The fatal vow in gothic fiction was touched on in an earlier post, and Francis Lathom’s The Midnight Bell, first published in 1798, demonstrates clearly the consequences of a fatal vow.
In the first few pages the hero Alphonsus believes his father to have been murdered, his mother, in shock, implores him to “Swear to me by heaven whenever the murderer stands confessed, thou wilt revenge thy father’s death” to which he responds “Let me but know him and by all my hopes of heaven my sword shall pierce his heart”.
However, the father isn’t dead. He returns to his wife that night, but she believing him to be an intruder stabs at him and kills him. Realising that she has made Alphonsus swear this fatal vow she believes that he is now honour bound to kill her, and mysteriously instructs him to leave the castle forthwith and never set eyes on her again.
We see here the power of the fatal vow, whatever the events that ensue, and whatever argument one could put up for extenuating circumstances, the main actors believe that the vow made to heaven is indestructible.
Alphonsus is absent for many years, and returns when he believes his mother dead. She isn’t, and it is the he learns from the monks that attend her, the true circumstances. Even then he believes in the power of that vow, and considers that if he were to meet with his mother then he is compelled to kill her in revenge.
It is only through the intercession of the monks, “comfort thee my son, the church is able and I doubt not willing to absolve thee from an oath of such a strange nature” Even still, until his mother dies shortly after, Alphonsus does not feel able to take up residence in his family home.
The primary focus of the plot however centres on the effects of suspicion. Alphonsus’s homily to his children which concludes the novel states:
“Learn above all my children to avoid suspicion; for as it is the source of crimes, it is also the worst of crimes, attaching itself with equal mischief to the guilty and the innocent; it is an endless pang to him who harbours it; for it dies only when he dies, and then too often leaves a curse on those that follow him; it is the influence of evil that breeds suspicion, the noble spirit of charity that subdues it!.”
The death of Alphonsus’s father, discussed above, is a direct result of suspicion. The father (also Alphonsus) believed his wife Anna, whilst not actually being unfaithful was “capable of being unfaithful” and he determined to test his theory. He arranged to travel away for two months and asked his brother Frederic, in his absence, to try to seduce Anna. Frederic tries and fails, Anna remains virtuous, but Alphonsus remains suspicious. He travels back towards home, but before entering he sends in a messenger to tell Anna that he has been murdered on his journey. Again he sends Frederic to try to seduce her, believing that if she believes him dead then (in the midst of her misery and grief) she might succumb. In the middle of the night he enters Anna’s room, hoping to catch her and Frederic together, but Anna is alone. She believes the intruder to be Frederic, whose advances she has been repelling for the past months. She grabs a dagger to defend her honour and stabs out in the dark. Only then she discovers that it is Alphonsus and not Frederic that she has killed.
His ridiculous suspicion and his failure to accept that he is wrong, even when proof is given, leads to Alphonsus’ death.
Suspicion again causes untimely death. The unfortunate Frederic has, in visits to Italy, met a young heiress, Lauretta, and they have both fallen in love. However her father has other plans for her, wishing her to marry Count Byroff. Bowing to her father’s will Lauretta marries the Count. Although, unusually for such a novel, the Count is actually good, decent and kind, Lauretta clearly retains affection for Frederic and generally mopes around the palace. Lauretta’s father has hidden any knowledge of Lauretta and Frederic from Count Byroff, so he is unaware of any other attachment Lauretta may have. However Lauretta’s father decides that Frederic must be disposed of. Again he tips off Frederic that Lauretta may be being unfaithful to him, and arranges to form Frederic and himself to pretend to travel away for a few days. His spies intercept a letter between Lauretta and Frederic arranging a meeting, he shows this to Byroff and convinces him that his only option is to hide on the route Frederic must take to this tryst and kill him there. This Byroff reluctantly undertakes, however the next day it turns out that by mistake Byroff has killed a member of the Venetian court instead, he immediately flies into exile to avoid a murder charge abandoning Lauretta and her daughter for the next eighteen years.
The whole novel revolves around suspicion, the key male characters unjustified suspicion of their wives. It’s sad that the males don’t read more novels, they would see how the heroines fight to the end to retain that virtue, and even Lauretta’s meetings with Frederic were innocent in deed. It takes the marriage of Alphonsus’ son (Alphonus) and Lauretta’s daughter (Lauretta), brought together by the usual impossible coincidences that are fundamental to the gothic tradition, to right the wrongs of a misguided and foolish generation.