The Three Dungeons of St. Leon

Posted by Richard Gough Thomas on September 16, 2014 in Richard Gough Thomas tagged with , ,

St. Leon, A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799) is the second of Godwin’s major novels. Unlike the relatively down-to-earth narrative of Caleb Williams, St. Leon is a story of the fantastic. The disgraced noble of the title is entrusted with the secrets of alchemy; able to create gold seemingly from nothing and to preserve his youth eternally, through the application of formulae taught to him by a mysterious stranger. Despite the protagonist’s best intentions, unlimited wealth brings him more grief than happiness. St. Leon’s efforts to help others are invariably stymied or perverted, either by the corrupting influence of wealth itself, or by others’ distrust (or even outright hatred) of altruism.

Over the course of the novel, St. Leon is imprisoned three times. I’d argue that each of these occasions represents a different aspect of Godwin’s style and argument – from the politics behind the novel, to Godwin’s intertextual engagement with other authors, and his invocation of gothic tropes. Each case reflects recognisably Godwinian concerns, most obviously the consequences of secrecy and the pain of isolation, but does so through a critical engagement with gothic writing of the period that makes use of its distinctive and compelling features, while offering a degree of scepticism towards some of its ends.

St. Leon’s first incarceration is in the city of Constance, where the protagonist is imprisoned, not for any specific crime, but for his suspicious character. ‘I sit here’, the magistrate tells him, ‘not merely to investigate and examine definite acts, but as a censor morum; and I should violate the oath of my office, if I did not lend a vigilant attention to the behaviour and conduct of every one within my jurisdiction.’ (p.220) Such injustice was perhaps meant to recall the government’s suspension of habeas corpus on a number of occasions in the 1790s (allowing the detention of anti-government activists, without trial) and the prosecution of a number of activists (some of them Godwin’s friends) for the crime of ‘imagining the king’s death’.

The scene is not unlike its counterpart in Caleb Williams – Godwin criticises arbitrary authority and suggests that the exercise of wealth and power degrade those who wield it. The protagonist is conscious that in offering bribery to facilitate his escape, he casts his lot in with those who are motivated only by love of wealth, ‘…and that I must be upon my guard against an honest man’ (p.237). The turnkey, Hector, shames the protagonist by refusing his bribe, but Hector is only a pawn of the jailor, who extorts more and more gold from St. Leon (not knowing his reserves are endless) while hiding behind his position. St. Leon’s first prison, then, is familiar Godwinian territory – the use of fiction to articulate the concerns expressed in Godwin’s philosophical and political works.

The novel’s second dungeon places us in more obviously gothic environs. St. Leon’s attempt to disappear in Spain leaves him at the mercy of the Inquisition; however it is not merely the order’s dungeons, but also St. Leon’s journey to them, that suggests a gothic reading.

'The scene was inexpressibly beautiful; the silence was uninterrupted and awful.' (p.249)

‘The scene was inexpressibly beautiful; the silence was uninterrupted and awful.’ (p.249)

The protagonist and his family settle near Pisa after their escape from Constance, taking the honourable Hector with them after he is cast aside by the jailor. Their journey evokes the romantic lawlessness of the Italian countryside seen in the paintings of Salvator Rosa (p.250). As Rosa provided inspiration for Ann Radcliffe, so too does Radcliffe provide a model for Godwin: the family’s persecution in Italy suggests a narrative inversion of the Radcliffean mystery plot. The St. Leons settle in ‘a perfect paradise’ on the banks of the Arno, but the family’s happiness is soon shattered as rumour of St. Leon’s alchemical processes leaks out to the villagers. Hector’s love-rival in town, Agostino, depicts the protagonist as a necromancer, egging the villagers on into greater and greater acts of intimidation against the family, culminating in a burst of mob violence (reminiscent of the Priestley riot of 1791) that sees St. Leon’s home burnt to the ground. Many features of this episode encourage a Radcliffean reading – the Italian setting and the prominence of the fiercely loyal, but woefully indiscreet, Hector (recalling comic servants such as The Italian’s Paulo), are circumstantial elements of this. Most interesting, however, is the scene’s interplay of scepticism and superstition that suggest a deliberately contra-Radcliffean structure.

St. Leon’s noble acquaintance in Pisa initially assures him that he has nothing to fear from the villagers, that their days of rustic superstition are over. The protagonist, however, has disguised the supernatural elements of his story. The noble marchese believes St. Leon’s alchemy to be simple experiments in chemistry. When the protagonist is confronted by the mob, he attempts to reason them out of their violence by appealing to them as ‘…Italians, the most polished and ingenious people on the face of the earth’ (p.284). Where in Radcliffe’s work, a mundane and rational secret would be obfuscated behind a veil of (false) supernatural mystery; in this episode, we see a fundamentally supernatural secret defended with the language of rationality. Furthermore, where Radcliffe’s secrets are uncovered by innocent curiosity or high-minded investigation, St. Leon’s chief persecutor in this scene is motivated by his petty enmity towards Hector – it is the crime of small minds and disregard for consequence, in contrast to the Machiavellian villainy of Radcliffe’s novels. The form of Godwin’s novel hides few secrets, of course. The confessional narrative the author uses in all of his major fictional works is better for dispelling mystery than creating it. To some extent, we might read the author’s continuing use of the confessional first-person as an active rejection of Radcliffean suspense. The reader is not misled, or misdirected by narrative trickery. Inside the ‘tent’ of the protagonist’s secrets, we are invited to think critically about St. Leon’s decisions.

Such a reading of the Pisan episode would be less compelling but for where it leads – to the dungeons of the Inquisition. Having returned his household to their ancestral home in France, St. Leon attempts to disappear in Spain. The title of ‘necromancer’ follows him, however, and he finds himself arrested by the church authorities. Godwin borrows some of the Inquisition’s style from The Italian: while many of the similarities between Godwin and Radcliffe’s scenes might be ascribed to anti-Catholic tropes of the period; the spies that visit both St. Leon and Vivaldi are too much alike to discount. Under the guise of penitents who, thanks to their confessions and ‘the humanity of the fathers’ (St Leon, p.328) were permitted to comfort the other prisoners, both spies attempt to learn subtly what their brethren could not extract through demands. St. Leon’s mosca (as Godwin calls them) avoid discussion of his own crime:

He evaded that question, and was only influenced by it to talk more copiously and fluently on other topics, with the apparent design of making me forget the enquiry I had made. (p.328)

Vivaldi’s spy is more easily caught out.

The stranger was somewhat embarrassed. ‘My offence was slight,’ he continued, without giving a full answer.
‘Is it possible,’ said Vivaldi, again interrupting him, ‘that heresy can be considered as a slight offence before the tribunal of the Inquisition?’
‘It was only of a slight degree of heresy,’ replied the visitor, reddening with displeasure, ‘that I was suspected, and-’ (The Italian, p.307)

Godwin’s Inquisition is certainly less easy to catch off guard, but his depiction of the order is less interested in the anti-Catholicism that often characterises the early gothic. The silence of the dungeon provides a metaphor for quietism under tyranny:

This is peculiar prerogative of despotism: it produces many symptoms of the same general appearance as those which are derived from liberty and justice. There are no remonstrances; there is no impatience or violence; there is a calm, a fatal and accursed tranquillity that pervades the whole. The spectator enters … perceives human bodies standing or moving around him … the mere shades of men, cold, inert, glaring bodies, which the heaven-born soul has long since deserted. (p.326-7)

The ruins of the historical Bethlem Gabor's castle in modern-day Romania.

The ruins of the historical Bethlem Gabor’s castle in modern-day Romania.

St. Leon’s third dungeon is the most conventionally gothic element of the novel, and the site of another intertextual connection. Bethlem Gabor was a historical figure (albeit one introduced anachronistically in Godwin’s novel) but his depiction owes more to Flammenberg’s The Necromancer (1795) than it does to the real Prince of Transylvania. The critic Gary Kelly was first to juxtapose Gabor with Flammenberg’s Wolfe, and the similarity is remarkable:

He was of gigantic make, near seven feet high, his robust limbs corresponding with his extra ordinary size; his black and bushy hair covered part of his sun-burnt face, which was disfigured by two gaping scars […] His eye, for he had but one left, flashed like lightning… (The Necromancer, p.196)

He was more than six feet in stature; and yet he was built as if it had been a colossus […] His head and chin were clothed with a thick and shaggy hair, in colour a dead black. He had suffered considerable mutilation […] the sight of his right eye was extinguished, and the cheek shot half away, while the same explosion had burned his complexion into a colour that was universally dun or black. (St. Leon, p.395-6)

A monstrous misanthrope in a crumbling castle, Bethlem Gabor believes he has found a kindred spirit in St. Leon – both men have lost their families and carry burdens keep them isolated from the rest of mankind – but the protagonist’s determination to use his alchemy for the benefit of humanity is, to Gabor, a daily insult.

‘I hate mankind. I was not born to hate them. I have no native obliquity of character. I have no diabolical maliciousness of constitution. But they have forced me to hate them, and the debt of abhorrence shall be amply paid.’ (p.415)

Gabor imprisons St. Leon to put an end to his philanthropy and to punish him for his kindness, a sentiment that the tyrant considers servile cowardice towards the injustices heaped on them by a cruel world. What prompts St. Leon’s release is Gabor’s recognition of his own mortality. His castle besieged by the Austrians, Gabor gifts the protagonist with the means to escape the dungeons while he resolves to die fighting.

‘I feel as if this were the last day of my existence; and, upon the brink of the grave, animosity and ferociousness die away in my soul. In this solemn moment, my original character returns here (striking his heart) to take possession of its native home…’ (p.426-7)

For all its gothic stylings, the Gabor episode illustrates a central Godwinian concern: villains are not born, but made, and the offer of friendship offers a glimmer of hope for even the blackest monster.

Between you and me there is a deadly antipathy; but you did not make yourself; you intended me friendship and advantage; the sufferings you have experienced from me in return have been sufficiently severe. (p.427)

St. Leon does not end with the escape from Bethlem Gabor. Like many of Godwin’s novels, the text finishes but does not conclude. St. Leon’s secret has banished him to the periphery of life and so the only resolution the novel has to offer is one the protagonist watches from afar, as he flees another scene of failure. It is a prospect that Godwin finds far more frightening than any dungeon. Though St. Leon is ostensibly at liberty, his separation from the rest of humanity is a greater punishment. The warping effects of solitude are discussed at length in Godwin’s later novel, Fleetwood (1805), the subject of next week’s essay. Until then, we might read the dungeons of St. Leon as the author’s commentary on the trappings of the gothic novel: mysteries, prisons and tyrants hold far less terror than the human mind cut adrift.

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Kelly, Gary; ‘History and Fiction: Bethlem Gabor in Godwin’s St Leon‘, English Language Notes, 14 (1976), pp.117-120

Flammenberg, Laurence (K.F. Kahlert), (tr. Peter Teuthold); The Necromancer, or, the Tale of the Black Forest. (Richmond, VA: Valancourt Books, 2007)

Godwin, William; St Leon. (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1994)

Radcliffe, Ann; The Italian. (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1998)

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