Castle of Wolfenbach
Folio Press edition: London, 1968
The clock from the old castle had just gone eight when the peaceful inhabitants of a neighbouring cottage, on the skirts of the wood, were about to seek that repose which labour had rendered necessary, and minds blest with innocence and tranquillity assured them the enjoyment of. 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 lightning added horrors to the scene.
So begins Castle of Wolfenbach, on a “dark and stormy night.” Abandoned castles, damsels in distress, kidnappings, murders, lost children, despair—it has everything one could want in an early Gothic romance except the desolate and rugged landscapes favored by later Romantics. Indeed, description is scarce, as Parsons was seemingly more concerned with telling a fast-paced dramatic tale—nay, melodramatic tale—than with her settings. Melodrama certainly reigned supreme, with our heroine and one of her earliest protectors falling pray to their emotions on seemingly near a once-a-page basis. Halfway through this brief novel, I began to feel that a more apt title (for the titular Castle made but a brief appearance) would have been She Fainted (Again). Marketing doubtless determined Castle of Wolfenbach would sell more copies.
Although the plot is almost ridiculous to the point of farcical, I did find it ridiculously fun, even prompting audible laughter at times. Admittedly, this was for the silliness of the prose or the excessive sentiments of the characters rather than any wit in the plot itself. Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe, I’m sure, were more impressed by the danger the innocent Matilda found herself in than I, 21st century reader that I am: I was never in doubt of the outcome.
Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”
“Have you, indeed! How glad I am! — What are they all?”
“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”
“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”
“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them…”
I mention the Misses Morland and Thorpe, creatures of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, because it is only thanks to the Austen work that I discovered the earlier novel. Both Miss Morland and Thorpe are avid readers of the sensational works of the day, and while the Radcliffe remained well-known, it wasn’t until the 20th century that scholars realized a list of seven obscure works, of which Castle of Wolfenbach is one, were actual novels of the era. I only learned this history earlier this year, and knew as soon as the present Classics Circuit Gothic Literature tour was announced I would have to read one of the “Northanger Horrid Novels” as they are now known.
There is plenty for the 21st century reader to critique: the aforementioned excess of fainting, the implausibility of the plot, the moralizing (too much for those extremely allergic to moralizing, but easily ignorable in the context of the story—although I did find it a bit more hammered home at the end), the stereotyped characters—innocent damsels, valiant heroes, dastardly villains. (Only one character, a minor personage who could almost have been omitted from the story, showed any evidence of a rounded character.) My absolute favorite element however was Pasons’ fondness for the semi-colon; I found sentences with as many as five of these joining independent clauses together. Surprisingly, this did nothing to affect the readability of the work. I merely found it an amusing style. (And yes, I was very tempted to string the last three sentences together in imitation.)
Despite any criticisms to be found, it is as I noted an enjoyable (and fast) read. I envision Parsons as perhaps a Dan Brown or Brad Meltzer of her day, the writer of fast-paced suspense thrillers that are a joy to read but forgotten as the years pass. I am curious to read the remainder of the “Northanger Horrids” and will doubtless be returning to them down the road.
Read as part of the October 2011 Gothic Lit Classics Circuit tour. My first! Find other tour participants here.
Castle of Wolfenbach also qualifies as my second R.I.P. read of the season—I’ve successfully completed Peril the Second!