Castle Eppstein is one of Dumas’ earliest novels, first published in 1843. Some confusion about its title exists since it was published in Brussels that year as Albine and then in France the next year as Chateau d’Eppstein. In English, it is known as Castle Eppstein or The Castle of Eppstein with the subtitle The Spectre Mother sometimes added. That said, it is not one of Dumas’ better-known works, so it is easy to see why its various titles have caused some confusion as noted by Alfred Allison who wrote the introduction to the Ruined Abbey Press edition that I read.
Allison notes that some critics have suggested Dumas simply translated a work from the German and it is not original to him. Dumas may have been indebted to the works of German author LaFontaine (1759-1839) for some of his inspiration, but the work is his own. Another source of inspiration, and the reason I was most interested in reading the novel, is Mrs. Radcliffe. Indeed, Castle Eppstein begins in a style that recalls The Mysteries of Udolpho, but it quickly moves into something entirely different and wholly Dumas’ own. Being an early novel, however, it lacks the skill and artistry of Dumas’ later masterpieces. It was also written at a time when Dumas was still very much a dramatist, and some of the dialogue reflects that, the characters feeling rather outspoken and a bit overly dramatic in their speeches. The novel also reveals that Dumas was not yet the master of plots and framing devices, as I will discuss below. Regardless, the work is interesting as an early use by Dumas of the Gothic.
Dumas certainly starts off well. He begins with a group of characters telling ghost stories at a party held by the Princess Galitzin, a real-life person Dumas knew. This telling of stories is a plot device he will later use in The One Thousand and One Ghosts (1849). In that work, several stories are told while in Castle Eppstein, Count Elim says he has witnessed a ghost for real, and his story then makes up the remainder of the book.
Count Elim tells how he was out hunting and got separated from the rest of his party. He took shelter at Castle Eppstein in Germany only to find it deserted save for two servants, a married couple. They tell him Count Everard lives there and that he has not left the castle for twenty-five years, but now he has gone to Vienna. The castle is in no state to host visitors because it is falling into ruin. The only room fit for habitation is the Red Room where Count Everard sleeps, but it is haunted. The servants offer to give up their bed to Count Elim, but he insists he’ll sleep in the haunted room. That night, he sees a female ghost enter the bedchamber. He feels terror, but she shakes her head, as if to say, “It is not him,” and departs. This scene very much recalls similar scenes in Radcliffe, such as when Ludovico sleeps in a haunted chamber in The Mysteries of Udolpho. In her novels, Radcliffe explains the supernatural as reality, so it is not surprising that Count Elim thinks a trick has been played on him and looks for a switch of some sort in the wall that would have let someone enter the room. Finding nothing, he begins to believe he has seen a ghost. He says nothing to the servants but departs in the morning for Frankfort, where he finds a professor and tells him what he has experienced. The professor tells Count Elim he has seen the ghost of Countess Albini. He then tells the Count a shocking tale about Castle Eppstein and its family that reveals the supernatural is a reality in this novel, thus leaving behind any hints of Mrs. Radcliffe.
The main story begins in 1789. Count Rodolph of Eppstein has two sons, Maximilian and Conrad. Maximilian is the eldest and Rodolph’s heir. He is also a widower with a son. Since his wife’s death, Maximilian has been busy debauching local women, but he thinks nothing wrong with creating bastards. Conrad, however, has married Naomi, the daughter of a servant, and thus is seen as having disgraced the family. In his heart, Rodolph knows Conrad is the honorable son, but he must abide by tradition and what society warrants so he banishes Conrad and Naomi, and they go to France. Meanwhile, Maximilian weds a wealthy woman, Albina. Albina has romantic visions of heroes and thinks Maximilian is such a man, but she soon learns otherwise. After Rodolph dies, Maximilian becomes the count and he and Albina reside at Castle Eppstein. In time, he becomes abusive to her and then leaves her at the castle while he goes off to Vienna.
By this point, the Napoleonic wars have begun and the French have invaded Germany. One day, the castle’s servants find a wounded French soldier named Jacques in the forest and bring him to the castle to recover. Jacques develops a friendship with Albina, and after he recovers, he remains at the castle for an extended period, the news of which eventually reaches Maximilian’s ears, making the count believe his wife has been unfaithful to him.
Maximilian returns to Eppstein, but by then, Jacques has left. Albina now tells Maximilian he is about to have a child. He immediately accuses her of adultery. She assures him she has been faithful, but they have an argument and he accidentally causes her to fall. She goes into labor and dies, but a son, Everard, is safely born.
Everard grows up without any real relationship with his father because Maximilian does not believe he is his son. However, Everard does have a relationship with his deceased mother. A legend says that the Countesses of Eppstein only half die if they die on Christmas night as Albina did. Consequently, she watches over Everard. Albina had also been friends with Wilhelmina, Naomi’s sister, and Wilhelmina agreed, since she was pregnant at the same time as Albina, to be his wet nurse and watch over Everard. Consequently, Everard grows up with Rosamond, Wilhelmina’s daughter.
Rosamond goes off to a convent for school while Everard lives at the castle, not becoming educated but living almost like a wild boy of the forest. When Rosamond returns, she educates Everard and they fall in love. During all this time, Maximilian remains absent. He sends Everard a letter saying he can live at the castle, but they are not to see each other. This changes, however, when Maximilian’s son by his first wife dies, making Everard his heir. Maximilian then returns home and finds that Everard is a son to be proud of.
Conflict ensues again when Maximilian wants Everard to marry a woman of the nobility and he wants to marry Rosamond. The result is a physical fight between the men that is only stopped when Conrad appears at the castle. Conrad now reveals to Maximilian that he was the Captain Jacques who had stayed at the castle long ago. Because he serves Napoleon, he had to keep his identity a secret. He had told Albina, however, that he was her husband’s brother; they developed a friendship but nothing more.
Maximilian now feels despair that he wrongfully accused Albina and caused her death. But then his pride gets the better of him and he refuses to apologize to her. He disappears into the castle, and when he does not reemerge, everyone else becomes concerned for him. The next day, they search for him in the castle and find him dead beside Albina’s tomb. Her skeletal hand has reached up and twisted the gold necklace around his neck, apparently strangling him.
This sad event puts a damper on Everard and Rosamond’s love. Dumas quickly wraps up the story by telling us Conrad died at Waterloo. Rosamond entered a convent at Vienna, and Everard remained at the castle. This ending is unsatisfying since it only completes what the professor at Frankfort apparently knew about the family. We never learn why Everard was gone to Vienna when Count Elim visited Castle Eppstein. Did he finally decide to go be with Rosamond, even though she entered a convent? Dumas appears to have lost the thread of his story, forgetting to wrap it up properly.
The novel starts out well with its opening Radcliffean haunted castle mystery, but it then turns overly melodramatic. The characters speak like actors on a stage and are mostly stick figures with little development. The sense of mystery gets lost in the long descriptions of Everard and Rosamond’s unconsummated love, turning it into a rather trite romance. Even when Everard convinces Rosamond to become engaged to him, she wants to wait two years because she knows eventually he will want to be with an aristocratic woman. Why Everard and Rosamond do not marry after Maximilian dies is not satisfactorily explained. His death is not a sufficient cause of grief since he’s barely been a part of their life. But the biggest plot hole is why Conrad felt the need to keep his identity secret for so long. Exactly how he serves Napoleon or why Albina could not tell Maximilian about Conrad is never satisfactorily explained. Had Albina just told Maximilian that Jacques was Conrad, the characters would have all been saved a lot of grief, but then there would have been no novel.
The end result is that Castle Eppstein falls somewhat flat. Fortunately, Dumas would use the Gothic to much greater effect in future works, notably The Count of Monte Cristo, the Marie Antoinette novels, and his play The Vampire.
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, the upcoming Vampire Grooms and Spectre Brides: The Marriage of French and British Gothic Literature, King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other fiction and nonfiction titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.