George du Maurier’s The Martian: A Gothic Science-Fiction Novel Ahead of Its Time

It is difficult to say which of George du Maurier’s three novels, Peter Ibbetson (1891), Trilby (1894), or The Martian (1897), is the most intriguing and surprising. No one reads any of them any longer, and their author lives in his granddaughter Daphne du Maurier’s shadow, but all three novels are fascinating and really “mind-blowing” especially because they are all about the power of the mind. Peter Ibbetson was made into a 1935 film starring Jackie Cooper (well worth watching) and an opera, and Trilby became a famous play and introduced the trilby hat and the term “Svengali” into the language as well as influencing countless other works including The Phantom of the Opera. But The Martian never received any such fame. The title suggests it’s a science fiction novel, and given its publication date, one expects it to be along the lines of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, but it is much closer to the themes of du Maurier’s earlier novels, with its depiction of the bohemian lifestyle and English-French culture (in fact, there is far too much French in it, at least for me, who has forgotten most of my French) and its issues of mind-control, while the science fiction elements are fairly minor, even though the story revolves around them.

"The Martian" was published posthumously, within the same year that George du Maurier died.

“The Martian” was published posthumously, within the same year that George du Maurier died.

I hesitate to describe The Martian as even being science fiction. It feels more like it is Gothic to me because of its supernatural theme. Yes, there is a Martian, but overall, it’s a realistic novel with a little Gothic burst of energy to it—not Gothic in the sense of it being at all scary—but simply having a supernatural bent to it. Of course, it is also a novel masquerading as a biography.

The Martian is narrated by Robert Maurice, who is the lifelong friend of the late Barty Josselin, presumed to be the greatest literary genius of the nineteenth century, and Maurice is going to reveal to us “the strange secret of that genius.” Literary critics have complained that the novel wanders about, is full of digressions, and is only valuable for its depiction of “la vie de bohême.” Little critical attention has been paid to the novel’s supernatural elements, and when it is, it is often misinterpreted. For example, Wikipedia quotes a passage from the novel saying that it refers to Swedenborg, but there is no reference in the entire book to Swedenborg, and the passage quoted actually refers to Barty. Whether or not Swedenborg’s theories had any influence on the novel, I do not know, although it seems possible, but such broad comments should not be made out of context.

The novel traces the friendship of Maurice and Barty throughout their years at a boy’s school in France and into their early adulthood as Barty tries to become a painter. Barty is remarkable throughout his youth for a certain charisma he has, as well as enhanced senses of sight, smell, etc. and a strange ability always to know in which direction north lies. At one point in their youth, Maurice asks Barty whether he has a “special friend above” but Barty only tells him that if he asks no questions, he will hear no lies. It is not until nearly halfway through the novel that these strange abilities of Barty’s are explained. I refer to the novel as Gothic largely because these enhanced senses are typically those that characters such as vampires or other supernatural characters would have, but how Barty acquired these abilities is where the novel crosses genre lines.

When Barty begins to lose his eyesight, he contemplates suicide, but then he wakes one day to find a letter beside his bed that he physically wrote while sleeping but which claims to be from a being named Martia. Martia says she (her sex isn’t clear at first) has inhabited many human and animal life forms before deciding that Barty was her favorite and she would inhabit him, which she has done since his childhood. She can do little to help him but is devoted to him and gives him his advanced sensory powers. As time goes on, Barty learns Martia’s entire story. Martia has gone through countless incarnations on Mars from the lowest to highest forms of life, but she only remembers her last incarnation as a woman. Barty has often remembered having dreams of being around mermaid-like people, and now he understands that is because Martians are amphibious. In time, Martia came to earth in a shower of shooting stars and after spending a century inhabiting various people and animals, she decided to remain in Barty.

In time, Martia’s spirit inhabiting him allows Barty to become a famous writer. He basically channels her spirit and writes while he’s in a sleeping state, which his wife observes. For me, the most disturbing part of the book is what he writes about. Why he is such a popular writer is fairly obscure in the novel, but at one point, Maurice tells us that Barty’s books were at first condemned by religions, but now are preached from pulpits because they confirm the “indestructible gem of immortality” in us and are the “golden bridge in the middle of which science and faith can shake hands.” They also are in favor of suicide as a normal way out of our troubles, and Maurice, while he won’t discuss the morality of this statement, does say that the cruelties of the world are ending because of Barty’s books. What is most disturbing is that because of the information in Barty’s books, which seem to advocate eugenics (although du Maurier doesn’t use the term), the human race is now four to six inches taller and its strength and beauty are increasing; however, his theories also advocate a sort of survival of the fittest to the point where those who are not beautiful or strong see the wisdom of not marrying and passing on bad genes to future generations. The narrator himself has decided not to have children so he doesn’t pass on his long upper lip and the kink in his noise.

Barty’s literary abilities clearly result from Martia’s influence, but they make Barty feel like a fraud. However, Maurice states that Martia simply gave him ideas that are the “mere skeleton of his work” while all the beauty and grace of the works are his own. In this passage, Martia is also describes as “his demon,” which seems an odd word choice since Martia is clearly benevolent, but “demon” at times refers simply to a wise supernatural being, as is the case in Bulwer-Lytton’s Gothic Rosicrucian novel Zanoni (1842).

As time goes by, Martia decides no longer to reside in Barty but to reincarnate herself as his child. The novel then treats of her childhood before she falls out of a tree and ends up dying at age seventeen, and Barty dies when she dies. It’s a rather anticlimactic ending, actually.

George du Maurier was the grandfather of authors Angela du Maurier, Daphne du Maurier, and the five Davies boys who inspired J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan

George du Maurier was the grandfather of authors Angela du Maurier, Daphne du Maurier, and the five Davies boys who inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan

The Martian is really lacking in a plot, and du Maurier seemed aware of this deficiency since he has Maurice continually remind us it’s an autobiography and even show concern that he is boring the reader with all the details he’s including. That said, the idea of a supernatural being, in this case a Martian, channeling one’s writing is really fascinating to me, although it wasn’t revolutionary as a plot theme. Mediums were popular throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, and Martia herself remarks that all the knocking on tables (at séances) is fake. Novels were also reputably being channeled during this period, including a continuation of Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1873 by Thomas James, a Vermont printer who claimed he had channeled Dickens to complete the novel. What feels more revolutionary to me is that it is not a ghost or spirit but a martian who is the source of the channeling; today, the idea of alien implants is common enough in science fiction, but it wasn’t in 1896. Where did du Maurier come up with such an idea, I wonder.

Martia is also a sort of protector or counselor to Barty—at one point she is upset with him for not marrying the woman he tells her too. This idea of a supernatural counselor is common in Gothic Rosicrucian novels such as Zanoni, as well as in the Duchess of Devonshire’s The Sylph (1779). I also wonder whether du Maurier is giving a nod to William Morris’ utopian science fiction novel News from Nowhere (1890) when Barty refers to himself as “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere,” a name he adopts because he is the illegitimate child of a lord, a position that does not allow him to take his father’s rightful name. Interestingly, this is a similar situation that Juliet in Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814) experiences, and Burney continually used terms like “Nobody” in her novels. The “sylph” as a Rosicrucian guide is also used in Burney’s novel.) More research would need to be done on all these possible literary sources, but it is clear du Maurier is writing within the Gothic literary tradition.

One last interesting aspect of the novel is that du Maurier writes himself into the novel as a character, frequently dropping his name as one of Barty’s artist friends, and Maurice even includes in his narrative a letter from du Maurier, in which he arranges for du Maurier to illustrate The Martian. This is also quite a revolutionary, playful postmodern move and while it is common today for authors to write themselves into their books, I don’t know of any authors prior to du Maurier who did so.

Of course, du Maurier did illustrate the novel, and the illustrations for it can be found in various places on the Internet, including at: http://www.erbzine.com/mag27/2726a.html, a site devoted to Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the Tarzan and Mars novels. The website owner raises the possibility, unconfirmed, that Burroughs may have read The Martian and it may have influenced his own Mars series. Considering Burroughs’ Mars novels are often concerned with the power of the mind and even brain transplants, I think it’s likely, and Burroughs was definitely interested in evolutionary theories, if not eugenics itself. More research would need to be done to confirm the connection, however, so perhaps people who know more about the history of science fiction than I do will enlighten me further.

The Martian is far deserving of more attention than it has received. It is a pleasant, leisurely read and worthwhile just for its depictions of nineteenth century France, but its supernatural elements truly make it a novel ahead of its time, just like du Maurier’s two better known novels.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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The Sylph: The Duchess of Devonshire’s pre-Gothic and pre-Romantic Novel

In recent years, Georgiana Cavendish, nee Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire, has enjoyed renewed interest due to the 2008 film The Duchess starring Keira Knightley, as well as her being an ancestral aunt to the late Princess Diana. But it was not until my friend and fellow literary scholar, Ellen Moody, author of Trollope on the Net, told me that it was believed the Duchess had also written a novel that I really became interested in learning more about her.

The Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806) had many portraits painted of her including this one by Sir Joshua Reynolds. She was celebrated as a great beauty in her day.

The Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806) had many portraits painted of her including this one by Sir Joshua Reynolds. She was celebrated as a great beauty in her day.

The Duchess is the alleged author of the epistolary novel The Sylph (1779), which was published anonymously because of her social position and also because of its subject matter, presenting the unhappy marriage of a woman whose husband is a rake, adulterer, and gambler, which in many ways paralleled her own marriage. Speculation exists that the novel was actually written by Sophia Briscoe, a contemporary novelist, but the Duchess in private is said to have acknowledged she was its author. To this day, her family denies her writing the book. I am not surprised, however, by the possibility that she is the author considering she was also the aunt to Lady Caroline Lamb, author of the fabulously interesting Gothic novel Glenarvon about her own love affair with Lord Byron. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lamb learned a few things from her aunt, although I think the Duchess’ novel superior in many ways.

The Sylph’s title is a reference to the sylphs that appear in Alexander Pope’s poem The Rape of the Lock, in which they are depicted as fairy-like creatures who look after the female protagonist. The Duchess quotes from The Rape of the Lock as the frontispiece to the novel, describing sylphs’ roles:

“Ye Sylphs and Sylphids, to your chief give ear,
Fays, Fairies, Genii, Elves, and Demons, hear!
Ye know the spheres, and various tasks assign’d
By laws eternal to th’aërial kind:
Some in the fields of purest æther play,
And bask, and whiten, in the blaze of day;
Some guide the course of wand’ring orbs on high,
Or roll the planets thro’ the boundless sky:
Our humbler province is to tend the Fair,
Not a less pleasing, nor less glorious care.”

In the Duchess’ novel, the Sylph also takes on the role of protector to a young lady. Because it is difficult to find information about the novel online, I will briefly summarize the plot. The book is available at Project Gutenberg and in print copies, but little has been written about it in terms of literary criticism.

The novel begins with a letter by Sir William Stanley describing an accident he has that requires him to recuperate in the country where he becomes acquainted with the Grenville daughters. Of course, he quickly falls in love with one sister, Julia, who is our protagonist and whose letters make up the bulk of the novel. Julia agrees to marry Sir William, and he takes her off to London to live. Her adventures are then revealed through her letters to her sister Louisa, with letters included from Louisa, as well as from several of Sir William’s male friends and acquaintances describing the adventures in further detail, as well as their plots against Julia.

The novel in many ways can be compared to Fanny Burney’s novel, Evelina, or a Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World (1778). Julia, like Evelina, finds herself in London learning about the wickedness of that city and trying to maintain her morals. Many difficulties ensue for Julia, including attending a masquerade ball and returning with a masked man she believes is her husband but turns out to be Lord Biddulph; he seeks to have his way with her in her bedroom, but fortunately, she escapes his wiles. Julia then tells Sir William what has happened, but he is under the thumb of Biddulph because he is a terrible gambler and deeply in debt. His debt is so bad that when Julia offers her jewels to Sir William to pay his debts, she learns he has already sold them and replaced them with glass and paste jewels, which she is too naive to have realized.

Early in her entrance into wicked London life, Julia begins to receive letters from an anonymous writer who describes himself as the Sylph. This character is fascinating because he keeps his identity secret, but he tells Julia he can see what she does and even know the thoughts of her mind. It is worth quoting this passage at length to understand his supernatural claims:

“I am a Rosicrusian by principle; I need hardly tell you, they are a sect of philosophers, who by a life of virtue and self-denial have obtained an heavenly intercourse with aërial beings;—as my internal knowledge of you (to use the expression) is in consequence of my connexion with the Sylphiad tribe, I have assumed the title of my familiar counsellor. This, however, is but as a preface to what I mean to say to you;—I have hinted, I knew you well;—when I thus expressed myself, it should be understood, I spoke in the person of the Sylph, which I shall occasionally do, as it will be writing with more perspicuity in the first instance; and, as he is employed by me, I may, without the appearance of robbery, safely appropriate to myself the knowledge he gains.

“Every human being has a guardian angel; my skill has discovered your’s; my power has made him obedient to my will; I have a right to avail myself of the intelligences he gains; and by him I have learnt every thing that has passed since your birth;—what your future fortune is to be, even he cannot tell; his view is circumscribed to a small point of time; he only can tell what will be the consequence of taking this or that step, but your free-agency prevents his impelling you to act otherwise than as you see fit. I move upon a more enlarged sphere; he tells me what will happen; and as I see the remote, as well as immediate consequence, I shall, from time to time, give you my advice.—Advice, however, when asked, is seldom adhered to; but when given voluntarily, the receiver has no obligation to follow it.—I shall in a moment discover how this is received by you; and your deviation from the rules I shall prescribe will be a hint for me to withdraw my counsel where it is not acceptable. All that then will remain for me, will be to deplore your too early initiation in a vicious world, where to escape unhurt or uncontaminated is next to a miracle.

“I said, I should soon discover whether my advice would be taken in the friendly part it is offered: I shall perceive it the next time I have the happiness of beholding you, and I see you every day; I am never one moment absent from you in idea, and in my mind’s eye I see you each moment; only while I conceal myself from you, can I be of service to you;—press not then to discover who I am; but be convinced—nay, I shall take every opportunity to convince you, that I am the most sincere and disinterested of your friends; I am a friend to your soul, my Julia, and I flatter myself mine is congenial with your’s.”

The reader, however, realizes the Sylph is not really a supernatural being but a human who must be close enough to Julia to see her and know what she is doing. He writes several letters of advice to her and she responds, and although he cannot always rescue her from evil, he is a wise counselor to her.

In the end, Sir William’s debt gets the better of him and a truly horrid situation results. Lord Biddulph agrees to rescue him from debt in exchange that he divorce Julia so Lord Biddulph can marry her. Sir William refuses to sell his wife in this manner and ends up committing suicide. Julia writes to her sister, asking that she and her father receive “your poor wanderer” and she returns to them in the country. The Sylph now writes to tell her she no longer needs his services since she is returning to the “peaceful vale of innocence.”

But the Sylph returns in a new appearance soon after. Early in the novel is a letter from Woodley, a childhood friend of Julia’s who moved away but has now grown up and returned, hoping to marry her, but he arrives just after she has married Sir William. Realizing the mistake in choosing a husband that Julia has made, Woodley has bided his time and is the Sylph who has sought her welfare through all her trials. Now it is revealed to her that he has been disguised as the Baron Ton-hausen, a friend of hers in London whom she thought a foreigner and whom she admired and almost wished she had chosen over Sir William as a husband. Woodley has had smallpox and changed over the years since childhood so she did not recognize him, but her friendship with the baron allowed him to be close enough to observe and advise her.

When Woodley’s identity as the Sylph is revealed, Julia calls him “Proteus,” and “three in one” and a “variable being.” Proteus, from Homer’s Iliad, was able to change or metamorphose his form. She also compares herself and Woodley to Henry and Emma, the title characters of a poem by Matthew Prior. (Today, the poem is best known for being alluded to in Jane Austen’s Persuasion).

Of course, once she gets over her surprise, Julia agrees to marry Woodley and we can assume they live happily ever after.

I find The Sylph to be a remarkable novel for many reasons. The novel reminds me of Burney’s novels, including Evelina as I already mentioned, but also Burney’s later novels. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it influenced Burney to some degree. The horrible results of debt in the novel remind me of Cecilia (1782), in which Cecilia tries to pay the debts of a man who threatens suicide if she does not. More importantly, I think the magical depiction of the Sylph, though a male in this novel, is very similar to the more extensive idea of a supernatural being who can metamorphose herself in Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814). In that novel, Burney draws upon the wanderer theme of Gothic and Romantic literature (note above that I quoted Julia as describing herself as a “wanderer”), and especially the Wandering Jew. Burney’s heroine, Juliet is known through most of the novel as Ellis; she hides her identity from others, and plays so many different roles that she might have been seen as a female “Proteus,” although instead, Burney refers to her as a “wandering Jewess,” and one of the characters in the novel remarks of Juliet:

“You have been bruised and beaten; and dirty and clean; and ragged and whole; and wounded and healed; and a European and a Creole, in less than a week. I suppose, next, you will dwindle into a dwarf; and then perhaps, find some surprising contrivance to shoot up into a giantess. There is nothing that can be too much to expect from so great an adept in metamorphoses.”

A more in-depth discussion of Juliet’s metamorphoses and Burney’s use of the Gothic Wandering Jew theme can be found in my book The Gothic Wanderer.

I really don’t know what kind of influence The Sylph had upon its contemporaries, but it certainly is a remarkable novel of the period, and many of the themes in it became significant ones for the Gothic novel, including gambling, the idea of metamorphosed identities, Rosicrucianism, and depictions of Jews. There is only one reference to Jews in the novel when Julia writes that her husband is surrounded by “Jew-brokers” who are “such wretches” and “infernal agents,” but it’s interesting that they are included as being responsible for Sir William’s downfall. Biddulph is also an interesting Gothic wanderer type villain; he is largely the cause of Sir William’s death. At first, he feels haunted by Sir William’s suicide, and recalling Milton’s Satan who has “hell within him,” Biddulph remarks, “my mind is a hell,” but Biddulph is also partially in denial of his responsibility in Sir William’s death, saying how thankful he is that he didn’t seduce Julia (regardless, he still caused Sir William’s death).

Also interesting about the novel is how it builds on the Romantic Myth of Consciousness, where someone begins in stage of innocence, moves into experience, and then seeks to escape the miseries of being experienced about life by entering into wise innocence. When Julia finally returns home, Woodley as the Sylph, remarks that she is returning to a “vale of innocence,” but really it is wise innocence she seeks. The use of the word “vale” is interesting here too, not only because of its religious implications, but because Woodley’s family originally owned the land where Julia’s family lives, so the area is known as “Woodley-vale.” So in marrying Woodley, Julia is able to enter into the vale—Woodley becomes her vale, her refuge of wise innocence. Woodley’s name also recalls the role of Nature in Romantic poetry since she finds her refuge in a wooded vale or forest, far from the wickedness of city life.

The Sylph is a remarkable novel that deserves far more attention than it has received over the years. The Duchess of Devonshire is truly a foremother of the Gothic and Romantic traditions as well as a fascinating novelist in her own right. I highly recommend the novel to readers.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy: The Children of Arthur, Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Huntly, and the American Gothic Forest

Charles Brockden Brown is often cited as America’s first Gothic novelist, but frequently, James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne are credited with taking the Gothic out of European castles and placing it in the American forest. The truth is that Brown deserves that credit as well in his finest Gothic novel, Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, published in 1799.

I recently read Edgar Huntly for the first time and was surprised to find that I thought it was the best of Brown’s novels. I had read Ormond years ago and found it very dull, but being a fan of the Gothic and literary history, I went on to read Arthur Mervyn, which had some fabulously suspenseful scenes, and Wieland, which is known for its use of ventriloquism, though I found it a bit slow. But I think Brown truly wrote his masterpiece in Edgar Huntly for several reasons, most importantly, that it maintains the level of suspense throughout.

Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) wrote all seven of his novels in the short period of 1798-1801.

Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) wrote all seven of his novels in the short period of 1798-1801.

I won’t give a full plot outline, but just hit on a few high points. The novel begins with the title character grieving the death of his friend Waldegrave, who was murdered, but the murderer remains unknown. Brown uses the manuscript technique, in this case in the form of a letter, to have Huntly describe the events of the novel to Waldegrave’s sister, Mary, who is also Huntly’s love interest. A collection of papers belonging to Waldegrave is also in Huntly’s possession, which eventually go missing, hence more manuscript usages.

Huntly soon observes a servant who lives nearby, Clithero, sleepwalking and digging in the ground to hide something, making him suspect Clithero is Waldegrave’s murderer and sleepwalking due to a guilty conscience. Huntly learns from Clithero’s fellow servant and bedfellow that he has overheard Clithero uttering guilt-ridden speeches in his sleep. Finally, Huntly confronts Clithero and from him hears his full story of despair and guilt and crime and how he fled Ireland to come to America. The story is part of the stories within stories Gothic technique and provides plenty of Gothic themes, including social mobility that suggests transgression, gambling, and illegitimate children, not all Clithero’s crimes but those of his mistress’ brother, whom he eventually kills, thus staining his hands with blood. I’ll leave all the details for interested readers to discover, but it turns out Clithero is not the murderer of Waldegrave. What Clithero is, however, is a Gothic Wanderer figure, one who believes he has also killed his mistress, and who feels incredible guilt and is in exile for it. Huntly refers to Clithero as a “wanderer” and Brown does an amazing thing in showing Huntly willing to forgive Clithero when he still thinks him Waldegrave’s murderer, saying he will befriend and help heal him once he hears his confession. This desire to redeem the Gothic wanderer is rare in early Gothic works and more of a Victorian theme. Whether or not Clithero is worthy of redemption will be seen at the novel’s end.

After telling Huntly his story, Clithero flees into the woods in despair. Huntly searches for him and finds him perched high up on a rock but Huntly cannot reach the summit and returns home. Soon after, Huntly finds himself in a strange cave and believes himself to have been abducted. The novel’s suspense really skyrockets at this point as Huntly makes his way out of the cave and has to get past savages as well as rescue a white girl who is their captive. From that point, Huntly goes through a series of adventures in the forest that result in some truly suspenseful scenes as he constantly fears death at the Indians’ hands. The novel, of course, is racist in its attitude toward Native Americans, but that doesn’t eliminate the very real fear that a white man would have felt in this situation, and it does make the forest truly Gothic in atmosphere.

I’ll leave it up to readers to discover how the plot turns out and who murdered Waldegrave. There are several twists and turns, though Huntly’s time in the forest fleeing from the Indians takes up a good half of the novel, and at times, I thought perhaps Brown had almost forgotten about the plot concerning Clithero and Waldegrave, but they are brought back in the end and all explanations made.

The book is not perfect, but it is probably the best Gothic work before Poe and Hawthorne. (I don’t think Cooper, despite the suspense of his stories, really qualifies as Gothic since he doesn’t rely on typical Gothic themes like manuscripts, the supernatural, transgression, etc.) Brown writes more realistic Gothic fiction, not using the supernatural, but all the other elements are present in his work. The novel’s faults include the sleepwalking—both Clithero and Huntly turn out to be sleepwalkers, which seems unbelievable to me; I have yet to know anyone who actually sleepwalks in my life. The other fault that makes Brown tiresome at times is the sheer wordiness of his writing. He continually repeats himself and lets Huntly think through the same matters multiple times. One phrase that I found completely laughable was when Huntly said, “by a common apparatus, that lay beside my bed, I could instantly produce a light. The light was produced.” Why couldn’t Huntly have just said, “I lit a candle”? Despite these faults, there is suspense up to the last moment, even when the wordiness gets in the way.

Anyone who loves Gothic fiction and loves Poe and Hawthorne would find Edgar Huntly the best novel to read as an introduction to Charles Brockden Brown. The American Gothic tradition owes a huge debt to him.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Dracula: The New Wandering Jew and Anti-Semitism

I have previously posted about the Wandering Jew in Gothic fiction, which can be read at: http://thegothicwanderer.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/the-wandering-jew-a-staple-of-the-gothic-wanderer-tradition/

 Following is an excerpt from my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption about Dracula’s Wandering Jew Origins:

Stoker’s ambiguity about Dracula’s origins is part of his novel’s strength but a frustration for the literary critic. It is impossible to know how easily Victorian readers accepted the plausibility of Dracula’s existence. Readers today cannot recreate such an experience because our culture is saturated with images of vampires that make readers knowledgeable about Dracula from childhood; consequently, those who read Dracula today are already willing to suspend their disbelief. Stoker’s personal feelings toward his famous character are equally difficult to determine; he appears to have both loathed and sympathized with Dracula, and therefore, placed Dracula in the role of outcast, a role with which Stoker, as an Irishman living in England, may have identified. Dracula’s role as racial outsider results from Stoker giving him Jewish attributes and largely basing him on depictions of the Wandering Jew. Although not Jewish, Stoker’s first name, Abraham, may have resulted in people believing he was Jewish. His role as Irish outsider may have further allowed Stoker to identify with the Jews as outcasts. Finally, Stoker’s homosexual inclinations meant he had to hide his true nature, so Stoker may have felt he was living under a false identity as Dracula must conceal his vampirism to survive (Malchow 155). Dracula’s eroticism may have resulted from Stoker’s own repressed sexuality. After 1895, Oscar Wilde’s famous trial resulted in laws against homosexuality becoming stricter, meaning Stoker would have feared to have his homosexuality discovered. Stoker personally knew Oscar Wilde, so Wilde’s situation must have caused Stoker emotional turmoil. Stoker may have even loathed his own sexual inclinations because he feared the discrimination that resulted from Wilde’s trial. Consequently, Dracula’s roles as outsider, pseudo-Jewish, and sexually deviant may have been an embodiment of those personal qualities that most bothered Stoker. This personal self-loathing may have made Stoker both sympathize with Dracula and simultaneously detest him. Stoker’s sympathy toward Dracula resulted in Dracula’s redemption, but Stoker’s personal self-hatred prevented Dracula’s redemption from occurring by any means but violent destruction.

Besides his possible personal identification with the Jews as outcasts, Stoker was very interested in the legend of the Wandering Jew, whose attributes are echoed in Dracula. Stoker may have known the works of Lewis and Maturin, but he was most fascinated by French author Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew (1845), which depicts the figure as a rebel and Romantic wanderer who achieves the reader’s sympathy by his benevolence toward humanity. The Wandering Jew becomes the hero of the work by defeating humanity’s real enemies, the Jesuits (Malchow 149, 156). Stoker’s fascination with Sue’s novel resulted in his heavily researching the Wandering Jew legend in the British Museum, as he did with the vampire legend. Stoker’s friend, Hall Caine, later remarked that the Wandering Jew became “one of Bram’s pet themes” (Malchow 156), and Stoker would include a section on the Wandering Jew in his book on famous impostors (Malchow 156). As secretary to the famous actor Henry Irving, Stoker even suggested that Irving perform a dramatic version of Sue’s novel (Malchow 156). There is good evidence, therefore, that Stoker intentionally used the Wandering Jew as a source for his depiction of Dracula.

The Wandering Jew as painted by Samuel Hirszenberg in 1899

The Wandering Jew as painted by Samuel Hirszenberg in 1899

Dracula’s debt to the Wandering Jew is most obvious in their shared physical characteristics. An 1873 stage version of Eugene Sue’s novel, produced by George Lander, describes the Wandering Jew as having “long jet-black hair and jet-black eyebrows, dressed in a long black robe” (Malchow 156-7). Dracula’s description is similar and may have been derived from Stoker’s memory of the play. Of course, the obvious physical similarity between the Wandering Jew and all vampires is the emphasis upon the eyes. Dracula has the same powerful hypnotic eyes attributed to the Wandering Jew, but Stoker also elaborates upon the eye description by giving Dracula’s eyes a red gleam suggestive of the “evil eye.” According to Matthew 6:22-3, the eye reflects the state of the soul, and Dracula’s eyes suggest this connection early in the novel. When Dracula makes his first appearance, his “eyes gleamed” (26), and later when Dracula sees that Jonathan Harker has cut himself while shaving, his eyes “blazed with a sort of demoniac fury” (34). Such descriptions reveal Dracula’s true evil nature (Wolf 10).

Dracula further shares with the Wandering Jew a supernaturally extended life. Both characters converse with great knowledge of the past, which amazes listeners who are ignorant of the speakers’ extensive ages. Such is Jonathan Harker’s experience upon first hearing Dracula’s conversation.

 

In his speaking of things and people, and especially of battles, he spoke as if he had been present at them all. This he afterwards explained by saying that to a boyar the pride of his house and name is his own pride, that their glory is his glory, that their fate is his fate. Whenever he spoke of his house he always said “we,” and spoke almost in the plural, like a king speaking. I wish I could put down all he said exactly as he said it, for to me it was most fascinating. It seemed to have in it a whole history of the country. (37)

 

While Dracula and the Wandering Jew share protracted lifespans, they are in opposition in their desires for such long lives. The Wandering Jew is weary of life and longs for death, but Dracula actively seeks to prolong his life by his supernatural activities. William Day observes that for Dracula to become supernatural, he must both be part of the natural world, while correspondingly reversing natural biological processes. In the natural world, the living feed on the dead, but Dracula is the dead who feeds on the living, and by this feeding he prolongs his life (41).Dracula1stedition

Dracula’s active desire to prolong his life is largely achieved by his ability to control Nature. By contrast, the Wandering Jew has no control over Nature, which acts against him as when the water recedes if the Jew attempts to drown himself, or the volcano spits out the Jew if he tries to jump in. Dracula, however, can control Nature, thus prolonging his life by his ability to move about in various forms, granting him numerous advantages and means for seducing potential victims while protecting himself from capture or destruction. In the novel, Dr. Van Helsing explains Dracula’s power over Nature:

 

he can, within limitations, appear at will when, and where, and in any of the forms that are to him; he can, within his range, direct the elements; the storm, the fog, the thunder; he can command all the meaner things: the rat, and the owl, and the bat—the moth, and the fox, and the wolf; he can grow and become small; and he can at times vanish and come unknown. (265)

 

Dracula’s control of the elements suggests his role as Antichrist because he has Christ-like powers. Christ is able to control the elements as in Mark 4:39-41 when he calms a storm at sea to protect his disciples. This idea of a Gothic character controlling the elements is not original to Stoker, who may have borrowed it from Bulwer-Lytton. In Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), the evil magician, Arbaces, is believed by the other characters to have control over the elements, and in the same author’s “The Haunted and the Haunters” (1857), a character remarks that a mesmerist, Richards, has similar powers: “I have seen him affect even the weather, disperse or collect clouds, by means of a glass tube or wand” (322). Dracula’s ability to “vanish and come unknown” also links him to the Wandering Jew who inexplicably can appear and disappear from places, especially at moments of historical importance. Stoker borrows the Jew’s mysterious movements for Dracula, but provides an explanation for how Dracula achieves such mobility.

Stoker also builds upon the Wandering Jew’s connection to the biblical Cain in his depiction of Dracula. The Wandering Jew traditionally bears a mark on his forehead that recalls the mark God gave to Cain for murdering Abel. Beirman states that Stoker was fascinated by the tale of Cain’s murder of Abel and planted the biblical story in the novel (Farson 155). Dracula receives a mark like that of Cain when Jonathan Harker strikes him upon the forehead. In revenge, Dracula places a mark upon Mina’s forehead, signifying that she belongs to him, so she is now an outcast from heaven like himself (Wolf 270). Dracula is further connected to Cain when his disciple, Renfield, refers to himself as Enoch, the biblical son of Cain (Farson 155).

Stoker made one final connection between Dracula and the Wandering Jew that he later deleted from the final version of Dracula. In the original second chapter that was later removed, Jonathan Harker’s journey to Dracula’s castle includes a stop in Munich, where he sees a performance of Wagner’s opera, The Flying Dutchman. The story of the Flying Dutchman is similar to that of the Wandering Jew; the Dutch captain must roam the seas forever in a cursed phantom ship until Judgment Day because he defied God by committing murder like the biblical Cain (Belford 217).

While Stoker’s interest in the Wandering Jew carried over into aspects of Dracula’s character, Stoker’s use of Jewish characteristics for Dracula also reflected the growing anti-Semitism of late Victorian England. Anti-Semitism was becoming popular at the end of the nineteenth century because of increased migrations of Eastern European and especially Jewish people into England (Zanger 34). During this period, the press continually discussed the Jewish “problem,” largely by attacking the immigration of Jews into England and the financial world, with which they were stereotypically associated (Malchow 130). While Stoker could have had his novel consist of Jonathan Harker’s visit to Transylvania, Stoker’s decision to have the novel center around Dracula’s migration to England is intended to symbolize the migration of Eastern European Jews to England in the late nineteenth century (Malchow 162). Dracula’s intent to colonize England with a race of vampires reflects an English fear that the Jews would take over England. The destruction of the “Jewish” Dracula becomes a “socially acceptable” way to express a widespread English desire to rid England of the Jews (Zanger 36). Stoker’s self-loathing of himself as an outcast, and his identification with the Jews as outcasts, may have contributed to his depiction of Dracula’s murder, thus granting the novel an anti-Semitic layer of meaning.Bram_Stoker_1906

Besides his literary origins in the Wandering Jew, Dracula has numerous other Jewish attributes, especially his role as a racial outsider. Dracula fears recognition as an outsider while he is in England, so he explains to Jonathan Harker that he wishes to blend in with English society. Dracula’s role as “Other,” however, largely operates from his being a vampire and his perverse sexual behavior represented by his blood sucking. Dracula as “Other” poses a sexual threat in the novel that flourishes upon myths that Eastern and dark skinned men, including Africans and Jews, have greater sexual prowess than Western European men (Hatten 129, Malchow 149, 151). Such sexual fears of the “Other” resulted in numerous stereotypes of the Jewish people during the Victorian period, including their being rapists, cannibals, and polygamists. Dracula’s forced seduction of Lucy and Mina are symbolic of rape. Rape was an activity associated with Jews because of the murders committed by Jack the Ripper. Among the suspects for the identity of Jack the Ripper was a Jewish kosher butcher who had the instruments and the skills required to carry out the mutilations the Ripper inflicted upon his victims (Zanger 42). Of the one hundred thirty people questioned as suspects for being Jack the Ripper, a high proportion of them were Jewish, and ultimately, the police decided Jack the Ripper was probably a lower-class Jew from London’s East End (164). The widespread belief that Jack the Ripper was Jewish reflects the racism of Victorian England that sought to blame the Jews for its problems. Stoker capitalized upon this racist stereotyping by depicting Dracula as a sexual predator.

Besides being regarded as rapists, Jewish people were stereotyped with various forms of sexual deviance, including intended corruption of women and the innocent. In George DuMaurier’s Trilby (1894), Svengali the Jew has hypnotic eyes which he uses to seduce the heroine Trilby to carry out his will. Similarly, Dracula seduces Mina, and then tries to force her to help him in protecting himself from his enemies. Jews were also depicted as corrupting children. In Oliver Twist (1838), Fagin preys upon boys, using them as tools for his acquisition of wealth. More severe depictions included Jewish men as cowardly homosexual degenerates who preyed upon innocent boys; such representations easily extended to the metaphor that Jews were like vampires, for vampires seek their victims during nocturnal hours, the same time when homosexuals are most likely to contact one another (Malchow 141, 163). Vampires, Jews, and homosexuals were also all associated with strange smells believed to arise from the bodily emissions of masturbation or the fecund odor of sodomy (Malchow 141). Jewish men were even believed to menstruate; this bleeding provided yet another metaphorical link to vampires (Mulvey-Roberts, “Dracula” 830). After Oscar Wilde’s trial in 1895, anxieties increased over gender issues, and Stoker, who had his own anxieties over his homosexuality, used such anxieties to make Dracula all the more frightening by suggesting his sexual deviance (Gary Day 82).

More popular as a Jewish stereotype than their perverted sexuality was the belief that Jews were wealthy. Because many Jews were usurers, they were comparable to vampires because they could financially drain their debtors. Blood and money became metaphors for one another because both are necessary to sustain life. Consequently, Jews, and especially usurers, were treated as types of vampires in literature. In Mary Shelley’s Valperga (1823), usury is associated with vampirism when Castruccio, upon learning that Pepi has engaged in usury, calls Pepi, “Thou vile Jew…A usurer, a bloodsucker!” (216). In Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son (1848), during an estate auction “herds of shabby vampires, Jew and Christian, over-run the house” (Pool 98). At least, Dickens admits that Christians can behave as badly as Jews. In Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875), the Jewish financier and swindler, Melmotte, is described as swallowing up the property of all whom he does business with, which is likened to his feeding upon the blood of widows and children (Zanger 38). Stoker builds upon such stereotypes by depicting Dracula as extremely wealthy and also miserly in his hiding of his money—he has a hidden treasure in Transylvania which is marked by a blue flame. Dracula’s extreme wealth is most dramatically depicted when the male protagonists attempt to capture Dracula at his London house. In the attack, Dracula’s clothes are torn, resulting in gold and bank notes falling from his clothing as if he were bleeding money (339). This scene recalls Shylock’s famous speech about Jews in The Merchant of Venice, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” (III, i, 56) (Zanger 42).

Bela Lugosi, the most famous actor to play Dracula on screen in the 1931 film. When the film premiered, people in the audience were said to have fainted from the horror.

Bela Lugosi, the most famous actor to play Dracula on screen in the 1931 film. When the film premiered, people in the audience were said to have fainted from the horror.

Stoker also uses typical stereotypes regarding the Jewish religion to enhance Dracula’s role as vampire. Jews were falsely believed to drink blood in their religious rituals, although the Old Testament specifically forbid blood consumption (Leviticus 10:14, Deuteronomy 12:23). Furthermore, Jews were frequently depicted as murdering Christians to obtain blood for their Passover feasts (Zanger 37). Dracula’s blood consumption, therefore, aligns his activities with the Jewish religion, and makes both appear as the reverse of Christianity. Dracula is likened to the vengeful God of the Old Testament, who demands blood sacrifices; therefore, Dracula’s blood consumption reflects the metaphor that the Jewish people’s Old Testament religion is a form of vampirism (Malchow 161-2).

These numerous Jewish attributes associated with vampires make Dracula the embodiment of a racist stereotype. His destruction, then, may be read as a form of racist murder and an attempt to preserve racial purity in England. At the same time, his outsider status makes him somewhat sympathetic to a modern reader. Dracula’s role as outcast is also based in his Jewish attributes because like the Jews, he is denied the salvation that Christians are promised. Dracula’s evil and supernatural nature and his blasphemy of Christianity ultimately cast him in the role of Antichrist.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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The True Cross, British Myth, and the Wandering Jew

I’ve long wondered about the truth behind theories that Helena, the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother, was a British princess. As with the legend of King Arthur, we’ll probably never know the truth about her birth, but since I love the Arthurian legend, I like to think it’s true, and even that she is an ancestor to King Arthur himself since King Arthur is often theorized to be Constantine’s descendant.

Consequently, I was excited when I found out that one of Britain’s greatest twentieth century novelists, Evelyn Waugh, had written a book about St. Helena. I was even more excited when I read in the book’s preface that the Wandering Jew—a favorite figure from Gothic literature—makes an appearance.

helena-waugh-cover

Evelyn Waugh believed Helena was his best novel.

Helena, published in 1950, actually was considered by Waugh to be his best work. I’m afraid that most critics, myself included, don’t agree. Otherwise, I’d have heard of the book long ago since I’ve read several of his better known—and better—novels such as A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited. But being Catholic, an Arthurian enthusiast, and a scholar of British literature, I was curious to know how Waugh—a Catholic novelist—would treat the subject of St. Helena.

I had really high hopes when I read George Weigl’s introduction to the book (I read the Loyala classics edition; Loyola is a Catholic publisher). I’m not a big fan of modernism and its lack of real meaning and the relativism it often favors. I don’t pretend to be completely traditional in my thinking as a Catholic, but I do appreciate a devoutly written book, and even more, one that is realistic and not sentimental. I’m afraid, however, that the introduction by George Weigel and Waugh’s Preface were the best part of the book for me. Weigel refers to how Waugh was against Gnosticism and the meaninglessness of life that it depicts. I think Weigel misunderstands Gnosticism in this description (or is relying on Waugh’s limited understanding of it in an era when many ancient Gnostic texts were just being rediscovered and would change our understanding of them), but clearly Waugh was against it—he shows Helena thinking it’s all “bosh” and I have to admit that the Gnostic texts I’ve read haven’t made much sense to me either—Waugh’s depiction of their convoluted mysticism is a pretty fair portrait—although I appreciate the recent revival of them and the spiritual message they try to express. I don’t have space here to debate their value, but Waugh should have given them less short shrift.

What I liked best about Waugh’s book is that Helena is depicted as a no nonsense person. Whenever she is introduced to any religious ideas, she constantly asks, “How do you know it’s true?” In the end, she decides Christianity must be true because there are eyewitness accounts of Christ’s life, and if Christ lived, there has to have been a cross so when she finds the True Cross, she has proof of the religion’s validity.

I also liked that in the Preface, Waugh dismisses the disbelief of so many people about the relics of the True Cross in existence in Europe, stating “We do know [how we know Waugh doesn’t say] that most of the relics of the true cross now venerated in various places have a clear descent from the relic venerated in the first half of the fourth century. It used to be believed by the vulgar that there were enough pieces of this ‘true cross’ to build a battleship. In the last century a French savant, Charles Rohault de Fleury, went to the great trouble of measuring them all. He found a total of 4,000,000 cubic millimeters, whereas the cross on which our Lord suffered would probably comprise some 178,000,000. As far as volume goes, therefore, there is no strain on the credulity of the faithful.”

While I appreciated this no nonsense approach, I found the book’s overall tone somewhat tiring. Waugh’s sarcasm and cynicism and straining attempt to be funny do not support the theme or message he’s trying to deliver. The book’s style is that semi-humorous, tongue-in-cheek style of his contemporaries from the first half of the twentieth century, authors like John Erskine and T.H. White, and with all of them, I feel the result is a style that shows it is trying too hard to be funny, perhaps because it doesn’t know what it’s real subject is or how to take it seriously—perhaps afraid to take it too seriously from fear of failing in the attempt.

Certainly, there is nothing funny in this book about Helena’s husband cheating on her, her son imposing religion on the empire for political motives, or his murdering his family members. The humor may not be laugh out loud funny, but it could use some toning down.

What I enjoyed most about the book was how Waugh played with myths and legends. The Wandering Jew, whose connection to finding the True Cross in the novel is Waugh’s own invention, makes his appearance when Helena is in Jerusalem looking for the cross. Since he was at the event, he is able to guide her in knowing where to find the cross. Waugh has the Jew appear to Helena in a dream to give her the information, perhaps to avoid the novel losing its feel of realism. Waugh doubtless was aware of the Wandering Jew as a standard of Gothic literature, but he in no way depicts the Jew as a Gothic figure.

This is one of my favorite images of St. Helena, the Emperor Constantine, and the True Cross. I bought it in Turkey, which is the other competitor, along with Britain, for being her birthplace. This icon combines religion and superstition. Those are evil eyes hanging from it.

This is one of my favorite images of St. Helena, the Emperor Constantine, and the True Cross. I bought it in Turkey, which is the other competitor, along with Britain, for being her birthplace. This icon combines religion and superstition. Those are evil eyes hanging from it.

Waugh also plays on the legend that Helena was a British princess and her British family are descendants of Brutus, himself a descendant of Aeneas, and consequently, of the royal family of Troy, another part of British mythology which many have tried to disprove and may well not be true, but makes for a great part of the Arthurian story.

In the end, I don’t think Helena is a fabulous book. In fact, the pivotal moment when Helena becomes a Christian is brushed over, and I feel that really detracts from the whole argument Waugh is trying to make. Nor do I think she comes off looking like the kind of saint we would expect—a criticism Waugh would have understood. For Waugh, part of sainthood was about finding and living your vocation—Helena’s vocation was to find the cross. Waugh believed his own was to be a writer. Both served God in their own way through those vocations. Does it matter whether Helena found the True Cross? To some it may have added to their faith. Waugh himself actually comes off sounding uncertain. At the end of the preface he says, “The story is just something to be read; in fact, a legend.” But at the end of the novel itself, he states, “Above all the babble of her age and ours, she makes one blunt assertion. And there alone is hope.” Does the hope Waugh refers to lie in that she found the cross, or that there is hope itself? I guess it’s up to the reader to decide.

For readers who want a different take on Helena that again ties her to British myth, they might also enjoy Diana Paxson’s Priestess of Avalon, part of the Marion Zimmer Bradley Avalon series, which takes a less Catholic view of Helena, as the title suggests.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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“Tales of the Dead”: A Source for “Frankenstein” and “The Vampyre”

The story has been told countless times of how a party composed of Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, Dr. Polidori, and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont met at Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816 and there amused themselves by, among other things, reading ghost stories. When Lord Byron proposed that they each write a ghost story, the results were Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Polidori’s The Vampyre, two of the most important works of Gothic literature.

An integral part of this story that usually receives little mention is that the book of ghost stories they read was Tales of the Dead, although sometimes it is misrepresented as being Fantasmagoriana. The confusion about the book’s title results from its publication history. Although this book had an influence on the group of famous writers, not a lot of attention has been given to it, which made me curious to read it and see what, if any, merits it might contain. I was pleasantly surprised by its quality.

Lord Byron - He first suggested, based on reading "Tales of the Dead" that the party at Lake Geneva each right a ghost story. Byron's own story was never completed, but Polidori later tried to claim Byron was the author of "The Vampyre."

Lord Byron – He first suggested, based on reading “Tales of the Dead” that the party at Lake Geneva each right a ghost story. Byron’s own story was never completed, but Polidori’s story was at first erroneously attributed to him.

First, a little about its publication history to clarify some of the confusion about the title. Although it is often said that Shelley and company read a volume of German ghost stories, without stating the title, the compiler of the book, Sarah Elizabeth Utterson, actually translated the majority of the stories in Tales of the Dead from the French collection Fantasmagoriana, which in turn was a collection of various translated German works. Utterson left out three of the stories from Fantasmagoriana because they “did not appear equally interesting to her.” She also “considerably curtailed” her translation of the story “L’Amour Muet” (“The Spectre-Barber”) because the love story aspect didn’t suit the story collection in her opinion. To the collection, she added a new story, “The Storm,” which she said she had heard from a friend. She published the book in 1813, three years prior to the famous Lake Geneva meeting of Shelley and friends.

I won’t go into great detail about the differences of the stories and their titles here over the course of the translations. I recommend that people visit the Wikipedia entry on Tales of the Dead for more details. The page is very informative about the publication background, and it looks at this time as if it is intended that it will eventually have full plot summaries for all six of the stories, although only the first story’s plot is currently there, but that summary includes a wonderful family tree of the characters, which readers will find helpful since the relationships are very complicated.

My purpose here is to entice people to read these fabulous stories without giving away the entire plots of them, and to answer the question of whether they are of literary value and did they have any influence on Mary Shelley and Polidori.

I do believe they are of literary value, both for their influence on the Shelley party as well as their being extremely readable without a lot of the flowery language common in the period. In fact, I think they are some of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read, far more so than many of the other short stories of this period as well as some of the better known novels, including some of the Northanger novels mentioned by Austen.

I have read elsewhere that two of the stories, “The Family Portraits” and “The Death-Bride” were the two stories that most influenced the Shelley-Byron party, and I have to agree with this assessment. I found nothing in the other stories, despite their merits, that seemed to reflect anything in Frankenstein or The Vampyre. That said, I was relieved not to find a great deal of influence because that shows just how phenomenal and imaginative were the writers of Frankenstein and The Vampyre.

So what was the influence? In the first story “The Family Portraits,” a group of people gather together to tell ghost stories. That scene no doubt inspired Lord Byron to make his suggestion that the party do the same. In “The Death-Bride” the storyteller is also a gambler, so it’s possible that the gambling influenced Polidori to include the gambling theme in The Vampyre, although gambling occurs in numerous Gothic novels (see my chapter on “Gambling as Gothic Transgression” in my book The Gothic Wanderer) so naming the gambling here as an influence may be a stretch since the gambling in this story is not too prevalent to the tale’s importance and Polidori himself was known to be in debt for gambling at the end of his life. Another interesting point is the piercing look that the storyteller gives one of the listeners, a look reflective of the hypnotic look of the Wandering Jew in literature of this time, notably Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1795); hypnotic eyes will also become a key element of the vampire figure.

It is not known whether Percy Shelley wrote a ghost story in the summer of 1816, but he had previously written two short Gothic novels "St. Irvyne, or the Rosicrucian" and "Zastrozzi" while still a teenager.

Percy Shelley wrote a ghost story in the summer of 1816 that he later published in a travel book, but he had previously written two short Gothic novels “St. Irvyne, or the Rosicrucian” and “Zastrozzi” while still a teenager.

It’s also interesting to note that although Polidori’s story is considered the first treatment of a vampire in English prose (some poems have vampire type characters in them prior to it including Southey’s “Thalaba the Destroyer” and Coleridge’s “Christabel”), in the “Preface to the French Translation” reference is made to vampires, so such creatures were known to an English audience then even though the author is referencing foreign works that mention them. Still Polidori’s story would set the precedent for what would be the typical vampire character in fiction.

Also of interest is that in the “Introduction,” it’s stated because of the number of imitators of Mrs. Radcliffe’s books, the interest in Gothic stories had already declined. Actually, Gothic novels remained fairly popular until the end of the decade, perhaps partly due to Shelley’s book published in 1818, and the last really notable Gothic novel of this period is Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin.

As for the stories themselves, I’ll just discuss the premises of them here without giving away the endings because it would be a shame to spoil the fun of reading them for anyone. So in brief, here are what the six Tales of the Dead are about:

The Family Portraits: This story begins with a group of characters telling ghost stories. The main character stumbles upon the group. He is on his way to meet a young lady his mother wishes him to marry, but he has his qualms about doing so. He hears the story of a family portrait that fell and caused a young woman’s death and he tells his own story, both stories being based on people he knew, which leads to him discovering a mystery of complex family relationships and an ancestral ghost. The story reminds me of The Mysteries of Udolpho with its complex family secrets and the discoveries of family relationships unknown to the heroine in that novel. That someone might be killed by a portrait falling on her seems a bit far-fetched, but this story is probably the most complicated in the book and it sets the precedent for family or ancestral ghosts that haunt the characters in several of the stories, a type of haunting that is a common element in Gothic literature.

And the curse is wonderful in this story. Without giving away the storyline, a young man, Ditmar, is cursed by a monk and becomes a true Gothic wanderer figure (one who lives beyond the regular lifespan and is fated to wander the earth in misery, unable to die or have his soul redeemed):

“this Ditmar has been seen wandering abroad dressed in the garb represented in the picture; and by kissing the descendants of the family, has doomed them to death. Three of my children have received this fatal kiss. It is said, a monk imposed on him this penance in expiation of his crimes. But he cannot destroy all the children of his race: for so long as the ruins of the old tower shall remain, and whilst one stone shall remain on another, so long shall the count de Wartbourg’s family exist; and so long shall the spirit of Ditmar wander on the earth, and devote to death the branches of his house, without being able to annihilate the trunk. His race will never be extinct; and his punishment will only cease when the ruins of the tower are entirely dispersed.”

Of course, the curse is finally lifted, but how it comes about is a complex story you will have to read.

Not only was Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley's stepsister, pregnant by Lord Byron in the summer of 1816, but she did not write a ghost story and all her literary attempts during her life were for naught. She finally told a friend, "But in our family, if you cannot write an epic or novel, that by its originality knocks all other novels on the head, you are a despicable creature, not worth acknowledging."

Not only was Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepsister, pregnant by Lord Byron in the summer of 1816, but she did not write a ghost story and all her literary attempts during her life were for naught. She finally told a friend, “But in our family, if you cannot write an epic or novel, that by its originality knocks all other novels on the head, you are a despicable creature, not worth acknowledging.”

The Fated Hour: This is one of the strangest stories I have ever read. Florentina is about to be married but believes when she marries she will die. Then she tells her friends about her sister Seraphina, who is now dead, but who while living could at time seem to be in two places at the same time. At one point, she disappeared and came back looking deathlike. She also makes prophecies before she dies that convince the girls’ father that if Florentina ever marries, she will also die. You just know this story isn’t going to turn out well.

The Death’s Head: This tale tells of a young man, Calzolaro, who comes to town with a group of rope dancers to contest his father’s will as well as give a performance in the town. The story treats of ventriloquism and it is planned that Calzolaro will use ventriloquism to make it appear that a skull will speak during the performance. A skull is then brought to him after being dug up from the churchyard, but Calzolaro is not aware of whose skull it is, which leads to a surprising result. It’s enough to say here that again a dead family member is the cause of a haunting.

The Death-Bride: Here, as in “The Family Portraits,” we have a story within a story, the frame being that of the Marquis who likes to gamble. He tells to his friends a story he heard about two twin sisters and how one died. Later the deceased sister is seen in Paris and mistaken for the living sister, but the living sister protests she’s never been to Paris. Once again, a family member is the ghost haunting the family, although the story gets more complicated from that point, and the Marquis also has the purpose in telling his tale of drawing out the guilt of one of his listeners who recognizes the story concerns himself.

The Storm: This story is the only one not originally taken from the Fantasmagoriana. When I began it, I thought it the most-attention grabbing story in the book. It begins when a young man is to be married and his uncle the Chevalier invites all the local nobility, some whom the family scarcely knows. During the reception, the Chevalier’s daughter, Emily, befriends Isabella, a young widow who is new to the neighborhood. Before the party is over, a great storm springs up and the guests are forced to spend the night at the Chevalier’s castle. Isabella refuses to stay but finds she has no choice since her attendants cannot return in the storm to fetch her. Then she wants to be alone, but Emily first tries to get her to share her room and then offers to sit up the night in the sitting room with her. Finally, Isabella tells her it is the six year anniversary of a horrible event and she is doomed to witness it tonight and Emily will now have to witness it also and be doomed as a result. Isabella swears Emily to silence over what she shall see. Emily keeps asking questions about what is to happen but Isabella only keeps saying how they are doomed, and not even religion can save them or penance atone for sins like hers. And then midnight strikes and the door to the room opens…

I won’t give away the ending, but the buildup results in a let-down and I think this added story ends up being the weakest in the collection. Emily ends up fainting when she sees the horror which reminds me of Emily St. Aubert fainting when she sees what is behind the veil in the Castle of Udolpho.

Dr. John Polidori was Lord Byron's physician. Besides "The Vampyre," he would later write the Gothic novel "Ernestus Berchtold."

Dr. John Polidori was Lord Byron’s physician. Besides “The Vampyre,” he would later write the Gothic novel “Ernestus Berchtold.”

The Spectre-Barber: This tale is the one with the edited love story, and in truth, the love story is barely there now. A young man, Francis, inherits his wealthy father’s fortune, but he quickly spends it all and goes into debt. He then has to try to make his fortune in the world, inspired by a young woman named Meta with whom he falls in love. The story wanders about a great deal but it has its suspenseful moments such as when Francis is traveling and must seek shelter for the night. A peasant refuses to let him stay at his home but tells him to go to a nearby castle for shelter, but with the warning that the owner always flagellates all he entertains. I couldn’t wait to see the flagellation happen, but I ended up being disappointed.

Later, Francis stays at another castle where the title character shows up. I won’t go into explanations of the spectre, but we do find out he was cursed by a monk (it was a monk in “The Family Portraits” who also gave the curse), which resulted in his becoming a Gothic Wanderer figure. Here is the monk’s curse:

“‘Depraved wretch’ said he, ‘know that at your death, the formidable gates of heaven, of hell, and of purgatory will alike be closed against your sinful soul, which shall wander through this castle, in the form of a ghost, until some man, without being invited or constrained, shall do to you, what you have so long done to others.’”

This story ends up being entertaining but the plotting is not as tight or satisfactory as the earlier stories in the work. I also have to admit I find a ghost who is a barber rather comical.

I hope by now you’re enticed to read Tales of the Dead for yourself. Imagine it being read aloud by Lord Byron or Mary Shelley on a dark and gloomy summer night near Lake Geneva in 1816. Who knows? Perhaps it will inspire you to write the next great Gothic novel.

Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" would be the greatest novel that resulted from the ghost storytelling in the summer of 1816. She would go on to write another six novels.

Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” would be the greatest novel that resulted from the ghost storytelling in the summer of 1816. She would go on to write another six novels.

So where do you find a copy today of this two-hundred-year-old collection? At Amazon, you can buy Fantasmagoriana: Tales of the Dead edited by A.J. Day, but this is not the Tales of the Dead that Shelley and company read. This is Fantasmagoriana, the source for Tales of the Dead, translated into English without the added “The Storm” story and with the three stories that Utterson did not find interesting enough to retain. I don’t believe you can purchase Tales of the Dead anywhere currently, but it is available online at http://archive.org/details/talesofdead00utte where you can actually view a copy of the original 1813 edition page-by-page as well as read it online or download it. Enjoy!

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of numerous books including The Gothic Wanderer. For more information, visit him at www.GothicWanderer.com

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“The Master of Ballantrae”—RLS’ Great Gothic Novel

Years ago after my grandfather died, I discovered a complete set of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson in his garage, published in 1911. They were beautiful red books with gold engravings, and although I had previously read Kidnapped and Treasure Island as a boy and found them dull, I decided I would keep this set of books and maybe I would find I liked them because I was now older. And so I committed to read one of the twenty-six volumes every year until I finished. That was twenty years ago, but I have only made my way through nine of the volumes because I still find them fairly boring.

The Master of Ballantrae - published 1889

The Master of Ballantrae – published 1889

But this week that changed when I read The Master of Ballantrae. I knew there had to be a reason why people liked Robert Louis Stevenson and this fascinating novel makes up for all the others I had previously read, and I am writing about it because its wonderful Gothic tone and storyline totally captivated my attention.

The novel is set in the eighteenth century and tells of a father and his two sons, James “the Master” and Henry, and a young heiress, Alison, who is to wed the oldest son, but this is the time when Bonnie Prince Charlie is seeking to reclaim his throne and the Master decides to join him. What happens after to the Master is never completely clear. The family believes he has died, and in time the young lady weds the younger brother, Henry. And then the Master returns, a fugitive from the law since Prince Charlie’s campaign has failed. He has been wandering about the world and now come home, mostly because he wants money. The family cannot acknowledge him so he resides with them under an assumed name, and he soon sets about making all their lives miserable, constantly taunting his brother, bleeding the family of its wealth, and ultimately, insulting Alison by saying she is still in love with him.

What I find so fascinating about the storyline at this point is the tone of it and how much it resembles Wuthering Heights in that respect, including being told from the viewpoint of the steward, MacKellar, as Wuthering Heights was told from the servant Ellen Dean’s viewpoint. The Master of Ballantrae is not heavy in Gothic atmosphere and descriptions, but the tension among the family members reminds me of how Heathcliff leaves and returns after traveling in foreign parts, intent on his revenge.

In my constant quest to identify Gothic Wanderers, the Master fits the category nicely. Not only is he a villain, but Stevenson likens him to Milton’s Satan; he enjoys reading Richardson’s Clarissa, an implication that he is similar to that book’s villain Lovelace, who has frequently been compared to Satan as an attractive villain, and at one point, Stevenson tells us the Master is like a “magician who controlled the elements”—a reference to power that is typical of supernatural Gothic wanderers, especially the vampire, although The Master of Ballantrae, published in 1889, predates Dracula, published in 1897. Dracula is really the first vampire figure to have control over the elements, while earlier vampires and Wandering Jew figures are usually at odds with the elements, seeking to have Nature destroy them only to have it refuse to let them end their extended, miserable lives.

The Master is nothing if not a wanderer. Although he returns to Scotland to torment the family, he also goes off to foreign lands, including North America and India. In India, he finds a friend and companion, Secundra Dass, a native who travels with him, a man who will teach him the secret of rising from the dead, so to speak. And in New York, the Master supposedly buries a treasure in the wilderness. These two connections lead to the novel’s stunning end.

Of course, this is a novel of realism so there is no supernatural rising from the dead, yet the Master is depicted as if he almost has supernatural powers. After taunting his brother to an extreme, the Master and Henry fight a duel and it is believed the Master is slain, yet when Henry and MacKellar leave him to see to Henry’s welfare, when they return, the Master’s body has disappeared. He has managed to escape death and be rescued by smugglers off the coast of Scotland.

And finally (spoiler alert), at the end of the book, the Master journeys through the wilderness of New York to find his treasure but does not return. His brother, Henry, determined to have proof of his brother’s death so he can be sure his tormentor is finally dead, is led to the Master’s grave. Secundra Dass then digs up the Master, saying once before in India the Master faked death and was buried and regained life. For a moment, it appears that in New York he will also rise from the dead. The moment is gripping and sends the younger brother, Henry, to his death. MacKellar recounts the moment as follows:

“Secundra uttered a small cry of satisfaction; and, leaning swiftly forth, I thought I could myself perceive a change upon that icy countenance of the unburied. The next moment I beheld his eyelids flutter; the next they rose entirely, and the week-old corpse looked me for a moment in the face.

“So much display of life I can myself swear to. I have heard from others that he visibly strove to speak, that his teeth showed in his beard, and that his brow was contorted as with an agony of pain and effort. And this may have been; I know not, I was otherwise engaged. For at that first disclosure of the dead man’s eyes, my Lord Durrisdeer fell to the ground, and when I raised him up, he was a corpse.”

It is as if the Master has enacted a curse from the grave to kill his younger brother. But then the Master is unable to bring life back into his body, and Secundra Dass admits that while the trick worked in India, the ground is too cold in New York. And so the Master is also dead.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

These scenes of nearly rising from the dead recall tales of Resurrection Men, body snatchers who dig the dead from the grave. Dickens uses the term Resurrection Man in A Tale of Two Cities, and Stevenson himself had written a tale “The Body Snatcher” in 1884. I cannot doubt the idea remained of bodies being resurrected, and so he elaborated upon it in The Master of Ballantrae.

Altogether I found the novel fascinating. The first time I was convinced the Master had died, and yet he kept coming back and surprising me, so that I did not want to put the book down until I found out how it all would end. I was in fact disappointed that the story did not go on.

Stevenson’s reputation has declined since his lifetime, and there is good reason, for even his best known works, including Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, have been unable to retain my interest, but The Master of Ballantrae is an exception. It deserves a place among the great Gothic novels of the period, perhaps just a shelf below Wuthering Heights.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of numerous books including The Gothic Wanderer. For more information, visit him at www.GothicWanderer.com

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