“Castle Nowhere”: Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Great Lakes Gothic

In 1875, Constance Fenimore Woolson published a short story collection titled Castle Nowhere: Lake Country Sketches. The collection consists of three stories. The first, “Castle Nowhere,” is set off the shores of Lake Michigan and near Beaver Island, and the other two, “Jeanette” and “The Old Agency,” which are connected, are set on Mackinac Island.

While Woolson was not the first author to set fiction in Upper Michigan, she was one of the pioneers of regional fiction for the area, and I believe the short story, “Castle Nowhere,” is probably the first Gothic work set in this region. And even the other two stories in the collection have Gothic elements, although I would not classify them as truly Gothic so I will not discuss them here.

Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894) wrote about the Great Lakes, the South, and her European Travels.

Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894) wrote about the Great Lakes, the South, and her European Travels.

From the beginning of “Castle Nowhere,” Woolson applies a Gothic atmosphere. The first character we are introduced to, Jarvis Waring, is a wanderer figure. He is a surveyor sent to Upper Michigan, but he feels like he has no purpose in the world. He also has conversations with “the Spirit of Discontent,” which is his restless wanderer self—in other words, he speaks to himself. (While I don’t think Jarvis Waring’s name has any symbolic connotations, it’s interesting to note that Jarvis was Woolson’s father’s middle name.)

Woolson also clearly sees the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as a Gothic place because of its wild forests. This concept of the forest as Gothic is something she borrows from her great-uncle, James Fenimore Cooper, and other earlier American authors like Charles Brockden Brown and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Cooper, especially, took the Gothic out of the castles of Europe and set it in the forests of America where people could easily become lost in the wilderness and where savage Indians threatened white settlers. That said, both Woolson and Cooper were sympathetic to Native Americans and often depicted Natives with redeeming characteristics. “Castle Nowhere” has no Native American characters in it, but the other two stories in the collection do, and Woolson includes other marginalized people in the story.

As the story begins, Waring has entered the woods of Upper Michigan to survey from the Lake Superior shore, but he becomes lost and finally stumbles back onto the lakeshore, not knowing where he is—later he’ll learn he has walked across the peninsula and has arrived on the shore of Lake Michigan, not far from the location of Beaver Island. As he is making camp for the night, Waring, speaking to his Spirit, says he would shake hands with Old Nick (the devil) himself because he is lonely. Soon after, “a phantom skiff” appears on the water, bearing Fog, a man who saw Waring’s fire and stops to visit him. Waring is wary of Fog, who says he comes from “Nowhere” and leads a “wandering life,” but he is polite and lets Fog stay.

Soon after, however, Waring wakes in the night to discover Fog has stolen a book and picture from him. Waring sees Fog making his way out into the water where he has moored his boat. Waring then takes a few days to create a dugout boat of his own and sets off in the direction Fog went to reclaim his property, saying, “I’ll find that ancient mariner,” an obvious reference that equates Fog to Coleridge’s doomed iconic Gothic wanderer figure. Indeed, as the story progresses, Fog reveals himself to be the quintessential Gothic wanderer.

Waring travels on the lake through a fog, but in the morning, the fog lifts and reveals a log house floating on the lake; this structure is the Castle Nowhere of the title, which explains Fog’s saying he was from Nowhere. This moment is interesting because it shows how Woolson is drawing on the Gothic tradition as created by her great-uncle in his novel The Deerslayer. In that novel, “Floating” Tom Hutter lives in a house in the middle of a lake. He also has two daughters living with him, whom he later on his deathbed confesses are not his daughters but stepdaughters. Waring soon discovers that Fog also has a daughter, named Silver, who lives with him (although not until the end of the story will she learn that Fog is not her father), as well as a servant who is a negress.

Woolson again draws on Gothic elements in her depiction of Silver as an innocent young girl who does not know good from evil because she is never allowed to venture off the floating house. She is a sort of Eve before eating the apple, but also a Rapunzel kept by a type of male witch in the form of Fog, and an Immalee, an innocent young woman who lives on an island in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Immalee knows nothing of the world save for Melmoth, a cursed supernatural wanderer, who visits her on the island where she is otherwise solitary. Melmoth makes Immalee fall in love with him, and eventually, she ends up entering into a satanic marriage with him. Silver is so innocent that she knows nothing of the Bible and Fog doesn’t want her to. She also has no knowledge of death. Previously, a servant boy, Jacob, and Fog’s sister Shadow, lived with them, but both died of illness and Fog took their bodies away by boat at night so Silver would never have to experience death. Woolson describes Silver in many ways to emphasize her innocence, including calling her a “water-maiden” and a “fair pagan.”

When Waring arrives, Silver is happy to meet him, and they become acquainted before Fog returns from one of his journeys. Fog is not happy at first to see Waring, but when he sees how Silver likes Waring and when Waring understands that Fog stole the book and picture for Silver, he keeps his mouth shut for a while. Later, however, Waring learns that Fog manages to support himself and Silver by being a scavenger and stealing, and worse, he is a “wrecker”—someone who puts lights on the shore to make sailors think it is a safe place to land a ship in a storm and then the ship ends up wrecked on the rocks. Fog then collects what belongings get washed ashore. Fog justifies the fact that he causes death for the shipwreck victims by saying that their lives matter nothing when compared to the pleasure he can give Silver by bringing her their belongings. Waring tries to stop Fog from wrecking a ship and the two end up in a scuffle with Fog hurting his leg. Waring then decides to stay to care for him for Silver’s sake because no one will provide for the family otherwise.

During this time, Fog tells Waring his story—that he committed a crime in New York unintentionally that caused him to become a wanderer, and finally, he convinced his sister to join him in his wanderings. They decided to call themselves Fog and Shadow because both are gone by morning—a wandering metaphor. Fog obviously suffers greatly, saying how his crime only took a minute, but his suffering is endless. Still, he believes God will eventually forgive him and be merciful (this despite how he continues to murder through causing shipwrecks). He claims that when he found Silver as an orphan child, he felt God was letting him know he would eventually be forgiven.

As winter approaches, Fog tells Waring he’s well enough to provide for Silver again, so Waring can leave before the lake freezes and the ice makes it impossible for him to depart. Waring, however, decides to stay because it’s clear he’s fallen in love with Silver. In time, it’s decided that Waring and Silver will marry and Waring will take her back to the real world. They wish to marry before they leave, so Fog and Waring go to nearby Beaver Island to kidnap a former Presbyterian minister who lives there among the Mormons so he can perform the marriage ceremony. This reference to the Mormons on Beaver Island makes it clear the story is set between 1848 and 1856 when the Mormons had a colony there before being driven off the island.

After the wedding, Fog becomes ill and dies, but not before his deathbed confession to Silver that she is not his daughter, but an orphan he found and cared for as if she were his own. This scene is obviously heavily influenced by Floating Tom’s death scene in The Deerslayer, as well as other scenes in Gothic tradition where people reveal family secrets on their deathbeds. As he dies, Fog asks God whether his sin is expiated, but whether he receives an answer is unknown as he dies right after the question is asked. After Fog’s death, Waring and Silver return to the civilized world, taking the negress with them, while Castle Nowhere slowly disintegrates and sinks into the lake until it is, indeed, Nowhere.

“Castle Nowhere” is both a remarkable and gripping story to read in many ways, as well as an early work that shows Woolson is clearly imitating authors she has read. It is also fascinating because of its Gothic, supernatural, and somewhat fairy tale atmosphere. Woolson would go on to write her first novel, Anne (1880), which bears some resemblance to “Castle Nowhere,” although it is more realistic; in that novel, the title character is also a young girl who has lived a sheltered but happy life on an island—although Mackinac Island and so she is isolated but not solitary—and eventually, Anne also leaves to enter the real world, only her experiences will not be happy, while we can predict that Silver and Waring will live happily ever after.

As a resident of the Upper Peninsula who is familiar with many of the locations Woolson writes about, I can say that the area remains heavily forested, and I can definitely see why it would inspire a Gothic atmosphere for a novel. Woolson, who was a close friend of Henry James, would go on to write many more books set in the Great Lakes area as well as the South before her fatal death falling out of a window in Venice. Some speculation exists that she committed suicide. Perhaps Woolson had a bit of the Gothic wanderer’s spirit about her.

If you wish to learn more about Woolson, a biography of her life will be published this year by Anne Boyd Rioux titled Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist.

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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 Children of Arthur series. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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The Wandering Jew’s Daughter: Paul Feval’s Mockery of a Gothic Tradition

I only recently discovered French author Paul Feval (1816-1887) thanks to a reader of my blog. I was thrilled to discover him because he was a contemporary of William Harrison Ainsworth and George W.M. Reynolds, and I wondered to what extent he might have influenced British Gothic literature and especially Bram Stoker’s Dracula, if Stoker was a reader of French. Feval wrote three vampire novels that pre-date Stoker, and I plan to read them in the near future, but I decided to introduce myself to Feval by first reading his novel The Wandering Jew’s Daughter since I’ve always been interested in the Wandering Jew as a Gothic Wanderer figure and because I believe the Wandering Jew actually was a precursor and influence on vampire depictions in the Gothic tradition.

The new edition of The Wandering Jew's Daughter by Black Coat Press

The new edition of The Wandering Jew’s Daughter by Black Coat Press

All that said, I was quite disappointed by this novel for several reasons, not the least of which was that Feval did not want to take his subject seriously. I also fault the publisher, Black Coat Press, for false representation of what the novel is about. This edition’s cover art makes it look like we will have a strong female character, and it is also selling sex and swordplay action. There is really none of either, at least not by a woman, in the novel, so shame on the publisher for false advertising. The back cover does not help matters, describing the novel by saying “Throughout the ages, immortals have battled fiercely, until the daughter of one of them falls in love with a young French nobleman.” The accompanying quote from Brian Stableford, the translator, also says that the novel “anticipates later developments in popular fiction, featuring an invulnerable but flawed hero who stops bullets and blades with his body and gives succor to the wounded.” While both of these statements are accurate, by mixing them with the cover art, I was expecting some fabulous tale of immortals battling to protect the human race, akin to the Highlander films. In a sense, the novel may be the great-grandfather of those films and character types, but I think most readers of popular modern fantasy would find this novel almost unreadable. Even the battle between immortals that ensues is disappointing and more a mockery than what we would expect from a good adventure novel.

That said, I have no issue with the translation by Stableford, since my French is rusty anyway, and I think Stableford provides an excellent introduction, afterword, and helpful end notes that are more interesting than the novel itself and make the book well worth the $20.95 price.

But what of the actual story? It is a hodgepodge of confusion. The novel opens with a young boy, Vicomte Paul, and his parents; with them lives Lotte, the Wandering Jew’s daughter, although how she came to live with them is never explained, and it is only surmised that she is the Wandering Jew’s daughter because the little girl does not seem to age. When Paul’s house catches fire, he is rescued but the girl disappears and his father suddenly changes in his demeanor.

I will not go into all the details, but as the novel progresses, we learn there is more than one Wandering Jew. There is Ahasuerus, the father of Lotte, who is the most like the traditional Wandering Jew, but there is also a whole household of immortals living in Paris at the House of Jews. Ironically, most of these immortal Wandering Jews are not even Jewish. They include a slew of biblical characters, including Holofernes, Lot’s daughters, Barabbas’ niece, the brothers Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, Madam Potiphar, Caiphas’ valet, the Pharisee Nathan who let merchants into the Temple, and Ozer, the Roman soldier who gave Christ a sponge to drink from during the Crucifixion. All of these people have been cursed into extended lives in some way and some have various other gifts or supernatural powers. None of them are developed other than Ozer, who has the ability to possess people’s bodies so he can keep changing his appearance and retain his youth. At the novel’s end, we learn that Paul’s father was possessed by Ozer during the fire, which explains his change of behavior.

Years pass, during which time Paul grows up, and then as a young man, he sees a grown-up Lotte, which surprises him since he thought she was always a little girl. Of course, the two fall in love, but before they can be together, Ahasuerus must wreak his vengeance on Ozer. Ahasuerus has repented for his sins and so his curse is to be lifted, but the other immortals have not repented. Ahasuerus battles Ozer to prevent him from taking another soul and he ultimately kills him. He also kills as many of the other characters in the House of Jews as he can. Here’s a little taste of Feval’s mockery of this battle of the immortals: “All these murders passed unnoticed, by courtesy of the civil war. Besides, every one of these brave Israelites had already been broken on the wheel, hung, executed by firing-squad and guillotined several times over, at various times. All of them are in the best of health as we inscribe these lines.” I actually do find this statement humorous, but other parts of the novel are less humorous and fall a bit flat in their attempts to mock the Wandering Jew theme, so that the novel is more like watching Dracula, Dead and Loving It than Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Of course, humor has its place, but great Gothic and Romantic literature can move the soul in a way such parodying cannot, and the novels Feval is mocking are, in my opinion, superior to his own.

In the introduction, Stableford explains at great length and with excellent detail the history of the Wandering Jew in French literature and how Feval’s novel is largely a response to Eugene Sue’s phenomenally popular novel The Wandering Jew (1846) and Alexandre Dumas’ unfinished serialized novel Isaac Laquedem (1853). I have not read Dumas’ novel, though I hope to someday (unfortunately, I don’t believe it’s ever been translated into English), but I do think Eugene Sue’s novel is a magnificent masterpiece of intrigue, mystery, and plotting, although I found the end a bit anticlimactic. Sue’s novel was also a tremendous influence on the later Gothic novels, including the British Gothic tradition, which is my primary interest, and especially on Dracula—Stoker was stage manager to the great actor Sir Henry Irving and once suggested he perform a play of Sue’s Wandering Jew. Stoker also wrote a book called Famous Impostors, in which he included a chapter on the Wandering Jew. Several people during the nineteenth century apparently claimed to be the Wandering Jew, which added to Feval’s mockery of the figure.

Part of Feval’s response to his contemporaries was a political response, as Stableford points out. The novel is set against the 1830 revolution (as referenced in the quote above as a “civil war”), and the novel makes many historical and political references to the period, references that are explained in the very helpful notes, but provide little interest to the modern and non-French reader. Yes, a Royalist Feval may have been responding to depictions by a Socialist Sue and a Republican Dumas, neither of whom he agreed with, but to the twenty-first century reader seeking a strong and meaningful story, little if any of these issues is of interest. Not that I do not find history fascinating, but politics tend to date a novel. Sue’s politics do not show through in his novel to such an extent, but Feval’s are just so much meaninglessness for the reader to wade through, hoping some story will finally evolve.

French novelist Paul Feval wrote vampire novels that predated Dracula and mocked his contemporaries depictions of the Wandering Jew.

French novelist Paul Feval wrote vampire novels that predated Dracula and mocked his contemporaries depictions of the Wandering Jew.

That hope is only slightly fulfilled since the novel is written in a very slap-dash, fragmented format. The chapters are extremely short—82 chapters in just 170 pages—and choppy, and the scenes between chapters jump about without adequate transitions. Feval begins by focusing on Paul and Lottie, the children, as if writing a children’s book, which seems to have been his initial goal, according to Stableford, but no child could read this book today, and while Feval initially wrote the book as one of three novellas in a collection, he later rewrote and expanded it into the current novel, which was published in 1878. The novel does, however, end with Paul and Lotte together, and a strange and confusing image that Lotte has been split in two so she can both be with Paul and with her father—you’ll have to read the ending to understand—I confess I still don’t get it.

Stableford provides many more sources for the novel and the Wandering Jew’s place in French literature during the nineteenth century, all of which I found fascinating since I am more knowledgeable of the British tradition. Certainly, it is valuable to have this novel translated into English, and while it is not particularly to my taste, it did not turn me off from wanting to read Feval’s vampire novels. More importantly, the novel is a significant link between past and present depictions of immortals and especially of how the Wandering Jew, who has disappeared from our modern literature (largely, I am sure for politically correct reasons), influenced the characterizations of vampires and even superheroes that we so enjoy today.

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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 Children of Arthur series. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Auriol, or the Elixir of Life: Ainsworth’s Rosicrucian and Faustian Novel

Originally published in 1844 in serial form as Revelations of London, William Harrison Ainsworth’s short novel Auriol, or the Elixir of Life is an interesting piece of Gothic literary history both for what it was influenced by and for the influence it had.

William Harrison Ainsworth, painted by Daniel Maclise

William Harrison Ainsworth, painted by Daniel Maclise

That influence was primarily upon George W.M. Reynolds’s novel The Necromancer (1852), which I previously discussed on this blog (The Necromancer), and the introduction to the Valancourt edition of that book by Dick Collins made me decide to read this one.

The theme of the elixir of life in Gothic literature goes back to early uses of Rosicrucian characters in Gothic novels. The Rosicrucians was a secret society supposedly founded by Christian Rosenkreutz. They claimed to know the secret of immortality and also the philosopher’s stone that would turn lead into gold. The first major novel that depicted the Rosicrucian theme was William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799) and similar themes appeared in numerous novels that followed, including Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyne (1811) and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842). (A chapter on the Rosicrucian influence on Gothic literature can be found in my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption.)

What makes Auriol stand out from its Rosicrucian predecessors is how it mixes its Rosicrucian theme with that of Faust. Of course, the Faust story had been around for centuries, treated in Elizabethan times by playwright Christopher Marlowe and more recently by Goethe. It was the Faustian pact with the devil in the novel that would go on to influence Reynolds’s The Necromancer.

The plot begins with a prologue set in the year 1599. Dr. Lamb is brewing a concoction that hopefully will be the elixir of life. As he is finishing it, in the street, Auriol Darcy is wounded in a scuffle after trying to remove heads on pikes from London bridge, which belonged to his father and grandfather. He escapes and is given refuge by Dr. Lamb, who reveals that he is Auriol’s great-grandfather. Dr. Lamb is ill and desperate to finish his potion, but not before he tells Auriol about it. When the potion is completed, Dr. Lamb is so weak he cannot lift it to his lips, and he begs Auriol to help him, but Auriol drinks the elixir for himself and lets Dr. Lamb die before rushing out in the street. What Auriol doesn’t know is that Dr. Lamb’s servant, a dwarf named Flapdragon, finds a few drops of the elixir left and drinks it so that like Auriol, he has become immortal. Flapdragon will figure in the plot going forward.

Interestingly, Dr. Lamb got the recipe for the potion from a rabbi (unfortunately, Jews are believed to be sorcerers in many Gothic novels), and he knows there is a heavy price to pay if he drinks the potion. It turns out that for the potion’s power to remain effective, Auriol must capture young women and surrender them to a mysterious man named Cyprian de Rougemont, who himself is in league with the devil (a plot very similar to Reynolds in The Necromancer in which the main character must find six women to marry him so he can give their souls to Satan in exchange for his long life.)

I will not get into the entire details of the plot, but the story jumps ahead to the first book, set in 1830, when Auriol is busy trying to find his latest victim for Rougemont, although he also falls in love with her and tries, unsuccessfully, to save her at the last moment.

A section called “Intermean” is between the novel’s two books. This section is set in 1800 and concerns Cyprian de Rougemont. Here we learn that he made his own pact with Satan when he visited the tomb of his ancestor of the same name who was a Rosicrucian. His ancestor left behind a great treasure, but he cannot enter the room where the treasure lies and obtain it unless he agrees to surrender his soul to the devil. Instead, he decides he will get Auriol’s soul for the devil.

The Tomb of the Rosicrucian - an illustration for Auriol, by Phiz

The Tomb of the Rosicrucian – an illustration for Auriol, by Phiz, who also illustrated Dickens’s novels

The novel continues into the second book where relatives of Auriol and Rougemont’s victims try to rescue the latest girl before it is too late. They find themselves basically in a haunted house although the strange things they encounter are not engineered by ghosts but enchantments or mechanics.

However, no real conclusion to the tale is reached. Instead, Auriol awakes to find he is back in Dr. Lamb’s room and has been dreaming. This ending is severely disappointing both for not resolving the plot and for destroying the possibility that anything supernatural in the book actually happened. That said, the novel ends with Auriol saying, “I am satisfied. I have lived centuries in a few nights.” This line makes me wonder whether the book was a bit influenced by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which was published the previous year—Scrooge is to be visited by ghosts over the course of three nights, during which time he reviews his whole past. The plot is similar except that in a few nights, Auriol experiences a future life for himself.

Ainsworth wrote several Gothic and fantastic stories, but Auriol is said to be the only one where he used this dream motif. It is an intriguing story until it gives up on itself—I suspect Ainsworth got bored with it or did not know how to resolve the plot. Fortunately, Reynolds saw the possibilities in it and was able to adapt it to create one of the great Gothic novels of the Victorian period in The Necromancer. Often, Ainsworth has been considered a superior writer to Reynolds, who has been seen more as his disciple, but at least in the case of Auriol and The Necromancer, the disciple surpassed the master.

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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 Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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The Necromancers: A Pro-Catholic Gothic Novel

I stumbled upon Robert Hugh Benson’s novel The Necromancers (1909) quite by accident when I went to Amazon to find George W.M. Reynolds’ The Necromancer and Benson’s novel came up in the title search. I instantly was intrigued by the novel, looked up Benson, and wondered how it was possible I had never heard of him. In case my reader hasn’t either, a short biography is in order to understand why The Necromancers is such an unusual Gothic novel.

Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson

Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson

Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) was born an Anglican. Even more than that, he became an Anglican priest. And then he decided to convert to Catholicism in 1903 and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1904. In fact, by the end of his life—he only lived to be forty-two—he was a monsignor. I don’t know enough details about Benson’s life to say whether he belongs to the High Church movement of the Victorian period that led to men like Cardinal Newman converting from Anglicanism to Catholicism, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Newman influenced him—in fact, Newman is referenced in The Necromancers.

But what is most remarkable about Benson is that despite being a Catholic priest, he was very interested in the supernatural in a rather eye-raising way. He wrote ghost and horror stories, a very popular dystopian novel, The Lord of the World (1907), about the coming of the Antichrist, and many other books, including The Necromancers, which takes on the matter of spiritualism.

I believe that most Gothic novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tend to be subversive, promoting an agenda that goes against the conservative status quo, but then quickly returning to it at the end. The Necromancers follows this pattern, although it becomes even more conservative in the end than other works. The novel is also fascinating because, with only a few exceptions (Glenarvon and Dracula among them), most Gothic novels tend to deride Catholicism. Benson really makes Catholicism the champion of the novel to the point that other Christian denominations pale by comparison.

The Necromancers is set in a very modern, daylight England. The title references the Spiritualist movement, equating those who seek to speak to the dead at séance tables and the like with those who try to raise the dead—a sin that goes back to the Witch of Endor raising up the ghost of the Prophet Samuel in the Bible. While spiritualism claims to offer comfort to the grieving, Benson clearly does not buy this excuse for practicing it, as the novel illustrates.

The story opens with Laurie Baxter, a young man who has converted to Catholicism, but who recently lost the girl he loved, Amy Nugent, to death. Laurie lives with his mother, Mrs. Baxter, and a young woman who is her ward, Maggie. One day, Mrs. Stapleton calls on them because she is a type of clairvoyant who was attracted to their house because of the energy that resonates from it. She is invited in for tea, and her talk of spirits, including that she has conversations with the deceased Cardinal Newman, make Mrs. Baxter and Maggie think her full of foolishness, but Laurie’s grief causes him to seek her out.

Before long, Laurie has met the medium, Mr. Vincent, and is attending séances. For some time, he debates upon whether spiritualism is true. His behavior concerns a coworker who thinks spiritualism is all foolishness, but the coworker introduces him to Mr. Cathcart, another man like Laurie, who is a convert to Catholicism and who previously was also interested in spiritualism. Mr. Cathcart warns Laurie that a lot of spiritualism is fraud and foolishness, but not all of it is; some of it can put his soul in peril. Laurie refuses to listen, especially after he has seen the shape of Amy appear to him at a séance. After that event, however, he is also dramatically altered in his appearance, giving Maggie and Mr. Cathcart cause for concern.

Mr. Cathcart, concerned that an evil being is getting a hold over Laurie—Laurie seems “obsessed” but is not yet “possessed” Cathcart believes—warns Maggie that she must save him. What follows is one of the most dramatic and frightening Gothic moments I have ever read. On the night before Easter, Maggie stays up all night with Laurie. He is annoyed by her presence when she takes up praying. He refuses to pray, telling her it will do no good. He even says he cannot stand her praying and gets in her face, trying to frighten her, but she refuses to relent and let the evil being take possession of Laurie. As the night progresses, Maggie feels the presence of the evil in a long and harrowing scene. In the end, Maggie somehow manages through her prayer to free Laurie from the evil.

Benson’s viewpoint that Catholicism is the only true religion is held at bay until near the end of the novel. As Laurie explores spiritualism, Benson provides room for characters to express opposing viewpoints and provide a reasonable discussion of spiritualism and its possibilities. Benson tries not to thrust dogma down the reader’s throat. He also has his spiritualist advocates speak favorably of religion—any religion—except the Catholic Church as the one they do not like. One might see this as the typical prejudice against Catholics espoused in other Gothic novels, but instead, Benson’s point is that none of the other religions are true except for Catholicism, and therefore, it is the only one that the Spiritualists—and evil spirits—need fear.

While the Catholic Church teaches that it is a sin to try to communicate with the dead, at the end of the novel, Maggie confesses that she still doesn’t know what she believes. However, she saw a door open into another world and she did not like what she saw, so she is content not to look again but to have “common sense” and not to try to “find out things beyond us at the present.” In other words, Maggie is speaking out against searching for forbidden knowledge—the search that always leads to trouble in Gothic novels—usually it is in the form of searching for immortality or the philosopher’s stone, but it can also be in seeking contact with the dead—and ultimately, it goes back to the biblical fall of mankind in eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge.

I am not sure how to take the end of Benson’s novel, or rather, I should say I am not sure I like it. It is a very orthodox Catholic stance and one that leaves no room for argument or discussion. The argument and discussion is in the pages of the book, but at the end, Benson metaphorically shuts the door on it. If the supernatural world is as the Christian religion has always taught us, then certainly, we are better off not opening the door to things beyond human understanding or a human ability to control, but if the world is not quite how Christianity depicts it, is it true? More modern novels have made ghosts friendly and a source of comfort when they communicate with us, as in TV shows such as The Ghost Whisperer. But if the world is not the dualistic battle of good and evil, then what good is the Gothic novel which seeks to explore the evil part of that battle and in the end, reconfirm the good as the better choice? Despite these novels being fiction, they operate within a Christian framework that asserts there is a spiritual world of good and evil; without that Christian belief, the Gothic novel’s framework falls short, or does it just open it to new ways to explore spirituality and the supernatural?

I do not know the answers, even if Benson believed he did, but certainly, the Gothic novel wants to have it both ways: to give us a place to explore the question of the supernatural and good and evil, while in the end bringing us back to a safe place where we need fear the answers no more.

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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, the historical fantasy series, The Children of Arthur, and numerous historical novels set in Upper Michigan. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com and www.MarquetteFiction.com

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The Necromancer: George W.M. Reynolds’ Final Supernatural Novel

Last year, I read and wrote a blog about George W.M. Reynolds’ fabulous Gothic novel, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf. I enjoyed the novel so much that I was not at all surprised that Reynolds was the bestselling author of his time, outselling even Dickens.

The Valancourt Books edition of The Necromancer.

The Valancourt Books edition of The Necromancer.

Consequently, this year for Halloween I decided to read The Necromancer (1851-2), the third and last supernatural novel Reynolds wrote. (The other being Faust (1847), which was actually a prequel to Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-7). While I did not find The Necromancer quite as full of twists and turns and fascinating characters as Wagner, it was nevertheless a compelling story, and the recent edition by Valancourt books was also highly valuable for its lengthy introduction that provided biographical detail about Reynolds, who remains little known today, as well as an afterword by Dick Collins that traces the influences of other writers upon The Necromancer. Certainly, Reynolds should hold a place of esteem among Gothic writers if not a place in English literature.

The necromancer of the title is Lord Danvers, a man who has made a pact with Satan to obtain several incredible powers, including perpetual youth and the ability to change his appearance. In exchange, he must, over the course of 150 years, convince six women to elope and marry him, thus allowing Satan to take their souls. Danvers began his pact in 1390 and the novel opens in 1510 when he has acquired the soul of Clara Manners, his fifth victim. It then jumps ahead six years. We are not fully let into Danvers’ secret until toward the end of the novel, but it is clear from the beginning he has supernatural powers and is up to no good.

Each of Danvers’ victims has family members who have sworn to gain their revenge on him for what he did to the woman he abducted from their family. What these people do not know is that Danvers is one person and not several generations of men, due to his ability to change his age and appearance, and that he takes on numerous different first names.

The major plot concerns Musidora, a young woman with a secret she will not reveal that has made her more quiet and hard than in her youth. At this time, King Henry VIII is unhappy with his wife, Katherine of Aragon, and it is believed he will divorce her and find a new wife. Musidora’s relatives convince her father to have her visit them since they live near the palace of Greenwich. They are in disgrace with the king but believe that Musidora is so beautiful that King Henry will fall in love with her and then they will be restored to their former positions at court. Things go precisely as planned, and soon Musidora has agreed to marry Henry. A secret wedding is held in which he produces a document from the Pope testifying to the annulment of his previous marriage and his ability to marry again. A violent storm erupts as soon as the marriage is over, and before long, all is revealed, including that Danvers has been impersonating Henry.

As these events develop, the novel intersperses the tales of Danvers’ other five victims, as told by their relatives or descendants. I found these stories rather tedious since it’s clear Danvers will convince the maiden to elope with him each time, and they rather slowed down the action. But they do explain the reasons behind the revenge each family seeks.

In the end, Musidora escapes from Danvers’ clutches and marries her cousin and many more years go by. St. Louis, a relative of one of the other victims, and in the king’s favor, meanwhile, is visited by his ancestress in a dream and told to go to the Holy Land. There he meets the father of another victim who warns him that Danvers’ time to finish his contract with Satan is running out and he must stop him from capturing his last victim. The old man gives St. Louis a crucifix to aid him in his efforts.

St. Louis returns to England, and with Musidora’s help, goes to Danvers’ castle on the Isle of Wight where Danvers is about to abduct his last victim. Musidora prevents him by using the crucifix to open the castle doors so she can make her way to Danvers and Marian, the victim, who turns out to be Musidora and Danvers’ daughter (the long held secret of Musidora’s youth). Danvers is horrified that he has nearly destroyed his own child and repents. Musidora then prays for him as Satan comes to take him, but her prayers are fruitless. The other souls of the victimized women are released and sent to heaven, but Danvers goes to Hell with Satan.

I found the story rather long, but not without a great deal of excitement and wonderful Gothic trappings. The Afterword in the Valancourt edition by Dick Collins was full of interesting information about Reynolds and his literary predecessors, citing some works I could clearly see as sources for the novel, such as Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew (1846) and Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Sue’s use of a family line of descendants is apparent as an influence in the generations bent on revenge in the novel, and Melmoth the Wanderer’s efforts to seduce young maidens is clearly an influence as well. Other typical Gothic trappings include the incest plot, where a father nearly abducts his daughter—a plot that hearkens back at least as far as Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791), and the ghost that haunts the family—in this case, St. Louis’ ancestor appearing to him in a dream—a plot that goes back to at least Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1795) but also has origins in much earlier legends like that of the serpent-fairy Melusine, who cries whenever one of her descendants dies at the castle of Lusignan. However, Collins cites several other sources for the novel, most notably William Harrison Ainsworth’s Auriol, or The Elixir of Life, a work I will have to add to my reading list.

Perhaps most interesting of all to me was the role of the crucifix in the novel. I may be wrong, but I think this is the earliest use of a crucifix in Gothic fiction to fight evil, although rather than warding off evil, it contains powers to open doors. One has to wonder whether Bram Stoker read The Necromancer and was influenced to adapt the use of the crucifix in Dracula. Another possible influence on Dracula is how Danvers drives his coach allowing him to cover incredible distances in impossibly quick times—there is one particularly dramatic scene where he promises to take Clara Manners’ father to her at his castle and they arrive in just hours for a journey that should have taken much longer. It reminded me of Jonathan Harker’s coach ride to Dracula’s castle, although that journey does not defy the barriers of time, but still is full of mystical atmosphere.

Certainly, The Necromancer is a much overlooked Gothic novel that deserves a key place in the history of Gothic literature, both for its use of previous Gothic literature and its likely influence on Stoker and other Gothic successors. I would especially advocate that readers interested in the novel read the Valancourt edition because Dick Collins’ afterword alone is worth the price of the book for all its information about what has for the last century been a very obscure Gothic text from the early Victorian period but that was widely read and influential in its day.

Now that I have read two of Reynolds’ novels, I plan to go on and read his first supernatural one, Faust, as well as his most popular work, The Mysteries of London, so stay tuned for future blogs.

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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 historical fantasy series, The Children of Arthur. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Lives of the Necromancers: William Godwin’s Misunderstood Treatise Against Magic and the Supernatural

I really didn’t know what to expect from William Godwin’s The Lives of the Necromancers (1834). This was the last book of the great eighteenth century political writer and author. Considering that Godwin was the father of Mary Shelley, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, and that his ideas greatly influenced his son-in-law, Percy Shelley, I expected a work far more intellectual and scholarly in tone. Considering that Godwin wrote two extremely fine Gothic novels, Caleb Williams (1794) and St. Leon (1799), the latter full of Rosicrucian elements, I expected something more thorough and colorful in tone.

William Godwin (1756-1836), father to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

William Godwin (1756-1836), father to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

Instead, I feel like this book is a second rate work lacking in any real scholarly value although ironically, perhaps its reception proves the very point Godwin was trying to make. I’ll explain that irony in a moment. First, let me explain that this book is basically a compilation of everyone in history Godwin could find information on that ever claimed in any way to work any form of magic. Even the title is misleading since Godwin uses “necromancer” in the same sense as magician or sorcerer, rather than its more specific meaning of someone who can raise people from the dead. Godwin compiles a great deal of information from history into this one volume, some of it somewhat obscure, but most of it I believe would be knowledge most readers could have easily found elsewhere, and even in his day, I think that would have been the case.

The book begins with very brief descriptions of different forms of magic including magical beings like fairies and sylphs, magical organizations like the Rosicrucians, and general magic terms like the philosopher’s stone and astrology. Godwin then takes us through history from looking at evidence of magic and sorcery in the Bible to the Greek myths, the Roman legends, and tales of the East, including the Arabian Nights. Next, we move to medieval Europe and then the Renaissance. Finally, he discusses magic in the seventeenth century, including King James I of England’s passage of laws against witchcraft and how they were later repealed, and tales of witches in Sweden, England, and finally, the famous Salem Witch Trials of New England. He does not continue into the eighteenth century, but in passing, simply remarks that he has seen plenty of superstitious people in his own day—and that hasn’t changed even in 2015.

Some of the people Godwin treats are brushed over rather quickly, like Nostradamus, who only warrants a little over a page, but Nostradamus’s fame in Godwin’s day was not what it is today. Other people, like Dr. John Dee, have extensive sections. Dee was at the court of Elizabeth I, claimed to have had the philosopher’s stone, and with a business partner, got himself into and then thrown out of several courts in Europe because of his claims of supernatural knowledge and power.

Other famous people treated include Merlin and Pythagoras. Godwin’s treatment of Merlin initially interested me because of my interest in Arthurian legends, but there was nothing said here that hasn’t been said in hundreds of other books. Pythagoras was far more interesting because he is known for his contributions to math, but I had no idea of his claims to supernatural powers, including that he had incarnated in many previous lives—a claim I found fascinating since nowhere else did Godwin discuss reincarnation, and the major villainess of my Children of Arthur series—Gwenhwyvach—also incarnates repeatedly over centuries.

Ultimately, Lives of the Necromancers has little value beyond the biographies save for the fact that how it has been revered ever since is ironic in view of Godwin’s intentions. Godwin wrote it to show how easily man allows his imagination to get the best of him, and yet many readers have held it up as a book of value for studying the occult and going down its path. Godwin begins in his preface by saying that this will be his last published book, and I am not surprised, for he must have felt his faculties failing him. He was seventy-eight at the time of its publication in 1834 and would die two years later. He also states that something of value can be learned from exploring how easily mankind can become incredulous. Anyone who reads the preface will understand that Godwin thinks all forms of witchcraft, sorcery, and even religious belief are false. He was a noted atheist as well as a proponent of reason in the Age of Reason. Godwin states that in nature we observe things we cannot understand and consequently have to invent gods and other supernatural beings to explain them. Following are the key paragraphs of the preface that make this point clear:

“[W]ith a daring spirit inquire into the invisible causes of what we see, and people all nature with Gods ‘of every shape and size’ and angels, with principalities and powers, with beneficent beings who ‘take charge concerning us lest at any time we dash our foot against a stone,’ and with devils who are perpetually on the watch to perplex us and do us injury. And, having familiarised our minds with the conceptions of these beings, we immediately aspire to hold communion with them. We represent to ourselves God, as ‘walking in the garden with us in the cool of the day,’ and teach ourselves ‘not to forget to entertain strangers, lest by so doing we should repel angels unawares.’

“But, what is most deplorable, we are not contented to endeavour to secure the aid of God and good angels, but we also aspire to enter into alliance with devils, and beings destined for their rebellion to suffer eternally the pains of hell. As they are supposed to be of a character perverted and depraved, we of course apply to them principally for purposes of wantonness, or of malice and revenge. And, in the instances which have occurred only a few centuries back, the most common idea has been of a compact entered into by an unprincipled and impious human being with the sworn enemy of God and man, in the result of which the devil engages to serve the capricious will and perform the behests of his blasphemous votary for a certain number of years, while the deluded wretch in return engages to renounce his God and Saviour, and surrender himself body and soul to the pains of hell from the end of that term to all eternity. No sooner do we imagine human beings invested with these wonderful powers, and conceive them as called into action for the most malignant purposes, than we become the passive and terrified slaves of the creatures of our own imaginations, and fear to be assailed at every moment by beings to whose power we can set no limit, and whose modes of hostility no human sagacity can anticipate and provide against. But, what is still more extraordinary, the human creatures that pretend to these powers have often been found as completely the dupes of this supernatural machinery, as the most timid wretch that stands in terror at its expected operation; and no phenomenon has been more common than the confession of these allies of hell, that they have verily and indeed held commerce and formed plots and conspiracies with Satan….

…The human mind is of so ductile a character that, like what is affirmed of charity by the apostle, it ‘believeth all things, and endureth all things.’ We are not at liberty to trifle with the sacredness of truth. While we persuade others, we begin to deceive ourselves. Human life is a drama of that sort, that, while we act our part, and endeavour to do justice to the sentiments which are put down for us, we begin to believe we are the thing we would represent.

“To shew however the modes in which the delusion acts upon the person through whom it operates, is not properly the scope of this book. Here and there I have suggested hints to this purpose, which the curious reader may follow to their furthest extent, and discover how with perfect good faith the artist may bring himself to swallow the grossest impossibilities. But the work I have written is not a treatise of natural magic. It rather proposes to display the immense wealth of the faculty of imagination, and to shew the extravagances of which the man may be guilty who surrenders himself to its guidance.”

An illustration from Godwin's 1799 Rosicrucian novel, St. Leon. In the novel, the main character achieves the philosopher's stone that turns lead into gold, and consequently, destroys his family. Godwin's novel shows the fallacy of the supernatural and the consequences of achieving forbidden knowledge.

An illustration from Godwin’s 1799 Rosicrucian novel, St. Leon. In the novel, the main character achieves the philosopher’s stone that turns lead into gold, and consequently, destroys his family. Godwin’s novel shows the fallacy of the supernatural and the consequences of achieving forbidden knowledge.

From Godwin’s perspective, everything supernatural, including Christianity, is of the imagination and show’s man’s credulity. Sadly, superstition continues today and Godwin’s book has been used for the very opposite purpose for which it was written. If you read the reviews of this book on Amazon, you will find that today, nearly two centuries after Godwin published this book, that credulity still exists. Below are some quotes from readers at Amazon who clearly did not read Godwin’s preface but have decided this book is a guide to them in learning about the occult and following their own dark paths. I have copied these three reviews word for word, including leaving the typos. The first is a believer in reincarnation:

“This book is very powerful for the person on the path as it will show them the various persons on the path, and the way they have chosen to get there. There are many paths to the same plane—but you must choose for yourself, and reading this made it much easier for me…..you will also find a list of those you feel that you want to reach on the astral plane—find someone who is like you or that you feel you could relate to—or perhaps someone you WERE in a past life?”

Godwin would have laughed at the idea of communicating on the astral plane with anyone mentioned in his book. Indeed, he would have said there was no astral plane. The next reviewer thinks Godwin’s book is his occult textbook:

“This book is a must for any serious student of the occult. In Lives of (the) Necromancers you will learn not only the different practicing Necromancers but also the historical ones. By understanding the different persons and WHAT kind of necromancy they practiced you will soon understand the route that YOU want to follow and from there research your own path with your own chosen guru. This is why this book is so useful, and why it was one of the most photocopied books until it was back in print. Not too long ago, it was impossible to get this published.”

I honestly don’t know what the history of the book’s publication and readership over the last 180 years has been, other than that Edgar Allan Poe reviewed it, without either condemning or applauding it. Apparently, it was long out of print (I read it as a Kindle ebook) and passed around and copied among its occult cult readers. The final review says it is for seekers of the black arts:

“Its like someone created not only a “Who’s Who” of Necromancers, but also lost about them, and many of their ideas and methods. Some that I thought were fictional turned out to be real, (truly that was worth the price of the book!). If you are interested in the black arts, if you are a seeker, if you are looking for the path, then seek from those who were on the path before you.”

I sincerely hope this person did not think Godwin was on the path first.

I am not one to enter into arguments online but I did post a short reviewing clarifying what the book’s true purpose is.

Perhaps William Godwin, aware of the disturbed imagination of mankind, would not be surprised that rather than read his words, people have chosen to imagine what his book says and interpret it for themselves.

In any case, it is interesting that this great thinker and one of the biggest influences on the Gothic novel and the Romantic movement, should turn to the occult as the subject of his last book. It is a pity it is not a better work, and that misguided individuals seek to find in it the exact opposite of what Godwin set out to do. Godwin’s own use of Gothic elements was always to expose irrational behaviors, but instead, his readership’s interpretation of him may have become his own Gothic nightmare.

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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 Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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New Biography Shows Fascinating Parallels between Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

Charlotte Gordon’s new biography, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley provides a fascinating look into the lives of these two remarkable, though often misunderstood and maligned, women who were groundbreaking writers of the Romantic and ultimately the Feminist movements. The book is newly published this year by Random House, and while much of what it contains is the same biographical information provided in other books, Gordon has provided much more powerful connections between this mother and daughter by discussing them both in the same book.

"Romantic Outlaws," a new biography, uses alternating chapters to explore the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and the mother's influence on her daughter.

“Romantic Outlaws,” a new biography, uses alternating chapters to explore the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and the mother’s influence on her daughter.

I decided to read this book because while I have studied and written about Mary Shelley, most notably her novels Frankenstein and The Last Man, and also about her father William Godwin’s novel St. Leon, in my own book The Gothic Wanderer. I have also read Shelley’s other novels—Valperga, Mathilde, Lodore, and Perkin Warbeck (I have yet to read Falkland)—and I wanted a better sense of how her life influenced those novels, especially after finding some comments about how her husband Percy Shelley influenced her depiction of Perkin Warbeck, the pretender to the throne, believed to have been Richard, Duke of York, one of the princes in the tower. I knew a lot about Mary Shelley’s biography but I had never sat down and read a full biography all the way through, and I wanted more insight into her life especially after the well-known years she was married to Percy Shelley, since the bulk of her writing occurred after his death.

So I intended to buy a biography of Mary Shelley, but then I stumbled on this book which also discussed her mother, whom I felt I really didn’t know much about. I knew Wollstonecraft had written some famous treatises and a couple of novels and of her affairs with Gilbert Imlay and Fuseli, but I was intrigued by the idea that she had a huge influence, despite being dead, on Mary Shelley’s life, and I thought it would be interesting to understand that influence better.

Romantic Outlaws is divided into alternating chapters about Wollstonecraft’s life and then Mary Shelley’s life. To some extent, Gordon has done this to tie together similarities and influences from mother to daughter, and that is apparent in a few places, but in others, less so. I have mixed feelings about this structure. Some other reviewers have complained that they had just get interested in one woman when the story flipped to the other woman. That is true, and at times, I got so caught up reading about Mary Shelley that when the chapter changed to be about Mary Wollstonecraft, I momentarily was confused which “Mary” was being referred to, but I quickly realized my mistake. It is possible the book would feel more organized if the book were divided in half, as two books in one, the first about Wollstonecraft, the second about Mary Shelley, but perhaps readers would ignore half then and only read the other half. Gordon made a decision to organize the book in this way, and despite its faults, it does have some advantages and did help to make the influence of Wollstonecraft on her daughter, as well as on Mary’s stepsister and half-sister and Percy Shelley, much more clear. I don’t think I would have ended up understanding Mary Shelley as well without having read so extensively about Wollstonecraft, and I think Gordon really showed that influence in a more complete way than any of the other books I have previously read about Mary Shelley.

I did learn a lot more about Mary Shelley than I knew in terms of her relationships, but I also was disappointed in the later chapters about her. Once Percy Shelley drowns, Gordon quickly wraps up the last half of Shelley’s life in a few chapters, which I wish had been spread out more. For example, she makes one passing reference to Mary Shelley’s friendship with the Carlyles, but I would have liked to know more about that friendship. I was also hoping to learn a little about her friendship with Frances Trollope, mother to the novelist Anthony Trollope and a novelist in her own write, but Frances Trollope is not even mentioned. Perkin Warbeck is only mentioned in passing. There is a little analysis of the other novels, but not what they warrant, especially in the case of The Last Man, which is arguably, Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, although I do appreciate that Gordon refers to it as the single voice of protest against war and manifest destiny in this time period. I suspect part of why these later years are brushed over is because Wollstonecraft’s life did not provide enough detail to provide more alternating chapters to juxtapose with Shelley’s, or maybe Shelley’s life was simply not as fascinating once her husband died, and Gordon was more interested in events than literary analysis. In any case, I was disappointed that I did not get out of this book what I initially wanted.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a novelist with a revolutionary pen who fought for the rights of women and left a tremendous legacy that would ultimately fuel the modern feminist movement.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a novelist with a revolutionary pen who fought for the rights of women and left a tremendous legacy that would ultimately fuel the modern feminist movement.

That said, I got a lot that I did not expect in regards to Mary Shelley. I especially appreciated the discussions of Frankenstein and its composition. Gordon makes clear that while Percy Shelley did do some editing of Frankenstein, it is less than the editing done to many famous books, such as The Great Gatsby, and furthermore, the 1831 edition of Frankenstein was heavily rewritten by Mary Shelley, years after Percy Shelley’s death, and made to be much darker in tone. Charges that Percy Shelley was the genius behind Frankenstein have hopefully now finally been laid to rest. I have always thought it ridiculous he should get so much credit anyway since his own novels, Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, while written before he was twenty, are far inferior to Mary Shelley’s first novel, which she wrote at about the same age. Percy Shelley was no great fiction writer and even his poetry I have usually found tedious with a few exceptions. Furthermore, as Gordon makes clear, Mary grew up in a very literary home and would have inherited her parents’ talent and have developed writing skills early from all the reading she did and her father’s influence. She knew her mother’s writings well and this no doubt developed her literary skills. I suspect had Percy Shelley never entered the picture, she would have been a writer regardless given her family background, and while Gordon doesn’t mention it, Mary’s half-brother, William Godwin, Jr. (another person I wish Gordon had spent more time on) wrote a novel also. They were a literary family, regardless of Percy Shelley being involved with them.

But the most valuable part of this book is the treatment of Mary Wollstonecraft. I grew to have so much respect for her. Yes, perhaps she acted like a stalker in her pursuit of Fuseli, but she also was a true revolutionary, trying to create a new world for women. Whatever faults she had I think we can dismiss as being the result of the confines of her time and the strain she experienced in going against the grain of her society. As Gordon says in the book’s conclusion of both women, “They asserted their right to determine their own destinies, starting a revolution that has yet to end.” I will not go into details here about how they did this, but will instead encourage people to read the book.

Finally, what I found fascinating about Gordon’s book was her treatment of how literary legacies are fought over. She discusses Godwin’s biography of Wollstonecraft, his desire to publish a biography before anyone else, and the harm it did to his wife’s reputation, despite his intending otherwise. Gordon also makes passing reference to how women who might be inspired by Wollstonecraft’s ideas were treated in the literature of the time, notably Harriet Freake in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) and Elinor Joddrel in Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814). That said, both of those characters, while meeting bad ends, have been read by modern literary scholars less as a condemnation of Wollstonecraft’s ideals and more as a subversive statement of how women were treated—a point Gordon overlooks. I wish again that more literary analysis had been included in this case, especially since The Wanderer is a feminist masterpiece in my opinion, as I discuss in more detail in my book The Gothic Wanderer, and I would have liked more comparison between Wollstonecraft and Burney, who was arguably the greatest female novelist of the late eighteenth century and very much a woman who used her novels to champion women, even if in more subtle ways—yet, while Gordon never directly says so, when she cites the female novels of the day that Wollstonecraft disapproved of, it often sounded like she was referring to plots found in Burney’s novels.

Mary Shelley also had to fight to preserve her husband’s literary legacy, and in many ways, she chose to whitewash it to remove the scandal and atheism Percy Shelley was known for. Similarly, Gordon explores how Mary Shelley’s own literary legacy has changed over the years. Ultimately, both of her subjects were rediscovered in the 1970s and today have been given their place in the canon of British literature, a place well-deserved.

Mary Shelley, too often in her husband's shadow, was devoted to preserving and cultivating the Romantic legacy. Today, she is acknowledged as one of the greatest Romantic writers.

Mary Shelley, too often in her husband’s shadow, was devoted to preserving and cultivating the Romantic legacy. Today, she is acknowledged as one of the greatest Romantic writers.

Personally, I found Romantic Outlaws to be a valuable and eye-opening book. It adds to and expands on the conversation about these two fascinating women, and it leaves room for further exploration. I will definitely be reading Wollstonecraft’s novels now, and Romantic Outlaws also made me want to read more of Godwin’s work. In truth, I found the book hard to put down, and while I wish it had even more information about these women, at 547 pages of primary text, it is a good length and reads with excellent pacing. Both informative and entertaining, Romantic Outlaws is literary biography made to read almost like a novel (in a few places early in the book I felt like Gordon bordered on fiction in presenting viewpoints of the subjects in the book, something she’s been charged with in her biography Mistress Bradstreet). My criticisms of this book are minor really when placed aside the tremendous amount of research and the vivacity of the presentation throughout that Gordon has accomplished. I was won over by Gordon’s style, and since I am a fan of Anne Bradstreet (and relative), I will be interested in reading that Gordon biography in the near future. Most importantly, Gordon has achieved what she set out to accomplish—to convince her readers of the powerful voices these two women had and to help us better understand them and their time.

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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 Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Literary Criticism, Mary Shelley