The Castle of Atraños (A 5-Minute Novel)

In this post:
The storyline of The Castle of Atraños
8 historical facts that bred plot bunnies

Author’s Note

This is my first 5-Minute Novel. Inspiration hit me when I was doing research for my introductory text to the new exhibition about letterpress printing at the Museum of Creativity. I found a most useful book about printing at the university library: Michael Twyman’s “Printing 1770 – 1970, an illustrated history of its developments and uses in England”. It provides helpful information about the printing business in the Regency period and new techniques. While I read it, plot bunnies started hopping all around me. Read here the story they carried with them, and find out which historical facts inspired them.

A Writer of a Gothic Novel

It is the City of London in June of the year 1808. The Honourable Thomas Morrington is the second son of a squire. He is 20 years old and fond of novels and writing. It is his dream to write a great gothic novel and become as famous as Ann Radcliffe.

Some time ago, Thomas finished writing his novel “The Castle of Atraños”, an eerie tale about an alchemist practising magic in the dungeons of his castle, which his perched above the village of Atraños in the Spanish Pyrenees. Mysterious ingredients are required for the magic, including the locks of blond virgins. A lady in distress has to be rescued by the hero of Thomas’s novel, whose looks bear a striking resemblance with Thomas’s, but owns a great fortune (whereas Thomas’ allowance is meagre).

Thomas is not a gifted writer, and his story is complete rubbish. Of course, Thomas would not believe either. “The Castle of Atraños” has as yet failed to find a publisher willing to invest in it. This is unfortunate as Thomas needs to make enough money, so he can marry the pretty and clever Miss Lavina, daughter of a Baron and official of the War and Colonial Office.

Thomas and Lavinia are secretly engaged, but Lavina’s parents refuse to give their consent to the marriage. Her daughter shall not throw herself away by marrying a penniless second son! The matter comes up every morning at breakfast, and Lavinia’s mother invariably asks “But you can do much better, dear, don’t you think?”. This is when Lavinia usually leaves the room.

On the Road to Wealth and Glory

Thomas leaves the house of a publisher. He had to accept yet another rejection of his novel. He is frustrated, but decides to make one more try. The leading publishers may be blind to the potential of his novel, but a small (1) printer / publisher (2) might see the potential. He walks along the streets trying to decide which of the many (3) small printers he shall turn to, when a slightly chaotic looking workshop in a narrow lane catches his attention.

A trade list (4) is displayed in the shop window and announces that John Newby, printer and publisher, is glad to sell paper, books, quills and inks to his customers. Thomas notices with excitement that the books for sale include several Gothic novels, just like the one he has written. A good omen, he thinks, and enters the workshop.

Mr. Newby is a grumpy, greasy, middle-aged man and not at all pleased to see a customer approaching him. “What it is?”, he barks. “I can’t spare much time, for I am expecting a high-ranking visitor.”

Thomas is taken aback, but nevertheless explains that he has written a novel and asks if Mr Newby would be interested in printing it. Mr. Newby isn’t, but Thomas is persistent. As Mr Newby wants to get him off his back, he finally gives in.

“Fine, all right. Leave the manuscript, and I will look at it. But make sure to come back in a few days. Otherwise I will throw it away, you understand?”

Thomas leaves the workshop full of hope. Mr. Newby, while waiting for the high-ranking visitors, reluctantly picks up the manuscript and leafs through it. He quickly realizes that the story is far-fetched and badly written. When he is about to put the manuscript aside, he notices a weird paragraph in the fourth chapter. The alchemist stands in the dungeons of his castle and mumbles a spell. The words a mostly nonsense, but Mr Newby is fascinated. A smile brightens his face and he carefully puts the manuscript in the drawer of his desk.

Half an hour later, the expected visitor arrives. He is an exquisitely dressed gentleman.

“Have you finally found a solution for our problem?” he asks with a slight French accent.

“Indeed I have”, nods Mr Newby and takes Thomas’s manuscript out of the drawer.

When Thomas returns to the workshop the next afternoon to hear about Mr. Newby’s decision, he is very nervous. He hesitates to enter the shop, but then the front door is opened and Mr Newby appears.

“Good afternoon, my dear sir”, Mr Newby greets him warmly. Thomas’s spirits rise and he enters the shop. Mr Newby flatters the young author, makes a very generous offer to buy the manuscript and even promises a large share in the profit. The sole condition is that the novel be sold exclusively by Mr Newby. Thomas happily signs the contract, insists that only the type of the leading typefounder (5) is used for printing his novel and then dashes off to inform Lavinia about his stroke of luck. Soon, they will be able to marry.

The Alchemist’s Spell

Mr Newby and his assistant have prepared the proofs in record time. Thomas is presented with some copies of “The Castle of Atraños” for his personal use. The remaining book blocks are stored in Mr Newby’s workshop to be sold directly to the customers and bound to their wishes. The novel seems to sell slowly, four of five pieces per week, but Mr Newby assures Thomas to not to worry.

Meanwhile, Lavinia has told her friend, Irish-born Emma McKinley, about Thomas’s success as a writer. It happens that Emma has been reading the novel this very morning. Emma has a low opinion of the novel, and she mocks Lavinia about her financé’s lack of talent. Lavinia knows that Thomas isn’t a good writer yet, but she defends his novel.

“Come on, Lavinia”, says Emma. “Thomas is a very charming gentleman, to be sure, but this novel is atrocious. There is no story at all, and this sorcerer–“

“Alchemist!” Lavinia interjects in a sharp voice.

Emma laughs at Lavina’s indignant countenance. “Well, this alchemist reminds me of a pupil who hasn’t learned his homework properly. Here …” Emma picks up the book and turns some pages, “in chapter 4, when he mumbles his spells: ‘The red devils have a new leader. He left at the 12th day of the seventh moon and flies across the seas to the land of Magellan.’ Why would …”

When hearing the words of the novel read aloud, Lavinia sits up. That was not the text she knew.

Lavinia asks where Emma bought the book. She learns that the book was a gift to her father, by the French émigré Count Saint-Mandé, who had been invited for dinner the day before. Lavinia has heard her father talk about the Count, a prominent supporter of the Bourbon King, but she doesn’t know him personally. Lavinia decides to ask Thomas about the altered text of his novel.

Lavinia’s Investigation

Thomas’ reaction to Lavinia’s news it not what she had expected. Thomas thinks the new text to be a brilliant idea and doesn’t believe that anything strange is going on. Lavinia confronts him with the low sales figures of the novel and the weird clause that only Mr Newby may sell the book. Thomas makes light of it and refuses to believe Lavinia. Lavinia is displeased with him and leaves Thomas rather abruptly. She decides to make further inquiries about the novel herself and, accompanied by her governess, drives to Mr Newby’s workshop.

Mr Newby is not willing to be interviewed by Lavinia. He refused to answer her questions and orders her to leave his workshop at once. Lavinia is really suspicious now. Back home, she sends her maid Lucy to the workshop to buy a copy of “The Castle of Atraños”. Lucy buys the novel without problems. When Lavinia checks the paragraph in chapter 4, she finds it is the original text written by Thomas. She is puzzled. Is Count Saint-Mandé the clue to the strange occurrences?

Covert Operations

Lavinia, Thomas, Emma and her cousin Frederick attend a ball some days later. Emma whispers to Lavinia that her father was very upset that she had read Thomas’ novel. He took the book from Emma the very same day Lavinia had come to see her, and Emma had been unable to find it anywhere in the household.

Lavinia sees Count Saint-Mandé among the guests. She bullies Frederick into introducing her to the Count. Saint-Mandé gracefully talks to Lavinia, and, finding her charming, dances with her. Lavinia tries to question the Count as unobtrusively as possible but finds him to be inscrutable. She decides that she must see more of him to win his trust, and starts to flirt with him. Thomas finds her behaviour outrageous and quarrels with Lavinia. Being is carried away by his jealousy, he goes too far. Lavinia breaks up with him.

Lavinia is downhearted, but as the daughter of an official of the War and Colonial Office, she knows a thing or two about espionage. She is certain that something strange is going on, and that it is her duty to save her country. She talks to her father. To her disappointment, the Baron sternly forbids her to meddle. The Count is a prominent supporter of the French king, how can she dare to suspect him of disreputability? He promises however to have an eye on Mr Newby.

In Flagranti

Lavinia happens to see the Count in the street the next day, shakes off her governess and follows him. Meanwhile, Thomas arrives at Lavinia’s house to apologize but learns that she has gone out. He frowns. Knowing Lavinia quite well, he directs his steps toward the City of London (6).

Lavinia has followed the Count to a narrow lane in the City of London and indeed sees him entering Mr Newby’s workshop. She has no time to hide her identity or ask somebody for assistance, so she simply enters the shops, hoping that neither the Count nor Mr Newby will recognise her.

Upon entering the workshop, she finds the two men standing together. They don’t notice her as she slips into the shop and hides behind a shelf. She witnesses how the Count hands a small sheet of paper to Mr. Newby. Mr. Newby takes it to the room next door, where his small and solid Stanhope press (7) is. The count waits impatiently. Finally, Mr Newby returns with a freshly printed folio. He folds it, then takes one of the books blocks of “The Castle of Atraños” and replaces one the folios with the new one.

Lavinia gasps as she understands what happens before her eyes. The sound betrays her. The count turns around. He sees her, curses, and takes one of the candles lighting the workshop and sets fire to the book block. Then he throws the burning book at a pile of paper next to some bottles of turpentine. The workshop catches fire (8) immediately. The Count rushes for the door. Lavinia finds herself trapped by the fire, so does Mr Newby. They cry for help. At this moment, Thomas, who has correctly guessed where Lavinia might be, reaches the workshop. He managed to rescue Lavinia, but it is too late to save Mr. Newby.

Revelations and Deception

The incident is the talk of the town: Everybody is shocked that Count Saint-Mandé turned out to be a spy for Napoleon. And he wasn’t even a count. He had adopted a false identity and pretended to be a supporter of the French king to obtain the trust of the War and Colonial Office surreptitiously. His real aim was to get his hands on information about the movements of the English army. Unfortunately, the Count had been a successful spy. The text Lavinia had come along in Emma’s copy was about lieutenant general Wellesly and his troops leaving for Portugal on 12 July 1808 to participate in the war against French forces in the Iberian Peninsula.

Using a book to smuggle such information out of the country was an ingenious idea that worked well for a couple of weeks. Emma’s father was an accomplice of the Count, in charge of transporting each book out of London and, with the help of Irish fishermen, to France.

Thomas is angry that his novel was used by the spies, but he is most upset that “The Castle of Atraños” was selected because it was considered so dull that nobody would bother to read it and discover its secret use.

The shocking incident has reunited Lavinia and Thomas. Lavinia’s father is grateful that Thomas saved his daughter, but Lavinia knows he would still not agree to her marrying a writer without money or talent. She tells her father that Thomas had noticed some scheme was plotted by certain London printers, for he often frequented their shops. He had therefore put together this novel as a pretext for meeting as many of them as possible. By having his novel used in their plot, he was able to uncover their activities. Lavinia’s father is impressed by Thomas’s far-sightedness and dedication. He happily consents to their marriage and sets up Thomas to a promising career in the War and Colonial Office by appointing him his assistant.


– The End –

8 historical facts being instrumental in creating “The Castle of Atraños”

In the 5-Minute-Novel, you find 8 references. Here is what they are about:

(1) Printing workshops were small businesses. Most of them consisted only of the master and an assistant. Additional stuff was taken on only when needed. The large book printed had more employees. A typical printing workshop was situated in a private house. – Very convenient for somebody planning to use a printing workshop for something illegal, as only few people will share the secret.

(2) Many printers of the late 18th century made additional business by selling stationary, newspapers, books, medicine, perfumes and fancy goods. Some also acted as local agents for coaches, theatres and lotteries. – Such information can be useful, e.g. if one of your novel’s characters has to make arrangements for eloping by stage coach.

(3) With a rising demand for printed products, the printing business flourished towards the end of the 18th century. The number of printing workshops increased in London. In 1785, there had been 124 letterpress printers. 1805, there number had risen to 216 and in 1824, 316 letterpress printers were counted. Additionally, from 1770, printing began to spread from London and the large town into the country. As printed products become more widespread and available, you can choose your novel’s characters from a wider range of classes and don’t have to stick to the super-rich.

(4) The trade list of John Soulby, printer and bookseller in Ulverston, includes in 1807: Writing papers, Whatman’s drawing papers, patent ruled papers, wrapping papers, music papers, marbled and coloured papers, quills and pens, ink (red, Patent Cake, Japan and Indian), Cammel’s hair pencil, writing parchment, sealing wax, wafers and message cards with ornamental borders. But also: Tide tables, common prayer books, bibles, entertaining books, flutes, violin strings and bows, blossom and blue Demy for hanging Rooms, bonnet and shaloon papers, gold and silver tooth picks, Indian rubbers for cleaning paper, drawings, satin and gloves, blacking balls for shoes and patent medicine, sold by authority. – Describing such a shop in a scene certainly will be delightful.

(5) The leading typefounder of Regency England was William Caslon III. In the 1780ies, he issued type with decorated letters (as had long been done in France). The most popular type was a simple inline type with a white line engraved down the thick strokes of each letter. He is also credited with creating the first sans-serif printing type in 1816. It was called “Egyptian”. – Tempting to write a scene in that an eccentric writer tries to discuss the latest types with his less enthusiastic acquaintances…

(6) The City of London was the center of the printing business. – So we know where we have to locate the main part of the story.

(7) The mechanics of the hand-operated Gutenberg-style press were mostly unchanged until the end of the 18th century, while new materials in its construction had gradually improved its printing efficiency. Around 1800, Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope (1753 –1816) built a press completely from cast iron. It reduced the force required by 90%. It became known as the Stanhope Press. Stanhope refused to copyright the design so anyone could build one – Very convenient for the likes of Mr. Newby and Count Saint-Mandé.

(8) A printing workshop was crammed with many kinds of type made of metal, reams of paper, quantities of oil and turpentine. The floors had to be shored up to take on the extra weight of the equipment. What is more, printers worked by the light of a candle. The open fire and the stored paper, oil and turpentine was a dangerous matter. Fires weren’t rare in printing workshops. – I have to admit that the high fire risk of the printing workshops bred the first plot bunny.


Michael Twyman: Printing 1770 – 1970, an illustrated history of its developments and uses in England; The British Library, 1998.