Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals (1847) is the second of Victorian novelist George W.M. Reynolds’ three Gothic novels. The others, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-7) 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 admit part of my enjoyment of the novel 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.
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.
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.
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.