The Skeleton; or, Mysterious Discovery. A Gothic Romance.
Author: Isaac Crookenden
Publisher: A. Neil
Publication Year: 1805
Book Dimensions: 9.5cm x 17.75cm
University of Virginia Library Catalog Entry, Sadleir-Black Collection: PZ2.C76 Sk 1805
Isaac Crookenden’s 1805 chapbook tells a tale of betrayal, terror, and romance. The shocking discovery of a skeleton in a castle dungeon is just one of its many twists.
This copy of The Skeleton; or, Mysterious Discovery, A Gothic Romance by Isaac Crookenden is a small collection of brittle and yellowed pages, delicately held together with a bit of thread and paste. The chapbook lacks binding, and the pages could potentially have been ripped from a larger volume containing an assortment of tales. Assembling these smaller stories into larger volumes was common practice at the time.
In its present state, The Skeleton resembles a small pamphlet. The book and its pages have a width of 9.5 centimeters and a height of 17.75 centimeters. In its entirety, the book consists of 38 pages, including a blank cover page, a page containing an illustrated frontispiece, an official title page, another blank page, and two pages reserved for an author’s introduction.
This version of the text was published in London in 1805. It was printed and published by A. Neil at the Sommers Town Printing Office. The address of the office is listed as No. 30 Chalton Street. The title page notes that the story is sold by “all other booksellers” as well as Sommers Town. On the book’s title page, the price is listed to be six-pence—fairly cheap for its time.
Currently, this copy has a card indicating the University of Virginia’s possession and ownership of the text attached to the blank first page that was likely added in the 1930s or 40s. This card indicates that the book was presented by Robert K. Black. The notecard also has a handwritten inscription indicating that the text has been microfilmed.
Following the blank first page with this card is the second page containing a detailed frontispiece illustration of a man standing in an elegant stone hall holding an open flame. His face expresses shock as the flame illuminates a skeleton. Beneath the illustration is the text “Adolphus discovers the Skeleton of the Baron de Morfield” as well as publication information and attribution for the artwork. This is certainly the biggest artwork included in the text; however, on page 6, there is a small image of a rose to signify the end of the introduction.
There is no shortage of unique defects to the text, making it one of a kind. Because of the lack of binding and seemingly careless way it was removed from its original bound copy, the text is held together loosely. The first ten pages are especially fragile and could easily be separated from the rest. There is a small rip midway down the first blank cover page. There are small stains throughout, but most noticeably on the bottom of page 35 there is a dark splotch on the page with unknown origins. The ink for the printed text has faded considerably in some parts of the book.
As well as defects, there are other intentional printed indicators of the book’s era. There are various letter/number combinations along the bottom of certain pages called signature marks, indicating the proper folding of the paper for the printer. They are as follows: A on page 3, B on page 15, B3 on page 19, C on page 27, and C3 on page 21. The book may be considered difficult to read to a modern reader on account of the printer’s use of the long S in which “s” look like “f”.
The Skeleton is a gothic chapbook written by Isaac Crookenden. An edition of the chapbook is currently in the University of Virginia’s Special Collections Library as a part of the Sadleir-Black Collection of Gothic Fiction, where it was received as a gift. This chapbook was published by A. Neil in 1805 and it originally sold for six-pence at a variety of booksellers. This edition of the chapbook was published at the Sommers Town Printing Office at No. 30 Chalton Street in London, near the British Library.
Crookenden was born in 1777 in Itchenor, a village in West Sussex, England, as the youngest of nine children. His father was a shipbuilder who experienced bankruptcy. Crookenden overcame a presumably impoverished childhood to marry Elizabeth Pelham Fillery in 1798, and had a son, Adolphus, in 1800. His educational experience is alluded to in The Skeleton’s title page, on which he describes himself as the “Late assistant at Mr. Adams’ Academy in Chichester.” Crookenden’s status as a former schoolmaster indicates he was educated enough to educate others. Franz Potter hypothesizes that perhaps he advertised his former position as an educator in The Skeleton to heighten the shock and scandal of his work—that someone associated with children could conceive the horrors in the tale (71–2). Crookenden published the chapbook Berthinia, or, The Fair Spaniard in 1802, and nine other publications of the same variety are known. His main genre was gothic, though he experimented with a more purely romantic approach in 1808’s Venus on Earth (Baines). While some of his works were published as late as 1824, Crookenden died in Rotherhithe, Surrey in 1809 at just thirty-two (Potter 72).
Crookenden had an infamous reputation as one of the most prolific plagiarizing writers of the gothic genre. Frederick S. Frank describes Crookenden as “probably the most notorious counterfeiter of legitimate Gothic Novels” (“Gothic Romance” 59). His name is often mentioned alongside Sarah Wilkinson’s, and both authors have been said by Frank to pursue “lucrative careers of Gothic counterfeiting.” (“Gothic Chapbooks” 142). It should then come as no surprise that The Skeleton has no shortage of similarities to a gothic novel published in 1798 called The Animated Skeleton. While the author of the original work is unknown, Crookenden’s rendition of the story includes many borrowed plot points and thematic resemblances, mainly the discovery of a skeleton to incite terror. The key difference comes from the distinct castle settings and character names, as well as the fact that in The Animated Skeleton, the skeleton’s reanimation is found to be mechanized, whereas in Crookenden’s iteration, the skeleton is of a more supernatural variety (Potter 72). Frank notes that “Crookenden plundered the plot from The Animated Skeleton” (“Gothic Gold” 19). Frank, in a separate instance, also notes that The Skeleton “proves to be a refabrication of the anonymous Animated Skeleton of 1798 together with bits and pieces of the author’s extensive Gothic gleanings” (“Gothic Romance” 59)
WorldCat lists four copies of the chapbook around the world, each with the same publication date of 1805. Along with the University of Virginia’s copy in Charlottesville, Virginia, The Skeleton can be found in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC in the Rare Book/Special Collections Reading Room. The University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library’s Weston Stacks in Oxford, United Kingdom holds a copy of the chapbook as well. The Bodleian’s library catalog describes the binding as “sprinkled sheep” and indicates that it is bound with seven other items. The Monash University Library in Clayton, Australia holds the fourth and final of the catalogued copies of The Skeleton.
Narrative Point of View
The Skeleton is mostly narrated in the third person, with brief, occasional interjections of first-person narration providing commentary on the actions or events taking place in the chapbook. The introduction is a note to the reader in the latter style, condemning critics that call gothic romance unrealistic and directly warning the reader not to judge a book by its cover. Though the narrator often uses “we” when referring to their subjective thoughts, the introduction is signed “Your humble servant, The AUTHOR.” The story and action are presented in the third person, however, and the narrator makes abundant use of commas, dashes, and semicolons to present a unique voice. Letters are also included in the story, presented as written by the characters within the chapbook.
Almira now observed two horsemen issue from the wood, and as they directed their course towards her, she soon discovered them to be hunters. As they approached nearer, she retired towards the cottage; when the foremost of them sprung off his horse, and coming up to her, “I hope, Madam,” said he, bowing, “I have not disturbed your meditations at this serene and tranquil hour.” While he was speaking, Almira had leisure to observe his dignified deportment, his engaging and affable manners, and his polite address. His full, dark, expressive eye spoke a language which Almira’s hear instantly interpreted, and which on discovering, she cast her’s on the ground. — To keep the reader no longer in suspense, this young man was no other than Rotaldo; and his attendant was the individual– we wish we could add, the virtuous– Maurice. (17)
This style of narration evokes the feeling of being told a story by an unknown but still familiar voice. Because of certain story elements including the castles, romance, and suspense in the chapbook, this narration can resemble the style in which one tells a child a bedtime story. The prolonged and choppy sentence structure with the variety of punctuation could be read as mimicking an oral form of storytelling. The interjected claims and commentary with the plural “we” serve to liven up the story and engage the reader, providing breaks to clarify or emphasize characterizations or actions that may seem less clear due to the brevity of a chapbook. For example, because Maurice’s villainous nature is not able to be developed over many pages in The Skeleton, the narrator makes sure to clearly telegraph his lack of virtue in the above paragraph. This narration style makes the writing feel less stiff, and thus it has aged more gracefully than some of its blander contemporaries.
On a stormy night, Lord Ellmont resides in his castle with his two children. Lord Ellmont is a former warrior, now committed to domesticity after nobly defending his castle for many years. His twenty-two-year-old son, Rotaldo, embodies masculinity with a perfect heart, while his seventeen-year-old daughter Elenora is described at length as incredibly beautiful. The castle is located in Scotland and consists of a blend of many different styles and forms of architecture. Though Lady Ellmont died in childbirth, the castle always seems full on the birthdays of both children, and it is a mirthful affair when Rotaldo’s birthday arrives.
At the base of the mountain that the castle sits upon is the home of the peasant Viburn. He has a twenty-year-old son named Adolphus who has heart as well as temper. One day, Rotaldo asks Adolphus to be his sporting companion, but Adolphus mysteriously declines, hurting Rotaldo’s feelings. Rotaldo still wishes for a friend and thinks he finds one in the form of Maurice, an ugly and deceptive older peasant. Maurice is quickly taken by Elenora’s beauty, but he fears he will be rejected by her or her family because of his status. It is implied that his attraction to her is not entirely pure, and he develops an unhealthy lust for her.
In a valley further from the castle is the cottage of Volcome, an old peasant with only one surviving child. He was once rich and of nobility but his family fell upon difficult times, and he was exploited. He believes his brother was murdered under mysterious circumstances long ago, and his sister-in-law died while giving birth to a nephew he never got to meet. His wife also died, leaving him in charge of his seventeen-year-old daughter Almira, who is described as beautiful as she is innocent. One day, Rotaldo and Maurice come across their cottage and introduce themselves while riding horses. Rotaldo is deep in thought riding back from their cottage when a storm disturbs his horse and nearly flings him off a cliff. A stranger appears and stops the horse, harming himself in the process. The benevolent savior is revealed to be Adolphus, who Rotaldo invites back to the castle to be treated for his injuries. However, Maurice fears Adolphus as competition for Elenora. Adolphus says he declined Rotaldo’s earlier attempt at companionship because he must tend to his parents, which Rotaldo dismisses and graciously offers Adolphus and his family the castle and any assistance they may need.
Adolphus and Elenora instantly connect, while Rotaldo is overcome with passion for Almira and writes her a love letter. Elenora receives a proposal from the miserable Baron de Morfield, but her father knows she would be unhappy with him and declines on her behalf. Almira receives Rotaldo’s letter and soon receives a visit from Rotaldo himself as they confess their love. He visits her often, but one day he is returning to the castle from her cottage when an assassin shoots at him. Rotaldo swiftly draws his sword and fells the assassin who is revealed to be Maurice. Maurice expresses remorse for his treachery and gives a cryptic warning about his plans before expiring.
Returning home, Rotaldo finds his family in distress. Adolphus has been captured and taken by enemies in the night by the Baron de Morfield, and is imprisoned in a dungeon. As Adolphus ponders why he deserves this fate, the narrator reveals the villainous motives of Maurice and the Baron. It is revealed that Maurice planned to force himself upon Elenora and then propose an elopement to save her honor. However, Adolphus overheard this proposal and intervened. Maurice begged for forgiveness and Elenora found him deserving; Adolphus, however, was less understanding. Maurice later swore vengeance upon Adolphus, informing the Baron de Morfield that Elenora scorned him for Adolphus. Maurice then forged a letter in Adolphus’s hand stating that Adolphus has plans to kill Rotaldo and flee the castle.
Elenora and Rotaldo compare their experiences with each other, and Adolphus’s innocence is revealed. They fear that they may have been too late to save him from Maurice’s plans. In his dungeon cell, Adolphus discovers a secret passage, in which he finds a bloodied dagger and is shocked by a skeleton. Adolphus returns to his cell with a manuscript supposedly written by the dead man. It reveals that the real Baron de Morfield is the skeleton who had been forced to give up his estate though he had an infant son and heir just after he was killed. The supposed Baron presently interrogating and kidnapping Adolphus is a usurper.
At midnight, Adolphus is freed from his cell by a mysterious man. As they make their escape, the man turns and stabs the usurping Baron. The helper and Adolphus set out to return to the Ellmont castle. Back home, the Ellmonts despair, though Almira has now been taken into the castle after her father’s passing. Her relationship with Rotaldo as well as a friendship with Elenora provides them both great comfort as they fear Adolphus to be dead.
Adolphus is received with joyous welcomes upon his return. Adolphus’s supposed father reveals he found Adolphus in the woods nearly the same time the true Baron’s letter was datedmeaning Adolphus is the true son of the Baron de Morfield. Almira reveals she is also of Morfield descent, making her and Adolphus cousins. Almira’s father’s story about his brother’s murder and sister-in-law’s unknown child all come together before the group. The Ellmonts return to the Morfield castle and witness the usurping Baron on his deathbed as Adolphus is yielded his claim to the castle. Adolphus then marries Elenora as a baron and Rotaldo marries Almira. The story ends with festivity and moralizes that “although villany may triumph for a time, yet, in the end, Happiness must be finally united to Virtue.” (38)
Baines, Paul. “Crookenden, Isaac (b. 1777), Writer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 Sept. 2004, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/63518. Accessed 10 November 2021.
Crookenden, Isaac. The Skeleton: Or, Mysterious Discovery, a Gothic Romance. A Neil, 1805.
Frank, Frederick S. “Gothic Chapbooks, Bluebooks, and Short Stories in the Magazines (1790–1820).” Gothic Writers: A Critical and Bibliographical Guide, 2001, pp. 133–146.
——. “Gothic Gold: The Sadleir-Black Gothic Collection,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, vol. 26, 1997, pp. 287–312.
——. “The Gothic Romance.” Horror Literature: A Core Collection and Reference Guide, edited by Marshall B. Tymn. R.R. Bowker, New York, 1981, p. 59.
Potter, Franz J. Gothic Chapbooks, Bluebooks and Shilling Shockers: 1797–1830, University of Wales Press, 2021.
Researcher: Jacob Tisdale