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The French Revolution as a romance: Mary Robinson's Hubert de Sevrac.

When Mary Robinson wrote Hubert de Sevrac A Romance, of the Eighteenth Century (published November 1796), public opinion in England had turned against the French Revolution, and freedom of speech was under attack. Charlotte Smith's pro-revolutionary Desmond. A Novel (1792) had "lost [Smith] some friends, and furnished others with an excuse for withholding their interest in favour of her family, and brought a host of literary ladies in array against her" (Scott 27). (1) After a mob attacked the King's carriage in 1795, William Pitt moved aggressively to crush dissent, forcing the Treasonable Practices and Seditious Meetings bills through Parliament and cracking down on the London Corresponding Society. The Gagging Acts silenced many orators and writers who had been agitating for political reform. Charles James Fox, Robinson's former lover and a charismatic leader in the Whig party, was demonized as a Jacobin and traitor for advocating peace with France (Mitchell 131, 141). Given the widespread Francophobia and anti-revolutionary hysteria in England, Robinson's publication of a romance that celebrates the storming of the Bastille as an expression "of the proudest energies which humanity is capable of evincing" risked alienating and even outraging many of her readers (Hubert de Sevrac 3: 97). Contemporary reviewers of Hubert de Sevrae tended to focus, however, on Robinson's debt to Ann Radcliffe, the most famous and successful writer of romances during the 1790s, rather than on the book's politics. In the May 1797 issue of Analytical Review, Mary Wollstonecraft notes that "Mrs Radcliffe appears to be [Robinson's] model; and she deserves to rank as one of her most successful imitators" (523). (2) Another critic dismisses Hubert de Sevrac as "an imitation of Mrs Radcliffe's romances, but without any resemblance that may not be attained by a common pen" (Critical Review 472), and the Monthly Review claims that the book "possesses many of the beauties, and some of the faults, which characterise that species of modern novels called Romances" (91). (3) By classifying Hubert de Sevrac as a Radcliffean romance, which portrays "[t]he mysterious, the horrible, the pathetic, and the melancholy" (Critical Review 472) rather than the "real life and manners" (Monthly Review 91) examined in novels like Desmond, these reviewers suggest that it is too fanciful to be taken seriously as a commentary on the French Revolution. (4)

Both Radcliffe and Robinson were political liberals. (5) In A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 (1795), Radcliffe boldly praises a monument erected in Kendall in honor of the Glorious Revolution of 1688:

At a time, when the memory of that revolution is reviled, and the praises of liberty itself endeavoured to be suppressed by the artifice of imputing to it the crimes of anarchy, it was impossible to omit any act of veneration to the blessings of this event. [...] [W]e had a view of the country, over which [the obelisk] presides; a scene simple, great and free as the spirit revered amidst it. (389)

However, whereas Radcliffe relegates her liberalism to the subtext of her novels--on the surface, they appear politically conservative--Hubert de Sevrac is overtly radical. (6) The anti-feminist clergyman Richard Polwhele declares in The Unsex'd Females (1798) that Robinson's novels "merit the severest censure" for "containing the doctrines of Philosophism," or the deistic tenets of the French philosophes, but he singles out Radcliffe for praise: "In her Mysteries of Udolpho, we have all that is wild, magnificent and beautiful, combined by the genius of Shakspeare [sic], and the taste of [William] Mason" (17n; 34n). (7) A reviewer for European Magazine writes that Hubert de Sevrac is "of a more sober and probable cast than [Radcliffe's The Italian]," published in 1797, and complains that Robinson employs "the cant of French Democracy" to express her "partiality towards French Philosophy" (35). Evidently, the more "probable" the romance appeared to anti-Jacobin readers, the more politically subversive they deemed it.

Late eighteenth-century readers would have been struck by the many similarities between Hubert de Sevrac and Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, A Romance (1794). Like Mysteries, Hubert de Sevrac is subtitled A Romance, has a French heroine, is set mostly in Italy, employs literary epigraphs, and contains poems ostensibly composed by the novel's characters. In both works, all of the apparently supernatural events that bedevil the heroines turn out to have rational explanations. Robinson's Sabina de Sevrac, like Radcliffe's Emily St. Aubert, struggles against her superstitious fears, is persecuted by a powerful and ruthless man who attempts to force her into an unwanted marriage, and bestows her affections on an inconstant lover. As Rictor Norton points out, Radcliffe frequently alludes to Ariosto in her works, and in Hubert de Sevrac "the abandoned chateau Montnoir has a wonderful Gothic library on whose shelves is a volume of Ariosto which serves as the spring which opens a secret panel, and thus becomes literally the key to the world of romance" (133-134; see Hubert de Sevrac 1: 50-51).

Unlike Mysteries of Udolpho, however, Hubert de Sevrac is a pro-revolutionary Bildungsroman. Whereas Radcliffe sets The Mysteries of Udolpho in the sixteenth century and The Romance of the Forest (1791) in the seventeenth century, Hubert de Sevrac takes place in the 1790s. (8) Mysteries never refers explicitly to the French Revolution, but it contains a short passage from Charlotte Smith's The Emigrants (1793), a poem about victims of the Revolution who find asylum in England. The quotation is from the perspective of a "feudal Chief" who loses his sanity after his castle has been sacked and his family murdered: it evokes the sufferings of the dispossessed nobility rather than those of the downtrodden lower classes (Smith 159; Mysteries of Udolpho 71). According to Claudia L. Johnson, "The Mysteries of Udolpho [...] baffles the reader who expects a Bildungsroman. Repetition brings no insight; rather than foster 'progress' or 'growth,' it turns from it" (113). Moreover, as Mary Poovey notes, the plot of Mysteries is circular: "the new order ushered in at the end of the romance simply restores the traditional, paternalistic community of Emily's childhood" (327). While Emily's worldview remains static and apolitical, Sabina renounces the superstitions and religious bigotry she learned in childhood, argues with her politically unenlightened father, and, as "the light of [her] intellect expand[s]," becomes a fervent supporter of the revolution that has driven her family from France (2: 143). Unlike Radcliffe's isolated heroines, who search for a real or surrogate parent, Robinson's Sabina, whose father and mother accompany her for most of the romance, searches for political justice. (9)

Writing during a period of political reaction in England, Robinson embeds her revolutionary sympathies in a sensationalistic Gothic narrative, seeking both to entertain and to provide political guidance to her readers. She focuses on the plight of aristocratic French emigres struggling to survive in Italy rather than the revolutionary violence convulsing France. Whereas Smith, in her novels set during the French Revolution, speaks "the politics a woman cannot directly address" through her male protagonists (Miller 340), Robinson ventriloquizes her political sentiments through both her male title-character and his daughter Sabina. (10) Hubert de Sevracis a feminine as well as masculine Bildungsroman. Like the aristocratic French emigre hero of Smith's novel The Banished Man (1794), Hubert de Sevrac eventually abandons the chivalric, elitist ideology of the old regime and assumes a new identity as an expatriate and family man. (11) Self-expression and censorship are central themes in the novel, written when the Pitt administration was effectively using the Gagging Acts to silence political reformers in England. As Hubert struggles with his chivalric and national identity and his conflicted attitude toward the revolution, he borrows imagery from the Scottish bard Ossian (as "translated" by James Macpherson) and words from the English historian Edward Gibbon. Sabina's political education is hindered by superstitions, religious bigotry, and a nocturnal terrorist who temporarily censors her speech.

Hubert de Sevrac responds to Edmund Burke's excoriation of the Revolution and celebration of chivalry in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and William Godwin's argument, in An Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793), that irrational ideologies like chivalry retard rather than promote human betterment. (12) By using a romance to critique Reflections, Robinson recalls Burke's sentimental and hyperbolic presentation of Marie-Antoinette as a beautiful and virtuous heroine persecuted by brutal, murderous villains. As Johnson observes, Burke's account of the Queen's narrow escape from assassins is "not an unadulterated narration of historical fact, but [...] a scene from the pages of gothic-pathetic literature" (3). Like Burke's Marie-Antoinette, Radcliffe's heroines and Robinson's Sabina de Sevrac are threatened with rape and murder by ruffians, but in Radcliffe's and Robinson's romances the villains are impelled by greed or lust rather than revolutionary frenzy. And like Godwin's novel Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), an exploration of the injustices of late eighteenth-century society, Hubert de Sevrac examines social issues within the context of a Gothic narrative. Robinson's romance reflects her admiration for the ideals, if not the practices, of the French Revolution and her opposition to "things as they are."


Hubert de Sevrac's political enlightenment begins as his family flees from Paris:

It was at that awful hour, that de Sevrac examined the retrospect of his prosperous days. All the phantoms of delight purchased by the sufferings of the people, all the irritated tribes of wretchedness, whose wants had hitherto been unregarded, now conspired to taunt his imagination. He probed his lacerated bosom; and he found, that though no act of oppression, immediately proceeding from himself, had contaminated its feelings, he had been accessary [sic] to crimes, and deserved to participate in their punishment. (1:8)

Hubert recognizes that he has benefited from the "crimes" of the old regime and therefore deserves impoverishment and exile. His situation as a persecuted refugee in a foreign country, however, precipitates an identity crisis. As he evolves from an old regime French aristocrat to a Scotophilic emigre and paterfamilias, he must contend with a conspiracy led by Monsieur Ravillon, an upwardly mobile gamekeeper's son who twice impersonates him, and an insult to his honor that threatens his chivalric identity and sanity.

Ravillon is a forerunner of the polygraphs featured in Robinson's subsequent novel, Walsingham; or, The Pupil of Nature (1797). In Walsingham, a polygraph is an impersonator who poses as an aristocrat, "his noble original" (374), seeking to be mistaken as his prototype. Similarly, Ravillon attempts to assume Hubert's identity, first replacing him as the previous Marquis's son and heir, then impersonating him to incriminate him in a murder, and finally claiming to be the Marquis de Sevrac while fleeing to Sicily. Near the end of the novel, de Sevrac learns that during his childhood his father shot Ravillon's father "for some trifling offence" (3: 307) during a hunt and claimed that it was an accident. The repentant old Marquis bequeathed his victim's son most of his fortune, including the chateau of Montnoir in Lombardy, but, after becoming reconciled with Hubert, he threatened "to withdraw his favour from [Ravillon]" (3: 308). To prevent himself from being disinherited, Ravillon took his benefactor's poniard and stabbed him to death in his chapel. The old Marquis's will stipulates that following Ravillon's death, Sabina inherits the estate, but if she dies without an heir, it reverts to Ravillon's child or closest relative. When de Sevrac arrives in Milan, Ravillon plots to have Sabina either married to his son Arnaud or killed so his descendants can inherit the fortune. Hubert declares, however, that he would rather see his daughter "expire" (1: 36) than marry Arnaud, and when Ravillon sarcastically alludes to "the reduced state of de Sevrac's prospects" (1: 37), the Marquis strikes him. Subsequently, de Sevrac overhears Ravillon insulting him and challenges the commoner to a duel.

Intending to murder Hubert, Ravillon hides near the site of the planned duel with the old Marquis's ubiquitous poniard. He misidentifies a wealthy English tourist named Edmund St. Clair as de Sevrac, however, and stabs him instead. To ensure that the Marquis will be blamed for the attack, as Ravillon inflicts the "last wound" he shouts, "'Receive thy death from the exiled de Sevrac'" (1: 76, 1: 111). He goes into hiding, and his impersonation of Hubert leads to the Marquis's arrest for Ravillon's murder rather than St. Clair's: the protean gamekeeper's son convincingly poses not only as de Sevrac but also as the missing victim. Madame de Sevrac is imprisoned as an accomplice, and Ravillon has Sabina abducted and taken to Montnoir, where he attempts to terrify her into marrying his son. Believing that her father is dead, Sabina rails against the laws that condemn an individual without proof. In his reply to her, Ravillon mimics the anti-royalist rhetoric employed by the revolutionaries in France. He tells Sabina that her father

deserved his fate: born and educated in the court of a despot; he had, from his infancy mocked the sufferings of the people. He beheld, without pity, the tortures of oppression inflicted on those, who had courage to complain; and heard, without remorse, the last sigh of exhausted fortitude. (1: 149-150)

When Sabina objects that the Marquis "never injured the unfortunate," Ravillon parodies de Sevrac's own guilty self-examination, declaring that

he upheld those who did [...]. He enjoyed the sunshine of that sphere which dazzled round the base, while its beams were withheld from the virtuous. He knew, that millions groaned under oppression, and yet he revelled amidst the spoils, wrung from their afflicted hearts. (1: 150)

As the son of a gamekeeper who has displaced a hereditary aristocrat, Ravillon superficially resembles the French commoners who wrested power, land, wealth, and privileges away from the nobility after the fall of the Bastille, but he is motivated by greed and personal resentment rather than revolutionary ideals. He wants to possess aristocratic rank, lands, and wealth, to become the Marquis de Sevrac, not to alleviate "the sufferings of the people" or create a new, egalitarian society.

Ravillon's attempt to impersonate de Sevrac ultimately destroys him. He steals the de Sevrac family heirloom, "[o]ne small iron box," which contains their "little fortune," consisting mainly of Madame de Sevrac's jewels (1: 43). This iron box, like Falkland's mysterious chest in Caleb Williams, (13) would have reminded Robinson's contemporaries of Louis XVI's iron chest (armoire defer) which was discovered at the Tuileries in November 1792 and which contained evidence that he was plotting with Austria against the revolution. This evidence was used to secure the King's conviction for treason and his execution on January 21, 1793. In Hubert de Sevrac, however, Louis XVI is presented as "a kind and gentle master" (3: 87), more "credulous" (3: 86) than culpable. Although the "officers of justice" (1: 83) who arrest the Marquis for the murder of Ravillon take the de Sevracs' iron box as evidence, it does not contain any incriminating documents, and Ravillon is not dead. Despite his innocence, however, de Sevrac is "condemned, without a proof of criminality" (1: 149) and taken to be executed. Only St. Clair's last minute intervention saves him from death. Robinson clearly wished that Louis XVI could also have been rescued from the scaffold. In "A Fragment, Supposed to Be Written Near the Temple, at Paris, on the Night Before the Execution of Louis XVI" (1793), she condemns the regicide:
   PITY dies to see
   The barb'rous Sons of ANARCHY
   Drench their unnatural hands in regal blood,
   While patriot Virtue sinks beneath the whelming flood!
   (Selected Poems 45-48)

The contents of the King's iron chest did not, in Robinson's opinion, justify his murder.

In the novel's last volume, the iron box is associated with misdirected vengeance and plays a role in Ravillon's misguided and ultimately fatal quest to become Hubert de Sevrac. Ravillon steals it from the de Sevracs and takes it with him when he flees to Sicily. The "small iron chest [bears] the name of [...] 'Hubert de Sevrac'" (3: 290), and Ravillon decides to impersonate the Marquis during his sea voyage. This turns out to be a fatal decision. De Fleury, a French emigre who mistakenly believes that de Sevrac condemned his father to die in the Bastille, sees the iron chest and asks Ravillon if he is the Marquis. When the gamekeeper's son claims that he is de Sevrac, de Fleury stabs him and throws him overboard. Ravillon dies from loss of blood. Actually, it was Count de Briancour, who possesses the lettre de cachet, and not de Sevrac who imprisoned de Fleury's father, and de Fleury's sister agreed to have sex with the Count in order to obtain their father's release. The villainous Ravillon dies for de Briancour's crimes rather than for his own--de Sevrac's iron chest falsely incriminates its possessor. Robinson suggests that Louis XVI's armoire defer played a similar role in 1792. On his deathbed Ravillon confesses his crimes to his aristocratic alter ego and receives absolution. His reign of terror ends, and de Sevrac can form a new, post-feudal identity.

As the Marquis de Sevrac struggles to form this new identity, he must contend with the chivalric ideology that required him to challenge Ravillon to a duel. He nearly loses his sanity after a mysterious "ruffian" (2: 52), whom he erroneously believes is St. Clair, strikes him at night. The Marquis's inability to avenge this "insult" almost proves fatal:

The event, during all his vicissitudes, which had gone the nearest to destroy him, was the blow which he believed had been given him by St. Clair. Educated with the most rigid principles of honor, such an insult appeared a thousand times more terrible than death. The gnawing incertitude which attended the degradation, the strong prejudices which he had to encounter, and the gratitude which still lingered round his heart, for benefits received, assailed his reason, and the faculties of resistance almost perished in the conflict; de Sevrac had received a blow! his honour was sullied by his forbearance! (3: 10-11)

Hubert's supposed attacker is a friend who has rescued him from execution. Torn between "the most rigid principles of honor" and gratitude, he ignores his domestic responsibilities, "climbing the rugged peaks [...] while his distracted family [...] wander[s] from place to place in search of him" (2: 30). His chivalric prejudices threaten his sanity, and he must develop a new cultural identity or perish.

During this period of mental derangement, de Sevrac writes "wild effusions [...] tinctured with the romantic imagery of Ossian" (2:31). His affinity with British culture begins in his youth, when he falls in love with Emily Montrose, a Scottish Protestant (1: 26), and incurs his father's displeasure by marrying her. A multilingual reader of "the best poets, both Italian and English," he is influenced by The Poems of Ossian (1760-63), purportedly translated from the Scottish Gaelic of the third-century bard Ossian (2: 31). The poems' putative translator, the writer and Gaelic scholar James Macpherson, probably wrote most if not all of the works he ascribed to Ossian, but many of Robinson's contemporaries believed them genuine. In Hubert de Sevrac, Sabina preserves and edits her father's "unconnected" Ossianic fragments, playing the role Macpherson claimed to play with respect to Ossian. The resulting series of prose poems (2: 32-34), a collaboration between Hubert and his half-Scottish daughter, represents an important stage in his shift from chivalric French aristocrat to Ossianic hero of sensibility. This male-female collaboration recalls the closing chapter of Smith's The Banished Man, which contains a letter co-written by the French emigre Chevalier Armand D'Alonville and his English mother-in-law, Charlotte Denzil (4: 328-340). Both de Sevrac and D'Alonville are profoundly influenced by the women in their lives. Whereas Hubert and Sabina complete their joint literary project when their identities are still in a state of flux, however, D'Alonville and Denzil compose their letter after the male protagonist's formation of a new, domestic identity (Benis 300-301). De Sevrac and his daughter must free themselves from superstition and priestcraft before they can achieve moral as well as political enlightenment.

As John Dwyer has explained, "Ossian is an eighteenth-century ideal type--the 'man of feeling'" (187). Hubert's adoption of an Ossianic literary persona signals the beginning of his gradual shift from a volatile duelist to a sentimental altruist who values friendship more than chivalric honor. As the novel progresses, he increasingly resembles Ossian's "Celtic knights-errant" who protect the weak and are motivated by "genuine feeling and conscience--moral sense or sentiment--[rather than by] any set of elaborate rules of conduct" (Dwyer 195). Although "impetuous and rash" (3: 40) by nature, de Sevrac reconsiders his conflict with St. Clair "through the clear medium of reason" (3: 108). When he encounters St. Clair again, his love and respect for his friend return, and he is ready to hear Sabina's explanation that he was struck by another man, a mysterious "ruffian" who has been persecuting her. His reason and "genuine feeling" triumph over chivalric prejudice. He demonstrates his knight-errantry when he rescues Paulina Monteleoni, who has been abducted and imprisoned. Believing that she has suffered because of him, Hubert embraces the emaciated "victim of sensibility" (3: 178) and, like a true man of feeling, cares for her with "pure and sacred zeal" (3: 186).

As he struggles to survive in Italy, de Sevrac must overcome his aristocratic pretensions. While in Florence, he decides to seek employment, but "to preserve his name and rank from the impertinence of idle animadversion," he "assume[s] the name of D'Angerville, whose country was Flandres, and whose occupation was that of a negociant [merchant]" (2: 259). Since Hubert knows English, one suspects that he chooses the name D'Angerville to express his rage at being reduced to a penniless fugitive. His attempt to form a new identity as a Flemish bourgeois is, however, short-lived. Instead of looking for work, he reads poetry by Dante and Metastasio, and the confusion caused by his name change works to his enemies' advantage. As Robinson makes clear, Hubert has "been educated splendidly, but not usefully" (2: 245). Although his identity can and must evolve, he cannot remake himself into one of "oeconomists, and calculators" decried by Burke (76).

After rescuing Paulina Monteleoni, de Sevrac pursues his alter ego Ravillon, "the grand spring in the vast machine of villa[i]ny" (3: 211), into Naples. As an Ossianic rather than chivalric hero, he is motivated "to drag the monster forth" by the "duty which he owe[s] to society," not by "mere personal resentment" (3: 213). While in Naples, Hubert evinces his Anglicization by "plagiarizing" from Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788) in an apostrophe to the temple of Faustina. In the following passage from his speech, the italicized sections are taken nearly verbatim from Gibbon, whose name de Sevrac never mentions (Robinson cites Decline and Fall in a footnote):

"[Faustina] was the wife of Marcus Antoninus, the only man living in the empire, who seemed ignorant of the irregularities of Faustina, which, according to the prejudice of every age, reflected some disgrace on the injured husband. He promoted several of her lovers to posts of honour and profit; nay more," continued the Marquis, "in his meditations he thanks the gods, who bestowed on him a wife so faithful, so gentle, and of such wonderful simplicity of manners!" (3: 231-232; Decline and Fall 1: 108-109)

Robinson has her French protagonist recite Gibbon's English words, almost as if the historian is ventriloquizing through him. A seminal Enlightenment work, Gibbon's Decline and Fall was both attacked and praised for its critical, secular treatment of the early Christian church (Craddock 60). De Sevrac's quotation from this history suggests that he has absorbed some of Gibbon's skepticism toward institutional Christianity and will no longer be the dupe of unscrupulous prelates like Ravillon's ally, the Abbot Palerma. Although Gibbon believed that revolutionary France had become "a nation of tyrants and cannibals" (Letters 3: 265), de Sevrac's vision of his country's future is more optimistic: heaving a "deep sigh," he predicts that "France will produce" heroes like Alexander the Great and the Roman patriot Brutus (3: 232). He has learned from Gibbon to take a long view of history.

De Sevrac's identity crisis and transformation recall the evolution of Smith's D'Alonville in The Banished Man, but whereas the Marquis and his family seek refuge in England, D'Alonville settles with his English wife and mother-in-law in Italy, which he describes as a "delicious country" (4: 339). As an Anglophile and Ossianic man of feeling married to a Scottish heiress, de Sevrac is better prepared than D'Alonville to adapt himself to British culture. Whereas Smith's novel directly critiques social oppression and Francophobia in England, Robinson's romance takes place in an Italy that resembles the sinister, Gothic realm portrayed in Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho. In both Hubert de Sevrac and The Banished Man, however, the French emigre heroes ultimately choose domestic life in exile with their British spouses over further involvement in French revolutionary politics. Neither character can survive without abandoning his chivalric prejudices and aristocratic identity.


Sabina de Sevrac plays an important role in her father's political education. Like Godwin, she believes that social harmony depends on the equitable distribution of wealth. She asks, "if the noblest had relinquished their superfluous luxuries, and by a more equal participation, afforded the peasantry something, beyond the bare necessities of life, would not the world have been more at peace?" (1: 12). As Godwin writes in Political Justice,

Every man is entitled [...] not only to the means of being, but of well being. It is unjust, if one man labour to the destruction of his health or his life, that another man may abound in luxuries. It is unjust, if one man be deprived of leisure to cultivate his rational powers, while another man contributes not a single effort to add to the common stock. (Political and Philosophical Writings 3: 423)

When Hubert deplores the atrocities inflicted by the revolutionaries, his daughter lectures him:

"The persecution to which you allude, is neither new nor augmented. The curtain which has long concealed the scene, is raised; and the axe of vengeance succeeds the tortures of the dungeon! No more!"

"But where shall Justice exercise her function, while the laws continue to be violated and broken?" said de Sevrac.

"Laws, that owned no code, but in the bosom of a despot, were the mere mockery of freedom," answered Sabina. "Time was, when the few were happy, and the million wretched! [...] when palaces rung with festivity, and dungeons groaned with victims! when folly feasted to satiety, and honest labour starved! Malice or caprice, then, had power to scourge the suffering multitude, or awe them into silence. Who could redress them?" (2: 149-150)

Although taken aback, de Sevrac admits that Sabina's "reproof is just" (2: 151). His willingness to discuss political issues with a woman indicates that he does not subscribe to the sexist belief prevalent in the late eighteenth century that "women [...] have no business in politics" (Smith, Desmond 45). Her speech is, however, censored by Ravillon's son Arnaud, who appears incognito as a masked man in her bedroom, and her confessor, the Abbot Palerma. Although politically liberal, she is a devout and superstitious Catholic and thus vulnerable to nocturnal apparitions and priestcraft. Her father's enemies use this vulnerability to drive a wedge between her and the Marquis, temporarily halting their progress toward political and moral enlightenment.

The masked Arnaud materializes in Sabina's chambers with a poniard, informs her that both de Sevrac and St. Clair must die, and forces her to swear, by her "hopes of salvation" (1: 245), that she will be silent about his visit. His censorship of her speech extends even to the oath itself, which he forces her to make non-verbally, by kissing an ebony crucifix with "the word 'remember' [...] engraved on the back" (1: 246). Arnaud, like his father Ravillon and the Marquis himself, is obsessed with "the name of de Sevrac" (1: 243), which he equates with the Hubert's aristocratic identity and life. His declaration that "The name shall perish" (1: 244) proves ironic: when the elder Ravillon uses the small iron box to impersonate de Sevrac, it is the gamekeeper's son who perishes. Although Arnaud is an opportunist who wants to marry Sabina and inherit the de Sevrac estate, he speaks like a sansculotte, declaring that her father must be held accountable for the crimes of the old regime. Since Sabina has taken an oath to keep the stranger's threats secret from the Marquis and St. Clair, she feels obligated to remain silent, even though those she loves may be in danger.

Like Arnaud, Ravillon's ally the Abbot Palerma terrorizes and gags Sabina. This devious clergyman exemplifies the irrational "[c]haracter of the priesthood" critiqued by Godwin in Political Justice:

[Priests'] importance is connected with their real or supposed mental superiority over the rest of mankind; they must therefore be patrons of prejudice and implicit faith. Their prosperity depends upon the reception of particular opinions in the world; they must therefore be enemies to freedom of enquiry; they must have a bias upon their minds impressed by something different from the force of evidence. (Political and Philosophical Writings 3:37)

The Abbot's position as Sabina's confessor enables him to take full advantage of her piety and superstitiousness. Since he stands to inherit Ravillon's estate upon the death of his son, he does everything he can to compel Sabina to marry Arnaud so the fortune will remain in the family. When she visits him, he terrorizes her with a series of portents orchestrated by his accomplices: a voice commanding her to remember, a bowing statue of the Virgin Mary, and a shaking altar. After being petrified "with amazement and terror" (1: 310) by these signs, she confesses to the Abbot and asks him to absolve her from the vow she made to the masked stranger. Palerma gags her by threatening her with "final excommunication" (1: 316) if she violates her oath and thus makes her into a fellow conspirator. Robinson condemns Sabina's religious mania: "A parent's life was of less importance than the safety of her own soul; and an oath, extorted by a villain, was deemed sufficiently sacred, to bind an innocent child in a conspiracy, even against the Being who gave her existance [sic]" (1: 317). Sabina foolishly allows the Abbot to overrule her conscience and does not warn her father of his danger. After the Marquis is attacked by a mysterious assailant, he asks his daughter pointblank if there is "a wretch who seeks [his] destruction" (2: 62), and she remains silent, "content to bear the guilt of being a conspirator against a parent's life, rather than break an oath, which was made to an assassin" (2: 63). Seeking to exploit the rift between father and daughter, the Abbot requests an interview with Sabina and informs her that because of her "sacrilegious" exploration of the chapel's sanctuary at Montnoir, she must return there and "count six successive moons, in prayer and penitence" (2: 74-75). His stratagem backfires. Terrified, she refuses to go to Montnoir and eventually becomes disillusioned with her confessor and Catholicism. A wise peasant named Giovanni tells her that he has "seen the Abbot drive the pilgrim from his gate, half famished and worn down with penitence; while the rich and remorseless, have been treated sumptuously with the produce of [the peasants'] toil" (2: 82-83). Inspired by this natural philosopher, Sabina links Abbot Palerma's exploitation of the poor to the abuses of the old regime, and when the clergyman commands her to marry Arnaud in order to obtain God's forgiveness, she uses "philosophic reasoning" to expose the illogicality of his "mysteries" (2: 90-91). Unable to believe that "the wrath of insulted Heaven, is to be appeased by a sacrifice at the shrine of avarice" (2:91), she finally realizes that "the hypocrisy which insults religion, glare[s] through the mask of sanctity worn by the Abbot Palerma" (2: 142).

Sabina's gagging by a nocturnal terrorist and a manipulative abbot evokes not only the repression and clerical corruption of the old regime but also the political paranoia and assault on free speech in England during Pitt's so-called reign of terror. Her disillusionment with Catholicism, the creed by which she has lived since childhood, leads to an identity crisis similar to her father's. She repudiates "the craft of priesthood," and her "extreme [...] credulity is [...] succeeded by the most obstinate scepticism" (2: 143). Robinson's portrayal of her heroine's state of mind anticipates the passage in Wordsworth's The Prelude (1805 version) in which he describes his moral and mental confusion following his sojourn in revolutionary France:
   I [...]
   Dragg[ed] all passions, notions, shapes of faith,
   Like culprits to the bar, suspiciously
   Calling the mind to establish in plain day
   Her titles and her honours, now believing,
   Now disbelieving, endlessly perplexed
   With impulse, motive, right and wrong, the ground
   Of moral obligation, what the rule
   And what the sanction, till, demanding proof
   And seeking it in everything, I lost
   All feeling of conviction, and, in fine,
   Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,
   Yielded up moral questions in despair (10: 888-900)

Similarly, after freeing herself from the Abbot's influence, "Mademoiselle de Sevrac [...] beg[ins] to look with doubt and suspicion on every object that approache[s] her. Having in her infancy believed too much, she [can] now with difficulty be induced to have faith in any thing" (2: 143). In time, she will develop a belief-system informed by "reason and reflection" (2: 144) rather than "prejudice and implicit faith." She will become a Godwinian rather than a Radcliffean heroine.


The opening scene of Hubert de Sevrac recalls the beginning of Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest. The reader soon discovers, however, that Robinson's novel is an historically updated and overtly politicized Radcliffean romance. Both works depict terrified families fleeing Paris, but whereas Radcliffe's Pierre de la Motte is a gambler and swindler who sneaks out of the capital with his wife to escape legal prosecution, Robinson's de Sevracs run away to avoid being executed by sansculottes. La Motte is a common criminal; the de Sevracs are political refugees. (14) "From the heights of Chaillot" the Marquis, his wife, daughter, and the virtuous Abbe Le Blanc hear the "distant sound of the tocsin," the alarm bells used to mobilize the revolutionaries, and "the shouts of the populace" (1: 7). Robinson does not reveal the specific event that compels the de Sevracs to leave Paris disguised as peasants--she could have had in mind the slaughter of the Swiss Guards (August 10) or the even bloodier massacres of between 1,100 and 1,400 prisoners (from September 2 to 7), both of which took place during 1792 (Doyle 189, 191-192). She had been in France herself during that fateful summer. Hounded by her English creditors, she had escaped to Calais and was there from late July until the beginning of the September massacres, trying to find a way to join her brother in Leghorn, Italy, and hoping for a reconciliation with her straying lover, Banastre Tarleton. (15) Revolutionary forces in France and Flanders, however, obstructed all of the routes to Italy, and Robinson never witnessed the events to which she vaguely alludes in Hubert de Sevrac. At least some of her knowledge of the events in Paris apparently came from Tarleton, who eventually joined her, her mother, and her daughter in Calais. After parting from Robinson in Calais, he recklessly went on to Paris. On September 2 he encountered a bloodthirsty mob that had been butchering political prisoners and joined their cry, "A la lanterne!" to avoid being hung from a lamppost himself. On the next day he saw the head of Princess de Lamballe (1749-1792) being taken down the street on a pike (his friend the Duke of Orleans recognized her blond ringlets) (Bass 318-322). (16) One of Marie-Antoinette's intimate friends, she had been ripped to pieces by the mob.

In Hubert de Sevrac Robinson condemns the revolutionaries' actions but not their desire for freedom:

at that dreadful period, when the tumult of discontent perverted the cause of universal liberty; when vast multitudes were destined to expiate the crimes of individuals, indiscriminate vengeance swept all before it, and like an overwhelming torrent engulphed every object that attempted to resist its force. It was at that momentous crisis, that the wise, the virtuous, and the unoffending, were led forth to the scene of slaughter; while in the glorious effort for the emancipation of millions, justice and humanity were for a time unheard, or unregarded. (1: 7)

Rather than provoking a visceral reaction from the reader with graphic descriptions of the bloody events that took place in the summer of 1792, Robinson vaguely presents the mob's "indiscriminate vengeance" as "an overwhelming torrent," the inevitable result of "the crimes of individuals." Although she admits that the tidal wave of revolutionary violence ignored the claims of "justice and humanity," she maintains that the attempt to emancipate millions was "glorious"--"the cause of universal liberty" should not be abandoned simply because it was temporarily "perverted." Later in the novel she uses thunder as a metaphor for the Revolution:

millions were doomed to expiate the crimes of [...] a small number, in the great scale of human events; as the thunder which clears a noxious atmosphere for a time rolls its tremendous peals, alike over the lowly habitation of the simplest peasant, and the lordly mansion of the most obdurate tyrant. (2: 37-38)

By comparing the Revolution to a thunderstorm, Robinson sanitizes it, presenting it as a natural force that sweeps away "a noxious atmosphere" rather than as a series of enormities. Hubert de Sevrac, like Radcliffe's romances, is a tale of surrealistic terror rather than of explicit horror.

Every Radcliffean romance has to have a Gothic villain, and Hubert de Sevrac has several: Monsieur Ravillon, a gamekeeper's son who murdered the Marquis's father to secure an inheritance; Count de Briancour, who appears to be modeled after the Marquis de Montalt, the Sadeian voluptuary of The Romance of the Forest; and their clerical confederate, Abbot Palerma. However, whereas the arch-villain of Mysteries of Udolpho possesses some admirable traits--Count Montoni is brave, mysterious, and resolute, and the heroine regards him with "some degree of awe" (192)--Robinson's uncharismatic rogues tend to be cowardly schemers. In fact, Robinson indicates that Ravillon is a failure as a Radcliffean villain:

with all his vices, [he] wanted that calm resolution which is absolutely requisite for the accomplishment of every enterprise, whether good or bad, that leads the adventurous spirit out of the common tract of life: he was cruel, but not brave; vindictive, but not firm; restless when foiled in his designs, and only daring, in proportion as he was successful. (1:153-154)

While Radcliffe presents the Marquis de Montalt as "lively, amusing, sometimes even witty[,] [...] polite, affable," and refined (The Romance of the Forest 99), Robinson keeps de Briancour in the background of her novel. Although she describes him in general terms, her protagonists do not have the opportunity to observe him directly. Robinson attacks the corrupt clergy through her portrayal of the Abbot Palerma. Villainous Catholic priests, monks, and nuns are, of course, common in Protestant English Gothic literature. In A Sicilian Romance (1790), Radcliffe condemns the "crafty sanctity [that] supplied the place of wisdom, simplicity, and pure devotion" in the minds of medieval monks (117). (17) The French Revolution's persecution of Catholic priests, however, had outraged many of Robinson's contemporaries, and she is thus careful to make her clerical scoundrel Italian rather than French; in fact, she presents the suggestively-named Abbe Le Blanc as a paragon of virtue. (18) Brooding, mysterious, and fascinating, Montoni is one the forerunners of the Byronic hero; in contrast to Radcliffe, Robinson is careful to make her villains either contemptible or virtually invisible. She does not want her readers to be even slightly attracted to her unprincipled social climber, her corrupt aristocrat, or her unscrupulous prelate.

Whereas in The Romance of the Forest Radcliffe presents the unnamed French king as a benevolent and competent ruler, Robinson depicts Louis XVI as "kind and gentle" but "weak and credulous" (3: 86-87), easily manipulated by the vicious Count de Briancour. Her novel's critique of the aristocracy and clergy is clearly Godwinian. In Political Justice Godwin argues that aristocratic privilege leads to "effeminacy and error":

He that accumulates to himself luxuries and titles and wealth to the injury of the whole, becomes degraded from the rank of man; and, however he may be admired by the multitude, is pitied by the wise and wearisome to himself[.] Hence it appears, that to elect men to the rank of nobility is to elect them to a post of moral danger and a means of depravity; but that to constitute them hereditarily noble is to preclude them, bating a few extraordinary accidents, from all the causes that generate ability and virtue. (Political and Philosophical Writings 3: 253)

Although the Marquis is "[g]ifted by nature, not only with every exterior grace, but with a mind, generous and benevolent" (1: 6), as a member of a corrupt aristocracy he must accept some responsibility for the 1792 massacres. His one-time friend and subsequent enemy the Count de Briancour has been completely "degraded from the rank of man" by his "luxuries and titles and wealth":

The wealth of de Briancour, was one of those overgrown monsters that helped to crush the throne, which his vices had long contaminated. Invested with command, and by nature fond of sway, he was the instrument of oppression, and the minion of a corrupt and tyrannical phalanx. Hourly enriching his favourites, and enslaving the people, he sheltered himself behind the screen of prerogative; and, while he kept the bastile [sic] in the dark perspective, beheld, without remorse, the last pang of violated humanity. (3: 85-86)

Armed with the lettre de cachet, a warrant which allows him to subject his enemies to arbitrary imprisonment in the Bastille, de Briancour is above the law in pre-revolutionary France, and in Italy his wealth enables him to "buy a good name" (3: 31) and hire unscrupulous henchmen. Having transferred his wealth to a bank in Venice, he "revel[s] in luxurious splendour" while France is "stained with the blood of his deluded benefactors" (3: 86-87). He is obviously one of those individuals for whose crimes "the wise, the virtuous, and the unoffending" were slaughtered in 1792.

Burke's celebration of chivalry and condemnation of revolutionary brutality in Reflections on the Revolution in France haunts both The Mysteries of Udolpho and Hubert de Sevrac. Burke argues in Reflections that the ideology of the French revolutionaries devalues women: "On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order" (77). He writes with some historical inaccuracy that on October 6, 1789, a

band of cruel ruffians and assassins, reeking with [the sentinel's] blood, rushed into the chamber of the queen [of France], and pierced with an hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from whence this persecuted women had but just time to fly almost naked. (71)

As Johnson observes,

[i]n the Italian sections of [Mysteries], Radcliffe conjures not the specific interests or agendas of French revolutionaries, but rather the standard of masculinity Burke considered typical of them, a standard in which ferocity is unmitigated by chivalry, and unmollified by the gallantry towards rank and sex that were supposed crucial to civilized life. (98)

Montoni's contempt for gallantry and belief that "chivalric love is emasculating" align him with Marie Antoinette's barbaric tormenters (Johnson 103).

In contrast to Robinson's 1791 tract, Impartial Reflections on the Present Situation of the Queen of France; by A Friend to Humanity, Hubert de Sevrac presents Burkean chivalry as an outmoded and irrational ideology dedicated to the preservation of masculine honor rather than the protection of women. Impartial Reflections alludes to the famous passage in Burke's Reflections in which he deplores Marie Antoinette's mistreatment by her former subjects. Whereas Burke declares that "the age of chivalry is gone.--That of sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever" (76), Robinson insists that chivalry still exists but associates it with the revolutionary National Assembly rather than the overthrown aristocracy. She urges the National Assembly "to prove [...] that 'the Days of Chivalry' are not 'at an end'" by protecting Marie Antoinette from the insults and violence of the mob (Impartial Reflections 27). Marie Antoinette was, however, executed in 1793, the year in which government by terror began in France, and her mutilated remains were buried without ceremony. No knight-errant leaped to her defense. In Hubert de Sevrac, Robinson associates the fall of chivalry with the moral depravity of a French aristocrat rather than that of revolutionaries or an Italian count. Count de Briancour's ruthless exploitation of women and accumulation of an "almost countless treasure" (3: 86) in a Venetian bank suggest that unchivalrous "oeconomists, and calculators" existed among the aristocracy of the old regime as well as the revolutionaries who supplanted them. Moreover, the French aristocrat's belief that women are commodities who can be bought and sold links him to Radcliffe's evil Count Montoni, who, despite "the high chivalric air of his figure," relentlessly bullies Emily St. Aubert and his wife, whom he values only as sources of income (Mysteries of Udolpho 172). In Godwin's attack against the unequal system of property in Political Justice, he sarcastically alludes to Burke's Reflections: "Indeed, 'the age of chivalry is' not 'gone!' The feudal spirit still survives, that reduced the great mass of mankind to the rank of slaves and cattle for the service of a few" (Political and Philosophical Writings 3: 428). As has been shown, Robinson affirms Godwin's call for the redistribution of property through her character Sabina (1: 12), but her critique of Burke places more emphasis on his false assumption that chivalry benefits women. In her view, "the feudal spirit" of chivalry reduces women in particular "to the rank of slaves and cattle."

Count de Briancour's wife is forced to marry him at "the mart of [...] worldly traffic" (3: 90) when she is seventeen and he is sixty. A few months before the revolution, he discovers that she loves another man and jealously imprisons her:

she was strictly guarded, and denied all intercourse with society. She had been purchased, as the merchant buys the slave; and her lot was more terrible than even that of the ill-fated negro. He is destined to toil, to shrink from the scourge, to smart beneath a burning sun, and to groan under the severity of an inhuman master! But the wedded captive, whose liberty is bartered for wealth, endures the more excruciating tortures of mental agony. Weeks, months, and years, present a succession of miseries; a series of conflicts between the fine affections of the soul, and the moral virtues which harmonize society. (3:95-96)

Robinson's friend Mary Wollstonecraft wonders in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman why women, "like the poor African slaves," are "subject to prejudices that brutalize them" (144-145). (19) In Hubert de Sevrac, rather than simply equating the plight of women with that of slaves, Robinson makes the racially insensitive claim that wedded captives suffer more than "the ill-fated negro" because their miseries are mental while the slave's torments are only physical. She employs hyperbole to focus the reader's attention on the sufferings of women whose husbands treat them like property. With caustic irony, she alludes to "the moral virtues which harmonize society" and suppress "the fine affections" of a wife's "soul." Besides imprisoning his spouse, de Briancour forces a young woman to sleep with him in order to free her father from the Bastille. His sexual predations are authorized by the ancien regime, whose lettre de cachet he wields with impunity. In Italy he hires henchmen to abduct Sabina (whose name recalls the rape of the Sabine women), whom he is "determined to possess" (3:181). For this aristocrat, "a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order."

De Briancour is not the only upper-class character in the novel who treats women unchivalrously. Although Edmund St. Clair possesses Burke's Christian name along with a knight-errant's courage and sense of honor, he marries for money rather than love. His wife, who hates him, is "the object of [his] father's choice.--Her fortune [is] the charm that w[ins] him" (3: 269). He fails to tell Sabina that he is married and allows her to fall in love with him. After he parts from the de Sevracs, he has an affair with a Parisian opera dancer, Rosine D'Orvilliere, who is also the mistress of de Briancour. In spite of the fact that "his mind [is] still devoted to Sabina," he becomes "the slave of Rosine's beauty" (3: 79). St. Clair's fictional precursor is the Chevalier Valancourt, Emily St. Aubert's wayward lover in The Mysteries of Udolpho, but Robinson's portrait of the sentimental, Burkean hero is more critical than Radcliffe's: whereas Valancourt's vices (reckless gambling and a dalliance with a disreputable Marchioness) are relatively venial, St. Clair is a deceitful adulterer who foolishly believes himself "the most fortunate of mankind" for having "purchased, at an enormous price, [the] favours" of a prostitute (3:114). Another supposedly chivalric character in Hubert de Sevrac, Count Monteleoni, loses his daughter to Ravillon at the gambling table--his chivalrous ideals do not prevent him from marrying her off to pay a debt. Perhaps because she regards herself as a commodity, Signora Paulina does not object to this arrangement until she falls in love with de Sevrac, who has neglected to inform her that he is married. With the aid of de Briancour, the soi-disant aristocrat Ravillon later abducts Paulina and forces her to marry him. She is imprisoned and driven insane by this "monster" (3:184). Upper-class victimizers of women such as the elder Prince Mmanza in Vancenza (1792) and the Lovelace-like Lord Woodley in The Widow (1794) play prominent roles in Robinson's earlier novels, but in Hubert de Sevrac the abuse and commodification of women is presented within the context of the French Revolution and Burke's chivalric myth. As Sharon Setzer notes in her essay on Robinson's final novel, The Natural Daughter (1799), she "is more concerned with the gender politics that aligned Jacobins and anti-Jacobins than with the party politics that divided them" (532). Robinson does not defend the "ruffians" who insulted the Queen or the mob who tore Princess de Lamballe to pieces, but she insists that the behavior of the French aristocrats, who obtained "happiness from the misery of millions" (2: 149), and the conduct of their counterparts from other nations should also be condemned. According to Sabina, political violence existed long before 1789: "The persecution [...] is neither new nor augmented. The curtain which has long concealed the scene, is raised; and the axe of vengeance succeeds the tortures of the dungeon!" (2:149-150).

Common people in Radcliffe's fiction possess blunted sensibilities and limited intellects and are often thoughtlessly loquacious--they seem suited to their lowly stations in life. (20) In Reflections, Burke praises the "nobility and clergy" for keeping "learning in existence" and deplores the ascendancy of the "swinish multitude" of the lower classes, who will trample learning under their "hoofs" (79). In Hubert de Sevrac, however, lower-class individuals sometimes surprise the main characters with their virtue and intelligence. According to Godwin, "the moral equality of mankind" can be logically deduced:

We are partakers of a common nature, and the same causes that contribute to the benefit of one contribute to the benefit of another. Our senses and faculties are of the same denomination. Our pleasures and pains will therefore be the same. We are all of us endowed with reason, able to compare, to judge and to infer. The improvement therefore which is to be desired for the one is to be desired for the other. [...] There are certain opportunities and a certain situation most advantageous to every human being, and it is just that these should be communicated to all. (Political and Philosophical Writings 3:64)

The most philanthropical character in Hubert de Sevrac is neither an aristocrat nor a clergyman: he is a peasant named Giovanni who rescues the Abbe Le Blanc from starvation. Robinson asks, "where did [the Abbe] find the tear of pity, the sympathetic sigh, the Heaven-directed hand of charity? He found them in the instinctive philanthropist; the mountain peasant; the rude and unsophisticated child of nature!" (1: 266). Giovanni's "philosophy of nature" (2: 83) teaches him resignation and faith in God's benevolence. His worldview resembles that of Arnaud La Luc, a philosophical French Protestant minister in The Romance of the Forest, who also subscribes to "the philosophy of nature, directed by common sense" (245). Both characters are literary descendants of Rousseau's Savoyard Vicar, who professes natural religion in Emile, ou traite de l'education (1762), but while La Luc is of noble blood, "descended from an ancient family in France" (245), (21) Giovanni is an impoverished "mountain peasant." After a storm blows the roof off of his cottage, he sits "watching his little son with the placid mien of a philosopher" (2: 79). Unlike Sabina, he easily sees through the Abbot's "mask of sanctity." Giovanni tells de Sevrac that the "haughty Abbot" taught him "to contemn [sic] the nobles":

We can but judge from what we see; and where the actions of a man's life perpetually contradict his words, who will believe him? It is those who forbid us to speak, that teach us how to think. I have seen the Abbot drive the pilgrim from his gate, half famished and worn down with penitence; while the rich and remorseless, have been treated sumptuously with the produce of our toil. (2: 82-83)

Unlike the French sansculottes, Giovanni does not seek vengeance against "the pampered sons of superstition, the tools of tyrants" (2: 86). Confident that "the Supreme [...] will always guard the guiltless" (2: 80), he remains passive as the Abbot continues to abuse his position of power. By silencing the peasantry, however, the aristocracy and corrupt clergymen have taught them how to think. An opinionated postillion informs de Sevrac that the "only difference" between aristocrats and highwaymen is that "the nobles take what they please openly, and the banditti steal [...] in secret: the one is honoured with adulation, the other menaced with the gibbet" (2: 207-8). Astonished that such a lowborn and uneducated man could be so insightful, de Sevrac wonders if oppression has "expanded the great luminary, Reason, till its beams enlighten even the most uncultivated minds" (2: 208). As Robinson observes in her description of Sabina's mental awakening, "the path of Adversity leads to the abode of Truth" (2: 141). The Marquis becomes convinced that if the French court at Versailles had listened to people like Giovanni and the postillion the revolution could have been averted. "[I]t was," he informs Abbe Le Blanc, "the vast distance between the court and the people, that deluged France with blood. Where, where could the throne hope for a permanent existence, when its avenues were closed against the pleadings of nature?" (2: 209). Written in a climate of repression, Hubert de Sevrac suggests that the Pitt administration could learn something from the mistakes of Louis XVI and his court. It warns that any government that keeps its "avenues [...] closed" to "the pleadings of nature" is in danger of unleashing the violence and terror of a nationwide insurrection.

The novel's political radicalism becomes more overt in its third and final volume. The freedom-loving Monsieur D'Albert celebrates the fall of the Bastille (3: 97), and de Sevrac predicts that revolutionary France will produce great men like Alexander the Great and Brutus (3: 232). Overcoming his chivalric prejudices, the Marquis realizes that only "the convert of liberty" is the true "friend of human kind" (3: 316) and endorses a revolution that would have condemned him and his family to the scaffold if they had remained in France. In his opinion, the old regime is to blame for all of the "horrors" being perpetrated by its victims:

he saw the noblest nature and the bravest heart contaminated by revenge; and all the effects of a virtuous education destroyed by a train of events, entirely originating in experienced oppression. [...] The scene of present horrors he at last beheld, as the mere effect of past enormities, among which the lettre de cachet was an evil of the greatest magnitude. Reflection told him that the rays of truth, which had been obscured by the intervening glooms of tyranny and superstition, were now collected in one glorious beam, to illumine the whole earth! that if ever time should unfold the pages of secret history, [...] the dark volume would prove to the enlightened universe, that religion had been made a plea for the most inhuman sacrifices; avarice, the source of legal prostitution; and pride, the barrier between the virtuous and the exalted, which reason has at last overturned, and nature shudders to remember! (3: 293-295)

De Sevrac's reflections echo those of "the beholder" of the abbey of "St. Augustin [sic]" in Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance:

Thus do the scenes of life vary with the predominant passions of mankind, and with the progress of civilization. The dark clouds of prejudice break away before the sun of science, and gradually dissolving, leave the brightening hemisphere to the influence of his beams. But through the present scene appeared only a few scattered rays, which served to shew [sic] more forcibly the vast and heavy masses that concealed the form of truth. Here prejudice, not reason, suspended the influence of the passions. (116-117)

In Hubert de Sevrac, Robinson transforms Radcliffe's light imagery, changing the beams of Enlightenment science and "scattered rays" of truth into "the rays of truth [...] collected in one glorious beam" that will liberate the world not only from the prejudices of medieval Catholicism, but also from the tyranny of wealth and social rank. De Sevrac describes the French Revolution as a struggle between evil royalists and their victims, who are "contaminated by revenge." His necessitarianism and optimism recall Godwin's Political Justice, in which he argues that "nothing [is] [...] capable of happening otherwise than it has actually happened" and that the investigation of "Truth, immortal and ever present truth" will lead to the "improvement of our political institutions" (Political and Philosophical Writings 3: 168; 3: 134). Similarly, de Sevrac claims that the revolution's "present horrors" are the inevitable consequences of "past enormities" and predicts that the "glorious beam" of truth will eventually overcome the "glooms of tyranny and superstition" propagated by the ancien regime and illuminate "the whole earth." Intentionally provoking her Francophobic and anti-revolutionary readers, Robinson has her character express sentiments that, in 1796, were considered radical and even traitorous.

In Hubert de Sevrac, Robinson presents a struggle between good and evil in which good ultimately, and improbably, triumphs. The narrative's optimistic conclusion, "that however exalted the aggressor, the hour of retribution is inevitable; [...] energy and philosophy will triumph over adventitious claims" (3: 318), recalls the assertion at the end of Mysteries of Udolpho "that, though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and the punishment certain; and [...] innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!" (672). We are reminded that Hubert de Sevrac, like Mysteries, is a romance. Hubert ends with a quotation from James Thomson's adaptation of Coriolanus (III.iii) (1748):

"Whoever 'midst the sons


"Displays distinguished MERIT, is A NOBLE

"Of NATURE'S OWN CREATING!" (3: 318-319)

This same passage (with some minor differences) is quoted in Smith's The Emigrants (l: 143-144). In a footnote to her poem, Smith declares that "These lines [from Thomson] are among those sentiments which are now called (when used by living writers), not common-place declamation, but sentiments of dangerous tendency" (144n). Following Smith's lead, Robinson uses a quotation from a respected dead male poet to affirm her own belief in the aristocracy of merit. She suggests that only in the toxic political climate of the 1790s would such a sentiment be considered treasonous and Jacobinical.

Ultimately, the de Sevracs, like Smith's emigrants, find refuge in England--they have no future in France. Rather than reclaiming Montnoir, his family's Italian estate, the Marquis decides to live off the inheritance of his Scottish wife, whose mother, Lady Susan Montrose, has suddenly died. As these names suggest, in moving from Italy to England, from Montnoir to Montrose, the de Sevracs ascend (or flower) from the darkness of the old regime. Since the Marquis has no male heir, his name, so hated by the Ravillons, will perish when Sabina becomes the wife of the Englishman St. Clair. The name change is fitting: "Clair" means "light" in French, and the de Sevracs have achieved political enlightenment. Hubert's and Sabina's life stories, unlike Emily St. Aubert's, are progressive rather than circular. When she wrote Hubert de Sevrac in 1796, Robinson knew that under the corrupt and incompetent Directory the revolution had forsaken the principles of 1789. There was no indication that the French Revolution would result in an "enlightened universe" ruled by reason. The terror had claimed the lives of approximately 30,000 people from September 1793 to August 1794 and was followed by a series of uprisings, purges, economic crises, and wars (Doyle 958). In the spring of 1796 Napoleon Bonaparte began his conquest of Italy. Thus Robinson put her faith in "energy and philosophy," specifically the philosophy of Godwin, which envisions political justice for humankind at some point in the indefinite future. The universe's enlightenment may not be imminent, but at least individuals like de Sevrac and Sabina, schooled by adversity, can recognize the "one glorious beam" of revolutionary truth.


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Rev. of Angelina. A Novel. In a Series of Letters, by Mary Robinson. Analytical Review 24 (February 1796): 293-294.

Rev. of Hubert de Sevrac, by Mary Robinson. Analytical Review 25 (May 1797): 523.

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WILLIAM D. BREWER is Professor of English at Appalachian State University. His publications include The Shelley-Byron Conversation (UP of Florida) and The Mental Anatomies of William Godwin and Mary Shelley (Fairleigh Dickinson UP). His edition of William Godwin's novel St. Leon is forthcoming from Broadview.

(1) Quoted from Smith's sister, Catherine Anne Dorset; emphasis Dorset's.

(2) Quoted from The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft (7: 486). Wollstonecraft's review of Robinson's Angelina. A Novel. In a Series of Letters (1796) is much more positive than her review of Hubert de Sevrac. See The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft 7: 461-462.

(3) Apparently the critique in Critical Review has been "Wrongly attributed to Coleridge" (Norton 277n53).

(4) An important eighteenth-century definition of romance is offered in Clara Reeve's The Progress of Romance (1785): according to one of Reeve's dialogists, the romance is "an heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things [and which] describes what never happened nor is likely to happen" (1:111).

(5) Regarding Radcliffe's politics, see Miles 62; Norton 109.

(6) For a discussion of Radcliffe's implicit liberalism, see Miles 176.

(7) In The Unsex'd Females Polwhele attacks Robinson for her revolutionary sympathies: "ROBINSON to Gaul [i.e., France] her Fancy gave, / And trac'd the picture of a Deist's grave!" (93-94). In contrast, he lists Radcliffe as an example of "female genius" (186), alluding to her novels' Gothic elements: the "necromantic gloom" and "[t]he impervious forest and mystic dome" (197-198).

(8) Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance (1790) also takes place long before the French Revolution, "[t]owards the close of the sixteenth century" (3).

(9) Norton writes that "[t]he primary interest in [Radcliffe's] novels [is] the heroine's search for the mother" (151).

(10) Miller borrows this phrase from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who uses it in reference to dramatic poems in which a character speaks in the poet's voice (see Biographia Literaria, Chapter XXII).

(11) For a discussion of The Banished Man and the fractured identity of its male protagonist, Armand D'Alonville, see Benis 291-301.

(12) Robinson socialized with Godwin numerous times while she was writing Hubert de Sevrac. According to Godwin's unpublished diary, he had "tea [at] mrs Robinson's, w[ith] [Francis] Twiss & [Banastre] Tarleton" on 9 February 1796. They also met on 10, 17, 25, 27, and 29 February; 3, 4, 18, 25, and 30 March; 4, 11, 18, and 24 April; 1, 9, 15, 20, and 23 May; 1, 5, 14, and 15 June; 27 and 28 July; and 6 (or 8?) and 27 August 1796. He read her epistolary novel Angelina (published 1 January 1796) during this period. See Godwin's Diary in the Abinger Collection, Duke Library, microfilm reel 1-01-3.

(13) See Caleb Williams, 8, 119-120. In subsequent editions, Godwin substituted trunk for chest. Maurice Hindle discusses the historical significance of Falkland's chest (Introduction. Things as They Are; Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams. By William Godwin. Ed. Maurice Hindle. London: Penguin, 1987. xxiii-xxiv). George Colman's 1796 stage version of Caleb Williams was entitled The Iron Chest.

(14) At one point of The Romance of the Forest a character refers to the "wretched policy" of the French. Apparently worried that her readers might assume that she is alluding to the contemporary political situation, Radcliffe writes in a footnote that "It must be remembered that this was said in the seventeenth century" (269n).

(15) Robinson memorializes her flight to Calais and Tarleton's fickleness in her poem "Stanzas. Written between Dover and Calais, in July 1792."

(16) In Bass's account, de Lamballe is erroneously described as "red-headed"; it is possible that her blond hair could have been dyed in blood. For brief accounts of the Princess's grisly death, see Evelyne Lever's Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France, trans. Catherine Temerson (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000) 284 and Simon Schama's Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Random, 1989) 635.

(17) Radcliffe presents her most notorious clerical villain, the monk Schedoni, in The Italian (1797), which appeared the year after the publication of Hubert de Sevrac.

(18) In her dedication to The Emigrants, Smith is careful to stipulate that she feels "the utmost respect for the integrity of [the emigrant French clergy's] principles" (133). In The Banished Man, she balances the corrupt Abbe Heurthofen with the virtuous Abbe de St. Remi.

(19) On Wollstonecraft's relations with Robinson, see Wollstonecraft's letter to Robinson in Shelley and His Circle 1773-1822, ed. Kenneth Neill Cameron, vol. 4 (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1970) 877 and Janet Todd's Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000) 419.

(20) Two examples of this kind of character are the servant Peter in The Romance of the Forest and Annette, Emily St. Aubert's maid in The Mysteries of Udolpho.

(21) In her edition of The Romance of the Forest, Chloe Chard notes many parallels between Emile and Radcliffe's novel (see The Romance of the Forest 385-392).
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Title Annotation:Hubert de Sevrac A Romance, of the Eighteenth Century
Author:Brewer, William D.
Publication:Papers on Language & Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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