Longsword and the Gothic Tradition: John Kenny talks to Albert Power
Originally appeared on the Swan River Press website (2012)
Albert Power is a writer and Gothic scholar. In 2011, he edited and introduced The Complete Ghost Stories of Chapelizod by J.S. Le Fanu for Swan River Press. He has published essays on William Beckford, Ann Radcliffe, Wilkie Collins, and J.S. Le Fanu, among others, and lectured and given television interviews about Bram Stoker. In 2010, he treated in a National Library of Ireland lecture of literary affinities between Charles Maturin and Oscar Wilde. His fiction has been published by Ex Occidente Press. Recently he has edited the 250th anniversary edition of Thomas Leland’s Longsword.
John Kenny: Can you tell us where and when you first came across the novel Longsword?
Albert Power: I first found mention of it in Donald Spector’s introduction to Seven Masterpieces of Gothic Horror (Bantam Books, 1971). I have long been an enthusiast of the Gothic Novel – that first sustained embodiment of atmospheric dread and narrative terror, commonly regarded as lasting from The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764) to Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin (1820). From time to time, reading various Gothic novels I met editorial reference to a non-supernatural historical specimen called Longsword, Earl of Salisbury by Irish writer Thomas Leland, which had been written in 1762 – predating Otranto by two years. When I finally, after effort, tracked down a readable copy, I devoured it with fascination; then decided – this book has to see life again.
JK: Why do you think it deserves to be published again after 250 years?
AP: In essence, it is what it says on the cover. Longsword certainly is Gothic both in tone and content – even if it doesn’t feature ghostly appearances or supernatural portents. Set in the early 1200s, and showing considerable narrative subtlety – in terms of the backwards and forwards shift of events and strategically sited switches in point of view – Longsword offers a rollercoaster of connivance and machination, centred upon the sustained attempts by a nephew of the favourite of the English king to suborn the marital favours of Ela, Countess of Salisbury, through forceful occupation of her castle, repeatedly making out that her husband has been killed in the wars, and bullying. At different times, Salisbury and his wife each indulge doubts about the marital constancy of the other, so that at one level the novel is a metaphor for a deeper human theme than terror – although there is also much of that! In addition, the character of the thuggish monk Reginhald harrowingly anticipates similar ecclesiastical villains in the writings of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis. This year – 2012 – is the 250th anniversary of the first publication of Longsword, and struck me as presenting an opportunity too important to be missed. I’m delighted that Swan River Press has taken the plunge and chosen to run with bringing out a new edition.
JK: I found the story very accessible. How easily do you think a modern reader might relate to the 18th Century style?
AP: I share your assessment that Longsword is an accessible read, and I’m glad you liked it. I can’t deny there are some challenges for a modern reader, especially the very long paragraphs and overall absence of paragraph breaks for dialogue. But the story moves along at a rattling pace, and by and large the vocabulary poses no difficulty. Sentences are somewhat chunkier than nowadays fashionable, but they are well punctuated. With Swan River Press’s approval, I’ve modernised spelling and eliminated inconsistencies – but done nothing that would get in the way of what Thomas Leland had written.
There are also rewards. The occasional tactical switches of point of view, for example. And the clever interweaving of character histories and back-story. At times that strikes quite a contemporary note; and of course it all enhances the building up of suspense.
JK: How far from the actual events did Thomas Leland stray in putting together the story of Longsword?
AP: I must confess to not being an authority on thirteenth century history, so it’s difficult to be precise on this point. Bear in mind that Leland was primarily writing fiction – even though his novel featured several historical characters. My understanding is that the shipwreck which beached Salisbury on the Isle of Rhè at the end of the Gascony wars actually took place, although Thomas Leland collapsed the events that occurred there into a far shorter time frame than passed in reality. The siege laid to the virtue of Ela in Salisbury Castle – which principally is what the novel is about – seems to have been altogether made up. The happy ending too is somewhat contrived, in that we know that Longsword died not very long after the Isle of Rhè affair and that Hubert de Burgh’s falling out of favour with Henry III occurred after Longsword’s death. In the introduction, I posit the possibility that Hubert might actually have won out after all in life, since there are suggestions that Longsword’s end came about by poisoning.
JK: Given the times in which Longsword was written, and the fact that Leland was ordained to ministry in the Church of Ireland, how do you think his portrayal of the monk Grey would have been received by readers?
AP: This is an interesting issue, and I presume that what’s hinted at here is the possibility of an anti-Catholic bias in the wake of the Penal Laws. To be honest, I don’t think this is a feature, though it can be argued. The Penal Laws in Ireland reached their apogee during the reign of Queen Anne, who died in 1714. By the time Longsword was published in 1762 the Church of Ireland was as well established in Ireland as it ever became. We must remember also that this was two years after the accession of King George III – the first of the Hanoverian monarchs actually to be born in England – so that a fear of a return of the Jacobites was so remote as to be negligible. A new wave of anti-Catholic popular feeling erupted in England with the Gordon Riots of 1780, shortly in the wake of Catholic relief legislation, and it is likely that this triggered much of the mood of the later Gothic novels – but in 1762 all this was in the future. It can be urged that the opinions of Charles Maturin – another Dublin-born Church of Ireland clergyman, author of Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) – regarding the perils of popery were more widely known than any such views Thomas Leland may have had.
Another point is that Reginhald’s brutish behaviour is not presented as an aspect of his being in holy orders. Leland makes it clear that he was a bad article to begin with, and only was admitted to monastic life because of the high connections of his brother; and that his fellow monks were so scandalised by his behaviour that they lost no time, when opportunity presented, to try and bring him to book. (“Drunkenness, and riot, and lewdness, had oftentimes profaned their walls with impunity.”) By contrast, however, Matthew Lewis’s Ambrosio, in The Monk (1795), was brought low because his spiritual arrogance made him an apposite prey for the temptings of the Evil One. Reginhald seems a classic case of a ruffianly type using the ministry of religion as a mask for depredation – a device that of course has a sordid analogue even in our own time!
JK: Why do you think Thomas Leland never wrote another novel? The rest of his work is entirely non-fiction.
AP: I surmise it may have been a combination of embarrassment and being too busy. A look at Leland’s bibliography discloses an overall cerebral bent. The author of History of Philip, King of Macedon and a three-volume History of Ireland may have felt it not quite the right thing to tarry much with fiction. Also, in 1773, the year he completed History of Ireland, Thomas Leland was appointed vicar of St. Ann’s in Dublin. Doubtless his ecclesiastical duties gave him little enough time for further writing.
JK: There’s plenty of action and intrigue in the story. In fact, I think it would make for a good movie. I guess Hollywood would have to add a couple of almighty battle scenes, though.
AP: Yes – I agree there is much in Longsword that would work well in a film. I’m not so sure, though, that battle scenes would have to be invented. There’s plenty of pretty hot skirmishing just after Salisbury and his few remaining colleagues alight on the Isle of Rhè, when they’re set upon by locals loyal to Count Savourè. Then there’s the scene involving the rescue of Les Roches’ daughter Jacqueline in the forest around Poictiers, when the traitor D’Aumont meets his desserts and Salisbury is snatched out of the clutches of the older Lord Chauvigny – an encounter not lacking in excitement, I suggest. Not to mention the shipwreck and the scene later on with the pirate ship!
JK: You mention in the introduction that the novel was adapted for the stage. Is it a faithful adaptation?
AP: Longsword was dramatised in 1765 by another Dubliner, a protégé of Thomas Leland, called Hall Hartson. As adaptations go, it’s faithful enough, but like any dramatisation worthy of the name it distils the narrative to its essence, omitting those parts which ill suit the stage. So, for example, the story is set entirely in and around Salisbury Castle, and the early part of the action on the Isle of Rhè and the French mainland is left out. Some characters’ names are changed, and some are excluded – the monk Reginhald among the latter, unfortunately. The darker elements of Leland’s Longsword don’t quite translate into the play, which would incline one to conclude that the archetypal Gothic Novel succeeds more effectively as narrative than drama. Narrative better facilitates creation of an atmosphere of the suspenseful and sinister and deepening the shades of malice. Interestingly, Hartson went to the very heart of the story in titling his play The Countess of Salisbury, A Tragedy. I think that this cue has been well taken up by the Swan River Press edition with its (literally!) gripping cover illustration.
JK: You say in the introduction that Longsword is, in essence, a Gothic novel. How do you see it fitting in with other Irish Gothic works of literature?
AP: Longsword is a Gothic novel in terms of its subject matter, its setting and time period, its style, construction and underlying theme. What it lacks of course is any element of supernatural as opposed to mortal malevolence – and that is a significant omission. But not a fatal one. As with Poe, Longsword can claim “much of Madness, and more of Sin,” and even if “Horror” is not quite “soul of the plot” it is down there with other unsettling elements. Which puts Thomas Leland into suitable company from the point of view of lovers of the macabre. In terms of other Irish Gothic works of literature, I regard Longsword as a kind of stalwart forerunner, a chastening indicator of the way.
JK: Do you think Leland should eventually rank alongside Maturin, Le Fanu and Stoker?
AP: The difficulty in making any exalted claim for a work of fiction and its author, when both are in need of something of a push, is that it is too easy for unkind scepticism to knock it down again. Certainly, I should like in time there to be perceived as existing a grand quartet of Irish writers of the Gothic, starting with Leland, and running through Maturin, Le Fanu and Stoker – even if Leland represents more a first toe in the water than diving to the ghastly deep with a great Gothic splash. The important thing is that Thomas Leland was there at the beginning: even Horace Walpole came afterwards.
I incline to look on Thomas Leland as a sort of sober elder brother of the more famous Irish writers of the Gothic, while like them buttressing by the evidence of example H. P. Lovecraft’s great credo: “who shall declare the dark theme a positive handicap?”
JK: Are there any other works of Irish Gothic literature you think deserve to be revived and recognised?
AP: Ah! Herein lies fruitful scope for debate. I’ll be brief(ish). The many and various forms of fêting piled on Bram Stoker in the centenary year of his death demonstrate that at last in the land of his birth, the author of Dracula’s time has come. (It’s been a long time coming – but that’s another story.) Concurrently, there appears to be some recognition that the names of Maturin and Le Fanu are worthy of merit, but so far not much more than that. Pertinently, both authors have important bicentenary events coming up in the next few years, which I hope will receive suitable recognition: for Le Fanu his birth (1814), for Maturin publication of Melmoth the Wanderer (1820).
Other notables on the Irish Gothic scene include Waterford-born Regina Maria Roche (1764-1845), sometimes regarded as Ann Radcliffe “lite”, whose two novels on the Gothic theme, The Children of the Abbey (1796: sentimental) and Clermont (1798: sinister), merit more than a look – H.P. Lovecraft’s “dreary plethora of trash” dismissal notwithstanding. Then there’s the prolific and versatile Lord Dunsany (1878-1957), who strode high in William Morris and Tolkien territory but was no stranger either to the dark theme when humour took him; an eminent prose stylist into the bargain. Some of his unpublished tales and chamber-like ghostly plays are still knocking about, I gather. And mention should also be made of Mervyn Wall (1908-1997), whose best known works are in the tradition of satirical fantasy (perhaps even harking back to Jonathan Swift), but whose more realistic novels set in contemporary Ireland depict a terrain and a culture of sometimes echt Gothic dreariness … (His last published short story ‘Cloonaturk’ made it into Weird Tales.)
It would be vain to assert that Irish writers stand ever at the forefront of the Gothic in literature. But that they have been present at significant times and in critical capacities only a churl or a clown could doubt. Alas, the arts appreciation scene in Ireland too often partakes of the safe straddling style of the camp follower, content to clamber aboard the bandwagon rather than blaze trails. Undeniable Irish trails are there to be blazed through the shadow-bowered quicksets of the Gothic, not least the steps forged by the first out author in the genre – Thomas Leland, with his novel Longsword.
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