The Round Tower, Or the Mysterious Witness: An Irish Legendary Tale of the Sixth Century
Author: Charlotte Frances Barrett
Publisher: Tegg and Castleman
Publication Year: 1803
Book Dimensions: 10.7cm x 17.3cm
University of Virginia Library Catalog Entry, Sadleir-Black Collection: PZ2.B376 R 1803
In this 1803 chapbook, Charlotte Frances Barrett (Frances Burney’s niece) writes a tale of adventure, surprise, and horror in which the righteous queen must be rescued from an evil usurper.
The Round Tower, Or the Mysterious Witness: An Irish Legendary Tale of the Sixth Century, by C. F. Barrett, is a gothic chapbook in the Sadleir-Black Collection of the University of Virginia Special Collections Library. The book is thirty-six pages, has no cover, and measures 17.3cm by 10.7cm. The front of the book is blank, save for the faint traces of ink that have bled through from the illustration next to the inside title page. Once the book is opened, an illustration of two cavaliers gesturing towards a godlike figure is observed along with the words “Vaughan delin” and “Barlow sculp” under the bottom left and right corners respectively. The illustration combines both etching and engraving and was printed from a copper plate. Additionally, the words “Round Tower” are written under the center of the illustration in a three-dimensional font. The inside title page follows the illustration and the author’s name is printed in the middle of the page in all capital letters. Beneath the author’s name is listed Barrett’s other publication: Mary Queen of Scots, Sc., and the quote, “Murder! Most foul, and Treachery most vile.” Farther down the inner title page, after the author’s name and credentials, is the publishing information and the words “Printed for Tegg and Castleman.”
The book is held together by glue binding; however, it is worn and has lost its effect, leading to the book’s fragility. The binding used to be accompanied by stitching that adhered the book to its cover as illustrated by the holes in the sides of the pages closest to the spine, but the cover has since fallen off, which contributes to the book’s tattered appearance.
The pages of the text are yellowed, have the texture of sandpaper, and are splotchy, due to a chemical reaction that has occurred between the chemicals in the paper and the environment in which the book is stored. Moreover, the pages get increasingly brown beginning at page 25, and appear more weathered than the pages at the beginning and middle of the text.
On each page, the text is centered and situated between margins that are slightly larger on the top and bottom than the left and right. Each page has the words “THE ROUND TOWER” printed in the center of the top margin and the page number in the bottom left corner right under the text. The text is small, closely set, and sophisticated with a font that appears similar to Times New Roman.
The Round Tower boasts markings made by potential previous owners. The first and second occur on page 11. In the bottom margin is a signature written in cursive, however, it has faded and is therefore illegible. At the top of page 11 in the right-hand margin, the initials LB are written in cursive, insinuating that the book was once owned by an individual before coming into the Sadleir-Black Collection. Finally, there is a blotch of blue ink two-thirds of the way down page 25.
The Round Tower, Or the Mysterious Witness: An Irish Legendary Tale of the Sixth Century, by C. F. Barrett, was published by Tegg and Castleman in London in 1803; this appears to be the only edition and there are no digital copies. Interestingly, the book is a plagiarism of John Palmer’s popular gothic novel, The Mystery of the Black Tower (Tymn 41). This tale is set in the time period of Edward the III and depicts the life of Leonard, a young boy who earns knighthood and must embark on an adventure to save his love, Emma, from imprisonment in the Black Tower. Published in 1796, The Black Tower was influenced by Don Quixote as well as Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron and is still billed as “among the finest historical Gothic novels” (“The Mystery of the Black Tower (1796)”). Plagiarisms were very common among chapbooks at this time.
Francesca Saggini suggests that The Round Tower was also inspired by contemporary theatrical performances. Saggini characterizes Barrett as a “prolific hack … who adapted to the page several Gothic spectacles performed … at popular London venues” (120). The frontispiece of The Round Tower depicts the dramaticism of the appearance of the supernatural apparition and the animated reflections of the onlookers, thus illustrating how the gothic genre was influenced by performance yet also available to readers “at a cheap price and in the safety of their own homes” (Saggini 122). The frontispiece is also displayed in Frederick Frank’s article “Gothic Gold: The Sadleir-Black Gothic Collection”along with a description of the work that describes the book as a thrilling “Macbethian Gothic” that includes dramatized supernatural elements (18).
Charlotte Frances Barrett, author of The Round Tower, produced pamphlets between 1800 and 1810 and authored stories including, as compiled by Franz Potter: The Great Devil’s Tale; or, The Castle of Morbano included in Canterbury Tales (1802), The Mysterious Vision; or, Perfidy Punished in the New Collection of Gothic Stories (1801), a translation of The Shipwreck, or, The Adventures, Love, and Constancy, of Paul and Virginia (1800), Douglas Castle; or, The Cell of Mystery. A Scottish Tale (1803) for Arthur Neil, and Laugh when You Can; or, The Monstrous Droll Jester (1800) for Ann Lemoine (104-5n). Barrett was also the niece of Frances Burney (1752–1840), well-known author of Evelina (1778) and Cecilia (1782).
Thomas Tegg (1776–1846), who published The Round Tower, was a bookseller and publisher in London who specialized in “reprints, out-of-copyright publications, remainders, and cheap satirical prints” (“Thomas Tegg”). He also published accounts of shipwrecks that included engraved folding frontispieces (Weiss 60). Tegg and Castleman were prolific: “between 1802 and 1805, Tegg and Castleman co-published at least nineteen novelettes in collaboration with Dugdale” (Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber 26). Potter calls Tegg “the most prominent, if not notorious, publisher of gothic chapbooks and pamphlets in the early nineteenth century” (59).
Narrative Point of View
The Round Tower is narrated by an omniscient narrator who has insight into the thoughts and actions of each character. The story is narrated in a venerable tone using lengthy sentences that are broken up by punctuation. The narration primarily focuses on the emotions of the characters and how they influence the characters’ dispositions and behaviors. Additionally, the narrator relays the tale with great expressivity by contextualizing every event in the story with dramatic and detailed descriptions.
Enraged at her firmness, Sitric seized the infant, and, drawing his poignard, he raised his arm in order to plunge it in the bosom of the latter, when, driven to desperation, she rushed on the perfidious Dane, and, wrestling the fatal weapon from him, would have plunged it in his heart, but at that moment the door of the dungeon flew open, and Cobthatch, attended by the vindictive Connora, rushed in, followed by several of the usurper’s guards. Appalled at the sudden appearance of her husband’s enemy, the poignard fell from the hand of Moriat, which Connora instantly seized, fearful (in despite of her lord’s neglect) lest in a paroxysm of despair Moriat might yet use it against his life. (19)
The narrator’s omniscience allows for multiple characters’ perspectives to be included in the relation of the book, which illustrates their motives, ambitions, and values to add nuance and intricacy to the tale. Likewise, the multitude of punctuation functions to provide the narrator with inflection and gives the impression that the book is being told as a story. The narrator’s emphasis on the characters’ feelings centers the driving force of the plot around emotion and asserts its power as a motivating force behind the characters’ actions. Furthermore, the descriptive and intensified manner in which the book is narrated creates a theatrical tone that results in an immersive quality.
Cobthatch, King of Munster, is listening to music in an attempt to calm his anxiety about the fact that he has unjustly obtained the throne by killing his uncle, Laughair. He is then notified that Maon and Moriat, the son of his murdered uncle and his wife, are still alive, and orders his associate, Sitric, to ensure their execution. However, Maon and Moriat do not know the other is alive.
Meanwhile, Moriat is in the mountains where she has been able to secure lodging. One day when she is mourning the loss of Maon, who she thinks is deceased, she carves his name into a nearby rock. While doing so, she is startled by a man approaching her, but then realizes it is Kildare, her loyal attendant. He recalls his experience venturing out to secure provisions and tells Moriat the story of how he discovered Maon. He recollects that he heard a groan and was convinced it was a ghost, but then realized it was Maon, who at the time had drawn his sword with the intention of committing suicide. Kildare caught the Lord before he impaled himself, and they embraced upon their reunion. Maon immediately wanted to be shown to Moriat, but Kildare convinced him the sudden shock would be too much for her to bear and convinced Maon to wait until he could deliver the news.
Upon hearing that her husband is alive, Moriat waits the entire night for his return with their child at her side, but Maon never shows. Instead, Moriat is pursued and cornered by Cobthatch’s guards, who take her to Sitric’s castle where she and her infant are detained in the dungeon. Sitric is enamored by Moriat’s beauty and wants to spare her from death at the hand of Cobthatch. He therefore goes to Cobthatch and makes up a story where he states that Moriat refused to reveal Maon’s location and therefore, he stabbed her. This satisfies the king, and he is happy to know he will not have to worry about her raising suspicion. When Sitric returns to the dungeon where Moriat is being held, he asks that in return for him sparing her life, she complies with all his future demands. She responds that she will not break her marriage vows, but that someday her son will be able to repay him. Sitric, infuriated by her lack of compliance, chains her infant to the opposite wall. He returns the following night, and when Moriat again refuses to comply, he gives her an ultimatum that if she does not obey, both her and her baby’s life will suffer the consequences.
In the meantime, Sitric’s wife, Connora, suspects that her husband is devoted to another, and devises a plan to observe him. She disguises herself and follows him to the dungeon where she overhears his conversation with Moriat, thus confirming her suspicions. Sitric returns to visit Moriat and is on the verge of stabbing her infant out of anger at her firmness, when Connora and Cobthatch enter the room. Cobthatch, enraged at discovering that Moriat is alive, demands that she and her baby be removed to the Round Tower.
While Moriat was captured, Kildare and Maon encountered troops, causing a delay in their visit to reunite with her. When they venture out the next morning, they see Sitric’s party in the distance and Kildare suggests they retire to the cottage of a loyal friend, O’Brian, until they can gather a party large enough to overpower Sitric’s army.
Once at the cottage, Kildare relates the adventures of Maon and Moriat since the death of Laughair to O’Brian. He recalls that Laughair had stayed at the castle of Cobthatch when he was murdered, and that Maon and Moriat, being accused of the crime, fled to O’Brian’s cottage. Here they were discovered, which resulted in Moriat fleeing to the mountains and Maon embarking on a ship that was said to have capsized, leading Moriat to believe him dead.
In an effort to rescue Moriat, Maon resolves to enter Sitric’s castle disguised as a friar and embarks on his journey. Once he arrives, Maon encounters Sitric, who relates the story of Moriat’s captivity from the perspective of her savior and offers to lead Maon to the Round Tower. The next day, as Sitric leads Maon through the passageways, he decides to kill him. Immediately before he stabs him, the ghost of Laughair appears and instructs Sitric to lead Maon safely to the dungeon, or else he would face his vengeance. Once at the door, Maon and Sitric discover Cobthatch attempting to rape Moriat, leading Sitric to stab and kill him. Sitric then accuses Maon of the murder and has him taken prisoner. Because of the death of Cobthatch, Sitric is crowned king.
Following Cobthatch’s murder, Sitric offers Moriat the freedom of her husband and child if she agrees to have sex with him. At this moment, Laughair’s ghost reappears and tells Moriat not to trust the tyrant, and she complies with his instructions and holds firm.
Later that evening, Sitric discovers that Moriat has escaped, accuses Maon of aiding her to freedom, and orders the execution of him and his child. The moment before the axe is to execute Maon, Sitric tells him that if he resigns his title to Moriat and tells him her location, Maon will be spared. He refuses and at that moment, Kildare enters the courtyard with a band of peasants and enters into combat with Sitric’s men. While Sitric is engaged in fighting, Moriat stabs him, which causes his troops to disperse.
After the death of Sitric, Kildare presents to the nobles that Maon should be king, and when asked for proof of his innocence, the ghost of Laughair appears for the final time to declare that Maon is the rightful heir of Munster, and he is crowned king.
Once Maon and Moriat are restored to the throne, Moriat retells that she escaped because the ghost of Laughair led her to the cottage where Kildare was staying. Once she arrived, Kildare had assembled an army of peasants ready to restore the true king to power.
Maon and Moriat enjoy a life full of joy and peace together, and his rule becomes known for its justice and serves as an example to other nations.
Barrett, Charlotte Frances. The Round Tower, Or the Mysterious Witness: An Irish Legendary Tale of the Sixth Century. London, Tegg and Castleman, 1803.
Frank, Frederick. “Gothic Gold: The Sadleir-Black Gothic Collection.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, vol. 26, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 1997, pp. 287–312.
Loeber, Rolf, and Magda Stouthamer-Loeber. “The Publication of Irish Novels and Novelettes: A Footnote on Irish Gothic Fiction.” Cardiff Corvey: Reading the Romantic Text, 10th ed., e Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research, Cardiff, Wales, 2003, pp. 17–44. http://sites.cardiff.ac.uk/romtextv2/files/2013/02/cc10_n02.pdf
Potter, Franz J. Gothic Chapbooks, Bluebooks and Shilling Shockers: 1797–1830. University of Wales Press, 2021.
Saggini, Francesca. The Gothic Novel and The Stage: Romantic Appropriations. Routledge, Taylor Et Francis Group, 2019.
“The Mystery of the Black Tower (1796).” Valancourt Books, https://www.valancourtbooks.com/the-mystery-of-the-black-tower-1796.html.
“Thomas Tegg.” Collections Online | British Museum, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG48140.
Tymn, Marshall B. Horror Literature: A Core Collection and Reference Guide. R.R. Bowker, 1981.
Weiss, Harry B. Book about Chapbooks: The People’s Literature of Bygone Times. Folklore Associates, 1969.
Researcher: Delaney K. Walts