The Dead Witness (1872), Rosanna Mullins Leprohon’s Final Novel

Since the centenary period, literary critics have been divided in their assessments of Rosanna Mullins Leprohon (1829-1879) with her place in the Canadian canon varying according to their responses to the romance conventions she deploys throughout her fictional oeuvre. Critics who have aligned the maturation of Canadian fiction with the advent of social realism, for example, have condemned the sentimentally driven plots of Leprohon’s well-known romances, including The Manor House of de Villerai (1859-1860) and Antoinette de Mirecourt (1864), as little more than symptoms of English-Canadian nostalgia, itself the product of a regrettable colonial mentality. According to T. D. MacLulich (1988), Leprohon’s persistent focus on “upper-class females” is anachronistic, recalling “eighteenth-century” British fiction while failing sufficiently to anticipate twentieth-century “democratic” realism (48; 7). John C. Stockdale’s well-known entry on Leprohon in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography—which was first published forty years ago yet remains to be updated—famously complains of the “tearful partings, broken engagements, timely and untimely deaths, chance meetings, and happy reconciliations” that pervade Leprohon’s fiction but which remain “[un]appeal[ing]” to modern readers unless understood “for what they were,” merely “amusement for women readers of early Canada” (n. pag.). Even patient readers, including Carl F. Klinck (1965) and John R. Sorfleet (1985), have complained of Leprohon’s indulgence in “[m]elodrama and tugging heartstrings” (Klinck 157), her plots “over-romanticized,” her characters “too idealized” to be believable (Sorfleet, Introduction 10). More recently, Elaine Kalman Naves (1993) has concluded that Leprohon’s “stilted” melodrama significantly diminishes the impact of her “sophisticated themes” (36). For critics who have sought a more teleological, socially realist, or implicitly masculine development of fiction-writing in Canada, then, Leprohon’s technique has read as only partly successful, her overdetermined romantic plots at odds with her proclivity for historical realism, her idealized characters undermining her intentions to achieve psychological complexity.

Inspired variously by feminist theories and methodologies, another group of critics has defended the social and ideological significance of the romance conventions Leprohon deploys, focusing in particular on female characterization within the larger rubric of heterosexual politics. Glenn Willmott (2001), for instance, has explicitly read Antoinette’s title character through the lens of eighteenth-century sentimentality, arguing that Antoinette de Mirecourt deploys her “moral authority” as a woman to transform her actual subordination to men into an appearance of gender equality (146). Misao Dean (1998), in turn, has implicitly acknowledged Leprohon’s debt to novels of sensibility by proposing that Antoinette deploys “the moral authority of the oppressed” “to limit and control” her oppressors (56). Carole Gerson (1989), in turn, has compared Antoinette to Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) and The Manor House of de Villerai to his Pamela (1740), underscoring that both of Leprohon’s novels depict a “virtu[ous]” heroine “in distress” in order to envision the triumph of “virtue rewarded” (Purer 139). Finally, Heather Murray (2000) has highlighted the extent to which Leprohon’s novels, particularly Antoinette, owe their distinctiveness and narrative texture to the structure of mutual interdependence they establish among constituent sentimental and gothic conventions (see esp. 267-68). In their responses to Antoinette, these revisionary critics, among others,1 have rejected the assumption that standards of aesthetic judgment are either universal or unbiased, providing instead a formally resonant perspective from which to deepen our understanding of Leprohon’s familiar debt to eighteenth-century British romance genres.

The recovery of a lost short novel by Leprohon thus represents an unanticipated opportunity to extend the implications of recent revisionary scholarship. Entitled The Dead Witness; or, Lillian’s Peril, and published in The Hearthstone (Montreal, 1870-1872) from 3 August to 5 October, 1872, Leprohon’s lost novel is also one of her darkest in the ways it treats such familiar themes as feminine virtue and female conduct. As she does elsewhere, in The Dead Witness, Leprohon presents a young heroine, in this case an Englishwoman named Lillian Tremaine, on the verge of adulthood. As with Leprohon’s other fictional heroines, such as Blanche de Villerai and Antoinette, Lillian is emotionally complex and psychologically convincing. By contrast to Antoinette and to another well-known heroine, Alice Sydenham,2 Lillian is unwaveringly self-confident and unflinchingly aware of her moral authority. The Dead Witness represents the culmination of Leprohon’s extensive formal debts to gothic romances and novels of sensibility, her fictional heroine the repository of interconnected ideals of virtue, feminine authority, and social order. Like most of Leprohon’s earlier novels, The Dead Witness closes with a marriage between two characters, Lillian and her neighbour, Colonel Neville Atherton, which the narrative imbues with the material and symbolic power to resolve contradictions. By contrast to those earlier novels, however, in which the marriage plot often enjoys narrative priority, The Dead Witness subordinates its marriage plot to a horrific contest between two women, Lillian and her housekeeper, Mrs. Stokely, which centres on their competition to become matriarch of Tremaine Court. In The Dead Witness, conflict resolution, the restoration of social order, and narrative closure rely equally on “stubborn pride” and “vindictiveness” (3.31: 1), that is, on the characteristic features that the narrative ascribes to Lillian.

The literary historical significance of Leprohon’s lost novel lies not only in the opportunity it offers literary scholars to fill a gap in the bibliographical record, but also in the light it sheds on Leprohon’s changing treatment, over time, of such familiar themes as feminine virtue and female conduct. While The Dead Witness is characteristic of Leprohon’s fiction in the conduct lesson it offers female readers—namely, that parents are obliged “to bring up their daughters properly” while daughters are themselves obliged “to obey their parents [and] marry wisely” (Gerson, Three Writers 236)—it is, in many ways, a more pessimistic novel than its predecessors. By contrast to The Manor House of de Villerai, Antoinette de Mirecourt, and Armand Durand (1868), wherein female initiative helps to bolster unstable patriarchal structures, The Dead Witness takes for its starting point the notion that the patriarchal structure in place has outlasted its effectiveness.

Prior to further examining The Dead Witness’ plot, conventions, and literary historical significance, I will describe briefly how I came across it. In their introduction to the Broadview edition (2007) of Isabella Valancy Crawford’s Winona; or, the Foster Sisters (1873), Leonard Early and Michael Peterman refer to novels by British and Canadian writers that, together with Winona, were serialized from 1872 to 1874 in the sister-papers The Favorite and The Hearthstone, both published in Montreal by G. E. Desbarats (21).3 These novels include The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, To the Bitter End by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and The Dead Witness by Leprohon (Early and Peterman 23). Figuring nowhere in the bibliographical data gathered on Leprohon since the nineteenth century,4 but available today in Quebec’s provincial library and archives,5 The Dead Witness represents an important discovery: it supplants Ada Dunmore (1869-1870) as Leprohon’s last known novel while correcting a misconception about Leprohon’s productivity, which purportedly “dwindled” in the 1870s to a trickle of “short stories and poems” prior to her death in 1879 (McMullen and Waterston, Introduction xii).6 Remarkable as it may seem that an entire short novel by Leprohon has gone unnoticed for a century and a half, it is also not surprising given that The Dead Witness was published in a “story-paper,” an unusual venue for a writer better known for contributing to respectable middle-class periodicals like The Literary Garland (Montreal, 1838-1851). It is telling that Leprohon’s biographer, Henri Deneau (1948), rejects The Hearthstone as a possible source of lost material, insisting that he “reviewed” it and found it “d[id] not contain contributions by Mrs. Leprohon” (132). Had he studied the contents of this short-lived, six-page weekly, Deneau would not have missed The Dead Witness, for it was published in ten instalments of twenty-two chapters, featuring prominently on pages one and two, and was accompanied by a woodcut illustration headlining each new instalment. Unfortunately, as Early and Peterman note, The Hearthstone only survives in a “badly broken run” (23), meaning that three instalments of The Dead Witness are missing between the end of August and the first half of September.7 Nevertheless, because serializations are by their nature repetitive, the remaining instalments contain sufficient repetition of events, along with sufficient original material, to make up for the lost contents and to merit meaningful investigation of the whole.

As its title and subtitle suggest, The Dead Witness; or, Lillian’s Peril promises readers a narrative that will meet their expectations for what literary critic Luke Gibbons (2004) describes as the “familiar stage-props of the Gothic mise-en-scene”: these include “ruined castles, predatory aristocrats . . . endless, hidden vaults and torture chambers” (11), and other features that, by the Confederation period, had become standard conventions of a gothic fiction already a century old. Leprohon satisfies readers’ expectations with her title character, a seventeen-year-old “patrician beauty” (Leprohon 3.31: 2) who inhabits, with her older sister Margaret, an English manor house at once “eloquently” historic (3.31: 1) and ruinous beyond repair. The Tremaine manor house, with its “[w]eed-grown walks, gates broken off their hinges, [and] fences and outbuildings deplorably out of repair” (3.31: 1), stands in for the typical ruined castle of gothic fiction. The manor’s remote east wing, whose doors and windows are “closely nailed and boarded up” (3.31: 1), represents the epicentre of activity. Its dark, serpentine passageways and hidden vaults hide from public view the scenes of imprisonment and torture to which Lillian and, unbeknownst to her, her mother—the “dead witness” of the title—are subjected nearly twenty years apart and that, of the two, only Lillian will survive. Set in England, the plot begins when Lillian, a young adult, accidentally stumbles upon her dead mother’s remains and begins to suspect her father of murder. This accident deploys the interconnected themes of “ill-mated marriage” (Leprohon 3.32: 1) (should naive Margaret O’Halloran have married Roger Tremaine, a handsome libertine she met while travelling on the European Continent?) and parent-child conduct (are the Tremaine daughters bound to obey their treacherous father, as well as his housekeeper who usurps their mother’s place?).

On the surface, The Dead Witness admittedly resembles a typical Victorian-period serial, the “light fiction” (363) that Richard D. Altick describes as having proliferated “in the last quarter of the [nineteenth] century” as the “formula for popular periodicals . . . developed” (363). Nevertheless, beneath The Dead Witness’ formulaic “lightness,” to adapt Altick’s term to my purposes, lays a serious message about the restorative power of female self-sufficiency. Above all, The Dead Witness is remarkable for showing readers a Leprohon who is sceptical that women are well-served in their work to replenish an undeserving patriarchy. In this respect, it picks up where novels like de Villerai, Antoinette, and Armand leave off, building its gothic storyline on the ruins of an ancient patriarchy whose scion has found little place for himself in modernity, and leaving the women who depend on him to deal with the material and moral outcomes of his despondency.

By the end of The Dead Witness, Roger Tremaine lies dead, having apologized to Lillian prior to dying,8 while Tremaine Court lies in total ruin, its demolition having been ordered by Atherton and sister Margaret. Mrs. Stokely too lies dead, having drunk a fatal concoction for fear that Lillian would expose the secret of her murder of Margaret Tremaine (3.40: 1). The narrative allots to its title character the most rewarding fate. Upon her marriage to her neighbour, Colonel Neville Atherton, Lillian, whom the narrator now describes as “regal,” moves with spinster Margaret to Atherton Park, where Lillian effectively reigns as queen, her husband “lavish[ing] devoted affection” on her. More importantly, Lillian refuses to be presented at Court, a distinction to which her marriage to Atherton would have entitled her. Choosing instead to follow her mother-in-law’s advice to “dwell” among her “own tenantry,” Lillian rectifies the error of absentee and negligent landlordism committed by generations of Tremaines before her. As readers learn at the novel’s close, both Lillian and Margaret, “by their pure, womanly virtues, spotless lives, and active, unwearying benevolence, finally [succeed] in wiping out the species of odium that had, through so many generations, attached itself to the name of the Tremaines of Tremaine Court” (3.40: 2). As with much of Leprohon’s earlier fiction, The Dead Witness remains motivated by a larger didacticism, that is, a lesson in feminine virtue. As such, it enacts a gesture that, while not uncommon to novels of sensibility, also remains underappreciated for its revisionary potential. For Leprohon envisions virtue in a way that resembles what April Alliston has described, in the context of British novels of sensibility, as the potential to compensate “for the legal exclusions of women from passing on patriline inheritances of family name and real property” (136). In positing virtue as a kind of compensatory inheritance, The Dead Witness empowers Lillian and Margaret to correct the mistakes of the Tremaine patriarchy sufficiently, replacing those mistakes with their own anticipated legacy of benevolence and goodwill.

Not only does The Hearthstone contain an entire short novel by Leprohon, but it also features a poem by her, titled “Ocean Beach on a Stormy Evening” (3.40: 1). This poem was previously published in The Journal of Education for Lower Canada (according to an editorial note), though it is omitted from the posthumous Poetical Works of Mrs. Leprohon (1881). Having studied the contents of The Hearthstone, I am also prepared to assert that it contains at least one anonymous piece by Leprohon, a short article titled “Home Courtesy,” whose diction and syntax strongly resemble that of Leprohon, and whose didacticism is equally recognizable. “Home Courtesy” centres on two sets of advice: first, to “husbands,” whom the anonymous author advises to “hearken to conscience” and extend “courteous conduct” to their wives; second, to brides-to-be, whom it warns, “[e]re [they] finally decide” to marry, to “look well” at their future husbands to see how they “esteem” their “own female relations” (3.33: 3). According to Confederation-period literary historians and biographers, such as Edmond Lareau (1874) and Henry J. Morgan (1862), Leprohon was “on the staff” (Morgan 746; see also Lareau 306) of Canadian and American newspapers, presumably the Family Herald, the Canadian Illustrated News, and the Boston Pilot, among others known to have published her work. Nevertheless, it seems promising to revisit the contents of Confederation-era periodicals, including The Hearthstone, with the aim of uncovering more lost pieces than The Dead Witness, Leprohon’s last known novel to date.


  1. See Blacklock (1993); Cuder-Domínguez (1998); and McMullen and Waterston (1992, 1994). Also relevant is Edwards (1972).
  2. Alice Sydenham is the title character of Leprohon’s first published short story, “Alice Sydenham’s First Ball” (1849).
  3. A prominent Montrealer, George-Édouard Desbarats (1838-1893) also published the Canadian Illustrated News (1869-1883). The Favorite (1872-1874) and its predecessor, The Hearthstone (1870-1872) were, as Early and Peterman observe, launched “to meet the needs of an expanding reading public created by increased population, literacy, and leisure time, advances in printing technology, and the mass market made possible by railway distribution” (21).
  4. The Dead Witness is not mentioned by Morgan (1862); Lareau (1874); MacMechan (1924); Logan and French (1924); Deneau (1948); Klinck (1965); Gerson (1983); Edwards (1983); Sorfleet (“Leprohon” 1985); McMullen and Waterston (1992); and many others.
  5. Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) microfilms: MIC/A1801 #3, nos 1-52; 6 Jan.-28 Dec. 1872; ISSN: 0845-3586.
  6. Prior to the recovery of The Dead Witness, Leprohon’s final prose publications were thought to have included the following: her last known novel, Ada Dunmore; Or, A Memorable Christmas Eve (1869-1870); and her last four stories, “My Visit to Fairview Villa” (1870), “Clive Weston’s Wedding Anniversary” (1872; published in the same two-month period as The Dead Witness), “Who Stole the Diamonds?” (1875), and “A School-Girl Friendship” (1877).
  7. The missing issues comprise the following: 31 August 1872; 7 September 1872; and 14 September 1872.
  8. Unfortunately, Roger’s expression of regret and subsequent death form part of the missing instalments to which I refer in note 7.

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