Monthly Archives: January 2016

“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.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the Children of Arthur series. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the Children of Arthur series. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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