Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Vampire Countess: Paul Féval, Vampire Fiction, and the French-British Gothic Influence

When I first heard about Paul Féval (1816-1887)—a writer of serialized French Gothic novels—technically, they are termed feuilletons—meaning serialized novels—who wrote about vampires some forty years before Bram Stoker and whose stories take place in or have characters from Eastern Europe, I was intrigued and wondered whether Stoker knew Féval’s work and was inspired by it in creating Dracula.

Whether or not Stoker ever read Féval is open to question and not something we can accurately determine. However, in this blog and my next one, I will look at the possibilities of an influence. There certainly was a great deal of influence among French and British novelists of the mid-nineteenth century. Féval properly belonged to a generation or even two before Stoker, but he was contemporary with another great British Gothic author, George W.M. Reynolds. Reynolds and Féval would be rivals of a sort in the literary world. After French author Eugene Sue came out with his The Mysteries of Paris (1842-3), Féval wrote an imitation in French he called The Mysteries of London (1843-4), which was published under the pseudonym Francis Trolopp—a play on the name of popular English novelist Frances Trollope (mother to novelist Anthony Trollope). Then Reynolds wrote a serial with the same title (1844-8), but in English. Féval apparently accused Reynolds of plagiarism and thought British authors were pirates ever after that (with no qualms, apparently, from how he had borrowed his own fellow French author’s idea). Obviously, French and British authors, therefore, were influencing one another.

An 1862 caricature of Paul Feval by Etienne Carjat.

An 1862 caricature of Paul Feval by Etienne Carjat.

Another example of this influence concerns Charles Dickens. I discovered in a collection of Charles Dickens’ letters that Dickens knew Féval. Dickens regularly corresponded with French actor Charles Fechter, and in a November 4, 1862 letter to Fechter, Dickens writes:

“Pray tell Paul Féval that I shall be charmed to know him, and that I shall feel the strongest interest in making his acquaintance. It almost puts me out of humour with Paris (and it takes a great deal to do that!) to think that I was not at home to prevail upon him to come with you, and be welcomed to Gad’s Hill; but either there or here, I hope to become his friend before this present old year is out. Pray tell him so.”

Later, in a letter to Fechter from February 4, 1863, Dickens again writes that he is in Paris and says, “Paul Féval was there, and I found him a capital fellow.” If only we could have known what was said at that meeting between two such illustrious authors.

How extensive Dickens and Féval’s relationship was is not known. Féval is not mentioned in either Ackroyd or Johnson’s biographies of Dickens, so it is doubtful they got to know each other well. Despite that, in the prologue to his novel Vampire City (published 1875 but believed to have been written about 1867 and therefore before Dickens’ death in 1870), Féval refers to Dickens as “My dear and excellent friend.” In this passage he is complaining about how English authors have pirated his works and he quotes Dickens for support on the matter, saying “Charles Dickens said to me one day, by way of apology: ‘I am not much better protected than you. When I go to London, if I happen to have an idea about my person, I lock my notecase, put it in my pocket and keep both hands upon it. It is stolen anyway.’” Were Dickens and Féval truly close friends or did Féval simply feel that quoting an English author would support his argument, especially Dickens who was widely known to have had his works pirated?

In any case, there clearly was an influence between French and British authors and they knew of each other’s works. However, Féval, because of the piracy, resisted having most of his works translated into English, although pirated versions happened, though I know of no evidence that his vampire novels were, but that does not mean Stoker might not have known of them. That said, according to Neil Miley in Henry Irving and Bastien-Lepage, Stoker spoke only broken French, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t read it. I myself can read French far better than I can speak it, so it’s possible Stoker did read Féval’s vampire novels.

Féval would publish three vampire novels. The first, The Vampire Countess (1855 serialized; published in book form in 1865), will be the focus of the rest of this blog. The other two Knightshade (1860) and Vampire City (1874), I will discuss in my next blog where I will make some more comparisons between Stoker and Féval’s work. Fortunately for us, Black Coats Press (named for another of Féval’s novels) has reprinted these vampire texts with excellent introductions and afterwords by British author Brian Stableford. Stableford is extremely knowledgeable on the French serialized novels of the mid-nineteenth century and he writes extensively in these books about Féval’s place in his country’s literature alongside his contemporaries like Eugene Sue and Alexander Dumas (who would write a play The Vampire, the success of which may have led to Féval writing The Vampire Countess and whose novel Joseph Balsamo was inspired by English Gothic author Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni).

In Stableford’s afterword to The Vampire Countess, he goes into detail about all of the vampire novels published before it. I was surprised by how many of them there were—The Vampire Countess, Stableford says is probably the sixth full-length novel published. I was only aware of two prior to The Vampire Countess—John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and James Malcolm Rymer’s serialized Varney the Vampire (1846-7) because my area of interest has been British Gothic. Apparently, the vampire was a popular topic on the Continent as well. According to Stableford, the first five would be:

Der Vampyr (1801) by Ignatz Ferdinand Arnold

Lord Ruthven, ou les Vampires (1820) by Cyprien Bérard

La Vampire, ou La Vierge de Hongrie (1825) by Etienne-Léon Lamothe-Langon.

Varney the Vampyre (1846-7) by James Malcolm Rymer

La Baronne Trépassée (The Late Baroness) (1853) by Pierre-Alexis Ponson du Terrail

Dr. John Polidori, whose story, The Vampire, was a major influence on vampire fiction in both England and France.

Dr. John Polidori, whose story, The Vampire, was a major influence on vampire fiction in both England and France.

Stableford states that no known copy exists any longer of the first novel by Arnold. The second novel should probably be Polidori’s novel The Vampire, but Stableford omits it because it is not a lengthy work, more of a novella, while acknowledging its incredible influence on French Gothic literature. In fact, Bérard’s novel is definitely based on it since Polidori’s vampire was named Lord Ruthven (infamously modeled upon Lord Byron). Also noteworthy from this list is that Lamothe-Langon’s novel’s subtitle translates as The Virgin of Hungary, which shows that Eastern European characters and settings in vampire fiction long predate Stoker. In fact, a scholarly work on vampires to which Lamothe-Langon certainly had access was Dom Augustin Calmet’s treatise, Dissertations sur les Apparitions des Esprits, et sur les Vampires (The Vampires of Hungary and Neighboring Regions in English), first published in Paris in 1746, and reprinted several times. Like The Vampire Countess, Lamothe-Langon’s novel concerned Napoleon, so clearly Féval was influenced by it. In his introduction, Stableford also mentions Theophile Gautier’s novella La Morte Amoureuse (1836), which not only was known to Féval, but was also translated into English under the title Clarimonde, which further proves that French and British authors were reading and influencing each other across the channel.

But what of The Vampire Countess? Is it significant in our vampire journey toward Dracula? As I said, we have no indication that Stoker read it, but there is much in it that sets us up for Dracula.

Let me say here before discussing the novel’s plot that Féval is not always an easy author to read. The first of his novels I read was The Wandering Jew’s Daughter, a more or less comic novel making fun of the popularity of the Wandering Jew in the literature of the time. If there’s one thing I dislike in literature, it is the inability to take your subject seriously. A lack of sincerity, the blending of horror with comedy, is what has spoiled most modern horror films, and while Féval wasn’t the first to mock the Gothic tradition, he certainly didn’t improve on it when it came to the Wandering Jew tradition. Féval would also take the vampire legend less seriously in his later two vampire novels, but in The Vampire Countess, he is at least trying to be serious. There are comical elements to the novel, but a Gothic atmosphere is mostly retained and remains haunting throughout the story.

Paul Feval on the cover of a French edition of his works.

Paul Feval on the cover of a French edition of his works.

That said, the novel has some flaws from a lack of tight plotting—the fault of serialization—as well as because it is a sequel to an earlier novel, La Chambre des Amours (The Love Nest). Unfortunately, I don’t believe The Love Nest has been translated into English and Black Coats Press has reprinted The Vampire Countess without its prequel. The result is that it is difficult to make sense of many of the main characters and understand their relationships to one another since Féval assumes we know them when we read The Vampire Countess. Consequently, I found the novel confusing for quite a while, and like The Wandering Jew’s Daughter, I almost felt like I was reading a fragment of what could be a great book. Not until about a third of the way through this roughly 300-page book does the story become really fascinating.

I won’t go into all of the plot of The Vampire Countess, but just summarize the main points. Féval, as Stableford points out, can’t decide from the opening of the novel whether or not to take his vampire theme seriously. He talks of how vampires are being talked about in Paris, largely because of some bodies found in the Seine, but he also introduces the metaphor that Paris itself is the real vampire of the novel, sucking the life out of people, and suggesting it is not real vampires but simply crime in Paris that is the problem.

That said, the vampire countess is very real as a supernatural being, even if not quite the typical vampire. There is no bloodsucking in the novel, which is what vampires are defined by today. Instead, this vampiress is trying to retain her youth, which she can only do by tearing the scalps off young women and wearing them as if they are her own hair—that transforms her to be youthful again for a short time before she regains her old age. I suspect Féval knew of or drew on sources that knew of Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614), the infamous Hungarian countess who liked to bathe in the blood of young virgins, believing that would help her to retain her youth. (That said, Elizabeth Bathory is not mentioned in Calmet’s work.)

Féval also makes his vampire very sexual. She masquerades as Countess Marcin de Gregory, but in truth, she is Addhema, a legendary vampiress who has a male vampire lover, Szandor. Szandor will only kiss her (Stableford points out that the French word used could mean more than kiss, maybe orgasm) if she brings him large sums of money. The final scene of the novel depicts them in the throes of their passion before Addhema kills her lover and herself by plunging a red hot iron through his heart and then hers—a murder-suicide. It is quite a sexual and disturbing scene, especially for a Victorian era novel.

The Vampire Countess was serialized in 1855 but not published in book form until 1865.

The Vampire Countess was serialized in 1855 but not published in book form until 1865.

There is much else about the Vampire Countess that is both confusing, not necessarily logical, and fascinating. While Addhema passes herself off in France as the Countess Marcin de Gregory, she also at one point claims to be Lila, whom she says is the countess’ sister. Lila seduces the main character Rene and tells him the story of Addhema. She does this because the vampiress cannot have a lover unless she first tells him the truth about her being a vampiress. Lila gets around this by telling Rene the story but not clarifying that she is the vampiress. Later, Rene dreams that Lila turns into the countess, but when he wakes, it’s not clear whether he was with Lila as the vampiress or not. This dream or hallucination of Rene’s is part of Féval’s intentional blending of reality and the supernatural to keep the reader and characters questioning whether vampires are real, as well as Féval’s own inability to be sincere about his vampire fiction.

The novel is set when Napoleon was First Consul, and Féval pulls Napoleon into the plot. One of the men the countess marries ends up accusing Napoleon of being her lover and challenging him—of course, Napoleon comes out on top here. Later, the countess claims Napoleon has given her a letter so military men will do her bidding. In truth, she has a forged document. She also appears to be plotting to overturn Napoleon and is in league with the Brotherhood of Virtue. None of these political activities are completely clear in the novel—least of all why the countess is politically motivated at all since it cannot serve her purpose to stay young or to achieve money to pay Szandor for the kisses she craves.

Altogether, The Vampire Countess is a strange novel, much of it feeling like filler that Féval wrote to fill his serial pages because he wasn’t sure yet where the plot was going. It is far from a perfect or even a truly powerful Gothic novel save perhaps for the final scene where Addhema plunges a red hot iron into Szandor’s heart—the scene reminds me of the passionate scenes in Anne Rice’s vampire novels. In my opinion, Féval lacked the intensity or sincerity of Eugene Sue or James Malcolm Rymer which kept him from being a first rate Gothic novelist. That said, The Vampire Countess is an interesting novel because of its historical place in vampire fiction and because it is the most serious of Féval’s vampire novels. Certainly, no one can deny that Féval holds a significant place in the Gothic and serialized literature of his day.

As for whether he influenced Stoker, more exploration is needed, and I will continue that quest in my next blog.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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Failed Redemption and Fantastic Gothic Historical Romance: George W.M. Reynold’s Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals

Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals (1847) is thefirst of Victorian novelist George W.M. Reynolds’ three Gothic novels. The others, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1847) and The Necromancer (1851-2), I have written about in this blog previously. Faust is perhaps not as tightly plotted as The Necromancer (understandable due to the serialization of these novels), nor quite as thrilling as Wagner the Wehr-Wolf. There are sections where the plot drags a bit, but all that said, there is plenty here for a lover of classic Gothic literature to enjoy. I also wish I had read Faust before Wagner because Wagner is really a sequel to it. Faust is the one who changes Wagner into a werewolf in the opening of that novel. (See my previous post on Wagner the Wehr-Wolf for the details of why Faust commits this heinous act.)

Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals - this reprint by the British Library preserves all the original text and illustrations but you need eagle eyes to read the tiny print.

Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals – this reprint by the British Library preserves all the original text and illustrations but you need eagle eyes to read the tiny print.

I admit part of my enjoyment in reading Faust was affected by my reading the only copy I could find in print, a reproduction of the original book from the historical collection of the British Library. The problem with this reproduction is that it is just a photocopy of the original book, but reduced in size to a 6” x 9” book. The print is the tiniest I have ever seen in a book, such that I had to use a bookmarker under each line to focus my eyes upon it. I even tried a magnifying glass but that just distorted the text too much. Consequently, it was a bit tedious reading at times and caused my enthusiasm to wane, but nevertheless, it is worth the persistence. On the plus side, this reprint also includes the original illustrations.

Part of why I put off reading Faust for so long was I figured I knew the story, as detailed in Marlowe and Goethe, but Reynolds greatly expands on the Faust story, adding all kinds of details and making it a far-reaching novel that takes the reader throughout much of central and Eastern Europe, from Germany to Italy and even into Turkey.

To summarize the plot in its entirety would be tedious and only make it sound like nonsense, so I will just hit upon the highlights of the main plots (there are multiple plots that eventually all tie together but some are far more significant than others). We basically have two main characters in the novel, intended to be opposites representing evil (Faust) and good (Otto). As expected, Faust is the villain since he sells his soul to the devil. In Reynolds’ version, however, he does so to save the woman he loves.

The story begins at the end of the fifteenth century when Faust, a common man, is in love with Therese, the daughter of a baron. Her father refuses to let her marry him and even throws Faust in prison to keep him away from his daughter. The devil appears to Faust and makes a deal with him to help him win Therese and have great power and riches, in exchange that at the end of twenty-four years, Faust’s soul will then belong to him. Faust agrees to the deal, not realizing at first that he is not only damning himself but the soul of the child he and Therese will have. After Faust passes himself off as a young nobleman and rescues Therese when she is abducted, her father gives Faust his approval. Faust adopts the title of Count of Aurana, marries Therese, and happiness seems imminent for the couple—except that Faust doesn’t want to sell his child’s soul to Satan as well.

Fortunately, Faust’s friend the Archduke has a wife who becomes pregnant at the same time as Therese. Therese gives birth to a boy and the Archduke’s wife to a girl, but before either knows the sex of her child, Faust convinces his lover, Ida, to switch the babies, thinking that will protect his son.

Satan shows Therese to Faust but will not let him see her until he signs the contract giving up his soul.

Satan shows Therese to Faust but will not let him see her until he signs the contract giving up his soul.

We could almost sympathize with Faust in wanting to protect his child, but he does so through deceit, and that he has already taken a lover in Ida soon after his marriage is sign of his moral depravity. Meanwhile Ida’s brother, Otto, our hero in the novel, learns of the affair and tries to defend her honor. Faust agrees to do what is right by Ida, but since he is already married to Therese, Faust arranges a marriage for Ida with Baron Czernin.

Meanwhile, Otto, through a series of accidents, ends up imprisoned inside a mountain while traveling. He is the prisoner of the Vehm, a secret tribunal, which is really a secret society manipulating political situations. (At first, I thought this organization was fictional, but it was a historical organization in Germany of the late Middle Ages that often acted in secret. It reappears in other literary works including A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle and The Vampire Countess by Paul Feval.) Eventually, Otto is released from imprisonment, but while there he has learned that Baron Czernin is also imprisoned—it then turns out the prisoner is the true baron and his sister’s husband an impostor.

Here is where the novel really gets complicated. Otto helps Baron Czernin escape, but that puts him on the Vehm’s blacklist. Somehow the plots become convoluted here—one suspects Reynolds was running out of ways to keep the serial going—so he takes us to the Vatican and introduces us to Pope Alexander VI and his children Caesar and Lucrezia Borgia. Otto will unwillingly become involved with the Borgias in an attempt to save his own life. Unfortunately, Lucrezia becomes attracted to him, but when he learns her identity, he is so repelled by her reputation that he spurns her, causing her to vow revenge.

Eventually, the twenty-four years of Faust’s compact with Satan are almost over. By now his son and adopted daughter have grown and have fallen in love, wishing to be married. Faust is against the marriage because he believes if he enters a church, he will instantly become the devil’s before his time is up. Finally, he confesses his secret to Otto since Otto is such a good person. Otto tries to get him to pray, but Faust fears Satan will only come for him if he tries. Otto then asks how else he might help Faust.

Faust confesses there is nothing Otto can do for him, but that he might do something to save his son. If Otto can travel to Mt. Ararat and retrieve a piece of wood from Noah’s Ark, which his son can wear about his person, then Satan cannot take his son. Otto agrees to do this. It’s one of the more fascinating scenes in the novel, and fortunately, Otto succeeds in getting a piece of wood from the ark.

On the way home, Otto travels by ship, but the ship he is on sinks. He is rescued and finds himself on an island where Lucrezia now resides. She is now married to her third husband, the Duke of Ferrara. She has Otto cast into “The Iron Coffin”—a dungeon that has walls and a roof that over the course of several days slowly move inward until it is clear Otto will be crushed to death. Otto is terrified that he will lose his life, but on the last day before he will be crushed, Lucrezia comes to him and asks for his love, but he again refuses on moral principles. She then condemns him to death, but just moments later, the Duke of Ferrara, learning of her schemes, rescues Otto and instead places Lucrezia in the coffin to die.

Lucrezia Borgia throws herself on her knees before Otto, asking him to help save her brother Caesar.

Lucrezia Borgia throws herself on her knees before Otto, asking him to help save her brother Caesar.

Otto then returns to Faust and brings him the talisman to save his son. Faust’s final day now arrives. Satan comes to claim him. Faust begs and pleads for his life. Satan tells him if he had listened to Otto and prayed, he might have still saved his soul, but now it is too late. They travel to Mt. Vesuvius where Satan pushes Faust into the volcano (which we learned earlier in the novel is one of the entrances to hell.)

The plot is far more complicated than all that. There are evil priests and plenty of court intrigue, and the secret tribunal plays a more prominent role, but those are the main points. Reynolds tries to be historical, setting the novel in the 1490s to early 1500s and provides constant dates to the events. He documents the plague killing people in Vienna and he even has footnotes telling us when he has altered events and dates for his own purposes. The book certainly made me want to learn more about the Borgias—Reynolds goes a bit to extremes with them—Lucrezia does have her famous ring that she poisons people with, but she did not die in an iron coffin but from complications following giving birth.

I do hold Reynolds in high regard as a sensational storyteller, and somehow he manages never to drop his various plots but to bring them all to fulfillment, although some more successfully than others. What I found most interesting, however, is that to the very end, I thought Faust would have his soul saved (even though Reynolds intrudes into the narrative to tell the reader Faust and Otto are opposites to show us the differences between good and evil). Furthermore, all of Faust’s intentions were usually carried out to save the woman he loved or his child. He only turned to the devil when in desperate circumstances, and when he did, the devil always went to extremes to make Faust’s crimes worse. For example, at one point, Faust begs the devil to create some form of distraction to make his son and adopted daughter forget their love for one another. The devil obeys by causing the plague to erupt, which kills countless people. An extreme solution Faust did not want.

Faust’s plummeting into the mouth of Mt. Vesuvius is also fascinating since one of Reynold’s fellow writers of penny dreadfuls, James Malcolm Rymer, depicts Varney the Vampire trying to destroy himself by plummeting into a volcano but the volcano always spits him out, refusing to let him lose his existence. However, Varney the Vampire was written in 1846-7, and Rymer allows Varney to find redemption—in fact, I believe it is the first time a Gothic wanderer figure is allowed to achieve any true redemption, but Reynolds apparently prefers to damn his Gothic wanderer.

In the end, I think Reynolds may well win the prize for creating the most fantastic supernatural fiction that blends history on a wide-scale. Earlier Gothic novelists like Mrs. Radcliffe set their novels in the past but did not use historical events to color the plot. Contemporaries to Reynolds like Eugene Sue also had fantastic plots but did not use historical coloring to such an extent. Ainsworth, in his fabulous The Lancashire Witches (1849), limits himself to one specific historical event, but Reynolds takes readers on a rollercoaster ride across half of Europe and brings in the most notorious historical people of the time—Lucrezia Borgia—despite her already bad reputation—truly comes off as one of the greatest female villains in Gothic fiction. While I liked both of Reynolds’ other two supernatural novels better, Faust shows that Reynolds was always at the forefront of fantastic Gothic romance.

Tiny print aside, Faust brings together the Gothic and historical novel genres in surprising ways that create a true page-turner. Is it great literature? Perhaps not, but it makes clear why Reynolds was the bestselling Victorian novelist, outselling his contemporaries, even Charles Dickens.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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Giveaway of The Gothic Wanderer at Goodreads

GothicWanderercoverThe Gothic Wanderer

by Tyler R. Tichelaar

Giveaway ends October 21, 2016.

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