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Stephen Copley Research Report: Stephen Basdeo on Robert Southey

Robert Southey’s “Harold; or, The Castle of Morford”—The First Robin Hood Novel

By Stephen Basdeo, Associate Professor at the Richmond American International University (Leeds RIASA).

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In August, thanks to a generous BARS Stephen Copley Research Award, between 12–15 August, I was able to visit to visit the Bodleian Library in Oxford to consult Robert Southey’s ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’ (Bodleian MS Misc. Eng. e. 21), written in 1791 and purchased by the Bodleian Library from the famous Bristol booksellers W. George’s Sons in 1895.

The manuscript’s unassuming title obscures its significance somewhat, for this is, as far as I can ascertain, the first attempt by any author to write a novel featuring the legendary English outlaw, Robin Hood, as it predates Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) by 28 years.

Along with a colleague, Dr Mark Truesdale, I am transcribing and publishing Southey’s unpublished text with Routledge as part of its ‘Outlaws in Literature, History, and Culture’ series, and publication is expected in March 2020. The purpose of my visit, then, was to perform final checks of our transcription, such as making sure we had not misread words (young Southey’s handwriting was not the neatest), for the Routledge edition will reproduce, as far as possible, exactly what was written by Southey 228 years ago.

Bodleian MS Misc Eng e. 21

The manuscript is bound in a maroon binding dating from probably the mid-nineteenth century, with gold embossed title on the spine reading ‘Juvenilia Romances MSS. Southey’. Binding the manuscript in this way has the obvious advantage of keeping all of the leaves together but this has also meant that some words on the margins have been obscured due to the tightness of the binding and the fact that Southey often used the whole page, writing right up to the edges of the leaves. Another issue is that the binders also trimmed the pages at the top, bottom, and sides, meaning some words from the manuscript are forever lost.

Luckily for us, someone in the Victorian era faithfully copied out Southey’s tale in full (presumably before it was bound), which meant that deficiencies in the original manuscript (Bodleian MS Misc Eng e. 21) could be cross-checked with the copy (Bodleian MS Misc Eng e. 114), which was donated by Baroness Paravicini to the library in 1927 — not every eighteenth-century scholar has the luxury of having two manuscripts to check when undertaking similar projects!

Southey’s unpublished tale will be of benefit, not only to Robin Hood scholars, but to the eighteenth-century and Romanticism community at large. In it we find poetry written by Southey which he never published, with some of the poetry, written as it was by a 16 year old boy, preoccupied with women’s ‘charms’:

And oft beneath the glassy wave
Her dainty limbs would hide
And oft above the waves appeared
Her gently heaving breast
That charm alone exposed to view
The waves obscured the rest
Come, Launcelot the nymph exclaimed
Tis now the time for love
For silent is the midnight hour
And pleasant is the grove
With that she leaped from out the wave
Exposing all her charms
Come, Launcelot again she cried
Come riot in my arms (55v–56r)

Southey wrote his novel before his political ‘radicalisation’ in 1794, after meeting with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Yet in ‘Harold’, we do find that even by the age of 16, Southey had developed a social conscience. For example—and the novel is barely historicised—the Robin Hood considers himself as ‘the overseer of the poor rates’, and delights in levying contributions from the richest in society and redistributing wealth to the humblest class of people (14v). And the forest society of Sherwood is an egalitarian one, where even King Richard, who has ventured back to England in disguise and joined the outlaws, thinks himself neither above nor below any of the other outlaws.

Scholars will not have to wait too long to read Southey’s novel, and I am grateful to the British Association for Romantic Studies for providing me with funding to travel to Oxford and ensure that all of mine and Mark’s transcriptions were correct so we can present scholars with an accurate version of what Southey originally wrote and, if they want to consult Southey’s juvenile tale, not have to make an expensive trip to Oxford themselves.

Dr Stephen Basdeo

20th August 2018