Spunky Ladies and Wicked Uncles: A Review

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Castle Wolfenbach: A German Story, by Eliza Parsons (1793)

http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/parsons/castle/castle.html

This is a 19th century adventure story for young women of all ages (yes, written in 18th century, but it’s ahead of its time). The characters speak as for an audience, events are fortuitous, the virtuous heroine does overcome all obstacles, and a certain amount is non sequitur, yet…

And yet, when I quit wincing and swearing at the dialogue, I keep noticing it isn’t as bad as, say, Mrs. Radcliffe. It actually sneaks some stuff in that I wouldn’t expect. The heroine, Matilda Weimar, actually is pretty brave and nervy for the time. She has gotten her own self out of serious peril and on the road when we meet her. She fearlessly explores the haunted wing of Castle Wolfenbach, and deals with what she finds there. Her main concern in finding someone she knew dead is not screaming and fainting, but figuring how to bury the poor woman decently. In short, if you can overlook a need to rely on an old manservant (um, she’s 16 and never been out of the estate, in a man’s Europe), a tendency to be exhausted by days of horseback travel (life with zero phys ed, folks), to burst into tears to relieve her feelings (as well she might) or even faint (corsets!), she actually is quite a spunky young woman. If some of the events seem ridiculous to us, the fault may not lie in the writer, but in our being alien to her world.

You or I would never think to write to our sister and ask her to take in some girl we only just met. We do not have the solid caste solidarity, that a lady is a lady and will not be a crook or a dangerous psycho. We don’t have the family structure, that siblings usually depend on each other as we might on parents, and then some. We don’t have the social structure, that of course a marchioness needs an amusing female companion, who is not a servant, on a trip to a foreign country. We don’t have the loose wealth of their upper classes, to add two more dependants to the household without noticing it.

So look at this as being perhaps just a little Mary Suish, but not in a bad way, while taking you on a trip through a world that has vanished, and is about as alien to most of us as anything we could reach by flying saucer. Take it lightly, let it be fun, and it’s better than reruns for an evening.

There is real evil in this world, and the author uses it. Matilda has been raised by her supposed uncle since some time early in childhood, only to find out, not that he intends to marry her for her fortune (the usual melodrama), but in fact means to force her into being his mistress now that she’s sixteen. This is a genuine peril of the time, for a child could be raised with no contacts outside her own home.

As I said, an alien world for us.

As a result, it was considered one of the seven “horrid novels” inappropriate for young women in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

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