Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Female Gothic Rebel: An Interpretation of Jupiter Lights

Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894) is generally regarded as an author of realism, but she was influenced by her famous great-uncle, James Fenimore Cooper, to create Gothic forest and island scenes in her early novella Castle Nowhere (1875) set near the Mackinac Straits, and while her later works are always set within the real world without any traces of the supernatural, she still used many Gothic elements to enhance her themes.

Constance Fenimore Woolson - the author of Jupiter Lights, whose title refers to lighthouses in Florida and on Lake Superior, both places Woolson visited and wrote about extensively.

Constance Fenimore Woolson – the author of Jupiter Lights, whose title refers to lighthouses in Florida and on Lake Superior, both places Woolson visited and wrote about extensively.

Woolson’s third novel, Jupiter Lights (1889), was regarded by many at the time of its publication as Woolson’s best work. After her death, however, Woolson—despite her first novel Anne (1882) being a bestseller in its day—was largely forgotten, and even when women’s texts were revived in the later twentieth century as a result of the women’s movement, Woolson remained in the shadows. I find this surprising because the heroine of Jupiter Lights, Eve Bruce, is one of the most surprising and even desperate heroines in literature, a woman not afraid to act as needed in a moment of crisis, and a character whom I believe Woolson was using to comment on and reverse old Gothic and biblical stereotypes about women. However, her rebellion against a patriarchal establishment through the pseudo-transgression she commits may have resulted in the men who determined the literary canon and even women who thought the novel went too far from celebrating this novel’s extraordinary achievement.

Gothic novels are frequently about a transgression that the main character commits and then feels deep regret over. As I’ve explored in detail in my book The Gothic Wanderer, the Gothic novels of the 1790s and beyond were highly influenced by Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), a retelling of the Garden of Eden story. In both the Bible and Paradise Lost, Eve transgresses by eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, and that story has been used for centuries to justify making women second class citizens to men. Can it be any accident then that Woolson names her heroine Eve? It is a heavy name to bear, so I believe Woolson knew fully her intentions in using it for her main character.

The novel begins in the years following the Civil War. Eve has been living in England but now returns to the United States. Her brother Jack had married a Southern belle, Cicely, and then died during the Civil War, but not before leaving a son, also named Jack. When Eve arrives in the South to visit Cicely and her nephew, she quickly learns that Cicely has remarried to a man named Ferdie. Eve is shocked by this second marriage when she is herself still grieving her brother. Soon after, she decides Cicely is not a fit mother for Jack and she begins to plot how she can take away Jack and raise him herself. To some degree, Eve seems overly emotional in her grief, and while she does not consider kidnapping Jack, she does continually try to convince Cicely to give him to her, thinking Cicely neglects him.

During this time, Ferdie is in South America on business, but when he returns, Eve soon learns the truth about Ferdie and Cicely’s marriage. Ferdie is an alcoholic, and when he is in his drunken stupor, he can explode into a rage; he is not above beating Cicely, and even worse, he once broke little Jack’s arm. Ferdie also suffers from more than drunkenness; he has a hereditary type of madness that at times consumes him. Woolson’s biographer, Anne Boyd Rioux, notes that Henry James was friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, whose The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appeared in 1886. We don’t know whether Woolson, who was close friends with James, read Stevenson’s book, but Mr. Hyde is not such a far cry from the same kind of tormented man who can turn into a monster that she depicts in Ferdie, and not unlike Milton’s Satan, who changes from an angel into a demon, Ferdie has “hell within him” and is largely helpless to dispel it.

Eve is horrified at the danger to her nephew that Ferdie represents, so she plots even more to get Jack away, but before she can accomplish it, the family goes to Singleton Island to visit relatives. While there, Ferdie flies into one of his drunken rages and it is clear he intends to murder Cicely. In the night, Eve flees from the house with Jack and Cicely. They journey through the swamps to reach a boat to escape in during the most Gothic scene in the novel. With Ferdie pursuing them, the women climb into the boat, but Eve, realizing Ferdie will be upon them before they can push off, in desperation, shoots Ferdie. Then leaving his fallen body behind, the women make their escape.

Cicely feels that the only safe place for them to go is to Ferdie’s brother, Paul, who lives far away in a mining town called Port aux Pins, on Lake Superior, in Upper Michigan. The women journey there, all the while dreading both that Ferdie will pursue them and also that Ferdie has been killed. The words Woolson uses here to describe Eve’s agony are significant:

“But, once away, the horror had come, as it always does and must, when by violence a human life has been taken. She had dropped the pistol into the Sound, but she could not drop the ghastly picture of the dark figure on the sand, with its arms making two or three spasmodic motions, then becoming suddenly still. Was he dead? If he was, she, Eve Bruce, was a murderer, a creature to be imprisoned for life,—hanged. How people would shrink from her if they knew! And how monstrous it was that she should touch Cicely! Yet she must. Cain, where is thy brother? And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. Would it come to this, that she should be forced at last to take her own life, in order to be free from the horror of murder? These were the constant thoughts of that journey northward, without one moment’s respite day or night.”

The mark of Cain is a frequent Gothic theme. The Wandering Jew and other Gothic Wanderer characters carry the mark of Cain on their brow, a sign that they are murderers or transgressors, and, therefore, cursed by God. Eve believes the only way to free herself from her guilt is to commit suicide, which is also a common Gothic theme. Many Gothic wanderer figures, including the Wandering Jew and the title character of James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampyre (1846) seek to destroy themselves. These two characters, in particular, often try to drown themselves or jump into volcanoes, but the sea and the volcanoes spit them up, refusing to let them die. Eve does not go so far as to attempt suicide, but later in the novel, she will try to lock herself away to prevent her murderous act from continuing to hurt those she loves, especially Paul.

While in Port aux Pins, the women remain silent about what happened to Ferdie. In time, Paul receives news that Ferdie was shot, and two negroes are suspected of having shot him. Eve then believes she is cleared from suspicion, but she holds guilt within her heart, even though she felt obligated to shoot Ferdie to save Cicely and Jack’s lives that night.

Cicely has fallen into a sort of mental illness by the time they reach Port aux Pins, so she is unable to provide any clarity about what happened to Ferdie. She only knows that she loves him and she wants to return to him when she learns of his gunshot wound, although Paul and Eve persuade her otherwise. She falls into great despair when she then hears that Ferdie has died.

Ferdie’s death leaves Eve in anguish over the belief that she is a murderer. Her anguish is all the greater because now she is falling in love with Paul. Added to that, Paul declares that if he ever finds out who killed Ferdie, he will shoot that man. He says he could never forgive his brother’s murderer—it must be blood for blood. Matters become more complicated when soon after, Paul and Eve confess that they love each other. However, Eve says she cannot marry him because a barrier lies between them. Paul thinks she means that she loves another man, and Eve lies when she confirms that she does because she feels she could not bear his anger and hatred if she confesses that she killed his brother.

Meanwhile, Cicely is consumed with grief over Ferdie’s death. She now curses Paul for not letting her go to him before he died, saying, “If you trust anyone, I hope that person will betray you,” an eerie foreshadowing for the day when Paul will likely learn the truth about Eve and the murderous act she committed.

Finally, consumed with guilt, Eve confesses to Cicely that she shot Ferdie. At this knowledge, Cicely goes mad. She begins reliving the events of that night and thinks they are on Singleton Island again where they were the night they escaped from Ferdie. Madness is also a common theme in the Gothic, although typically only the women go mad, such as Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, or they are accused of madness and locked up, as in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

When Cicely eventually regains her senses, she sees Paul and Eve together and realizes they are in love. She then threatens Eve with telling Paul the truth, but before she can, the novel’s most dramatic and, for this reader, terrifying event occurs.

Jack is placed in a boat on the beach and inadvertently the boat gets washed out into the lake before anyone can stop it. Eve quickly gets into another boat and begins paddling out onto Lake Superior in pursuit, while Cicely finds a man to get another boat and follow her. The scene is terrifying because Lake Superior is enormous, and several times, the women lose sight of Jack’s boat. Many times they must call to Jack on the lake and listen for his cries and then try to follow in that direction, sometimes seeing the boat, sometimes losing sight of it. Woolson refers to the women here as “wanderers” as they cross the lake on their desperate quest. Living as I do on the shore of Lake Superior, I can well-imagine how terrifying as well as realistic this scene is and how nearly impossible it would be to catch Jack’s boat.

Eventually, the women are able, despite the wind and waves, to find Jack, aided somewhat in the night by the lightning flashing in the sky. They get close enough to Jack’s boat to pull it behind theirs, but then it becomes filled with water and Eve has to jump into it to grab the sleeping Jack as it capsizes. For a moment, Eve and Jack are underwater, and then they come back to the surface. Eve hands the boy to Cicely and somehow they make it to shore.

Cicely is now so grateful to Eve for saving Jack that she promises not to tell Paul the truth about Ferdie’s death. The near drowning is almost like a baptism for Eve, as if to redeem her sins, since she gains Cicely’s forgiveness. She has also had to sacrifice her life for another’s here, just as Christ did.

But despite Cicely’s promise, Eve is consumed with guilt, so she finally tells Paul the truth, including all the details of how Ferdie threatened their lives.

The women now return South with Jack, but Cicely remains mentally unstable. She wants to return to Singleton Island and the place where the murder happened. When she and Eve go there, she loses control of her emotions and tries to choke Eve, declaring, “How do you like being dead?” Fortunately, she then faints and Eve carries her “sister” home. This scene is significant with the wording “sister” because in the Bible, Cain tells God that he is not his “brother’s keeper” and yet Eve, who equates herself with Cain, is now caring for her “sister.” She acts more like a Christian than a murderer here, and in doing so, she is replacing the Old Testament law of vengeance with the New Testament gospel of turning the other cheek and loving your enemy.

Paul now follows the women South. He finds Eve and proposes to her, telling her he understands why she shot Ferdie and that she was brave to do it, but she refuses his proposal, saying he will hate her later. She then flees to Europe without Paul knowing, and Paul is angry when he learns that Cicely did not try to stop her. Cicely only replies that she wants to make Eve suffer.

At this point, Dr. Knox, who had attended Ferdie when he was dying, returns from a trip abroad. He had gone just after Ferdie had died so he had never been able to communicate the details of Ferdie’s death to Paul. He now tells Paul that he had cured Ferdie of the bullet wound, but Ferdie died soon after from a series of drinking sprees.

Relieved by this news, Paul goes to Italy to find Eve. She is in a “retreat center,” but Paul fears it is really a convent and that she is planning to take vows. Gothic novels are full of convents in which women are often forced into vows. The women at the retreat center tell Paul no one is being forced, but Paul is desperate and even violent as he pushes people aside and tears through the building until he finds Eve and takes her in his arms, and so the novel ends, with the assumption that Paul tells Eve she is not guilty of murder.

I find this novel fascinating because Woolson is clearly rejecting and reversing the role of transgressor in her character Eve. While Eve is ultimately relieved from the guilt of being a murderer, she is also not afraid to stand up to the patriarchal system that enslaved women—in this case represented by Ferdie, who is the true Gothic monster of the novel. In other words, Eve’s attempted murder of Ferdie, which can be seen as a rebellion against the patriarchal system, is not the transgression society would have us believe. The final scene where Paul tries to free her from the convent suggests that the old secrets often contained in monasteries and castles in Gothic fiction are now free to see the light of day. In fact, that no one is forced to take vows in the convent suggests that women no longer need be imprisoned in their lives by men or religion or social pressures.

Paul’s violent entry into the convent is also an act of defeating the past, like a storming of the Bastille, and pushing away the old to make way for the new. Would it be too far to equate Paul with St. Paul, preacher of the New Testament? After all, his last name, Tennant, might be translated as “tenet,” which isn’t a far cry from “testament.” Just as Christ redeemed mankind and replaced the Old Testament with the New, so Paul can love a transgressive woman and in a sense redeem her, though in truth, she needs no redemption for she is not a transgressor since she is not guilty of murder.

In the Bible, Eve says that the serpent made her eat the fruit. Modern language has turned this concept into the phrase, “The devil made me do it.” The same may be said in this novel, if Ferdie is seen as the devil. Eve did what she had to do to protect herself and Cicely and Jack, and in that sense, shooting Ferdie was self-defense. It was not a true transgression. Even so, when Eve learns that she is not a murderer, she also need no longer feel like she is cursed and bearing the mark of Cain. Instead, she is free to marry Paul—in a sense, she is redeemed by the “good news”—the gospel—that he preaches to her of her innocence, which frees her from what may later have been the confinement of a convent.

Eve Bruce is a true Gothic wanderer both justified in her transgression and redeemed even though it turns out she never needed redemption.

Even the most ardent feminists would not publicly advocate murdering an abusive husband, even in self-defense, and so I suspect that is why this novel and Woolson have not yet been embraced by feminist scholars. Even so, Eve Bruce is a true champion for women’s rights and one of the most powerful female characters in literature, a woman with a guilty conscience who nevertheless acts when necessary to protect those she loves. She is a female Gothic wanderer and one of the most extraordinary ever created.

________________________________________________

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

5 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, The Gothic and the Bible, The Wandering Jew

America’s First Musical Had Gothic Origins: Celebrating The Black Crook on Its 150th Anniversary

On September 12, 1866, the musical extravaganza The Black Crook premiered at the 3,200-seat Niblo’s Garden on Broadway. It would run for a record-breaking 474 performances and enjoy numerous revivals throughout the United States for the rest of the nineteenth century.

Today considered the first true American musical, The Black Crook was the result of a dramatic group joining forces with a Parisian ballet troupe. While a few new songs were composed for the show, such as “March of the Amazons” by Giuseppe Operti and “You Naughty, Naughty Men,” with music by George Bickwell and lyrics by Theodore Kennick, much of the music was adapted from other earlier sources.

Poster from the 1873 revival of The Black Crook

Poster from the 1873 revival of The Black Crook

The music must have filled a great amount of the show since it ran for five-and-a-half hours, yet the libretto of the play is only 62 pages and takes a little over an hour to read. Unfortunately, the libretto, as recently published by the Historical Libretto Series, contains little of the lyrics. The libretto is available at Amazon. Most commentaries on the play never mention the plot other than to say the story was badly written, but it really wasn’t that bad and quite typical of the day.

The show was a smash hit and the scanty costumes of the female cast raised quite a scandal. The New York Times called it “trashy” and the Rev. Charles B. Smyth, writing in the New York Herald, warned, “Let husbands and parents and guardians who value the morals of their wives, their daughters, and their wards, bear a watchful eye, and keep them out of the walls of Nible’s [sic] during the rein [sic] of The Black Crook.” Despite such warnings, the female costumes were rather modest compared to many today, though bare arms and lower legs could be seen.

More importantly, the musical was the product of its age’s fascination with the Gothic. When I first heard the title of this play many years ago, I assumed it was about an African-American thief and was perhaps a racist play created in the aftermath of the Civil War. Instead, it owes more to the European Gothic tradition than to anything American for its sources. Nor is the play very original in its Gothic themes. The playwright, Charles M. Barras, wrote the script after having been influenced by seeing a performance of the German Romantic opera Der Freischütz (1821) by Carl Maria von Weber.

I had never heard of Weber’s opera before, but after researching it, I think it clearly contains many Gothic elements common to the time period. It was itself obviously influenced by the Faust legend. In the opera, the main character, Caspar, whose soul is to be forfeited to the devil on the following day, hopes to obtain three more years of grace by substituting a young forester, Max, in his place. Caspar calls upon Samiel, the Black Huntsman, for assistance; however, in the end, Caspar is taken by Samiel instead of Max.

This basic plot of an evil character making a pact with the devil or a demonic being to gain a soul for the devil in exchange for youth or longer life was a frequent plot in other Gothic novels of the time as well, notably William Harrison Ainsworth’s Auriol, or The Elixir of Life (1844) and George W.M. Reynolds’ The Necromancer (1851-52). Earlier novels also focused on the idea of life extension, usually a Rosicrucian theme, such as William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799) and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842). What is interesting is that while I have studied the Gothic in literature, the Gothic also permeated into music, and so a Gothic opera would influence the first Gothic musical probably more than Gothic literature did. One is left wondering whether Der Freischütz also influenced Reynolds and Ainsworth’s novels.

The Black Crook opens in the Hartz Mountains in the year 1600. Rodolphe is betrothed to Amina, an orphan girl whose foster mother, Dame Barbara, disapproves of the match because Rodolphe is an unsuccessful painter while Amina has had an offer made to her by a nobleman, Wolfenstein. When Wolfenstein comes to marry Amina, he has Rodolphe locked up in a dungeon.

Meanwhile, Hertzog, whom men call “the Crook,” is reading out of a cabalistic book, gleaning dark knowledge in forbidden paths. He has a servant, Greppo, whom he saved from drowning so Greppo obeys him. Greppo provides some comic relief in the story, but he also plays a role that reminds one of Caliban in The Tempest with Hertzog as a type of Prospero since Hertzog can summon spirits. Unlike The Tempest, however, Hertzog’s spirits are not bound to obey him but rather have some control over him. Hertzog longs to extend his life, so he makes a deal with Zamiel, a demon spirit, whom he summons. (Note the similarity between the spellings of Zamiel and the Samiel of Der Freischütz.) Zamiel promises Hertzog that for every soul he gives him, he will live another year; therefore, he can live forever if he continues to provide souls. This is similar to how in Reynolds’ The Necromancer, Danvers must convince six women to elope and marry him over the course of 150 years in exchange for incredible power; all those women’s souls are then lost to the devil. Zamiel tells Hertzog to begin by trying to capture Rodolphe’s soul since Rodolphe is in prison and likely to do anything to escape and marry the woman he loves.

Act II opens with Hertzog coming to Rodolphe in prison and offering to help him. Rodolphe, however, knows Hertzog is a sorcerer and does not trust him. Hertzog persists by telling Rodolphe that Amine is actually of noble birth, and therefore, Rodolphe will need gold so he can buy a noble status for himself and be worthy of her. He tells Rodolphe that there is gold in a mountain that he can get, and he gives him a magnetic ring to guide him to the gold. Since Greppo is a tiresome servant, Hertzog sends him with Rodolphe. He believes Rodolphe will become greedy in his quest and this will lead to both Rodolphe and Hertzog’s deaths.

However, once in the mountain caverns, Rodolphe manages to rescue Stalacta, the queen of a group of fairies, gnomes, and other beings. While disguised as a dove, she stumbled into a charmed circle of Zamiel’s. This rescue means that the fairies now protect Rodolphe. Stalacta warns Rodolphe that Hertzog has ill intentions toward him, and she gives him a circlet with a jewel to kiss if he’s in danger, and she will then come to his rescue.

In Act III, Rodolphe appears in costume at a masked ball at Wolfenstein’s castle. Wolfenstein and Rodolphe end up in a fight and Rodolphe kisses the circlet, leading to Stalacta and her fairies and nymphs arriving to rescue him. They are dressed as Amazons, hence the best known song from the show, “The March of the Amazons.”

In Act IV, six months have passed. Rodolphe and Amina have long since fled and Wolfenstein is searching for them. Once again, he finds them and once again Rodolphe kisses the circlet and Stalacta and company come to his rescue. This time, Wolfenstein is slain. Hertzog now appears and summons his fiends to burn down the forest to stop Rodolphe and Amina from escaping, but when Rodolphe again kisses the circlet, a rock opens and they enter a grotto. By now, a year has passed and Hertzog’s time to capture a soul has passed, so he is dashed into a flaming chasm that must have been a magnificent scene on stage. The play ends with a beautiful scene of Rodolphe and Amina, along with Greppo and Carline, a woman he loves, in the realms of Stalacta.

Scene of the Finale from the 1873 revival of The Black Crook

Scene of the Finale from the 1873 revival of The Black Crook

There are some subplots and some humorous moments amid the action, but that’s the basic plot. It is not a brilliant plot, but the Gothic atmosphere in the play is quite dramatic, and the special effects must have been magnificent as they depicted illuminated books, skeletons and other Gothic style monsters appearing on stage, costumed Amazons, a burning forest, a masked ball, a flaming chasm, and a beautiful grotto. As much as the story and the music are combined to make a musical, we can never underestimate the power of spectacle to wow an audience, and The Black Crook must have been a very impressive spectacle to keep audiences entranced for five-and-a-half hours.

By the time The Black Crook premiered in 1866, most of the great Gothic novels had been written. Gothic literature had had its heyday in the 1790s, and there had been a Gothic renaissance in the 1840s and 1850s with the popularity of penny dreadful literature. The Black Crook marked the end of this period that was heavily influenced especially by German Gothic literature, or in this case, German opera. But what a dramatic and spectacular show—this very unAmerican musical in its theme and setting—to become the first American musical. It’s not surprising then that the musical has ever since been a very popular vehicle for other Gothic tales that became popular musicals from Phantom of the Opera to Jekyll and Hyde and Dracula, just to name a few shows from more recent decades.

It is unlikely we will ever see a new stage production of The Black Crook. There was a 1916 silent film made of it, but even that does not appear available to the public. But you can view some photos of the production at YouTube. And we can dream of how splendid it must have been. What’s not to love about a grotto of fairies, a scheming villain in a pact with a devil, and an army of Amazons in “trashy” costumes.

Happy 150th Birthday to the American Musical!

________________________________________________

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

4 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Gothic/Horror Films

“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 several stories. The first, “Castle Nowhere,” is set off the shores of Lake Michigan and near Beaver Island and is really a novella, while the others are set throughout the Great Lakes including on Mackinac Island, Lake Superior, and Ohio. Some collections only reprint “Jeanette” and “The Old Agency” with “Castle Nowhere,” but the collection’s complete list is: “Castle Nowhere,” “Peter the Parson,” “Jeannette,” “The Old Agency,” “Misery Landing,” “Solomon,” “Wilhelmina,” “St. Clair Flats,” “The Lady of Little Fishing”

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.

________________________________________________

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

3 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels

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.

________________________________________________

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

13 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula, Superheroes and the Gothic, The Gothic and the Bible, The Wandering Jew

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.

___________________________________________________

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

3 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels

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.

___________________________________________________

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels

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.

___________________________________________________

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

7 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula, The Wandering Jew