Monthly Archives: May 2017

Powers of Darkness: The Icelandic and Possibly Lost Version of Dracula

I was so excited when I first heard several months ago about the publication of Powers of Darkness. This book creates a whole new mystery for Dracula scholars and fans to puzzle over.

Powers of Darkness is the new translation into English of the Icelandic translation of Dracula. It reveals many surprising changes between the Dracula we know and the Dracula read in Iceland for over a century.

You see, in 1900, in Iceland, a man named Valdimar Asmundsson published in serial form a translation of the novel Dracula in the journal Fjallkonan. The book was later published in book form with a preface written by Bram Stoker. For a long time, scholars were aware of this preface which was not included in the 1897 publication of Dracula in Britain, but everyone assumed Makt Myrkranna, the name given in Iceland to Dracula, which translated means Powers of Darkness (I’ll refer to it by this title going forward) was a straightforward translation of the novel.

However, Hans C. de Roos, Dracula scholar, recently discovered it is not the same and has translated the Icelandic version of the novel back into English so scholars can compare the two versions. The result is that the Icelandic version can clearly be seen to have drastic and notable differences to Dracula. How drastic? As Dacre Stoker, Bram’s great-grandnephew, explains in his preface to Powers of Darkness, the Icelandic manuscript is divided into two sections. The first describes Harker’s time in Dracula’s castle, and the second describes Dracula’s time in England. The description of Harker’s time in the castle in Dracula is 22,700 words, but in the Icelandic version, it is 37,200 words—a 63 percent increase. The rest of the novel is 137,860 words in Dracula, but in the Icelandic version, it is a rushed 9,100 words—a 93 percent reduction. Obviously, the word count alone reveals significant changes.

The next most noteworthy change is that Harker’s section is written as a diary, as it is in Dracula itself, but in the Icelandic manuscript, the first-person diary, letter, and recordings format is dropped to be replaced by a nameless narrator who describes all the action. Also, the expanded scenes in Dracula’s castle introduce several minor characters, including a beautiful young woman who tries to seduce Harker. In the later section, she shows up in England as a countess. The second section is very rushed and reads more like plot summary than a thought-out and developed storyline. For example, it will simply state that a conversation was held rather than detailing the dialogue of that conversation.

Several of the characters also have different names. Harker’s first name is Tom rather than Jonathan. Mina becomes Wilma, which Roos notes is also a shorter version of Wilhelmina, as is Mina. (Roos also suspects the name Mina, which scholars continue to debate about the origins for, may have derived from a governess within Stoker’s brother’s family who was named Minna.) Lucy is Lucia in Powers of Darkness, and while most of the other characters have their usual names, several other characters appear in the storyline who are not in Dracula itself, and most notably, Renfield is completely absent.

The biggest change concerning the characters, however, is the way Dracula is treated. He is far more visible in London, appearing at dinner parties, and befriending Lucia and Wilma, after being introduced to them as Baron Székely by Lucia’s uncle. His purpose also appears to be different. While in Dracula, the Count seems to have little purpose other than to quench his thirst for blood, in Powers of Darkness, he seems intent on playing a political game. His speeches to Harker make it clear he is not a fan of democracy; instead, he seems to be wanting to create some sort of new world order, and he also has several other foreigners and diplomats who gather about him in England and seem to be aiding him in these pursuits. Once Dracula is destroyed, these foreigners quietly leave England and one commits suicide. The Count’s death is also notable because he is killed in England, and when he is killed, he is simply killed. There is no passage here as in Dracula that shows a peaceful expression coming across his face as if he is relieved to be freed of his vampirism. Nor does Wilma, unlike Mina, show any pity for him; she is not as linked to him either, never drinking his blood as in Dracula.

A more nuanced difference between Dracula and Powers of Darkness is the language used in the latter—numerous words throughout the book seem to have been inserted specifically for an Icelandic audience, and several references are made to Icelandic mythology. This change makes it clear that Asmundsson as translator probably was taking liberties with the text to make it more palatable to an Icelandic audience, but how far did he take it? Is he responsible for all the changes in the novel, or just some of them? To what extent was Bram Stoker aware of the changes made?

We could easily believe that Asmundsson just decided to rewrite the novel and make it into something different as he serialized it, and then getting tired of it, decided to rush it to an end. This supposition doesn’t explain everything, however. Why would Asmundsson have so drastically changed and expanded the scenes with Harker at Dracula’s castle if he had the full novel to serialize? Also, several of the differences in Powers of Darkness reflect Stoker’s notes for Dracula and ideas he had that he did not incorporate into the final version of Dracula.

No one has the answers to these questions, but personally, I believe Asmundsson was working from an earlier draft of Dracula that somehow fell into his hands; in the introduction, Roos speculates on different ways the manuscript might have made it to Iceland or who may have put Stoker in touch with Asmundsson. I believe the fact that several of the changes reflect Stoker’s notes makes it clear that Asmundsson did not act alone but in conjunction to some degree with Stoker. Stoker apparently approved of the publication of his novel in Icelandic since he provided the introduction. The question, however, is did Stoker know about all the changes made? Even if Stoker had provided an earlier manuscript of Dracula, Asmundsson clearly took some liberties with it by introducing references that would be more familiar to Icelandic readers.

The only way answers could be found to all the questions this new edition of Dracula raises would be if the manuscript Asmundsson worked from were to be found. At this time, however, that seems unlikely. Even so, Powers of Darkness adds to the mystery of Dracula. It opens new interest in Stoker’s writing process and how Dracula may have evolved over time into the novel we have today. Ultimately, I found Powers of Darkness a far less satisfying read than Dracula, although it certainly has its interesting moments. I think the scenes with Harker are the best, and yet, that the Harker chapters were significantly reduced in Dracula from what appears here is a sign to me that Stoker knew how to separate the wheat from the chaff to make his novel more powerful, frightening, and nuanced than if he had retained everything in those opening sections of what I believe is an earlier version of Dracula. He also realized what was not working and obviously improved upon it in the later sections of the novel. Other than the possibility of small changes made by the translator, I suspect what Powers of Darkness reflects is an early draft of Dracula. It will be interesting to see if more information is eventually discovered about the novel to help us better understand why Stoker would have let this version be published—if he did—and how his novel developed to become the classic it is today.

This new edition has both an informative preface and introduction and there are also 352 annotated notes in the glosses of the pages pointing out plot and character differences between Dracula and Powers of Darkness, including Icelandic wordings of interest. There are also a few illustrations. Altogether, anyone who is a lover of Dracula will want to read this book.

For more information about Powers of Darkness, visit the book’s website www.PowersofDarkness.com.

_________________________________________________

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.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula

Balkan Vampire Novel One of the Best: A Review of Kiss of the Butterfly

Kiss of the Butterfly delves into Balkan vampire folklore to create a satisfying and fast-paced vampire tale.

James Lyon’s 2013 novel Kiss of the Butterfly is one of the best vampire novels written in recent years. Its author did impeccable research into vampire folklore, not relying solely on how vampires are depicted in films or even in the novel Dracula and all the vampire fiction that has followed its 1897 publication, but by digging into the true legends of vampires in the Balkans.

Lyon is also the translator of the novel After Ninety Years: The Story of Serbian Vampire Sava Savanovic, which has previously been discussed on this blog. After Ninety Years was first published in 1880, seventeen years before Dracula was published. In his 2015 translation of that novel, Lyon discusses Serbian vampire folklore in detail, and many of the details he discusses he also uses in Kiss of the Butterfly. (Lyon has also written Serbia and the Balkan Front, 1914: The Outbreak of World War I, so he is obviously very knowledgeable about the Balkans.) I won’t go into all the vampire lore details in the novel, but a few are worth mentioning here along with a little plot summary (with a few spoilers, but not giving away the ending) to explain why this is such a great vampire novel.

First off, an explanation about the title. You may not associate butterflies with vampires, but as Lyon explains, butterflies have traditionally been associated in Balkan folklore with the soul. Consequently, a vampire can transform itself into a butterfly. When vampires are killed, it’s important not to let the vampire’s soul escape from its mouth in the form of a butterfly. Of course, the kiss part of the title refers to one of the best scenes in the whole novel when a female vampire attacks the main character.

The novel’s plot is well-paced. It’s just over halfway into the novel when vampires show up in the main storyline, but the lead up to their appearance is suspenseful. I never felt bored at all. The main story concerns Professor Marko Slatina, a Serbian professor teaching in California, and his graduate student, Steven Roberts. Slatina helps Steven get connections in Serbia so he can go there to study vampires for the dissertation he is writing. It’s not easy to go to Serbia at this time since it’s the early 1990s when Slobodan Milosevic is waging a war of genocide in the former country of Yugoslavia.

Once in Serbia, Steven begins his studies in earnest, meeting some professors and other students whom he shares his research with. He also meets some girls, one of whom doesn’t like his interest in vampires, but the two find themselves attracted to each other regardless. The novel educates the reader about Balkan vampires without being boring and builds up to Steven discovering an old book about vampires at a library that he wants to read. The librarian tells him the book was forbidden during the communist regime but he can now look at it. The next day he goes back to look at the book again, only to find that the librarian has been dismissed from her job and the book cannot be located. Obviously, someone does not want him to read it.

Lyon keeps the story moving by having short historical interludes at the end of each chapter that are set between the 1730s and 1980s. These interludes tell us about vampires still existing in Serbia and their history during this period. Most notably, there are twelve vampires in the novel, one of whom is the famous Vlad Dracula. In the 1730s, eleven of the vampires were imprisoned in an underground chamber by a man who had been in love with one of them, Natalija, before she became a vampire. Because of his love for her, he is unable to bring himself to kill her and end her vampirism, so instead, he imprisons her and her fellow vampires. Unfortunately, in the 1980s, the vampires escaped.

As the plot thickens, Steven finds himself being hunted by these vampires, who are intent on killing him before he finds out more about them. Professor Slatina also travels to Serbia at this point and reveals the truth to Steven—that he sent him to the Balkans to find out information about the vampires. Slatina also reveals that he is a vampirovic, the child of a vampire who had sex with a human female. The children of such unions grow up to be vampire hunters and they are basically immortal. I loved this fact, which is part of Balkan folklore, because when I wrote my novel Lilith’s Love: The Children of Arthur, Book Four, which is largely a sequel to Dracula, I depicted Quincey Harker, the son of Mina and Jonathan Harker, as having special powers and an extended life because Quincey’s mother drank Dracula’s blood. I didn’t know at the time that vampire children were part of the vampire tradition, but thought on my own such a child would be special, so I guess I was right.

Slatina also turns out to have been the husband of Natalija, the female vampire. At one point, he confronts her and she begs him to show his love for her by killing her rather than locking her up. At this point, he explains that he didn’t kill her because he has been working on trying to figure out how he can save her by redeeming her. Elsewhere in the novel, Lyon explains that some vampires can feel remorse, try to repent, and achieve redemption. This, of course, fascinated me since I have traced in my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, how Gothic wanderer figures like the vampire go from being damned to redeemed throughout the course of the nineteenth century, the most notable being the title character of Varney the Vampire (1846), who continually tries to end his misery by killing himself and who eventually finds redemption.

One additional interesting use of the vampire theme in the novel comes when the vampires attack Steven and his friends. A male vampire attacks a female, which is perfectly acceptable, since it’s heterosexual, but Natalija attacks a female, which is a lesbian act. Much has been made by critics of homosexuality in vampire novels, although in the nineteenth century novels, authors were always careful never to have vampires attack humans of the same sex. Natalija must have been really thirsty, I suspect, rather than into girls since she is married and later seeks to seduce and have sex with Steven—she literally does want sex with him, not just to drink his blood, or so she says. I suspect Lyon gave no thought to the lesbian possibility of her drinking a female’s blood since the scene is not in any way erotic or really significant ultimately. Oh, and I should mention that the vampires can also become werewolves, another part of Serbian folklore Lyon uses.

I won’t give away all the rest of the plot—needless to say, you can imagine how it ends. I will say I thought the pacing very good; the novel never became insincere or fell into being comical like too many vampire films become. Even when one of the vampires loses its head and remains talking, it did not become comical but rather fit into the vampire lore, as explained in the novel. The scene where a female vampire tries to seduce Steven was especially a page-turner.

I’ve read many vampire novels that were written in the last two hundred years. Of the more modern ones, I would say Kiss of the Butterfly is the best one since Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and Queen of the Damned. It is far better than cheesy and boring Twilight novels or Elizabeth Kostova’s slow and anticlimactic The Historian. I would even read a sequel if Lyon writes one.

Anyone interested in real vampire lore that predates the success of Dracula should definitely read Kiss of the Butterfly.

(I wish to thank Robert Burke, a regular reader of my blog, who introduced me to this novel and James Lyon’s translation of After Ninety Years.)

_________________________________________________

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.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.

 

9 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Gothic Novels, Dracula

The Mysteries of Paris: Criminal Redemption and Non-Gothic Wanderers

Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris should need no introduction, and yet, while it remains well-known in France, few English or American readers will have heard of it. The novel was serialized in France in 150 installments from 1842-1843. As Peter Brooks says in the 2015 Penguin Books translation of the novel, it was “the runaway bestseller of nineteenth-century France, possibly the greatest bestseller of all time.” It was so popular that it led to many authors imitating it, including Paul Feval, who wrote The Mysteries of London in French and George W.M. Reynolds who wrote his own The Mysteries of London in English.

The 2015 Penguin translation of The Mysteries of Paris – the first translation into English in more than 100 years.

But for our purposes with this blog dedicated predominantly to the Gothic, the novel is of interest for two reasons: 1) as the most popular work of an author who would go on to write the almost-as-popular novel The Wandering Jew (1846) which uses the popular Gothic figure of the Wandering Jew as its key character, and more importantly, 2) as a novel about guilt and redemption.

The Mysteries of Paris is famous for being one of the first novels about urban crime, but I admit it was not what I expected. I imagined dens of thieves, something more akin to Oliver Twist (which predates it 1838). Instead, while the novel has numerous criminals in it, most importantly, it is about redemption.

The novel’s main character is Rodolphe. We first meet him on the streets of Paris when a criminal man, known as Slasher, hits a young prostitute named Songbird. Although the novel is not overly explicit about Songbird’s past, she is clearly a prostitute at only seventeen. Rodolphe stops the attack and gives Slasher a good thrashing. The result is that Slasher, who claims to be the second strongest man in Paris, is amazed to have been beaten by Rodolphe. In admiration, he immediately makes friends with him and then the three go to a tavern to dine.

To summarize the novel’s plot would be tedious and complicated, but to make a long story short, Rodolphe helps Slasher to become a decent citizen and lead a moral life. He also helps Songbird, sending her off to a farm where she can live a virtuous life.

As the story continues, the reader begins to pick up on hints that Rodolphe is not the common man he seems. He turns out to be the Prince of Gerolstein, a fictional principality in Germany. More importantly, he is someone set on doing good deeds. He also has a sidekick, Murph, an English knight, who aids him in his efforts. Several scholars have previously compared Rodolphe to Batman (and Murph seems like Alfred, the butler, to me). However, I think the comparison is a bit of a stretch, although the seeds are there, since Rodolphe doesn’t go out and actively fight crime, but he does help people when necessary. Batman may have more fancy gadgets and a costume, but truthfully, I think Rodolphe a more interesting character because he is more human, and more Gothic. Most versions of the Batman story show Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents’ murder by a criminal, which inspires him to fight crime, but Rodolphe has a different motive. He is filled with guilt and believes he must redeem himself. He once raised his sword to his father in anger, and consequently, he feels he deserves punishment. Batman is not a conflicted soul to the extent that Rodolphe is, and that makes him more human and more endearing, at least to this reader.

Poster announcing the 1843 publication of the novel.

The reason for Rodolphe and his father’s argument is at the heart of the novel. It is because of a marriage his father disapproved of. Rodolphe had married the Countess MacGregor; he had actually been tricked into marrying her when she became pregnant, and then she later told him their daughter had died, when in truth, she had given the child into the care of crooked people who told her it had died when they had really sold the child. After their child’s alleged death, Rodolphe divorced the countess, who never loved him but only had the goal to wear a crown on her head. Throughout the novel, she searches for and tries to regain him. In her determination to win back Rodolphe’s affections, she begins to suspect he is in love with Songbird and arranges to have the girl murdered, only to learn at the last minute that Songbird is her lost daughter. The countess then plans to reveal this to Rodolphe so he will marry her finally, but it is too late—by this point she is dying, and in the end, when they do remarry, it is only to legitimize their daughter.

Rodolphe aids many other characters throughout the novel against wicked men and women. He continually rewards the virtuous and metes out punishment or justice (depending on how you want to view justice) to various characters. At one point, he blinds a criminal rather than kill him, believing it will cause the criminal to become self-reflective and repent for his crimes. This punishment is extreme and doesn’t really work out to save the criminal’s soul, but most of Rodolphe’s other good deeds end up benefiting their recipients. In all these cases, he is a vigilante, also like Batman, but also like many characters who preceded him, such as Robin Hood.

However, despite all Rodolphe’s efforts to redeem himself by helping others, he ends up being punished for his crime, not directly, but through his daughter.

While largely unknown to English readers, The Mysteries of Paris remains popular in France and has been made into many film versions, including a 1943 film that this poster represents.

For a short time, Songbird and Rodolphe enjoy happiness in knowing they are reunited. However, once Songbird returns with Rodolphe to Gerolstein, where she is a princess, she finds she hates keeping up the charade that she is a virtuous, innocent girl who has lived always with her mother until now. She even receives a marriage proposal from an eligible young prince, but in the end, she refuses him. She feels she cannot be cleansed of her sin—the prostitution which was more inflicted upon her than her own fault. Ultimately, she turns down her suitor and decides to become a nun. Because of how others view her as virtuous and because she is now the Princess Amelie, it is decided that she will take her cousin’s position as abbess on the day she becomes a nun. She does not feel she is worthy of this honor either. Soon after, she dies, needing to free herself from her sin. Rodolphe is grief-stricken by her death but feels it is just punishment for his own crimes and that now his sins have been expiated. As for Songbird, one cannot help comparing her death to that of Richardson’s Clarissa. Clarissa has to die because she has been raped and death was the only way she could prove her virtue. Songbird dies to atone for her past as a prostitute, a past for which she is really not at fault. Her death washes away her sin.

Although The Mysteries of Paris is not a Gothic novel—even the crime-ridden streets of Paris lack the Gothic atmosphere that Dickens might have created—the Gothic theme of guilt and redemption is strong in Sue’s story. So also is the Gothic family plot that includes long-kept secrets that are ultimately revealed. Several of the other characters also undergo spiritual transformations and redemption as they struggle to become better. Slasher ultimately dies trying to save Rodolphe from an assassination attempt, which he also sees as expiation for his sins. He killed, so he must be killed. (He gained his nickname when he worked as a butcher and in a moment of madness slashed a man.)

Eugene Sue, who became a socialist after writing The Mysteries of Paris.

While Sue was writing the novel, he constantly received feedback from readers, and ultimately, by the time the novel was finished, his constant speeches about how social structures need to be put in place to prevent crime by relieving poverty led him to meeting and speaking with many people and ultimately led to his becoming a socialist. That said, I think this is far less a socialist than a very Christian novel. Sue’s intention is to help the poor, to see them as his brothers and sisters, and to persuade his readers to do something to help them. That is not socialism. That is Christianity pure and simple, and it is beautiful, if dark, in the way Sue treats it. Unfortunately, his Christian characters do not get their rewards or only enjoy them briefly in this life. But no matter; they cannot completely wash away their sins or forget their pain in this lifetime. Only God can wash away their sins, so they die and enter eternal life.

The novel is very powerful—perhaps not quite as much of a tearjerker as Les Miserables, but it certainly was inspiration for Hugo’s novel in its depiction of criminals who were largely forced by society into the crimes they participate in; for example, Jean Valjean stealing to feed his family and Fantine becoming a prostitute to feed her child. I was surprised to learn from the novel’s footnotes that prostitution was not only legal in France during this period but parents could even register their daughters as prostitutes to earn extra income to support the family. That Sue spoke out against such behavior, as I said, is not socialism but Christianity.

The novel’s influence was huge, not just inspiring other city mystery novels but Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, the latter of whom’s publisher wanted him to write a similar novel which later became The Count of Monte Cristo. The Mysteries of Paris would also be a grandfather to the superhero genre. Rodolphe has extreme if not superhuman strength. Jean Valjean will later also be marvelously physically strong. The influence of French literature on English literature was significant and has never been accurately analyzed, but no doubt many of the great British and American authors read this novel and its influence, overtly or not, continued on until heroes like Batman resulted.

Best of all, the novel remains highly readable today. It deserves to be one of the most read classics of French literature by readers worldwide.

_________________________________________________

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.

 

6 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Superheroes and the Gothic

The Last Man: Cousin de Grainville’s Dernier Le Homme and Mary Shelley

In my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, I devoted an entire chapter to Mary Shelley and her place within the Gothic tradition, discussing not just Frankenstein but her third novel The Last Man (1826). The Last Man has become of great interest to critics in the last few decades for its apocalyptic vision of the end of the world. While Shelley had some predecessors in writing about the theme of the end of the world and there being one lone survivor, most of those works were poems, notably, Lord Byron’s “Darkness” (1816), Thomas Campbell’s “The Last Man” (1823), and Thomas Hood’s “The Last Man” (1826). However, one work was a novel, and it was not one I had read previously.

Published in 1805, Grainville’s novel was pirated and published without an author in England in 1806. Mary Shelley may have been inspired by it to write her own novel titled The Last Man

Recently, I reread Shelley’s The Last Man with an online group and became curious about this other novel that may have influenced her. The novel was Jean-Baptiste Francois Xavier Cousin de Grainville’s 1805 French novel Le Dernier Homme. I found a copy published in 2002 by Wesleyan University Press that states it is the “New English Translation.” It is translated by I. F. Clarke and M. Clarke, and it includes an introduction and critical materials by I. F. Clarke.

I purchased this copy on Amazon but did not realize it was a new translation of the novel until I received it. I admit I was disappointed by this because I wanted to read the version Mary Shelley would likely have read, if she did read it. However, after reading the introduction, I was not disappointed because it clarified that what Mary Shelley may have read was not really what Cousin de Grainville wrote, much less what he initially planned to write.

Grainville was born in 1746 of lesser nobility and became a priest in 1766. According to I. F. Clarke, he began writing Le Dernier Homme at age sixteen. Meanwhile, the French Revolution broke out. In 1790, he took an oath to the French Republic, and during the Reign of Terror, he left the priesthood. He would later marry, but his life was not happy; he and his wife were relatively poor, and in 1805, he committed suicide by throwing himself in the Somme Canal at Amiens at 2 a.m. If Grainville had no influence on Mary Shelley, it is clear that both of them had difficult lives and may have written their novels out of despair and grief. Shelley wrote her novel in the years immediately after her husband Percy Shelley drowned in 1823 and her friend Lord Byron died in 1824, making her feel like “The Last Man.”

Grainville’s manuscript was published after his death, but it was still not complete. While the text is a complete long piece of fiction, Grainville divided the book not into chapters but ten cantos. His intention was to use the prose he had written as a rough draft to be the structure for an epic poem, the first canto of which he had begun to turn into verse. Instead, the book was published as a novel in France in 1805. It caused no stir, and according to the preface to the second edition of 1811, it did not sell well. Clarke says it sold forty copies. However, it gained the interest of someone who wanted to translate it into English. In 1806, Grainville’s novel was published as The Last Man, or Omegarus and Syderia, a Romance in Futurity in England. No author’s name appeared on the title page. According to Clarke, the translation shows that it was translated into English by someone whose first language was not English. Who the translator was remains unknown. Even if not English, the translator did know enough about English readers that they would not like certain passages in the novel that glorified France and belittled England. Remember, the novel was written during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. In one passage, we are told that in the future world Grainville depicts, England has sunk into the ocean. In another passage, the main character, Omegarus, is said to be descended from Napoleon and he is also of French royal lineage—a sign of the French thinking themselves superior since Omegarus is believed to be a messiah figure in the novel. These passages were removed from the English translation, and many other similar changes were made. The result was what appeared to English readers as an anonymous novel written by an Englishman.

So what Mary Shelley may have read had no taint of French to it. Le Dernier Homme is a very religious novel and one written by a Catholic priest, but Shelley, who would have been more attune to Protestant thinking and was perhaps an atheist, and whose own novel is often described as existential, would not have known any of these details, though doubtless she could not ignore the novel’s biblical and religious elements.

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man was inspired by her grief over the deaths of her husband Percy and close friend Lord Byron

What is religious about Le Dernier Homme is obviously influenced by the Bible, specifically the book of Revelation, but as Clarke points out, Paradise Lost must have also been an influence, especially Milton’s scene of Adam seeing the future of mankind since in Le Dernier Homme, Adam is a character who gets to visit his descendants Omegarus and Syderia, the last of the human race. Omegarus also at one point gets to see the future of the human race if he and Syderia should have children. Shelley no doubt would have picked up on these parallels to Paradise Lost since she herself was influenced by Milton’s masterpiece in writing Frankenstein.

Although I wish I had read the original pirated English edition of the novel because it would have been a more accurate way to determine any influence of Grainville’s book on Shelley, I think it’s fair to say that if the novel had any influence on Shelley, it was simply the theme of the end of the world and the Last Man that influenced her and nothing more specific. Clarke, in his introduction, says the novel did not influence Shelley’s work and that the similarities are coincidences. The only real similarities are, as Clarke notes, that both novels begin with a cave where an unnamed narrator enters and information is given about the future. Shelley’s narrator and her companion enter the Sibyl’s cave and find sibylline leaves scattered about the cave with writing on them—they piece together these fragments to create the narrative of her novel. Grainville’s narrator instead meets a Celestial Spirit in a cave who then shows him the story through an enchanted mirror. There isn’t anything else in the two novels that is similar other than a few passages where people see what appear to be multiple suns in the sky—Shelley doesn’t explain this phenomenon while Grainville explains that a volcano has erupted on the moon, causing it to look like another red sun from the lava.

Are those similarities or coincidences? Did Shelley read Grainville or not? We can’t say for sure. I think it likely, but if she used the novel as inspiration, it did not in any way limit her imagination from creating her own world. They are very different novels, Shelley’s novel shies away from religion except in the case of depicting one religious fanatic, while Grainville’s novel is filled with biblical imagery. The two novels are so different it is hard to say which is superior. For those interested in more information on Shelley’s novel, I invite them to read the novel and my chapter on it in my book The Gothic Wanderer. For those who want a plot summary of Grainville’s novel, I provide it below but also invite people to read it for themselves. Both novels have been discussed as early forms of science fiction, but there is nothing in terms of technology used in them—the authors could not foresee the technological world or even the advances to items like trains just decades away. The characters travel in balloons, although Grainville calls them “airships.” What makes the novels early forms of science fiction are simply their depiction of the future.

More importantly, both novels, though two centuries old, are still relevant to us today. Shelley’s world is destroyed through plague, which critics have likened to AIDS and other health crises we have faced in recent years. Grainville’s novel has more of an environmental message where the people have gone to live in cities and forsaken cultivating the earth so that plants no longer grow or are able to sustain people, and people themselves have become infertile. (Infertility is, notably, also a theme in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel written in 1985 and now a Hulu Original Series in 2017.) Both novels depict a pessimistic future, one that was not really imagined until the aftermath of World War II when it became apparent that mankind can destroy itself through nuclear weapons—a threat that has only become scarier as the years have passed. As we live today amid fears of overpopulation, global warming, and increased violence, we can look back and see just how insightful and prophetic both Shelley and Grainville were. In fact, just recently, Stephen Hawking has come out to say the earth can only sustain us for 100 more years. It is not far-fetched to think that one day one of our grandchildren’s grandchildren could be the last man or last woman.

In their day, Shelley and Grainville’s novels might have been dismissed as the works of people filled with depression, grief, perhaps even madness to the point where both were likely suicidal and one did commit suicide. But perhaps we can also see both authors as realists in their view of the future, even if not all of us would subscribe to Grainville’s Christian viewpoint or Shelley’s more atheistic one.

Today’s apocalyptic, end-of-the-world stories tend to be far less religious, and human fate tends to remain in human hands rather than in God’s. For example, in Robert O’Brien’s novel Z Is for Zachariah (1974), made into a film in 2015, the human race also gets wiped out save for a young woman and a man. When the man tries to rape the woman, she chooses to abandon him. In this case, it is not God who decides the human race cannot continue, but the modern-day Eve figure. She refuses to let a man have power over her. In a sense, this is coming full circle with ancient traditions and the tale of Lilith, believed in Jewish tradition to be Adam’s first wife who was rejected because she refused to let him be dominant over her.

In any case, Grainville and Shelley’s apocalyptic visions still resonate with us today. Perhaps they are prophets of a future we have yet to face.

 

Plot Summary with Some Commentary on Le Dernier Homme

Book I: Canto I

The story begins with a cave near the ruins of Palmyra (in Syria). This reminds me of Shelley’s Sibyl’s cave. However, what is in the cave is not fragments of a story (Sibylline leaves) but much more. An unnamed narrator visits the cave and is summoned in by an old man who says this is a cave of death that cannot be disturbed. Those who disturb it are punished, but the unnamed narrator won’t be because he was summoned into it. The old man is able to communicate with the narrator by thought. He explains he is the Celestial Spirit. In the cave, the narrator also sees Time personified and bound. The Celestial Spirit tells the narrator that he knows all the future and the past and it’s his purpose to share with him the story of the end of the world and the Last Man. The narrator then watches the events of the end of the world through an enchanted mirror (the only real element of sci-fi technology in the novel, though Grainville would have likely called it magic). This unnamed narrator is similar to St. John, who witnesses the end of the world in the Book of Revelation. Grainville also draws upon “Dies Irae,” a hymn in Latin meaning “Day of Wrath” that was once sung at all Masses for the dead. The translation that Clarke provides of Dies Irae is by Macaulay and includes “This vain world shall pass away/Thus the sibyl sang of old.” This line is not in the novel, but the sibyl reference reminds one of Mary Shelley’s sibyl’s cave.

In the enchanted mirror, the narrator sees Adam, the first man, who has been banished to an island where he is punished and suffering until the end of the world—this depiction is odd because this book is being written by a Catholic priest, and the medieval Catholic tradition is that when Christ died, he descended into hell and freed all the dead from sin—in medieval art, Christ is frequently portrayed as taking Adam by the hand and leading him out of hell with the rest of the human race following. However, Grainville decides to ignore this tradition. Instead, he subscribes to the idea that when people die, they remain dead until the Day of Judgment when they will come back to life (as is depicted at the end of the novel). Adam is an exception—rather than dying (although the Bible says he died), he has been kept alive until the end of the world.

The Harrowing of Hell was a popular medieval theme. Here it is depicted by Fra Angelico. The premise is that when Christ died, he descended into hell and freed the human race. He takes Adam by the hand and behind Adam the rest of the human race follows so they can be freed from sin and enter heaven. Grainville’s novel, however, believes all humans remained dead and in the grave until judgment day.

The angel Ithuriel appears to Adam and tells him he must go to the last humans, without revealing his identity, and in time, his purpose in doing so will become known. The success of Adam’s mission will determine whether his suffering will come to an end. Adam is then transported to where he is found by Omegarus and Syderia, the last couple likely to produce a child. (A few other humans are still alive, but Omegarus and Syderia are the only fertile ones—this is Grainville’s reversing of Paradise Lost, focusing on the last rather than the first couple.) Omegarus and Syderia have spent the night in fear, having seen various spirits and feeling the end of the world is approaching. Adam tells them he is there to comfort them and asks to hear their story.

 

Book I: Canto II

Omegarus begins to tell Adam his life story. He is descended from royalty, kings who once ruled both hemispheres—later it is clear he is descended from French royalty. (This detail is similar to Shelley’s Adrian being the last of English royalty.) Omegarus is something of a wonder child because most people on earth are now sterile and he is the first child born in Europe in many years. Omegarus grows up being the only child in Europe, and eventually, his parents die while he is yet a teenager. As a young man, Omegarus meets a man consumed by flame who tells him not to try to help him, but that the flame is his natural element. This man tells him the world is going to come to an end soon. This man is the Guardian or Spirit of the Earth, appointed by God, so he has knowledge that the day of destruction is near. The spirit tells him he must go to the city where the maid was burnt in France (Rouen and St. Joan of Arc) and there meet Idamas who will help him so he can go to Brazil to find the only woman still fertile who can help him repopulate the earth.

As Omegarus travels to Rouen, he is greeted by other humans who witnessed his birth; they now proclaim him as a prophesied messiah figure who will restore the earth to health and allow mankind to breed and multiply again. Once Omegarus meets Idamas, he is told they will travel to Brazil in an airship (a hot air balloon).

 

Book I: Canto III

Omegarus, Idamas, and a few others take off in the airship. They fly past England, which is sunk into the sea. (The endnote in the Clarke edition suggests this was to please the French readers since England was the enemy and it was the time of the Napoleonic wars.) As they travel, Idamas tells Omegarus the recent history of the world. Not long ago, mankind had reached the peak of evolution and had been experiencing its golden age. Then one man discovered the secret to life extension. He was going to gift it to humanity but then he realized it would result in overpopulation if people did not die, so he captured it in a flame/vial and placed it in a temple on the Fortunate Isles. The flame was then only to be gifted to the very talented who dedicated their lives to humanity. The entire world population would have to vote to allow someone to receive it.

Then a horrible event happened—a second red sun appeared in the sky, which turned out to be the moon rising. A volcano had erupted on the moon, making it red, and soon the moon was completely destroyed and fell from the sky. This destruction affected vegetation on earth, causing scarcity of food, and made people become violent and warlike. This even led to airship wars—people fighting each other in hot air balloons with knives.

The earth was now overpopulated. However, a scientist named Ormus solved this problem by suggesting the land beneath the rivers was fertile so they should divert the rivers and farm in the riverbeds. This worked, so Ormus suggested they do the same thing with the oceans, but it was decided to be unnecessary because people were becoming sterile, which made the overpopulation and food scarcity issues less severe.

Next, the sun began to die. The northern climates became too cold to live in so people fled to warmer lands, resulting in Brazil becoming a major population center. Idamas concludes his history at this point as the airship lands in Brazil.

 

Book I: Canto IV

Upon arrival in Brazil, Omegarus and his companions are told they have to leave or die because there is not enough food there for them. However, after they explain their mission to the king, including that Omegarus brings hope because he has been prophesied to restore the human race, they are welcomed. A sort of beauty contest is then held to find the right maid for Omegarus. There are many signs during the time leading up to the contest of whom the right maiden will be. Nature personified appears and shows Omegarus what his bride will look like. Meanwhile, Syderia, who will be chosen, is having visions of a man whom she later realizes is Omegarus. Eventually, it’s determined that Syderia is to be the bride for Omegarus. We learn that Omegarus’ father is the king or chief of a native tribe in Brazil—they are the last people to have quit living an agrarian and natural food lifestyle, and hence, Syderia is still fertile. To celebrate the fertility, the humans dig and plant seeds into the earth, something that their civilized recent ancestors scorned to do, which caused the earth to cease to be fertile.

 

Book I: Canto V

Idamas now wants Ormus, the river converter, to come and bless Omegarus and Syderia’s marriage. Ormus is found, but he is resistant. He also has the gift of prophecy and says God is not in favor of the marriage so if it happens, it will only be a way to try to stop the prophecy of the earth’s destruction, which will actually further it because mankind cannot be saved. Nevertheless, Ormus comes to the ceremony. During it, he claims to speak to God and prophesies destruction (though no one else hears God’s voice). Ormus says that as proof of the prophecy he’s hearing, he will die, which he then does.

The fifth canto ends with the Brazilians demanding that Omegarus and his French companions depart before more doom is brought upon them.

 

Book II: Canto 6

Omegarus and the French prepare to leave Brazil, but they decide to bring Syderia with them. She loves Omegarus so she departs to France with him, but at the same time, she is worried that she is defying God by being with him so she won’t consummate the marriage. After they leave Brazil, Syderia’s father appears to her in a dream, saying he died of grief after she left, but he now knows as a spirit that God is in favor of their union. As a result, Syderia gives in to Omegarus’ advances, they have sex, and she becomes pregnant.

 

Book II: Canto 7

Adam, who is listening to Omegarus recite his tale, now has God appear to him and tell him that he is against the union of Omegarus and Syderia. Adam then explains to Omegarus that God is indeed against the union and, furthermore, the child conceived, if born, will murder its parents, and that will be the least of its acts. It will father an evil race as well. (I was struck by this because it made me wonder whether Shelley was inspired by this novel in writing Frankenstein as well—after all, the monster is Victor Frankenstein’s son, and it seeks to murder him and does murder Victor’s wife.) Omegarus is defiant, refusing to believe what Adam says and refusing to obey God until Adam finally reveals to Omegarus that he is Adam, the father of mankind. He then explains to Omegarus that all the prophecies in favor of his and Syderia’s union have been the deceitful work of the Spirit of the Earth who first sent Omegarus on his journey and told him he was to father a new race of men. As the earth’s guardian, the Spirit will cease to exist if mankind dies out and the earth is destroyed, so he is lying to preserve his own life. In this sense, the Spirit is like Satan, a deceitful transgressor against God’s will.

Omegarus still refuses to separate from Syderia, but Adam continues to try to convince him. Adam says that if he can prevent the birth of this evil race that will spring from Omegarus and Syderia’s union, then he will be able to wipe away his sin. (In other words, Adam has as much of an agenda as the Spirit of the Earth.) At first, in reading this section, I thought Adam was advocating that Omegarus and Syderia commit suicide, but instead, it turns out that if Omegarus will just separate from Syderia, that will be enough for God to realize they are obeying him, and then he will destroy the earth and the human race so that all the humans of the past can rise from the dead to have eternal life.

Omegarus finally agrees to separate from Syderia, though he feels great guilt. He almost returns to her, then instead writes on a stone, “Omegarus is not guilty” hoping Syderia will see it and understand.

This canto is disturbing in its Christian message. Even Omegarus wonders how a beneficent God can be so cruel. However, Adam says that once Omegarus dies, the souls of men will praise him for they will have eternal life.

 

Book II: Canto 8

Now that Omegarus has separated himself from Syderia, God is ready to fulfill his plan to destroy the earth. Comets strike. The earth begins to erupt. The bones and ashes of the dead rise up from the earth, which causes mountains to fall and the earth’s landscape to alter. Omegarus finds shelter in a house where he finds the bodies of an old couple, Tibes and his wife. He sees the aged bodies become youthful. God has restored them to life but their shades have not yet returned to them. Omegarus feels grateful that their souls and those of all humanity will now be freed.

 

The Last Man, a 1849 painting by John Martin. The painting does not depict a scene from either Shelley or Grainville’s novels but just the popular theme. That said, notice the red sun/moon in the darkness.

Book II: Canto 9

Syderia wonders why Omegarus hasn’t returned. She finds the stone on which he wrote “Omegarus is not guilty” and realizes he has deserted her. She feels, however, that he is guilty; then she feels bad to think he is guilty. She is in misery and then in shock as she sees the earth throwing up stones as the dead are raised from the earth. She becomes wounded and miserable. She finally sees Omegarus again and he looks radiant and tells her it’s a happy day, but she is then separated again from him.

 

Book II: Canto 10

The Spirit of Earth, determined still to live, makes a bargain with Death not to kill Syderia because then both will be able to live if the human race continues. Death promises not to kill her so long as the flame of love is in her heart. Of course, Syderia’s love eventually dies and Death does kill her. He then kills the Spirit of the Earth. Eternity then dawns. Meanwhile, the human race enters eternal life, praising Omegarus as its savior.

The End

7 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Mary Shelley, The Gothic and the Bible