« PreviousContinue »
PREFATORY MEMOIR TO WALPOLE.
We have only to add, in conclusion to these desultory remarks, that if Horace Walpole, who led the way in this new species of literary composition, has been surpassed by some of his followers in diffuse brilliancy of description, and perhaps in the art of detaining the mind of the reader in a state of feverish and anxious suspense, through a protracted and complicated narrative, more will yet remain with him than the single merit of originality and invention. The applause due to chastity and precision of style,—to a happy combination of supernatural agency with human interest,—to a tone of feudal manners and language, sustained by characters strongly drawn and well discriminated,--and to unity of action, producing scenes alternately of interest and of grandeur; -the applause, in fine, which cannot be denied to him who can excite the passions of fear and of pity, must be awarded to the author of The Castle of Otranto.
It only remains to add, that this little memoir, at least the greater part of it, was prefixed to a very handsome edition of The Castle of Otranto, printed for the late Mr John Ballantyne of Edinburgh, in 1811, and is transferred from thence to this work, originally undertaken by the same publisher.
Clara REEVE, the ingenious authoress of The Old English Baron, was the daughter of the Reverend William Reeve, M.A., Rector of Freston, and of Kerton, in Suffolk, and perpetual Curate of Saint Nicholas. Her grandfather was the Reverend Thomas Reeve, Rector of Storeham Aspal, and afterwards of St Mary Stoke, in Ipswich, where the family had been long resident, and enjoyed the rights of free burghers. Miss Reeve's mother's maiden name was Smithies, daughter of —Smithies, goldsmith and jeweller to King George I.
In a letter to a friend, Mrs Reeve thus speaks of her father :“ My father was an old Whig; from him I have learned all that I know; he was my oracle ; he used to make me read the Parliamentary debates, while he smoked his pipe after supper. I gaped and yawned over them at the time, but, unawares to myself, they fixed my principles once and for ever. He made me read Rapin's History of England; the information it gave, made amends for its dryness. I read Cato's Letters, by Trenchard and Gordon ; I read the Greek and Roman Histories, and Plutarch's Lives ;-all these at an age when few people of either sex can read their names.”
The Reverend Mr Reeves, himself one of a family of eight children, had the same number ; and it is therefore likely, that it was rather Clara's strong natural turn for study, than any degree of exclusive care which his partiality bestowed, that enabled her to acquire' such a stock of early information. After his death, his widow resided in Colchester with three of their daughters; and it was here that Miss Clara Reeve first became an authoress, by translating from Latin Barclay's fine old romance, entitled Argenis, published in 1762, under the title of The Phoenix. It was in 1777, five years afterwards, that she produced her first and most distinguished work. It was published by Mr Dilly of the Poultry (who gave ten pounds for the copyright) under the title of The Champion of Virtue, a Gothic Story. The work came to a second edition in the succeeding year, and was then first called The Old English Baron. The cause of the change we do not pretend to guess ; for if Fitzowen be considered as the Old English Baron, we do not see wherefore a character, passive in himself from beginning to end, and only acted upon by others, should be selected to give a name to the story. We ought not to omit to mention, that this work is inscribed to Mrs Brigden, the daughter of Richardson, who is stated to have lent her assistance to the revisal and correction of the work.
The success of The Old English Baron encouraged Miss Reeve to devote more of her leisure hours to literary composition, and she published in succession the following works :- The Two Mentors, a Modern Story; The Progress of Romance, through Times, Countries, and Manners ; The Exile ; or Memoirs of Count de Cronstadt, the principal incidents of which are borrowed from a novel by M. D'Arnaud ; The School for Widows, a Novel; Plans of Education, with Remarks on the System of other Writers, in a duodecimo volume ; and The Memoirs of Sir Roger de Clarendon, a natural Son of Edward the Black Prince; with Anecdotes of many other eminent Persons of the fourteenth Century.
To these works we have to add another tale, of which the interest turned upon supernatural appearances. Miss Reeve informs the public, in a preface to a late edition of The Old English Baron, that in compliance with the suggestion of a friend, she had composed Castle Connor, an Irish Story, in which apparitions were introduced. The manuscript, being intrusted with some careless or unfaithful person, fell aside, and was never recovered.
The various novels of Clara Reeve are all marked by excellent good sense, pure morality, and a competent command of those qualities' which constitute a good romance. They were, generally speaking, favourably received at the time, but none of them took the same strong possession of the public mind as The Old English Baron, upon which the fame of the author may be considered as now exclusively rested.
Miss Reeve, respected and beloved, led a retired life, admitting no materials for biography, until 3d December, 1803, when she died at Ipswich, her native city, at the advanced age of seventy-eight years. She was buried in the church-yard of Saint Stephens, according to her particular direction, near to the grave of her friend, the Reverend Mr Derby. Her brother, the Reverend Thomas Reeve, still lives, as also her sister, Mrs Sarah Reeve, both advanced in life. Another brother, bred to the navy, attained the rank of vice-admiral in that service.
Such are the only particulars which we have been able to collect concerning this accomplished and estimable woman, and, in their simplicity, the reader may remark that of her life and of her character. As critics, it is our duty to make some farther observations, which shall be entirely confined to her most celebrated work; the only piece of her composition, which, according to the rules adopted for this collection, can be admitted into its precincts.
The authoress has herself informed us that The Old English Baron is the “ literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto ;" and she has obliged us by pointing out the different and more limited view which she had adopted, of the supernatural machinery employed by Horace Walpole. She condemns the latter for the extravagance of several of his conceptions ; for the gigantic size of his sword and helmet; and
for the violent fictions of a walking picture, and a ghost in a hermit's cowl. A ghost, she contends, to be admitted as an ingredient in romance, must behave himself like ghosts of sober demeanour, and subject himself to the common rules still preserved in grange and hall, as circumscribing beings of his description.
We must, however, notwithstanding her authority, enter our protest against fettering the realm of shadows by the opinions entertained of it in the world of realities. If we are to try ghosts by the ordinary rules of humanity, we bar them of their privileges entirely. For instance, why admit the existence of an aerial phantom, and deny it the terrible attribute of magnifying its stature? why admit an enchanted helmet, and not a gigantic one? why allow as impressive the fall of a suit of armour, under circumstances which attribute its fall to a supernatural influence, and deny the same supernatural influence the power of producing the illusion, (for it is only represented as such,) upon Manfred, by the portrait of his ancestor appearing to be animated ? It may be said, and it seems to be Miss Reeve's argument, that there is a verge of probability, which even the most violent figment must not transgress; but we reply by the cross question, that if we are once to subject our preternatural agents to the limits of human reason, where are we to stop ? We might, under such a rule, demand of ghosts an account of the very circuitous manner in which they are pleased to open their communications with the living world. We might, for example, move a quo warranto, against the spectre of the murdered Lord Lovel, for lurking about the eastern apartment, when it might have been reasonably expected, that if he did not at once impeach his murderers to the next magistrate, he might at least have put Fitzowen into the secret, and thus obtained the succession of his son more easily than by the circuitous route of a single combat. If there should be an appeal against this imputation, founded on the universal practice of ghosts in such circumstances, who always act with singular obliquity in disclosing the guilt of which they complain, the matter becomes a question of precedent; in which view of the case, we may