The Castle of Montabino; or the Orphan Sisters: An Original Romance
Author: Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson
Publisher: Dean and Munday
Publication Year: 1810
Book Dimensions: 12 cm x 19.5 cm
University of Virginia Library Catalog Entry, Sadleir-Black Collection: PZ2.W55 C 1810
The Castle of Montabino by Sarah Wilkinson is a riveting narration of mystery and adventure in early 1800’s Italy, centralizing around two sisters’ daring escape from the clutches of their cruel uncle.
The Castle of Montabino; or the Orphan Sisters: An Original Romance is a lengthily-titled, 38-page work of gothic fiction authored by Sarah Wilkinson. Originally, the contents of the book were stored in a fragile pamphlet of pages consisting of a blue cover and backing. However, the book was later rebound, and is currently held in a cardstock-weight tan binding. The novel does not appear particularly aesthetically pleasing as the exterior is bland, lacking an intriguing cover and decorative effects. The contents of the book, however, tell a more interesting story. Within the yellowed, aged pages of Wilkinson’s story are small splotches, stains, tears, and other mysterious man-made marks. These pages, containing the actual text, are quite delicate, uneven in length, and frayed at the ends as if torn.
The first page of the text, or the introductory catalogue, is a detailed table of books printed on faded turquoise-blue parchment paper. This catalogue contains a list of the various works, including The Castle of Montabino, mentioning that they were all printed and sold by the same publisher. The full title of the book appears on the title page after this catalogue, and interestingly, the author’s name is quite inconspicuous, wedged between the full title, the publisher’s name, and a small drawing. Wilkinson is only mentioned as the author once throughout the whole course of the text.
A frontispiece precedes the title page. This is a larger, well-depicted illustration of three women who appear to be kneeling in fear within a castle. The expressions on their faces are contorted and overdramatized, indicating astonishment and fright. Under this image is a caption with the words, “The Castle of Montabino.” The second, smaller drawing is on the title page, and resembles a lightly sketched depiction of a miniature castle surrounded by a few trees. Both images are black and white, appearing relatively simple without ornate detailing or vibrant colors.
The remainder of the book is solely text, containing no other visual aids or sources which depict scenarios relevant to the plot. While the pages are saturated with words and there is not a lavish amount of white space, there is a generous amount of contrast between the paragraphs and spaces so that the reader is not overwhelmed by a mass of text. The font is large enough to easily read, comparable with 12-point font. The dimensions of the book in terms of the external length and width are 19.5 cm by 12 cm. The lengths of the pages within the book are varied as some of the pages are more worn or torn slightly more than others. Additionally, the turquoise blue introductory page and cover are significantly smaller than the yellowed pages with the contents of the text. The material on which the text is printed is a thinner version of printer paper, more aged and discolored than expected. With a tawny yellowish-tan color, the pages appear not only frail, but slightly brittle as well. A few interesting post-production marks found on some pages within the text include an inked signature on the catalogue which appears to spell the word “Montabino” in fluid cursive, along with smaller, more arbitrary pencil markings within the text containing dates and numbers.
Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson, the author of The Castle of Montabino; or the Orphan Sisters: An Original Romance, was a novelist known as one of the most prolific female gothic fiction writers of her time (Potter 109–10). She wrote and published over a hundred works of fiction, almost half of which were chapbooks. Many of her works were adaptations of previously existing novels, romances in particular (Baines). Many of Wilkinson’s pieces such as The Thatched Cottage and A Visit to London were abridgements. The Castle of Montabino, however, was her original work. Interestingly enough, Wilkinson is one of the few female authors whose names were printed and made visible within her published texts. Not only was her presence in the gothic fiction realm immense in the early nineteenth century, but some of her writings were also so popular that they were reprinted and recirculated multiple times (Baines). Some of Wilkinson’s more popular works included The History of Crazy Jane, Monkcliffe Abbey, and The Maid of Lochlin. By contrast, The Castle of Montabino, however, was not considered to be one of Wilkinson’s most notable or highly received works, and appears to have been less-known.
Unfortunately, Wilkinson faced many difficulties in her early writing career. She was born into a lower middle-class family, living on the border of poverty in the heart of London. This continued on into her adult life as she was widowed, struggling to support herself and her family with multiple odd occupations. She held a variety of small jobs including being a schoolteacher, running a circulating library, and taking in boarders (Potter, 110–11). Simultaneously, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, leading her to petition the Royal Literary Fund for aid. She cited not only these medical issues, but the difficulty of earning a decent income as a female (Baines). Ultimately, she was fortunate enough to receive this aid and was able to continue writing and publishing until her death.
Wilkinson’s interesting background and experiences are reflected in her bold, unconventional writing. While she did fit into the framework of gothic style, she combined typical gothic elements with more realistic aspects of daily life, making subtle statements about societal constructs and the social position of women (Baines). She was known to have mocked or satirized mainstream gothic writers such as Ann Radcliffe, depicting diametrically opposing themes such as female social liberation and freedom in her works, The Castle of Montabino being one. Rather than catering to the higher classes, Wilkinson’s works were aimed at the literate, lower-class population, specifically women. Not only did she combine typical gothic tropes with the supernatural, she also focused on the themes of female subjectivity, gender, and identity. This innovative aspect of her writing marked her as a breakthrough female gothic fiction author (Hoeveler, 3–4).
The particular edition of The Castle of Montabino held in the University of Virginia Special Collections Library was published around 1810 by Dean and Munday Publishers. In total, there are two editions and several physical copies of these two editions held in libraries across the world. In addition to the copies at the University of Virginia Special Collections Library, databases indicate that the book is also at Duke University Libraries, UCLA, Northwestern, and The British Library in London. Additionally, there is an online edition of the text available with free access for the public through Chawton House Libraries (WorldCat). Different library databases and collections cite either 1809 or 1810 as the approximate time the work was printed. There is a second edition that was published around the same time, but by S. Bailey instead of the initial publishers, Dean and Munday. While the University of Virginia library catalog indicates that it is published by Dean and Munday, the interior catalogue of the text features a table of books, including The Castle of Montabino, as being printed and sold by S.Bailey.
The intriguing details regarding the history of the publishing of The Castle of Montabino originate with the relationship between Dean and Munday and S. Bailey, also known as Susan Bailey. The two publishing entities were thought to have had familial ties, providing a possible explanation for the reprinting and production of two copies around the same time frame (“Movable Stationary”). Among many of Wilkinson’s works, it is a common theme that most of the pieces are published by either S. Bailey or Dean and Munday, sometimes even both. Dean and Munday as a publication company was said to have been effective in their advertising, cultivating a name as the largest supplier of movable children’s books and chapbooks, fitting Wilkinson’s niche. The company primarily published fiction chapbooks in the form of bluebooks: small, thin paper pamphlets with turquoise-blue covers and backings, illustrated clearly through the visual appearance of The Castle of Montabino (“Movable Stationary”).
Not only was Wilkinson considered an influential author of her time, but she is also studied by contemporary scholars. She is mentioned as a female gothic pioneer with her works being cited in Franz Potter’s The History of Gothic Publishing. She is often referred to as one of the most productive and gifted writers in the field, introducing bold and daring concepts for her time period (Hoeveler 3–4). Wilkinson’s impact on the development of gothic fiction is also a major focal point of discussion in Ellen Malenas Ledoux’s Social Reform in Gothic Writing. Ledoux particularly analyzes what she calls the “working-class gothic in The Castle of Montabino (77).
Narrative Point of View
The Castle of Montabino is narrated in the third-person omniscient by an anonymous narrator who is never discussed or mentioned within the text. The narration is often convoluted and consists of lengthy paragraphs that occasionally form tangents away from the central plot. The narration focuses on the internal feelings and emotions of the characters briefly during the beginning of the book through dialogue and description. Later on, this focus shifts to a centralization around action and details of the core events in the plot. The language utilized throughout the text is intricate and verbose, and transitions from one event to another often blend together. In addition, the narration is extremely hurried and events are often grouped together, depicted as occurring back to back with no pause in between.
“Thanks be to heaven,” said the Signor, her apprehensions and suspense will now be converted to joy. “Then, turning to the servants, he said—“I think I scarce need repeat any injunctions of secresy.”— “We are faithful, and would die to prove it,” was the general reply. He asked a few questions, and being informed that the Countess had ordered breakfast not to be on table till two, he proposed retiring till that hour, and Laurinda conducted the ladies and Beatrice to their respective chambers. The sisters were so much fatigued with travelling, that they were not able to converse with their usual facility; and after a few remarks, they fell into a profound slumber, from which they did not awake till the entrance of Beatrice, who came to assist them in dressing; Laurinda having supplied her with the necessary articles for that purpose. At two they descended to the breakfast saloon; Signor Rupino and the Countess were ready to receive them, the former paid them the usual compliments, in a most elegant and flattering speech, the lady spoke not- yet she cordially pressed their hands,—heavy sighs distended her bosom, and she sobbed most piteously. The Signor apologized for the Countess’s not speaking to them; he said that their presence had awakened some bitter recollections that had overcome her. She wore a thick muslin veil, and she took great care, while eating her breakfast, that no part of her face should be seen. Before their repeat was concluded, they were joined by the two gentlemen who had always accompanied Signor Rupino and the Countess in the boat; the latter whispered something to the Countess, they retired together to one of the open balconies (15).
This particular narrative style creates a fast-paced story due to the fleeting portrayal of events. In some cases, it is difficult to distinguish the start of one event and the end of another due to the fact that both the sentences and paragraphs are long and strung out. The events are portrayed as occurring one after the other, and the narration significantly contributes to the sudden nature of transitions within the plot. This aspect of the narration along with some obscured language makes it hard to identify certain contexts or intervals. In illustrating the sister’s journey in the passage above, the narrator mentions, “The sisters were so much fatigued with travelling, that they were not able to converse with their usual facility; and after a few remarks, they fell into a profound slumber, from which they did not awake till the entrance of Beatrice, who came to assist them in dressing; Laurinda having supplied her with the necessary articles for that purpose” (15). This sentence highlights the quantity of condensed details within particular points of the narration, offering an example of the culmination of ideas that are often presented in a short period of time.
The Castle of Montabino is a short gothic story set in Italy in the early nineteenth century. The plot places specific focus on Emillia and Theresa, two recently orphaned sisters faced with peril after the passing of their aunt, the Countess. The novel begins by describing the somber mood within the castle, and the despair experienced by the two sisters. Emillia and Theresa convey that they do not wish to reside in the Castle at Montabino under the care of their cold and cruel uncle, the Count. In their private apartment, they discuss their plan to escape from the castle with the help of mysterious, unidentified companions. These companions—three noble, well dressed men and one woman, soon arrive at the castle by boat. They dock their boat under the window of the sisters’ apartment, confirming their role in aiding the girls with their escape. The mysterious figures state that the two sisters are nearing imminent danger, and that they must take action in immediately ensuring their safety.
Theresa and Emillia agree that escaping from the castle the next day is the most suitable option, and they begin to make the proper arrangements to do so. Subsequently, Emillia and Theresa proceed with their normal lifestyles within the castle, engaging with their domestic employees Susette, Cosmo, and Judith. During this time, Judith, Emillia, and Theresa make the startling discovery that a ghost occupies the castle, causing slight turmoil and fright. While the sisters express their dismay at leaving their beloved employees, Susette and Judith, in the castle with the presence of a ghost, they ultimately make their daring escape that night. Following the instructions given to them by their mysterious friends, the sisters travel through arched recesses and narrow tunnels, exiting the castle and entering a desolate area filled with ruins.
Unfortunately, they cross paths with two cloaked figures. Startled, they hide behind fragments of stone, concealing themselves to avoid discovery. During this time, they learn the identity of the cloaked figures: a man named Gusmond and his servant Hugo. Their sole purpose for entering the desolate area at such an odd hour was to bury a child. The men banter about preserving secrecy and concealing the events that were to transpire, mentioning that if anyone were to find out, the Count would punish them harshly.
After the men leave, Theresa and Emillia hastily arrive at their set meeting point, waiting in anticipation for their transportation to arrive. They discuss the strange, dreadful mystery that plagues the Castle, their relief at escaping the clutches of the Count and their hopes to never be found by him or ever return. Shortly after, the sisters are met by their companions and introduced to their attendants, Signor Rupino and Beatrice. They embark upon a carriage, and ride until dawn, taking shelter at a deserted castle for a while, restarting their journey at dusk, and later arriving at a cottage where they again take rest. Their travel progresses until they arrive at a villa quite distant from the castle. It is here that the sisters learn a treacherous secret: the Count had ordered Cosmo to poison his wife. Cosmo, unable to go through with this order, deceived the Count and instead aided the Countess in escaping under a guise.
Upon hearing this news, the sisters are overjoyed, invigorated yet shocked by the thought of seeing their aunt. Shortly after, the sisters are reunited with the Countess, who begins to reveal the details of her story. She narrates her childhood, mentioning the hard work and sacrifices her father made to accumulate wealth and provide for the family. Leading up to the moment she was introduced to the Count, she recalls the party during which she was acquainted with him. Soon after, the Count became a frequent visitor, and made numerous proposals for the now-Countess’ hand in marriage. They were quickly married, and she soon came to realize his true intention, which was to gain wealth from her family through their union. Moreover, after the untimely death of her father, the Count refused the Countess’ request to visit her family or have any of them visit her. He became intolerable, refusing her the luxuries of a maidservant, and becoming increasingly cruel.
She briefly narrates her happiness in caring for the sisters once their parents passed away, and proceeds to reveal the night on which Cosmo assisted her in her escape. She was drugged, proclaimed dead, and later hidden in a coffin to be transported to a cottage in the woods a few miles from the Castle. It was after this fateful night that she realized the Count’s evil intentions to take her fortune, and the fortune of her nieces by first murdering her, as she was their guardian. After her departure from the Castle and knowledge of this information, the Countess contacted her friends for a place to stay, financial means, and safe passage far away from the Castle. It was later on that she contacted her mysterious allies, Beatrice and Signor Rupino, requesting them to approach her nieces in order to affect their escape, as the Count had planned to poison them as well.
While this unfolds, the Count seethes with anger upon discovering the disappearance of Emillia and Theresa. As a result, he murders Cosmo in a fit of anger while trying to extract the truth from him. Even though Cosmo is unaware of the means of their escape, he divulges that the Countess is still alive, sending the Count into a rage. The Count scours the tunnels and hidden passages of Montabino, attempting to discover what could have allowed his nieces to escape, or some clue as to where his wife has fled. However, this search ends in his accidental stabbing and eventual death.
Once the Count’s death is confirmed, friends of the Countess and noblemen from the villa begin searching all corners of the castle to uncover the treacherous secrets that the Count may have hidden. It was then that they come across a young woman, Harmina, who was locked away in a small, unkempt room with her daughter. Harmina later reveals her story, discussing her working-class upbringing, her struggles to receive her romantic and material interests, and how she came to be acquainted with the Count. She originally attracted the attentions of Fernando, a servant of the Count, who later introduced the two. The Count was enraptured by her beauty, while hiding his marriage, began to have an affair with her. He ensured that she lived in a charming villa away from the castle, visiting her occasionally and giving her the luxuries she desired. Their affair lasted for three to four years, and she bore him three children. However, Harmina later became aware that he was a married man and, dismayed, revealed to him her plan to return to her father and the rest of her family immediately.
During her escape, she was intercepted by the Count and forced into imprisonment, where her children were taken from her, pronounced dead under mysterious and vague conditions, and later buried. Gusmond, the man who Emillia and Theresa witnessed at the desolate site, confesses to murdering Harmina’s children, and is sentenced to life imprisonment. In the end, Harmina retires to a convent, and leaves her child in the care of the Countess who is joyfully remarried. Theresa and Emillia, who also get married, live happily. The story ends with the moral that those who are virtuous will be rewarded and those who are wicked will meet with punishment.
Baines, Paul. “Wilkinson, Sarah Scudgell (d. c. 1830), Writer: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.” (d. c. 1830), Writer | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 5 Oct. 2019.
“The Castle of Montabino; or The Orphan Sisters: an Original Romance.” WorldCat, 12 Dec. 2018.
Hoeveler, Daine L. “Sarah Wilkinson: Female Gothic Entrepreneur.” Gothic Archive: Related Scholarship, Marquette University, 1 Jan. 2015.
“Movable Stationary,” The Movable Book Society Newsletter, May 2013 (“Vintage Pop-Up Books” with further information, accessed 30 October 2019).
Potter, Franz. “The Romance of Real Life: Sarah Wilkinson.” The History of Gothic Publishing: 1800–1835, Palgrave UK, 2005, pp. 109–30.
Wilkinson, Sarah Scudgell. The Castle of Montabino; or The Orphan Sisters: an Original Romance. London, Dean and Munday, 1810.