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,