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Gothic Satires, Histories and Chap-books

by Alison Milbank

3 - Chap-Books

The most famous devourer of Gothic chap-books was the poet Percy Shelley, as described by this school-friend, Thomas Medwin:

“He was very fond of reading, and greedily devoured all the books which were brought to school after the holidays; these were mostly blue books. Who does not know what blue books mean? But if there should be any one ignorant enough not to know what those dear darling volumes, so designated from their covers, contain, be it known, that they are or were to be bought for sixpence, and embodied stories of haunted castles, bandits, murderers, and other grim personages - a most exciting and interesting sort of food for boys’ minds.”

The modern reader may, however, be excused for ignorance of the bluebook genre, since these little volumes are extremely rare, and survive only in a few collections, mostly without their original covers. In dimension between 3½ to 4 inches wide and 6 to 7 inches high, with an engraved and often coloured frontispiece, they sold at sixpence for 36 pages, and a shilling for 72 pages. If they story failed to fill its allotted length, other even shorter tales would be appended, down to ‘Mary, A Fragment,’ which is just one page long and completes a number of bluebooks with a comic tale of a spectre lover coming to claim her beloved revealed to be only a dog licking the hand of a sleeping domestic.

Gothic bluebooks are the direct descendents of the chap-book trade of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that provided racy, entertaining and cheap reading for the literate poor. They were sold all over the country by itinerant chapmen or peddlers to the many workers who could manage their simple vocabulary and lively illustrations. Chapbooks covered a wide range of genres, and included rhymes and puzzles, tales of pirates and highwaymen, cookery, political burlesque, and popular rags-to-riches stories such as that of Dick Whittington. Central for the development of the Gothic bluebook was the chivalric
romance, describing such prodigies as Guy of Warwick, a British hero who fights a dragon and a Danish giant, and endures long years of capture in Saracen territory. Theodore and Clementina in this collection is a translation of a French romance but owes much also to the chapbook versions of medieval tales, which were also published in large quantities in France. As with the Gothic histories discussed above, the Gothic chap-book emphasises the incarceration of the hero - Theodore spends years in a Moorish dungeon - or the supernatural, as in the medieval setting of Kilverstone Castle, in which Lord Audley’s onyx cross glows and sheds blood, and ghostly apparitions stalk the wolds of Lincolnshire. The term ‘bluebook’ is originally from the French chap-book romance trade, and many English productions have a continental source, or were often themselves translated into French or German. The Mysterious Bride: Or, The Statue Spectre of 1800 was popular on both sides of the Channel. It is a particularly original conception in which a youth puts a ring for safety on a statue only to find its petrifying marble interposed between his bride and himself in their bed, as she comes “to claim her nuptial due.”

Despite the usual appellation of ‘chap-book,’ these Gothic productions (which seem from the fragments of cover occasionally still remaining to have been pink as well as blue books) were described by their publishers as ‘pamphlets.’ J. Bailey’s list of pamphlets, however, includes with a number of Gothic tales, abridgements of Ivanhoe and The Heart of Midlothian a revised Robin Hood’s Garland, which is the title of a traditional chap-book. The Gothic bluebook replaces the frequent crude wood-engravings of the traditional chap-book with one copperplate or wood-engraved frontispiece usually produced specially for that work, and signed. (Charlotte Dacre’s The School for Friends has a frontispiece by Thomas Rowlandson). Sometimes these engravings are hand-coloured in gay tones of yellow, blue, green and pink, as in Glenwar, in which the slumbers of the evil Lord Dacras are interrupted by the outlaw Glenwar in a plaid of startling green. Scenes are chosen for their dramatic qualities, and often involve prostrate and unconscious females below a riot of clashing swords. One common device perfected by W. Grainger for a series of bluebooks published by Ann Lemoine, encloses each design in an heraldic shield or hexagram to allow the reader to view the Gothic events through a sort of frame. Another more sophisticated example of a framed scene is an illustration for Charles and Mary at the front of a compilation called The Marvellous Magazine, in which Charles stands behind in ivied Gothic arch peeping through to observe a religious procession leading a reluctant Mary to take enforced vows. The arch both enacts and draws attention to her incarceration and separation from her lover outside, while providing a way into the Gothic past for the modern reader. The style is reminiscent of the Minerva Press frontispieces, which combine rigid frame and emotional content in satisfying counterpoint.

Another striking feature of the illustration style is its histrionic use of gesture that imitates contemporary stagecraft. This is appropriate for tales that often take their plots from popular Gothic melodramas, as, for example, The Black Castle; Or The Spectre of the Forest: A Historical Romance by C.F. Barrett, which announces that it is ‘founded on the spectacle of that name, performed at the Amphi-Theatre of Arts, with unbounded applause for nearly one hundred nights.’ Other tales rely heavily on Shakespeare’s plays, with Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale particularly common sources. Some of the title-pages of the bluebooks summarize the whole plot of the story in the manner of contemporary playbills, so that not only Ann Radcliffe’s three-volume Mysteries of Udolpho but also its chap-book abridgement are shortened to one enormous climactic sentence.

Many of these shorter versions of celebrated novels are not by the author whose name appears on the title page, nor authorised by them. One particularly ironic paid of examples is Gothic Stories and Gothic Stories Sir Bertrand’s Adventures. The first is anonymous but includes Mrs Barbauld’s Gothic experiment written with her brother, the second names Mrs Barbauld on the title page but rewrites the Sir Bertrand fragment to give it a proper ending. Other abridgements avoid
copyright violations by altering the names of characters, or the title itself.

Another important difference between the chap-book and bluebook trade lies in their sales methods. Although itinerant chapmen were not extinct in the early nineteenth century they were quickly being superceded by the ballad sellers described by Henry Mayhew and later by the ‘penny dreadful’ magazines and serials. Gothic chap-books however, were produced and sold by publishers and booksellers, so that Ann Lemoine at the White Rose in Coleman Street published pamphlets on a variety of subjects for Thomas Hurst and John Roe, all in London. Other important bluebook publishers include Thomas Tegg, Dean and Munday, Robert Harrild and John Arliss. These had distributive networks at booksellers all over Britain and also in Dublin. When membership of the circulating libraries of Hookham and Minerva was so costly the appeal of these cheaper productions was immense, and over a thousand were produced in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, while others in this collection bear dates as late as the early 1830’s. Many of the names on the flyleaf indicate masculine ownership, and it is clear that the bluebooks served the middle and upper-class young with light reading material, as well as the large hinterland of the literate servant class. Montague Summers quotes the memoirs of the son of Lord Todmorden’s butler, John James Ridley, in which he describes how addicted he was to Gothic romances.

This popular and juvenile readership also accounts for the scarcity of these little books. As Montague Summers puts it, they were “read and read on every side by schoolboys, by prentices, by servant-girls, by the whole of that vast population who longed to be in the fashion, to steep themselves in the Gothic romance…and so the Gothic chapbook passed from hand to hand and was literally read to pieces.” There is, however, another reason for the bluebook’s disappearance given by Margaret Spufford in her study of popular fiction and the chap-book trade, which is that until the invention of commercial lavatory paper in the early twentieth century cheap reading matter ended its days in the water closet.

What surprises many a new reader of the Gothic bluebook is the gentility of the whole production. The writing style, despite the popular nature of the market, is complex, dense and allusive, with a more leisurely feel than one might expect. The pensive Radcliffean heroine has time still to “rouse her soul to transport, and her mind with grateful rapture to the stupendous cause of being” at the sight of sublime landscape, and characters are often vividly realized as in the following description of the awe-inspiring Scottish witch of Rona in the story of that name:

Her figure was tall, bony and lank; her skin resembling that of a toad, hung in loose flakes upon her sinewy limbs; her long, black hair fell on her neck and shoulders. Her eyes were red and prominent; her lips were of shrivelled skin, that seemed not to conceal her black and projecting teeth which appear as fangs. The 36 page sixpenny versions tend to present one or two scenes in this careful detail, while other parts of the story are narrated more briskly. In this way they look forward to the nineteenth-century magazine tales, such as those in Blackwood’s, which explore a single Gothic situation in some psychological depth. Scenes chosen for extended treatment include agonistic encounters but especially spectral apparitions. Many of these tales follow Radcliffe in arousing superstitious terror only to dissipate it by rational explanation. Hence, the supernatural with of Rona seated amid her magical flares proves later to have been merely an envious poor relation in disguise.

A large proportion of the chap-book items in the Sadleir-Black Collection are Radcliffean in style and focus upon the endangered virtuous heroine. This is true even when the plot adapted comes from the more shocking German Schauerroman or Lewis and Francis Lathom. Despite the dramatic frontispieces and the occasional disordered bosom, these tales are more sedate than many earlier chap-books, even in writers such as Isaac Crookenden who specialised in incest, albeit always narrowly avoided. Crookenden is described in one bluebook as a former assistant schoolmaster, and he always signs his tales. Other well-known bluebook writers include Sarah Wilkinson who also wrote full-length Gothic fiction but obviously found chap-book writing, as did Harvey Belmont, “the most profitable line of business.” Two items in this collection, written by ‘an Etonian,’ indicate the class of amateurs who turned their hand to these productions. Indeed, Lord John Russell, the future Prime Minister, himself turned to the short tale in his 1822 The Nun of Arrouca.

In keeping also with the Radcliffean nature of many bluebooks are the claims to moral purposes in the writing. Isaac Crookenden includes an introduction to The Skeleton aimed specifically at establishing his Radcliffean credentials as a follower of ‘the mighty magician of Udolpho,’ while the editor of the Wild Roses collection of chap-book tales claims to offer stories ‘innocent and instructive.’ The ‘sovereign Rose’ of his bouquet, we learn, ‘shall be morality, and the writing Bond, Heart’s Ease.’ This self-conscious assumption of moral responsibility may be a result of the higher class of reader intended, (for this calf-bound volume might have aimed at the circulation-library readership) or equally an attempt to compete with the growing religious tract market of Hannah More and others, which imitated chap-book style for its moral and spiritual teaching. One item here even claims a source in More’s correspondence for The Affecting History of Louisa, the Wandering Maniac.’ Some publishers of Gothic bluebooks also produced religious tracts.

Morality, however, does not preclude excitement, nor good writing, and the reader will find, at their best, that these little books evoke all the terrors of the longer works, with a taut and effective style, as in this opening to The Spectre Mother by J. Mitchell:

“The heavy clock of Rovido Castle had just sounded the last and fearful hour of night; when a man (whose form seemed more than of human stature) stole from the concealment of a dark recess, and with slow and cautious steps, paced towards the more inhabited part of the castle - a long dark cloak shrouded his gigantic figure, and the sable plume of feathers that waved in his hat, shaded a face on which villainy had stampt her pale and terrific image; on hand held a small dark lantern, and the other was raised to his breast, to be assured the murderous weapon it concealed remained in safety.”

No wonder that with pacing and tension so well orchestrated, many of these tales were read to pieces, and that those which survive are among the rarest of bibliographic curiosities.

Alison Milbank
University of Virginia

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