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The Black Baronet; or, The Chronicles Of Ballytrain, a novel by William Carleton


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_ The incidents upon which this book is founded seem to be extraordinary and startling, but they are true; for, as Byron says, and as we all know, "Truth is strange--stranger than Fiction." Mr. West, brother to the late member from Dublin, communicated them to me exactly as they occurred, and precisely as he communicated them, have I given them to the reader, at least, as far as I can depend upon my memory. With respect, however, to his facts, they related only to the family which is shadowed forth under the imaginary name of Gourlay; those connected with the aristocratic house of Cullamore, I had from another source, and they are equally authentic. The Lord Dunroe, son to the Earl of Cullamore, is not many years dead, and there are thousands still living, who can bear testimony to the life of profligacy and extravagance, which, to the very last day of his existence, he persisted in leading. That his father was obliged to get an act of Parliament passed to legitimize his children, is a fact also pretty well known to many.

At first, I had some notion of writing a distinct story upon each class of events, but, upon more mature consideration, I thought it better to construct such a one as would enable me to work them both up into the same narrative; thus contriving that the incidents of the one house should be connected with those of the other, and the interest of both deepened, not only by their connection, but their contrast. It is unnecessary to say, that the prototypes of the families who appear upon the stage in the novel, were, in point of fact, personally unknown to each other, unless, probably, by name, inasmuch as they resided in different and distant parts of the kingdom. They were, however, contemporaneous. Such circumstances, nevertheless, matter very little to the novelist, who can form for his characters whatsoever connections, whether matrimonial or otherwise, he may deem most proper; and of this, he must be considered himself as the sole, though probably not the best, judge. The name of Red Hall, the residence of Sir Thomas Gourlay, is purely fictitious, but not the description of it, which applies very accurately to a magnificent family mansion not a thousand miles from the thriving little town of Ballygawley. Since the first appearance, however, of the work, I have accidentally discovered, from James Frazer's admirable. "Hand-book for Ireland," the best and most correct work of the kind ever published, and the only one that can be relied upon, that there actually is a residence named Red Hall in my own native county of Tyrone. I mention this, lest the respectable family to whom it belongs might take offence at my having made it the ancestral property of such a man as Sir Thomas Gourlay, or the scene of his crimes and outrages. On this point, I beg to assure them that the coincidence of the name is purely accidental, and that, when I wrote the novel, I had not the slightest notion that such a place actually existed. Some of those coincidences are very odd and curious. For instance, it so happens that there is at this moment a man named Dunphy actually residing on Constitution Hill, and engaged in the very same line of life which I have assigned to one of my principal characters of that name in the novel, that of a huckster; yet of this circumstance I knew nothing. The titles of Cullamore and Dunroe are taken from two hills, one greater than the other, and not far asunder, in my native parish; and I have heard it said, by the people of that neighborhood, that Sir William Richardson, father to the late amiable Sir James Richardson Bunbury, when expecting at the period of the Union to receive a coronet instead of a baronetcy, had made his mind up to select either one or the other of them as the designation of his rank.

I think I need scarcely assure my readers that old Sam Roberts, the retired soldier, is drawn from life; and I may add, that I have scarcely done the fine old fellow and his fine old wife sufficient justice. They were two of the most amiable and striking originals I ever met. Both are now dead, but I remember Sam to have been for many years engaged in teaching the sword exercise in some of the leading schools in and about Dublin. He ultimately gave this up, however, having been appointed to some comfortable situation in the then Foundling Hospital, where his Beck died, and he, poor fellow, did not, I have heard, long survive her.

Owing to painful and peculiar circumstances, with which it would be impertinent to trouble the reader, there were originally only five hundred copies of this work published. The individual for whom it was originally written, but who had no more claim upon it than the Shah of Persia, misrepresented me, or rather calumniated me, so grossly to Messrs. Saunders & Otley, who published it, that he prevailed upon them to threaten me with criminal proceedings for having disposed of my own work, and I accordingly received an attorney's letter, affording me that very agreeable intimation. Of course they soon found they had been misled, and that it would have been not only an unparalleled outrage, but a matter attended with too much danger, and involving too severe a penalty to proceed in. Little I knew or suspected at the time, however, that the sinister and unscrupulous delusions which occasioned me and my family so much trouble, vexation, and embarrassment, were only the foreshadowings of that pitiable and melancholy malady which not long afterwards occasioned the unhappy man to be placed apart from society, which, it is to be feared, he is never likely to rejoin. I allude to those matters, not only to account for the limited number of the work that was printed, but to satisfy those London publishers to whom the individual in question so foully misrepresented me, that my conduct in every transaction I have had with booksellers has been straightforward, just, and honorable, and that I can publicly make this assertion, without the slightest apprehension of being contradicted. That the book was cushioned in this country, I am fully aware, and this is all I shall say upon that part of the subject. Indeed it was never properly published at all--never advertised--never reviewed, and, until now, lay nearly in as much obscurity as if it had been still in manuscript. A few copies of it got into circulating libraries, but, in point of fact, it was never placed before the public at all. What-ever be its merits, however, it is now in the hands of a gentleman who will do it justice, if it fails, the fault will not at least be his.

My object in writing the book was to exhibit, in contrast, three of the most powerful passions that can agitate the human heart--I mean love, ambition, and revenge. To contrive the successive incidents, by which the respective individuals on whose characters they were to operate should manifest their influence with adequate motives, and without departing from actual life and nature, as we observe them in action about us, was a task which required a very close study of the human mind when placed in peculiar circumstances. In this case the great struggle was between love and ambition. By ambition, I do not mean the ambition of the truly great man, who wishes to associate it with truth and virtue, and whose object is, in the first place, to gratify it by elevating his country and his kind; no, but that most hateful species of it which exists in the contrivance and working out of family arrangements and insane projects for the aggrandizement of our offspring, under circumstances where we must know that they cannot be accomplished without wrecking the happiness of those to whom they are proposed. Such a passion, in its darkest aspect--and in this I have drawn it--has nothing more in view than the cruel, selfish and undignified object of acquiring some poor and paltry title or distinction for a son or daughter, without reference either to inclination or will, and too frequently in opposition to both. It is like introducing a system of penal laws into domestic life, and establishing the tyranny of a moral despot among the affections of the heart. Sometimes, especially in the case of an only child, this ambition grows to a terrific size, and its miserable victim acts with all the unconscious violence of a monomaniac.

In Sir Thomas Gourlay, the reader will perceive that it became the great and engrossing object of his life, and that its violence was strong in proportion to that want of all moral restraint, which resulted from the creed of an infidel and sceptic. And I may say here, that it was my object to exhibit occasionally the gloomy agonies and hollow delusions of the latter, as the hard and melancholy system on which he based his cruel and unsparing ambition. His character was by far the most difficult to manage. Love has an object; and, in this case, in the person of Lucy Gourlay it had a reasonable and a noble one. Revenge has an object; and in the person of Anthony Corbet, or Dunphy, it also had, according to the unchristian maxims of life, an unusually strong argument on which to work and sustain itself. But, as for Sir Thomas Gourlay's mad ambition, I felt that, considering his sufficiently elevated state of life, I could only compensate for its want of all rational design, by making him scorn and reject the laws both civil and religious by which human society is regulated, and all this because he had blinded his eyes against the traces of Providence, rather than take his own heart to task for its ambition. Had he been a Christian, I do not think he could have acted as he did. He shaped his own creed, however, and consequently, his own destiny. In Lady Edward Gourlay, I have endeavored to draw such a character as only the true and obedient Christian can present; and in that of his daughter, a girl endowed with the highest principles, the best heart, and the purest sense of honor--a woman who would have been precisely such a character as Lady Gourlay was, had she lived longer and been subjected to the same trials. Throughout the whole work, however, I trust that I have succeeded in the purity and loftiness of the moral, which was to show the pernicious effects of infidelity and scepticism, striving to sustain and justify an insane ambition; or, in a word, I endeavored

"To vindicate the ways of God to man."

A literary friend of mine told me, a few days ago, that the poet Massinger had selected the same subject for his play of. "A New Way to pay Old Debts," the same in which Sir Giles Overreach is the prominent character. I ought to feel ashamed to say, as I did say, in reply to this, that I never read the play alluded to, nor a single line of Massinger's works; neither have I ever seen Sir Giles Overreach even upon the stage. If, then, there should appear any resemblance in the scope or conduct of the play or novel, or in the character of Sir Thomas Gourlay and Overreach, I cannot be charged either with theft or imitation, as I am utterly ignorant of the play and of the character of Sir Giles Overreach alluded to.

I fear I have dwelt much too long on this subject, and I shall therefore close it by a short anecdote.

Some months ago I chanced to read a work--I think by an American writer--called, as well as I can recollect, "The Reminiscences of a late Physician." I felt curious to read the book, simply because I thought that the man who could, after, "The Diary of a late Physician," come out with a production so named, must possess at the least either very great genius or the most astounding assurance. Well, I went on perusing the work, and found almost at once that it was what is called a catchpenny, and depended altogether, for its success, upon the fame and reputation of its predecessor of nearly the same name. I saw the trick at once, and bitterly regretted that I, in common I suppose with others, had been taken in and bit. Judge of my astonishment, however, when, as I proceeded to read the description of an American lunatic asylum, I found it to be literatim et verbatim taken--stolen--pirated--sentence by sentence and page by page, from my own description of one in the third volume of the first edition of this book, and which I myself took from close observation, when, some years ago, accompanied by Dr. White, I was searching in the Grangegorman Lunatic Asylum and in Swift's for a case of madness arising from disappointment in love. I was then writing. "Jane Sinclair," and to the honor of the sex, I have to confess that in neither of those establishments, nor any others either in or about Dublin, could I find such a case. Here, however, in the Yankee's book, there were neither inverted commas, nor the slightest acknowledgment of the source from which the unprincipled felon had stolen it.

With respect to mad-houses, especially as they were conducted up until within the last thirty years, I must say with truth, that if every fact originating in craft, avarice, oppression, and the most unscrupulous ambition for family wealth and hereditary rank, were known, such a dark series of crime and cruelty would come to light as time public mind could scarcely conceive--nay, as would shock humanity itself. Nor has this secret system altogether departed from us. It is not long since the police offices developed some facts rather suspicious, and pretty plainly impressed with the stamp of the old practice. The Lunatic Commission is now at work, and I trust it will not confine its investigations merely to public institutions of that kind, but will, if it possess authority to do so, strictly and rigidly examine every private asylum for lunatics in the kingdom.

Of one other character, Ginty Cooper, I have a word to say. Any person acquainted with the brilliant and classical little capital of Cultra, lying on the confines of Monaghan and Cavan, will not fail to recognize the remains of grace and beatty, which once characterized that celebrated, and well-known individual.

With respect to the watch-house scene, and that in the police office, together with the delineation of the. "Old Charlies," as the guardians of the night were then called; to which I may add the portraits of the two magistrates; I can confidently refer to thousands now alive for their truth. Those matters took place long before our present admirable body of metropolitan police were established. At that period, the police magistracies were bestowed, in most cases, from principles by no means in opposition to the public good, and not, as now, upon gentlemen perfectly free from party bias, and well qualified for that difficult office by legal knowledge, honorable feeling, and a strong sense of public duty, impartial justice, and humanity.

W Carleton.

(Dublin, October 26, 1857.) _

Read next: Chapter 1. A Mail-Coach By Night, And A Bit Of Moonshine

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