Monthly Archives: October 2015

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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