Friday, October 25, 2019

Eleanor Sleath: Gothic Heroine?

By Lauren Gilbert

With Hallowe’en fast approaching, it’s appropriate to look at scary subjects. Gothic novels were extremely popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Although some were written by men, many of the most popular of these novels were written by women. Jane Austen wrote NORTHANGER ABBEY which satirizes these novels and their readers. In volume I, chapter 6 of NORTHANGER ABBEY, Isabella Thorpe gives the heroine Catherine Morland a list of these novels, now known as the “Horrid Novels”: CASTLE OF WOLFENBACH, CLERMONT, MYSTERIOUS WARNINGS, NECROMANCER OF THE BLACK FOREST, MIDNIGHT BELL, ORPHAN OF THE RHINE and HORRID MYSTERIES. THE ORPHAN OF THE RHINE was written by Eleanor Sleath, who achieved a certain level of popularity at the time but is fairly obscure now. For some time, little was known about her, but that has changed. Available data appears to indicate that Mrs. Sleath suffered as many tragic losses, trials and tribulations as any heroine in a novel.
Title Page from the First Edition of Jane Austen's

Eleanor Carter was born the youngest of five children to Thomas Carter, an attorney, and his wife Elisabeth Cousins Carter. Her date of birth is unknown, but she was baptized October 15, 1770 at All Saints Church, Loughborough, Leicester, England. Her father died in 1773. Little is known about her family except that they seem to live comfortably on income generated by properties owned by the family. Eleanor’s writings indicate that she was well educated. In September of 1792, she married Joseph Barnabus Sleath, a surgeon and apothecary with connections to the militia in Calverton, Buckinghamshire. Joseph’s birth date is unknown but it appears he was about 4 years older than she. Not long after their marriage, the couple had a son, whom they named for his father. All circumstances point to the expectation of a happy family life. Sadly, the child died in September of 1794. Shortly thereafter, Eleanor’s husband also died at the age of 28, leaving her extremely in debt. She returned to her family home in November of 1794 to care of her mother. With the help of her family, particularly her brother John Edward, her debts were paid off between 1794-1795. Eleanor experienced ill health during this time as well.

Sometime in the late 1790’s, Eleanor began to write for publication. It is unknown if she wrote for personal satisfaction or from a desire to generate her own income. Her first book was the afore-mentioned THE ORPHAN OF THE RHINE, which was published in 1798 by the Minerva Press. The reviews were rather lacklustre, citing the influence of Ann Radcliffe so apparent in her story. Subsequently there was also speculation that Eleanor had a pro-Catholic bias (if she wasn’t actually a Catholic). However the novel became quite popular. During this time, Eleanor and her family developed strong friendships with an intellectual circle that included Susanna Watts, who wrote poetry, did translations, and wrote the first tourist guide for the city of Leicester. Other members of this circle included Reverend John Dudley and his wife Ann. Reverend Dudley was the vicar of Humberstone and Sileby.
Cover of the reprint edition of
THE ORPHAN OF THE RHINE from Valancouort Books

In 1801, the family moved to Scraptoft Hall near Leicester. It was close enough that Eleanor was able to maintain her friendships, and she and her family mixed with local society. In 1802, Eleanor’s second novel, WHO’S THE MURDERER?, was published, also with Minerva Press. Over the next few years, Eleanor visited and was visited by her circle of friends, and they even travelled together. As members of the same circle, Reverend Dudley and Eleanor became friendly and wrote together. Things rather came to a head when, in 1807, Eleanor’s sister-in-law (her brother John’s wife) made a sarcastic remark in company about Eleanor’s friendship with Reverend Dudley. This ignited a scandal that resulted in Mrs. Dudley becoming jealous and hostile to Eleanor, and the previously close circle of friends taking sides.

A period of great upheaval ensued, with several results. Reverend Dudley and his wife began living separately. Eleanor, in the meantime, wrote and published 3 more books: THE BRISTOL HEIRESS, or The Errors of Education, published in 1809; THE NOCTURNAL MINSTREL, or The Spirit of the Woods, published in 1810 (and was considered by some to be her best work); and THE PYRENEAN BANDITTI, published in 1811, all with Minerva Press. In 1813, Eleanor’s brother John died. Their mother died 6 months later. As sad as these deaths were, Eleanor did inherit sufficient means to support herself. Although her whereabouts are unknown through much of the period 1814-1816, she wrote her 6th book, GLENOWEN, or The Fairy Palace A Tale, which was published in 1815 by John Harris and Black & Co. This book is different to her other novels. While still in the gothic vein, it was intended for children. It is known that she returned to Loughborough, where she bought a house in December 1816 and was able to live as a widow of independent means. There is no indication of her writing, or at least publishing, after GLENOWEN.

John Dudley and Eleanor continued to be friends throughout the years. Ann Dudley died in February 1823. John Dudley and Eleanor Sleath were married April 1st, 1823 in Loughborough. Eleanor was 52 years old. The couple settled in the rectory in Sileby, where she would have taken up her duties as the vicar’s wife. She died at home on May 5, 1847 of liver disease, after a period of ill health.

Sileby Parish Church taken by Kev747 April 14, 2006

Austen, Jane. THE OXFORD ILLUSTRATED JANE AUSTEN. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion Vol. 5. 3rd Edition. Northanger Abbey, Vol. 1, Chapter 6, P. 40. Oxford: Oxford University Press, reprinted 1988. NEW ELEANOR SLEATH BIOGRAPHY. “The Real Eleanor Sleath,” by Rebecca Czlapinski and Eric C. Wheeler. Posted May 8, 2011. HERE. Garside, Peter, and O’Brien, Karen, editors. THE OXFORD HISTORY OF THE NOVEL IN ENGLISH Vol. II English and British Fiction, 1750-1820. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. HERE.

English Historical Fiction Authors. “Northanger Horrid Novels” Thoughts from Regina Jeffers. October 8, 2011. HERE. “The Nocturnal Minstrel” by Ian Taylor. February 2, 2012. HERE.


Title page from the 1st edition of NORTHANGER ABBEY and PERSUASION from Wikimedia Commons HERE. Public domain.

THE ORPHAN OF THE RHINE cover from Valancourt Books HERE.

Sileby Parish Church, Attribution: Kev747 at en.wikipedia GNU Free Documentation License. See HERE.

Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life.  Lauren has a bachelor of arts degree in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History.  A long time member of JASNA, she has presented various programs at meetings of the South Florida region, and presented a breakout session at the Annual General Meeting in 2011.  She lives in Florida with her husband.  Her first book, HEYERWOOD A Novel, is available.  A second novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is finally due out later this year.  A long-time contributor to this blog, some of her work is included in both volumes of CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. She is also researching material for a biography.  For more information, visit her website at HERE.

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