The Convent of Saint Usurla, or Incidents at Ottagro. An Italian Romance.
Author: Unknown, but abridged from a Sarah Wilkinson novel
Publisher: John Arliss
Publication Year: 1809
Book Dimensions: 11cm x 18cm
University of Virginia Library Catalog Entry, Sadleir-Black Collection: PZ2.C664 1809
In this abridged version of Sarah Wilkinson’s 1807 novel “The Fugitive Captive,” Magdalena retells the story of the peculiar circumstances in which she has been forced to escape her mysterious husband, the Count de Ottagro.
The Convent of Saint Usurla, or Incidents at Ottagro. An Italian Romance was published in London on August 22, 1809 with no named author. The full title appears only on the title page; in the header of every other page, it appears only as The Convent of Saint Usurla. It is important to note the spelling of Usurla, not Ursula, in the title. The reason for this misspelling seems to be intentional, as it appears in that form throughout the book; however, the reasoning is unknown. In addition, printing and publishing credit appears on the bottom of the frontispiece and title page, as well as the final page of the book and indicates both printer and publisher to be John Arliss at Bartholomew-Close.
The book is fairly small in size (18 x 11 cm) and without a cover, aside from the title page. This is consistent with the fact that it is likely from an inexpensive chapbook with several other stories. Additionally, the book is disbound. It is precariously held together by thread, evidenced by three small puncture holes on the interior of the pages which it is wound through. On one page, a small fragment of the thread pokes out. Furthermore, the pages are yellowed in an uneven quality throughout the book and scalloped around the edges. Some pages are shorter in width than others. This low quality in binding and appearance can be attributed to its nature as an economical source of entertainment for the public.
Upon opening the book, one is met with two illustrations. There is a large (13 x 8 cm) illustration on the frontispiece and a smaller (3.5 x 5.5 cm) one on the title page. Both are black and white depictions of scenes from the book. There is a slight reverse image transfer from the large frontispiece illustration onto the adjacent title page. This is due to the differing properties in ink from the two pages.
The remaining forty pages relay the story of The Convent of Saint Usurla. The text is closely set and fairly small with margins ranging from 1.5 to 2 cm. There are few paragraph indentations, leading to long blocks of uninterrupted text which give the page a crowded appearance. Some pages present words that are precise and clearly distinguishable, while others have ink globs and letters that appear fuzzy. This particular copy of the book has no post-production markings other than one small dark yellow rectangular stain on pages 20 and 21, most likely from a previous owner leaving a scrap of paper in the book for a long period of time.
At the bottom of various pages, there are signature marks. In the production process, multiple pages were printed on the same large roll of paper which then needed to be folded in the correct order. These signature marks assisted the printers in the folding and binding of the text. Such signature marks appear on pages 3, 5, 15, 19, 25, 27, and 37 and are labeled B, B2, C, C3, D, D3, and E, respectively. Interestingly, each section under a particular signature mark, has a different paper and ink quality than those surrounding it. For example, the paper in signature mark section D is of a visibly lower quality than section C3. Despite the presence of these signature marks, a mistake in the folding of this copy was discovered which led to duplicate copies of pages 25 and 26.
In addition to the copy in the Sadlier-Black Collection at the University of Virginia, The Convent of Saint Usurla, or, Incidents at Ottagro. An Italian Romance (1809) can be found in various forms. For instance, in 2017, a copy of the chapbook was digitized to Google Books by the British National Library. It appears to be the same chapbook edition published by John Arliss, even exhibiting the same mistakes in page numbering. Additionally, the story was republished in Literary Mushrooms: Tales of Horror and Fiction from the Gothic Chapbooks, 1800–1830 by Franz J. Potter in 2009 with the author listed as Sarah Wilkinson. Likewise, a 2004 reprint by the Zittaw Press publishing company lists Sarah Wilkinson as the author as well.
The reason for this ambiguity regarding the author comes from the fact that the brief chapbook story is an abridged version of the full-length novel, The Fugitive Countess or, Convent of Saint Ursula (1807) by Sarah Wilkinson. Sections of the chapbook story are pulled directly from the novel, with a few small changes. One alteration is the name change of “Ursula” in the novel, which has been printed as “Usurla” in the chapbook. Similarly, the name “Ottagio” in the novel is slightly altered to “Ottagro” in the chapbook. It is unknown if Sarah Wilkinson herself abridged her novel into the chapbook released in 1809, or if it was plagiarized by a counterfeiter, which was a common practice in the day (Frank 142).
As aforementioned, The Fugitive Countess (1807), written by Sarah Wilkinson and published by J.P. Hughes, is a four-volume novel that expands upon the short chapbook story The Convent of Saint Usurla (1809). There do not appear to be any critical reviews of the novel or chapbook at the time of original publication; however, The Fugitive Countess is found to be advertised in newspapers. For example, the novel is mentioned under the section “New Novels, just published” in the London based newspaper Morning Post on June 12, 1807. Also, in the Morning Post, it is listed as number six in the “Popular novels/Romances” section on January 1, 1808 which indicates that it was at least marginally popular.
Despite the few mentions of the novel at the time of its release, The Fugitive Countess has received some scholarly critical analysis in recent years. In his work, The History of Gothic Publishing, 1800–1835: Exhuming the Trade, Franz Potter notes a striking similarity between Clementina’s interpolated tale from The Fugitive Countess and one of Wilkinson’s previous chapbooks, The Wife of Two Husbands, which was itself an adaptation of a theater musical. He asserts that in the novel, Wilkinson, “drew from other popular themes found in Gothic novels, most notably from Eliza Parsons’s The Mysterious Warning” (128). Despite these similarities, The Fugitive Countess appears to be a legitimate, original novel that was only heavily influenced by popular Gothic works of the time, not plagiarized (History of Gothic Publishing 120).
Nowadays, The Fugitive Countess can be found digitized in the Corvey Collection, a massive collection of European literature from 1790–1840 (Behrendt). It can also be found in, English Language Women’s Literature of the18th & 19th Centuries published by Belser Wissenschaftlicher Dienst in 2004. This republishing of The Fugitive Countess, along with other recent republishings of its chapbook version, may be attributed to the revival of interest in Gothic chapbooks, and author Sarah Wilkinson herself in recent years, as “a case study of middling to lower-class female authorship during the early nineteenth century” (Hoeveler 184).
A well-known chapbook author of her day, Sarah Carr Wilkinson (1779–1831) was the author of over one-hundred chapbooks, gothic novels, and abridged versions of plays, operas, and popular gothic novels—making her one of the most prolific writers of her genre (“Writing for the Spectre of Poverty” 23). Early on, Wilkinson’s writing career began with children’s books, but she soon transitioned primarily to writing short Gothic chapbooks, also called bluebooks, and full-length novels (Hughes 253). Wilkinson produced many more chapbooks, which were cheaply constructed and sold, than novels. Ultimately, chapbooks were a more profitable venture for her, and writing was her primary source of income (“Writing for the Spectre of Poverty” 23). Her most active and successful years were between 1803 and 1812, in which she received modest popularity in her genre (History of Gothic Publishing 116). Unfortunately, despite her relative popularity in the chapbook scene, Wilkinson “never had the comfort of literary or economic success” and faced a life-long struggle against poverty (“Writing for the Spectre of Poverty” 18). Her financial concerns intensified around 1820, which is exemplified in the many petitions (and denials) for financial assistance from the Royal Literary Fund (History of Gothic Publishing 113). In 1824, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, her plea for assistance was finally granted. The petition was endorsed by several of her publishers and cites, “a depression in the Book trade” as a reason for her need of assistance. This interesting inclusion indicates the waning popularity of the genre that had once sustained her. Unfortunately, Wilkinson’s health and financial situations both continued to deteriorate, culminating in 1831 when she passed away in a London workhouse (History of Gothic Publishing 113–15).
Currently, there are varying opinions on the merit of Wilkinson as a serious author. Some of her harshest critics have gone as far as to assert that she engaged in “Gothic counterfeiting” (Frank 142). Others have called her a “‘hack’ writer” who pumped out contrived, formulaic stories for the sole purpose of making money (Hoeveler 184). On the other hand, more generous critics admit that Wilkinson wrote to sustain herself and often employed “recycled scenes and motifs” from the genre, even as some argue that her works also show an “ability to construct clear and simple story lines free from dense subplotting that often encumbered Gothic novels” and are important in that they “uniquely show the amalgamation of the bluebook and the novel” (History of Gothic Publishing 116, 130).
Narrative Point of View
The Convent of Saint Usurla is told in two alternating perspectives. Primarily, the novel is written from a third-person point of view. The narrator is unspecified, but omniscient to all of the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. The chapbook is written in a fairly formal style, frequently employs long sentences, and often delves into the interiority of the protagonists. In contrast to this style of writing, the novel also has several interpolated tales inserted throughout which are written in a first-person perspective. These tales extend for many pages at a time and function to recount relevant past events. Since they are told from an individual’s perspective, they are limited to only this character’s point of view. Despite this, however, they are imbued with a great level of detail and highly specific dialogue.
Sample Passage of Third-Person Narration:
On this occasion the count visited Tivoli; and having remained there a few days, escorted his daughter to the convent, to the regret of her governess, who did not give her assent to this visit. The journey was delightful to Magdalena: everything was novel, consequently pleasing to her youthful mind; and she chatted with the utmost gaiety. The count could not withhold his love and admiration; but her presence forcibly reminded him of the injury he had done to her, and the necessity of preserving his own reputation unblemished. (7–8)
This passage from near the beginning of the novel demonstrates the omniscient qualities of the third-person point of view. In this case, this narrative perspective functions to give the reader a sense of the motivations of the characters which justify their subsequent actions in the story.
Sample Passage of First-Person Narration in an Interpolated Tale:
A few days after this I was ordered to receive Ottagro as my husband. Such was my desperation, that being left alone with the count, I, on my knees, confessed my prior marriage, and its consequences, beseeching him not to betray me, but to form some pretext for preventing our approaching union. He raised me in his arms. “You have acted,” said he, “with honorable candour, never shall your confidence be betrayed. Lenardo’s widow must be my bride. If I act in conformity to your wishes your father will seek another alliance; the next suitor may not act with the same generosity as myself. Let me, in the character of husband, be your defender from ill.” (26)
This passage is from Clementina de Lusini’s interpolated tale in which she recounts her backstory to Magdalena. A first-person perspective is important here because the readers are not given all aspects of the story, only the parts known to Clementina, herself. Due to this, the reader does not receive all relevant information until the end when all of the stories connect together. In addition, the interpolated tale format creates a non-chronological sequence of events. These elements propel the story forward and create mystery that can only be resolved by fully completing the novel.
The chapbook, The Convent of Saint Usurla, begins in the middle of an action-packed scene in which the protagonist, Magdalena, the Countess de Ottagro, closely escapes imminent death at the hand of her husband, the Count de Ottagro. Upon fleeing, Magdalena and her maid, Laura, take refuge in the Convent of Saint Usurla where her loving aunt Viola is the Abbess. With this, the novel goes back in time in order to tell the story of how Magdalena came to be in this situation.
As a young girl, Magdalena lost her mother and thus received a sheltered upbringing by her father, the Count de Verona. The Count de Verona was from an esteemed family in Tivoli; however, he was a gambler and managed to gamble away all of his money, as well as Magdalena’s inheritance. Due to this, Magdalena has no dowry, and thus little prospect for a favorable marriage. To avoid this problem, the Count de Verona wants Magdalena to become a nun and sends her to the Convent of Saint Usurla for a visit. Here, Magdalena becomes close to her Aunt Viola and makes friends, coming to appreciate the convent as she considers taking the oath.
While, at the convent, Magdalena meets the Count de Ottagro, who is a wealthy nobleman and friend of her father’s. The Count takes a liking to her, though she feels impartial, and two continue to meet. Suspecting his marital intentions and questioning his character, Aunt Viola expresses her disapproval of these meetings to Magdalena’s father. In response, the Count de Verona removes Magdalena from the convent and transfers her to the Castle de Ottagro.
At the Castle de Ottagro, Magdalena spends several weeks with her father, the Count de Ottagro, and his cold sister, Lady Jacintha. In this time, Magdalena also grows close to the Lusini family—the amiable daughter Angelina and handsome son Ernestus—who live nearby; however, this is disapproved of as a bad blood exists between the Count de Ottagro and the Lusini’s for some unknown reason. In addition, Magdalena passes her time secretly reading in the castle library, in which she is forbidden. One late night in the library, Magdalena briefly sees a mysterious woman in white, and she flees in terror. The next day, Magdalena returns to the library and finds a mysterious note, addressed to her, which warns her of some unspecified danger.
Soon after this strange occurrence, the Count de Verona orders Magdalena to marry the Count de Ottagro. He says that by doing this, Ottagro will erase the gambling debts that he has incurred and will even give him a future loan. At first, Magdalena rejects the idea since she is suspicious of Ottagro. However, the Count de Verona threatens suicide, so she ultimately agrees. The next morning, Magdalena unhappily accepts the Count de Ottagro’s marriage proposal, and the wedding ceremony is set for two weeks’ time.
In the interim, one-night Magdalena spots the Count de Ottagro and his sister, Lady Jacintha, carrying a covered basket to the library. There, the two open a hidden trapdoor and descend. Now, Magdalena is highly wary of her groom-to-be and suspects that there is a secret prisoner in the library. Nevertheless, she proceeds with the marriage.
A few weeks later, on a night in which the Count de Ottagro is out of town and Lady Jacintha is sick, Magdalena returns to the library and opens the trap door. She descends down a staircase and a long passage where she then reaches a locked door. Disappointed, Magdalena starts to return to the surface; however, Lady Jacintha’s maid Thomasine finds her. Magdalena fears that Thomasine will turn her in, but instead she unlocks the door to reveal the secret. Inside, there is a small child and a dying woman who is identified as Clementina de Lusini—the first wife of the Count de Ottagro.
At this point, the dying Clementina de Lusini retells the story of how she came to be imprisoned in the library dungeon in the Castle de Ottagro. As a teen, Clementina fell in love with Lenardo di Orizzi, the son of her father’s arch nemesis. She was forbidden to marry him, but the two secretly eloped. Soon, their elopement was discovered by Lenardo’s family and because of this, he was sent far away to war where he was killed in action. After this devastating tragedy, Clementina discovered that she was pregnant. Fortunately, her family was scheduled to go on a long trip without her, during which she gave birth to a baby boy. She called him Lenardo and gives him to her doctor and his wife to raise. The doctor and his family, including young Lenardo, then moved to England.
Ignorant to all of the events that had taken place, Clementina’s family returned from their trip with a friend, the Count de Ottagro. Thinking her lover to be dead, Clementina married the Count de Ottagro, but before long, her guilty conscience prompted her to tell the Count of everything that had occurred. Surprisingly, the Count de Ottagro accepted her admission, but over time grew resentful and unkind. After some time, Clementina became pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl, Adeline, but the Count de Ottagro remained unhappy, as he wanted a male heir.
After several years, Clementina visited her family’s mansion, where she found Lenardo, her lover, to be alive and well. Apparently, he was not sent away to war, but imprisoned by his father for his indiscretion and declared dead to the world. Upon the recent death of his father, he was freed. However happy, Clementina was also greatly troubled at this news, as she had already remarried.
Almost immediately, the Count de Ottagro discovered that Lenardo was alive, and he and Clementina have met. With this knowledge, he accused Clementina of plotting to murder him and took her to the dungeon under his library. There she found Lenardo and her maid, Drusilla, who was imprisoned as an accomplice to Clementina’s perceived betrayal. In a rage, Ottagro murdered Lenardo and Drusilla, and Clementina was devastated. The Count de Ottagro realized that he cannot free Clementina as she could expose him; however, he also does not want to kill her. As a result, he faked her and their daughter’s deaths and imprisons them in the library dungeon where they have been for the last five years. Soon after relaying this story, Clementina dies.
Soon after this wild discovery, the Count de Ottagro grows suspicious that Magdalena has uncovered his secret. Under pressure, she admits. The Count threatens Magdalena, but ultimately swears her to secrecy. Two years pass by with this arrangement, when one-night Magdalena sees the Count de Ottagro smuggle a teen boy into the library dungeon. She secretly enters the dungeon and discovers that it is Clementina’s son, Lenardo. Lenardo tells her that he was raised in England by his adopted family, but upon growing older was told of his true past. On hearing this, he vowed to take revenge on Ottagro and started heading for Italy. However, all of this time, the Count de Ottagro kept tabs on the boy, so he was intercepted on his journey and imprisoned. With the help of Magdalena, Lenardo manages to escape and arrives safely at the Lusini home. The Count de Ottagro discovers this and, furious, he nearly kills Magdelena. However, Magdalena escapes and flees to the Convent to take refuge. This is where the various timelines of the novel converge.
Fearing exposure, the Count de Ottagro rapidly flees the castle when his carriage crashes and he dies. Magdelena is now free from the evil Count de Ottagro and she and the handsome Lusini son, Ernestus, get married.
Behrendt, Stephen C. “European Literature, 1790–1840: The Corvey Collection.” Gale Primary Sources: Nineteenth Century Collections Online. https://go-gale-com.proxy01.its.virginia.edu/ps/aboutThisCollection?userGroupName=viva_uva&inPS=true&mCode=4UVC&prodId=NCCO
The Convent of Saint Usurla, or, Incidents at Ottagro. An Italian Romance. London, John Arliss, 1809.
Frank, Frederick S.. Gothic Writers: A Critical and Bibliographical Guide, edited by Douglass H. Thomson, and Jack G. Voller, Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated, 2001. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Hoeveler, Diane Long. “More Gothic Gold: the Sadleir-Black chapbook collection at the University of Virginia library.” Papers on Language & Literature, vol. 46, no. 2, 2010, pp. 164–193.
Hughes, William. Historical Dictionary of Gothic Literature, Scarecrow Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy01.its.virginia.edu/lib/uva/detail.action?docID=1144297
“Multiple Classified Ads.” Morning Post [London], Issue 11322, June 12, 1807, p. 2. Gale Primary Sources: British Library Newspapers.
“Multiple Classified Ads.” Morning Post [London], Issue 11503, Jan. 1, 1808, p. 4. Gale Primary Sources: British Library Newspapers.
Potter, Franz. The History of Gothic Publishing, 1800–1835: Exhuming the Trade. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Potter, Franz. ‘Writing for the Spectre of Poverty: Exhuming Sarah Wilkinson’s Bluebooks and Novels.” Cardiff Corvey: Reading the Romantic Text, issue 11, 2003, pp. 17–34.
Wilkinson, Sarah. The Fugitive Countess or, Convent of Saint Ursula. London, J.P. Hughes, 1807.
Researcher: Samantha K. Venables