Monthly Archives: June 2019

The Woman in White’s Influence on Dracula

Similarities between Wilkie Collins’ 1860 novel The Woman in White and Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula have long been noted by critics and readers. Recently, I reread The Woman in White with fellow members of the Trollope and His Contemporaries group online that I have long belonged to. During this read, several similarities between the two novels stood out to me and some of the other members, particularly Ellen Moody, which I will discuss here. Personally, I believe Stoker was influenced in numerous ways by The Woman in White, many of which he may not have realized himself.

An 1880 portrait of Wilkie Collins by Rudolph Lehmann

The biggest and most often noted similarity between the two novels is their structure. The Woman in White is written as a compilation of various documents and eyewitness testimonies by various people involved in the strange events depicted in the novel. Stoker adopted this same technique for Dracula. While previous novels had claimed to be collections of documents—for example, Samuel Richardson’s novels and all the epistolary fiction that followed—Collins was the first to have multiple characters compile documents for the purpose of sharing them with the public and documenting events to provide evidence of what happened. By comparison, Richardson’s characters’ letters are simply “discovered” by the author who claims to be their editor. Stoker goes a step farther than Collins in Dracula by even employing new technology, such as phonographs, to compile the record, but the results are the same—numerous pieces by different eyewitnesses that are put together to create a complete narrative.

Several similarities also exist between Collins and Stoker’s characters beginning with the villains. Our primary villain in both novels is a count and a foreigner. Count Dracula is from Transylvania while Count Fosco is from Italy. Several scholars have written about how Dracula may be a commentary on the concern of Eastern European immigrants coming into England and the need to hold back that threat. (For more details on this theory, see my book The Gothic Wanderer.) Such prejudice or racism directed at foreigners is also apparent in The Woman in White when Laura Fairlie’s aunt marries Count Fosco, thus resulting in her being disinherited and only able to collect her inheritance should her niece Laura die. Of course, Count Fosco is not a desirable husband, but that the foreigner is made into a villain still suggests a note of racism in the text. Another foreigner in The Woman in White is Mr. Fairlie’s servant Louie, whom Mr. Gilmore describes as “miserable”; Louie, far from being a villain, is subservient and mistreated by Mr. Fairlie, but disliked regardless.

The primary female character in Dracula is Mina Harker. In The Woman in White, it is Marian Halcombe. Notably, the women have the same initials. Marian is similar to Mina in several ways I will discuss below, but as Ellen Moody noted, Marian also takes on the role of Mina’s husband, Jonathan Harker, when she is seen crawling on the rooftops so that she can overhear conversations in other rooms to learn her enemies’ secrets. Similarly, Jonathan Harker makes explorations of Dracula’s castle, including going out on the ramparts to try to find a means of escape.

Hints of homosexuality and fear of it also exist in both novels. In The Woman in White, Mr. Fairlie is a weak and effeminate male who is constantly whining and acting like a hypochondriac. Notably, he is also much impressed by Walter Hartright, complimenting him on how strong he is when he first arrives at Limmeridge House, suggesting a sexual attraction or at least an admiration for men who are stronger and, thus, manlier, than he is. By comparison Marian is very mannish and dresses in mannish ways.

Bram Stoker may have had homosexual feelings himself. He liked to play with gender themes in many of his novels, including The Lair of the White Worm and The Man.

While there is no overt homosexuality in either novel, there is a definite fear of it in the novels’ subtexts. Most notably, in Dracula, the men all fear the count as the alpha male figure who has the power to defeat and, thus, emasculate them, including by taking their women from them. Dracula succeeds in taking Lucy from the men who love her, and then he attempts to do the same with Mina. The most horrifying moment in the novel is when the men discover the count with Mina. Dracula has broken into Mina and Jonathan’s bedroom and apparently overpowered Jonathan, who lies there unconscious while Dracula forces Mina to drink blood from his breast. While Dracula does not drain Jonathan, that he takes Jonathan’s woman is sufficient to show he has unmanned Jonathan. This fear of a more powerful male draining another male of their manhood is a subtext for homosexuality and specifically fellatio.

A similar, though less explicit, event happens in The Woman in White after Walter Hartright falls in love with Laura Fairlie. However, Laura is engaged to Sir Percival, who also is depicted in alpha male terms. Walter leaves Limmeridge House just before Sir Percival arrives. He apparently feels unmanned that the woman he loves could prefer Sir Percival. Consequently, the next time we hear of Walter, he is described by Mr. Gilmore as having been seen walking about London looking “pale and haggard.” In other words, by taking his woman, Sir Percival has drained the manhood out of Walter Hartright.

Stoker takes this image of Walter walking about London and reverses it in Dracula. When Jonathan Harker first sees Dracula at his castle, the count is pale. Later, Jonathan sees him walking about in London and notes how he has grown young, which he has done by drinking blood. Jonathan is also weak and pale by the time he leaves Dracula’s castle, having undergone a great shock. The female vampires wish to feed on him, but Dracula tells them “This man belongs to me.” Stoker gives no indication that Dracula has sucked Jonathan’s blood, but perhaps we are to read between the lines. Again, the sense is that one man can drain the life and manhood from another. Later, Dracula warns all the men, “Your girls that you all love are mine already. And through them you and others shall yet be mine, my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed.” In other words, if Dracula comes to control the men, they will be his inferiors and thus be unmanned. They will become beta males whose job is to assist the alpha male in fulfilling his needs—both food-wise and sexually.

I will not go so far as to say there is lesbianism in Dracula between Mina and Lucy, although some critics have speculated upon this and Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula shows the two women kissing. However, hints at lesbianism definitely exist in The Woman in White. Marian, as previously stated, is very mannish in her behavior and how she dresses. She is also very protective of Laura, like a man would protect a woman—this is understandable given that they are sisters, yet the subtext is still there. It’s also noticeable that in the end, Marian does not marry. Collins could have easily married her off to one of the lawyers or doctors who are minor characters in the novel if he wanted to end the novel with neatly tied up marriage knots. Instead, that Walter ends up living with two women, Marian and Laura, may be reflective of the fact that Collins himself had two simultaneous mistresses, although they never all lived together. It also suggests that Marian wants to remain close to Laura and also that perhaps she feels some attraction to Walter. Certainly, Marian is more Walter’s equal than Laura. That Marian is mannish suggests a male homosexual bond between Marian and Walter while also suggesting a lesbian connection between Marian and Laura.

If Marian is a pseudo-man, it is telling that she admits at one point she would also fold Count Fosco’s cigarettes for him like his wife does—a sign not that she is attracted to him so much as that she would be submissive to him, just as men fear being submissive to a more alpha male.

Connections to Dracula also exist in Marian and Count Fosco’s relationship. Although the count has no supernatural powers, he insinuates himself into Marian’s mind so much that she states she can recall his conversation and hear it in her head later as if he’s in the room. Similarly, Dracula and Mina are able to communicate telepathically. Later when Marian is sick, Dr. Dawson accuses Count Fosco of using mesmerism on her.

Dracula, of course, does have supernatural powers, including the power of mesmerism through his hypnotic eyes. Dracula also has power over other, weaker animals, including rats and wolves. Fosco has power over, or at least an affinity for, his mice and birds, and he is even capable of taming a great violent dog by telling it that it is a coward.

Secret societies also come into play in both novels. Toward the end of The Woman in White, it is revealed that Count Fosco has belonged to a secret society, The Brotherhood, and he has a mark upon him showing that he has been denounced by them—a mark reminiscent of the Mark of Cain that made the biblical Cain an outcast. While Dracula is not a member of a secret society, per se, the vampires are a sort of secret society in themselves. Similarly, the men are part of a “band” in their efforts to defeat Dracula. While it remains questionable whether Stoker was inspired by Vlad Tepes in creating Dracula, we know Vlad belonged to the Order of the Dragon, from which the name Dracula is derived. Vampires are also outcasts, unable to receive heaven’s salvation. At one point, Jonathan strikes Dracula on the forehead, resulting in a mark remaining there, again recalling the mark of Cain. Later, Van Helsing presses a Eucharistic host to Mina’s forehead and it also leaves a mark there, showing she is an outcast now that she has become Dracula’s minion.

The latest film of The Woman in White, which aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre in 2018.

It’s notable also, although Collins only drops the name, that we learn Fosco has belonged to several secret societies, including the Rosicrucians. The Rosicrucians claimed to have two major secrets: the elixir of life, which provided them with life extension and also the philosopher’s stone which gave them the alchemist skill of turning lead into gold. Fosco does not claim to have either of these secrets, but he does have chemical (if not alchemical) knowledge that allows him to administer drugs to Marian. As a side note, numerous critics have commented upon how Laura ending up in an insane asylum may have been based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton locking up his own wife in such an institution. Notably, Edward Bulwer-Lytton belonged to a Rosicrucian society himself, and the title character of his novel Zanoni (1842) is a Rosicrucian.

Finally, early in The Woman in White, Walter meets “the woman in white”—Anne Catherick. Dracula also has its woman in white—Lucy, who as a vampiress preys upon many children before she is put to rest.

I don’t think Stoker plagiarized from The Woman in White, but I think too many similarities exist between the novels not to believe he was heavily influenced by Collins’ novel. I am sure Stoker was aware of how he adopted from Collins’ novel a similar narrative structure for Dracula, but I think the way he took Collins’ themes and characters and developed them on a more supernatural level must have been done largely subconsciously. Clearly, The Woman in White had a profound influence upon Stoker beyond his own awareness.

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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, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and numerous other books. For more information about Tyler and his books, visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com, www.GothicWanderer.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula

The Female Freke: Crossdressing, the Gothic, and Female Education in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda

Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) is a curious novel that, despite feeling disjointed in its plot, is perhaps Edgeworth’s greatest, being more fully developed than other works like Castle Rackrent (1800) and The Absentee (1812). It is novel of manners with Gothic elements, much like Fanny Burney’s Camilla (1796) and The Wanderer (1814), and belongs on the same bookshelf as the works of Mrs. Radcliffe, Fanny Burney, Charlotte Smith, and Jane Austen, who refers to the novel in Northanger Abbey. While Belinda is very much a traditional romance novel, detailing how the heroine, Belinda, ends up marrying the hero, Sir Clarence Hervey, after they overcome the obstacles to their relationship, two far more interesting women, Lady Delacour and Harriet Freake, are at its core.

Belinda (1801) by Maria Edgeworth

Belinda Portman is rather a bore to the reader. Her character is not well developed and she has no real adventures. Her only purposes in the novel are to fall in love with Clarence Hervey and reform Lady Delacour. It is Lady Delacour who first brings life to the novel when Belinda is sent by her aunt to stay with her. Lady Delacour introduces Belinda to the world of fashion, including Clarence Hervey, but she also introduces her to her own dysfunctional life. Lord Delacour is a drunk whom Lady Delacour cannot abide. Her thirteen-year-old daughter, Helena, she ignores and shoves off on friends or relatives. She also associates with the wrong people, most notably Harriet Freake. Harriet thinks nothing of behaving in unruly ways, as seen when she instigates events that lead to Lady Delacour fighting a female duel with her great society rival Mrs. Luttridge. Of course, the women dress as men in the process. Neither woman dies in the duel, but the pistol backfires and hurts Lady Delacour’s breast, causing her to be convinced she has cancer. Ultimately, however, everything will be improved for Lady Delacour because the sweet Belinda will reconcile her to her husband and daughter. Unfortunately, her good behavior also brings upon Belinda the wrath of Harriet Freake.

Harriet now befriends Mrs. Luttridge, Lady Delacour’s enemy. She then involves herself in several adventures to harass Belinda and her set. When Belinda learns that Clarence Hervey has another love interest, a young woman named Virginia, she allows Mr. Vincent, a gentleman from the West Indies, to pay court to her. Mr. Vincent has a negro servant, Juba. Harriet shares apartments in the same building as Mr. Vincent, and when a dispute occurs over who has rights to the building’s coach house, Harriet swears she will punish Juba. Juba fears her, referring to her as a “man-woman” and an “obeah-woman” (a West Indian witch). It’s death to mention an obeah-woman so Juba becomes convinced he will die. Soon he is seeing an apparition at night of a woman in flames at the foot of his bed, and he believes this woman will kill him. Belinda, however, realizes the flaming woman is a head drawn in phosphorus by children and that Harriet is playing a trick on him. Because Belinda ruined her fun, Harriet is now out to get revenge on her.

Harriet’s behavior suggests she may be a lesbian. She is not above dressing in men’s clothes. In one scene, she is out shooting with the men. In referring to her past, she remarks upon when she was a “schoolboy.” She also states that when a woman likes a man, she should tell him so, although she makes no professions of love to any man. I suspect she’s just not interested in men, although her forwardness and directness are in keeping with that of literary women who throw themselves at men, such as Lady Olivia in Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753-4), Joanna, Countess of Mar in Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1809), and Elinor Joddrel in Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814). (See also my previous blog post “Male Imprisonment and Female Wanderers: Sir Charles Grandison’s Influence on the Gothic Novel.”) Edgeworth is really more daring than these other novels in suggesting Harriet is a lesbian. Not only does Harriet show no interest in men, but she lives with Miss Moreton, a young lady who ran away from home, and who may be Harriet’s lesbian partner; we are told Harriet leads Miss Moreton a rough life, getting her to dress up like a man. Belinda concludes that Harriet is obviously unhappy. However, no analysis is given to the cause of her unhappiness. I suspect it’s because her society has no place for lesbians, and her feelings of rejection by her society result in her anger and meanness. Even Edgeworth is not on Harriet’s side, having given her the name Freke to emphasize to readers what a freak she is.

It is hard to feel any sympathy for Harriet, a woman who uses the supernatural to terrify others. Besides frightening Juba, she plays upon Lady Delacour’s fears. Lady Delacour eventually sees a doctor and learns she does not have cancer, but she does need an operation. She is fearful she might die from the operation and turns to religion. At this point, Harriet decides to dress up like a man whom Lady Delacour previously wronged and appear outside her window to haunt her. Fortunately, she is caught in the act, actually having her leg caught in a trap in the yard and being found by the gardener.

Later, Harriet and Mrs. Luttridge decide to get revenge on Belinda by ruining her engagement to Mr. Vincent. They lure Mr. Vincent into gambling at the Luttridges’ house where the tables are fixed so that he cannot possibly win. Clarence Hervey tries to step in and save Mr. Vincent from ruin, but Mr. Vincent refuses, seeing Clarence as his rival for Belinda’s hand, even though Clarence is planning by this point to marry Virginia. Ruined by gambling, Mr. Vincent attempts to borrow money in secret from a Jew to pay his gambling debts, but when his gambling addiction is revealed, Belinda decides to break off the engagement.

This gambling plot is interesting for several reasons. First, gambling is considered a transgression against God, as I’ve discussed at length in my book The Gothic Wanderer. A long tradition of gamblers appear in Gothic novels, the most notable being Valancourt in Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). His gambling causes Valancourt problems with the novel’s heroine, Emily St. Aubert, but in the end, Emily still marries him. In William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799), the title character also brings his family to ruin through gambling. Edgeworth had Godwin’s novel in mind as evidenced when at the end of Chapter 15 she has Lady Delacour ask Belinda whether she’d rather have rouge or the philosopher’s stone and whether she’s read St. Leon. St. Leon actually acquires the philosopher’s stone in the novel, which is itself a form of gambling since it can turn lead into gold, thus disrupting national economies. Also of interest in Belinda’s gambling plot is how the Jew is a stereotype in the novel, wanting to extort unreasonable interest from Mr. Vincent. This and similar depictions of Jews in Mrs. Edgeworth’s novels resulted in a Jewish-American reader complaining about such depictions, leading to her writing Harrington (1817), perhaps the first novel to contain positive depictions of Jewish characters, predating Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) by two years.

Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) was an English born author who lived in Ireland and created the first Irish regional novels, which ultimately inspired Sir Walter Scott to write his novels.

Although Belinda is now unengaged, her true love, Clarence Hervey, is not. Up to this time, we’ve heard little about his betrothed Virginia, but the end of the novel goes into detail about how Clarence found the orphan Virginia as a child and decided to raise her in the forest and educate her with the view of someday making her his wife. Her name isn’t even really Virginia, but he calls her that as a tribute to Paul et Virginia (1788) by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de St. Pierre.

Virginia grows up respecting Clarence and feeling obligated to love him, but she has seen the picture of a young man whom she believes is a hero, and that is what she grows to want—a hero. She has not been allowed to read novels because novel-reading is what caused her mother to lose her virtue; however, she does grow up reading romances, which distort her understanding of the world, especially since she grows up in isolation save for the woman who cares for her and occasional visits by Clarence. (Edgeworth based this story of a man educating a young woman with the intent to marry her on the real-life story of her father’s friend Thomas Day, the author of Sandford and Merton (1788). Day, inspired by Rousseau’s Emile (1762), raised two young ladies, Sabrina and Lucretia, but Lucretia he decided to discard as not suitable for him. Sabrina he eventually also gave up on ever becoming his wife and she ended up marrying another.)

Lady Delacour, determined that Belinda shall marry Clarence, now steps in to resolve matters by revealing that Virginia does not love Clarence. She does this by showing Virginia a picture behind a curtain. Virginia faints when the picture is revealed. This scene is a play on the horror behind the veil in Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, but with better, if fanciful results. When Virginia faints, Clarence realizes she does not love him but the imaginary hero pictured in the image. Clarence has just recently discovered Virginia’s father is Mr. Hartley, a man who, like Mr. Vincent, has made his fortune in the West Indies. Mr. Hartley now comes forward to reveal to Virginia that the man in the portrait that she found in the forest is none other than Captain Sunderland. The captain had watched her through a telescope and fallen in love with her. He had left behind his portrait for her to find before going to the West Indies, where he saved Mr. Hartley’s life during a slave rebellion. Consequently, he is a hero and worthy of Virginia’s hand.

Clarence is now free to marry Belinda, and everyone lives happily ever after, except Harriet Freake. We are never told what becomes of her, but we are left with the feeling that she will continue to cause trouble. Even though her efforts to appear as an apparition and frighten people in the novel have been unsuccessful, she continues to haunt the reader long after the book is finished. One wishes Edgeworth had written another novel from Harriet’s perspective, but this female Gothic wanderer, even in the eyes of her creator, was unredeemable.

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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, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and numerous other books. For more information about Tyler and his books, visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com, www.GothicWanderer.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Literary Criticism

George W. M. Reynolds’ The Seamstress, or The White Slave of England

George W. M. Reynolds, author of such fabulous Victorian novels as The Mysteries of London (1844-48) and Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-47) never ceases to be entertaining, and yet, The Seamstress (1850 serialized, 1853 book), despite its rather sensational subtitle, falls into too much of a cliché in parts to be a truly great Victorian novel, although it does have some social criticism and a tragic rather than sentimental conclusion worthy of notice.

Edition of The Seamstress that I read. Be forewarned that this is a photo copy of the 1853 edition. The print is excruciatingly small and in many places faded and two pages are missing. However, it is readable with a magnifying glass or if you have very good eyes and use a bookmarker. All the original illustrations are included. Hopefully someone will start reprinting more of Reynolds’ novels in better editions soon.

The title character is Virginia Mordaunt, a poor seamstress in London who has never known her father and whose mother died not long ago. She is now eighteen and trying to make her living in England as a seamstress. She knows nothing about her parents’ pasts. She only knows a man used to visit her mother and give her money a few times a year, but those payments apparently ceased after her mother’s death.

The novel opens very well, suggesting it will be a biting piece of social criticism. We see Virginia working late into the night to finish sewing a dress. She then sells the dress to Mrs. Jackson for half its value. Mrs. Jackson is a middle woman and an invalid, so she asks Virginia to bring the dress to Miss Pembroke, who in turn pays for the dress, then asks her to resell it to Madame DuPleasy. Madame DuPleasy—an Englishwoman whose real name is Snuggins but who uses a fake name to get patrons, including a female member of the royal family—pays fourteen shillings for the dress, while Mrs. Jackson had only paid Virginia three shillings and sixpence for it. Madame DuPleasy then asks Virginia to bring the dress to the Duchess of Belmont, who must pay cash for it because she is already in debt up to 600 pounds with Madame DuPleasy. The Duchess pays twelve pounds and nine pence for the dress, and even subtracting the four guineas Madame DuPleasy charged for the materials used to make the dress, her profit is extreme compared to the small amount Virginia made. Consequently, Reynolds wants us to see right away how capitalism works against the poor and honest.

While Virginia is running the dress about London, she is seen and admired by a young man who will turn out to be Charles, the Marquis of Arden, and the stepson of the Duchess of Belmont. The Marquis immediately tells her she’s beautiful, but Mr. Lavenham, a family friend to the Duke and Duchess, tells him not to insult her and walks Virginia home.

Virginia returns home to learn Miss Pembroke is going out of town for a few weeks so she won’t be giving work to Mrs. Jackson, who, therefore, cannot give work to Virginia. Mrs. Jackson suggests Virginia talk to Miss Barnet, who boards in the same building as Mrs. Jackson and Virginia. When Virginia does so, she learns Miss Barnet also once worked as a seamstress, but now she is mistress to a wealthy man named Mr. Osmond.

Meanwhile, the Duke and Duchess of Belmont hold a grand ball. During the ball, Mr. Collinson accosts the Duke because he owes him money, and he gets the Duke to agree to marry one of his two daughters if he cannot pay within two years. While Mr. Collinson is not a Jew, he works with an “openhearted” Jew named Mr. Solomon.

A violent scene now occurs at the party in which the Duchess ends up stabbed and Mr. Lavenham is seen holding the knife. He is sent to prison, but Virginia, believing he is innocent after his kindness to her, visits him in prison. Meanwhile, the Duchess recovers, but not before, in delirium, revealing a secret that her maid Clementine hears.

Meanwhile, the Marquis has continued to pursue Virginia until she believes he loves her. Then she discovers he is Mr. Osmond, the lover of Miss Barnet. However, he convinces her he loves only her and will marry her. Virginia falls in love with him, but she does not realize Clementine has been following the Marquis. Clementine goes to the Duke and warns him that the Marquis is pursuing Virginia. The Duke does not want his son to marry beneath him so he agrees to Clementine doing whatever necessary to destroy the relationship.

Clementine deceives Virginia into believing the Marquis is an adulterer who ruined her sister.

Clementine now meets Virginia in the street and befriends her. She tells her a story of woe of a fictional sister who was made pregnant and then abandoned by her lover. As Virginia and Clementine are walking together, Clementine points out the Marquis in a carriage with his sister and claims the Marquis is the man who abandoned her sister and that he is already married as evidenced by his wife being in the carriage with him. Virginia is heartbroken from believing the Marquis has deceived her, and she quickly moves to a new location where he can’t find her.

Clementine now goes to the Duke and blackmails him by threatening to reveal the Duchess’ secret. She demands that she get to marry the Marquis. The Duke unwillingly agrees, but then he serendipitously meets a young gentleman later known as Mr. Lovel. Mr. Lovel is down on his luck from losing at gambling so he agrees to the Duke’s proposition that he murder Clementine. The plot results in Clementine believing she will rendezvous with the Marquis, and she’s even told to take the Duchess’ jewels with her as part of her wedding ornaments. Then she is murdered in Hyde Park and it’s made to look like a robbery.

Clementine’s murdered body found in Hyde Park by the police.

Meanwhile, Virginia has found a new place of residence that is even more squalid than the first. We learn that she now works for another middle woman who works for Aaron and Sons, a great house built on the skulls, crossbones, blood, and marrow of the miserable wretches forced to sell themselves in the “Slave-Market of British Labour.” Virginia makes slop-shirts at two pence, farthing a piece. If she works from 6 a.m. to midnight, she can make three a day. She must pay for her thread and for any work she spoils, so if lucky, she can earn at most three shillings a week. Reynolds states that the 30,000 needlewomen of England in such situations should demand an interview with the Queen to improve their situation. The government looks the other way at how these women live because it wants its taxes from Aaron and Sons. (It is notable here that Aaron is a Jewish name.) Reynolds goes on to say that one doesn’t have to look beyond the boundaries of this world for devils and demons—there are humans making it into a terrestrial hell—they are soul-destroying devils and demons, vampyre-like in drinking the blood of men, women, and children, and hideous cannibals. (While the novel is not overt in badmouthing Jews, it does have undertones here of connecting Jews with vampires, a theme quite common in the Gothic and through the figure of the Wandering Jew, who is a source for later vampire figures in British literature. Although this is not a Gothic novel, Reynolds did write three Gothic novels and frequently uses Gothic elements in his other novels.)

Virginia finds herself sexually harassed by the foreman at Aaron and Sons, but when she goes to the master of the warehouse, he thinks she’s just trying to manipulate him for her advantage because he can’t believe she or any of the women who work for him are virtuous. Eventually, Virginia threatens the foreman with a knife to keep him away from her; as a result, she loses her job. Here we have a similar situation to Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) where Clarissa threatens to kill herself with a knife to keep Lovelace away from her. The harassment in the factory also predates similar behavior that Fantine experiences in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862).

Virginia now becomes ill and close to death. Meanwhile, two years have passed when the Marquis overhears Collinson threatening his father and comes to realize all the underhanded behavior that has occurred. He has continued to look for Virginia, not understanding until now why she deserted him. He goes to the Duchess and reveals what he knows. She now, for the first time, realizes the girl he loves is Virginia Mordaunt and she reveals that Virginia is her and Mr. Lavenham’s child from a time before she married the Duke. Mr. Lavenham happens to be released from prison right at this time. A chain of events leads the Marquis to learning Virginia is dying, so he and her parents rush to her bedside in time for a death scene worthy of Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (serialized 1851-2). If Uncle Tom’s Cabin were not published after The Seamstress, I would suggest Reynolds stole from Stowe, which he was not above doing, and it seems ironic that both novels focus on a type of slavery, despite their vast differences.

Virginia’s dies, surrounded by her parents, Mr. Lavenham and the Duchess of Belmont, and her lover, Charles, the Marquis of Arden.

Virginia’s death is not surprising given her name. While the surname Mordaunt technically appears to mean “the biter,” I think Reynolds’ intention was a word that sounded more like mort or death. In other words, Virginia Mordaunt means Virgin Death, and to die as a virgin is the fate that awaits Virginia. She must die as a virgin to show her innocence, just as Richardson’s Clarissa had to die after her rape. She also dies like Little Eva and Dickens’ Little Nell (The Old Curiosity Shop, 1841) to show she is too good for this wicked world.

The Duchess and the Marquis return home from Virginia’s deathbed only to discover the Duke has committed suicide. Angry, the Marquis now accuses Mr. Collinson of causing the Duke’s death through his behavior, as well as bringing about Virginia’s death (the edition of the novel I read from Scholarly Select is missing two pages so Collinson’s behavior in regards to Virginia is not clear but appears to have something to do with a document Collinson has. Either the missing pages explain this or Reynolds didn’t make this point clear). Charles forces Collinson into a duel in which both are killed. The Duchess dies of grief three days later. In the end, the murderer of Clementine, Mr. Lovel, ends up in jail and his new wife, our old friend Miss Barnet, ends up walking the streets (presumably meaning she becomes a prostitute). The only characters who have any hope of happiness are the Duke’s two daughters, one of whom marries a country squire three times her age, and the other marries the man she loves after four years spent recovering from the shock of all her family’s death. Reynolds tells us that as little as he likes the British Aristocracy, he nevertheless hopes the couple are happy. Finally, we learn that Aaron and Sons, that “Palace of Infamy,” continues to flourish, even though Reynolds wishes the earth would open and swallow it.

The Seamstress is not a remarkable novel. It could have been a much stronger piece of social criticism if its overly dramatic plot were toned down to focus on the social problems it depicts. Reynolds loved sensational plots, but while The Mysteries of London works well because of the multiple plots it interweaves, the characters in The Seamstress are largely static and clichés rather than well-developed to the point where we feel anything for them. That said, Reynolds clearly cared about the working class and the novel deserves to be included in studies of the Condition of England novel of the 1840s and 1850s. Reynolds was one of the leading figures of the Chartist movement in his day, founding in 1850 Reynolds’ Weekly Newspaper, the leading radical newspaper of Victorian England. By 1870, it had a circulation of 350,000. However, in The Seamstress, he lets his politics take a back seat to his desire to entertain his readers through his sensational plots. His readership was also likely of the lower and middle classes, so he wrote to a level they would enjoy, making the aristocracy glamorous and yet criminal while upholding the value of hard work and virtue as displayed through his virgin heroine.

Regardless, The Seamstress is a novel that deserves more recognition than it has, as do all of Reynolds’ works.

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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, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and numerous other books. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com, www.GothicWanderer.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

 

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