Representation of the Repressed; women and the feminine in Eleanor Sleath's The Orphan of the Rhine and The Nocturnal Minstrel
A Critical Essay by Beth Kilkenny
The gothic novel was a predominantly female art form in the late eighteenth century yet when one thinks of the typical gothic heroine one imagines not a strong feminist role model but a weak, blushing virgin, likely to faint at any moment. Although the woman, or more appropriately girl, may be the main focus of the novel the male is always the overbearing presence who can dictate the life of the female as he wishes. However, this is clearly an over simplification; I will use, primarily, the works of Eleanor Sleath to discuss representations of women in the late eighteenth century gothic novel and consider how they differ from the stereotypical image we may first think of. I will consider the representation of the heroine, including their dependence on male counterparts; how the men themselves are represented; how women are represented as mothers and, in contrast, men as fathers; and finally issues of sexuality. Are Sleath's heroines asexual, is it only men who have sexual desires?
Let us begin by considering the heroine, or heroines, of The Orphan of the Rhine. The novel focuses on two women, beginning with Julie de Rubine, a young woman with a small son; already, then, there is a challenge to the convention, Julie is no innocent young virgin and the fact that she is a single mother suggests either widowhood or scandal. Where, typically, on a first introduction to our heroine we may expect a description of her beauty, here we do not get any physical description of Julie; in fact nowhere in the novel do we get a detailed description of her appearance, although, of course, we know she is beautiful. Julie is depicted as a lonely, sombre figure. When we first see her she has 'passed some years in uninterrupted solitude' and is 'returning from a monastery.' This state of solitude implies a certain level of self-sufficiency in our heroine; although she is not wealthy she has money enough to support herself and her young child, although the source of her income is unspecified. This self-sufficiency does not last long into the novel, as she becomes dependent on the Marchese de Montferrat financially and for her home. However, Sleath is at pains to make it clear that it is not for her own sake but for the children that she accepts the Marchese's help:
For herself she . . . would have endured without murmuring the severest penury, rather than have thrown herself upon the liberality of one, for whom she now felt no softer sentiment than horror and resentment. But her son had no doubt a claim to his protection.(p.6)
This quotation brings several important issues to light; it is clear the Marchese is her son's father. Therefore some scandal must exist as they are not living together as man and wife; it places Julie in the role of self-sacrificing mother and places the Marchese in the role of 'hero-villain' and absent father. Julie's acceptance of the Marchese's request that she be the guardian of the baby girl he has sent to her is important in defining our heroine. Firstly, and most obviously, she is defined now as primarily a mother to two young children, which distances her from the stereotypical gothic heroine as it implies that she may be a little older than expected. Also she is, obviously, not a virgin and thus perhaps not as naive as younger heroines. Secondly her acceptance places her now entirely dependent on the Marchese and not for purely material concerns; she must change her name, the most fundamental basis of personal identity. It seems ironic that her 'marriage' to the Marchese did not result in her changing her name, as convention would have it, yet he can still change her identity in this manner. She is permitted the liberty of choosing her own name, 'Madame Chamont ', but she does not give herself a Christian name, perhaps because this would be too personal and she does not wish the Marchese to have this level of control over her.
How far do the women in this novel adhere to feminine stereotypes? Certainly Julie exhibits a little more bravery than would be expected as she risks her safety, possibly even her life, to help La Roque escape. She succeeds in her task and plays a fundamental role in carrying him to the safety of Father Benedicta's monastery. However, she is not allowed to be seen as too capable of helping others and after her decisive action she immediately regresses to the role of victim once more as Paoli discovers her bracelet in the secret passage and takes her captive. This is similar to what Yaegar calls ‘the failed sublime’(Radcliffe,1993,xix), where a moment of empowerment is undermined. There is a possibility of greatness but something intrudes to prevent it, quite often a ‘masculine counter-sublime’. In this case that ‘counter-sublime’ is not so much a great act from a man but a simple accident which results in Paoli discovering Julie’s bracelet. Both Julie and Laurette show some strength of character in refusing to marry; Julie with Vescolni and Laurettte with the Marchese. However, such refusals are important to keep the threatening tone of the novel alive and maintain the 'heroine-victim' role. Also Julie's refusal proves to be an error as she refuses the honourable Vescolni for the unsuitable Marchese and although Laurette ultimately achieves happiness with Enrico she is, in the short term, punished for her decisiveness by the Marchese. Strong women, however, are not the role models in this novel. The most revered women in the novel are those who live lives of secluded piety and virtue, most notably Cecilia of whom it is said, ' She never enters into any of our amusements, except at the holy festivals, and seems to dedicate the whole of her life to prayer and religious exercises.' (p. 75) This is clearly a positive attribute as the description continues, ' none of the inhabitants of the cloister are more tenderly, more universally beloved . . . her breast is the temple of benevolence, the seat of truth and virtue.' (p. 75) This description gains more significance when we learn that Cecilia used to be Di Capigna, who had a brief affair with the Marchese after he had discarded Julie, of whom it was said she was ' less celebrated for external charms than for those seductive and elegant accomplishments "that take the reason prisoner."' (p. 5) Women as creatures of solitude are a prevailing characteristic; our first vision of Julie is one of solitude, the nun Cecilia clearly prefers to be alone, as does Laurette: ' . . . to ramble alone in the wood, or along the solitary glens of the mountains, was a charm the most suited to her mind..' (p. 150) A woman must dedicate her mind, and time, to God, to poetry, to the sublime scenery but never to herself:
' The attention of Madame de Rubine was now chiefly divided between her children, and the cares of her household, which two material concerns so entirely occupied her thoughts, that she did not revert so frequently as before to . . . her inquietudes.' (p. 25)
Of course, no gothic heroine would be complete without the ability to write a sonnet or an ode at any given moment; a convention which both Julie and Laurette adhere to, although the quality of these poems is debatable, which is something Sleath ensures the reader knows she is aware of as she describes them of, 'certainly but little poetical merit.' (p. 12) An admiration of poetry and an inclination to write it are worthy feminine attributes but, perhaps, producing anything of any merit would be inappropriate.
‘From foolish maiden to mother superior, women discover strength in their youth, arrogance and vengefulness as they come of age.’(Fleenor,1983,187)Although we don’t really see any of our heroines maturing we do get the sense that Ethalind is a younger Gertrude and Laurette a younger Julie, so we see the characters mature through this mirroring. Ethalind is the stereotypical young, virginal gothic heroine in The Nocturnal Minstrel as Laurette is in The Orphan of the Rhine. Both are orphans who have been taken in by an older woman, who acts as a mother figure and both gain the attention, and love, of a young man who helps protect them against enemies. A parallel then can be drawn between the heroines of both novels; there is a slightly older woman, once married, and a young girl who fits more readily into the stereotypical image of a gothic heroine,
‘Any individuality that may be imputed to them at the beginning of the novel is soon dissolved.’(Fleenor,1983, 223) This, it seems, is necessary for the genre to work; they may be allowed the appearance of independence or strength but must all, essentially, be helpless. Gertrude, or the Baroness, as she is more frequently named, is a widow of only twenty-three years, although she appears much older. Her strength of character is depicted in the same way as Julie's as she refuses two proposals of marriage after the death of her husband. Indeed she would rather be alone than be with a man she does not love and she will not be persuaded into it by either her maid and confidante Winifred, nor her father. She possesses a wit which we see when she more than ably holds her own with the banter of Motley the clown and a somewhat cynical, world-weary view on certain issues. For example, her comment to Winifred concerning Sir Reginald that, ' the lover would soon be lost in the husband' (p.10) It is difficult to imagine Julie speaking such a line, although perhaps this has more to do with the fact that Sleath's depiction of character and of dialogue is much improved in this later novel. Nevertheless, Gertrude is a much livelier character than the sober pious Julie; this is not to say, though, that she is irreligious as she too spent her early days in a convent and has the Father as her confidante and confessor. The main difference between Gertrude and Julie is that we are never for one minute allowed to forget Gertrude's beauty. The beauty she had at the age of seventeen, when she married the Baron, 'caused her to be esteemed one of the brightest ornaments of the English court,' (pg 18) and still now, 'she possessed more requisites for inspiring a strong and ardent passion than perhaps ever fell to the lot of a single female'. (pg 136) The impression is created that there is a constant stream of admirers and there is certainly no need for her to be without a husband. Whereas although Julie does not remarry there is less implication that she could so readily find a husband, giving Gertrude, at least, a greater illusion of independence. Despite this immense beauty Gertrude remains, of course, unaffected and even wishes that her beauty were less, ' Would to heaven...I were the most deformed of the human species, so I might escape my present embarrassments.' (p. 68)
How does Gertrude compare to Julie when it comes to independence? I have already suggested that there is a degree of independence here, but also that it is somewhat superficial. Marriage has been described as ‘ the seat of terror in which women suffer the loss of civil identity, property, present and future,’(www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/father.html) and there is some evidence to support that here. She is living in the castle that belonged to her late husband, under the favour of the King, as the Baron's lands were made forfeit to the Crown. Therefore Gertrude is entirely subject to the King's favour, although she does maintain some level of control within her household; she can give orders and must be obeyed. However as a result of the Baron’s poor relationship with the King, Gertrude herself will never be free to make her own decisions when it comes to marriage or property. The main difference is of course that Gertrude has the wealth of her late husband to live off, as well as the wealth of her father, and so can afford to be more independent in other ways. When she is troubled, specifically with regards to the source of the music, she can offer money as a reward to help her; when Julie is troubled, she must accept money from others. The seeming independence of Gertrude and her strong character has already been discussed but she is still living under the shadow of her late husband. ‘ To jeopardise that institution (marriage) is to threaten her sense of self,’(Poovey,1984,32). Poovey's statement is very appropriate in regards to Gertrude’s ability to know her own strength. Not only is she still living under his title and on his lands but she still looks to him for guidance and instructions upon how to act, ' Oh that thy spirit . . . would come to me in my sleep, and instruct me how I ought to act, that then thou wouldst advise, console, assist thy wretched, wretched Gertrude.' ( p. 54) Gertrude is placing herself firmly in the role of helpless feminine here and not awarding herself the ability to decide and act for herself. It is unclear whether this is due to the Law of the Father being so instilled in society that women comply in their own repression or if it is merely part of Sleath's romantic vision of the love between Gertrude and the Baron. Even if the latter is the case, it is significant that Sleath believes that part of a strong romantic love is the woman's subordination to her partner. Whatever the explanation, and it is likely to be a combination of both, the idea continues with Gertrude's reaction when she realises her husband is not dead, as she, 'sunk, panting, fainting, almost dying with the wild emotions of her joy.' (p.93). This is undoubtedly a reaction typical to a gothic heroine; it would seem that without the presence of her husband, Gertrude can at least create a facade of independence and strength (after all the plea above to his spirit is in private) but in his presence she must fulfil the expected feminine role. It is interesting to compare her behaviour in front of the Baron and her banter with Motley. Presumably, the difference arises because Motley is not a romantic hero figure and therefore there is no need for her to play the feminine romantic heroine when she is with him.
Although Sir Reginald is the obvious candidate for the role of ‘hero-villain’ in the novel, Winifred comes a close second. She is even compared, unfavourably, to a man, Wolsey. She is conniving and self-centred and it is unusual that the heroine should hold close to her someone of bad character. However, it does put Gertrude in the essential role of victim, to have someone close to her working to her disadvantage. It is unclear why Winifred is so keen for Gertrude to marry Sir Reginald, but even when it is clear Gertrude has no wish to remarry she persists in trying to persuade her and is insensitive to her sorrow: ' " Can I weep too long for such a husband? Was he not all that my fond heart could wish, noble, generous and brave? " '(p. 7) to which Winifred's response is: ' " He was my lady; but he is dead and gone.' " (p. 7). This is in stark contrast to the female confidante in The Orphan of the Rhine, Signora D' Orfa, who is portrayed as equal in merit to our heroine, ‘ . . . not only an entertaining, but an intelligent companion, everyway formed to engage the affections of our heroine and to deserve her confidence.’ (p. 221)
The preferred deportment of masculine characters in The Orphan of the Rhine can be seen in the description of a portrait in a church at the beginning of the novel:
The first was the figure of a warrior, who was supposed to have been mortally wounded in an engagement. He was supported by two grey-haired veterans; an allegorical figure of Death approached with a dart, which Valour accoutred as Mars, opposed with his shield. (p. 26)
All the admirable men in this novel are associated with the military, most notably our hero Enrico whose desire to join the army is positively a vocation. It is stated that he ' burned with an irresistible desire of attaining military honours.' (p. 61/2) This may seem a little less than admirable in the eyes of a modern reader but this novel still adheres very strongly to the world of chivalry and the imagery of war is highly sentimentalised: ' She saw him in her terrified imagination, borne bleeding and lifeless from the field . . . till a shower of tears relieved her almost bursting bosom.' (p. 146) It is important that being given such a strong masculine role, Enrico also displays some more sensitive traits as well to ensure he is worthy to be the ‘hero’ of the novel. ‘The hero is a sensitive honourable feeling gentleman who not only weeps at the landscape, but also manages to stop weeping at the exact moment the heroine needs rescuing,’(www.engl.virginia.edu). This is a fitting description of our young hero. It is important that the hero can combine the two opposing qualities together so that he is attractive to our helpless heroine and capable of rescuing her from the villain. In The Orphan of the Rhine there are more villains and, indeed, those that there are, are far more villainous than those of The Nocturnal Minstrel. The villains of the former being able to cite murder, kidnap and adultery amongst their crimes whereas in the latter the crimes stop at lying and a kidnap that is resolved as soon as it happens. This is perhaps why in The Nocturnal Minstrel Gertrude’s closest friends are men. This is something quite different from Laurette’s dependency on men in The Orphan of the Rhine where she had only, ‘ Enrico and the Father Benedicta to interest themselves in her welfare.’ (pg 173 ) Gertrude seems most at home exchanging banter with Motley the Clown, and has the Father as her confessor. Although, this may not be entirely out of choice, she is living in a man’s world; she has, effectively, taken over the Baron’s role as she is in control at the castle. There is also evidence that she actively seeks female companionship; choosing to take Ethalind under her wing and keeping Winifred as her maid, even though it must be apparent to her she is of dubious character, suggesting she is not entirely comfortable in this male dominated world.
Lacan's discussion of the nom du père, or the Law of the Father, is something which is pertinent to the female Gothic, and Sleath’s work is no exception. This involves, on its most basic level, ‘the repression of all that is female’(ww.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/father.html) and the immense control the male wields, which is grossly apparent in The Orphan of the Rhine. The instance, mentioned at the beginning of this essay, of the Marchese ordering Julie to change her name is one example, but the relationship between Laurette, the young charge under Julie's care, and the Marchese best exemplifies the nom du père in the novel. Laurette has no surname by which to identify herself and all her enquiries into the matter are evaded. When she loses Julie as a mother figure, the absence of a father becomes more important to her:
. . . she was called Laurette but no other name was added . . . When blessed with the protection of Madame Chamont, the subject was attended with curiosity, and not with regret; but now that protection was withdrawn, it returned forcibly upon her mind.'(p. 150)
Although we are told this issue is troubling Laurette, there does not seem to be a great crisis of identity. However, there are several frustrated attempts to discover Laurette's identity, most notably in the form of the monk who tries to disclose information. Although it is a miniature of her mother that hangs around her neck it is, significantly, her mother's father who reveals the truth about her parentage. The Law of the Father also has a deeper relevance to the novel with regards to the effect of an absent father upon a child:
‘For a daughter, sexual difference and the difference that underlies the functioning of the symbolic order are not the same in the way that they are for a son. The daughter discovers that she is the same as her mother and different from her father, so her relationship to her mother contradicts, rather than reinforces (as in the case of the son), the dependence of the symbolic order on the absence of the mother.’(Rivkin and Ryan, 1998, 652)
So the absence of a mother should be more important to Laurette than the absence of a father which is perhaps why she is distracted from the issue of her parentage when she has Julie to identify with. It is Enrico then, who should, presumably, suffer the most from the absence of his father:
..her (the daughter) femininity arises in relation to a person of the same sex, while his masculinity arises in relation to a person of the opposite sex . . . .his masculinity is threatened by the same union and the same identification. While the boys sense of self begins in union with the feminine, his sense of masculinity arises against it.(Rivkin and Ryan,1998,710)
This would seem to indicate the primacy of woman and mother. There are times in the novel when Enrico is a sensitive young man, apt to tears, loyal to his mother and eager to protect the women in his life; yet he is also a man of the military so the above quotation rings true here and Enrico's mix of qualities could be the strong presence of a mother but the glaring absence of a father. Women of this period "learnt that their fathers and all men were the 'Kings of the Castle' " (www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/father.html) and this is certainly true of Laurette with regards to the Marchese. Despite his dubious character she 'had been taught to believe that he was her only surviving friend and protector’ (p. 150) and who could have informed her of this but Julie who knows better than anyone the true nature of the Marchese, but this idea of men as 'Kings ' has been deeply instilled into her also. It seems it is not only daughters and women though who adhere to this principle. Enrico, when he discovers that the Marchese is his father, will not implicate him in criminal deeds, despite the fact it is clear the Marchese is a threat to others.
The final point to make pertaining to the Law of the Father in The Orphan of the Rhine is in relation to incest as, 'The Law of the Father . . . is pre-eminently the prohibition against incest.'(www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/father.html) Although the Marchese is not actually Laurette's father, he has always been portrayed as a protector and guardian figure to her, something which he himself also recognises: ' Do you forget . . . your orphan and dependent state? . . . Have I not hitherto defended you from these; and have I not a right to be obeyed? ' (p. 245) Indeed he seems to be using this role, and the obedience and respect he believes he should command as such, as an argument in favour of their marriage. This apparently, for him, natural progression ‘from guardian and future father in law to a prospective lover makes this scene appear very incestuous in intent.’ (www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/father.html) This is not the only appearance of incest in the novel. Initially we are allowed to contemplate whether Enrico and Laurette are actually brother and sister as Julie believes the Marchese may be Laurette's father. Even when this possibility is dismissed and it is clear Enrico and Laurette are in love there are still undertones of an element of incest in their relationship. For example, he calls her his 'more than sister' and still requests that she consider him in the role of a brother, if nothing else,' But why Laurette will you forget that I am your brother? Why would you deprive me of the sacred power of protecting you, the primary wish of my soul?' (pg 236) Perhaps in a world where the balance of power is so unevenly distributed, where men are the protectors and women considered so greatly inferior and helpless, all relationships would have undertones of incest. This is exemplified in The Nocturnal Minstrel where Gertrude's prospective husband, Ormond, is described as being aged between forty and fifty years old. This makes him appear somewhat of a father figure to the twenty three year old Gertrude.
The attitude towards fathers is quite different in The Nocturnal Minstrel; in The Orphan of the Rhine the hero-villain is a father figure, thus clouding the representation of fathers in general; in The Nocturnal Minstrel the villain is a prospective lover, and it is passion that is frowned upon. It is perhaps pertinent to note here that nowhere in the novel is our heroine simply Gertrude; before she was the Baronness under her husband's title, she was, ' heiress to the Barony of Broke.' (p. 18) She was thus always defined by the title of a man. Nevertheless, Gertrude has a close relationship with her father, as did Julie, and there is a strong bond between them. For example, he ' . . . who tenderly loved his daughter, whom he had not seen for many months, embraced her with the warmest affection.' ( p.116) Having the father present, and the mother absent, the author is more able to bring patriarchy under scrutiny and Sleath does this in The Nocturnal Minstrel. Gertrude’s father is well aware of the power he could exert over her if he wished, under the Law of the Father, but his respect and love for his daughter prevents him from doing so. This is exemplified in the novel in regards to Gertrude marrying Lord Ormond; she informs her father that she does not wish to marry him to which her father replies, ' . . . your father would persuade; he will forego his authority; he will never command.' (p. 122) Something which she should be grateful for; but this would have been common practice at the time the novel is set and Sleath points out it is not an attitude which should prevail to her readers, 'though language like this may seem harsh to the ear of a modern female.' ( p. 124) It is not repression under the father's power that Gertrude need be concerned about however, but that of the King, in this case Henry VII, ' . . . whose power over females of rank and estate, according to the usages of the realm, was even greater than that of the father, and especially over her, as the widow of the attainted Fitzwalter . . . '(p. 111) Any liberty that females possess in the novel, or indeed in reality at the time, is entirely superficial; the implication of this quotation is that those women who were not subject to the authority of the King were confined by their father instead. Although her father may be willing to forego his authority, the King certainly is not: ' Should you scorn his intimated wish, dread the disseizure of your large domains, and with poverty, perhaps a prison.' ( pg 123) A single woman in possession of a large amount of land was no more than something to bargain with.This is emphasised further with imagery of Gertrude as a mere object, ' the posession of such a woman as your wife.' (p. 137)
With the dominance of the Law of the Father comes, inevitably, the repression of the mother and in the Gothic mothers are notoriously absent. None of the female characters in The Nocturnal Minstrel are mothers; dead mothers are not even alluded to. Ethalind is an orphan; Edgar makes reference to a father only (who is, significantly laying down the law in regards to marriage); Winifred is a character devoid of any personal relationships, let alone a mother. Our heroine, Gertrude, has no mother, but she is very close to her father. Alison Milbank argues that mothers, in gothic fiction, are displaced so the image of the heroine running through secret passages of the castle can be seen to represent, ' the need to flee the recesses of the castle as maternal body.'( Radcliffe,1993 , xxi.) This image is heightened in The Nocturnal Minstrel as it appears that Gertrude is very much in control of the castle and Ethalind is confined in one of its rooms due to the tyranny of another woman. Gertrude neither has a mother nor is she a mother herself. The only instance we have of her as mother is passed over coldly:
With the exception of the loss of an infant daughter, who had died a few weeks after its birth, no event occurred during the first years of their marriage to interrupt their happiness, or cloud the prospect of their future years.(p. 19)
Perhaps this also suggests the loss of a daughter is not as important as the loss of a son would have been as this does not affect issues of inheritance and dynasty as much. She and the Baron clearly were not looking for children to complete their happiness and the loss of this child is seen as a slight drawback to an otherwise happy time. Despite appearances from this summary however Gertrude clearly has some, perhaps subconscious, desire to reclaim the daughter she lost when she takes Ethalind under her protection. Ethalind, after living with the absence of a kind mother (she did have a wicked stepmother for a time), strongly identifies with Gertrude even though, to begin with, there is little connection between the two. It is Winifred who Ethalind has most contact with and, if Gertrude is a mother figure to the young girl then, it could be argued, that Winifred is the disciplinarian father figure: 'The poor girl who had no resource, either in her prayers or her entreaties, against the tyranny of Winifred . . . throwing herself on her knees, her innocent hands clasped together.' (p. 146) This is surely the image we would have of our gothic heroine praying for protection from the evil villain, not from the kindly maidservant as Winifred should be. As is suggested in Milbank's introduction to Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance, Ethalind loses her individuality in her identification with Gertrude as, by consequence, Gertrude does also. There is a, ‘threat to female identity caused by too close a relation with the all embracing maternal body,’ ( Radcliffe,1993, xx) which is heightened because Ethalind, being an orphan, is so dependent on Gertrude’s kindness. It may also explain why Gertrude has a slightly stronger character, as she never had a mother figure to identify with. Physical descriptions of the pair are very similar. For example Ethalind's poor dress, ' could neither hide the charms of her face, or the natural graces of her figure.'( p. 145) Gertrude is described in a similar manner. It is suggested that she wear poor clothes to try and prevent the attraction of Sir Reginald, but the implication is clear that this would not detract from her beauty. As the Law of the Father was still very much evident in the eighteenth century, the gothic novel was used to explore the possibility of a life where women were not repressed and under the control of the male. For example, Julie is an orphan and, through her memories, we are given indications as to which parent's 'law' she followed. She remembers her father fondly, as she recalls her 'childhood when she used to ramble with her father in the stillness of evening, to hear the song of the nightingale.' (p. 8) But it is clearly her mother who chiefly formed Julie's character:
. . . to suffer with uniform fortitude was true dignity. This lesson, which her mother had inculculated in youth, she had cherished in maturity. The meek and unaffected piety of that excellent parent who was never absent from her thoughts.' (p. 128)
It is also the mother who gives Julie the order from her deathbed that she should never marry a man who was not Roman Catholic. Similarly, although Laurette does not know the identity of either parent, it is the identification of the mother which excites the most interest and Enrico seems content enough in the knowledge of his mother's identity without fruitlessly searching for a father. Nevertheless, the presence of the Marchese casts a shadow over the life of all three protagonists and there is always the feeling that the Marchese is in control.
With regards to sexuality in the world of gothic fiction, typically, two types of women exist. This has come to be known as the Virgin/Whore syndrome. There are ‘good’ women whom men idealise and who, ‘have no sexual desire (and for whom the men themselves feel no sexual longings) and 'bad' women who are sexual by nature’, (Fleenor,1983, 207) with whom it is acceptable to have sexual relations. Sex with 'good' women is only permissible through the institution of marriage, which is how Julie, in The Orphan of the Rhine, came to be in her situation. Her marriage to the Marchese was a sham, but in making her believe it was legitimate the Marchese could have his passions satisfied without her feeling any moral impropriety. As the marriage did not last long, presumably as he planned, it would seem fair to presume that, having served her purpose of satisfying his passions, he was no longer interested in her, ‘Once she has been mastered she inspires only satiety and disgust.’ (Fleenor,1983,206) At the very least, it shows men of fickle nature. This example, though, seems to contradict the paragraph's opening quotation; the Marchese should not have any sexual desires towards Julie because she is a 'good' woman and therefore asexual. This one encounter does not succeed in making her a sexual character, though, as the result is motherhood and nowhere throughout the duration of the novel does she evoke any sexual interest from the male characters, essential to the reader’s good opinion of her. This blurring of the Virgin/Whore binary can be found elsewhere in the novel as the nun Cecilia used to be Di Capigna, the woman of the 'seductive charms' who lost her reputation to the Marchese. It almost seems that, through her repentance, Cecilia embodies both the Virgin and the Whore. Good women always wanted to be regarded as chaste and as they could not openly say they were they had to show it through their actions; which is why Cecilia’s behaviour is so exaggerated.
The opening quotation does not indicate whether it is the 'good' or 'bad' women the men prefer. An example from The Orphan of the Rhine would seem to indicate that men, being creatures of irrational passion, cannot help themselves in the face of temptation, something which La Roque admits, ' When under the dominion of passion we are insensible to the influence of reason.' (p.96) Indeed the woman with whom La Roque committed adultery is portrayed as the ultimate vision of temptation; she is described as a 'syren' who presented La Roque and his companion with fruit and then proceeded to play her lute. La Roque's wife Helena is portrayed as the antithesis to all Laurentina represents, yet in a decisive moment he chooses ' an empassioned look from the insiduous Laurentina' over Helena's ' meek and unoffending innocence.' (p. 97) It is only when he kills Helena in a case of mistaken identity that he finally repents and turns once more to his children, who have otherwise been entirely ignored in his narrative. For La Roque, neither his virtuous wife nor his young children were enough to prevent him succumbing to 'the force of temptation.' (p.96) Perhaps this is an area where strong, though immoral, women can claim back a little control from their male counterparts. La Roque's companion through all this is De Pietro, a man of equally lax morals, if not even more so. If Cecilia embodies the Virgin/Whore syndrome then it is true that De Pietro in the same manner embodies the Priest/Devil syndrome as he too repents of his wicked ways and becomes the virtuous Father Benedicta.
The villain in the role of demon lover ‘is a figure of considerable power who would exert a malevolent influence’ (Fleenor, 1983, 220) whereas the hero is ‘ a considerably less potent figure throughout much of the novel (and) is a force of order and benevolent control.’ (Fleenor,1983,220) In The Nocturnal Minstrel it is Sir Reginald who is present at the castle from the beginning and he exerts his 'malevolent influence' over Winifred by persuading her to his cause and by terrifying the inhabitants of the castle into believing there is a ghost. His presence is threatened by the arrival, approximately half way through the novel, of Earl Ormond who is a force of ‘order and benevolent control' as he vows to stay in the haunted chamber until he discovers the mystery behind the ghost. Even after his arrival, though, there is still a state of chaos at the castle and it is not until the Baron, the real hero, finally reveals himself that order can once more be restored.
Whereas some of the relationships in The Orphan of the Rhine have a degree of sexual potency, those of The Nocturnal Minstrel have no such connotations. The relationship between Edgar and Ethalind is, of course, nothing but chaste and the relationship between Gertrude and the Baron did not even have passionate beginnings as it was a marriage arranged by the King, (although they grew to be very much in love with one another.) One would expect that Sir Reginald would be portrayed as a sexual predator but the strongest emotions associated even with him is, ' the passion he felt for this eminently lovely woman.' (p. 28) Gertrude, it seems, is the true 'good' woman who cannot evoke strong sexual feelings in her admirers. Sleath appears to disregard the notion that ‘female sexuality was . . . assumed to be the defining characteristic of female nature.’(Poovey,1984, 19) I would suggest that Sleath is too safe a writer to truly explore issues of sexuality and that is why, in The Nocturnal Minstrel, none of the relationships have a sexual element, certainly none that the heroine is aware of.
A final discussion of sexuality can take place with regards to imagery. In The Nocturnal Minstrel the 'chamber' is a place which arouses terror in our younger heroine, ' . . . she addressed a prayer to heaven for her preservation from the perils and terrors that seemed to await her in that awful chamber.'(p. 146) At the end of the novel the Baron, in disguise as a sorcerer, leads Gertrude blindfold into his chamber; a strong image of the male dominant, specifically in what was, presumably, the marital bedroom. Significance can also be given to 'secret passages' in this novel, in regards to ‘ female anxieties about male penetration.’ (Radcliffe,1993,xxi) particularly as it is Sir Reginald, the unwanted suitor, who relies on the passage most heavily for his scheme to work. In The Orphan of the Rhine there are strong implications when Laurette contemplates descending a set of stairs which lead outside the castle, ‘ . . . she felt an irresistible inclination to descend’( p. 242) The fear she feels on the beginning of her descent reaffirms the idea of journeys down secret passages, and other aspects of the gothic castles, representing a fear of male penetration: ‘ Scarcely had she descended the stairs before her resolution forsook her, and fear and terror took possession of her faculties.’ (p. 242) Perhaps also significantly, the Marchese arrives at the castle immediately after this event. This incident also lends weight to the idea that sexual danger was one desired subconsciously; an idea which is explored further in later novels such as Wuthering Heights where the hero is a sexual, dark figure. ( Figes,1982,73)
What can be said in conclusion with regards to Sleath’s representation of women? It seems at times that she wishes to bestow upon them more courage and strength than is typical of several of her contemporaries. Radcliffe, whom Sleath closely imitated with The Orphan of the Rhine, also awarded her heroines greater strength and presence of mind. However, essentially her heroines are very typical of the gothic genre, particularly in her earlier novel. In the latter her view is slightly more progressive, as roles are reversed somewhat. Here a woman shares the villainy with a male villain and the heroine has strong friendships with two men. Neither Sleath, nor her contemporaries should be condemned for their reluctance to break from stereotypes for two reasons. Firstly, as stated earlier, it is important for the dynamics of the gothic novel that the heroine is portrayed as helpless both so that she can fight against one male and succumb to another. Secondly, it is important to remember that contemporary readers would not have had the same high expectations of feminism in the novels as a modern reader does. For many readers, just as the heroine enjoys some liberty in exploring her surroundings, so they achieve some liberty in either reading or writing the novel.