Who's the Murderer?
I think I have a new book coming out soon. It’s been a long time in the pipeline: I submitted the finished typescript in 2014 and then wrote to the publishers once a year to ask if there was any progress, and the reply was always “soon” (end of next year, end of this year, etc - such is the publishing process). But at the start of this month, out of the blue, I had an email from Valancourt Press, and I was told that the editor was halfway through the proofs, and today I had a note that said that it would be going to the printers soon. (And - as an update to the original post, I saw the cover on the website today - 18 June) with a brief description on the Valancourt Website.
The book in question is Who’s the Murderer? by Eleanor Sleath. Never heard of her? That’s ok. Most people aren’t aware that they have (if they have at all!) One of her books, The Orphan of the Rhine is grouped with other “horrid” novels in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which Isabella Thorpe tells Catherine Morland that she must read after she finishes The Mysteries of Udolpho – a truly horrid novel (but that’s just my opinion from the occasions I had to teach it). For a long time it was believed that Austen had fabricated these titles, until Austen’s biographer Michael Sadleir discovered that they were actually published by the Minerva Press; actually, when considering that Austen wrote Northanger Abbey in 1803 (although it wasn’t published until 1817, after Austen’s death) she was actually describing the cutting edge of the gothic mood in fiction of the time.
Who’s the Murderer? Or The Mysteries of the Forest is the second of six novels written by Eleanor Sleath between 1798 and 1815. Published in 1802 it conveys the gothic mood following the style of Ann Radcliffe (indeed, one contemporary reviewer describes The Orphan of the Rhine as a “vapid and servile imitation”). The gothic is presented through a series of conventions – the main character, Cecilia is a baby in the first chapter, given into the care of a young widow, who then, as she approaches death, gives Cecilia into the care of Mme de Villeneuve. She dies very early in the novel, and de Villeneuve’s brother, Monsieur de Sevignac, falls ill, and needs a tonic of fresh air to restore his health. This proves unsuccessful and de Sevignac also dies at the end of the first volume, leave Cecilia vulnerable to the machicolations of the evil Count Morsino, with the baby being at the centre of an apparent game of pass-the-parcel leaving the reader assured that Cecilia’s heritage is well and truly lost.
Other gothic elements include a journey through a forest filled with banditti (a favourite motif of Sleath’s – one of her novels is called Pyrenean Banditti), mysterious crumbling castles, abbeys in the forest, evil Italian aristocracy whose surname begins with “M”, family secrets and loyalty to ensure that the path of true love really doesn’t run smooth, and, of course, the question of who’s the murderer (although the reader can be forgiven for spending much of the novel wondering “who’s been murdered?”) and the threat of death hanging over them. The “mystery” of the forest ( aside from the body of a “newly murdered man” in a castle filled with banditti) comes from when Cecilia is imprisoned in a castle in the middle of a forest when Morsino tries to win Cecilia’s heart (or, more honestly, her inheritance) with threats of violence and confinement instead of following a more traditional route of flowers and chocolates. But it is here that Cecilia learns about the circumstances surrounding her adoption (so, not exactly the Mysteries OF the Forest that the subtitle suggests, rather the Mysteries contained-in-a-castle IN the Forest).
Unlike other gothic novels, Who’s the Murderer? doesn’t trouble itself with the supernatural. Instead the gothic mood is created through an overactive imagination in situations such as when Cecilia tries to see the body of her guardian lying in state, at midnight, in a cellar, during a thunderstorm, or when Cecilia is taken prisoner and she has a truly disturbing hallucination as she slips into madness and delirium. But these moments are counterbalanced by the descriptions of aristocratic society in Venice and Genoa, and through these, the reader is afforded an insight into society at the turn of the nineteenth century, as well as the author’s opinions of the same: Sleath barges past her narrator in places to make it clear what she feels about the events that are happening, or to elicit sympathy with her heroine when she faces such adversity.
Working on this volume was a tale in itself. I co-organise a fantasy symposium between Northampton University and Richmond University. In 2012, I decided to write something on the Northanger Novels, a research topic that I quickly realised was WAY too long for a 20 minute research paper (I eventually wrote a short paper on The Necromancer or, A Tale of the Black Forest), but during the preliminaries of this research, I approached Valancourt Publishers to ask about the publication schedule for Horrid Mysteries. I was told that this wasn’t ready yet, but was asked if I should like to be involved with another volume – Who’s the Murderer?
As said above, Who’s the Murderer? was published in 1802, and hasn’t been published since. It was published by the Minerva Press in four volumes. These volumes were available through the Circulating Library and read until each volume fell to bits. That must have been the case with this book. Undoubtedly there are copies in private collections, but of the dozen or so listings on WorldCat (a list of holdings for all the libraries); most of these are stored on microfiche. So too was the copy that I received. A set of seven postcard-size micro-photographs that contained all of these pages. Unfortunately some of these photographs are defective – blemishes on some of the photographs, and some pages had been omitted completely and it was necessary to obtain a scan from the nearest available library. In this case it was Harvard University library.
My first necessity was to buy something to read these microfiches. There was something at the university, something big, but it wasn’t convenient to work in the silent study area for the hours this project required. (There was also no space to lay out notes or to annotate the typescript I was working on.) Next stop EBay.
I was the only person to bid for an old, paint covered fiche reader, and spent hours cleaning it. I also had to replace the bulb almost immediately, but it was enough to do the job. Students came into my office wondering what this antiquated beast was, and I told them it was the Internet, from before we had the internet! Thirty years ago, when I worked in a bookshop, we used to get the “British Books in Print” updated on microfiche every month, rolling the tray along rows and columns to try to find the right book. So it was strange that I was back using the same technology as when I started working! I then set about months working from the miniscule type to resurrect this text after a couple of centuries.
A year later, at the next Fantasy Symposium, I presented a paper called “A first look at Who’s the Murderer?” in which I talk about Eleanor Sleath, with particular reference to an article entitled "The Real Eleanor Sleath" by Becky Czlapinski and Eric C Wheeler, who researched the life of Sleath herself, as well as a short introduction to the novel, with links and comparisons with Jane Austen and Ann Radcliffe. I also wrote an introductory essay on Who’s the Murderer? to be included at the start of this volume. It is very strange to be researching a book and to find that the only material on the internet was written by you. There was something rather special feeling that I was one of only a handful of people alive to have read this novel, but it’s also good to know that I have helped bring this novel to a whole new audience.
Sleath undoubtedly owes her reputation to Jane Austen. Without the mention in Northanger Abbey, Sleath would have undoubtedly slipped into obscurity. Devendra Varma describes Sleath as ‘one of a number of minor “gothic” writers whose works were animated by the last flicker of enthusiasm for gothic fiction’. Who’s the Murderer? might have been a product of its time, but in Cecilia we have a strong female character who can stand up for himself in the face of adversity, and it is this kind or protagonist that characters such as Isabella and Catherine – and thousands of readers like them in mid-Georgian England – would have found exciting, and I hope that making this volume accessible to a 21st century audience will also awaken a new wave of scholarship on this neglected novel.