by Claire Winchester, May 2006
An eighteenth century structure in a Gothic façade…RPM Yorke’s My Master’s Secret: Or, The Troublesome Stranger and The Haunted Palace; Or, The Horrors of Ventoliene.
New readers, new modes of literary production, changing tastes, and a growing belief that traditional form and conventions were too constricted and rigid to represent modern reality or to reach modern readers collaborated to mean-in the eyes of both proponents and critics-that much modern writing was taking radical new directions.
She goes on to say that ‘critics have made considerable advances in identifying ‘lost’ works’ (Turner, 1994: 2). RPM Yorke, along with many other female writers, seems to have fallen into this category that has slipped through the eighteenth century network of recognised literary texts but there is no doubt that despite this lack of acknowledgment the literature was quite definitely out there. Within my critical essay I am going to look at RPM Yorke’s two texts My Master's Secret: or, The Troublesome Stranger and The Haunted Palace or The Horrors of Ventoliene in the context of its genre in relation to the romance, eighteenth century realist novel and the gothic. Within these contexts I will be explaining, reviewing and evaluating her two pieces.
As a starting point I would like to note that the two synopses are so long for a combination of reasons. The main one being that the texts themselves are of substantial lengths. The Haunted Palace is made up of three volumes totalling about eight hundred and fifty pages and My Master’s Secret is slightly shorter, compacting six hundred pages into two volumes. Within both texts there are extensive casts of characters and numerous interlinked narratives, which make simplifying and cutting down the complex plots somewhat difficult. On top of this is the fact that there is as far as my research can conclude no biographical material on RPM Yorke, and in addition no contemporary reviews of her work. Therefore to make up for this I have completed thorough synopses and extensive keyword selections to give as much information and insight into the texts as possible.
A Stranger came to the hall of Odin;
Going by this any number of ideas could be conjured up as to who the stranger was, and what eerie story he had to tell.
The same applies to The Haunted Palace: or, The Horrors of Ventoliene. However this one is written in Italian which is in keeping with the setting of the novel, adding to its authenticity and creating intrigue for its reader.
Fra cento affanni e cento
Unfortunately I have not been able to obtain an exact translation of the quote but the gist is that the book will make the blood run cold in your veins and will stop the flow to your heart. Yorke is promising a lot in these few short lines.
The Haunted Palace seems even more like this seventeenth century novel in that it too contains long histories, three hundred pages more than My Master’s Secret. Its present day characters, the Captain, Father Gregory and Father Theodore’s histories all last over a hundred pages each and several other minor characters fifty or more. However on top of this The Haunted Palace like Parthenissa was supposed to be a romance. Raleigh tells us the reader ‘will find himself, at page six hundred and thirteen, back at Hierapolis in Syria, with Callimachus’ story yet to begin’ (Raleigh, 1907: 95). The Haunted Palace does not reveal a hint of romance in the present day narrative until the third volume, some six hundred and fifty pages into the book. Luckily the romances progress quickly and the jaded reader is only subjected to another two hundred pages of present day action before the ‘romance’ ends. Yorke's choice of this romance trait has clouded her gothic narrative as we see more of what has happened in the past, which has no elements of the gothic in it, than that of the present action, which in itself is not overrun with gothic elements. This is an obvious a main cause for the lack of definitive genre for her texts.
Davies also states that ‘the romance depicts the life of the aristocracy’ (Davies in Kroll, 1998: 6) which we can see in the mounting cast list in The Haunted Palace. It has a number of nobles, including Fitzallan ‘the last surviving branch of the house of Fitzallan, of the Kingdom of Ireland’, the Captain ‘the second son of a noble man of very high rank’ (Yorke, 1801: V1, 38 and 92), and the Prince of Bononi and in addition the highly respected Father Gregory and Father Theodore who serve as moral guides and spiritual supports for the young men in their plights for redemption, security and completion of the ceremony of the society of Bononi. The location of Rome is significant, also, as it was the most important venue for elite gentlemen to visit and reside whilst on their Grand Tour. We hear of Fitzallan, the Captain and his brother, and the girl on the beach’s brother all having been the Grand Tour. In addition the fact that society are all residing in a palace, granted a ruinous palace, adds to this idea of the text fitting in with the aristocratic romantic ideal. My Master’s Secret also sees aristocratic characters in the principle narrator, the Colonel, and Sir John, and well respected members of the society including the Doctor and Captain Beswick. The residence is also of aristocratic status as it is described as a hall and mansion throughout the text.
Within the romance ideal its characters are always either ‘thoroughly bad or thoroughly good’ (Peace, 2004). This normally comes in the form of a female and male protagonist, in love, thoroughly pure and of good morals, fighting against the odds to be together, the odds being an antagonist doing whatever he/she can do to impede their love. We do not see this male/female protagonist partnership but we do see a combination of characters that are thoroughly good and thoroughly bad. The three main male characters in The Haunted Palace, Fitzallan, the Captain and Father Gregory, all represent different sides of this thoroughly good ideal. Fitzallan has ended up on the Island of Ventoliene as a result of pursuing Owen to avenge ‘the cause of injured innocence, and saving a suffering sister, and her helpless children, from misery, worse than death’ (Yorke, 1801: V1, 2-3); an honest endeavour to capture a criminal. The Captain has become the leader of the society of young men repenting their past sins and doing their duty to society. The Father has brought the men together to repay society and acts as moral guider to all of them. So, we are given a collection of male protagonists rather than just one, making the novel less of a romance but the ideal is still there. The novel aspires to promote good over evil, the same as a romance, just in a different way.
…precluded from the machines and expedients of the heroic romance, and can neither employ giants to snatch away a lady from the nuptial rites, nor knights to bring her back from captivity; it can neither bewilder its personages in deserts, nor lodge them in imaginary castles.
These are characteristics that we do not find in Yorke’s texts either, which is what leads me to discuss the characteristics they do have in common with the novel.
Watt describes one of the characteristics of the novel, as the successor of the romance, as being the ‘rejection of traditional plots’ (Watt, 1957: 13). In the context of her two pieces this is exactly what Yorke has done but with a twist. She has rejected the traditional plot of the individual literary genres that would have affected her writing, choosing to use sections from all three literary fields. She has not taken her plot from ‘mythology, history, legend or previous literature’ (Watt, 1957: 14) but combined a number of genres to create a new plot
As a last point of comparison with the eighteenth century novel I would like to pick up on a characteristic mentioned by Hunter, ‘novels seriously engage ideas, at their best allowing some theme or governing idea to pull together every thread of narrative and connect every digressive loose end’ (Hunter, 1990: 24). My Master’s Secret and The Haunted Palace are exact example of this. The whole story line in My Master’s Secret is based around tying up the loose ends that the formidable Sir John had left behind. However, within this grand narrative there are numerous clichéd moments that could only happen to further and tie up an unbelievable plot. For example what are the chances of the Colonel taking a sketch of the bodies of a murdered father and children ‘I took a sketch of the surrounding objects: the face of the man particularly struck me, and I took an exact likeness as the blood upon it would permit’ (Yorke, 1805: V1, 147) and then years later ending up living in the murderers old house, which it haunts, and then having to avenge his actions? The text is full of coincidences like this that tie up all the loose ends and leave the reader knowing everything has come together in the way it should. The Haunted Palace is also about pulling the narrative together; firstly completing the ceremony of the society of Bononi and the burial of the women, Father Gregory ‘offered up his thanks to Heaven, for having finally completed the work they were enjoined’ (Yorke, 1801: V3, 32); and secondly, inevitably, the marriages of the male characters, where we are told ‘few, very few, bid so fair for lasting happiness’ (Yorke, 1801: V3, 293).
‘It was not until the 1790s that the Gothic became a major force in English fiction…generally to the disgust of contemporary reviewers’ (Richter, 1996: 1), which is the same kind of reception the novel first received. It is described as ‘a writing of excess’ (Botting, 1996: 1) a quote that I think can be applied to many of the gothic novels that were circulating throughout the gothic period which extended from Walpole in 1764 to the 1820’s although ‘these dates seem arbitrary’ (Botting, 1996: 15). According to historians and literary critics it seems that the content and conventions of the ‘gothic period’ are not and cannot be agreed upon and categorised. Richter believes ‘there is no reason to suppose that every convention of the Gothic will be unique to the Gothic’ (Richter, 1996: 6) which makes looking at Yorke’s texts in relation to the gothic genre just as difficult as that of the romance and the novel. However, having looked at numerous characteristics that critics have applied to gothic novels it is clear that Yorke’s texts can be categorised within the gothic form. This clichéd recipe sums up a lot of the early gothic material.
Take – An old castle, half of it ruinous.
This is exactly what Yorke has done in her first text The Haunted Palace. As a starting point she opens it with descriptions of the palace. She has obviously drawn on the contemporary gothic architecture that was around her as well as other gothic novelists descriptions. She describes numerous parts of the palace, which has the features of a castle, as Fitzallan and his man walk through it, including ‘vaulted roof’, ‘parts of mutilated statues…destroyed more by the violence of man, or a convulsion of nature than the hand of time’ and they ‘opened a door on one side of the gallery, descended about twenty steps, then passed along a dark passage, and crossed a large room…which was surrounded on all sides with military stores’ (Yorke, 1801: V1, 20-24). These are very similar to the descriptions we are given as Hippolita tries to escape the castle in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.
She recollected a subterraneous passage, which led from the vaults of the castle to the church of St. Nicholas…she seized a lamp, that burned at the foot of the staircase, and hurried towards the secret passage.
However, unlike the stereotypical gothic novel, where ‘the owner of the castle is trying to conceal a secret upon which his continued ownership depends’ (Ferguson Ellis, 1989: 37) the palace is haunted by the spirits of the two ladies who just want to be properly put to rest.
In My Master’s Secret we see a modernised version of the gothic castle, it being replaced by ‘one of the most beautiful and romantic spots the vicinity of London affords…(a) mansion of happiness and peace’ (Yorke, 1805: V1, 2-3). Obviously the hall is not just that, as ‘in May and June, his worship’s soul, with a posse of devils, do come and play such mad tricks’ (Yorke, 1805: V1, 10) and it was built from the profits of a murderer and villain. Despite this Yorke does not present an eerie, dark, mysterious castle to reflect the hall’s past but instead a realistic home that her readers could relate too, therefore making the novel psychologically more scary and once again blurring the lines of the novel and gothic genre.
The use of supernatural beings in both texts obviously fits into the Gothic tradition. It is a prolific trait throughout the eighteenth century gothic novel. An excellent comparison for The Haunted Palace is Lewis’s The Monk. His description at the end of the novel of Matilda as she leaves Ambrosio ‘A cloud of blue fire wrapped itself around her. She waved her hand…and disappeared’ (Lewis, 2003: 283), is remarkably similar to Yorke’s description of Owen and St. Prie when they appear to Fitzallan and the Captain‘At this, a sulphurous flame enveloped them both, and in it they vanished’ (Yorke, 1801: V2, 139). It is clear Yorke has drawn on her contemporaries to create a gothic ambience in her books. Once again however it almost feels as though My Master’s Secret has moved on from The Haunted Palace and Yorke has used a more realistic approach in her depiction of the ghosts that come to visit the Colonel. The skeleton of Holman fulfils the early gothic criteria but unlike the extravagant entrances and startling presence of the ghosts and spirits in The Haunted Palace we are given a ghost that excluding appearance has all the attributes of a human. Therefore within this text you are more able to apply the idea of real characters finding themselves in extraordinary positions and situations. The characters are in a ‘civilised’ world unlike those of The Haunted Palace making the plot that much more realistic and believable.
A small point of comparison with another gothic novel is that of Radcliffe’s The Italian. There are obviously a number of points that do not match up such as the inclusion of the sublime, the gothic romance and so on, however we do see a similar use of meta language. Throughout her novel we see her cite Shakespeare ‘The bell then beating one!’ ‘-Is it not dead midnight? Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh, What do I fear?’ (Shakespeare in Radcliffe, 1981: 70 and 325). Yorke is equal in her inclusion of other people and their work in The Haunted Palace. At the beginning of volume two the Captain explains to Fitzallan how Father Gregory ‘follows in all things the doctrines of Arbatel, Dee and others, whose magical principles are well know’ (Yorke, 1801: V2, 15), he also mentions that ‘the nine muses are called in Hesiod the ninth magic, as he manifestly testifieth of himself in theogony’ (Yorke, 1801: V2, 62) he then goes on to talk of spirits, angels and spectres he says ‘Among the English authors, of the present day, who support my system, may be reckoned the great Milton, Addison, Boyle, Birchell, Littleton, and many others, who have written on metaphysical subjects’ (Yorke, 1801: V2, 153). My Master’s Secret unlike The Haunted Palace does not need the justification or authentication that Father Gregory needs to support his explanations for the appearance of the two spirits of Owen and St. Prie.
As I go on to talk about the classification of the genre her texts fall into, a starting point I must pick up on is the above quote ‘the present day authors’; which on inspection of the names would be the seventeenth century. This confirms the reason for the mixed characteristics of the romance, novel, and gothic. Yorke has chosen to set The Haunted Palace in the seventeenth century so she could authenticate her use of the features of the romance, such as the lengthy narrative and plot, aristocratic links and far-off locations but combine them with the unique lack of protagonist/antagonist partnership, and sentiment of the male characters and reject the traditional plot for that of a gothic related tale. As I have shown throughout the essay both texts have the same characteristics in each genre however My Master’s Secret has been modernised, I believe, to suit a more modern society. Yorke has reduced it to two volumes, making it a lot less tiresome to read especially in comparison with the lack of present day action that we see in The Haunted Palace, and set the action in the heart of London, therefore making the story a lot more plausible and more intimidating as it is a lot closer to home than the exotic location of Rome. However the ending is not the most realistic, the Captain turning out to still be alive and on the same boat as his long lost brother. However it does seem more realistic than all the lead male characters suddenly marrying ladies they met only weeks, not months, before. The differences between the two though do not affect the fact that their genres are still blurred in the context eighteenth century literary world.
I think to put Yorke’s texts into context there must be an insight into the reading public and awareness at the time she was writing. Watt states
Until 1740 a substantial marginal section of the reading public was held back from a full participation in the literary scene by the high price of books; and further, that this marginal section was largely composed of potential novel readers, many of them women.
When Yorke was writing and her novels being published ‘a wide readership was assured by the existence of cheap reprints and numerous circulating libraries from which they could be borrowed’ (Norton (ed), 2000: VII). It was these kind of libraries that Yorke’s texts were to be found as Turner says they ‘were undoubtedly an important force behind the growing demand for women’s fiction’ (Turner, 1994: 134). Due to the lack of reviews and information about Yorke and her texts it is clear that both The Haunted Palace and My Master’s Secret were the kind of texts that were there just to fill up the shelves. They were from my reading of the texts not great literary works and as Richter tells us ‘by far the greatest part of (gothic novels produced) was trash’ (Richter, 1996: 1). I am not sure that Yorke’s were trash as such as she had obviously researched her material and gone to great lengths to produce well thought out pieces but they are in my opinion just run of the mill style books.
I think the lack of a fixed defined genre would not, at the time she was writing, have been of any importance to those that read it. Clery tells us that ‘as the demand for Gothic increased, it would gradually come to matter less whether the text in question was historically authentic, or simply ‘in the style of’’ (Clery, 1995: 90). This works in Yorke’s favour as she chose to use the gothic as a cover for texts that had their ‘insides’ drawn from contemporary as well as previous genres. Having said this though, Botting summaries the gothic novel as possessing a:
broad, if strange, continuity in the way it draws inspiration, plots and techniques from medieval romances and poetry, from ballads and folklore, from Renaissance writing, especially Shakespearean drama and Spenserian poetry, as well as from various seventeenth- and eighteenth-century prose forms.
According to Botting, Yorke, despite seeming like she has hidden her work behind the gothic facade, has in fact kept in keeping with what the gothic tradition apparently was. Therefore I think trying to define and categorise the genre of her two pieces is impossible, as she has drawn on so many areas of eighteenth century literary characteristics. However what she has done is written two books that would have pleased the masses, and despite the length and inaction of the present storyline, the texts are agreeable and a relaxing read.
The primary motivation for most Gothic writers was the joy of literary creation. The Gothic novel creates, above all, a very literary world.