The Two Emilys by Sophia Lee

I must confess that, while I love the idea of early gothic novels, and while I have collected some intriguing titles, they are something I very rarely pick up to read.

I love the idea, but I need a little push to make me read. The Gothic Literature Classics Circuit Tour was just the push I needed.

I pulled out a lovely Valancourt Books edition of The Two Emilys by Sophia Lee.

A novel that was a huge success in 1798. An author described as ‘the mother of the gothic novel’ by Ann Radcliffe. And yet a book that was out of print for nearly two centuries.

Of course I was curious.

The story begins with Sir Edward Arden. A proud man, but a man with a good heart who would always do his duty. And so, when he was called to do his duty at the battle of Culloden, he set out to make provision for this two children: a son and a daughter.

It was with great reluctance that he took them to court, and left them in the care of his sister, Lady Lettingham. He knew that his sister would do her best for the children, but he also knew that she had been corrupted by the dubious values of the court.

Sure enough his children grew up to be beautiful, charming, and dissolute.

But both made good marriages, and to the son was born a daughter and to the daughter was born a son.

And so two of the three principals – the beautiful and virtuous Emily Arden, and the handsome and dashing Edward of Lennox – were on the stage.

All four parents hoped that the two would make a match, but of course it wasn’t going to be that simple.

Not in a gothic novel! Not after a mere ten pages! The story had moved swiftly and it wasn’t going to stop for anything!

Emily Arden was an heiress, expected to inherit a fortune from her grandmother. But her grandmother had a ward, Emily Fitzallen, and she was plotting to capture both the fortune and the marquis.

The third principal was on the stage!

From now on I shall refer to Good Emily and Evil Emily. That is how their creator portrays them, Emily Arden fair and simpering and Emily Fitzallen dark and glowering, and it does make things rather easier to follow.

When her grandmother dies Good Emily inherits her fortune and Evil Emily swears that she will have her revenge. And her Marquis.

All manner of events unfold.

The action moves from Ireland, to Scotland, to France, to Italy …

Almost everything you might think of happening in a gothic novel does happen.

Secret marriage! Bigamy! Dark castles! Imprisonment! Duels! Blackmail! Death!

It’s ridiculously improbable and desperately exciting!

But it was also hard work.

The pace was break-neck, and there was so little characterisation, so few descriptions, nothing but plot, plot, plot.

And the less that subtle moral overtones left little doubt as to how things would work out in the end,

The prose style was lovely, the drama was fantastic, but I felt the same way I did when somebody tells me an involved story about friends of theirs that I really don’t know.

I wanted to understand. I wanted to become involved. I couldn’t.

But I can understand The Two Emilys success, and I can see that it may well have influenced later writers.

And it makes me appreciate the way a latter generation of writers took the gothic novel forward all the more,

8 responses

  1. Interesting. I’d never heard of The Two Emilys until I read your review. I doubt I would want to pick this one up, but your review provides a nice background ….something for us to know. 😀

  2. I’ve read a few early gothic novels but haven’t come across this one. I’m not sure if I would want to read it but it does sound intriguing. Like you, I love the idea of these books but don’t often feel like actually reading them!

  3. I’ve never heard of this book but it sounds great! “Secret marriage! Bigamy! Dark castles! Imprisonment! Duels! Blackmail! Death!” – Brilliant!

    Having said that, I think, like you, I like the idea of reading these sorts of books more than the reality. Not sure I’ll get round to reading this one but thanks for the review 🙂

  4. This sounds like a fabulous read, and why haven’t I heard of The Two Emilys before? LOL. I would love to get my hands on this soon, just to see why Anne Radcliffe called Sophia Lee the mother of Gothic lit. Quite a title.

  5. This one sounds good despite the lack of character development. I like the “Good Emily”, “Evil Emily” concept, but even more interesting is knowing that you are reading something that was popular 200+ years ago!

  6. I’ve never heard of this one! It does sound like everything I expect in a Gothic novel (down to lack of characterization and/or anything else besides plot). I may have to look for this one, as a future early Gothic read. (Stopping by thanks to Classics Circuit.)

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