Essay on the work of Elizabeth Bonhote, by Karen Rodgers, May 1998
Elizabeth Bonhote's Bungay Castle and The Rambles of Mr Frankly: a Critical Essay
This section will compare two works of fiction, one from the end and one from the beginning of Bonhote’s career. It will examine the presence of a strong grounding in historical fact in her work and the possibility of implicit social and political comment through the use of the Gothic, of sentiment and romance.
In the introduction to Bungay Castle (1796), Bonhote states that she has taken a number of her characters’ names from local figures. De Glanville, Madeline’s family name, seems to originate from Roger de Glanville, a local landowner and builder of the Benedictine Priory, and the name De Huntingfield seems to refer to a prioress from the thirteenth century, Maria de Huntingfield. The Town Recorder notes that the town of Bungay holds a strong defensive position, bordered on three sides by the river Waveney and marshes. As a result, it has been inhabited from the prehistoric era, and a castle has stood on the same site as the present ruins for many centuries. The first was probably built on land given to William de Noyers by William the Conqueror in 1070. A century later, in 1103, Henry I bestowed the castle to Roger Bigod (one of the Barons who signed the Magna Carta), with a number of other manors throughout East Anglia as a reward for his services at the Battle of Hastings. Some time later the castle passed into the family of the Howards, Dukes of Norfolk. They, however, had very little interest in the castle and it gradually fell into decay (1). In 1766 Mr Mickleborough bought the property, and attempted to pull down part of the castle in order to sell the stones as hardcore for road repairs. Fortunately the castle had been so strongly constructed that the workmen broke their picks before the castle could be completely destroyed, and Mr Mickleborough decided that it would not make financial sense to continue, and sold the ruins to Bonhote. Ethel Mann’s assertion that Bonhote constructed the cottage between the two remaining castle towers seems to be erroneous. Hugh Cane, who completed Mann’s An Englishman At Home and Abroad, 1829-1862: Extracts from the Diaries of John Barber Scott of Bungay, reveals that this mistake is a consequence of Mann’s reliance on Scott’s papers. He adds that a print by Kirby dating from 1749 shows that it was built before she was born, although she may have ordered the construction of a summer house elsewhere in the grounds (See Appendix One). Bonhote lived and worked in the castle until around 1800, when she sold it to Charles, Duke of Norfolk, as he wished to regain a property that had once belonged to his ancestors. Unfortunately, by 1818, the castle keep and adjoining buildings had suffered serious neglect once again. They had become home to "the lowest class of people" as a collection of hovels were built around the remaining walls (2).
J.M.S Tompkins notes a tendency among writers of the period to set their fictions in a familiar place, as is the case in Bungay Castle. She points out that the Gothic mode allowed Bonhote to express her fondness for the castle and her hometown, although "her real interest is in domestic morality". On a curter note, E.A. Goodwyn, in East Anglian Literature, states briefly that Bungay Castle was "an early and feeble attempt at an historical novel" (3). Bonhote’s final novel combines elements of "the Gothic" with her more accustomed resort to sentiment and romance. Brendan Hennessey identifies shared features in the beginnings of the Romantic and the Gothic literary traditions, citing a common interest in the medieval and the supernatural. He adds that writers often moved from one genre to the other, as Radcliffe, Lewis, Maturin, and, here, Elizabeth Bonhote included verse in their novels, and Romantic poets "experimented with the Gothic novel and drama" (4). Bungay Castle does contain a number of features common to the more prominent Gothic novels of the period, although they are largely confined to the first volume. These features, also cited by James P. Carson, include its medieval setting, a network of subterranean passageways running beneath the castle, connecting it to a nearby nunnery, and to a neighbouring town. The central characters hear mysterious groans and the rattling of chains before defying their protective father to explore the dungeons and passages beneath the castle (Mann notes that traces of subterranean passageways were indeed found within the castle.) (5). There are a number of instances of apparently poltergeist activity in this chapter, including clanking chains and windows that open and bells that ring unaided. These events lead the young people to exchange local tales of haunting in the castle. When they eventually come across the dungeons they find iron rings on the walls used to restrain prisoners, a coffin that still contains its corpse and a human skull. However, although Bonhote has spent some time weaving these macabre, gothic effects into the plot they are not developed further and are only rarely commented upon in the second half of the novel, once the prisoner is discovered and shown to be Walter, a wrongly imprisoned and beautiful young nobleman. In chapter four a "ghostly" suit of armour is shown to be possessed only by the De Morney’s youngest daughter, and the next time the group visit the dungeons they are greeted not by ghouls but by a small and friendly dog. As the dog leads them along the passages to his master, movement away from the gothic as a thematic element is mirrored by their physical progression towards the prisoner. As they move closer to him their path actually becomes easier and less frightening. They finally arrive not at cold, dank dungeons but two reasonably hospitable and furnished apartments. The ghostly figure within is actually "an elegant young man" with "graceful ringlets", although he does appear to be weak and consumptive. In a contrast to the energetic and argumentative young officers based at the castle, Walter is aligned more closely with the women – he is highly emotional and prone to fainting fits and delusions.
His rival, the reviled Baron Fitzosbourne, might seem better suited to the role of dynamic hero. Certainly he is a socially acceptable suitor for one in Roseline’s position, offering wealth, land and advancement. Hennessey comments that Gothic novelists were very much aware of ‘the hypnotic appeal of their satanic villains, with their "virile beauty"…and which they flaunted as extravagantly as their suffering and cruelty’ (6). However, the Baron’s unpleasant nature is never elaborated upon, and while Roseline is opposed to the match, it is primarily because she has fallen in love with another. The Baron is considerably older than his intended bride, but appears old fashioned rather than cruel or evil, and rumours surrounding the death of his earlier wives are revealed to be unfounded. Carson states that female writers of Gothic fiction often steered away from the more macabre details, and tended to focus instead on "the abuse of power by tyrannical patriarchs and their exploitation of women". He continues:
…it is best understood as a subgenre within the novel of sensibility as it explores the sufferings of persecuted young women…the female gothic focuses intensely on a violation of just those ideals of sociability and rational intercourse that the Enlightenment prized and promoted. (7)
Madeline De Glanville’s situation is very close to Roseline’s, except that her father has pressed her into a nunnery rather than into marriage with a man like Fitzosbourne. Although any criticism is frequently toned down it is still clear that to press the beautiful Madeline into a cloistered life would be extremely cruel. Life at the nunnery is shown to be cold and uninspiring, if not exactly tyrannical. Rather than following a vocation and leading a useful life, one senses that Madeline would be cut off from the outside world completely. All the young people express horror at this prospect and relish the time that she is able to spend at the castle. As the plot progresses, the Abbess, Father Anselm and her father conspire to hasten the beginning of her noviciate, from where there can be no turning back. The usually timid Madeline is so terrified by the prospect she agrees to the potentially dangerous step of escape from the castle and elopement with Edwin. As a consequence, the couple are cast out from their family, and cut off without a home or financial support. But although the author clearly shows the consequences of their rash actions, it could be argued that the conservative social climate of the late eighteenth century compelled her to do so, and the resolution of the plot indicates a measure of sympathy with the couple. Madeline’s father comes to regret his harsh treatment of his daughter, Sir Phillip relents and welcomes the couple back into the family, and harmony is speedily restored. Any implicit criticism of the practice of separating children from friends and family (Madeline and Roseline are only about fourteen) is tempered by the benevolent, welcoming natures of Father Anselm and the Abbess, on her return to St Mary’s.
Bonhote’s novel has a firm basis in historical fact, as for example, The Town Recorder notes that a Benedictine Priory near the site of St Mary’s was erected by Roger de Glanville and his wife Gundreda (widow of Roger Bigod) in around 1160. It was probably attached to the church, and was used both by the nuns and, in a chapel in the north aisle, by the townspeople. According to this text, Madeline’s fate in Bungay Castle would not have been uncommon. Nuns in this area (as, of course across the country) were often recruited from local wealthy families, and would have received instruction in, amongst other things, reading, writing and embroidery. Noviciates would also have received this training, but may have left the order after their probationary period to pass on this knowledge to others in the wider society (8).
Carson notes that Gothic novels often contain figures like Audrey in Bungay Castle, the "talkative and superstitious servant". Following his description, she is indeed faithful to Roseline, and concerned about the change that worry had worked upon her young mistress, and she reveals the gossip that surrounds the Barons visit to the castle - the suspicion that he has come to find a new, young wife, having engineered the death of his two previous spouses. He adds that such characters
…relieve the anxieties of genteel readers who may fear that paternalistic relations of deference and subordination are yielding to those of contract and cash nexus, and that the vertical ties of master and man are being replaced by class solidarity. (9)
Tompkins notes anachronistic details in the novel, such as "De Clavering, acting surgeon to the guard of Bungay Castle during the Baron’s Wars, [who] speaks of his gun and wears a wig". Carson recognises this as a common feature of the eighteenth-century Gothic novel. Even when, like Bungay Castle, it is set in the past, it differs from the later historical novel in its "tendency to ignore historical research, sometimes introducing anachronism in the process" (10). Eva Figes identifies the Gothic genre as a suitable alternative for the female author from the unsuitable picaresque form dominated by the male author during this time. In the Gothic novel, the heroine is able to go on adventures that may well be considered unladylike, but there is no suggestion of the bawdiness expected in a picaresque work. Rather, the heroine is an "innocent victim, and therefore not responsible for her own odyssey" (11). In Bungay Castle, Roseline and Madeline spend a number of nights exploring forbidden dungeons and underground passages, but they are led by Edwin, Roseline’s elder brother. And although their actions have been prohibited, they lead to the rescue of the falsely imprisoned Walter.
However, Figes believes that the Gothic novel owes its direct descent to "the female novel of seduction and betrayal" rather than to the picaresque, and this is certainly a major thematic concern in the novel. She identifies two distinct, but related themes of this type of narrative - "the conduct-in-courtship novel, and the novel of misconduct, of seduction, betrayal and ruin". Correct behaviour for courting couples is clearly defined in The Rambles of Mr Frankly with the chaperoning and guidance offered by Frankly to Miss Conyers and Sir William Selby. The dreadful consequences shown by the second form are highlighted in the second volume by the fate of the local girl ruined by the master she believed to be in love with her. The situation is once again corrected by Frankly, however, who convinces the young aristocrat of the error of his ways and persuades him to marry the girl. A cautionary tale also appears in Bungay Castle in the doomed relationship of Narford and Lucy Blandeville (volume II, chapter I). Orphaned at an early age, Narford had had the misfortune to be brought up by "inexperienced and careless Guardians", who allowed him "as his fortune was genteel, to follow the bent of his own inclinations". Consequently he falls victim to innumerable "vices and follies" and "intemperance" (12). The couple’s actions anticipate those of Edwin and Madeline later in the novel, but this time, the young suitor finds it impossible to alter his immoral behaviour and the match is forbidden by Lucy’s father. Narford’s beloved Lucy falls fatally ill, and the young man is never able to forgive himself – he flings himself on top of her coffin, begging to be buried alive with her. Melodramatic though these actions may seem, they offer a pointed reminder of the dangers likely to follow such rash actions. And the highly emotional tone of this passage, and indeed of much of Bonhote’s work, was part of a tradition of sentimental prose, and verse fashionable in the mid-eighteenth century and still in evidence (though far less popular) at its close (13).
While searching a forbidden wing of the castle, Edwin discovers a different kind of prison cell high in one of the towers. Although barred and isolated it is clearly reserved for "prisoners of rank" and is a further hint of an earlier, more brutal period in the castles’ history. The contents of the room are intriguing - a mouldering tapestry and a desk covered in ancient manuscripts, and at first this episode seems to hint at further twists – perhaps those papers contain information about the characters’ ancestry or about the events that led to Walters arrival at the castle. But once again the Gothic elements of these features are not explored. The tapestry depicts Hero and Leander, and the story of the doomed lovers only serves to remind Edwin of the near impossibility of continuing his relationship with Madeline. The Gothic is largely confined, in the rest of the novel, to brief instances such as the episode where Edwin and Madeline (meeting illicitly in the chapel at St Mary’s) are surprised by cowled monks and veiled nuns. However these are not ghostly figures but "real" characters simply going about their legitimate business. There are a few occasions when Baron Fitzosbourne is greatly disturbed by what appears to be the ghost of his late wife. The figure appears to be displeased and the Baron takes this as a condemnation of his decision to take Roseline as his wife, despite her youth and her wishes to the contrary. The ghostly wife may have served as a useful device in what seems to be one of Bonhote’s central concerns – the dangerous practice of ambitious parents insisting on marriage between unsuitable partners, for financial or societal gain. The implication is that such a marriage is a form of legal prostitution. The violence involved is depicted in Bungay Castle when Sir Phillip, aided by Lady De Morney, threatens his daughter with the loss of her family if she refuses the Barons hand. Sir Philip is particularly anxious for the marriage to go ahead as the Baron is a wealthy and influential man. Not only would the match increase the family’s social standing, it would also clear a number of debts owed by Sir Phillip to the Baron. The impact of such a device in Bungay Castle is lessened, however, when the ghostly figure is revealed by a number of twists in the plot to be the imprisoned Walter. Moreover, the prisoner is discovered to be the son Baron Fitzosbourne never knew existed. Walters’ mother died in childbirth, and the Baron had believed that the child had perished with her. But due to a terrible plot by his wife’s evil brother, Walter had been abducted and confined from babyhood.
Carson states that the Gothic novel inherited from erotic and sentimental fiction a concern with a "virtuous woman under sexual threat". This is evident in this text to a certain extent, in the almost successfully enforced marriage between Roseline and the Baron. He adds:
The character of the hero/villain permits novelists to study heartlessness or to join moral philosophers and proponents of solitary confinement in exploring of the voice of conscience. The virtuous heroine, on the other hand, experiences her own insignificance in the face of sublime nature and Nature’s God and learns of the transience of all human achievement…The heroine’s fears – sometimes imaginary, sometimes legitimate – produce claustrophobia and terror in castle’s, prisons and caves, in which she often discovers moldering manuscripts, sees mysterious lights, and hears mysterious voices. (14)
These features are apparent in Bungay Castle, if only to a limited extent. The Baron appears heartless, both in his attempts to marry Roseline and in the separation he later forces upon Walter from his only friends. But any real blame for the marriage lies with the ambition of her father, and the Baron believes he is giving his new-found son a great opportunity by introducing him at court and allowing him experience of London society.
Solitary confinement may not have produced a philosopher in Walter, but neither has it produced a monster. From the outset he is shown to be graceful and clearly of noble descent. Roseline is made aware of the insignificance of her own wishes in comparison with the survival and advancement of the family name, and is often aligned (in the "Sonnets" written for her by Walter, for example (15)) with the beauty of the natural world, even if she does not actually experience a sublime moment. The fear she and Madeline feel because of an apparently ghostly presence is seen to be exaggerated, if not entirely imagined (the phantom is actually the waif-like Walter). Gary Kelly comments that the "moral and intellectual rightness and plenitude of self of the heroine (to a lesser extent, the hero)" seem to be transcendental absolutes, and can only rarely be explained in sociological terms. The comment that follows does apply to Roseline, but is more pertinent, perhaps, to Madeline and Walter - the former having experienced a far more restricted life than the usual seclusion suffered by a young nobleman’s daughter, not yet introduced into society:
…left to herself by fate or design, the heroine has only to cultivate (and discipline) the innate riches within. So cultivated and disciplined, she is ready to survive or is perfected in surviving the realities, conflicts, dangers, and undisciplined individualism found in the social world around her. (16)
Another instance of marriage in Bungay Castle, where both partners may be considered suitable but where they have married primarily for love is shown to be far more successful. Sir Philip and his wife are seen to learn from the consequences of their ambitiousness and their harsh treatment of their eldest children by allowing the marriages of their youngest daughters, Edeliza and Bertha, to the "worthy" young officers De Willows and Hugh Camelford.
The plot of Bungay Castle seems to involve an amalgamation of what Figes identifies as the "brutish and short" life many experienced until the eighteenth century and elements of the genteel life of the late eighteenth century. Arranged marriages amongst the upper classes were common, with little thought given to love or fondness between the partners. And as may be seen from Baron Fitzosbourne’s experiences, married life was often cut short by the death of either spouse, but particularly of women in childbirth. However, Bungay Castle also shows attitudes, such as those cited by Figes, found by the mid- to late-eighteenth century where, alongside improvements in public health and an increased interest in leisure pursuits, "domestic affection" was greatly desired. Such domestic happiness is a feature of both novels discussed here. According to Figes the selection of a marriage partner for romantic as well as social or financial suitability became a growing concern of much of the fiction of this period as a direct result of this "new freedom, and its attendant pitfalls";
After all, for a woman it was…very often the only moment of choice, and much more depended on her decision…then could ever be the case for a man. Her whole future happiness depended on attracting and choosing the right man. And, given the new freedom from parental authority, guilt and self-reproach were an added ingredient in the misery that followed a misguided voice. (17)
- this often proves to be the case in Bonhote’s work. Characters may disregard other’s advice, but are frequently shown to regret any hasty decisions. Edwin and Madeline are filled with guilt and self-reproach for distress caused to their families following their escape and elopement in Bungay Castle, and the fate of those who marry for money in The Rambles of Mr Frankly is a stark contrast to the more prudent matches of others (not least the Frankly’s themselves).
The issues surrounding marriage are explored more frequently and more explicitly in Bonhote’s first novel, The Rambles of Mr Frankly. The central character, Edmund Frankly, has made a successful marriage and comments on many occasions about the suitability of the marriages of others. Although born into a genteel and wealthy family, Frankly was cheated out of his inheritance by a number of debts concealed by his father. But Frankly is far from bitter, and has resolved to view this deception in a positive light as it has allowed him to follow his vocation in the church with piety and humility. His career allowed him to marry Julia Selwyn, a local Clergyman’s daughter. Happily she is both beautiful and virtuous although, following what appears to be Bonhote’s agenda, it may be more significant that she too has little money and comes from a similar social class. Bonhote gives an earlier example of the views shown in Bungay Castle, as by marrying a lowly curate, Julia has angered her influential aunt, Lady Lovegold, who had tried to persuade Mr Selwyn to forbid the match and had threatened to withdraw her support of her brothers’ family. Frankly praises Mr Selwyn’s worthiness, lack of ambition and ability to live on a very modest income. He comments upon what he considers to be correct behaviour for both men and women, but while his thoughts on men seem to be primarily concerned with their need for moral improvement, his criticism of women seems to concentrate (at least at first) on their physical appearance - women should be modestly attired, with no unnecessary adornments. This is made explicit in his description of "The Painted Beauty". Frankly condemns her unwillingness to remain content with her natural appearance. He feels that she has spoilt her beauty by an excessive use of cosmetics, and her attempts to improve upon nature are degrading and immodest. Judging from Todd’s account the plot of Bonhote’s first novel is very close to Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey. The Rambles of Mr Frankly, too, has little plot "beyond a journey of the heart across the simplified social map usually followed by the wandering man of feeling", and Frankly also acts "spontaneously and emotionally". The principle differences seem to be an absence of the "bawdiness" of Sterne’s narrative and the fact that Bonhote’s novel is confined to the south and east of England (18). It also shares the same motivations as A Sentimental Journey. Todd asserts that sentimental texts are "necessarily fragmented", expressing sensibility which is "inevitably expressed in moments". In The Rambles of Mr Frankly this fragmentary quality takes the form of walks and journeys of varying lengths – some lasting just one day, others much longer leading him further afield. Each ramble contains within it a series of brief descriptions and impressions of the people and events he sees. As in A Sentimental Journey this fragmentary quality becomes "the organising principle of the book":
The story is a series of fragments, a progress through more and more places and more and more emotions. (19)
In The Rambles of Mr Frankly, Bonhote shows that, while parents may be wrong to force their children into marriage, disobedience on the child’s part may also have very serious consequences. In volume four, Sir William Selby explains how against his parents wishes, he married for love rather than for advancement. As a consequence, his parents forbade him ever to contact them again, and withdrew all but a minimum of financial assistance. His wife soon succumbed to the temptations of luxury and society, and ran away from her husband into the arms of one he had considered to be a dear friend. Miss Conyers has also suffered romantic disappointment and humiliation - Captain Manly, the man she had intended to marry, abandoned her in favour of her titled mistress, Lady Highmore, and to add to her misery, Lady Highmore insisted that Miss Conyers remain in her service. The Frankly’s eventually contrive to bring together Sir William and Miss Conyers, resolving the situation. The young lady is vindicated at the novels’ close, when the inconstant Captain Manly attempts to woo her once more only to be rejected absolutely. His marriage to the noble woman has ended in her early death, but she and Sir William, having found happiness and love with suitable partners live on together. Ill-advised relationships are not always shown to be the fault of the parents. In the second volume of The Rambles of Mr Frankly, youth and inexperience had led Almena to pursue the unworthy and inconstant Rolando. Fortunately she soon realises her mistake, and is able to return after many apologies, to her benevolent father and form a relationship with the more suitable, loving and aptly named Fidelio (But once again, this happy reunion could only be brought about after the intervention of Mr Frankly). Bonhote’s condemnation of the satisfaction of greed and ambition through the marriage of one’s children is far more explicit in her first novel. Frankly encounters the unfortunate Evander and Zorayda, as they part forever. Zorayda’s father has forced her into marriage with a titled "libertine" and "debaucher". Coming to the young woman’s aid, Frankly wonders "How often does the fondness – folly – or sordidness of parents force their children into splendid wretchedness!".
Bonhote shows some awareness of the problems in society on a number of occasions. In Bungay Castle there are quite subtle references to the low standards of living experienced by the poor, and a clear reference to prostitution and a brothel in the second volume. However, by this stage in her career, Bonhote seems far more concerned with the romantic elements of the story, and her first novel seems to deal with such issues in a far more explicit manner. One clear example of this comes in volume four during the "Matrimonial Scene". Frankly comes across a man who is beating his wife, calling her an "extravagant, lazy, thoughtless Bitch". Harsh language and scenes like this are not found in Bungay Castle. Even though it is set in a more violent time – at a military installation during the Wars of the Roses (20) – the characters never seem to come to blows, though cross words and threats are often made, particularly among the lively young officers. In this case the wife is shown to be innocent of the "crimes" her husband accuses her of, but it seems hard to believe that such an aggressive character may be so quickly shown the error of his ways by Frankly, despite the latter’s virtuous, compassionate nature. This "social awareness" may also be seen in volume two as Frankly visits the hospital. He comments that "Poverty is a disease which a great part of the world fly from as carefully as they would fly from the plague", but there seems to be something almost self-congratulatory as he observes the "spacious building" with its "noble purpose", he adds that "Well might the stranger exclaim – that the English beggars lived in a palace". This suggests that the authors’ knowledge of the actual conditions of the poor was not so acute.
Gary Kelly examines the Gothic as a form of representation of class conflict in Britain and between other states during the revolutionary era of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Bungay Castle could be included amongst the group of novels written in the 1790s that he finds were far more explicit, politically. Such works included the usual concerns of the novel of manners, but added "prison and madhouse scenes, extravagantly egotistical villains, episodes of persecution, harassment, flight and pursuit,…secret intrigues cabals, and association of the villainous with the courtly and the foreign". Although there seems little evidence foreign villainy here, one may agree with Kelly’s point that courtly culture itself is somehow "un-English" – it is "shallow and ineffectual in the long run, and doomed to fail in the face of Bourgeois values". He finds it remarkable that, at a time of such violence only a few miles across the channel, the bourgeoisie in Britain challenged the aristocracy with such passive means ("France had a revolution; Britain read Gothic romances"). However, though "progressive" they continued to view those in the lower ranks as "individually feckless, superstitious [and] garrulous." (21)
Figes offers a possible explanation for the difference in tone between Bonhote’s first and her final novels. Born into a genteel family, Bonhote was not forced to write through economic necessity, and publishing anonymously she may have felt a sense of "freedom and enjoyment" that allowed her to comment clearly on issues such as marital violence and slavery in her first novel. But by the publication of Bungay Castle her prose style seems to have mellowed. The novel’s introduction clearly states its didactic intent and her intention to steer clear of any form of political debate. Bonhote declares that she is
Firmly attached to her King, perfectly satisfied with our laws and constitution, and grateful to heaven for being permitted to live under so mild and just a government…She will ever remain contented to leave politics and the affairs of state to be settled by better, wiser, and more experienced heads.
She had by this time acquired a modest degree of fame, had published her works under her name and become a Minerva best seller. Figes believes that this would have led to a great, even "insidious", "social and moral pressure":
One can see this kind of pressure being exerted on both Burney and Edgeworth, and in the case of these writers their first book remained their best one. (22)
Another factor may have been the increasing tension that arose in England in reaction to the excesses of revolutionary fervour in France. By the mid 1790s, habeas corpus had been suspended, and the merest suspicion of sedition carried very serious penalties. The hopeful Whiggish view of "England’s blessed history" had been fatally injured, despite those, such as Bonhote in her poems of 1810 (23), who would sing loudly in praise of it:
The public mood…had become deeply confused…It was also a period when the past and the future – remnants of medievalism and harbingers of industrialisation – confusingly overlapped. (24)
This "confusion" may go some way to explaining what at times seems to be a curious juxtaposition of a medieval setting and contemporary detail in Bungay Castle.
In both Bungay Castle and The Rambles of Mr Frankly, Bonhote comments upon the problems faced by female authors. In the latter the problem is addressed quite clearly through the device of a character in the second volume. A young woman is jeered at, while dining in an inn, simply because she is a writer. Mr Frankly takes pity on her and asks how she is able to bear such ill treatment. She explains that, though "unluckily born", she had a strong desire to study that increased with age. As a consequence she found herself ostracised by society, and following the death of her father, penniless. She married, but was subjected to further misfortunes, as neither partner was able to secure a livelihood. In growing desperation, the young woman published her works anonymously and they met with some success. But this was not enough to stop her husband being sent to gaol as a debtor, and she reports that all their problems had been put down to the young man’s marriage to a "bookish wife". Frankly offers friendship and financial support. In fact, a speedy offer of financial assistance seems to be Frankly’s favoured way of aiding those in need, only rarely does his offer more lasting solutions to the problems of the sick and disadvantaged. Of course there must be a limit to how many people one man can help on his own, and Frankly seems to be one of the few monied people willing to help those with nothing (even though he reports this fact himself). Todd comments that "The giving of money is especially moving when the power of giving is accompanied by some weakness in the giver". Frankly recognises and regrets his own vanity, but never successfully restrains his self-congratulatory impulses. Todd’s description places Frankly’s character within a tendency to create a "benevolent man who dispenses charity" but who receives "no monetary reward although he is usually paying for and expecting to be rewarded by an emotional display" (25).
In Bungay Castle the issue of the female writer is addressed directly by Bonhote in the introduction. But whereas in her first novel, the problems they faced are clearly seen to be the fault of society’s perception of that career, rather than the fault of the individual, in her last work Bonhote argues on the woman’s behalf in much vaguer terms. She states that her intention in writing this novel is not to "[inflame] the passions" or "[corrupt] the heart", but to "amuse the mind, and withdraw the attention away from scenes of real distress", and modestly expects condemnation of her work. As Frankly recommends in the final chapter of her first novel, Bonhote states her intention to steer clear of any discussion of the political situation of the time. Figes has pointed out that female novelists of this era tended to come from a social level where their family was able to "indulge in the luxury of educating their daughters". The latter half of the eighteenth century began to see a growth in prosperity, at least among the upper and trading classes. Menial domestic tasks were increasingly carried out by domestic staff rather than female members of the family, and as a consequence such women had "far more time for leisure pursuits of self-improvement". Figes asserts that women of this period may well have received, if not a higher standard of education, then certainly far more useful instruction than their male counterparts. She cites Mrs Eliza Fox:
Boys at Grammar school…are taught Latin and Greek, despise the simpler paths of learning, and are generally ignorant of really useful matters of fact, about which a girl is better informed.
Figes refers to a general consensus on the correct education of women from the upper classes. She should be neither "frivolous", nor educated in the classics (thereby threatening masculine dominance in a traditionally male field of learning). Essentially, she should be "sufficiently well-informed to make an agreeable companion for her husband and to educate her young children in their early years" (26).
Such attitudes are clearly evident in Bonhote’s work. Frivolity in the appearance of both men and women is frowned upon in The Rambles of Mr Frankly, and women are constantly urged to learn acceptance of their fate, whatever it should be, and to defer to the status and judgement of their husband. The importance of the transfer of a mothers’ knowledge and wisdom to her child is clearly evident in The Parental Monitor, written by Bonhote in anticipation of the event of her death, which urges the importance of manners and acceptance of one’s lot. Figes notes an "anxious ambiguity" felt by female writers of this period. They would often adapt a defensive and didactic tone, distancing their fiction from that of "other" "second-rate" or morally dubious writers (27). By adopting a conservative, morally superior tone (as in her novels), or a light-hearted tone (the poems written on the destruction of the Corn Cross) Bonhote was able to justify her profession to any detractors.
A liberal, though solidly middle class, attitude is clearly revealed during the final volume of The Rambles of Mr Frankly, with the passage on "The Deformed Black". As Frankly reaches him, the man is being mocked by a small crowd. He is deformed, and Frankly notes the likelihood that he is a former slave, now abandoned in an unfamiliar country and forced to beg for his survival. He carries a French horn and pitifully begins to play it in the hope of distracting the crowd, but their jeering escalates until the crowd swells and people begin to throw dirt and stones at him. Frankly rushes in and single-handedly halts the near lynching. The man is extremely grateful and throws himself at Frankly’s feet, vowing to be his slave. But instead of helping the man to achieve any kind of independence Frankly accepts this proposal and actually renames him Benevolus. The reader is given no real sense of the man’s true identity, though Frankly asserts that he "was a Christian at heart". And despite Benevolus’ previous treatment at the hands of successive white "masters", Frankly would have the reader believe that "He cherished no resentment in his bosom". Moira Ferguson identifies The Rambles of Mr Frankly as a response to "the cause célèbre of James Somerset’s legal opposition to his personal enslavement in Britain". Frankly’s description of "The Deformed Black"
…derives from a traditional white cultural standpoint, complete with slaves’ alleged speech patterns, so favoured by sentimental literature. Denied agency, Africans will be given the "right" to white Christian values; this undifferentiated "they" will be "allowed" to enter paradise if they become Christians. Bonhote’s narrator knows best what slaves want….Bonhote through Frankly allies herself with received contemporary thinking. (28)
This thinking, arising from Somerset’s case favoured a humanitarian approach. Although the African should conform to behaviour that reaffirms "British modes of thinking and living", and in fact, "They must be spoken for rather than speak themselves":
Under the guise of benevolence, [Bonhote] implicitly validates the great chain of being in conjunction with class and colonial dominance: the "poor" African is a destined social inferior who deserves help; Frankly is a surrogate parent horrified at an orphan’s condition. (29)
By assimilating the former slave, Bonhote, through the medium of Frankly, renders him harmless, and non-threatening. In this way her fiction reflects contemporary anxieties regarding the colonised "other". Ferguson adds that the figure of James Somerset as represented by "The Deformed Black" is portrayed here as "a man without recourse or smart discourse, battered ruthlessly in the United Kingdom". He is
…a helpless, simple man with a hint of emasculation about him, who, above all, does not threaten women, let alone Europeans in general. (30)
Bonhote’s novels could also be seen to offer comment upon the attitude of the church. Hennessey, examining Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, asserts that the Roman Catholic Church was frequently used in the Gothic novel, allowing the author to explore "the secretive, ritualistic life on convent and monastery, and the terrors of the inquisition…". He adds that the treatment may often be vague, using these features in a symbolic manner, rather than making any attempt at realism. Carson states that employing a Roman Catholic setting provides the author with the opportunity of giving a "Protestant attack on the apparatus of tyranny associated with papism and Continental absolutism" (31).
Bonhote’s criticism of the church is largely confined to Catholicism, at least in her final novel. In her first novel, Mr Frankly is shown to be a virtuous man, but seems to be a poor, country, protestant curate. He questions the sincerity of the Methodist preacher he meets in Hyde Park, saying, "the lifting up of their hands and eyes, is no proof of their religion", but quickly reproaches himself for his lack of generosity, and allows that the Methodist church does good work for "the lower ranks of people" by instilling in them faith and discipline. Frankly reserves harsher criticism for the Gospel Preacher, comparing the man’s extravagant clothing with his own, more humble attire. He adds that "He looks more like a jockey, - a dashing fellow, - than a servant of God…Can that cropt head, that magpie waistcoat, those tasty pantaloon, and laced cravat be proper habiliments for a Clergyman?". Not only is he dressed inappropriately he behaves with roughness and cruelty towards his numerous servants. The preachers’ behaviour is also in stark contrast to that of the Quaker woman Frankly observes in the next passage. She is a perfect example of Frankly’s view of the feminine ideal, "her dress is plain, simple and unbecoming, - and she is fairer than many of the painted tabernacles that are much finer". Perhaps Bonhote’s reflections, through Frankly, on these non-conformist figures stems from a suspicion of potentially extremist behaviour, whether it be from members of the Catholic Church or the Protestant, and any consequent threat of civil disobedience. The novel form itself, when taken to be a ‘"truthful" representation of contemporary manners’, was felt to be one of a number of "the improving inventions of a Protestant age" (32) (my italics).
Bonhote’s novels seem to fall within the bounds of eighteenth century popular fiction, but Carson believes that Gothic fiction should not be considered any more "popular" than other eighteenth century fictions, as levels of illiteracy were still high, particularly amongst the lower classes. However, Hennessey states that a great deal of what may be considered Gothic fiction is essentially "popular" literature, "intended primarily as escapist entertainment", and this could certainly be applied to the novels discussed here. Kelly also asserts that
Certainly Gothicism…of this period [has] been treated in literary history as escapist fantasy for jaded middle-class readers, as powerful expressions of the human psyche, and, more recently, as rich if contradictory figurings of patriarchal and bourgeois ideology. The Gothic and the Oriental were also powerful figures for male sexual and social power over women. (33)
Carson asserts that the Gothic novel is "usually defined by its stereotyped characters, or formulaic plots", often involving "usurpation of a title or an estate", or a "hidden crime" (34). Both feature in Bungay Castle - in the abduction and imprisonment of Walter, the rightful heir of Baron Fitzosbourne. That Bonhote’s novels are formulaic may be seen by a comparison of the plots of the novels discussed here, and by a brief examination of another novel Darnley Vale, or Emilia Fitzroy by Goodwyn. He states that it is an epistolary novel, written from the perspective of a number of characters:
A form Mrs Bonhote used with considerable skill in the management of the story, the creation of suspense and the revelation of character. (35)
From his account, one can clearly see similar trends running through Bonhote’s work. Once again the heroine is beautiful, accomplished and "of extreme sensibility". She is disappointed in love when her suitor falls under the influence of the evil Sir Charles Modish, and marries for money instead. Meanwhile the heroine, Emilia, has gone to visit an aunt in London, allowing a comparison of urban life with the rural. As in The Rambles of Mr Frankly and Bungay Castle, Emilia angers her aunt by refusing to marry a socially suitable, wealthy, but elderly suitor. However, the main concern of the plot is the attempts by Sir Charles to seduce Emilia, despite his marriage to one of her friends. Echoing Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Sir Charles engineers her abduction to Darnley Vale where, discarded by her aunt, she becomes a companion to the Dowager Lady Eltham and later falls in love with her son though she believes such a match to be far beyond her. A number of misunderstandings, trials, and reconciliations follow, in a similar way to those in Bungay Castle, and the reported romantic difficulties discussed above in The Rambles of Mr Frankly. Finally, if not exactly unexpectedly, Emilia and Lord Eltham are married. Once again the good are rewarded with happiness and contentment, and the bad are severely punished – in this case, Sir Charles dies repentant following a hunting accident.
According to Kelly’s perspective, the Gothicism of Bungay Castle is an extension of her overriding concern with sensibility and manners. This concern is clearly evident in the novels discussed here. Kelly’s definition of the sentimental novel is particularly relevant:
Novels of manners depict the effects of decadent court culture and social practices – "manners" – on the emulative members of the gentry, middle, and servant classes in contemporary society. (36)
Such emulation by Bonhote’s characters usually proves to be misguided. Walter is almost coerced into marriage with a young prostitute and Audrey, the servant girl, is mocked for attempting to imitate her betters in her final novel. Mr Frankly offers assistance to a lower class girl abandoned and ruined by her aristocratic lover, and on a number of occasions, high social rank is shown to be an inefficient gage of moral character. Kelly continues:
Such novels also celebrate inward moral and intellectual attributes – "sentiments" or "sensibility" – at the expense of merely social categories of meaning and value, for the merely social was seen to be under the hegemony of the courtly classes. In short, such novels mount a critique of court politics and culture from the point of view of the "progressive" middle classes and such novels display and criticise the dissemination of courtly hegemony through the fashion system and the increasing commercialization of culture. (37)
These factors are clearly evident in Bonhote’s work. Characters paying too much attention to fashion in her first work are bluntly criticised, and the London court is seen to have a damaging effect on the fragile Walter. Bonhote’s "progressive" attitudes may also be seen in her treatment of the poor and sick in her novels as discussed above, and also in her attitude to cultural change evidenced in the poems.
According to Todd, the "cult of sensibility" is found particularly to fiction from the 1740s to the 1770s. At first it indicated correct modes of behaviour, but towards the end of the century it began to focus on the desire to "make readers weep and in teaching them when and how much to weep". It also, as may be seen clearly in both novels discussed here, provided "archetypal victims":
The chaste suffering woman, happily rewarded in marriage or elevated into redemptive death, and the sensitive, benevolent man whose feelings are too exquisite for the acquisitiveness, vulgarity and selfishness of the world. (38)
Todd’s assertion that such works moralised rather than provided analysis is certainly borne out by an examination of The Rambles of Mr Frankly and Bungay Castle. There is precious little analysis of underlying motives, or behaviours, rather the author seems concerned with "the communication of common feeling from sufferer or watcher to reader or audience". As Figes maintains, women writers of this period were certainly not "feminist revolutionaries". Their primary goal was to persuade the reader to accept the status quo, and to teach them "to adapt to the standards of a male world in order to survive" (39).