“On the Pleasure derived from Objects of Terror; with Sir Bertrand, a Fragment” (1773) by Anna Laetitia Aikin & John Aikin

In England one of the first imitators was the celebrated Mrs. Barbauld, then Miss Aikin, who in 1773 published an unfinished fragment called “Sir Bertrand”, in which the strings of genuine terror were truly touched with no clumsy hand. A nobleman on a dark and lonely moor, attracted by a tolling bell and distant light, enters a strange and ancient turreted castle whose doors open and close and whose bluish will-o’-the-wisps lead up mysterious staircases toward dead hands and animated black statues. A coffin with a dead lady, whom Sir Bertrand kisses, is finally reached; and upon the kiss the scene dissolves to give place to a splendid apartment where the lady, restored to life, holds a banquet in honour of her rescuer. Walpole admired this tale, though he accorded less respect to an even more prominent offspring of his OtrantoThe Old English Baron, by Clara Reeve, published in 1777. Truly enough, this tale lacks the real vibration to the note of outer darkness and mystery which distinguishes Mrs. Barbauld’s fragment; and though less crude than Walpole’s novel, and more artistically economical of horror in its possession of only one spectral figure, it is nevertheless too definitely insipid for greatness.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

Anna Laetitia Aikin was born in 1743; her father was a Presbyterian minister and the headmaster of a boy’s school, and both Anna and her brother John Aikin received solid educations, which led to their careers in letters—Anna being noted for working in multiple genres, and earned a reputation as a poet and author. One of her earliest publications was Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose (1773), published jointly with her brother. Among the contents of this volume is “On the Pleasure derived from Objects of Terror; with Sir Bertrand, a Fragment.”

The essay is one of the early English works on the subject of the horror story, and much of it is as insightful today as it was two and a half centuries ago:

A strange and unexpected event awakens the mind, and keeps it on the stretch; and where the agency of invisible beings is introduced, of “forms unseen, and mightier far than we,” our imagination, darting forth, explores with rapture the new world which is laid open to its view, and rejoices in the expansion of its powers. Passion and fancy co-operating, elevate the soul to its highest pitch; and the pain of terror is lost in amazement.

“On the Pleasure derived from Objects of Terror”

This essay is a literary forebear of Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1925). At the end of the essay proper is given several examples of books and stories which exemplify this philosophy:

In the Arabian Nights are many most striking examples of the terrible, joined with the marvellous: the story of Aladdin, and the travels of Sinbad, are particularly excellent. The Castle of Otranto is a very spirited modern attempt upon the same plan of mixed terror, adapted to the model of Gothic romance. The best conceived, and the most strongly worked-up scene of mere natural horror that I recollect, is in Smolett’s Ferdinand Count Fathom; where the hero, entertained in a lone house in a forest, finds a corpse just slaughtered in the room where he is sent to sleep, and the door of which is locked upon him. It may be amusing for the reader to compare his feelings upon these, and from thence form his opinion of the justness of my theory. The following fragment, in which both these manners are attempted to be in some degree united, is offered to entertain a solitary winter’s evening.

“On the Pleasure derived from Objects of Terror”

What follows is “Sir Betrand, a Fragment.” The fast-moving fantasy owes much to the medievalisms of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of OtrantoA Gothic Story (1764), the latter of which is widely regarded as the first Gothic novel. Other influences may have included the 1,001 Nights or Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur; the story has the style of an episodic adventure in that mode, like a loose couple of pages taken from a longer narrative. In the context of the essay, however, it becomes clear that the fragment is a heaping-up of horrors, image after image piled up one after another in a kind of breathless chain of wonder and terror. The purpose of the fragment was to provide an example for Aikin’s idea of how a horror story worked.

The individual contributions of Anne and John are not signed in Miscellaneous Pieces, but Horace Walpole wrote:

Miss Aikin flattered me even by stooping to tread in my eccentric steps. Her ‘Fragment,’ though but a specimen, showed her talent for imprinting terror.

Horace Walpole to Robert Jephson, 27 Jan 1780, The Letters of Horace Walpole (1880) 318-319

While Walpole (and many others) assert that “Sir Bertrand, a fragment” was Anna’s contribution, as asserted in the Analytical Review (Dec. 1798) 612-613 (“We are inclined to think, that Dr. D. has erroneouſly attributed the fragment of Sir Bertrand to the pen of Mrs. Barbauld; we believe Dr. Aikin is the author of it.”); her niece Lucy Aikin in The Works of Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1825) also clarifies that Anna was not the author of the fiction that accompanied the essay. This misattribution has continued down through the centuries. Luke R.J. Maynard did an excellent job detailing the convoluted history in “A Forgotten Enchantment: The Silenced Princess, the Andalusian Warlord, and the Rescued Conclusion of ‘Sir Bertrand'” (2010), including pointing out that a completed text of the fiction fragment was published as “Sir Bertrand’s Adventures in a Ruinous Castle” in Gothic Stories (1797).

In 1774, Anna married Rochemont Barbauld; subsequent publications of “Sir Betrand, a Fragment,” with or without the original essay that it served as an example for, were often published as by Anna Barbauld or Mrs. Barbauld. “Sir Bertrand, a Fragment” thus entered the corpus of English horror-story lore, albeit as a small, incomplete, but influential piece. This is the prose fragment which Lovecraft succinctly summarizes in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” and one of the few works by women authors he praises.

Unfortunately, he probably never actually read “Sir Bertrand, a Fragment.”

None of Lovecraft’s published letters contain a reference to either Miss Aikin (or Barbauld), or “Sir Bertrand, a Fragment.” None of the books he is known to have read or were in his library include the tale. While it is not impossible that Lovecraft read the story at the library during his research into weird fiction while writing “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” the lack of any reference to the author or the tale outside that essay is thus suspicious—and we know for a fact that Lovecraft had at hand an easy reference:

When Walpole wrote disparagingly of Clara Reeve’s imitation of his Gothic story, he singled out for praise a fragment which he attributes to Mrs. Barbauld. The story to which he alludes is evidently the unfinished Sir Bertrand, which is contained in one of the volumes entitled Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose, published jointly by J. and A. L. Aikin in 1773, and preceded by an essay On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror. Leigh Hunt, who reprinted Sir Bertrand, which had impressed him very strongly in his boyhood, in his Book for a Corner (1849) ascribes the authorship of the tale to Dr. Aikin, commenting on the fact that he was “a writer from whom this effusion was hardly to have been looked for.” It is probably safe to assume that Walpole, who was a contemporary of the Aikins and who took a lively interest in the literary gossip of the day, was right in assigning Sir Bertrand to Miss Aikin, afterwards Mrs. Barbauld, though the story is not included in The Works of Anne Letitia Barbauld, edited by Miss Lucy Aikin in 1825. That the minds of the Aikins were exercised about the sources of pleasure in romance, especially when connected with horror and distress, is clear not only from this essay and the illustrative fragment but also from other essays and stories in the same collection—On Romances, an Imitation, and An Enquiry into those Kinds of Distress which Excite Agreeable Sensations. In the preliminary essay to Sir Bertrand an attempt is made to explain why terrible scenes excite pleasurable emotions and to distinguish between two different types of horror, as illustrated by The Castle of Otranto, which unites the marvellous and the terrible, and by a scene of mere natural horror in Smollett’s Count Fathom. The story Sir Bertrand is an attempt to combine the two kinds of horror in one composition. A knight, wandering in darkness on a desolate and dreary moor, hears the tolling of a bell, and, guided by a glimmering light, finds “an antique mansion” with turrets at the corners. As he approaches the porch, the light glides away. All is dark and still. The light reappears and the bell tolls. As Sir Bertrand enters the castle, the door closes behind him. A bluish flame leads him up a staircase till he comes to a wide gallery and a second staircase, where the light vanishes. He grasps a dead-cold hand which he severs from the wrist with his sword. The blue flame now leads him to a vault, where he sees the owner of the hand “completely armed, thrusting forwards the bloody stump of an arm, with a terrible frown and menacing gesture and brandishing a sword in the remaining hand.” When attacked, the figure vanishes, leaving behind a massive, iron key which unlocks a door leading to an apartment containing a coffin, and statues of black marble, attired in Moorish costume, holding enormous sabres in their right hands. As the knight enters, each of them rears an arm and advances a leg and at the same moment the lid of the coffin opens and the bell tolls. Sir Bertrand, guided by the flames, approaches the coffin from which a lady in a shroud and a black veil arises. When he kisses her, the whole building falls asunder with a crash. Sir Bertrand is thrown into a trance and awakes in a gorgeous room, where he sees a beautiful lady who thanks him as her deliverer. At a banquet, nymphs place a laurel wreath on his head, but as the lady is about to address him the fragment breaks off.

Edith Birkhead, The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance (1921), 28-30

Lovecraft acknowledged leaning on Birkhead’s study when it came to the Gothics (see The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917) by Dorothy Scarborough & The Tale of Terror (1921) by Edith Birkhead). Likewise, “Sir Bertrand, a Fragment” might not have been readily available in the 1920s. It seems likely, comparing that section of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” and Birkhead’s entry that Lovecraft largely condensed and summarized Birkhead’s account of both Anna (Aikin) Barbauld and her fragment.

Which is a pity, because there is a thematic vein that runs straight from “Sir Bertrand, a Fragment” through William Beckford’s Vathek (1786) to works like Machen’s “The White People” (1904) that Lovecraft likely would have recognized and appreciated. Lovecraft may not have had the time or opportunity to read every work he mentioned in his essay—his original assessment of The Golem (1928) by Gustav Meyrink, for example, was based on the film and not the book, an error which he worked to resolve once he had read the original. Perhaps Lovecraft would have a more genuine appreciation for Anna (Aikin) Barbauld if he could have read her essay on terror…but, as he never mentions this essay either, it seems likely he did not.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

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