The Nocturnal Minstrel was published by Minerva in 1810, demonstrating that Eleanor Sleath was clinging on to the gothic memes and traditions at a time when many others were finally abandoning them. This short, two volume novel, however, does not read like a last desparate attempt to cling to a dying style, it is fresh and inventive, and apart from the overdrawn happy endings, maintains a high degree of mystery ands suspense. Apparently the gothic scholar D P Varma consider this to be Sleath’s best work, “both poetic and atmospheric, possessing a talismanic power.”
The novel revolves around the newly widowed Baroness Gertrude who becomes a gothic heroine whose fate we can become intensely involved in and whose fortitude we can admire throughout the novel.
Widowed at 25, she is left to rule over her husband’s remote Cumbria castle in the early part of the reign of Henry VII. Away from her family, and with very little society, her daily contacts are with the motley crew of the castle. A cruel and domineering head maid Winifred, who sets herself up as Gertrude’s chief confidante, whilst conspiring against her in the background, Motley the fool, a clown drawn straight from Shakespeare, with a ready turn of wit and never a straight answer. As often the fool is the most intelligent character in the castle. The faithful servants brave Edgar and bullied Ethelind provide the additional romantic interludes of the book.
There are also the range of suitors, eager for both Gertrude’s hand and her lands. Sir Reginald, the upper class twit, endlessly fawning around the baroness with poetry and music, ineffectual in pursuing his suit, and eventually to become the unexpected villain of the piece, and Earl Ormond, old enough to be her father, although he is actually promoted by her father as a suitable match, politically and financially rather than romantically. Her father in fact orders her to marry asserting that “he most certainly has a right to command”, to which Mrs Sleath, perhaps with a fleeting glance of an emerging feminism comments “language like this may seem harsh to the idea of a modern female, yet it seemed not so in ancient times of feudal authority”. It is perhaps encouraging that the Earl, on seeing Gertrude’s reluctance to accept her father’s commands is sensitive and realistic enough not to pursue his suit and almost to become the father figure that her real father never seems to offer.
From the outset of chapter 1 we are left in no doubt that it is the various hauntings of the castle that will drive the plot. From the Nocturnal Minstrel of the title, playing music in the woods outside Gertrude’s window each evening, the crashing and banging noises heard from the dead Baron’s chamber, echoing voices heard within the castle walls and eventually the armour clad ghost that appears first to reprimand Gertrude for rejecting Sir Reginald and later to cause the disappearance of the Earl. It is in this area that the full force of the gothic armoury is drawn out, from Otranto onwards we have it all.. The brave servant and the Earl who keep nightly watch in the haunted chamber only to have vanished by the morning, I was trying to spot the references, where have I read this scene before, on so many occasions.
Still, to her merit, Mrs Sleath restricted herself to two volumes, and in these volumes she presents a good story, well told. Additional volumes would have only presented unnecessary additional padding, indeed even in this case one and a half volumes was probably quite sufficient. Gertrude presents us with an admirable heroine, a little older and maybe a little wiser than many of the Emilys, the Laurettas and the Matildas of earlier novels, and her position as the head of an incongruous household, trying to keep control as the horrors enfold shows off all her strengths and weaknesses. Certainly Gertrude has joined the ranks of my favourite gothic heroines, a character I can relate to on so many levels.
January reading list
Anon – Ashton Priory (Minerva 1792)
Jane Harvey – Anything But What You Expect (Henry Mozley, Derby 1819)
Eleanor Sleath – The Nocturnal Minstrel (Minerva, 1810)