Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic
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Books don't beget other books. One of the things that bothers me about literary analysis of modern (1970 to present) romance novels is that it tends to assume that one novel gives rise to another without human intervention.
In her own preface to The Old English Baron, Clara Reeve clearly states that she wrote it because she wanted a story that fulfilled the promise Horace Walpole had made with The Castle of Otranto.
This Story is the literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto, written upon the same plan, with a design to unite the most attractive and interesting circumstances of the ancient Romance and modern Novel . . .
Reeve, Clara. The Old English Baron: a Gothic Story (p. 1). Kindle Edition.
In the course of my observations upon this singular book, it seemed to me that it was possible to compose a work upon the same plan, wherein these defects might be avoided; and the keeping, as in painting, might be preserved.
Reeve, Clara. The Old English Baron: a Gothic Story (p. 3). Kindle Edition.
Instead of the silliness of the giant helmet and other absurdities in Walpole, Reeve concocted a story in which the ghosts are real and believable and neither explained away nor dismissed. This is the true evolution of both the gothic romance and the modern (ca. 1970 to present) romance novel: that one writer writes, and a reader reads to become another writer who synthesizes and develops.
Published in 1777, The Old English Baron is a bit awkward for the 21st century reader. The prose is stilted; even the punctuation is sufficiently different from our own to cause mild disorientation. The characters are emotional beyond even melodramatic standards, and the plot affords little in the way of suspense or surprises.
The story is set in the early 15th century. Sir Philip Harclay returns to England from the continental wars and sets out to visit a friend, Lord Lovel. Lovel has died, and his heir Water has sold the estate to a brother in law, Lord Fitz-Owen. Fitz-Owen has three sons and a daughter, as well as a couple of nephews as foster sons, and another sort of adopted son in the person of Edmund Twyford, son of a peasant family on the estate.
Edmund is beloved by the Fitz-Owen clan, until he proves to be better at just about everything than they are. Machinations fail to dislodge him from the affections of the middle brother William, who is Edmund's devoted friend. But the family takes a bit of an insult when military bravery leads to the almost-knighting of Edmund: protests are lodged that he dare not be knighted for he is only a peasant by birth.
Rather than be humiliated by this turn of events, the saintly Edmund accepts his fate, but that's not enough for those who now despise him. He is set to the ordeal of spending three nights in the long-abandoned wing of Castle Lovel, where of course he is visited by the ghosts.
Ultimately this leads to Edmund learning more of his true background -- which is no surprise to modern readers but was probably highly entertaining 240 years ago -- and then being exiled from Castle Lovel. He takes refuge with Sir Philip Harclay, who then embarks on a mission of revenge and restitution. There are more ghostly happenings, Edmund is restored to the good graces and affection of Lord Fitz-Owen, the malefactor is punished, true love rules the day, and they all lived happily ever after (which was not how The Castle of Otranto ended).
As a story, it's not all that entertaining to the 21st century reader, but as a literary artifact, it was highly informative. All through the reading, I kept applying Christopher Vogler's story analysis. Sure enough, all the elements were there, from the Ordinary World to the Mentor and Shapeshifter and the Inmost Cave and Returning with the Elixir. More than two centuries before Vogler defined his mythic structure, Clara Reeve was already using it.
Pamela Regis references Reeve in The Natural History of the Romance Novel, which is the main reason why I read it. I haven't yet found a convenient edition of the other work by Reeve that I want, her 1785 foray into literary criticism The Progress of Romance. There is a PDF available online, but not downloadable. At least I haven't figure it out yet. But I will. One way or another, I will.
I can't really say I recommend The Old English Baron except as one of the (many) foundational texts for the modern romance novel. The writing takes some getting used to, but the story was at least decent, which is actually a lot more than can be said for some of the dreck being published today!