Marchmont (Book Review)

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A new edition printed by Whitlock Publishing

Marchmont is utterly unlike any of the other early gothic novels I have read thus far. Charlotte Smith adopts many of the typical characteristics of the gothic (such as a female protagonist, eerie settings, ruinous castles, ghosts, and unscrupulous villains) but executes each of these elements with a realism unrivalled by her contemporaries and uses them to explore and the social and political problems of 18th century England.

The novel opens on the near idyllic life of Althea Dacres, who lives with her unmarried aunt Mrs. Trevyllian. Together they enjoy a solitary life away from the shallow distractions of high society but when her aunt becomes ill and eventually dies, Althea is sent to live with her father and step-mother and soon encounters many new dangers–the first of which is marriage. When Althea refuses to marry a man she can neither love nor respect, her parents punish her by sending her to live in the old, isolated, and partially ruinous Eastwoodleigh castle. As cliché as this might sound, Smith fleshes out her story with my realistic details and creates an effectively eerie setting.

What makes Eastwoodleigh castle so eerie is not the possibility of it being haunted but its desolate condition and the sequence of events that robbed it of all its comforts. Once the home of a proud and illustrious family, the castle stands as a sad testament to the usurious practices of debt collectors. Falling on hard times, the Marchmont family borrows a considerable amount of money in order to keep their ancestral home in the family but when they are unable to pay back this money they are forced to sell many of their personal belongings, stripping the castle of it finer furnishings and selling all the old-growth trees for wood. Their efforts ultimately come to naught. They are sued by their creditors and hounded by an unscrupulous lawyer called Vampyre, who exploits their ignorance of the law to the benefit of his client and to the ultimate ruin of the Marchmont family. Lord Marchmont takes his own life (a controversial detail Smith subtly alludes to), leaving his wife and three daughters living in poverty while his only son struggles desperately to earn money to support them.

To Althea, Eastwoodleigh castle initially presents itself as refuge, rather than as a punishment, and appeals to her romantic sensibility. She doesn’t mind a simply, solitary life away from society, as long as she has her aunts books and has some company. Even her step-mother tries to scare her into submission by mentioning rumors of the castle being haunted, Althea is hardly perturbed. Yet when she arrives she soon discovers that her new home is not exactly the romantic refuge she had envisioned. Her isolation and the dreary conditions of the castle begin to oppress her spirits and work its devious magic on her imagination. While Smith does employ the explained supernatural occasionally throughout her novel, they are often slight and quickly explained away. At first, these suggestively supernatural scenes seem disappointing but by rationalizing the supernatural Smith pulls the reader back down to earth and reminds them of the real dangers threatening Althea—namely poverty, ignominy, and Vampyre.

Vampyre is not the typical villain of gothic literature. He is a mere attorney, old and half-blind, but he knows how to exploit others to his and his client’s benefit and has few qualms about doing so. In her introduction, Smith mentions that Vampyre is based on an attorney she herself hired to represent her in the long, drawn-out legal battle over her father-in-law’s legacy. From other sources I have read, I understand that this attorney deliberately misinformed her and needlessly prolonged the case in order to change her more for his services. She also points out, in her introduction to Marchmont, that Vampyre is a softened portrait of the actual attorney because his “most hideous features are too offensive to be painted in all their enormity.” (Considering the nefarious deeds Vampyre commits in the novel, I shudder to think of the “offensive features” Smith only alludes to.) Although Vampyre’s many crimes never excel to the gruesome deeds of other gothic villains, Vampyre is fearful nonetheless, not only because he is powerful, but because he knows, as Smith reminds the reader throughout, that the legal system is designed to benefit the few and the affluent at the expense of the poor and vulnerable.

Althea fears Vampyre and his henchman, knowing well that her own situation is very precarious, but she is not afraid defy convention for the sake of what she believes right and true. When Althea discovers that Edmund Marchmont is indeed hiding in Eastwoodleigh castle, she considers the social consequences of her, a young unmarried woman, remaining within the same house as a young, unmarried man but ultimately determines to defy social norms despite the consequences in order to help a friend in need. Having been essentially abandoned by her only family, she reasons that she owes little to the rules of a society that has utterly resigned any responsibility to her well-being and therefore can no longer obligate her to follow its arbitrary rules when they conflict with her altruistic values. Smith imbues her protagonist with a strong, independent mind and, much like Ann Radcliffe, uses the gothic genre to explore how gender norms often disadvantage women socially.

Eighteenth century gothic novels are a mixed bag. Some are masterpieces of suspense and imagination, others are more shock than substance, and many more are poor imitations of more popular works but Marchmont stands out to me for the same reason Emmeline (also by Smith) did. Her characters feel so real and react to the world with a touching honesty. The problems they face reflect those that many people faced at the time when Smith wrote it, that she herself suffered through and never really overcame. It’s hard for me not to sympathize with her them and their plight or to recognize that the world is still haunted by the same ominous specters of vampiric greed that menaced many in the 18th century.

Smith’s works have long been neglected and have only recently received serious critical attention. In fact, when I was first introduced to her work, I was lead to believe that her later works were inferior to her early first novels but after reading Marchmont, her ninth novel, I simply cannot believe it. Marchmont is a well-written gothic romance that addresses the social problems of the 18th century with both great intelligence and wit. It won’t necessarily thrill you with suspenseful terror or shock you with gruesome horror but it will show you an oft forgotten political depth to the gothic that is still be relevant today.

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Marchmont is currently available in an affordable paperback edition (pictured above) from Whitlock Publishing. Although the Whitlock edition does contain a number of typos, they do not interfere with reading, it is a welcome sight to see among the many cheaply produced, over-priced reproductions that proliferate like rabbits on Amazon.

Lusignan, Or The Abbaye of La Trappe (Book Review)

25143464The works of Ann Radcliffe are of an immense importance to me, for reasons too numerous to name here, and it was with great excitement that I received the news that Valacourt books was publishing a new edition of a rare volume–Lusignan, Or The Abbaye of La Trappe. It was published anonymously in 1801 and has been highly praised by Montague Summers, whose opinion on the gothic I have often put much faith in, and in recent years it has been argued that it could even have been written by Radcliffe herself.

To be fair, there is nothing to really connect Radcliffe with Lusignan and since we do not have any evidence to suggest an author, we may never know with any certainty that she didn’t write it. It’s certainly tempting to think that Radcliffe preferred to published anonymously after the reputation of the gothic had fallen and to protect herself from the harsh, political scrutiny her works were beginning to receive. Indeed, Lusignan does bear some resemblance to Radcliffe’s work, in both style and theme, but it’s superficial at best.
The protagonists talk of virtue, retire to convents, and muse about the scenery but these instances are often short and lack depth. Suspense is rarely sustain for longer than a few pages and the eerie effects the authors employs are poorly executed and confusing. Even at her worst, Radcliffe wrote better than this.

What ultimately convinced me that Radcliffe did not write Lusignan was the sexist tone of the narrator. There are several instances in which the narrator makes misogynistic remarks about women characters.

One passage from Lusignan reads,

Emily had been nurtured in the bosom of virtue, which strengthened her mind, and rendered it capable of exertion, but could not subjugate a keen sensibility, too often fatal to female happiness. (pg. 29)

and another,

He found in her a fund of good sense and information very rare in the sex, and which soon induced him to abandon the trifling observations he had been used to detail to every woman he met, and turn the conversation to subjects less general, but infinitely more interesting to a cultivated mind. (pg. 138)

While it was common for Radcliffe to employ misogynist men as antagonists, her narrators never demean women. As I have argued in a previous post, Radcliffe’s works have a definite feminist tone that is expressed both through the characterization of her female protagonists and the dialogue. In fact, the second passage quoted above directly mirrors something Signor Montoni says to Emily St. Aubert, in an attempt to gain control over her property.

I am not in the habit of flattering, and you will, therefore, receive, as sincere, the praise I bestow, when I say, that you possess an understanding superior to that of your sex; and that you have none of those contemptible foibles, that frequently mark the female character—such as avarice and the love of power, which latter makes women delight to contradict and to tease, when they cannot conquer. (pg. 380)

I was very eager to believe that Radcliffe could have written Lusignan but, considering the blatantly sexist tone of the prose, I find it hard to believe that she could have. It’s a dramatic shift in tone, wholly discordant with her previous works. Frankly, I’m surprised that I seem to be the only one to notice this.

I’m not one to quit a book halfway but I found Lusignan to be so unbearable to read I simply had to put it down and remedy my disappointment by instead reading Radcliffe’s second novel, A Sicilian Romance, which proved to be not only of superior quality to Lusignan but a highly inventive and entertaining novel in and of itself. Plus, we know Radcliffe wrote it.

An Ordinary Terror and the Cost of Curiosity

Superstition becomes, of its own source,
a conviction of the greatest import,
impelling us to forbearance and caution
but, with little reason to restrain the extent of its effects,
it fully prohibits those inclinations so necessary
for the fulfillment of a happy life.
The world and its many tragedies,
portrayed with even greater intensity by the all-pervading media,
justified my seclusion, and was only further reinforced
by my lack of means,
by which entertainment is so commonly sought.
As dearly as I have desired to remove myself
to the world without these walls,
to enjoy its pleasures and see its wonders,
anxiety disinclined me from idly neglecting my fears.
They held onto me as surely as gravity maintains the planets
in their orbit
but they, like these fears, are not eternal
and only seem, by those unseen forces kept,
preserved in their usual course for all futurity.

Alas, for all the world is in decay
and the sun burns more brightly every day.

Time leaves its inevitable mark upon the languorous mind,
extending and contracting itself to the inconvenience of the
suffering kind,
and compels to frenzied activity the spirit of foolish spontaneity,
such that one gladly undertakes ventures one would have once
declined.

Into the world I ventured fast, never fretting
what course I was setting,
and found myself, without wit
to guide me safely through it.
Not before long, as the sun’s dissipating light
dispelled and obscured my sight,
I came to a wood surrounded clearing
well without any person’s hearing
and stood awhile in silence, gazing ’round with awe
at everything I saw.

Then, as I looked at the scenery around
I heard a most disquieting sound,
like the rapturous gnawing of some beast
upon its victim feast.
From where I stood
among the many trees of the wood
I could not determine with certainty
the location of this entity
and remained for a while petrified;
yet, just as the sound feverishly intensified,
it then came to an ominous, abrupt end,
and I then saw that which such sounds portend—
bearing its teeth, colored with crimson,
the wolf revealed its maw most fearsome!

Quickly, I ran off into the wood, hoping to lose the wolf
amongst the labyrinth of trees,
but alas!, as I soon realized, it followed without faltering,
guided perhaps by those acute senses,
well-attuned by their nature,
to hunt their prey unto their victim’s unfortunate fate.
In a mere moment’s time I saw a crevice dug into the ground,
and hid myself below the rim, hoping that I had done so in time
to secure myself from its detection.

Dreading that the wolf might venture nearer to my hiding place,
I pushed my body more tightly into the crevice
and away from the outer rim.
It drew nearer yet did not seem to suspect my presence there,
for it neither growled menacingly nor discovered me,
and eventually, though not swiftly, departed from that spot
to the surrounding woods.
When all was quiet and I recovered my senses,
I warily raised my head just slightly above the rim
to determine its whereabouts
but whatever way I looked there appeared no frightful beast
to excite my fears,
so I left that place, fleeing back in the direction of my home,
and never again dared to venture out
on the whim of some desperate curiosity.

The Counsel of Despair

It’s easy enough to be alive, for it takes little effort on my part
to pump the bellows full of air and keep Life’s fire alight,
but whatever purpose this process might ultimately serve
is, as far as I know, impossible to justify.
In moments of despair all the world does seem to shrink,
any power over my life feels
as though it has been robbed from me,
and I no longer feel the pull of meaningful pursuits.

The world beyond these walls does not interest me,
for I see nothing in it but an agonizing enterprise.
As I move towards the object of my interest
my movements become slow,
as though the air were as thick as water,
and the terrible monster,
whose voracious appetite compels it to pursue me,
comes ever nearer
yet neither succeeds nor abates.
It is impossible for me to stop and give up to the powers that be,
for there is nothing there but death and decay,
yet I am not entirely unaware that my path
has become stereotyped;
like all nightmares the fiercest monster
is merely monotony.

The dogma of doubt dictates uncertain regulations
while despair certifies the uselessness of action
and negates the significance of life.
In fits of rage I shrug off the outside world
and defy the promises it offers,
denying the notion of ever being well again.
It’s hard enough to move when both desire and necessity
fail to motivate me, yet for every reason I have to live
I have an equally compelling reason to die.
I stand before the altar of Life, prepared to revive my resolve
through its resources,
but just as I place my offering bowl on the counter top
my limbs cease to obey my will.
I stand like a statue with a death-like paralysis,
unable to perform even the most basic task of feeding myself.

The very mechanisms of my defense monopolize my actions,
culling conscious control in favor of fear and dread
of things that may or may not come to be.
In compulsive fretting I feel “It” constricting,
pulling me inward towards myself
and away from the dangerous world
but within me there are only self-inflicting wounds,
familiarly striped and applied with feverish vigor.

In life I fear that which I have often seen in my sleep—
the expedient decay of my body.
Teeth rot and fall out; baldness spreads swiftly and inextricably
across my scalp;
and, with terror and morbid curiosity,
I open up my abdominal cavity
as though the skin were as soft as clay,
and watch my vital organs slip out.
There must be more to this entity, my intuition says,
than mere organismic order and instinctual instruction—
but as in dreams, so too in life,
I fearfully find nothing but flesh and bone.

Without our sacred values we crumble to our knees:
Eating is reduced to a mere routine
to stave off the ache of hunger,
beauty becomes a vacant facade to hide the structures of decay,
and life itself, despite all the good it purportedly entails,
becomes a purposeless passing from one day to the next.

The Assessor of Ma’at

Days come and go like the mortals who like to count them,
seemingly devoid of meaning and yet so potentially full of it.
Twenty years, a quarter of what we expect we have,
have passed …
but I fear the rapid beating of my heart
that fills me with the dread
of a sickness which lessens my own expectation
to an average of forty.

Specialists agree that there are no irregularities in my heart
but once it was suspected
I can’t entirely, nor easily, forget the possibility…

Last night I fearfully awaited the arrival of a Jackal-headed man,
entrusted with the task of taking me away to die,
but at the door—with a singularly unnerving knock! —
there stood a messenger of his office in his stead,
assigned to the task of informing his clients
of the Jackal’s whereabouts
and the likely time of his eventual arrival.

“He’s well on his way,” the messenger said
and quickly departed without delay.
He could not tell me any more than this
and left the time of his master’s visit, as it always was
and always will be, uncertain but certain.

We work hard to save time and spend what little of it we have
yet when we have too much of it on our hands we kill it.
I would like the promise of a long and happy life,
free from the consequences I fear,
but it is in lacking this that makes me afraid …
afraid of my own heartbeat.

The Skeptic’s Faith

Behold the door which has, for a thousand years,
been neglected
and the tomb beyond in which its inhabitants
have been protected;

hearken well, for naught but silence
disturbs this forgotten cell
and take heed of the warning
their esoteric names foretell.

Upon the face of each sarcophagus appears
a once honored name;
each in their own time and in their own way
had earn their acclaim

but all such honors, however significant,
fade into infinite obscurity
as easily as their mortal harbingers
bring them into notoriety.

The gorgon Medusa, who mortifies the body
with a stare,
animates life and annihilates it too
with the selfsame snare,

for it is fear that excites volition
in the performance of every task
and fear that freezes the enlivened face
into Death’s frightful mask.

Even now the cracks in the walls of the vault
begin to spread
and threaten what little glory is left
to the dejected dead

yet even merciless Time,
which neglects and forgets all things,
cannot negate a moment of happiness
and the peace it brings.

Doppelgänger

The room in which I found myself was of concrete,
with a single window and a single door.
From the window I could see the land stretch out indefinitely
before and far below me,
for the room was one of many within an extensive structure.
Like the building, the land was gray like concrete
and just as cold;
anything that had once grow there
had long since been rejected by the soil
and now stood lifeless, ragged, and decrepit
or lulled unmoved by winds upon the ground.

By the door stood a figure of curious configuration.
The light behind it obscured all
but a foreboding silhouette against the aperture.
At intermittent intervals it shook its entire frame,
much like a bird does when bathing,
but as I approached it to see what this being was
(and to inquire what cause had brought it here)
I saw it for what it was.
It had not feathers but rotten, diseased flesh!
It shook again, causing its skin to slide across its skeleton,
appearing as though it had intentions of removing its skin!

Then, lo!, it ceased in mid seizure and,
with one frail and decrepit arm outstretched,
pointed to a door lit by some unseen source.
The door was broken and charred by fire,
beyond which was nothing more than a closet
with a rod spanning its width …
but hanging there like suits were human skins,
fragile and wore away to threads over many years of neglect.
They hung there like testaments to some cruel
and morbid fashion.

As I examined these decaying suits
a sudden realization came to my mind;
my flesh, too, was rotten and riddled with sickly sores.
Our bodies were, actually, mirrored in the other
and as I came closer to it, it moved to mimic me
in exact unison to my steps.
When we met we sought to destroy the other
but being so much alike we broke our own bones
when we broke the other;
when I thrust its skull against the wall
my skull shattered
and when its boney fingers punctured my skin
I did the same to it.

There was no pain but I felt everything incurred
upon our bodies,
altogether and all at once.
No difference could therefore be made between us
and I—I felt and noticed everything!