Until recently and only thanks to a blog by Interesting Literature, I had never heard of George W.M. Reynolds (1814-1879), and even Anne Rice in her novel The Wolf Gift (2012), where she mentions several early Werewolf novels and short stories, does not mention him, yet in his day, Reynolds outsold Charles Dickens as well as all the other well-known Victorian novelists, including the Brontes, Thackeray, Eliot, and Trollope.
Why didn’t Reynolds’ fame endure down to the twenty-first century with his contemporaries? I suspect it’s because of the types of books he wrote. His books were Gothic and often serialized in the penny dreadful format. They also were derivative of other writers. He was clearly a reader of the great French novelist Eugene Sue, best known for his novel The Wandering Jew (1846) and also The Mysteries of Paris (1842-1843). Reynolds capitalized on Sue’s popularity by writing The Mysteries of London (1844-1848). He also capitalized on the popularity of the penny dreadful installments of Varney the Vampyre (1845-1847) by writing the similarly titled Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-1847). I have read both Varney the Vampyre and Sue’s The Wandering Jew and can clearly see the influence of these works on Wagner the Wehr-Wolf in terms of its style, complicated plot, and moral themes. The book is also very derivative of the early Gothic novels of a half-century before; in fact, it reads like it could have been written by a male counterpart to Eleanor Sleath, author of The Orphan on the Rhine (1798), although its plot and style is too far-fetched and simplistic to raise it to the level of Mrs. Radcliffe’s works. That said, there is much that is interesting and even remarkable about Wagner the Wehr-Wolf that makes the work deserve more attention.
To summarize Wagner the Wehr-Wolf’s plot would be tedious and it would be hard to follow. It’s enough to say it is full of twists and turns, remarkable coincidences, family secrets, a mysterious manuscript, bloody deeds, and supernatural events. The setting, other than the brief prologue that takes place in Germany, is primarily Florence, Italy in the 1520s, with some scenes on a deserted island and in Constantinople. There are a handful of main characters, but only two—Wagner and Nisida—really stand out. I will focus upon them and the main plot that involves them, while including a few additional comments about minor characters and the subplots to highlight their Gothic elements that add to the novel’s fascination.
Wagner is the true main character. When the novel opens, he is a ninety-five-year-old grandfather who fears he has been abandoned by his granddaughter and left alone in their forest home. He is visited by a mysterious stranger who gives him the gift of youth in exchange for traveling with him for a year and a half. Wagner agrees to the conditions—that in exchange for youth, he will become a werewolf for twenty-four hours once a month. He drinks from a vial to make the transformation to occur. I find this detail remarkable because most werewolf stories today show the werewolf transformation happening from being bitten by the werewolf. However, the vial seems more significantly to be an elixir of life that restores youth and gives extended life—this is noteworthy because the Rosicrucians, a mysterious and allegedly medieval secret brotherhood, were said to have two primary secrets—the elixir of life and the philosopher’s stone that turns lead into gold. While the stranger who gives this gift to Wagner is not a Rosicrucian, we encounter Rosicrucians later in the novel.
Actually, the stranger turns out to be none other than Faust, well-known for selling his soul to the devil in works by Christopher Marlowe and Johann Goethe. Following the prologue, he does not appear again in the book and the narrative jumps ahead several years until we learn that after Wagner completed the prescribed eighteen months of traveling with Faust, Faust passed away.
That Wagner is changed by Faust is significant because Satan then appears after Faust’s death to tempt Wagner to seal a pact with him as well. Wagner is tormented by his werewolfism and longs to be freed from it, but Satan says he must sell his soul to him in exchange for freedom and additional power, something Wagner refuses to do, and at the moments when he is most tempted, he manages to send off Satan with a crucifix. (Reynolds would return to the subject of Faust in soon after in 1847 in his novel Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals.
Some of the novel’s best passages are the descriptions of Wagner as a werewolf. Here is the depiction of his transformation and the resulting violence that results in Chapter 12:
In the midst of a wood of evergreens on the banks of the Arno, a man—young, handsome, and splendidly attired—has thrown himself upon the ground, where he writhes like a stricken serpent, in horrible convulsions.
He is the prey of a demoniac excitement: an appalling consternation is on him—madness is in his brain—his mind is on fire.
Lightnings appear to gleam from his eyes, as if his soul were dismayed, and withering within his breast.
“Oh! no—no!” he cries with a piercing shriek, as if wrestling madly, furiously, but vainly against some unseen fiend that holds him in his grasp.
And the wood echoes to that terrible wail; and the startled bird flies fluttering from its bough.
But, lo! what awful change is taking place in the form of that doomed being? His handsome countenance elongates into one of savage and brute-like shape; the rich garments which he wears become a rough, shaggy, and wiry skin; his body loses its human contours, his arms and limbs take another form; and, with a frantic howl of misery, to which the woods give horribly faithful reverberations, and, with a rush like a hurling wind, the wretch starts wildly away, no longer a man, but a monstrous wolf!
On, on he goes: the wood is cleared—the open country is gained. Tree, hedge, and isolated cottage appear but dim points in the landscape—a moment seen, the next left behind; the very hills appear to leap after each other.
A cemetery stands in the monster’s way, but he turns not aside—through the sacred inclosure—on, on he goes. There are situated many tombs, stretching up the slope of a gentle acclivity, from the dark soil of which the white monuments stand forth with white and ghastly gleaming, and on the summit of the hill is the church of St. Benedict the Blessed.
From the summit of the ivy-grown tower the very rooks, in the midst of their cawing, are scared away by the furious rush and the wild howl with which the Wehr-Wolf thunders over the hallowed ground.
At the same instant a train of monks appear round the angle of the church—for there is a funeral at that hour; and their torches flaring with the breeze that is now springing up, cast an awful and almost magical light on the dark gray walls of the edifice, the strange effect being enhanced by the prismatic reflection of the lurid blaze from the stained glass of the oriel window.
The solemn spectacle seemed to madden the Wehr-Wolf. His speed increased—he dashed through the funeral train—appalling cries of terror and alarm burst from the lips of the holy fathers—and the solemn procession was thrown into confusion. The coffin-bearers dropped their burden, and the corpse rolled out upon the ground, its decomposing countenance seeming horrible by the glare of the torch-light.
The monk who walked nearest the head of the coffin was thrown down by the violence with which the ferocious monster cleared its passage; and the venerable father—on whose brow sat the snow of eighty winters—fell with his head against a monument, and his brains were dashed out.
Wagner continually commits manslaughter (it’s not exactly intentional murder) in his werewolf state, although the novel only shows us his transformation on a few occasions. Nevertheless, his situation is not hopeless and neither is he unredeemable.
But before mentioning Wagner’s redemption, I will turn to the other remarkable character in this novel—perhaps one of the most remarkable female characters in literature, Nisida.
If ever there was a villainess in a Gothic novel, it is Nisida. When we are first introduced to her, it is believed she is deaf and dumb, but it is soon revealed that she fakes these disabilities as a way to spy upon others. She’s also not above cross-dressing. And certainly not above committing murder to get her way. Early in the novel, this “noble” woman meets Wagner and they fall in love. But when she suspects Wagner is unfaithful to her by having an affair with Agnes (a young woman who had an affair with Nisida’s father and is now living with Wagner because she is the granddaughter he thought had deserted him in the forest), Nisida murders Agnes. When Wagner is arrested for the murder, he is unable to explain his true relationship with Agnes (his granddaughter barely believed he was her grandfather since he looks as young as her, so how will the court believe it?), so he is imprisoned. Nisida is not above cross-dressing as a man so she can visit him in prison. (He doesn’t yet know she murdered his granddaughter.)
Eventually, Wagner escapes from prison, and after a series of events, he and Nisida end up shipwrecked on a deserted island (interestingly, there is an island of Nisida off the coast of Italy, and it’s volcanic—perhaps a source for Nisida’s temper in the novel). Here Nisida reveals to him that she actually can speak and hear. She and Wagner experience a sort of island paradise experience—one that recalls Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and also the island scenes between Immalee and Melmoth in Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) only it is not the female but the male who is more innocent here while the female is the tempter. During this time, Nisida feels overcome by Wagner’s beauty “so joyful, too, was she in the possession of one whose masculine beauty was almost superhumanly great” (Chapter 53), a hint at the eventual evolution of the Gothic Wanderer figure into the twentieth century superhero. But soon Nisida grows bored on the island. She also doesn’t like that Wagner every month leaves her without explanation (because he doesn’t want her to know of his werewolf transformation). She also longs to return to Italy to look after her brother whom she knows is in love with Flora, her maid, a marriage she is not happy about. Consequently, when Satan appears on the island to tempt Wagner again and he refuses to give into temptation, Satan next turns to Nisida to tempt her—not unlike the serpent tempting Eve in the garden of Eden. He tells Nisida that Wagner has the power to leave the island but refuses to share it with her. (The truth is that Wagner doesn’t have this power, but he will if he sells his soul to Satan.) Satan tells Nisida to demand Wagner transport them from the island, and if Wagner refuses, to question why he leaves her each month. Despite Nisida’s efforts and questioning, however, Wagner refuses to give in.
Eventually, a boat comes and takes Nisida back to the mainland, but Wagner stays behind, not wanting to live among humans because he knows he might hurt them as a werewolf. Nisida promises to return to him once she takes care of her brother, but meanwhile, Wagner despairs of ever being freed from his werewolfism. Then he has a dream in which an angel appears to him and tells him he has done much already to atone for his sins by resisting Nisida and Satan’s temptations. Consequently, he finds a boat and is told by the angel to take it to Sicily where he will meet a man who is 162 years old who can help him.
Wagner cannot imagine how a man can be 162 years old, but he arrives in Sicily and questions an innkeeper about such a man. The man consequently tells him he has heard lies about the Rosicrucians, including their legendary founder, Christianus Rosencrux, who would be 162 years old if the legends were true. The Roscrucians feature in many other Gothic novels, most notably Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842) but also Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyne, or the Rosicrucian (1811) and the theme influences William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799). (For more on the Rosicrucian novel, see my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption.) However, I was stunned to find that Christianus Rosencrux (a Latinized spelling of the German name Christian Rosenkreuz, which means Christian Rosy Cross—a reference to the blood on the cross of Christ) should be a character in this novel. Wagner soon realizes it must be Rosencrux whom he seeks, and that night, a mysterious stranger comes to him and leads him to Rosencrux.
I find this part of the story very interesting. The angel appearing to Wagner after he repents and prays for the werewolf curse to be lifted reminds me of the conversion of St. Paul when Christ himself speaks to St. Paul, telling him to go to a man who will heal his blindness. Here Wagner must go to a man who can help to heal his werewolfism. The scene also reminds me of the Ancient Mariner who goes to the hermit to have his sins forgiven in Coleridge’s famous poem.
Wagner is surprised that the mysterious stranger knows he seeks Christian Rosencrux, but the stranger explains that the Rosicrucians are the servants of the angels who show them in visions what they must do to fulfill God’s will, and so he has come to bring Wagner to Rosencrux.
Rosencrux, however, doesn’t really do much for Wagner except point him toward the next part of his journey. He’s told to go to Florence to meet Nisida and that a circumstance connected with his destiny will occur there, including that he will be released from his werewolf curse when he sees two innocent people’s skeletons hanging from the same beam.
I don’t want to give away how the novel gets us to its conclusion—it’s convoluted to say the least—but after a series of events, Wagner does see the skeletons and instantly falls dead upon the sight of them. We now learn the skeletons are tied to a secret that has been the primary motivation behind Nisida’s actions, as she now explains everything to her brother and his new bride Flora before she becomes ill. Christian Rosencrux now appears and acts as her confessor. After Nisida dies, Roxencrux tells Flora and Francesco that Nisida is forgiven and can rest in peace.
The idea of redemption here is strange indeed. Typically in the earlier Gothic novels, a transgression results in damnation, but Varney the Vampyre was one of the first novels to depict a repentant and redeemed Gothic transgressor and Reynolds is following that format, although not quite as convincingly. Neither Wagner nor Nisida do anything to gain forgiveness—no acts of kindness required—just repentance, but while Wagner committed murder as a werewolf, it might be argued he cannot be blamed for what happens to him during his transformed moments. However, Nisida has cruelly murdered and her justifications for it make her sound more like she is psychotic than deserving of forgiveness; she even states in the case of killing a woman named Margaretha that the woman got what she deserved. Still repentance is enough, even if you are a liar and murderer.
The role of religion is interesting in the novel in terms of this redemption. Both Nisida and Wagner seek redemption and consequently die as Christians. But Reynolds is not as kind to non-Christians. One other main character in the novel faces serious temptation—Alessandro, Flora’s brother. Early in the novel, he goes to Constantinople to serve in Florence’s embassy there. In Constantinople, he finds a beautiful woman, Aisca, who tempts him to convert to Islam in exchange for enjoying her company. He does so and soon finds himself promoted until he is grand vizier to Solyman the Magnificent, who turns out to be Aisca’s brother. Aisca’s tempting of Alessandro is reminiscent of Eve tempting Adam—it is a woman who turns a man to sin, as earlier Nisida tempted Wagner. Today, we would be less inclined to see converting to another religion as a serious transgression, but Reynolds surely did.
The other temptation and the only real “sin” Alessandro (who becomes Ibrahim upon conversion) commits is that he falls in love with a beautiful young woman, Calanthe, and commits adultery with her. Aisca’s mother, however, finds out about his betrayal and has Calanthe drowned. Then Alessandro is warned that any woman he seeks to be with other than Aisca will meet the same fate. At the end of the novel, Calanthe’s brother, Demetrius, murders Alessandro in revenge for his sister’s death. It’s not clear whether Demetrius thinks Alessandro is the murderer, or just one who stole her virtue. In any case, Alessandro’s crimes are minor compared to the multiple murders Nisida commits, yet Alessandro does not receive redemption.
Surprisingly, while I think the novel is anti-Muslim because of how it treats Alessandro, it is not anti-Semitic. Another minor character, Isaachar, is a Jew who finds himself imprisoned by the Inquisition but is defended by a Marquis (himself an adulterer) and is ultimately rescued. Isaachar only survives two years after the torture he experiences in the Inquisition’s prison before he dies and leaves all his fortune to the Marquis (the Christian male adulterer gets off, but not the Muslim adulterer). Before his death, Isaachar gives some fine speeches defending the Jewish people as does the Marquis. Reynolds is clearly not against the Jews and saves his narrator comments for pointing out the Inquisition’s cruelty—if anything, he is anti-Catholic more than anti-Jewish, as is typical of Gothic novels.
One final interesting aspect of this novel is the treatment of the Inquisition in it, and more specifically, that female torture is included. Earlier novels that depicted the Inquisition, notably Melmoth the Wanderer, depict male torture and come off being masochistic in their tone, but Wagner the Wehr-Wolf includes a convent where the women are forced to become nuns and those who attempt to escape are whipped. While Flora manages to avoid punishment when she is imprisoned in the convent, Giulia (the Marquis’s lover who is unfaithful to her husband), is not so fortunate, and later when she is tried before the Inquisition, her husband, the Count of Arestino arranges for her torture and takes great delight in watching her suffer and die (fortunately, the Marquis then kills him). In any case, women adulterers are punished while male adulterers are rewarded, provided they are Christian.
In the end, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf is one of the most violent and disturbing, yet completely entertaining Gothic novels ever written. The pacing and plotting never lags. If there is any reason for disappointment in it, it can only be because the werewolf scenes are minimal. Even while the novel feels like it belongs more to the 1790s than the 1840s, Reynolds was so popular in his day that it is surprising its popularity was not retained longer and its style makes it far more accessible to modern readers than many better known novels of the time.
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