Contributed by Christina Morin.
Last month Christina Morin gave us her recommendations for the eighteenth-century novel. Here are a few additions to her favourite novels from history:
A couple more suggestions for these long (rainy!) summer days: Regina Maria Roche, The Children of the Abbey (1796): Copies of Roche’s fantastically convoluted Gothic novel are few and far between, but if you have access to a good research library, you’re in luck. Otherwise, a quick trawl on the internet will turn up quite a few late-nineteenth century editions from America – a find in and of itself! Once you have the novel in your hands, I can guarantee that you won’t want to let go of it, as this ‘amazingly durable’ novel – as Ian Campbell Ross has called it – is a fascinating combination of the Gothic and the national/regional more commonly associated with Edgeworth, Sydney Owenson, and Charles Robert Maturin. It focuses on the trials and tribulations of its ethereally beautiful but uncommonly afflicted heroine, Amanda Fitzalan, who bears no small resemblance to Richardson’s Pamela and, like her, spends most of her time defending her virtue and sexual purity. Forced to flee from the un-gentlemanly advances of the villainous Lord Belgrave, Amanda meets and falls in love with the young gentleman, Henry Mortimer, while taking refuge in her childhood home in Wales. Due to Amanda’s necessary disguise, however, Mortimer begins to believe her irreparably tainted, a belief that Amanda must constantly battle against over the course of the novel. She finally vindicates herself after discovering her evil step-grandmother, Lady Dunreath – the woman who had brought about the disinheritance of Amanda’s mother, thereby precipitating her premature death – in the ruins of her ancestral home, Dunreath Abbey. Although long believed dead, Lady Dunreath reveals that she had actually been imprisoned in the abbey in order to prevent her exposure of the base machinations which had brought about the ruin of Amanda’s mother. As luck would have it, however, Lady Dunreath has kept written proof of this past treachery and readily surrenders it to Amanda, who then uses it to reclaim her rightful inheritance, right the wrongs committed against her brother, Oscar (the other ‘child of the abbey’), punish Lord Belgrave, and (finally!) marry Lord Mortimer. A fantastic read!!
Charles Robert Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820): A recognised Gothic masterpiece, Melmoth the Wanderer is a sometimes daunting but extremely rewarding read. Constructed as a kind of literary Russian doll (largely owing to the fact that the novel began as a collection of short stories), Melmoth consists of a series of tales nestled within a frame story set in Maturin’s contemporary Ireland. All of the tales are connected to each other by certain recurring themes, the figure of Melmoth himself, and a plot that consistently repeats itself despite the disparity between individual characters and their distinct geographical and temporal settings. A striking combination of Faustus, the Wandering Jew, and various other mythical/supernatural figures, Melmoth has been doomed to wander the world in search of a victim willing to assume the onus of his long-ago crime – the desire for forbidden knowledge. In each of the tales, Melmoth appears to a character who, through the oppression of institutionalised religion and the plots of his/her apparent friends and family, has become completely and utterly destitute. Melmoth’s ‘unspeakable offer’, however, is so terrible and offensive to each of these characters that, no matter how tempting escape from their desperate situations is, they all finally deny Melmoth’s bargain. As a result, Melmoth reaches the end of his preternatural life having found no one willing to take his place, an event obviously meant to prove the truth of the passage from one of Maturin’s religious sermons on which the novel is ostensibly based (as Maturin indicates in his preface). What actually happens to Melmoth, I’ll leave to you to discover. Suffice it to say, you’ll be at times fascinated, horrified, bewildered, angered, and inspired by this remarkable text, just as countless readers have been since it first appeared.