Bungay Castle by Elizabeth Bonhote is a literary artifact of the 1790s. This was a time when London was obsessed with reading Gothic novels by Horace Walpole, Clara Reeve, Ann Radcliffe and their numerous imitators. Minerva Press was a major publisher of all things Gothic and they added Bonhote’s novel to their growing catalog in 1796, the same year that Matthew Lewis published his enduring masterwork, The Monk.
For those of us with an academic interest in Gothic literature, the 1790s is seen as a magical period of enlightened creativity; a renaissance of all things spooky and macabre. The era also contains a never-ending well of Gothic novels that need to be re-read, re-analyzed, and re-discovered. Sadly, these works have been largely neglected by academia and, in many cases, out-of-print for over two hundred years.
It wasn’t until 2006 that Bungay Castle received this re-printing, complete with scholarly introduction and informative footnotes. The academic perspective is useful because it is soon clear that Bonhote’s novel is not a long-lost masterpiece. Even editor Curt Herr opens his introduction with this honest statement: “The book you are holding in your hands is not an excellent novel.”
Indeed it is not. Those looking for a “pleasure read” should steer clear of its pages, which are convoluted with prose that feels dated even by 18th century standards and goes out of the way to lessen any sense of mystery or danger. The premise is so light on conflict, so constantly pleasant, that it is nearly impossible to endure. I only finished by having a steady routine of reading three or four pages a night. Any more than that and I would fall asleep.
Still, there is historical significance here, particularly from a genre perspective. Bungay Castle is a quintessential example of the “Gothic Prisons” subgenre, where an interpersonal drama plays out almost entirely indoors, if not in an actual prison cell. In this case, our heroine is secluded in an enormous castle because the outside world is war-torn and dangerous.
Left with little to do but explore the immense castle, our heroine stumbles upon subterranean passages which lead to the discovery of an attractive, imprisoned man. It is unknown why this man has been jailed and kept secret, but his kind countenance keeps our heroine coming back to care for him. Soon they are in love, but she’s betrothed to a nasty old baron by her father. There’s a countdown to the dreaded wedding day, where she wanders hopelessly, waiting for something to happen.
Herr’s editorial commentary works hard to characterize the novel as a work of proto-feminism. Sometimes his arguments feel like a stretch, but he does draw attention to noteworthy passages where Bonhote plays with gender expectations. This includes making the hero weak, feeble and generally “effeminate”—to the point of dressing in his mother’s clothes. Meanwhile the heroine enjoys far more freedom and is the one who must protect him. By the end the characters feel more traditional, but the twist is nice while it lasts.
While I agree there are some proto-feminist ideas peppered in, Ann Radcliffe’s heroines take on far greater risk to reject assigned marriage. In comparison, Bonhote comes across conservative—and it’s not like Radcliffe was a radical. Far from it.
Not only would I argue that Bungay is more conservative, more sympathetic with the patriarchy, than Herr suggests, I would say that is largely the intention.
For example, much of the novel pokes fun at the melodramatic extremes of Horace Walpole’s 1764 bestseller, The Castle of Otranto. Otranto is famous for being the first “Gothic” novel and for creating the template that has largely stuck with the genre to this day.
Bonhote introduced Bungay with a cheeky comment that she could have pretended to find the manuscript “in some recess of her favorite ruins.” This is a call out to Walpole who, in his first edition of Otranto, claimed it was a found manuscript hundreds of years old.
In Otranto there are iconic scenes of animated suits of armour and terrifying elements of the supernatural. In Bungay, there are also rattling suits of armour, however they are quickly revealed to be caused by natural circumstances.
Otranto was famously inspired by Strawberry Hill, a sprawling Gothic castle where Walpole lived. Bungay Castle was inspired by the uninhabitable ruins of the actual Bungay Castle, which Bonhote owned.
In Otranto, the heroine flees rather than face marriage with a disgusting ogre. In Bungay, our heroine walks down the aisle, willing to do as she’s told for the sake of her father’s reputation.
With so many direct comparisons between the novels, it’s hard not to think of Bungay as designed to be an antithesis to Otranto. While Walpole’s novel contained non-stop melodrama on every page, including outlandish elements of supernatural, terror and fear, Bonhote’s novel strives to be the opposite. She borrows the Gothic setting, but strips away the high stakes and supernatural in favor of light, pleasant adventures which intentionally sooth the reader instead of raise their blood pressure.
Perhaps pleasantries appeal to some. My mother would no doubt prefer Bungay Castle to The Castle of Otranto. For me, however, I prefer my fiction to be juicy and full of shocks and surprises. Especially if I’m reading a Gothic novel. Even if disregarding Bonhote’s prose, which is cluttered and unclear, her preference for the mundane over melodrama is no doubt a major reason why Bungay Castle is not read more widely.
Overall, it’s important to explain that this is still an enjoyable novel—but far more so for its historical significance than its quality. Consider it “research” and not “entertainment” and you will appreciate it a lot more. I will also say that its “Gothic prison” themes are particularly fitting during these secluded COVID-19 times. I often reflected back on the early months of 2020, when my world felt locked down. These experiences gave me a greater appreciation for the literary environment Bonhote created and her attention to how seclusion impacts psychology.
If anybody else dares to take on this challenging read, please join us on social media and share your thoughts!
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