THE CHILDREN OF THE ABBEY (1796)
REGINA MARIA ROCHE (1763/41845)
Mrs Regina Maria Roche was born in Co. Waterford, Munster, Ireland, the daughter of Captain Blundell Dalton of the 40th regiment. She was brought up in Dublin. She later recalled, in a letter dated 19 November 1831, that ‘Books were my early passion. . . . Ere I could well guide a pen I strove to give utterance to the workings of my mind in writing.’ Her first novel, The Vicar of Lansdowne, or, Country Quarters (2 vols., 1789), was published under her maiden name Regina Maria Dalton. It was a sentimental tale with Gothic elements, and received three condescending reviews, the Monthly Review (February 1790) condemning the ‘saucy humility’ of her ‘Address to the critics’ imploring them to disregard her tale. Her second novel, The Maid of the Hamlet (2 vols., 1793, also under her maiden name), a domestic sentimental Gothic, clearly echoes Ann Radcliffe. Shortly after its publication, in 1794 she married Ambrose Roche (d. 1829) and moved to England. Her father died soon thereafter.
Her third novel The Children of the Abbey (4 vols., 1796) was an immediate bestseller. The orphaned children of an Irish soldier are fraudulently disinherited by a wicked aunt and cousin; supernatural surprises attend their Radcliffean adventures in an Irish castle and the ‘haunted’ abbey of Dunreath. Despite receiving only one review, the novel became one of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century, going through at least fourteen editions during her lifetime, and French and Spanish editions. Her novel Clermont (4 vols., 1798) was one of the ‘horrid’ novels satirized in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818). The Critical Review (November 1798) remarked, ‘mystery is heaped upon mystery, and murder upon murder, with little art, and great improbability’. The critics ignored her later work.
Roche comes closer than all other imitators to recreating Radcliffe's suspense, elegiac melancholy, overwrought sensibility, and picturesque landscapes. Her own distinguishing features are ultra-sentimentality, too many characters, and complicated intrigues. She wrote sixteen novels for the circulating libraries, eleven published by William Lane and A. K. Newman's Minerva Press, and four by Newman after the demise of Minerva. Her earlier work consisted of popular novels of sentimental Gothic, for example The Discarded Son, or, Haunt of the Banditti (5 vols., 1807); terror Gothic, such as The Houses of Osma and Almeria, or, Convent of St Ildefonso (3 vols., 1810), which borrowed directly from Lewis's The Monk (1796); and historical Gothic, such as Trecothick Bower, or, The Lady of the West Country (3 vols., 1814). These were followed by five Irish regional novels, notably The Tradition of the Castle, or, Scenes in the Emerald Isle (4 vols., 1824), a convincing treatment of absenteeism, religious freedom, and Irish national pride.
Roche's husband was declared bankrupt in 1802, at which time she transferred her rights to her father's estate in King's county, Ireland, to an unscrupulous solicitor who misrepresented its value. Friends discovered the fraud, and she took the case to chancery in 1820. For ten years this suit ‘proved a millstone round our necks’, as she wrote in a letter of 7 July 1831, and though a decree was eventually issued in her favour, legal fees ‘entirely drained us of our last shilling’. In 1815 Ambrose Roche attempted to recover a £500 debt owed by Richard Martin, MP for Galway, for rent of his lately deceased brother William's property. Pathetic letters from Regina Roche ‘I am literally wanting the necessities of life’ (March 1826) were treated by Martin with ‘silent disregard’ (11 January 1827). Her husband was paralysed by a stroke in December 1825, and Regina Roche endeavoured to nurse him back to health. He was again declared bankrupt in 1827, whereupon she applied for assistance to the Literary Fund Society, from whom she received annual £20 donations until 1831. Contrast (3 vols., 1828) was published by subscription to relieve her destitution, and dedicated to HRH the Princess Augusta Sophia. Ambrose Roche died in November 1829 and Regina Roche moved from her ‘humble abode’ at Stangate Street, Westminster, to Kew. With nothing to support herself, in October 1831 she moved to Ireland. Regina Roche died destitute at her residence on the Mall, Waterford, on 17 March 1845.
Copyright © 2000, 2012 Rictor Norton
Vol. III. Chap. XI.
My list’ning pow’rs
Were awed, and every thought in silence hung,
And wond’ring expectation.
‘My dear Fanny,’ said Mrs. Duncan, addressing our heroine by her borrowed name, ‘if at all inclined to superstition, you are now going to a place which will call it forth. Dunreath-Abbey is gothic and gloomy in the extreme, and recalls to one’s mind all the stories they ever heard of haunted houses and apparitions; the desertion of the native inhabitants has hastened the depredations of time, whose ravages are unrepaired, except in the part immediately occupied by the domestics; yet what is the change in the building compared to the revolution which took place in the fortunes of her who once beheld a prospect of being its mistress; the Earl of Dunreath’s eldest daughter, as I have often heard from many, was a celebrated beauty, and as good as she was handsome; but a malignant step-mother thwarted her happiness, and forced her to take shelter in the arms of a man who had every thing but fortune to recommend him; but in wanting that, he wanted every thing to please her family.
‘After some years of distress she found means to soften the heart of her father; but here the invidious step-mother again interfered, and prevented her experiencing any good effects from his returning tenderness, and it was rumoured, by a deep and iniquitous scheme, deprived her of her birth-right. Like other rumours, however, it gradually died away, perhaps from Lady Malvina and her husband never hearing of it, and none but them had a right to inquire into its truth; but if such a scheme was really contrived, woe be to its fabricator; the pride and pomp of wealth can neither alleviate or recompence the stings of conscience, much rather,’ continued Mrs. Duncan, laying her hands upon her children’s heads as they sat at her feet, ‘much rather would I have my babes wander from door to door, to beg the dole of charity than live upon the birth-right of the orphan.
‘If Lady Dunreath in reality committed the crime she was accused of, she met, in some degree, a punishment for it. Soon after the Earl’s death she betrayed a partiality for a man every way inferior to her, which partiality, people have not scrupled to say, commenced, and was indulged to a criminal degree during the life-time of her husband. She would have married him had not her daughter, the Marchioness of Rosline, interfered. Proud and ambitious, her rage, at the prospect of such an alliance, knew no bounds, and seconded by the Marquis, whose disposition was congenial to her own, they got the unfortunate mother into their power, and hurried her off to a Convent in France. I know not whether she is yet living; indeed I believe there are few either know or care, she was so much disliked for her haughty disposition. I have sometimes asked my aunt about her, but she would never gratify my curiosity. She has been brought up in the family, and no doubt thinks herself bound to conceal whatever they choose.
‘She lives in ease and plenty, and is absolute mistress of the few domestics that reside at the Abbey; but of those domestics I caution you in time, or they will be apt to fill your head with frightful stories of the Abbey, which sometimes, if one’s spirits are weak, in spite of reason, will make an impression on the mind. They pretend that the Earl of Dunreath’s first wife haunts the Abbey, venting the most piteous moans, which they ascribe to grief for the unfortunate fate of her daughter, and that daughter’s children being deprived of their rightful patrimony.
‘I honestly confess, when at the Abbey a few years ago, during some distresses of my husband’s, I heard strange noises one evening at twilight as I walked in a gallery. I told my aunt of them, and she was quite angry at the involuntary terror I expressed, and said it was nothing but the wind whistling through some adjoining galleries which I heard. But this, my dear Fanny,’ said Mrs. Duncan, who on account of her children had continued the latter part of her discourse, in a low voice, ‘is all between ourselves; for my aunt declared she would never pardon my mentioning my ridiculous fears, or the yet more ridiculous fears of the servants to any human being.’
Amanda listened in silence to Mrs. Duncan’s discourse, fearful that if she spoke she should betray the emotions it excited.
They at last entered between the mountains that enclosed the valley on which the Abbey stood. The scene was solemn and solitary; every prospect, except one of the sea, seen through an aperture in one of the mountains, was excluded. Some of these mountains were bare, craggy, and projecting; others were skirted with trees, robed with vivid green, and crowned with white and yellow furze; some were all a wood of intermingled shades, and others covered with long and purple heath, various streams flowed from them into the valley, some stole gently down their sides in silver rills, giving beauty and vigour wherever they meandered, others tumbled from fragment to fragment with a noise not undelightful to the ear, and formed for themselves a deep bed in the valley, over which trees, that appeared coeval with the building, bent their old and heavy heads.
At the foot, of what to the rest was called a gently swelling hill, lay the remains of the extensive gardens, which had once given the luxuries of the vegetable world to the banquets of the Abbey; but the buildings which had nursed those luxuries were all gone to decay, and the gay plantations were over-run with the progeny of neglect and sloth.
The Abbey was one of the most venerable looking buildings Amanda had ever beheld; but it was in melancholy grandeur she now saw it. In the wane of its days, when its glory was passed away, and the whole pile proclaimed desertion and decay, she saw it, when, to use the beautiful language of Hutchinson, its pride was brought low, when its magnificence was sinking in the dust, when tribulation had taken the seat of hospitality, and solitude reigned, where once the jocund guest had laughed over the sparkling bowl, whilst the owls sung nightly their strains of melancoly to the moon-shine that slept upon its mouldering battlements.
The heart of Amanda was full of the fond idea of her parents, and the sigh of tender remembrance stole from it. ‘How little room,’ thought she, should there be in the human heart for the worldly pride, which so often dilates it, liable as all things are to change, the distress in which the descendants of noble families are so often seen, the decline of such families themselves should check that arrogant presumption with which so many look forward to having their greatness and prosperity perpetuated through every branch of their posterity.
The proud possessors of this Abbey, surrounded with affluence, and living in its full enjoyment, never perhaps admitted the idea as at all probable, that one of their descendants should ever approach the seat of her ancestors without that pomp and elegance which heretofore distinguished its daughters. Alas! one now approaches it neither to display or contemplate the pageantry of wealth; but meek and lowly, not to receive the smile of love, or the embrace of relatives, but afflicted and unknown, glad to find a shelter, and procure the bread of dependance beneath its decaying roof.
Mrs. Duncan happily marked not Amanda’s emotion as she gazed upon the Abbey; she was busily employed in answering her children’s questions, who wanted to know whether she thought they would be able to climb up the great big hills they saw.
The carriage at last stopped before the Abbey. Mrs. Bruce was already at the door to receive them; she was a little smart old woman, and welcomed her niece and the children with an appearance of the greatest pleasure. On Amanda’s being presented to her she gazed stedfastly in her face a few minutes, and then exclaimed, ‘Well, this is very strange, though I know I could never have seen this young Lady before, her face is quite familiar to me.’
The hall into which they entered was large and gloomy, paved with black marble, and supported by pillars, through which the arched doors that led to various apartments were seen, rude implements, such as the Caledonians had formerly used in war and hunting, were ranged along the walls. Mrs. Bruce conducted them into a spacious parlour, terminated by an elegant saloon; this she told them had once been the banquetting-room; the furniture, though faded, was still magnificent, and the windows, though still in the gothic stile, from being enlarged considerably beyond their original dimensions, afforded a most delightful view of the domain.
‘Do you know,’ said Mrs. Duncan, ‘this apartment, though one of the pleasantest in the Abbey in point of situation, always makes me melancholy; the moment I enter it I think of the entertainments once given in it, and then its present vacancy and stillness almost instantly reminds me, that those who partook of these entertainments are now almost all humbled with the dust.’ Her aunt laughed, and said, ‘she was very romantic.’
The solemnity of the Abbey was well calculated to heighten the awe which stole upon the spirit of Amanda from her first view of it; no noise was heard throughout it, except the hoarse creeking of the massy door, as the servants passed from one room to another adjusting Mrs. Duncan’s things, and preparing for dinner. Mrs. Duncan was drawn into a corner of the room by her aunt, to converse, in a low voice, about family affairs, and the children were rambling about the hall, wondering and inquiring about every thing they saw.
Thus left to herself, a soft languor gradually stole over the mind of Amanda, which was almost exhausted from the emotions it had experienced. The murmuring sound of waterfalls, and the buzzing of the flies, that basked in the sunny rays which darted through the casements, lulled her into a kind of pensive tranquillity.
‘Am I really,’ she asked herself, ‘in the seat of my ancestors? Am I really in the habitation where my mother was born, where her irrevocable vows were plighted to my father? I am, and, oh! within it. May I at last find an asylum from the vices and dangers of the world; within it may my sorrowing spirit lose its agitation, and subdue, if not its affections, at least its murmurs, at the disappointment of those affections.’
The appearance of dinner interrupted her. She made exertions to overcome any appearance of dejection, and the conversation, if not lively, was at least cheerful. After dinner Mrs. Duncan, who had been informed by Amanda of her predilection for old buildings, asked her aunt’s permission to shew her the Abbey. Mrs. Bruce imediately arose, and said she would have that pleasure herself. She accordingly led the way; many of the apartments yet displayed the sumptuous taste of those who had furnished them. ‘It is astonishing to me,’ said Mrs. Duncan, ‘that so magnificent a pile as this should be abandoned, as I may say, by its possessors.’
‘The Marquis of Rosline’s Castle is a more modern structure than this,’ said Mrs. Bruce, ‘and prefered by them on that account.’
‘So like the family monument,’ rejoined Mrs. Duncan, ‘they are merely satisfied with permitting this to stand, as it may help to transmit the Marchioness’s name to posterity.’
‘How far does the Marquis live from this?’ asked Amanda.
‘About twelve miles,’ replied Mrs. Bruce, who did not appear pleased with her niece’s conversation, and led the way to a long gallery, ornamented with portraits of the family. This gallery Amanda knew well by description; this was the gallery in which her father had stopped to contemplate the picture of her mother, and her heart throbbed with impatience and anxiety to see that picture.
Mrs. Bruce, as she went before her, told her the names of the different portraits. She suddenly stopped before one; ‘that,’ cried she, ‘is the Marchioness of Rosline’s, drawn for her when Lady Augusta Dunreath.’ Amanda cast her eyes upon it, and perceived in the countenance the same haughtiness as still distinguished the Marchioness. She looked at the next pannel, and found it empty.
‘The picture of Lady Malvina Dunreath hung there,’ said Mrs. Bruce; ‘but after her unfortunate marriage it was taken down.’
‘And destroyed,’ exclaimed Amanda, mournfully.
‘No; but it was thrown into the old Chapel, where, with the rest of the lumber’ (the soul of Amanda was struck at these words) ‘it has been locked up for years.’
‘And is it impossible to see it?’ asked Amanda.
‘Impossible indeed,’ replied Mrs. Bruce; ‘the Chapel, and the whole eastern part of the Abbey, have long been in a ruinous situation, on which account it has been locked up.’
‘This is the gallery,’ whispered Mrs. Duncan, ‘in which I heard the strange noises; but not a word of them to my aunt.’
Amanda could scarcely conceal the disappointment she felt at finding she could not see her mother’s picture. She would have entreated the Chapel might be opened for that purpose, had she not feared exciting suspicions by doing so.
They returned from the gallery to the parlour, and in the course of conversation Amanda heard many interesting anecdotes of her ancestors from Mrs. Bruce. Her mother was also mentioned, and Mrs. Bruce, by dwelling on her worth, made amends, in some degree, to Amanda for having called her picture lumber. She retired to her chamber with her mind at once softened and elevated by hearing of her mother’s virtues. She called upon her, upon her father’s spirit, upon them whose kindred souls were re-united in Heaven, to bless their child, to strengthen, to support her in the thorny path marked out for her to take; nor to cease their tutelary care till she was joined to them by Providence.
[Regina Maria Roche, The Children of the Abbey, A Tale, 4 vols. (London: William Lane, Minerva-Press, 1796), vol. 3, pp. 21829]
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