The French Gothic novel The Mysterious Hermit of the Tomb (1816) is a fascinating piece of literary history if not a great piece of Gothic literature.
The novel, which claims to be by Mrs. Radcliffe and translated from English into French by the Baron de Langon, was actually written by Langon, who was not a baron at all. Etienne-Leon de Lamotte-Langon (1786-1864) loved to write forged books, books he claimed were by famous people, the most famous being the Countess DuBarry, for whom he wrote a popular set of fake memoirs.
I will not go into detail about Langon, but I recommend interested readers peruse the introduction to the new edition of this novel published by Black Coats Press and written by Brian Stableford. Stableford is the translator/adaptor of the novel and his introductions are always worth the price of the book alone—I wish he would write an entire history of French Gothic literature. (Note that this edition of the novel refers to the author as “Lamotte-Langon,” but his Wikipedia page, only in French, says his name was “Lamothe-Langon.” See translated Wikipedia page here.)
Langon appears to be an overlooked author in the exploration of how English and French literature influenced each other, and a key figure in the leading up to the revival of the Gothic novel in the 1840s and 1850s. The Mysterious Hermit of the Tomb is a testament to the popularity of Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels in the 1790s and their translation into French. In fact, in 1799, another novel, The Tomb, was published that also claimed to be a fake translation of one of her books, although its true author is not known.
The Mysterious Hermit of the Tomb begins with an introduction in which Langon claims to have received a manuscript of the novel from a relative of Mrs. Radcliffe. More than once he also makes comments that suggest Mrs. Radcliffe is dead—something many may have believed at the time, although she did not die until 1823, but illness had caused her to withdraw from the literary world and public life, which she had never participated much in anyway. Her last novel, The Italian, had been published in 1797 so her lack of further publication helped spread the rumor of her death. Of course, Mrs. Radcliffe had no recourse to people using her name in France, and many authors in the nineteenth century suffered from other authors stealing their books or concepts and even using their names. George W. M. Reynolds is one of the more famous examples, having written The Mysteries of London (1844-48) as a follow up to Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1846), and also Pickwick Abroad (1837-38) as an unauthorized sequel to Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (1837-38), although he published them under his own name.
The Mysterious Hermit of the Tomb starts out in such a manner that one could almost believe Mrs. Radcliffe did write it. We are introduced to Arembert, a lord who feels haunted by his past crimes. Then we meet a mysterious hermit whom the reader quickly realizes is Arembert’s older brother who allegedly went off to the Crusades and disappeared, but who we ascertain has a secret and is actually haunting Arembert by finding hidden passages into his castle and uttering doom and gloom statements like a disembodied voice. Soon after, we are introduced to Ademar, a young knight who knows nothing of his parentage, but the hermit tells Ademar he knows the truth of his birth and it will eventually be made known. Of course, Ademar turns out to be the hermit’s son and will eventually learn how Adembert committed crimes against the rest of the family.
This is all well-done—a good Gothic plot of revenge and guilt—but it’s not enough to carry off three volumes, so Langon introduces a love story for Ademar, and he sets it all against the Albigensian crusade of the thirteenth century. What results is a mix of Gothic novel, courtly and chivalric romance, and historical fiction, although Langon has no real concept of being historically accurate. One has to wonder whether he read any of Sir Walter Scott or Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1809). Both Scott and Porter made more effort to be historically accurate in their books, which only predate Langon’s novel by seven or less years. This was the time period of the birth of historical fiction and Langon isn’t quite writing it, but he’s a pioneer in its development. In fact, the hermit himself—the rightful heir to a barony and a father in disguise—reminds one of how King Richard is in disguise in Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) and Rymer’s The Black Monk (1844-45). You have to wonder, then, whether Scott read Langon.
Before the novel is over, we have a series of adventures in which princesses are kidnapped and rescued, Adembert admits his past crimes and dies a death deserving of a villain, and all is revealed regarding the hermit’s past. Unfortunately, Langon has a bad sense of how to end a novel dramatically. The secrets are revealed fifty pages before the novel is over and then we are subjected to several concluding pages to wrap up the plot, followed by the hermit telling his story at length, and rather unnecessarily since we’ve already figured out he is Arembert’s brother—this disordered ending destroys the novel’s pacing and dramatic conclusion and shows that Langon really wasn’t quite up to what he was trying to pull off.
Regardless, there are things to admire about the The Mysterious Hermit of the Tomb. It does keep the reader engaged for the first seventy or so pages before it falls into the chivalric plot and loses its Gothic suspense. I do not want to fault Brian Stableford as translator because he has done a wonderful service through Black Coats Press in bringing numerous fascinating French Gothic novels into English, but I think even he must have found this book trying as evidenced by the numerous typos throughout the book that make it difficult to read, and the tense often shifts from past to present, though that may be the fault of the author rather than the translator.
Langon does not seem to hold a high place in French or even French Gothic literature, but he did write several novels along those lines, including The Virgin Vampire in 1825 (also available through Black Coats Press). He also wrote novels of manners, and most significantly The Police Spy (1826) which is one of the first pieces of crime fiction, and although it does not seem to have had a major influence on the genre, Stableford in his introduction suggests it may have inspired Eugene Vidocq’s book Memoires (1828), a fake autobiography by Vidocq, a French criminal and criminalist. Vidocq’s book is considered the godfather of crime fiction and is known to have influenced later authors including Poe, Balzac, and Feval. Furthermore, although Langon quit writing before the age of the feuilleton—the novels serialized in newspapers that brought about the revival of the Gothic in France and indirectly in England in the form of penny dreadfuls, including such French works as Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1842-43) and The Wandering Jew (1846), and in England, James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire (1846-47) and George W. M. Reynolds’ Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-47)—he certainly was a forerunner and likely an influence upon the movement.
I am left wondering whether English writers read Langon in French—I don’t know that he was translated into English prior to Stableford’s translation—and how his works may have affected the development of the British Gothic novel. Certainly, they had minor influence on the French Gothic novels of the early nineteenth century, which in turn had influences on the British Gothic.
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.