalled to life. ‘Your oath,’ I cried; ‘O, spare my child!’ ‘I do not mean to hurt its life; I will have it properly taken care of, but the indulgence is too great for you to enjoy. I here swear, that as long as you remain confined in this castle, and observe your oath, never to reveal the Chevalier’s murder, nor undeceive the world respecting your fate, so long your boy’s life is safe; I will take care of him, and one day or other, there is a possibility, you may see him again; but if you ever escape from hence, or divulge these particulars, without my permission, instant death awaits you both, for I shall have a constant spy.’ To these conditions, dreadful as they were, I was compelled to subscribe. Margarite was ordered into confinement with me, for he found she was my friend. That night the child was conveyed away: dear and precious boy! alas, heaven only knows whether I shall ever see him more; unconscious he has a mother, if he lives, we may remain strangers to each other! We were locked in, and for three days the Count himself brought our scanty fare; the fourth, he entered with Joseph, who was the under gardener. I was startled to see a stranger, – he appeared equally shocked at seeing me. ‘Here you both are, remember your oath, madam, for on it more than one life depends. And you,’ said he, turning to Joseph, ‘tremble, if you dare break your solemn vow, never to let any person know this woman is alive, never to suffer her to pass from these apartments, without my permission, to hold no conversation with her, but when you bring her food, and in fine, to obey every command of mine and not hers.’ ‘I will obey your Lordship,’ cried the man, trembling. ‘’Tis well, then you will preserve her life, and gain my favor. No strangers must be permitted to remain here, should chance or inclination engage any one to visit this castle. Remember this side of it must never be seen, ’tis haunted – do you understand me?’ ‘I do, my Lord,’ answered Joseph, ‘and I promise you, these apartments shall never be looked into.’ ‘On that depends her existence and yours.’ They now quitted my room, and left me scarcely able to breathe. The following day the Count and Peter left the castle. Every other day Joseph came with necessaries, and Margarite was permitted to go down, accompanied by Joseph, to carry up and down water and other conveniences. In this state I lived two years, if living it could be called, having no other consolation than now and then hearing from my sister; for I had so far gained upon Joseph to permit Margarite’s letters, after shewing them to him, to pass under cover to him, and as he found I carefully preserved my secret from others, the poor fellow granted me that indulgence. At the expiration of two years, the Count unexpectedly made his appearance. I shrunk from his sight; he viewed me some time with great emotion; ‘I am satisfied with your conduct,’ said he, ‘and am come to extend my indulgence to you.’ ‘O, my child!’ I cried out. ‘No,’ answered he, ‘that cannot be granted; but you shall have permission to live in the rooms below, and if you swear to enter the garden only at night, the door into it shall be opened.’ I joyfully agreed to this, and was once more led to the rooms below. Peter was still with him; a bed was brought from another room, and placed in a small parlour, also one for Margarite. The apartments above were again locked up. I tried to soften the Count; he sometimes appeared moved and affected, then again stern and cruel; he staid near a week – the day he left the castle he came to visit me. ‘Once more I leave you, but as there is some danger that strangers may come here, I charge you, by every thing that is sacred, by your child’s life and your own, should any person sleep in this castle, that you go to the gallery or next apartments, rattle a chain I shall leave for that purpose, groan, and make such kind of noises as may appal those who come here, and drive them hence, under an idea of the castle’s being haunted: I have already sworn Joseph, do you promise the same.’ ‘Ah! Sir,’ cried I, ‘why all these oaths. Why all these persecutions, which must give you a world of pains, to punish an innocent woman?’ ‘Because,’ said he, furiously, ‘because I prefer revenge to my own quiet; because I will be feared, and make your destiny hang on my pleasure.’ I could say no more, I wept bitterly, but nothing could soften his heart; he made me renew my vows, still threatening the life of my child, if I failed – he told me it was well, and carefully attended. I was compelled to acquiesce with his request, or rather command, and he once more left me. He regularly came once in two years, for some time, but latterly it was above four years since I had seen him, till the fatal night he carried me off.

[SOURCE: Eliza Parsons, The Castle of Wolfenbach; A German Story, 2 vols (London: William Lane at the Minerva-Press, 1793)]

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