Clara Reeves wrote The Old English Baron in response to The Castle of Otranto. In the (very engaging) preface to the second edition she explains how Otranto tried to ‘unite the various merits and graces of the ancient romance and modern novel’ into a form it called the gothic novel. The benefits of ancient romance are the expanded realm of ‘the marvellous which excites the attention’ and the benefits of the modern novel are ‘to give an air of probability to the work; and enough of the pathetic to engage the heart’ in its behalf. The problem, as Reeves saw it, was that The Castle of Otranto leans too heavily into its romance aspect which makes the work ridiculous. She feels that the ‘machinery is too monstrous’ which dispels the effect and, instead, caused her to laugh. She found that many other readers also had this problem and thought it could solved if the book had gone to ‘the verge of probability’ but no further.
In response, she wrote The Old English Baron as an attempt to carry out Walpole’s gothic project properly by taking out the more bombastic, sillier parts. While I’d agree that The Castle of Otranto is often a very silly book (my more recent re-read kept putting me in mind of Monty Python) it is those parts which are the most entertaining and linger longest in the reader’s memory and removing them takes much of the fun out of the experience.
The reader is introduced to Sir Phillip Harclay, a soldier returning from the crusades who seeks out his old friend, Arthur Lord Lovell. When he reaches Lovell’s seat, he finds that Arthur, his wife and son have all died, the house has passed to his brother, who leases it to a Baron Fitz-Owen. He feels an emptiness in finding his beloved friend gone and it reminded me a little of the set up of Lady Audley’s Secret. However, unlike Robert Audley, it’s not Phillip who’s going to investigate the mysteries though. Instead he meets Fitz-Owen, who he likes a lot and takes a particular shine to Edmund, a peasant boy with especial charm, who he asks to join him. Edmund says he can’t, he owes too much to the Fitz-Owens, who have lifted him from the plough and are training him to be a squire. Sir Phillip leaves, offering Edmund any assistance in the future and remarking on how similar he was to his old friend Lovell. As soon as the mystery is set up, it’s pretty much revealed by this suspicion.
Once Phillip has left, the reader spends time with Edmund, which is a little jarring because Phillip was given a fair amount of backstory and really seemed like he would be the protagonist. Edmund is a perfect person. He has innate nobility, manliness, wisdom, kindness and general chivalric perfection - there’s no way he can really be a peasant, can he? While he stands firm in Baron Fitz-Owen’s favour and the favour of the younger son William, the older son, Robert is jealous of his accomplishments. His jealousy is encouraged by Wenlock and Markham, the sons of the current Lord Lovell, who lives in a grand house somewhere else.
The first draft of this book, The Champion of Virtue, Reeves followed Walpole’s example of having the story told in fragments of manuscript. When she revised the novel under the current title, she removed most of those elements but a few remain. These give the novel little time-skips so we can see Edmund’s progress and the build up of the forces against him in snippets and are very effective - I think the found manuscript frame should probably have been kept. I also prefer the original title as Sir Phillip literally stands as a (tourney) champion of virtue, whereas the old English baron could refer to a number of the characters. Presumably it refers to Fitz-Owen, the person most often referred to as a baron but he’s not really a central character, certainly he isn’t a very active part of the book.
There are also spooky goings on in the castle, a suite of rooms is shut up following the death of the last Lord Lovell and the death in childbirth of his distraught widow. Edmund’s manliness is being disparaged by Wenlock and crew, so he proves it by spending the night in the haunted rooms. There he finds clues of foul play and an old servant helps him put together the clues and suspicions that point to him being the true heir of the Lovell name. An interview with his mother confirms this and it is quickly understood that Lovell was murdered and buried under the floorboards, his wife ran away but drowned in a nearby river, leaving him as a baby to be found and brought up by peasants. The difficulty is in finding someone with enough clout to prove it.
He decides to go to Sir Phillip but disguise his flight by the fiction of being stolen away by the supposed ghost who haunts the castle. The best part of the book then follows, when Wenlock and Markharm have to prove their manliness by staying in the haunted part of the castle. They blame each other for their predicament and almost come to blows when a ghostly figure in a suit of armour comes in and frightens them silly. It’s revealed that the ghost is actually the old servant pulling a Scooby-Doo.
Edmunds meets up with Sir Phillip who takes a challenge to the current Lord Lovell (who is not the kind Fitz-Owen who actually lives in the Lovell house, he’s only renting). The two fight, Lovell loses and confesses to the murder and Edmund is generally acclaimed to be the rightful Lord Lovell and not a peasant at all.
This should be the end. It’s not. The book is about 80 pages in and the next 50 are about the various meetings of nobility, commissions of investigators and interminable legal wranglings which result from the climactic joust and confession that’s happened two thirds through the book. Essentially: faff, faff, faff, marriages, lots of house swapping, the end. As such, the book is really quite disappointing. The set-up is nice, we like Sir Phillip and look forward to him finding out the truth, then we spend time with Edmund who solves the mystery in 20 pages, leading to an interesting duel and a wrap-up that takes a third of the book.
I think Clara Reeve did identify a main problem in Walpole’s own attempt to fuse ancient and modern forms of storytelling but in trying to go in the direction or greater realism, she left something that is fairly entertaining at its best moments and utterly dull at its worst. The magic formula of the gothic novel - using heightened emotion and old myth within a recognisably and grounded psychology - was yet to be achieved.