Echo Library, 2009
originally serialized by the Political Barometer, 1804;
novelized in 1811
This novel's publication history is as interesting as this version of the novel itself. The story first appeared from June to October, 1804, in Poughkeepsie's Political Barometer in serialized form, written by the newspaper's editor Isaac Mitchell. By 1811, Mitchell had expanded his work into a much longer version entitled The Asylum: Or Alonzo and Melissa, which, according to Cathy N. Davidson in her book Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America, was a hybrid of a "sentimental story set in Europe" and a Gothic reenactment of that tale by the titular Melissa in an American setting. It was this second, Gothic half that had earlier appeared in the Political Baromenter in serial form. The publication was no secret -- Mitchell had published the prospectus of this book in his newspaper for subscription on April 17th of that year. However, that same year a book by Daniel Jackson, Jr. appeared entitled A Short Account of Alonzo and Melissa; Setting Forth Their Hardships and Difficulties, Caused by the Barbarity of an Unfeeling Father, which turned out to be the same Gothic version that had been published seven years earlier in the newspaper, as well as the version that I've just finished.*
Briefly, Melissa and Alonzo meet, fall in love and become engaged, to the delight of both sets of parents. Alonzo had a potential rival in the form of Beauman, who also was a parentally-approved suitor for Melissa's hand, but Melissa has made her choice and all is well. Sadly, the Revolutionary War intervenes and Alonzo's father, a wealthy merchant, loses his fleet to the British. On top of that, he is owed a lot of money that his erstwhile partners decide not to pay him, and he loses everything. This doesn't sit well with Melissa's father, who is somewhat beholden to a wealthy aunt who divides her time among her relatives -- he thinks that he has to placate her or stand a chance of losing the fortune that she could potentially leave to him. He refuses to let Melissa marry Alonzo because of his lack of money, and demands that she break it off and marry Beauman instead:
"Marry Beauman, and you will roll in your coach, flaunt in your silks; your furniture and your equipage are splendid, your associates are of the first character, and your father rejoices in your prosperity.
Marry Alonzo, you sink into your obscurity, are condemned to drudgery, poorly fed, worse clothed and your relations and acquaintances shun and despise you."Melissa's mother and brother want her to be happy and indeed, her brother is on her side, but the father is adamant that she will no longer be his daughter if she does not adhere to his wishes. When she refuses to obey her father, the story moves into high gear and well on into Gothic territory. In an effort to keep Melissa away from Alonzo long enough that Melissa will come to her senses and agree, to marry Beauman, good old maiden Auntie devises a clever ruse that leaves Melissa locked into a remote "house of real Gothic architecture, built of rude stone, with battlements," complete with drawbridge and moat. There she is confined while the aunt goes off to collect her various rents, "leaving Melissa not dissatisfied with the prospect of her absence." She reads, thinks, and walks around the garden enjoying the natural beauty of this place on Long Island Sound. But one night, Melissa has the first taste of what seem to be supernatural happenings: encounters with disembodied voices, a hand "cold as the icy fingers of death," on her arm, mysterious gunshots and "sulphurous" smells. Things get worse with voices screaming at her to "begone," but Melissa's reasoning assures her that if these are indeed supernatural events, she has very little to fear, even though logic fails to help her make sense of things. Eventually, however, through a mixture of detective work and sheer luck, Alonzo finds her. They make a plan for him to return with a carriage and effect an escape -- but when that day dawns, and Alonzo returns to the old house, Melissa has vanished. Over the next several chapters, the now-devastated Alonzo has a series of adventures that take him to London as a British prisoner, to France where he meets Benjamin Franklin, and then back to America once more.
Although I won't divulge the rest of the plot, once again this novel highlights the gothic heroine who maintains her cool, logical head in the face of extraordinary events which in turn allow her much more freedom to act than do the normal constraints of home or society. She's so ingenious that if she was pitted against Julia of the previous book in a best gothic heroine contest, what she does here would guarantee her first prize. In fact she is so clever that she outwits pretty much everyone who threatens her happiness and well being in this novel. The Revolutionary War, however, is the big star of this show. While it is an active element that provides the rationale for a lot of action in this story, it's also reflected within the context of the domestic drama that's occurring as well. There are multiple examples, but a very prominent one is the "tyranny" of Melissa's father that ultimately causes the divisions between the two and forces her to take the actions she does that result in her gaining her independence.
To be very honest, I found this novel at surface level to be interesting and a fun adventure, and I had to keep reading to see what happened next, but it's another case of a story that is filled with way too many implausible coincidences on which events turn. And if you'll forgive me for being so blunt, one of the big reveals that come at the end sounds like it came directly out of a book designed for kids. This is another one designed for reading under the surface -- and on that level, it actually works. And by the way, these little Echo Library editions are amazing.
*Interesting sidebar: In looking for info on Daniel H. Jackson, I came across the following: On September 3, 1904, a short piece appeared in the New York Times by an H. Bradley Jackson, who claimed that the story was based on fact -- that his ancestor, Daniel H. Jackson, while teaching at Plattsburg Academy between 1808 and 1810, had met Melissa's cousin, who had related the facts of the story to Jackson, "and wished him to write it out and have it published in a book." In 1905, in the Boston Transcript, a "querie" was published by someone who was investigating, along with a Yale Professor, whether or not Jackson's version was an abridgment of Mitchell's novel. The respondent from the Transcript believed that it was Mitchell who was the "literary thief," using dates and differences between texts to prove his point.