James Malcolm Rymer

James Malcolm rymer









'He had begun to think that Severndroog Castle was anything but a safe place for him.

And he was right.'

- Rymer, Edith Heron


In James Malcom Rymer’s novel Edith Heron (published around 1862), Severndroog underwent a major transformation. Generations of visitors have imagined Severndroog as a real castle and in Rymer’s story it becomes one, complete with winding passages ‘dark as a dungeon’, hidden chambers that seem ‘fathoms deep’ and an imprisoned countess, who has been driven insane by her captors. Rymer’s Severndroog is the lair of the White Highwayman, a disgraced lord, who has taken up residence in the castle because of its proximity to Shooter’s Hill (historically famed as a hotspot for armed robbery). The castle, which looms up ‘Black, cold, and stern’ in Rymer’s novel, is the site of numerous uncanny and supernatural events. In one spine-tingling scene, the novel’s hero, Felix Heron, enters Severndroog in search of the White Highwayman (who is also his half-brother) and hears a disembodied wail:


A faint sound came up to his ears. Was it a cry of distress? Was it a half-smothered shout for help? Did it really shape itself, as he heard it, into the cry of “Murder?”


Illustration of a highway robbery.

Samuel Wale, An Illustration to the Newgate Calendar, eighteenth century, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.


Heron investigates and listens at a keyhole to what he believes is a conversation between the imprisoned countess and her captor. However, when he bursts into the chamber to free the prisoner, he is horrified by what he finds:


In each arm-chair sat a something that looked like a human figure. A faint flicker of the lantern gave a better light for a passing minute, and Heron laid his hand upon the arm of the figure nearest to him.

A Portion of the light drapery fell to the floor.

Horror! Horror!

The form that sat in that chair in the garments of a female was but a skeleton; and the drapery he had touched, and which fell from the arm, disclosed the fleshless bone it had covered.


Heron hastily retreats from the castle, but later returns with an armed band to apprehend his half-brother. The countess is liberated from a secret underground chamber beneath the room with the skeletons, but the mystery of her gruesome neighbours is never solved.


Edith Heron is an example of the gothic novel, a popular genre of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction that typically set terrifying supernatural stories in castles, abbeys or ruins. Rymer’s use of Severndroog’s mock-gothic architecture as the inspiration for this type of thriller put him in good company. A century earlier, the author Horace Walpole had based the plot of the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), on a dream inspired by Strawberry Hill, his own mock-gothic castle in Twickenham. Rymer’s novel puts Severndroog on a par with Strawberry Hill and the medieval castles that both were built to resemble, demonstrating that, with a little imagination, Severndroog too could inspire tales of terror.


Horace Walpole.

Burnett Reading, after Sir Joshua Reynolds, Horace Walpole, undated, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.


Rymer’s playful reinvention of Severndroog is also a testament to how well known and popular the castle was amongst Victorian readers, who were evidently supposed to enjoy, and be spooked by, the contrast between the real Severndroog and the ‘black, dismal, and sombre’ fortress it becomes in Edith Heron. Some of Rymer’s other work was less light-hearted. He is believed to have created the character Sweeney Todd, the murderous barber of Fleet Street, and was also the author of Varney the Vampire, a major influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.


Strawberry Hill.

© Ellen Bulford Welch.