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Of Class and Gender, Clara Reeve’s "The Old English Baron"

Kristen has been writing for over 30 years. She graduated from UCF with a B.A. in English-Creative Writing.

This article will take a look at class conflicts and gender roles in Clara Reeve's "The Old English Baron."

This article will take a look at class conflicts and gender roles in Clara Reeve's "The Old English Baron."

The Birth of the Gothic Literary Genre

In the late 18th century, the literary genre of Gothic was born. The first novel was The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. It was followed 14 years later when Clara Reeve published The Old English Baron, originally titled The Champions of Virtue. Hers was written, as she put in her Preface, as “the literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto…” (Reeve), This was not to flatter or imitate Walpole’s work, but to correct what she believed was a great flaw; that “the machinery is so violent…” in his novel (Reeve).

Clara Reeve and Horace Walpole came from two different worlds in regard to social class and gender. Therefore, it would stand to reason that their versions of what is essentially the same story would differ in how they were told. The Old English Baron is a more detailed and less fanciful work due to Miss Reeve’s gender and station in relation to the time she lived.

A Short Biography of Clara Reeve

Clara Reeve was born in Ipswich in Suffolk, England, in 1729, where she would die and be buried in 1807. Her father was a member of the clergy, a reverend, and her mother’s father was a goldsmith and jeweler for George I. According to Gary Kelly, the middle class or station was “divided into two broad groups: the professions, led by the "learned” professions of the clergy, law, and medicine; and the commercial and manufacturing middle class, or those in ‘trade.’ The former were considered genteel; the latter, no matter how wealthy, were generally considered to be respectable but not genteel. Reeve's parents came from upper echelons of both groups…” (106)

Possibly due to the fact that her father was of a learned profession, Miss. Reeve was able to read and write at a time when to do both was a skill only a very small percentage of the population could do. Her writings led her to be considered a Bluestocking, or “a woman with considerable scholarly, literary, or intellectual ability or interest.” (

Horace Walpole, on the other hand, was the fourth Earl of Orford. As a man of nobility, he was not only educated from a young age, but he had access to some of the best education due to his upper station.

Gender Roles in 18th Century England

Then there is the aspect of gender, more specifically gender roles, played in 18th century England. “Ideas about gender difference were derived from classical thought, Christian ideology, and contemporary science and medicine… Men, as the stronger sex, were thought to be intelligent, courageous, and determined. Women, on the other hand, were more governed by their emotions, and their virtues were expected to be chastity, modesty, compassion, and piety. Men were thought to be more aggressive; women more passive.” (Emsley, Hitchcock and Shoemaker) It was because of this accepted view of the differences between men and women that women had fewer rights than their male counterparts. Women of the 18th century had no rights or participation in politics. Any property that a woman owned immediately transferred ownership to the husband upon marriage. Her job then was to be a wife and mother. If a woman were to pursue employment, single or married, it was in the form of, “an extension of women's domestic responsibilities, such as domestic service, the clothing trades, teaching, and nursing.” (Emsley, Hitchcock and Shoemaker)

These gender roles carried over to literature, where we acquired the literary distinctions of the male Gothic and female Gothic. Abby Coykendall speaks of the difference as “the labyrinthine convolutions of a single ego (coded female) in the throes of Gothic violence if not transgression (coded male) …” (5) The male Gothic was filled with elements of a more supernatural nature. The female Gothic was grounded in realism. There was also the subject of how females were expected to behave within their gender roles, and this was reflected in their writings. As Gerd Karin Omdal states, “Generally women writers in the romantic period were victims of concealment, restraint, fear of criticism and selfsensorship.” (693)

Clara Reeve felt very strongly about grounding her works in reality. Ms. Omdal reasons “Most women preferred dramatic works and the novel, because these forms were most powerfully grounded in everyday experience. Female critics worked to free the novel from associations of scandal and triviality, and to a certain degree Reeve represents this tendency… To a greater extent than her female colleagues, she is “cleaning up” the species.” (Omdal 693) In writing The Old English Baron, she is correcting the things she feels are scandalous and trivial in Walpole’s novel.

The castle

The castle

Heirs and Fortunes in the Stories

In The Castle of Otranto, the characters find out at the end that Theodore is the long-lost descendant and heir of Alfonso the Great. Yet, this discovery comes once everyone is returning to the castle after the death of Matilda, and the news is delivered by the very large ghost of Alfonso himself. (Walpole 112) There is no build-up to the fact that Theodore is the heir. The restoring of the original ruling family of Otranto is done so through deus ex machine. The literary device, first used in Greek writings, is considered a classic device. It is reasonable that Walpole would learn of it in his education and use it in his work.

Edmund in The Old English Baron would not reclaim his inheritance so easily. The first hint we get that Edmund is more than what he seems is when Sir Phillip Harclay visits the castle of Baron Fritz-Owen. We are told that the Baron and his son William immediately saw qualities of great nobility in this peasant, and took him into their family to help him improve his lot in life. Upon meeting him, Sir Harclay sees it too, as well as the resemblance to his old friend Lord Arthur Lovel. The next clue we are given about Edmund comes when he is sent to spend three nights in the east apartments of the castle as punishment. It is through ghostly visions the first night of a young couple referring to him as their son, to the second evening being led to discover the hiding place of the remains of the murdered Lord Lovel, hopes run high for his companions Father Oswald and Joseph of his noble heritage. The final and defining proof is a visit to his adopted parents’ home, where his mother tells him the tale of his birth and gives him his birth mother’s jewelry. (Reeve) The whole process of Edmund learning he is the son and heir of Lord Arthur Lovel takes a third of the book, unlike the few pages in The Castle of Otranto. This was an approach that is truer to real life, as Reeve’s education would not have included learning the classical literary devices that were used by her writing peers in the nobility.

The Depiction of Servants

Another divergence in the two novels was in the way the servants were depicted. “Whereas Otranto’s lower-class characters are loquacious, ignorant, vulgar, and unhelpful, The Champion's are loyal and dignified and help the hero regain what is his right.” (Kelly 122) This would relate to the authors’ social classes. Horace Walpole, being of nobility would see the lower stationed servants as less than himself. They were possessions, just as his home, the furnishings and décor were. Using Bianca as comic relief would seem logical to him. Whereas Clara Reeve would have the chance to interact with peasants on daily basis in town, and when her father was alive in his duties, a reverend. She could see them as people who were hard-working, God-fearing and cared for their families. We see this depicted in her portrayal of the Wyatt family and Joseph.

How Setting Affected Each Novel

The setting of the story is another variation between Walpole and Reeve’s stories. The Castle of Otranto is set somewhere in Italy, and he wrote in the preface of the first edition that the original manuscript was “printed at Naples.” (Walpole 5) From 1739-1741, Walpole and his friend, Thomas Gray took a grand tour of Italy and France. (xxxvii) Traveling to foreign lands, a writer would want to include them in his stories. The setting of Walpole’s book comes from such travels. Clara Reeves, with the exception of the brief time she moved with her family to Colchester, lives almost all of her life in Ipswich. She really knew of nothing outside of the area of England where she was born, lived and died. It is understandable that The Old English Baron was to take place in her home country, as this is what she knew. She would present her readers with a “fictional world…purposely less alien, less ‘un-English’…” (Kelly 122)

The Final Departures Between the Two Novels

In two novels that are filled with many more divergent elements, it is the end game, the restoration of the rightful heir to his castle and position, where the final departure occurs. The endings are typical of the different Gothic styles. The male Gothic is known to end in tragedy, whereas the female Gothic tended toward the happy ending.

Once Alfonso’s ghost declares Theodore the heir of Otranto and Father Jerome relates his story to back up this claim, Manfred immediately surrenders the kingdom to him. Theodore then takes Isabella as his wife, as she morns Matilda as well, and “he could know no happiness but in the society of one with whom he could for ever indulge the melancholy that had taken possession of his soul.” (Walpole 115) Once again, working within the literary device of deus ex machine, everything falls quickly into place and is instantly resolved.

To claim his rights as the true Lord Lovel, it takes the last 2/3 of the book to prove his newly discovered legacy. He escapes to Sir Phillip Harclay’s castle to relate his story and seek his help. Glad to be able to assist his deceased friend’s son, he takes him in as his own, and devises a plan to have the current Lord Lovel, Walter, tried for the murder of his kinsman. He makes carefully planned arrangements made with the respectable Lords Clifford and Graham to provide a neutral location and sit as impartial judges and witnesses to a trial by combat. Sir Harclay is victorious, and through fear of damnation of his soul they get the reluctant confession from Lord Walter Lovel. After all of this evidence is presented to the Fritz-Owens, there is still final proof demanded before Edmund can take his place as Lord Lovel; the location of the remains of his dead parents. Once this is resolved, Edmund takes possession of what is rightly his and marries his true love Emma Fritz-Owen. William and Sir Phillip move in with them. Baron Fritz-Owen is given Sir Phillip’s castle. The Baron’s oldest son, Richard takes the Lovel castle in Northumberland. Even the deposed Lord Lovel, Walter finds a degree of success in his exile. (Reeve) The fact that Edmund has to go through so much to prove that he is the true Lord Lovel again grounds the tale in realism. No giant specters come and pronounce you nobility in the real world. For a peasant to be proclaimed long-lost nobility, it would take a great deal of effort. Reeve gives us that in her book.

Reeve's Tale Was Grounded in Realism

Reading The Castle of Otranto and The Old English Baron, the fact that these are different versions of essentially the same story is obvious. The version of the tale told by Clara Reeve is grounded in the traits of a female Gothic writer from the middle station. This is demonstrated by her book being grounded in realism, and not cluttered in the supernatural or classic literary devices.

Works Cited

  • "Bluestocking." Unabridged. Random House, Inc. Web. 01 Feb. 2014.
  • Coykendall, Abby. "Gothic Genealogies, The Family Romance, And Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron." Eighteenth-Century Fiction 17.3 (2005): 443-480. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 29 Jan. 2014.
  • Emsley, Clive, Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, "Historical Background - Gender in the Proceedings", Old Bailey Proceedings Online. Web. 1 Feb. 2014
  • Kelly, Gary. "Clara Reeve, Provincial Bluestocking: From The Old Whigs To The Modern Liberal State." The Huntington Library Quarterly 1-2 (2002): Academic OneFile. Web. 1 Feb. 2014.
  • Omdal, Gerd Karin. "Clara Reeve's Progress Of Romance And The Female Critic In The 18th Century." Literature Compass 9 (2013): 688. Academic OneFile. Web. 29 Jan. 2014.
  • Reeve, Clara. The Old English Baron. Chapel Hill. Project Gutenberg. 2009. Digital File.
  • Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. Ed. W.S. Lewis. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 2008. Print.

© 2017 Kristen Willms