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Mary Martha Sherwood

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Essay on the work of Mary Martha Sherwood, by Beth Anna Ridley, May 2003

‘There Is Some Mystery in this Affair’: Gothic Influences in Two Novels by Mary Sherwood

Mystery is intriguingly prominent in the novels The Traditions (1795) and Margarita (1799) by Mary Sherwood. It is the attention paid to mystery that reveals it as a defining element of the Gothic tradition, the dominant presence of which reflects the literary trend of Gothic romance during the period when Sherwood produced these two novels.
This ‘rage’ (Kroll 1998: 191) within the Gothic reached its height in Mary Sherwood’s time. She would have been exposed to the ideas and influence of this genre because of its widespread popularity. The recognizable role of mystery as entertainment within the Gothic renders it crucial to both of the texts in the author’s aim to engage and involve her readers. In this essay I will probe the entertainment value of mystery, and I will demonstrate how it is the Gothic genre itself that propels and articulates the complex role of mystery in both of Sherwood’s novels.
The differences in the role that mystery plays in the plots of The Traditions (1795) and Margarita (1799) can be attributed to the impact which contrasting Gothic texts had on Mary Sherwood. I will illustrate the manner in which this is manifested in her novels. My investigation into the Gothic influence upon Sherwood will also lead to an exploration of the effect that contemporary society itself had upon the role of mystery in popular novels.
Previous studies of Gothic texts have put components of the Gothic into context regarding their historical setting. I will show how Sherwood’s social environment, with its expectations and restrictions, is clearly visible in the way mystery is used in The Traditions and Margarita. The role of mystery is vital to both of the novels. My essay will demonstrate that the inspiration and motivation behind this are far more intricate than may at first be assumed.

Gothic Influences
The influences that surrounded Mary Sherwood can be identified in the differing roles played by the element of mystery in her early novels. The Traditions (1795) appears to exemplify attributes of what is considered to be the ‘first of the Gothic romances’ (Steeves: 246), Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). Walpole’s novel can be considered to have incited the genre, which by the 1790s had obtained a ‘position of dominance’ (Kroll 1998: 191). The Traditions incorporates elements of this influential novel. The assertion that ‘the Gothic novel stressed terror’ (MacCarthy 1944: 371) initiates the construction of mystery as a device for promoting fear in the reader. The manner in which Sherwood introduces this fear in The Traditions appears to stem directly from a device used in The Castle of Otranto: the presentation of a mysterious prediction. This prediction initiates the plot in The Castle of Otranto; this ‘ancient prophecy’ is thought to have declared ‘that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be too large to inhabit it’ (Walpole 1764: 17). This prophecy begins Walpole’s novel, and although its details seem obscure, it does foretell the strange events that occur in the novel.
This mysterious prediction sets up the note of intrigue for the reader. It entices the reader from the beginning with the need to discover if the mystery is going to unfold in line with the obscure and strange prediction.
Mary Sherwood employs this ‘instigating’ role of mystery in The Traditions, in the same way as Walpole. The opening of The Traditions presents two conflicting, and therefore somewhat baffling, predictions from the feuding families of St Alban and de Montfort. The St Alban family believes in a prophecy that says there will be a ‘union of de Montfort and St Alban’ and that it will be ‘effected’ by the son of Lord St Alban (Sherwood 1796: I, 4). The de Montfort family, on the other hand, have been forewarned that ‘dreadful are the miseries which the daughters of the house of de Montfort shall suffer in the castle of St Alban’ (Sherwood 1796: I, 3). These predictions derive from the head of each family, but what has provoked them is never fully explained; it is left a mystery. The Earl de Montfort’s predictions are not prompted by any other party, and are represented to the reader as his dying words. Lord St Alban gains his insight from a ‘tremendous omen which he never could be prevailed upon to reveal’ (Sherwood 1796: I, 3). Walpole and Sherwood both use an unexplained and mysterious prophecy as the framework for their novels. Thus mystery is a persistent element within The Traditions and The Castle of Otranto, never accounted for rationally. It is the feature which draws the strongest comparison between these two novels. The predictions dictate the lives of characters in the novels and foresee events that occur in the plots. The fear that the predictions provoke in the characters excites curiosity in the reader. The mystery creates possibilities in the plots that the reader is urged on to uncover.
The alarm which Gothic texts create has been connected to their presentation of the supernatural. The theme of the supernatural, presented as a fearful mystery, creates another link between of The Castle Otranto and The Traditions. The supernatural is upfront in Walpole’s work. The introduction of a ‘monstrous helmet’ and ‘enormous sword’ (Clery 1995: 71) heralds the return of the murdered Prince Alfonso. This ghost is dramatically presented to the reader. Mary Sherwood’s novel The Traditions also features a ghost. The character of Matilda has been confined by Lady Isabella in the Castle of St Alban. It is during this experience that Matilda contemplates suicide until a vision of her father appears to her. She narrates the way in which his calming words ensured that ‘very painful recollection was at once dissipated’ (Sherwood 1796: II, 159). This visitation lifts Matilda’s spirits, and it is this change that prompts her escape from Lady Isabella. When she gets back home, Matilda learns that her father has in the interim passed away, and that ‘I was afterward informed by my mother that my father died on that very night’ (Sherwood 1796: II, 160) – that is, the night his spirit came to her in her imprisonment.
The ghost’s appearance is accounted for – and apparently justified – by confirmation that it manifested at the moment of death. Both Walpole and Sherwood encourage the belief in the supernatural. The mystery of these extraordinary events is not probed but rather used to surprise the reader. The introduction of ghosts is an element of action within the plots of their novels. There is no further explanation, and both the characters and the readers are expected to accept that the supernatural does occur in reality.
However, it can be argued that Mary Sherwood’s supernatural event is less shocking and more tentative than Walpole’s. The claim can be made that ‘a ghost is acceptable’ if it ‘exemplifies and instils the laws of moral conduct’ (Clery 1995: 84). The ghost of Matilda’s father prevents her from committing the cardinal sin of suicide. His words also prompt her to recollect the moral behaviour that she should uphold: ‘Should those repine who can look forward to the joys of eternal life?’ (Sherwood 1796: II, 157). He questions her faith in God and reminds her of the rewards for maintaining it. He is trying to restore her moral conduct.
If the ghost is admissible because of its virtuous nature, then the mystery surrounding it may not have elicited the fear that Walpole’s evocation of the supernatural does. This reinforces the assertion regarding Walpole’s work that, ‘beside a murderous helmet a simple ghost begins to look almost common place’ (Clery 1995: 84). This comment belittles the ghost in The Traditions and depreciates the experience of fear it would have engendered in the reader.
The suggestion that ghosts were used frequently in novels of this time prompts notions about other contemporary trends in literature. Mary Sherwood’s use of a ghost can be linked to the idea that ‘by the 1790s, ghost stories had undergone a revolution … [ghosts] dominated the literary scene’ (Clery 2000: 8). This would have made the introduction of a ghost in The Traditions up to date with the demands of literature. The mystery of the supernatural remains in The Traditions, as compared with The Castle of Otranto, even if Sherwood’s use of this device may have been viewed as the more ‘acceptable’ of the two.
The terror that is associated with the Gothic can also be seen in the presentations of physical danger in late 18th-century literature. The mystery surrounding threats of violence creates fear for the characters and the reader. The violence in Walpole’s novel seems to have influenced Sherwood in The Traditions. Early on in The Castle of Otranto, an enormous helmet falls from above, killing Prince Manfred’s son. The mystery of how this happened can be classified an ‘aggressive’ or ‘active’ mystery, and has its echoes in The Traditions when Matilda’s baby boy is found stabbed by Elfrida. She describes how he was as ‘pale as death; his eyes were closed, and his white robes stained with blood’ (Sherwood 1796: I, 209). The threat of physical violence has been made real. The mystery behind the violence becomes more intense and deepens the reader’s anticipation of its resolution. This is the effect of mystery in action. Elfrida even comments that this situation is a ‘mysterious horror’ (Sherwood 1796: I, 209). However, Matilda’s boy does not die. The violence, it can then be suggested, is less shocking and powerful than in Otranto. Both the supernatural and the brutality in The Traditions appear to be weaker versions than those found in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. It is relevant, however, to consider that Sherwood may have been influenced by Walpole’s work and may have chosen to adopt certain features without mirroring them precisely.
Mary Sherwood’s father was extremely well read and an encouraging influence upon his daughter. Significantly, he had a great ‘love for old literature’ (Gilchrist 1907: 20). It would seem likely that he would have had a copy of The Castle of Otranto. The young Mary could have read it or had discussions about it with her father. As mentioned, the use of mysterious predictions is a device used by both Walpole and Sherwood. It is such a strong feature that it would be unjust to assume Sherwood didn’t consider Walpole’s use of this device in his work. She may not have closely imitated The Castle of Otranto but her mysterious elements can be linked to his ‘inhibited’ approach (Clery 1995: 109). If Walpole’s novel began the Gothic romance, then it is surely possible to find similarities with novels that continued this genre. The fact that The Traditions (1795) was written earlier than Margarita (1799) may make it more likely that Sherwood referred to an earlier influence such as Walpole.
Mary Sherwood’s later novel, Margarita (1799), can be viewed as reflecting a different influence within the Gothic tradition. This time, a clear literary forebear was Ann Radcliffe.
Radcliffe adapted the Gothic form and wrote texts such as The Mysteries of Udolpho (1764) in a way that contrasts with that of Walpole. The term ‘supernatural explained’ (MacCarthy 1944: 371) was coined for Radcliffe. This referred to the way in which supernatural occurrences in Radcliffe’s novels are ‘conveniently explained away’ (Becker 1999: 30) at the end. Mystery is always rationalised. This approach is mirrored in Sherwood’s Margarita.
Margarita is fearful of an apparently supernatural warning from a shadowy figure. The figure leaves a message that says, ‘Margarita, beware– beware thy marriage is forbidden!’ (Sherwood 1799: I, 197). This overshadows the proposed union between Albert and Margarita – until, that is, the mystery is uncovered. The apparently ‘supernatural’ is later exposed as a concerned servant who wrongly believed Albert and Margarita to be brother and sister. The mystery is resolved, the obscurity is clarified. The solution changes the situation of the characters involved, and Albert and Margarita are married.
No elements of mystery are left behind as Margarita reaches its conclusion – which is not the case with Sherwood’s The Traditions. The role of mystery in Margarita appears to be to initiate detachment from any support of the supernatural or superstition. Mystery becomes a tool for unravelling truth and asserting reassurance.
It is highly likely that Sherwood would have read the early work of Radcliffe. It therefore seems plausible that she may have assumed an approach in response to the style of Radcliffe. Even if all the concealments in Margarita are fully revealed, the essence of mystery still maintains its role of ‘titillating the reader’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia 1978: 10, 1166). Terror can still be evoked at the time that the mystery is presented, even if a rational explanation is later provided.
The role of mystery in both The Traditions and Margarita is to incite fear on the part of the reader.
It has been speculated that there is ‘a luxury in artificial fear’ (MacCarthy 1944: 371) because of the curiosity that is provoked from the reader. However it could be suggested that this indulgence only applies to a novel that explains the features of terror away like Radcliffe. This could be a motive for Sherwood’s employment of this approach. She may have been attempting to create a satisfactory level of fear in mystery. This can be supported by comments about The Traditions by The Monthly Review. They accused the novel of promoting ‘encouragement to superstition’ and that this was the novel’s ‘principle [sic] fault’ (The Monthly Review 1795: 229). The criticism may be incredibly significant for explaining the changing role of mystery in her novels. Mary Sherwood was reluctant to publish The Traditions, her first novel. The fact that Margarita adopts a rational approach and The Traditions seems more ‘inhibited’ may suggest that the criticism affected Sherwood’s writing (Clery 1995: 109). She may have adapted her style to be received more favourably by the critics. Sherwood’s confidence to continue writing may have been a result of Radcliffe’s Gothic influence. The role of mystery can be viewed as altering from The Traditions because the usage was condemned. The portrayal of mystery changed because Sherwood was prompted by what she may have thought to be a more suitable influence.
Contrasting Gothic influences may have arisen because of criticism that was directed at the Gothic. The result of the evolving form of Gothic will have affected experimenting young writers such as Sherwood. The adoption of differing techniques, for whatever reason, changes the role of mystery greatly. The Traditions leaves reliance upon an enjoyment or acceptance of unexplained mystery. The active nature of mystery could be said to make it a more fearful device in this instance. Margarita unravels the mystery to exclude any sense of it at the end. Mystery appears to be calmer because it is rationalised. It could be said that The Traditions exhibits a confident use of mystery contrasted with a ‘diminished, self-censoring version’ in Margarita (Clery 1995: 110). Mystery may have a further revealing role in regard to Sherwood’s writing. The mystery in The Traditions may exhibit her literary instinct before the criticism sought to conform her. The enduring nature of mystery may have been the approach that Sherwood would have liked to continue. However, mystery captivates the reader in both of the novels with the fearful presentation of shadowy figures and grim predictions. This appears to coincide with Edmund Burke’s suggestion that, ‘to make anything terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary’ (Stevens 2000: 54). This asserts that the use of mystery in both the novels was applied to create horror for the reader. The fear that is associated with Gothic novels such as Sherwood’s seems torequire mystery in order to become alarming to the reader. The differing ways in which mystery is played out inThe Traditions and Margarita do not alter the fact that mystery is relied upon in both novels to engage the reader. The Gothic influences of Walpole and Radcliffe do affect how the mystery is resolved, but these influences do not remove mystery’s fundamental attraction in Sherwood’s two novels.
The Impact of Society upon the Function of Mystery
The criticism that Mary Sherwood encountered may have contributed to her adoption of differing Gothic influences. This introduces the notion that contemporary society had an impact upon writers. The study of Gothic texts has revealed that its conventions reveal the author’s surroundings. The effects of mystery upon the plots of The Traditions and Margarita can be linked to the sentiments of the environment in which Mrs Sherwood produced them.
The fear that mystery evokes can be linked clearly with Sherwood’s personal feelings, and with the greater female experience of the time. As a young girl, Sherwood had a ‘great horror of being thought a literary lady’ (Gilchrist 1907: 104). This is not only an allusion to her own reluctance to publish, but an indication of contemporary restrictions upon women writers. The public domain was problematic, as there were ‘strictures of propriety’ (Poovey 1984: x). Women’s behaviour was judged against what was deemed ‘proper conduct’ (Poovey 1984: x). Women’s image, in the public eye, had to conform to these ideals for women. The act of writing would have attracted the height of scrutiny, as ‘self-assertion was considered unladylike’ (Poovey 1984: x). The female writer confronted this ‘historical oppression’ by the very act of writing (Poovey 1984: xv).
Mystery in Gothic texts written by women can be seen as a canvas on which they could express the constraints of their position.
The mystery that surrounds characters in The Traditions and Margarita restricts their freedom. This can be viewed as an expression of the ‘literal reality’ of the ‘confinement’ that Sherwood will have been aware of as a female writer (Howard 1994: 63). The ‘persistant prejudice against learned ladies’ will have been a great restraint upon self-expression (Poovey 1984: 38). In the novel, Margarita is abandoned as a baby and considered an orphan. The mystery surrounding her identity appears to disadvantage her. Her adoptive parent, Canon Barnardo, insists that marriage will ensure that ‘Margarita will no longer be subject to the caprice of those who exposed her in her infancy’ (Sherwood 1799: I, 166). His defensive tone, and the association of Margarita with being unprotected, highlight the vulnerability of her situation. The mystery of her identity anticipates the danger faced by women without support. This strongly echoes a theme in Frances Burney’s novel Evelina, which features a character in the same predicament. Evelina’s guardian, Mr Villars, voices his concerns for the orphan: ‘The supposed obscurity of your birth and situation, makes you liable to a thousand disagreeable adventures’ (Burney 1994: 129). His anxiety mirrors that of the Canon, and suggests that Burney shared Sherwood’s concerns about social restrictions for women. It also confirms mystery as a device used to signal terrible events. Both guardians are fearful for the young women in their care. Their expressions of unease prompt the reader’s imagination. The reader, thus prompted, may begin to foresee the possibility of danger being inflicted upon the female characters.
Obscurity around identity links both Evelina and Margarita to The Traditions. In The Traditions, Lady Isabella frowns upon the marriage of her son Lord St Alban to Matilda, because Matilda is considered to be of low birth. Matilda endures the cruel treatment of Lady Isabella after her marriage. It is later revealed that Matilda is actually a descendant of the de Montfort family, which unveils her as being of higher birth even than Lord St Alban. This promotes her situation. The exposure of the truth, or the uncovering of mystery for gain, is common to both Margarita and Evelina. When their identities are clarified, the happiness of their situation ensues. Dangerous situations are thus resolved with beneficial consequences – not least because as these women discover their ancestry, they discover independent wealth. This theme could have emerged as a result of a widespread feeling among women in the 18th century. There is a suggestion that they still ‘sufficiently feared being reduced to economic counters’ (Poovey 1984: 14). This concern stemmed from the fact that ‘daughters were an increasing drain on a family’s capital wealth’ (Poovey 1984: 13). Young women needed to marry well. This prompts the notion that the fearful situations that mystery anticipates, reflect the real anxiety of women about their fate. There are romantic, financially secure conclusions for the women in Mary Sherwood’s novels and for Evelina with the discovery of wealth and marriage. These endings may have been a projection of the authors’ hopeful predictions for their own future, or as encouragement for their readers. Sherwood was unmarried at the time she wrote The Traditions and Margarita, which would have made this concern extremely relevant. This creates scope to suggest that the Gothic element of mystery was a tool with which women writers could voice their worries. It also adds another feature to the role of mystery. There is relief offered to the reader in the happy conclusions to mystery in both of Sherwood’s novels. If this approach was any comfort to women, then mystery was its instigator.
The confidently joyful endings in the novels appear to soothe worries about reputation and financial concerns for women. However, the uncovering of identity for the female characters in these novels does not extend to their author. Sherwood published both of these novels anonymously. It seems the one person whose identity could not be revealed was Sherwood’s. If the real fear of exposure for a woman, and the genuine trend for anonymous authorship is considered, her decision is not bizarre but highly understandable. It could suggest that Sherwood’s happy conclusions were simply prompted by the romantic element of the novels. The confident use of the conventions of Gothic romance doesn’t extend to the boldness of the author. The genre merely seems to give Sherwood, and other female writers, the opportunity to mask their own opinions. Mystery reflects this attempt: Their views are hidden, but are there to be discovered. These views would probably have been most obvious to the women who were experiencing similar social pressures. This suggests that mystery served a poignant reminder to women of their situation in society. This also now serves to point out to us mystery’s role as an enduring memento of the restricted status of women in the 18th century.
The study of Gothic material reveals the views of women. The effects of their situation may be uncovered in the possibilities that mystery creates. Mystery is essential for providing adventure and travel in both The Traditions and Margarita. This may have been employed because of the stifled aspirations of women within contemporary society.
The Gothic has been described as making it possible for heroines to ‘enjoy all the adventures and alarms that masculine heroes had long experienced’ (Howard 1994: 59). It created an opportunity to convey such experiences involving women. Both of Mary Sherwood’s novels focus on the activities of the female characters. They encounter the fearful experiences that mystery provokes. Margarita confronts a shadowy figure, and Matilda meets the ghost of her father. The settings are different in the two novels, but in both, mystery leads to travel. In this way, mystery initiates the active nature of the characters’ situations, even as it evokes their restricted position in society. This creates the suggestion that the Gothic had become a ‘symbolic drama of enclosure and escape’ (Howard 1994: 63). The novels seem to represent the feelings of women, and enact the response that women wanted to be able to achieve themselves. The act of fleeing appears to embody the freedom that was so greatly desired.
The women in both of Sherwood’s novels are confined, and travel to find escape. It is a mystery that prompts their captivity, and the explanation of the mystery involves travel. Matilda in The Traditions is confined by Lady Isabella in the castle of St Alban, for reasons unknown to her. The torment that Matilda endures prompts her escape from the castle. She flees to her mother’s cottage in the forest, and it is here that the families of de Montfort and St Alban are reunited and Matilda’s identity is revealed to everyone. It seems that travel had to occur so that the mystery could be solved.
Similarly, in Margarita, mystery produces the changes in setting. Margarita is kidnapped from her adoptive parents in Vienna and eventually finds herself in Germany. The mystery of her kidnap is revealed and Margarita relays her story. It is the mystery of her true identity that drives the plot of the novel and what prompts its most exciting episodes. Her adventures provide ‘escape’ for the readers, as they are introduced to the climes of Italy and Germany (Howard 1994: 63). This provokes feelings of encountering the unknown. Mysterious settings offer excitement to the reader. This confirms the Gothic as ‘armchair travel’ for the writer as well as the reader (Becker 1999: 29).
The ‘exotic settings’ associated with the Gothic are clearly apparent in Margarita (Clery 1995: 114). It is this display of the unfamiliar that is linked to the ‘escapist function of Gothic fiction’ (Clery 1995: 114). The setting of The Traditions, on the other hand, may perhaps not be viewed as quite as fascinating as Italy or Germany, as its locale is England. However it is set in the past, in the 14th century. This means it still evokes a sense of the unknown. The settings change in the form of different castles and the introduction of natural surroundings.
The result of limited freedom for women in society prompted repercussions. Women could be seen to live out their anticipated liberties through the action in the novels. The link to the underlying female experience within the novels suggests a motive behind the artificial excitement created by adventure and travel: satisfying women’s suppressed desires and ambitions. The unfamiliar or mysterious settings in both of these novels could be said to heighten the excitement value for the reader.
However, there is also a suggestion that distancing within a story actually encourages ‘an experience of estranged recognition’ and a ‘capacity to see everyday in another’ (Clery 1995:114). If this is the case, then the adventure and travel may be the liberating substitute that women craved. This could mean women simply recognising their real desires in the apparent unfamiliar. This in itself may have been the source of excitement for a female reader. There must have been pleasure in seeing their suppressed ambitions represented. In whatever way this is viewed, it cannot be disputed that mystery within the plots instigates the adventure and travel. The adventure and change of locations must occur before any mystery is explained. The stimulation of travel and adventure is vital in the path to uncovering the truth. However, the intensity of the experiences within the novels could not be as great without the triggering nature of mystery.
Mystery is vital for ensuring readers’ emotional attachment to both The Traditions and Margarita. It is the Gothic component of ‘persecuted heroine’ that draws attention to this function (Howard 1994: 13). The introduction of the tormented female may be attributed to the feelings of women in Sherwood’s society. The constraints upon women in their daily lives will have caused frustration. The portrayal of a maltreated woman could be used to encompass the emotions that women readers might have experienced, and would have given the author a means by which to ‘express her anger’ (Clery 1995: 129). This tactic may have been used to draw women readers in by encouraging recognition or, on a wider scale, to create pity for the female condition.
The introduction of the harassed female could only have involved the reader through the element of mystery. It is mystery that instigates the levels of suffering, and thus creates compassion for women in The Traditions and Margarita. Margarita is constantly isolated. She is torn from her adoptive parents and friends when she is mysteriously kidnapped. The kidnapper turns out to be her father, who insists he is trying to protect her. This defence is not a comfort to Margarita, because her father mysteriously refuses to address her as his daughter, and so her solitude continues. Throughout the novel Margarita is treated badly and frequently separated from any human attachments that she makes. It is only when the mystery of her father’s strange behaviour is discovered as the result of blackmail that Margarita’s life starts to settle down. It is after this mystery is explained that she is free to be reunited with some of the people she has been cut off from. Mystery can be associated with the cloud of hardship and distress that hangs over Margarita for the majority of the novel.
The distress of female characters is the element that prompts readers to feel supportive.
This is also the case in The Traditions. Out of all the women in this novel,Matilda can be said to endure the worst ordeal. She is separated from her mother and brother when she marries Lord St Alban and then suffers at the hands of Lady Isabella. Lady Isabella confines her, and this represents the very height of loneliness. Her temptation to commit suicide at this point encapsulates the despair of this situation. The mystery behind Lady Isabella’s motives intensifies the horror of Matilda’s predicament. This also applies to Margarita, where the mystery entices the reader to emotional involvement. This would appear to confirm MacCarthy’s comment suggesting that the heroine’s ‘isolation makes her suffering all the more exquisite’ (1944: 374). The seclusion and ensuing torment that both Margarita and Matilda experience bring the reader closer to these characters. The reader may feel, in essence, responsible for these characters until their unhappiness ends. The misery that mysterious circumstances engender for the female characters prompts a sense of urgency to solve the mystery. The reader’s attachment may be even less distant than the role of a substitute parent. Mystery appears to give rise to the phenomenon whereby the reader ‘sympathetically “doubles” for the central character’ (Clery 1995: 153). This promotes intense attachment as the distinction between reader and character is blurred. Genuine pity about the apparent unfairness of a woman’s situation, as evoked by the sense of mystery surrounding the cause, results in such involvement. This relationship promotes loyalty on the part of the reader towards the characters, and therefore a commitment to the novel. Mysterious circumstances appear to be utilised to ensure that readers are gripped by the events and concerned for those affected. This appeal could be viewed as almost a cry for help concerning the female condition. The restrictive nature of women’s lives seems to have prompted a need in women authors to express their plight. This was done despite the fact that their voice would probably not implement change. This cry may then appear internal in the novels, even if the depiction of the situation is prominent in the character’s suffering. The very expression of miserable experiences may have been a release for women writers, even if the mystery behind its use was not apparent to everyone at the time.
Mary Sherwood’s novels include such a prevailing use of mystery that it would be foolish to ignore its implications. The attention to mystery reveals numerous details about its role. The function of mystery extends much further than as just a literary construct. Mystery becomes a tool of revelation to multiple angles of The Traditions (1795) and Margarita (1799). It is the investigation into these revelations that helps to uncover numerous aspects concerning Sherwood’s writing environment.
The use of mystery in the timescale of Sherwood’s two novels is what proposes the application of the genre Gothic romance. Mystery is the clue that prompts this assessment. The role of mystery as a connecting feature to the Gothic confirms Sherwood as one of the many authors who adopted this literary trend. The intentions that are claimed for the Gothic reveal motive and purpose for the occurrence of mystery. ‘The fear and horror’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia 1978: 10, 116) that the Gothic promotes is stimulated by mysterious circumstances in Sherwood’s novels. It is this terrifying effect that thrills and fascinates the reader. The Gothic opens up mystery as an active device for predicting and creating fearful events. However, the value of mystery is clearly more complex than merely as an element to provide entertainment. The contrasting ways in which mystery is presented uncovers differing influences upon Sherwood within the Gothic sphere. This reveals the diverse nature of mystery’s role. Walpole’s ‘uninhibited’ (Clery 1995: 109) approach and Radcliffe’s ‘supernatural explained’ (MacCarthy 1944: 371) can be viewed in the alternative ways in which mystery is put to work within The Traditions and Margarita. Employing Radcliffe’s style in Margarita (1799) defines mystery as a tool for complete closure. Mystery is unravelled for the conclusion. Walpole, on the other hand, promotes mystery that endures and which is never rationally explained. This ‘permanent’ essence of mystery is applied in The Traditions (1795).
Mystery exhibits the diversity offered within the Gothic and functions as a striking window on the literary scene surrounding Sherwood. Mystery reveals not only these novels’ literary milieu, but also the social background. Studies of the Gothic which have linked its elements to social environment extend the function of mystery even further. The terror that mystery promotes appears to be a reflection of the fears of 18th-century women. Concerns about status and finance will have been dominant in a woman’s mind. These worries seem to have been transferred onto paper through mystery plots. The ‘persecuted heroine’ of the Gothic symbolises the struggles of women, and her hardship is instigated by mystery in the plots of Mary Sherwood’s novels. In addition to being an instrument of freedom of expression for women, mystery also creates the excitement of freedom that a woman will have craved. The travel and adventure that arise as a result of mystery seems to embody the desire of women for freedom at the time. The mystery in Sherwood’s novels also possesses a level of secret intention below the surface, there as a representation of the female condition.
The nature of truth often lies behind a mystery. It is apt that even with the differences between The Traditions (1795) and Margarita (1799), it is precisely what mystery reveals that is compelling in both: Mary Sherwood’s position as a woman and a writer is the underlying truth behind the potent mystery within these two novels. Annotated Bibliography Becker, Susanne, Gothic Forms of Feminine Fictions (Manchester University Press, 1999)
This gave a lively and up-to-date account of the Gothic. It was very useful for its references to the supernatural.
Blain, V, Clements, P and Grundy, I, The Feminist Companion to Literature in English (B.I. Batsford Ltd, 1990)
This was an invaluable starting point that indicated enough areas of Mrs Sherwood’s life to begin an in-depth study.
Blakely, Dorothy, The Minerva Press 1790-1820 (OUP, 1939)
This mentioned both the texts by Mrs Sherwood that I was studying, albeit briefly. It gave a clear context to the publishing scene surrounding my author and was very informative about issues such as anonymous authorship.
Burney, Frances, Evelina (1778; Penguin, 1994)
This text had comparisons with the plot of Margarita that couldn’t be ignored and also a female writer context.
Christie, Ian R, Stress and Stability (OUP, 1984)
This gave a very in-depth account of the economic situation in Mrs Sherwood’s time which was interesting but not incredibly useful.
Clery, E J, 1995, The Rise of Supernatural Fiction 1762-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
This was one of the texts I referred to the most. The mentions of The Castle of Otranto and Radcliffe’s tactics were incredibly useful. I found assertions about the supernatural most clear in this text.
Clery, E J, Women’s Gothic (Northcote House Publishers Ltd, 2000)
The attention to ghost stories was the element that aided me the most in this text.
Clery, E J and Robert Miles, Gothic Documents – A Sourcebook 1700-1820 (Manchester University Press, 2000)
This had some very appropriate sources, especially concerning Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe. I found the Cock Lane Ghost article very interesting as a context for the interest in ghosts.
Darton, Harvey, The Life and Times of Mrs Sherwood (Darton and Company, 1910)
This was a wonderful find and was factually enlightening about Mrs Sherwood. He unfortunately skimmed over the two texts that I was studying but this inspired me to continue my search.
Gilchrist, Isabella, The Life of Mrs Sherwood (Robert Sutton 1907)
This was a much easier read than Darton’s work.
Howard, Jacqueline, Reading Gothic Fiction, (OUP, 1994)
This was helpful for a background of Gothic work.
Kelly, Sophia, 1853, The Life of Mrs Sherwood (Darton and Company, 1853)
This was an exciting discovery. First, it was written by Mrs Sherwood’s daughter, and secondly it quoted from the autobiography of Mrs Sherwood that I couldn’t get hold of. This would rivet anyone interested in Mrs Sherwood.
Kroll, Richard, The English Novel (Addison Wesley Longman Ltd, 1998)
This was very useful for facts about the trend of Gothic writing.
Leavis, Q D, Fiction and the Reading Public (Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1932)
This was useful for adding to the details of Mrs Sherwood’s readers but was overly detailed for my purpose.
MacCarthy, B G, The Female Pen (Cork University Press, 1944)
This was useful for creating a picture of the literary scene for women before and after Mrs Sherwood’s time. I found the chapter on The Gothic Novel very useful for my essay.
Napier, Elizabeth R, The Failure Of Gothic (OUP, 1987)
This gave a different angle on the issue of Gothic and broadened my knowledge of the genre.
The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia (vol 10; Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1978)
I found this very informative about the facts surrounding the craze of the Gothic.
Poovey, Mary, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (University of Chicago Press, 1984)
This was most informative about Mrs Sherwood’s social environment and the restrictions and expectations of it. It put her writing into the context of her surroundings very well.
Robertson, F, Women’s Writing 1778-1838 (OUP (2001)
This has a section concerning Mrs Sherwood and was helpful for confirming information that I had already uncovered about her.
Royde Smith, Naomi, The State of Mind of Mrs Sherwood (MacMillan & Company Ltd, 1946)
This referred to both Darton and Kelly and wasn’t as controversial as it sounds. It merely praised her ability to produce literature in difficult circumstances.
Sherwood, Mary Martha, The Traditions; A Legendary Tale (Lane, 1796)
------, Margarita (Lane, 1799)
------, The Governess (F Houlston and Son, 1820)
This is an example of Mrs Sherwood’s later work.
------, Boys Will Be Boys (Milner and Sowerby, 1860)
I read this as an example of Mrs Sherwood’s literature for children to put the work I was studying into context.
Spencer, Jane, The Rise of the Woman Novelist (Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1986)
This offered an in-depth view into the work of women.
Steeves, Harrison, R, Before Jane Austen (George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1966)
This gave additional context to the literary surroundings of Mrs Sherwood.
Stevens, David, The Gothic Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2000)
This was useful for providing the basic elements of the Gothic tradition.
Tompkins, J M S, The Popular Novel in England 1770-1800 (Constable & Company Ltd, 1932)
This seemed to give another angle upon the literary trends of the 18th century. It gave opinionated views upon Gothic romance, which were valuable.
Varney, A, Eighteenth-century Writers in Their World (MacMillan Press Ltd, 1999)
This was helpful to construct a sense of the time that Mrs Sherwood was writing in.
Walpole, Horace, The Castle of Otranto (T. Lownds, 1764)
I read this to get involved in the Gothic and found it very useful for context and comparisons for my essay.