Californians revive Suffolk Gothic tale

Who'd have thought that a tiny publishing outfit in sunny California would be enthralled by a Gothic novel written and set in Suffolk? (Cue the spidery passageways lit by a single candle, rotting caskets and ghostly sightings - and even echoes of Scooby-Doo!) Steven Russell finds out why WAIT for a gloomy, oppressive day - one with a low, moaning wind and leaden sky is best - and take a walk by the ruins of Bungay Castle.

Who'd have thought that a tiny publishing outfit in sunny California would be enthralled by a Gothic novel written and set in Suffolk? (Cue the spidery passageways lit by a single candle, rotting caskets and ghostly sightings - and even echoes of Scooby-Doo!) Steven Russell finds out why

WAIT for a gloomy, oppressive day - one with a low, moaning wind and leaden sky is best - and take a walk by the ruins of Bungay Castle. Perhaps you can sense the atmosphere that fed Elizabeth Bonhote's imagination more than two centuries ago.

Her gripping story - a tale of seduction, betrayal, romance and mystery - helped make the Suffolk tradesman's daughter one of Minerva Press's top authors in the late 1700s.

Today, few folk are aware of her life and achievements - although a road has been named after her in Bungay.

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She has her champions on the west coast of America, however. Elizabeth Bonhote's story, called Bungay Castle, was originally published in 1796. Now Zittaw Press, an independent publishing organisation run by a husband and wife team, is relaunching the novel.

In the story, Bungay Castle is home to the De Morney family. During a storm, teenagers Roseline and Edwin hear ghostly cries that seem to come from underneath the floor of the castle.

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They hunt for the source of the cries, searching through cobwebby underground passageways during some scary scenes, and come upon a secret from their family's past. From that moment their lives are never the same.

Curt Herr, editor of the new edition, even goes so far as to suggest that “predating the Buffy clique, the Scooby gang and Nancy Drew, the teens of Bungay Castle may indeed be the original teen sleuths”.

Zittaw Press says that as readers follow Roseline's journey, “we become aware of one of the novel's most unique aspects: it is a surprisingly feminist novel - a rare achievement in the eighteenth century Gothic genre. Rather than waiting to be rescued by men, the young women of Bungay Castle achieve agency over their lives, refuse patriarchal orders, and become the rescuing heroines.”

Dr Franz Potter's fascination stemmed from the period he spent in Norwich. “I was studying Gothic fiction (1764-1830) at the University of East Anglia. I was exploring Gothic writers from East Anglia, such as Norwich's local celebrity, Francis Lathom, when I stumbled on Elizabeth Bonhote, who wrote what one critic called the 'Gothic's Gothic'.

“I hurried to the British Library. I located a copy of the novel, but read very little as the deadline for my thesis grew near. I discovered that she was a local author who was uniquely associated with what remained of the castle, having purchased and built a summer-home amidst the ruins where she penned the tale.

“We drove down to Bungay, explored the ruins, trying to picture the few passages I read, and found very little information on her Gothic novel. Frustrated, I turned my attention back to Lathom and Norwich, disappointed having never read the elusive title in its entirety.

“Upon graduating from UEA, we returned to the States, where I determined to find and republish these wonderfully dark and witty Gothic novels. We established Zittaw Press on the premise of making rare Gothic novels accessible to all readers. One of the first novels I determined to locate was Bonhote's Bungay Castle, which after several years we finally did.”

Bungay Museum curator Christopher Reeve, who has written a biography for the book, says Elizabeth Bonhote was a prolific writer who added her own brand of spin.

“She was a fascinating character in her own right - an opinionated person who had ideas about almost everything and wasn't afraid to voice them. Bungay Castle isn't just a Gothic tale of the period - though it is a very good one. It tells us a lot about society and the morals of that society.”

The tale, he feels, “is a strange and somewhat incongruous mix, combining the glamour of the past and the thrill of the supernatural with her familiar themes of domestic life and morality. The book contains many of the requisite elements for a Gothic fantasy, together with colourful characters, engaging touches of humour and good dollops of the kind of virtuous moralising found in The Parental Monitor (an earlier piece of work).”

Elizabeth, born in 1744, was the daughter of a Bungay grocer. Her father James, without surviving sons, instead gave her the kind of education most girls could only dream of.

Chris says: “During her teenage years, Eliza” - as she was known - “spent much time absorbed in study, and it can be guessed that shyness and solitude contributed to a lonely adolescence . . . Women were daunted by her unfeminine accomplishments and men were uncomfortable with a young lady who was better read and possessed a livelier intelligence than themselves.”

Eliza focused on becoming an author, at a time when women who wrote were often ridiculed for straying into men's territory. “Attitudes must have been even more disparaging in a small rural town. It is therefore greatly to Eliza's credit that she persevered. Her whole career exhibits a single-minded determination to succeed, perhaps initially accentuated by her situation, finding herself at odds with the rest of her society, and unable to find a suitable marriage-partner.”

Her early writings were verses; some of which were published in newspapers such as the Ipswich Journal. Her first novel, published anonymously in 1769, was called Hortensia, or The Distressed Wife. A personal suitor appeared on the scene when Elizabeth was in her late 20s. Attorney Daniel Bonhote, who had been brought up in the capital, arrived in Bungay to work with a local solicitor.

Daniel was illegitimate, but his father was a wealthy merchant whose heir would build Heveningham Hall, near Halesworth.

The pair married in 1772. Her second novel, The Rambles of Mr Frankly, followed swiftly. A moralising tale with no real plot, it nevertheless proved a big success and was even translated into German, and was sold in Paris and Dublin.

The Bonhotes had three children between 1773 and 1777. Eliza's writing career was affected by illness linked to her pregnancies, and her next book - Olivia, or The Deserted Bride - did not emerge until 1787.

The one after that, The Parental Monitor, was very different. “The text consists of a series of short moral essays, on a wide variety of topics, addressed to both girls and boys, and enlivened by illustrative stories and quotations from celebrated authors,” says Chris.

It's not as preachy a concept as it sounds. Chris says the tone was quite tender. “Eliza's caring Christian attitude towards children and animals, the frail and the afflicted, represents a move away from the coarser and rougher elements of Georgian society, pointing the way forward to the more refined principles of the Victorian era.”

Her later novels - such as Darnley Vale (or Emelia Fitzroy) and Ellen - chimed with the public desire for stories about domestic life, devoured by a growing number of women readers.

Christopher Reeve says Bungay Castle, the edifice, was one of the great loves of Elizabeth's life, and credits her for saving the remains of a building begun in the middle of the 12th Century by the Earl of Norfolk, Hugh Bigod.

“She had known the building from childhood, for her father's house and bakery stood only about twenty yards' distance from the castle walls.” Unfortunately, by then, the castle was a shadow of itself - nothing like the impregnable fortress Bigod once claimed.

“In 1766 the site was acquired by Robert Mickleborough, whose main interest was in demolishing the walls to sell the stone and rubble as road-building material,” explains Chris. “Eliza viewed this with incredulous horror.”

Luckily, the walls were so strong they apparently broke numerous pick-axes and thwarted Mickleborough's ultimate goal - though not before considerable damage was done.

Imagine the joy in 1791 when the Duke of Norfolk put the castle up for sale, and Daniel bought it for his wife, even though it wasn't a very practical purchase. Eliza installed a summer-house and enjoyed many hours day-dreaming among the ruins. Those thoughts inspired her Gothic novel.

“The crumbling ruin became a minor gold-mime. Eliza's novel, Bungay Castle, produced in two volumes by the Minerva Press in 1796, sold well, and established her as one of the publisher's best-selling authors,” says Chris.

It was to be her last novel. For some reason, Daniel sold the castle back to the dukes of Norfolk in 1800. Elizabeth must have been deeply disappointed, feels Chris. The novel had revived public interest in the ruins.

Daniel died suddenly in 1804, in his mid-50s, after a short illness. Eliza died in Bungay in June, 1818, at the age of 74.

Christopher Reeve says she left in her will dwelling-houses, her parents' baking-office and shop in Bungay, and about £3,500 in money and annuities. “Her family used part of the inheritance to provide five almshouses for the 'widows of poor tradesmen', a worthy way of commemorating both their mother's origins and her Christian benevolence.”

(The novel Bungay Castle is published by Zittaw Press at £9.95. ISBN 0976721252. A 10 CD set of the book, read by actress Patience Tomlinson and priced £25, will be available at the castle visitors' centre from May 6)

FRANZ Potter's wife, Serena, remembers vividly how they became aware of Elizabeth Bonhote and her gripping tale.

“We drove down to Bungay, in our 13-year-old Volvo estate, with our two little girls, then aged six and two, and two best friends. Our passion for castles was assisted by two very good friends, Nick and Annette Arber. Nick is a museum designer: worked at the Norwich Castle for years, now is self employed and completing his PhD in the history of the castle gaol. Annette is an expert on the English parish church.

“Together they taught us how to read a castle ruin, to look for signs of fire on the stone, look for guardrobes, seek evidence of change and growth in the castle, and of course - a favourite with our daughters - to sift through mole hills for treasure, or a piece of Roman tile.

“We had a great time trying to imagine Elizabeth sitting in her summer house within the castle walls, writing her passionate tale of haunting. We did not actually locate and read Bungay Castle for several more years, but felt it was a book that would really reach a broad audience; not just academics, but anyone interested in classic romance, mystery, horror.

“It is said that one will find what they look for. When we came to England we had visions of Wuthering Heights, Jane Austen, Dracula, Knights Templar. We found all of those things and have never felt more at home anywhere else. If we had our choice we would still be living in England. Unfortunately the opportunities came in California, so we had to settle for visiting as often as possible.”

By the way, Franz has an article in the April edition of the BBC History Magazine - Tales to Make Your Blood Curdle - timed to coincide with the Tate Britain exhibition Gothic Nightmares.

Bungay Castle was presented to the town by the Duke of Norfolk in 1987, along with an endowment to help with its preservation. The landmark is now owned and administered by a trust. A decade later the trust won European Union cash that helped turn a nearby derelict garage site into a visitors' centre, which opened in 2000.

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