General Editors: Thomas C. Crochunis and Michael Eberle-Sinatra

Darby, Barbara. 'Harriet Lee (1757-1851) and The Mysterious Marriage, or the Heirship of Roselva.' British Women Playwrights around 1800. 15 July 2000. 34 pars. <>

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Harriet Lee, born in London, was one of five daughters of actor-playwright John Lee and actress Anna Lee. We know few details about her life. As Napier and Shattock note, Lee moved to Bath in 1781 and started a school for girls with her sisters Sophia and Ann, in part from the proceeds from Sophia's comedy, The Chapter of Accidents. She never married, but received and refused a proposal from William Godwin in 1798. She died in 1851 at the age of 94, in Clifton.

2. Lee's literary achievements include fiction and drama. Her epistolary novel The Errors of Innocence was published in five volumes in 1786. Clara Lennox: or, The Distressed Widow was published in two volumes in 1797 and was translated into French. She was also the predominant contributor, writing ten of twelve tales, to the collaborative work The Canterbury Tales which she wrote with Sophia and which reached five volumes written between 1797 and 1805. One story in the Tales was "Kruitzer, The German's Tale" (1801), which was later to influence Byron's Werner (1821). Lee's drama includes a comedy, The New Peerage; or, Our Eyes May Deceive Us, produced at Drury Lane in 1787; The Three Strangers, a dramatic version of "Kruitzer," produced at Covent Garden in 1825 (pub. 1826); and The Mysterious Marriage (1795, pub. 1798). The New Peerage, described by Genest as "on the whole a poor play" (472), was popular enough to enjoy nine performances, and Richard Cumberland wrote the prologue for it.

As Lee writes in her Advertisement, The Mysterious Marriage had an unsuccessful trip to the stage, despite its inclusion of gothic ingredients for which audiences may have clamoured. As Paula Backscheider observes, "It is hard to find an eighteenth-century gothic play that did not have a respectable initial run and regular revivals, and many had truly phenomenal success" (153). Backscheider's definition of the genre pinpoints the dramatist's "use of archaic settings and attempts to portray the terrifying as well as the presence of such icons as skulls, shrouds, bones of limbs or rib cages, daggers, moving curtains, and flickering lights" (154). Including "strong elements of melodrama," Gothic drama promised "consumers a definite setting, a particular cast of characters (which in this case implied predictable casting decisions and acting styles), a restricted repertoire of highly readable cultural icons, and a limited number of . . . 'lines of action'" (154-56)

4. Lee's play delivers a gothic setting that includes a Transylvanian "magnificent Castle," arched gothic galleries, and a "lately opened" tomb. The penultimate death in the play is precipitated by a dagger and sabre fight, and the atmosphere is established through the use of musical and aural cues that include chants of peasants, war marches, and trumpets, as well as a raging storm that features flickering tapers, flashing lightening and thunder. Against this backdrop, the story of betrayal, secrecy, subterfuge, ambition, and romance plays itself out as the Countess and Sigismond seek to avoid the coercion of her father and Albert, the maddened authority figures who manipulate others to achieve their selfish ends. Starting with a hunt that pits man against beast and tests heroism, and ending with a clash between nations that helps to expose the true hero, Sigismond, for who he is, the play comments on the filial relationship, male competition, ambition, warfare, social stratification, and love.

In The Mysterious Marriage, the titular marriage is the secret union of Albert and Constantia. The latter is the heiress of Roselva, along with her twin, Sigismond. However, the identity of the latter is unknown because as a child, he was stolen from the land during a siege. In the same siege, the twins' parents were killed and their uncle, now Count Roselva, usurped his elder brother's position and raised his own daughter, the Countess, as the heiress of Roselva. Albert is a courtier who requires quick resources to secure his position and seeks them in a marriage to the Countess, which her father encourages in order to fend off accusations against his own secretive past. The Countess is unwilling because she is in love with Sigismond and knows of Constantia's love for Albert. Albert must overcome the obstacle of his own secret marriage to Constantia, however; he has poisoned her and she dies shortly. He does not live to marry the Countess, however, because his treachery makes him over-eager to take her from her home and he is stabbed by one of the Count's faithful servants. Sigismond's true identity is revealed when an amulet of Constantia is given to him by the Countess. It matches his own and signals to him a lost sister. He is recognized in the final scene by a prisoner of war who tells him about his past just before the Count dies of wounds sustained during battle.


As Jeffrey Cox suggests, the gothic process sees a move from a closed, imprisoning space to an open one, a move from a prison to a freer future (20). Although the opening scenes depict a world with a fairly stable surface, despite the secrets that lurk beneath it, the early scenes also imply a sense of confinement that is communicated by the dialogue's emphasis on scrutiny and evaluation. It is clear from his early conversations that Osmond has kept a sharp eye on Sigismond and the Countess's attraction to one another, for example, and Uberto observes that he can "spy out love" in the Countess. The potential match of the heiress and the prisoner is the subject of gossip. Although the objects of speculation, Sigismond and the Countess are also watchful of each other. Sigismond tells the Countess that she is his "monitress" but she in her turn reminds him not to be too explicit in his lover's talk because they themselves "may be observ'd." The Countess tells Constantia that she can look "a secret" and identify in Constantia a love she may try to hide from others. This is a world of close contact between characters who, as the objects of others' scrutiny, must attempt to hide secrets carefully and who are therefore vulnerable to exposure.


This claustrophia is emphasized as well by one of the two main mysteries of the play: the Count has carried his secret for years and it is an omnipresent threat to his sense of security. He tells the Countess about her father's shame and attempts to circumvent exposure by arranging the marriage to Albert. The truth about his familial dealings is never actually exposed to the world, and before his own death, he discovers an even greater secret than that hidden by his own treachery, the existence of Constantia's twin in Sigismond. The Count does seem, just before he dies, to grant the Countess leave to tell the tale. He is thus freed finally of his past, but is allowed no time to enjoy a truthful life and he sinks before the true Heir of Roselva, Sigismond.

8. Albert and Constantia's marriage is the other mystery and Albert in particular attempts to elude too much inquiry about his motivations and movements. He claims that information "sealed to secrecy" is what demands his return to Court and hence legitimizes his request for a hasty marriage to the Countess. Having announced his public marital intentions, Albert later expresses fear about observation when he asks Constantia if anyone has betrayed "the mystery" of their secret marriage. Knowing full well of Constantia's hopes where Albert is concerned, the Countess reminds him that people are watching and evaluating him when she chastizes him in ironic dialogue by commenting on his "secret monitor." Albert fears betrayal not only because he has poisoned Constantia, but because of his own physionomy: "Down busy devil! / Thou betray'st thyself / With fearful flushings; which, like lurid clouds / Portend to vulgar eyes the bursting storm." Albert's treachery is ultimately revealed because of the Physician's watchfulness and examination of the evidence before him and he is at last publicly accused as Constantia's murderer.

The language of observation that Lee uses to create a sense of confinement is heightened by references to sickness and infection. Constantia is, of course, literally poisoned by the powders administered by Albert. All of the characters seem to be touched somehow with a literal or metaphorical ailment: "the Countess hath the spleen—Sigismond is sad—and the Lady Constantia sick" observes Mathias, and Uberto notes that Lord Albert "hath all complaints at once! He hath the court fever." Albert describes his evil as a "black venom / That taints thy blood" and that has an "infectious pow'r" that steals over his heart and "poison[s] all its joys." The process of the play is thus to oust the sickness from the community, as the Physician declares: "All shall be examined; and where the black speck is, there must we apply the caustic."


The "specks" of pride and ambition invade this community from within, in the form of the Count, and from without in the form of Albert: Lee explores how ambition prompts rash men to undertake guilty acts that include denying heirs their birthright, poisoning innocent women, and coercing marriages. The Count's guilt emerges from his unwillingness, because of his pride, to permit authority to pass along a recognized familial line from parent to child, instead replacing an heir with himself. This act seems to haunt him and makes all the easier his willingness to give his daughter in marriage to a man whose own ambition is murderous. Albert's political ambition demands that he hide his lost fortunes and fallen courtly status, and destroy Constantia and their secret marriage. Sigismond, whose only ambition seems to be to please his beloved Countess, moves beyond his lowly social status so that his position finally matches his noble deportment. What unites these three male figures—the Count, Albert, and Sigismond—is their focus on the Countess, one seeking love, one seeking self-protective control, and one seeking social promotion and wealth.

11. The Count Roselva and Albert share a similar self-absorption. We can see in this play an exploration of a leadership crisis such as that Backscheider identifies in Gothic drama: she suggests that at "the heart of gothic drama in the nineties is an authority figure gone mad" (162) and that in this world, "what has gone berserk . . . is power" (163). The Count's failings are certainly significant. Rather than leading his community, he seems obsessed with the past and with self-protection that is inward looking. This is a resoundingly patrilinear and patriarchally focused story. The only mother mentioned in the play is the Countess's, and her mention is merely a precursor to a remark upon her absence by the Count who raised his daughter alone. In this male-dominated social order, the preference for elder brothers and male pride are what prompted the Count's treachery to begin with when he refused to raise the infant Constantia as the acknowledged heiress of Roselva, taking her place instead. His desire to do so was to avoid being subservient to her, "doomed henceforth her vassal," preferring instead to be "her lord." In usurping a child's rightful position, her brother feared dead, the Count fancied he could overcome the bondage of being born to "penury and arms" as a "younger brother born, and unendowed." His sense of bygone denial persists in his present description of his and his daughter's fate, the latter of which he describes as yet "Unheeded by a proud and wealthy race."
12. The Count's usurpation of his brother's position, motivated as it was by bitterness and resentment, had its origin in another crisis of leadership. The elder brother was rash and unprepared for challenges against him; he was "Heedless of danger, and unskill'd in arms," and so ripe for dispossession by invading armies. This lack of skill may be an indication, to some extent, of the necessity to a well-functioning fiefdom of a combination of noble blood, chivalric comportment and ability. The lack of skill in the elder brother is implied to have precipitated his downfall, which was then completed by the underhanded deception of the Count Roselva. The early conversations about Sigismond serve not only to flesh out his character, but also to characterize him as fit for nobility, combining as he does in one man both the blood line of Roselva, and the breeding and valour necessary to good leadership.
13. In order to avoid having his usurpation revealed, the Count's plot is to marry his daughter to Albert, so he summons up her filial duty, believing that if she marries, the threat of vassals who can reveal his crime will be silenced and the "fair domains" and his own honour will be protected. His single-mindedness and ego make him wilfully oblivious to the shock Constantia receives when Albert's nuptials are revealed to the women: "This fond girl disturbs me! / There is a secret in this cherished weakness / I do not wish to learn." The only secrets he can focus on are, of course, his own. The Countess is thus told to "summon all [her] duty / As Albert's wife." He reminds her that any revelation of her father's "shame" fixes his "fate." The Countess's effort to counsel revelation instead of continued subterfuge is stopped short by a threat against her as a "Rash, misjudging girl" who must "beware." As he leaves her in this scene, the Count "Lays his hand on his sword," as if to remind her of the physical power that can substantiate his verbal menace and as if to tinge his pride with an irrationality that makes his eventual downfall the more likely.
14. The Count's central motivation is thus to protect his honour from revelations about his shameful usurpation of the Roselva seat. His leadership is tainted by its origin in subterfuge and illegitimacy: he has moved by wrong into a place that is rightfully another's and in so doing has disrupted the social order that is patrilineage. Finally beset by war with the Turks, the Count's victory is fleeting because it reunites Sigismond by chance with the prisoner who stole him originally from his homeland and who can thus testify to Sigismond's true identity and in so doing allow him to be restored to his position as head of the family.

The Count's desire to preserve his ignominy from the world's scrutiny and in the process maintain the family lands is rivalled by Albert's egotism that seeks wealth at any cost. Lee's gothic villain is fairly typical. As Backscheider notes, the gothic villain

menaces a beautiful, virtuous woman who will be happily married to an admirable, stable man. Desire for property, not love or sex, motivates the villain, who . . . has a tortured conscience. The romance line is strongly subordinated to the story of removing the threat emanating from the protagonist, who always repents or dies. (156)

Albert does, like every believable gothic rogue, push "the absolute limits of what the audience imagines to be possible in nature [and] . . . is subject to cataclysmic passions, has committed or is contemplating unspeakable crimes . . . and experience[s] periods of madness" (Backscheider 163). From his first appearance on the stage, he is a chastizing and proud man with a bold thirst for power. A "fallen favourite," he intends to "prop / [his] tottering fortunes with Roselva's pow'r" and at the same time, crush "the puny insects that would sting me thus." His ultimate aim is that "rank / The wealth, and numerous minions of my will, / Conjointly with my personal daring well / Might awe ev'n royalty." His desire, like the Count's, is to use the Countess for self-protection and further, for self-advancement. The swift marriage proposal and acceptance is thus beneficial to both men; the Count seeks to protect his reputation, while Albert pursues the wealth that will solidify his social position. Both rely on the pliancy of a woman for their success, a pliancy born of feminine submission to male prerogative and the men's perception of the legitimacy of their use of physical dominance.

16. Albert's base nature and willingness to go where others would be morally prevented from treading are shown further in his dealings with Constantia, whom he has secretly married and poisoned. Interestingly, Lee leaves this dastardly deed unrepresented and instead only shows us Constantia after the poison has worked its power on her. Rather than mitigating our sense of Albert's cruelty, however, this dramatic concentration on the reunion of the lovers elevates Albert's callousness. He has been absent from Constantia for some time and returns to her only when she is about to die, and merely because he seeks to marry another woman and needs to ensure that information of the first, mysterious marriage remains secretive. Albert's demand that Constantia renounce their marriage is cloaked in rhetoric about the enduring empire she has in his heart, but her rejection of this pleading is followed by his blunt acknowledgement that he seeks to attain "wealth" by art. Ironically, he actively pursues the woman he believes to be Roselva's heiress, the Countess, while forsaking the true one. To assist his destruction of Constantia, he prefers to see her illness as coquetry, a "pretty self-reproach" that Constantia puts on to punish him. His actions only push her more quickly into the madness caused by the potions she has ingested.

Albert's own treachery is also marked by madness. The character experiences emotional extremes, alternately weak or fearful and stormingly abusive. He mutters that his own reason is "sick" when Constantia tells him that she has observed a change in him. Later, as his plottings thicken, he is confronted by weird visions:

      Thought's fantastic brood
      Alone is waking:—present—past, and future,
      Wild, mis-shaped hopes, and horrible rememb'rings,
      Now rise a hideous and half viewless chaos
      To fancy's vision—till the stout heart freeze
      At its own retrospect.

Albert's tenuous mental stability is most challenged when he is confronted by thoughts about Constantia and his aggression towards her, and then by a vision of her. Albert's cold forsaking of her is, of course, a prelude to her death. She emerges at the end of Act Two raving of the "medicine" that "hath kill'd [her]." This suggests that she knows the true source of her agony and she seems to look around wildly for Albert who is, of course, absent.

18. Constantia's revenge on Albert is to visit him in spirit before and after her death. Once gaining the compliance of the Count regarding his marriage, Albert experiences a "cold sick damp" that comes over him when he thinks of Constantia, who he describes as a "wintery cloud." His cruelty and total lack of moral fibre is revealed also when Constantia appears to him as a ghost after her death. The ghost in Lee's play is a different treatment of this gothic device than the ghost used in Lewis's The Castle Spectre (1797), for instance, a play to which she gestures in her advertisement when she denies the influence of other dramatists on her depiction of a female spectre. In Lewis's play, the ghost does not appear immediately after the death of a character, but rather punishes the morally doomed from the world beyond and from a world temporally removed from the play's setting. Lewis's spectre is that of the long-departed mother of the heroine. In Lee's play, Constantia's disappearance from the stage at the end of Act Two is followed in Act Three by her spirit's appearances as both a punishing spectre that haunts Albert and as a benevolent, smiling spirit comforting Rodolphus. This dual signification and Rodolphus's pleased recognition of her spirituality points out Albert's inability to respond to her goodness.
19. Albert puts himself in a position to choose between the two women as wives, secretly marrying one and then killing her so that he might marry the other. His dismissal of Constantia is mirrored in his belittlement of the Countess, whom he sneeringly describes as easily tempted by "gauds" and "golden glories." As a woman, she is to him "weak." However, his effort to force her marriage to him is ironically impeded by the death of the woman he killed and the Countess's mourning for her, a delay that he seeks to avenge by sexual force. When he speaks of his devious intentions at the door of the Countess's chamber, he is defeated by Constantia, whose ghost punishes him by protecting the Countess before he can claim "a lover's passion and a husband's right." Thus, after Constantia's death Albert remains poised between the two female figures, one living and the other dead, the women's bond as friends surviving death and dominating Albert's ability to assert his power over the Countess. Constantia's ghostly appearance to Albert only serves to betray his quivering manhood and grants the dead woman a primacy she did not attain over him in life. Albert's guilt gets the better of him and he falls weakly on Rodolphus's neck. His brief respite from the torture of his guilt is broken by his servant's comments about the gossip in the castle about Constantia's death and the interruption that announces war.
20. Albert's final act of selfishness comes again in his effort to desert the Count's battle and assert physical power over the Countess, seize her, and depart with her while the battle is waged around them. He threatens her that she will be the "Grace" of a "lewd haram" if she does not go with him. This last rapacious effort is met again with the interposition of thoughts of Constantia when the Countess out-and-out accuses him that he has "blood upon [him]." He is stabbed by Osmond in a scene that serves to link together many of the play's plot strands: Osmond has been left to guard the Countess because of her father's wishes, so it is ironic that she is assaulted by the man to whom her father gave her in marriage. When Albert dies, however, he does not observe that it is the Count who is avenged by his death. Instead, he declares that it is Constantia's life that is avenged. This is an unusual penultimate scene, because Albert's death is rather ignominious. There is no final combat between the villain and hero of the piece. Albert dies even before the rest of the soldiers return to the scene. He cannot even claim the valour of dying in battle and the Count's mistaken inquiry about the nature of his death is met even by the Count's own refusal to hear the real story of Albert's demise. The man who would marry the Countess (by usurpation) is replaced as son-in-law by the true heir of Roselva, Sigismond.
21. From his initial appearance, Albert's manner is obviously contrasted with Sigismond's, who chastizes him for his lack of courtesy. For Sigismond, one commands respect because of meritorious behaviour rather than naked status; Albert's response to Sigismond's chiding is basically to say that he is a busy man. He only forbears to fight because the men are in the Count's castle. Sigismond instead is self-reliant and trusts his sword to protect himself rather than seek refuge in a sense of courtesy that Albert does not even himself genuinely respect.
22. Sigismond exists in the play as an in-between figure. He is not apparently a native of Roselva, but a foreigner and a prisoner. His status as prisoner, though, came to him because of an act of heroism when he saved the Count Roselva and the Countess from marauders. As somewhat of a mystery to the other characters, he is not known to be well-born, but his breeding makes him admired and prompts contemplation that he may possibly be noble because he is certainly nobly bred. The play's ending, which sees Sigismond restored to his rightful position as Count, serves ironically to reward this early act of heroism. As it turns out, the early assistance he rendered to the Count was not, as believed, his drawing his sword "against his countrymen," but his saving his own family and putting himself unwittingly in the position where his nobility would eventually be fulfilled.
23. When we are introduced to Sigismond through the opening dialogue of Uberto and Osmond, their observations about him contrast his lowly social status as a prisoner with his obvious skill as hunter and fighter. The pretense for these observations is Sigismond's defeat of the boar during the hunt, bravery which leads to speculation about his blood and conduct. Uberto observes that Sigismond is "courteous" and likely "nobly born," but Osmond reminds his friend that birth and breeding are distinct when he says "At least he's nobly bred." His mysterious origins and status as prisoner bar him from a match with the Countess or Constantia, because "these noble titles and princely domains" should not fall into the hands of "a vagrant stranger—and a prisoner too." This remark about the impediments to Sigismond's advancement remind the audience of the Count's ironic emphasis on status and desert, given his own surreptitious advancement.

Sigismond's nobility is most remarkable to the Countess. When we first see them together, the two embark upon a discussion about the difference between codified behaviour and genuine courtesy. Sigismond apologizes for failing to offer up the "boar's rough spoils" to the Countess, but she observes that

      [she] should have deem'd the uncouth gift misplaced:
      And honour more the instinctive human polish
      That bade thee spare it, than the laboured courtesy
      That with a bloody spoil would grace a woman.

Although both are governed to a certain extent by societal expectations about their behaviour, the Countess in particular, what Sigismond and the Countess share is their scorn for these old forms of "laboured courtesy" that ossify people into roles. The Countess, when she is courted by Sigismond, is aware of her sex's "wonted forms" that forbid her to speak of her love, but she struggles against them and she openly but embarrassedly declares her awareness of his virtue. For his part, Sigismond denies an interest in the Countess's wealth, but seeks instead "The woman only" rather than the heiress. Suitably enough, before she is joined with him she actually loses her heiress's status to him when she realizes who he really is.

25. The rise of Sigismond through the course of the play from prisoner to Count reveals not so much that social boundaries can be easily crossed, but rather demonstrates that nobility is inherent. Backscheider suggests that Gothic drama "brought threatening, mythical archetypes into dynamic contact with contemporary preoccupations" (157). Appearing in an age of social and political revolution, Lee's play shows the countering of upsurgeance with the replacement of a usurper by a rightful blood heir who combines nobility with valour and merit. What we see at the end of the play is merely the social recognition of the superiority that Sigismond has had all along. The social hierarchy is thus not tottered because of his elevation in status; the hierarchy reasserts itself and in so doing confirms the "naturalness" of patrilineage as the boy twin takes his rightful place in the family and the community. His union with the Countess not only legitimizes her status as Countess and recuperates it from its secretive past, but also serves as a bridge between him and his now-dead sister, Constantia.
26. The Countess and Constantia's friendship serves as a counter-balance to male competition and male jockeying for social position. When the women first appear together onstage, Constantia's illness brings forth banter from the Countess who half-heartedly attempts to transform her into a "vapourish," stereotypical woman whose appearance is upper-most in her mind. She teases her about her love for Albert and in the process, mocks Albert's love of pomp, declaring that his late arrival to the castle is unsurprising, as he would never arrive without "train or courier." The Countess even goes so far as to deflate Albert entirely as a man who "infers / Superior merit" only from his "superior power" that is the result of "lucky chance" rather than real desert. This fairly blunt assessment of Albert is a corollary to the modernized love that the Countess and Sigismond share; they forego the old ways of tournaments and spoils to reach a truer understanding of each other, while Albert's modern love has "clipt, / Confin'd, and tutor'd" the doves of Arcadia, preferring ceremony to passion.
27. In this scene between the women, they show themselves to be far more honest and critical of the male figures than they do when they are with men and prove themselves not to be the weak creatures that the Count or Albert would have them be. Constantia's heart-felt belief that Albert loves her not for her appearance or her graces is the more lamentable when we later see Albert's scorn and dismissal of her. Constantia's declarations to the Countess in this intimate, female-only scene show that she is well-aware of the changes wrought in him by his ambition once the "world has stepp'd between [them]." This acute perception must linger with the audience when Albert later dismisses her as an innocent or as a martyr. The Countess's banter is also the more poignant when she makes it clear later to her father that she knows Constantia is gravely ill and destined only for the "winding sheet." The Countess also has her own secrets to tell, but they are stopped short by the Count's arrival with news of her impending nuptials. These two friends are undeservingly pitted against each other when the Count announces that Albert is come to marry not Constantia, but the Countess. What the dutiful daughter is asked to do, then, on her father's behalf, is betray the women's friendship and marry the man Constantia loves, and the man to whom she is actually already married. The strong bond between the women is tried by masculinist ego that challenges female friendship with filial obedience.

The opposition of friend and father is brought to crisis point when the Countess denies her father his wish and refuses to marry Albert. In making this decision, founded in "heaven's mandate," the Countess refuses to "invade" with her "treach'rous pow'r" Constantia's rights. However, in denying her father his wish, the Countess also pardons his actions in a short homage to the trials of fatherhood:

You had a thousand, thousand claims to urge you:
     Aspiring manhood; pride; unheeded sorrows;
     The fond excesses of parental love:
     All that could tempt the proud, or warm the injured.

By contrast to a suffering father, the daughter sees in her own privilege a disavowal of the need to dishonour Constantia and take her place as Roselva's heiress or as Albert's bride. She decries having to "inflict" a wrong on this "helpless—suffering friend." Her virtue is met only by her father's contempt and his fashioning of himself as a crucified and degraded man who in his age must bend to "be an infant's vassal." His choice of words as he pictures the fate he believes the Countess forces upon him tellingly represents his living in the past.

29. As the Count is about to banish her for her "daring," they are summoned to what will be Constantia's death-throes. Constantia's death seems somehow to legitimize for the Countess her place as Roselva's heiress. So, while the daughter's reluctant obedience is finally dominant, it only is so because Constantia's death galvanizes the Countess's actions. Literally, she believes Roselva to be without an heir, but her transformation upon seeing Constantia die includes a dedication to filial submission as she conforms herself to her father's will: "Roselva hath no heiress now but me; / And I no will but yours." But although her father is satisfied that she will do his bidding, the Countess's dedication to the paternal will is envisioned rather as an exchange of obedience to a father for a rescue of "one" from the "black list." Whether this one is Constantia or her father is unclear; it is certain that the Countess sees herself as sacrificial.
30. The Countess's willingness—if this is not too strong a term for her agreement—is a betrayal of Sigismond. He finds her in her chambers and accuses her of falseness. Her response to him is to remind him of her sacrifices and her own sorrow over the fate for which her "filial duty and applauding conscience" destine her. The moment of truth is initiated by the Countess's gift of Constantia's amulet to Sigismond but suspended by her instant fears about her ruined father, "betray'd—by me." In kneeling to acknowledge Sigismond the heir of Roselva and the land's "rightful lord," Constantia metaphorically turns her back on her father and is forced into the position of ultimate dilemma for the unmarried daughter, accompanied as it is by the suitable clap of thunder: choosing between lover and father. The Countess turns to Constantia, who is now beyond the grave, for succour and she becomes a realm of "sanctitude and peace" for her as well as a protector against rape.
31. Constantia's goodness is a legacy that the Countess seeks to uphold and a challenge to Albert's evil when he attempts to rape her or to take her away. Constantia also serves as a moral compass for the whole community and in effect is the most central figure in the play, despite appearing least of the major characters. Her goodness transcends rank and equalizes those social unequals who would defend her. The villagers mourn her with "rustic tribute" in "humble gratitude." When Osmond is told of the Physician's fears about Albert, he observes that "There was no heart so mean that it felt not the virtues of the Lady Constantia; nor any, I trow, so base that it would not avenge the innocent." The Physician responds that this "is the test that lifts the poor man to the prince—the servant to his lord; that alone equalizes ranks, and raises up the weak to befriend that cause which the mighty abandon." Albert, by contrast, is favoured only by "courtiers" and not by "saints." It is telling that they resolve to spread their suspicions to Sigismond who is "discreet and valiant" and also fitting that Albert is overcome by the appearance of the saintly Constantia's spectre. In the final scene, it is Albert who acknowledge's Constantia's revenge of him, and the Count observes that he dies "on the spot, / Where sleeps the victim of [his] crimes, / [Providence's] justice wakes to fearful retribution!"
32. Thoughts of Constantia have a unifying effect on the play's characters that points to the play's concerns about social status. This issue is discussed by the minor characters in the play. As I note later, Paula Backscheider sees in Gothic drama the desires of a community that sought to avow that their society was not ruptured by social conflict or disruption. The pleasure that the rustic characters take in their own happy poverty in Lee's play is one instance of this avowal and Sigismond's visible nobility, noted above, another. As Uberto cheerfully says, "if mirth be, as we are told, the zest of the entertainment, he must be allowed to be the most generous man alive who keeps the feast only for himself, and leaves the mirth for us, his poor servitors." Rodolphus, Albert's servant, resents his master's haughtiness and the trick a superior man has of feigning forgetfulness of his "lowly" counterparts. He discusses this tendency with Osmond at the start of Act Two when he observes that Albert's "pride left me home; but his convenience did not forget that I should be the most faithful bearer of his dispatches." To his chagrin, "every knave that has the wit to flatter [Albert] steps before [him]" as he drops from "friend" to "serving-man." In Rodolphus there is a dignity and an emphasis on his own inherited rights because his "honest poverty," which he describes as his own "patrimony" that his father bequeathed to him, allows him to sleep well. As a result, he is not disturbed by Constantia's spectre. Albert, by contrast, is deeply disturbed by the vision of Constantia, and in his rage at Rodolphus's chattering, he strikes him and banishes him. Rodolphus is not without his pride; he attempts to assert the privileges he is owed because of "age and fidelity" and rejects Albert's gold by arguing that he is not "a slave, but a man" and though a "poor one . . . yet still a man: with feelings that will not be commanded, and opinions that are not to be bought." However, Rodolphus does not completely refute Albert's rudeness and he offers himself up to him as a "poor servant" in his hour of need.
33. When the dust settles at the end of the play, order has been restored to this community, and this is not merely the status quo of the play's opening, but a restoration that corrects an act of usurpation, purges the community of its guilty villains, valorizes defeat of an enemy, and pays homage to an innocent, dead woman. The final scene makes public what the Countess and Sigismond already know or suspect, that Sigismond is not a mere prisoner or vassal, but an heir restored to the seat of Roselva not only by a chance meeting between warriors, but by the Countess's desire to recognize his virtue in the reward of the significant amulet. Sigismond's union with the Countess is blessed by her father as the new generation emerges more virtuous and prepared for leadership than the last, and the Countess becomes the heiress of Roselva not because of her father's treachery but because of legitimate love. Despite the father's death, his demise is also curative: "Mine was the guilt; / And be it buried with me!" While one family's members are by death irrevocably separated, a larger familial order is restored because bloodlines and rulership are reunited in Sigismond as they were intended to be. Constantia is avenged by the removal of the mad, dangerous, and proud Albert.

Backscheider writes that the Gothic dramas propagate "a comforting vision of community, of human nature, and of a providential, benignly ordered world" (232):

The gothic drama delivers what [their audiences] wanted to believe about themselves and even the universe as they faced evil, disruption, and poverty. . . . By acting out repressed anxieties and hopes in overt and symbolic representations, the plays released tensions and made social contradictions momentarily innocuous. . . . The aristocrats could be restrained and the poor would be taken care of. . . . The spectator-crowds could identify the moral sense within themselves that was universal in humankind. (233)

The order restored at the end of the play is comforting because of the Countess and Sigismond's benevolence, mannerly superiority, and true merit. The focus of so much admiration throughout the play, they are blessed at the end as the "Young, lovely, innocent." Although it is chance that brings the characters together at the start of the tale (the chance meeting in the woods that allows Sigismond to save the Count) and that restores the Heirship (the prisoner who chances upon Sigismond after the battle), a larger narrative of propriety and leadership rights is advanced here that satisfies any desire for the orderly transfer of familial and communal power, the filial obedience of a daughter who is not finally punished for her willingness to do her father's bidding, and the union of peasants and soldiers in a chorus to even a guilty father and warrior's victory and death.

Barbara Darby
Dalhousie University

Barbara Darby is the author of Frances Burney, Dramatist (UP Kentucky). After working in English Departments at the University of Lethbridge, Queen's, Dalhousie and Mount Saint Vincent, she has embarked upon a law degree and is currently a student at Dalhousie Law School.

Works Cited:

  • Backscheider, Paula R. Spectacular Politics: Theatrical Power and Mass Culture in Early Modern England. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1993.
  • Cox, Jeffrey N., Ed. Seven Gothic Dramas: 1789-1825. Athens: Ohio UP, 1992.
  • Genest, John. Some Account of the English State from the Restoration in 1660 to 1830. 10 vols. Bath, 1832. Rpt. NY: Burt Franklin, 1964. Vol. 6.
  • Lee, Harriet. The Mysterious Marriage, or The Heirship of Roselva. A Play, in Three Acts. London: Robinson, 1798.
  • Napier, Elizabeth R. "Harriet Lee." Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 39, pt. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1985.
  • Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford: OUP, 1993.