"The evening was cold and tempestuous, the rain poured in torrents, and the distant thunders rolled with tremendous noise round the adjacent mountains, whilst the pale lightening added horrors to the scene."
That is how Eliza Parsons sets the scene early in her 1793 novel Castle of Wolfenbach.
We are then introduced to the main character, Matilda Weimar, who, in true Gothic heroine form, spends much of the novel like this:
I'm only about a third of the way through the book, but it's a rather fast read. Since the last Gothic romance I read was The Castle of Otranto (the book by Horace Walpole which is widely considered to be the first Gothic novel), Castle of Wolfenbach has been a pleasant change. Not that there's anything wrong with Horace Walpole, but frankly I find him a little stuffy compared to some of the later authors like Eliza.
Anyway, like many other early Gothic novels, Castle of Wolfenbach was wildly popular in its day. The atmospheric Gothic mysteries were the romance novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Everyone was reading them, though many refused to admit it. The great authors of the day looked down their noses at authors like Eliza Parsons, all the while wishing that their own books sold as well. The public came out in droves to snatch up the latest "horrid novel" and the booksellers just rode the wave and prayed that the authors kept writing.
Sisters read them aloud to each other in hushed tones, stifling their giggles for fear that their mother might reprimand them for reading such sensational literature. Imagine how shocked they would have been to know that their mother was reading them herself! Though it was a genre dominated by women (both in terms of authors and audience) apparently there were also some men who were devoted readers. I can picture some proper English gentleman stuffing his well-worn copy of The Midnight Bell at the back of his bookshelf so that his wife won't know that he's reading the very "trash" that he teases her for enjoying.
To be fair, the eighteenth-century critics had a point. Eliza Parsons is no Jane Austen. There is very little in the way of witty dialogue or social commentary, and calling her characters two-dimensional is generous; personally, I am hard pressed to find a second dimension to any of the main characters. There are some superficial similarities between Eliza's novels and the later works of the Bronte sisters, but she doesn't have their skill and her novels lack the depth and incredible beauty of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.
HOWEVER, despite occasionally snorting at the most ridiculous bits, I can understand why people loved these books. By the time I got to the part where (SPOILERS!!!) the Marchioness is relating the tale of her tragic sister's forced marriage to the odious Count Wolfenbach and Matilda is swooning in the arms of her beloved at the news that her lecherous pseudo-uncle has pursued her to Paris, I was well and truly hooked. Never mind that Matilda is disgustingly flawless and the only character with any depth at all is the lecherous pseudo-uncle; I want to know what happened to the Countess who was abducted from her secret room in the middle of the night!
I am a little disappointed that more of the book doesn't take place at the castle for which the novel is named, but Matilda's adventures in Paris have been fun too, and I am enjoying the English Eliza's portrayal of her French and German characters.
Anyway, I'm off to read. I want to know what happens next, and I may hunt down some Curious News From The Nineteenth Century.
-For those who are curious, the first painting in this post is Camelot by Gustave Dore, and the second is Princess Tarakanova by Konstantin Flavitsky.