Speaking of books. I read an old one of Aunt Ruth’s the other day–The Children of the Abbey. The heroine fainted in every chapter and cried quarts if any one looked at her. But as for the trials and persecutions she underwent, in spite of her delicate frame, their name was Legion and no fair maiden of these degenerate days could survive half of them–not even the newest of new women. I laughed over the book until I amazed Aunt Ruth, who thought it a very sad volume. It is the only novel in Aunt Ruth’s house. One of her beaux gave it to her when she was young. It seems impossible to think that Aunt Ruth ever had beaux. Uncle Dutton seems an unreality, and even his picture on the crepe-draped easel in the parlour cannot convince me of his existence.
-Emily Starr. From the chapter entitled “Driftwood” in Emily Climbs by L.M. Montgomery
Now, Emily Starr is a wonderful heroine and I just hate to disagree with her, but on this occasion I have to, because The Children of the Abbey is one of my favourite books of all time. If you like eighteenth-century fiction, this book has everything. Seductions, abductions, unrequited love, balls, masquerades, ruined castles and ancient abbeys, nuns and convents, storms, graves, missing wills, written confessions, tea and hot buttered muffins – this story has it all. Regina Maria Roche takes all of these disparate ingredients and blends them into five volumes of page-turning narrative*. The novel is also a roman à tiroir – at several points in the narrative the action stops to give a minor character the chance to tell their story, whether in person or in writing. Some of these stories are crucial to the main plot, others add in sub-plots which are resolved, usually with the help of extraordinary coincidences, in the final volume.
The Abbey of the title is Dunreath Abbey, a venerable Scottish pile, to which siblings Oscar and Amanda Fitzalan should be the heirs. However, their mother, Lady Malvina, became estranged from their grandfather when she married without his permission. When Malvina returned to the Abbey to try to make peace with her father, her stepmother ordered her turned away – although not without a pang of conscience:
Lady Dunreath, in the meantime, suffered torture; after she had seen Malvina turned from the abbey, she returned to her apartment; it was furnished with the most luxurious elegance, yet she could not rest within it. Conscience already told her, if Malvina died, she must consider herself her murderer: her pale and woe-worn image seemed still before her: a cold terror oppressed her heart, which the terrors of the night augmented. The tempest shook the battlements of the abbey; and the wind howled through the galleries, like the moan of some wandering spirit of the pile, bewailing the fate of one of its fairest daughters.
Towards the end of his life Malvina’s father relents towards her, but her stepmother hides the will so that her own daughter will inherit. Malvina dies in childbirth, leaving her husband to bring up Oscar and Amanda. With only a soldier’s pay to support the family, it isn’t easy, and matters are not improved when Amanda grows up into a beauty and promptly attracts the unwelcome attention of the local Lovelace, Colonel Belgrave. Belgrave will pursue Amanda from rags to riches throughout five volumes and across the length and breadth of the British Isles. Being Oscar’s commanding officer (unfortunately) he manages to wreck his romantic and financial prospects as well.
The Children of the Abbey was published at the height of the fashion for Gothic novels, so well satirised by Jane Austen in her own Northanger Abbey. We know she read this one as she references it twice – once as a favourite of Emma Woodhouse’s friend Harriet (Harriet wants her farmer suitor to read it – good luck with that, Harriet) and once through the name of Charles Bingley, which both she and Roche give to characters. Roche’s Sir Charles Bingley is a good sort, an honourable man who pays court to Amanda but cannot distract her from her first choice, Lord Mortimer. Austen’s choice of the same name for Jane Bennet’s suitor would have been a signal to her readers that here was the same kind of man, someone who was not capable of winning the heroine but was thoroughly deserving of happiness. In the same way, Roche’s choice of ‘Mortimer’ for her hero’s title would have reminded readers of the untitled Mortimer Delvile, hero of Frances Burney’s 1780s bestseller Cecilia.
The Gothic elements in The Children of the Abbey are all present and correct – wherever Amanda goes she finds herself among ruined castles, monastic buildings and windows and doors ‘in the Gothic stile.’ However, unlike Mrs Radcliffe, Roche chose to set her novel in the present day and in the British Isles – Amanda’s travels take her from England to Wales, Ireland and Scotland. This means that the descriptions of landscape are not necessarily based on imagination and travel literature, as Mrs Radcliffe’s Italian and French settings were. Amanda, like Jane Austen’s Marianne Dashwood and most heroines of the 1790s, loves to observe nature and the changing seasons. The novel opens in North Wales, which Roche describes as lyrically as Radcliffe does Provence:
The lawn gently sloped to a winding stream, so clear as perfectly to reflect the beautiful scenery of heaven, now glowing with the gold and purple of the setting sun; from the opposite bank of the stream rose a stupendous mountain, diversified with little verdant hills and dales, and skirted with a wild shrubbery, the blossoms of which perfumed the air with the most balmy fragrance. Lord Mortimer prevailed upon Amanda to sit down upon a rustic bench, beneath the spreading branches of an oak, enwreathed with ivy; here they had not sat long ere the silence which reigned around was suddenly interrupted by strains, at once low, solemn and melodious, that seemed to creep along the water, till they had reached the place where they sat; and then, as if a Naiad of the stream had left her rushy couch to do them homage, they swelled by degrees into full melody, which the mountain echoes alternately revived and heightened. It appeared like enchantment to Amanda, and her eyes, turned to lord Mortimer, seemed to say it was to his magic it was owing.
By coincidence, I found my copy of The Children of the Abbey in an antique shop on the Lleyn Peninsula about twenty years ago. Rural North Wales is so unspoilt that I felt I was seeing the very same tree-hung lanes and Gothic churches Roche describes. When the story moves to an Irish castle, the scenery becomes more rugged, but Amanda never loses her appreciation of it:
…They arrived when the sober grey of twilight had clad every object. Amanda viewed the dark and stupendous edifice, the gloom of which was now heightened by the shadows of evening, with venerable awe; the solitude, the silence, which reigned around, the melancholy murmur of the waves, as they dashed against the rocks, all heightened the sadness of her mind; yet it was not quite an unpleasing sadness, for with it was mingled a degree of that enthusiasm, which plaintive and romantic spirits are so peculiarly subject to feel in viewing the venerable grandeur of an ancient fabric renowned in history. As she entered a spacious hall, curiously wainscoted with oak, ornamented with coats of arms, spears, lances, and old armour, she could not avoid casting a retrospective eye to former times, when perhaps in this very hall, bards sung the exploits of those heroes, whose useless arms now hung upon the walls; and she wished, in the romance of the moment, some grey bard near her, to tell the deeds of other times, of kings renowned in our land, and chiefs we behold no more.
Amanda’s aesthetic sense is one aspect of the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility, which celebrated the ability to feel emotion and display it through tears or swoons. This does not apply solely to the female characters: Amanda’s brother Oscar frequently sheds tears and Lord Mortimer himself faints at one point:
The dreadful explanation lord Mortimer now found himself under a necessity of giving; the shame of acknowledging he was so deceived; the agony he suffered from that deception, joined to the excessive agitation and fatigue he had suffered the preceding night, and the present day, so powerfully assailed him at this moment, that his senses suddenly gave way, and he actually fainted on the floor.
To contemporary readers, Amanda’s tendency to faint and cry was evidence of a noble soul; to readers like Emily Starr, picking up the book in the early 1900s, it marked her as a woman of a bygone era. Emily’s reference to the New Woman is significant. Despite Amanda’s courageous exploration of reputedly-haunted Gothic ruins and ability to earn her own living if necessary, her physical frailty, dependence on male protection and willingness to sacrifice herself for others make her exactly the ultra-feminine stereotype which not just New Women but all women had to abandon at the turn of the twentieth century in order to win political rights.
The Children of the Abbey was reprinted throughout the nineteenth century because even after its context and setting became dated, it had a lot to offer readers of popular fiction. Sheltered Victorian girls must have loved to imagine what they would do if they were Amanda, cast adrift, friendless and penniless, wandering the streets of London as the evening shades draw in. Others who, like Amanda, had known adversity, could be comforted by the idea that their troubles, like hers, would be resolved by the triumph of virtue and a fortunate twist of fate. By the end of the novel, the wicked are punished, the good are rewarded, the repentant are forgiven and several separated couples, young and old, are reunited to live happily ever after. It’s a rich and satisfying book to read.
Unfortunately, unlike its more famous predecessor, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Children of the Abbey went out of print in the twentieth century. With luck one day it will take its rightful place as a classic of popular fiction; until then it is available online in various electronic versions here.
* My edition of the book was published by James Duffy of 11, Anglesea Street, Dublin, in 1837. The title page describes it as, “FIVE VOLUMES COMPLETE IN ONE. TWELFTH EDITION.” It’s a small book (32mo or 5.5 x 3.5 inches) with small print, typical of the less expensive complete editions which would follow the initial publication of a novel in separate volumes. The first four volumes each have 144 pages, pagination beginning anew with each volume. The final volume concludes the story in 62 pages, followed by a novella (The Cavern; or, The Two Sisters, translated from the French of Madame Backker) and two short stories (The Shrubbery: A Moral Tale, by T. Potter and Matilda and Henry: A Tale of Pity, uncredited). This additional material brings the fifth volume up to 144 pages. The Children of the Abbey was originally published in 1796 in four volumes; I have not yet had the opportunity to compare my edition to an earlier one to see how the volume breaks differ. Volume breaks were carefully considered by authors who would be aware that the majority of their readers would borrow each volume one at a time from a circulating library and would therefore aim to end on a note of suspense. For example, the first volume of Mansfield Park ends with Julia Bertram’s panicked announcement that her father has unexpectedly returned from his voyage. Altering volume divisions therefore affects authorial intention in the same way that altering chapter breaks would, although it does not affect the reader’s experience as much when all the volumes can be read one after the other.
FTC Required Disclosure: I bought my own copy of The Children of the Abbey.