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Corvey ‘Adopt an Author’ |
Elizabeth Helme

The Corvey Project at
Sheffield Hallam University

Synopsis of The Pilgrim of the Cross; or, The Chronicles of Christabelle de Mowbray (1805) by Elizabeth Helme; Sharon Watson, May 1998

The title, The Pilgrim of the Cross, originates from the subplot of this novel, which is really about The chronicles of Christabelle de Mowbray. Whilst the text is in itself fictional, it is based upon the historical and religious Christian crusades of 1096, when the Christian crusaders travelled from Europe to Jerusalem in an attempt to take control of the land where their religion was born. The novel begins with the discovery of the chronicles in a monastery in Durham by a scholar in the reign of King Henry VIII. The chronicles themselves are the basis for this didactic novel. The text contains intertwining narratives of the crusaders of the generation of Richard Coeur de Lion and the pilgrimage made by that generation's offspring.

The first volume acquaints the readers with the central male characters, Baron de Pointz and the Knight FitzHugh. De Pointz has matured experiencing the absence of his mother, the Lady Christabelle de Falconberg, following her disagreeable marriage with his father, Baron Gilbert de Pointz. At the start of the novel, the two males are discussing the loss of the Baroness who has died, leaving her estate to a Christabelle de Mowbray, her companion in age and the daughter of her lifelong friend Robert de Mowbray, who was also her husband's enemy. From the outset of the tale, we are made aware by attendant that the Baroness de Pointz' ultimate desire would have been a marriage between her beloved son and Christabelle de Mowbray. However, believing that his mother's dear companion had retired to a convent shortly after the death of the Baroness and was now herself in the hands of God, de Pointz is resigned to merely witnessing the chronicles of her life. It is these chronicles and a message from his father in a dream that encourages de Pointz to embark upon a Christian pilgrimage to Palestine. It is during his journey and whilst at his destination that the plot deepens, the many characters of the novel are cleverly interwoven, and ambivalent details are unraveled.

Volume II sees the disappearance and re-discovery of the heartfelt chronicles which de Pointz had decided to take with him on his journey. The chronicles fell into the hands of another character who is extreme significant to the plot and to the novelís lessons on virtue, modesty, untainted morality and the necessity of preserving Christian faith. The holder of the chronicles is known as 'Bertram of the Cross' and is described as handsome in an almost feminine way. The young pilgrim Bertram is most direct in his speech, and whilst de Pointz develops a deep friendship with him, he is prone to uncontrollable emotional breakdowns. Nevertheless, Bertram and his comrades accompany de Pointz and FitzHugh on the remainder of their pilgrimage and Bertram even prevents de Pointz from being slain by a Saracen in combat.

Bertram is dominated by the strength of his Christian faith and provides a constant reminder that the power and spread of Christianity is their purpose and that Providence will act as their guide throughout the pilgrimage. It is Bertram who persuades de Pointz to assist in tending the wounded Saracens after combat and to emancipate the slaves. It is via this process of emancipation that we encounter Jaques, a Christian pilgrim imprisoned by the Saracens, and Hamet, a Saracen whom they discover in a dungeon. Hamet proceeds to tell his own narrative, of how his father (also called Hamet) was the Saracen leader, and how his own brother Othman betrayed him in order to secure his empire. Whilst de Pointz is skeptical of Hamet, Bertram regards it as his duty to love (a persistent theme of the novel). It is his love which holds the power to convert Hamet to the Christian faith. Hamet's brother is now dead, his empire destroyed by the Soldan who is now also seeking Hamet.

The reader can interpret the strength of Christianity throughout the novel and observe the characters coming together as a unified force. Amongst the friendships is that of de Pointz and FitzHugh. FitzHugh is dubious of Bertram's affiliation with de Pointz and is particularly disillusioned by the pilgrim's lack of interest in members of the opposite sex. Therefore, he is further vexed when Bertram attempts to intervene in his opportunity to visit some girls. Bertram persuades de Pointz not to visit the females, convincing him that it would allow his soul to be polluted. It is not until the knight has been absent some time that Hamet suggest that he may have been duped by the girls and kidnapped. Bertram offers jewels to de Pointz for FitzHugh's ransom, and though FitzHugh refuses, he wishes to question the pilgrim's true background because it is odd that he should possess such wealth. Such clues are indicative of the fact that the novel is built upon secrecy and duplicity.

A further bond develops between the 'saintlike' Bertram and Hamet as Bertram is witnessed burying a golden censor in the ground so that the soul of Hamet's now deceased loved one, Selima, can be protected from evil. Hamet is then eager to learn the Christian language to converse with Bertram.

Beneath the central plot of the Christian crusades are a number of subplots which focus on the relationships between the characters. Particular attention is given to achieving a conquest of morality over vice. The theme of disguise is also prominent. The author directs her readers toward clues which suggest that the characters might not be all that they seem.

The third volume of the novel further develops the ideas of disguise and duplicity. After a short combat with the Saracens, following the concealment of Hamet, whose sister, we learn, was Christabelle de Mowbray's mother, the Christians set sail for England. They arrive in England during a violent thunderstorm in which Bertram's male companion Alan is revealed to be a woman. FitzHugh, despite being horrified by the discovery, is also startled by her beauty. The revelation, however, discloses Bertram's deceit, and FitzHugh believes that the pilgrim desires the woman 'Alan'. Bertram is forced to leave and the rosary he has kept remains as a symbol of his innocence, which he aims to prove.

Following the return to England and the departure of Bertram, the Baron de Pointz meets and falls in love with a woman who reveals herself as Adnee, daughter of his deceased mother's vassal. De Pointz vows not to allow Adnee's inferior rank to inhibit his love for her (though he permits others to ask for her hand in marriage. At this stage of the narrative, the reader remains exposed to many unanswered questions, in particular the real story behind Bertram's actions.

The final volume of this long and complex novel sees the true identities of the characters revealed. Christabelle de Mowbray, the daughter of Robert de Mowbray, reveals that she had only been presumed dead, and, fearing that the same fate that had awaited her father lay before de Pointz, she adopted the disguise of Bertram and her associates likewise disguised themselves and accompanied her on her pilgrimage. The pilgrim Jaques is uncovered as Robert de Mowbray, who relates his tale of sorrow endured during his many years as a Christian slave. All crimes of disguise are forgiven, and the houses of De Pointz and De Mowbray are united with the marriage of Christabelle and de Pointz. The novel closes with a list of names of the next generation of de Pointzes and FitzHughs. The family houses are united, the Christian faith is ever rewarded, and the charters that had existed under the reign of Richard Coeur de Lion are restored to their former glory.