RogerBW's Blog

The Old English Baron, Clara Reeve 14 January 2019

1778 gothic horror, and another prototype for the gothic novel. (Also published in 1777 in a very limited edition as The Champion of Virtue.) Some time in the 1430s, Sir Philip Harclay returns from the wars to find his old friend mysteriously dead, and the friend's castle with a new lord. But there is a Suspiciously Superior Peasant being raised in the household…

This book is in some respects more interesting for its introduction, one of the few pieces of criticism of The Castle of Otranto not written from personal malice, than for the story itself. Reeve felt that the supernatural elements of Otranto were its weak side, on the basis that they were overdone and lacked credibility… but she was fine with the characters weeping and fainting all over the place.

So for her own gothic novel she ditched the giant helmet falling from the sky and the statue with a nosebleed, and stuck with the "admirably drawn and supported" characters and the "polished and elegant diction"; yes, there is a ghost here, but it's very restrained and mostly appears in dreams; and the most blatantly supernatural thing is all the castle doors bursting open when the rightful heir enters (though he's been there many times before without this happening). So while one can, or at least I can, still read and enjoy Otranto today because of its excesses and sense of vim, there's very little of that fun to be had here.

The core of the problem with what's left is that we're meant to care about that Suspiciously Superior Peasant, who (no surprise at all) turns out to be the heir of the murdered lord, lost in infancy. But it's hard to care about him when his entire dialogue consists of things like

"Oh, what a glorious character!" said Edmund; "how my heart throbs with wishes to imitate such a man! Oh, that I might resemble him, though at ever so great a distance!"

or indeed

"I never loved any woman but her; and, if I am so unfortunate as to be refused her, I will not marry at all. Oh, my Lord, reject not my honest suit! Your alliance will give me consequence with myself, it will excite me to act worthy of the station to which I am exalted; if you refuse me, I shall seem an abject wretch, disdained by those whom my heart claims relation to; your family are the whole world to me. Give me your lovely daughter! give me also your son, my beloved William; and let me share with them the fortune Providence bestows upon me. But what is title or fortune, if I am deprived of the society of those I love?"

(Only woman you've ever loved? She's one of three named women in the entire book, the second is your dead mother, and the last is your peasant foster-mother!)

He also weeps a lot. But in spite of that, everyone who isn't an out-and-out villain ends up liking him. There's a duel, but Reeve spends more time talking about the permitted retinue of each combatant than about the fight; there are long discussions about exactly how things are to be set right, with who given whose estates, and who is to be on the commission that decides it all.

Really, the only notable thing about the book is that it's sticking to the claim of being a translation of older material. This allows Reeve to skip four years on the basis that they'd be too boring, simply with the claim that the original is damaged.

From this place the characters in the manuscript are effaced by time and damp. Here and there some sentences are legible, but not sufficient to pursue the thread of the story. Mention is made of several actions in which the young men were engaged—that Edmund distinguished himself by intrepidity in action; by gentleness, humanity and modesty in the cessations—that he attracted the notice of every person of observation, and also that he received personal commendation from the Regent.

So that's enough of that. There's none of the engagement here that I found in Otranto, none of the grotesque excess that allowed for some camp enjoyment; this is drearily moral, and moralising, and unless you're specifically trying to trace the history of the gothic you're probably better off without it.

Freely available from Project Gutenberg.

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