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.
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 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