The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne

October 29, 2011

So there’s this thing, the Classics Circuit. They organize blog tours. You pick a book in keeping with the theme of the tour, read it, and post a review on an assigned date. I thought it would be easy. I was wrong.

It’s my own fault, mostly. I started by choosing Jane Talbot, by Charles Brockden Brown, from the list of Gothic novels provided by the Classics Circuit. I ended up reading a little over half of it before realizing that nothing you’d expect to find in a Gothic novel had shown up yet, and, with less than half the book left, nothing was likely to. So I did a bit of googling and found that, while Brown did write four Gothic novels, Jane Talbot has never been considered one of them.

I’ll be coming back to Jane Talbot at some point, because it’s a really interesting book, but it didn’t seem appropriate to read something that clearly wasn’t a Gothic novel for the Gothic Lit Tour. So I decided to read The Recess, by Sophia Lee. It’s one of the early proto-Gothic novels, and it’s about two daughters of Mary, Queen of Scots, being raised in an underground apartment and eventually (I’m guessing) finding their way to the surface, falling in love with inappropriate people, and having lots of terrible things happen to them. But, as you can see, The Recess is not the book listed at the top of this post. I’d still kind of like to read it, despite the fact that the beginning creeped me out a little, but only if I find a hard copy or it shows up as a proper etext somewhere. The only place I could find it was Google Books (in three separate volumes, no less) and I just didn’t have the patience.

At that point I figured I might as well just give up on finding something new and go read some Ann Radcliffe. I know I’m capable of dealing with Radcliffe. I mean, I like The Mysteries of Udolpho enough to have read it multiple times (and by multiple I mean two and a half). The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne was Radcliffe’s first novel, and the only one of her books that fit in a single volume, both of which seemed like positive things at the time.

I was wrong about that, too.

I mean, it wasn’t terrible. Or, rather, it was, but not in a bad way. My main frustrations with it were a) the lack of the (moderate) awesomess of The Mysteries of Udolpho, b) the total lack of character development, and c) the fact that Radcliffe apparently needed more than one volume to do justice to her crazy, crazy plot. For the record, though, I’m pretty sure that even if Radcliffe had been given two extra volumes to fill up, there still wouldn’t have been any character development.

Anyway, there are these castles. Athlin belongs to the good guys: nineteen year old Osbert is the earl, seventeen year old Mary is his sister, and mopey Matilda is their mother. She has been moping about her dead husband for twelve years when the book opens.

Dunbayne is the HQ of Malcolm, murderer of the previous Earl of Athlin. He’s your typical Gothic villain in that he’s kind of mean, but mostly just incapable of resisting his selfish impulses.

Soon after we meet the characters, Osbert goes for a walk and gets lost, which, considering that Athlin is built on top of a really big rock, is pretty impressive. He’s rescued by a cute peasant named Alleyn, and even if you haven’t read a Gothic novel before, I don’t expect you to be very surprised when I tell you that he will eventually turn out to be the son of an aristocrat. Osbert takes Alleyn home with him, and Alleyn turns out to be able to do everything better than everyone else, and also falls in love with Mary. I hesitate to call it love at first sight, because they do dance together once, but I can’t recall them ever having a conversation.

Meanwhile Osbert has decided that now is the time to revenge his father’s death. He and Alleyn and some other guys attack Dunbayne, but Malcolm has been warned, and he captures them both. Alleyn pretty quickly escapes through the floor with the help of one of his guards and goes back to Athlin so he and Mary can make cow eyes at each other some more, but Osbert is stuck in a tower where he has nothing to do but write poetry and look out the window. That might not seem like much, but it does allow him to see Louisa, wife of the previous Baron Malcolm, walking in the courtyard with her daughter Laura. Osbert falls in love with Laura after even less interaction than Alleyn and Mary had.

Eventually Osbert escapes too, and after some more stuff about how their class differences are keeping Mary and Alleyn apart, it’s Malcolm’s turn to attack Athlin. He shows up with a band of armored soldiers and prepares to attack, but becomes inexplicably confused when Osbert’s men start shooting arrows at him. Osbert’s guys defeat Malcolm’s, Malcolm reveals on his deathbed that he gave Louisa’s son up for adoption and it takes an unreasonably long time for everyone to figure out that Alleyn is the son, and the obvious people get married. Also, there were maybe four rescues by Alleyn that I didn’t cover, a subplot where Malcolm wanted to trade Osbert for Mary, and also a Swiss count with poor impulse control, but this is getting long.

That all sounds fun, right? And it is, mostly. I was just expecting something like the clinging-to-rationality-in-the-face-of-terror (as opposed to horror, because Radcliffe doesn’t hold with that sort of thing) Mysteries of Udolpho, and instead I got a haphazard collection of Gothic tropes and props that’s sloppier than The Castle of Otranto. Also, nothing scary happened, and there was an emphasis on the imprisonment of men that shows pretty clearly that the central tenets of the Gothic were still being established.  I enjoyed the silliness a lot, though, and there was a pretty cool bit where Matilda was like, “Oh, it’ll be super easy for me to talk Mary into marrying this Swiss guy,” and Mary was like, “yeah, not going to happen.” Mary was okay, even though she fainted a lot and never spoke when she could blush or burst into tears instead. She was better than anyone else, anyway.

So, yeah, if you’re looking for silliness and Gothic architecture, this is your book, but if you want a little more substance, I recommend Udolpho.



  1. Sloppier than the Castle of Otranto? GOOD. LORD.

    • Yeah, exactly :)

  2. Have you read EDEN Southworth’s The Hidden Hand? I am reading it now, and so far it is the most entertaining Victorian novel I have ever read.

    • Oh man, I love The Hidden Hand. I keep meaning to reread it and review it. Are you up to the woman in the asylum yet?

  3. Not quite the same as reading a gothic novel for Halloween, but I have downloaded several collections of ghost stories for reading. I just finished one such collection called Humorous Ghost Stories by Dorothy Scarborough in the public domain. My favorite story in that collection is probably The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall by John Kendrick Bangs.

    I recently purchased a book called Cold Comfort Farm which was written in the 1930s. It’s a comic novel that parodies the highly romantic, doom filled novels set in remote rural locations, such as in many gothic novels. I haven’t started reading it yet but it seems like it will be a fun read. I suspect that you would probably like it! Check out some of the online reviews of this.

    • I actually tend to avoid ghost stories–I’m legitimately scared by them, and not in a fun way.

      Not only have I read Cold Comfort Farm, I have no idea how many times I’ve read Cold Comfort Farm. It was my favorite book when I was in my early teens, and I even named my cat after the author. It’s a parody of books like Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, but also keep an eye out for the random little bits about how it’s set in the future.

  4. No, I have not gotten there but I am totally loving Cap. She makes Nancy Drew look weak. I get a little annoyed that people think that Nancy is the first “modern” heroine.

    • Cap Black is probably the single coolest heroine to be found in a Victorian novel.

      Do people really say Nancy Drew is the first modern heroine? That’s…weird. I could see someone making a case for her being the first postmodern heroine, I guess.

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