Mandeville and the Gothic Mode

Posted by Richard Gough Thomas on September 30, 2014 in Richard Gough Thomas tagged with , , ,

I often claim Mandeville, A Tale of the Seventeenth Century (1817) as Godwin’s most gothic novel. The author’s fourth major novel, Mandeville was a return to fiction after more than a decade of biographies and writing for children. Inspiration came from a number of places: in the preface Godwin cites Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798) and Joanna Baillie’s play, De Monfort (1798) as formative influences, but the novel’s setting was probably a result of the author’s immersion in Civil War-era culture during the writing of Lives of Edward and John Philips, Nephews and Pupils of Milton (1815). Mandeville is a novel about societal trauma. The protagonist is an orphan of the Irish rebellion of 1641 and raised as a staunch Presbyterian by his late parents’ chaplain, the fire-and-brimstone Hilkiah Bradford. The world of Cromwell’s Interregnum is a haunted one; every family has a father or brother or son that died a hero in the wars, and that hero casts a shadow over the next generation.

The gothic atmosphere of Mandeville is intense. The protagonist’s only living relatives are his uncle (a broken man who has never recovered from the death of his first love) and his sister (who is raised elsewhere, and brings a shining light into Charles’ life whenever she visits). The family home is a bleak and foreboding place:

…the foundation of which was a rock, against which the waves of the sea for ever beat, and by their incessant and ineffectual rage were worked into a foam, that widely spread itself in every direction. The sound of the dashing waters was eternal, and seemed calculated to inspire sobriety, and almost gloom, into the soul of every one who dwelt within the reach of its influence. (p.48)

By contrast, his sister is brought up at Beaulieu Abbey, home to the (historical) Mandeville family. The contrast is clear.

By contrast, his sister is brought up at Beaulieu Abbey, home to the (historical) Mandeville family. The contrast is clear.

Silent as a tomb, Mandeville House has inherited uncle Audley’s character. Charles is brought up on stories of Protestant martyrdom and imbibes heavily from the culture of death that surrounds him.

I saw, I say, in my dreams, whether by night or by day, a perpetual succession of flight, and pursuit, and anguish, and murder. I saw the agonising and deploring countenances of Protestants, and the brutal and infuriated features of the triumphant Papist. I recollected distinctly the expiring bodies I had beheld along the road-side in my flight, some perishing with hunger and cold, and some writhing under the mortal wounds and tortures that had been inflicted by their pursuers. All this of course came mixed up, to my recollection, with incidents that I had never seen… (p.114)

The protagonist’s social ties place him amongst the Protestant Royalists, a faction under constant pressure to prove its loyalty to the exiled king because of its unwillingness to embrace the more Catholic culture of his court. A series of frustrations in this area encourage Charles’ already burgeoning misanthropy. The emergence of a rival, Clifford, who seems to be everything Charles is not, tests him further. The novel recounts the protagonist’s downward spiral in Godwin’s familiar style – the protagonist tells his own story with hindsight and in a self-consciously literary style. The text makes extensive use of Biblical and literary quotation (primarily Milton’s Comus) from period sources, Godwin making a number of historical allusions in the text that point towards a particular date of ‘composition’ (that is, when the protagonist supposedly authored the manuscript). Particularly remarkable about Mandeville in the context of Godwin’s other novels, however, is the protagonist’s lack of redemption. Where Godwin offered Fleetwood and St. Leon hope, Mandeville’s conclusion is the culmination of his irrationality and hatred, not their resolution. It is, for this reason, the darkest of the author’s novels.

Mandeville’s seriousness makes it easy to poke fun at. Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey (1818) does with its parody novel ‘Devilman’: ‘Hatred – revenge – misanthropy – and quotations from the Bible. Hm. This is the morbid anatomy of black bile.’ (Nightmare Abbey, p.55). Peacock’s novel borrows considerably from Mandeville, however. The picturesque ruin of the Glowry home in Nightmare Abbey might seem no more than a genre convention until we note the details it shares with Mandeville House (both exist on narrow strips of dry land among the fens, choked with water weed). The parallels are numerous and I am indebted to John Colmer’s reading of both texts for these observations.

Mandeville was not the runaway success that Caleb Williams was but it was evidently popular enough to spawn an unauthorised ‘fourth volume’, providing a new ending to supplement Godwin’s somewhat abrupt conclusion to the novel. Mandeville, or, the Last Words of a Maniac (1818) was published anonymously and received positively, though few believed it to have been authored by Godwin himself. What’s interesting is that the continuation gives us more darkness, more irrationality, more tragedy; as the novel borrows heavily from Baillie’s De Monfort and speeds us towards an inevitable, fatal confrontation between Charles and Clifford. The apparent popularity of the fourth volume suggests certain things about Godwin’s reception in the period. By 1817, it seems as if the aspect of the author’s writing that the public most valued was the brooding interior struggle of his protagonists.

We might use this hint to help us understand the perennial popularity of Caleb Williams, alongside the neglect of Godwin’s other novels. Caleb Williams was undoubtedly a success in the 1790s because of its topical political resonance, but later audiences perhaps continued to prize it for its psychological insights – its Romantic sensibilities and Gothic suspense. The later novels have these stylistic turns also, but did not seize the public’s imagination by speaking directly to the spirit of the age. Subsequent scholarship, interested in understanding this spirit, looks to Caleb Williams as a text of its moment. Godwin’s later novels speak to important cultural issues (Fleetwood on education and marriage, Mandeville on anti-Catholicism) but it is the narrative style that readers notice. If such is the case, Mandeville is due for a reappraisal as an exemplar of the early Gothic mode. I’m not entirely sure that a Gothic novel was what Godwin set out to write, but it is the novel the public found. Mandeville’s themes place it closer to mid-nineteenth-century novels like those of the Brontë’s than the haunted castles of Ann Radcliffe and, until we understand better the impact of Godwin’s later novels, we can only wonder how much of a bridge it provides between the two.

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Colmer, John; ‘Godwin’s Mandeville and Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey‘ in The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 21, No. 83 (Aug., 1970), pp. 331-336

Godwin, William; Mandeville. A Tale of the Seventeenth Century. (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Co., 1817)

Peacock, Thomas Love; Nightmare Abbey. (London: T.Hookham, 1818)

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