Elisa Cozzi, The Queen’s College, Oxford
DPhil student in English Language and Literature
shortlisted for the Colin Franklin Prize for Book Collecting, 2021
Irish gothic novels were among the first examples of the genre and greatly influenced later authors who played a key role in the development of the novel as a literary form, including Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Walter Scott. Unlike Ann Radcliffe’s popular gothic romances, set in a vague medieval past in faraway southern Italy or France, Irish gothic novels such as Regina Maria Roche’s The Children of The Abbey (1796) and Clermont (1798), Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806), and Charles Maturin’s The Milesian Chief (1812) and Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) share Irish settings, characters, and themes. They deal, directly or indirectly, with Irish history and politics and were influential in the development of Irish literary nationalism.
Roche’s The Children of the Abbey, once among the top bestsellers of the Romantic Age, has had a lasting impact on my studies. While researching material for my undergraduate dissertation I purchased a mid-nineteenth century illustrated edition of The Children of the Abbey from an independent Irish bookshop (John’s Bookshop in Athlone, Co. Westmeath). Printed by William Lane and A.K. Newman’s infamous London-based Minerva Press, which specialised in gothic novels and became the most prolific popular press of the age, my copy is a small one-volume edition, measuring 3x5x1.5 inches and bound in rib grain book-cloth with faint remnants of gilt ornaments on the spine. Although it is undated, the title page of the volume is signed “Elizabeth Jessop, 1859” in faded black ink, while the front free endpaper displays a handwritten place name, “Doory Hall, Co. Longford”.
Intrigued by these allusive traces of past readers, I discovered that the Jessops were an Anglo-Irish family of the landed gentry, with their seat in Doory Hall, near Longford. I also found (in Burke’s Peerage) that Frederick Thomas Jessop, Esq. had a child called Elizabeth, born between 1839 and the early 1840s. Thus, she would have been around fifteen or twenty years old when she put her signature in this copy in 1859: the perfect age to enjoy what was, by then, a good gothic classic. I find it fascinating that although the Jessops’ extensive library was sold upon the family’s demise, and their big house fell into ruin in the 1920s, a few of their books, like my own copy, survived to tell the forgotten tale of their past owners. This exciting discovery initiated me to the study of the book as material culture and inspired me to research the history of the Minerva Press and its gothic output. During my postgraduate course at Oxford I turned this research into a paper on Bibliography and Book History and included a bibliographical analysis of my own copy of The Children of the Abbey.
Although technically belonging to the genre of the ‘national tale’, Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl contains strong gothic elements and themes, including a ruined castle on a cliff, a sensitive female protagonist, an ancient crime, and a nocturnal, blood-chilling plot twist. What most struck me upon a first reading was the presence of constant comparisons between Ireland and Italy throughout the novel. Irish places, traditions, landscapes, literature, and art are continually juxtaposed with their Italian equivalents. While the evocation of Italy and things Italian in gothic novels was mainstream, as Italy had been shaped as ‘quintessentially gothic’ since Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), I soon realised that, in the Irish context, the Irish-Italian comparisons served a political purpose. In the early 1800s, when The Wild Irish Girl was published, both Ireland and Italy were grappling with foreign domination, fighting to gain independence from England and Austria, respectively. Thus, by bringing Italy and Ireland together, the radical Owenson (one of the founders of Irish cultural nationalism) framed Italy as a compelling mirror-image of Ireland, the epitome of a ‘nation’ oppressed by foreign powers, a politically subversive ‘double’ of Ireland. After all, ‘doublings’ and ‘mirrorings’ are classic features of gothic narratives.
The Wild Irish Girl alerted me to a previously unappreciated wealth of Irish-Italian literary connections in the Romantic period, and has directly inspired my doctoral thesis topic. In the case of Irish gothic novels especially, Ireland and Italy are often brought together and personified in overtly political romance plots. A good example is Charles Robert Maturin’s The Milesian Chief, which tells the story of an Irish-Italian girl called Armida Fitzalban who, although promised to an Englishman, travels to Ireland and falls in love with the Irish Connal O’Morven, the descendant of a dispossessed Gaelic prince, and fights alongside him in a rebellion against the English. A similar politicised Irish-Italian plot is at the centre of Bianca: A Tale of Erin and Italy (1852), another forgotten gothic tale by Maturin’s son Edward. These avenues of research brought me to my current doctoral project, which looks at the literary connections between Italy and Ireland in 1798-1848, with a particular focus on the literary production of Irish exiles and expatriates in the Italian peninsula.
No Irish gothic collection would be complete without the Victorian classics Carmilla (1872) and Uncle Silas (1864) by Sheridan Le Fanu, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). The last notable Irish-Italian novel in my collection is a second edition of Luttrell of Arran (1863) by Charles Lever (1806-1872). My 1866 edition is enriched by 44 illustrations by H.K. Brown and has an emerald binding embossed with Celtic patterns. Partly set in Italy and containing humorous-gothic tropes, Luttrell was written in Trieste (about an hour away from my hometown) where Lever, predating James Joyce, spent the last years of his life.
Despite their critical neglect, the enduring appeal of Irish gothic classics is reflected in contemporary publications. For example, Sarah Perry’s Melmoth (2018) reimagines Maturin’s masterpiece in a feminist key, while Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Deathless Girls (2019) tells the untold story of Dracula’s three vampire brides.
 John Burke, A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland (London: Colburn, 1847): 649.