The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Grey Friar and the Black Spirit of the Wye (1810)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Grey Friar and the Black Spirit of the Wye was written by “John English,” the pseudonym for Dr. George Lipscomb. Lipscomb (1773-1846) was an English doctor and historian.

In The Grey Friar and the Black Spirit of the Wye an outlaw, out of a combination of capriciousness, high-mindedness, and amorality, assumes two identities: the Grey Friar, a holy do-gooder, and the Black Spirit of the Wye, an evil creature out of legend. The outlaw is a villain, however, and his pose as the Grey Friar is just that. He is at heart a manipulator; although, his own fickle whimsy leads him to manipulate others for good ends as well as bad. He has a special skill at ventriloquism which helps him mislead and deceive others.

The Grey Friar and the Black Spirit of the Wye is representative of the mass of Gothics published between the genre’s advent—The Castle of Otranto, in 1764—and its mid-period, which arguably spanned from the first years of the eighteenth century to 1815. The Grey Friar is an unremarkable Gothic—so much so that Ann B. Tracy’s authoritative The Gothic Novel 1790-1830: Plot Summaries and Index to Motifs (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1981) does not mention it, and Frederick S. Frank’s The First Gothics: A Critical Guide to the English Gothic Novel (Abingdon: Routledge, 1987) only includes a brief plot summary of it. In that respect it’s an excellent Gothic novel from which to draw conclusions about the genre as a whole.

The Grey Friar is neither well-written nor involving, and the fact that it only ran 582 pages in two volumes, rather than the more standard 700+ pages across three volumes, is indicative of the audience’s relative lack of interest in the novel. In plot complications and characterization it is typical of the poorer-written Gothics, and its ending is predictable even by the standards of the Gothic.

Nonetheless, The Grey Friar is notable, because its protagonist represents a last gasp for the traditional Gothic villains. The Black Spirit, apart from his ventriloquist abilities, is a bog-standard noble highwayman character (see: Räuberroman) who does not vary from the traditional character type’s outline and lineaments in any significant way. But the first years of the 1810s were the last time that the traditional noble highwayman would appear in Gothics. By the mid-point of the 1810s they were giving way to villains influenced by science (such as the titular character of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) or by the occult (as in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer). The Black Spirit in a very real sense represents the last gasp of the old Gothic villain.

The Black Spirit, with his ventriloquist abilities, is likely taken from Charles Brockden Brown’s Carwin (see: Wieland; or, The Transformation), who had similar “biloquial” powers. Ventriloquism in the late eighteenth century was not seen as a vocal trick developed through practice but rather as a genuine superhuman ability or power. In this the Black Spirit, like Brown’s Carwin and Rosaline from Mrs. Isaac’s Ariel; or, the Invisible Monitor (1801), represents a stage in the development of the superhuman villain. During the Gothic and Victorian eras most villains had the attributes of the Hero-Villain and at most one additional power. The Grey Friar is typical of these villains. “What is important¼is not so much the individual ability being shown—ventriloquism being a secondary or tertiary ability for those comic book characters who have it, such as Superman—as the fact that superhuman powers appear and are shown in a sober manner and not as something aberrant or transgressive, but as something relatively ordinary people could possess.”1 The Black Spirit, like Carwin before him and Hans of the Island (see: Hans of the Island) and the Devil-Bug (see: The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall) after him, laid the way for the superhuman supervillains to come.

The Grey Friar and the Black Spirit of the Wye is an unremarkable and dull read, of note for what it represents rather than what it possesses.

Recommended Edition

Print: John English, The Grey Friar and the Black Spirit of the Wye. : London: Forgotten Books, 2016.



1 Nevins, Evolution of the Costumed Avenger, 128-129.