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Paul Féval and the Vampire Gothic: The Path from Radcliffe to Stoker

In my previous blog, I talked about Paul Féval’s first vampire novel, The Vampire Countess (serialized 1855, published 1865). In this blog, I will discuss his other two vampire novels Knightshade (1860) and Vampire City (1875). But first, let me explain my title.

Ann Radcliffe never wrote a vampire novel, but no one can deny her place at the forefront of Gothic novelists. She was really the first major influential Gothic novelist with the success of her books The Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and The Italian (1797). While numerous other Gothic novelists were her contemporaries, they were all likely influenced by her. Her popularity caused even non-Gothic novelists like Fanny Burney and Jane Austen to include Gothic elements in their novels. Consequently, Radcliffe is not only the mother of the Gothic but the mother of the vampire novel.

She also had a tremendous influence upon French literature. In his introduction to the Black Coats press edition of Vampire City, Brian Stableford states that there were no less than forty editions of The Mysteries of Udolpho published in France in the early nineteenth century. Consequently, it is no wonder that Paul Féval chose to pay Radcliffe tribute in a mocking way in his novel Vampire City.

Paul Feval on the cover of a French edition of his works.

Paul Feval on the cover of a French edition of his works.

As for Stoker, my interest in Féval began when I first heard he had written three vampire novels decades before Stoker’s Dracula (1897), so I was naturally curious whether Stoker had read them. I discussed this possibility somewhat in my last blog. There isn’t much of an influence if any apparent between Féval’s novels and Stoker’s Dracula, but nevertheless, there may have been some influence, even if indirectly. I will note a few of the possible influences below.

First, let us look at Féval’s short novel Knightshade (its true French name is Le Chevalier Ténèbre. It was published in book form in 1860, but actually is a later work than The Vampire Countess which was published in 1865, but serialized in 1855. The novel is about two brothers named Ténèbre. One is a vampire and the other an oupire. Vampires, of course, drink blood, while oupires are eaters of human flesh.

The story begins at a party where Baron von Altheimer is entertaining the guests with a story about the brothers. The baron tells how the brothers impersonated gypsies to get inside Prince Jacobi’s home where they abducted his daughter, Lenore, for a ransom. The irony is that the baron is actually one of the brothers and also present is his brother, who is impersonating a clergyman. In fact, the brothers are masters of impersonation. The baron even claims his goal is to capture the brothers and bring them to justice, all part of his ruse.

I won’t spoil the story by telling it all, but eventually, a young marquis, who was at the party, discovers the secret and begins to hunt down the brothers. In the process, he also falls in love with Lenore, and with Prince Jacobi’s help, the brothers’ resting place is discovered. According to Féval, the brothers must return to their graves once a year. If their hearts are burned with a red-hot iron, then the world can be rid of them. (This is one of Féval’s vampire rules—that they die by a red-hot iron, unlike Stoker’s stake through the heart.)

The killing of the vampires is carried out, but at the end, we are told their criminal activities continue, suggesting they have somehow risen from the grave.

Knightshade is considered an early work of metafiction and introduces vampire brothers.

Knightshade is considered an early work of metafiction and introduces vampire brothers.

In the book’s introduction and afterword, Brian Stableford talks about how Féval never quite wanted to give full credit to the supernatural, and so he leaves the reader wondering whether the brothers really were vampires or they are just using vampirism as one of their disguises to confuse people and carry out their crimes. Stableford also notes that Féval is writing an early form of metafiction here where characters tell tales and include themselves in the tales. The novel itself references Galland, and Stableford refers to the novel as using the Galland’s formula. Galland was the translator of The Arabian Nights into French, which had a huge influence on French and indeed on Gothic literature with its stories within stories, but also in its cliffhangers.

But did the novel influence Stoker? There is only one small detail that I think might suggest that Stoker read the novel. Lenore has a small pet dog, and that dog is named Mina. I have at least seen one literary critic remark that the source for Stoker’s female protagonist in Dracula, Mina, is unknown. Mina is not an English name, so why did Stoker choose it? I wonder whether he took it from Féval.

While Knightshade is an interesting and entertaining novel, it suffers from what many of Féval’s other novels, including The Wandering Jew’s Daughter and The Vampire Countess suffer from—a confusing narrative that makes you almost feel like you’re reading a fragment or poor translation. This is largely due to the novels being serialized and Féval making them up as he writes each installment without a master plan or outline. Such, however, is not the case with Vampire City. It was still serialized and the plot wanders about in a nonsensical way at times, but there is a stronger narrative drive to it that makes it entertaining reading and carries the reader along fairly effortlessly.

The premise of Vampire City lies in Féval’s desire to mock Ann Radcliffe and her Gothic form. Stableford suggests it is the first real Gothic parody novel, although I would argue that Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey (1818) and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818) both are parodies of the form, and as Stableford points out, even what is considered the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), can hardly be taken seriously.

However, Féval’s parody far surpasses anything prior to it. I agree with Stableford that it is a novel far ahead of its time and may be the first horror-comedy, which is what the Gothic has largely devolved to in our own time. I complained in my last blog about authors who lack sincerity in writing Gothic novels, and that was the case with Féval’s first two vampire stories, but here he is intentionally parodying, and so the lack of sincerity is not grating but amusing.

Like many Gothic novels, Vampire City has a narrative frame. Paul Féval writes himself into the novel, complaining about how the English are pirating his novels. He has a fictional female friend named Milady (perhaps a tribute to Dumas’ character in The Three Musketeers) who tells him she knows where he can get a wonderful story to write about. She takes him to England where he meets the ninety-seven-year-old cousin of Ann Radcliffe, who tells him a story about Radcliffe that explains her fascination with the Gothic and where she got the material for her novels.

Féval’s version of Radcliffe, who is called Anna or She throughout, has been compared to the character of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and not without merit since Anna ends up pursuing and helping to destroy a vampire.

The story begins when Anna Ward is about to marry William Radcliffe (her husband in real life). Féval was aware that very little was known about the details of Ann Radcliffe’s life, and so he felt she was fair game to do with as he liked. In fact, he draws upon a short biography written by Sir Walter Scott for the few details about her life that were known at the time. In the novel, Anna leaves her home on the morning of her wedding, leaving her bridegroom behind, because she has received a letter from her cousin Cornelia’s prospective bridegroom, Ned, that Cornelia has been kidnapped.

Vampire City creates a fictional vampire hunter version of Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe in a way reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Vampire City creates a fictional vampire hunter version of Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe in a way reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The kidnapper turns out to be Monsieur Goetzi, who is a vampire. Anna and a servant then head to the continent and end up pursuing Monsieur Goetzi across Europe in an effort to kill him and rescue Cornelia. They first find Ned at an inn where he has been attacked by Goetzi and is lingering near death. They also meet Polly, who has become practically a vampire herself because Goetzi attacked her. She is his first victim, and consequently has a special connection to him. She says that only she can help kill him, which must be done by inserting a key in his breast at a specific hour when he is weak. (Féval is making up his own rules about vampires as he goes along and there are numerous instances of this throughout the novel. Prior to Dracula setting the standard for what vampires can and cannot due, vampire characteristics were fair game to make up, although some standards had already been set in books like Polidori’s The Vampire (1819) and Rymer’s Varney the Vampire (1847), and Féval is intentionally going overboard in his parody.) Meanwhile, Goetzi is able to elude the vampire hunters again and again—he does this partly because all of his victims become part of him in a sense and can even seem to double for him or at least serve his purposes. At one point, he escapes by crossing water and brings all his doubles or companions with him. They all actually enter inside of him and then he lays flat on the water and floats on his back, feet forward to his destination.

The humor is evident throughout the novel. Anna and her companions finally make it to Vampire City where all the vampires reside. They get inside the city and manage to cut out Goetzi’s heart, but then the other vampires awaken and pursue them. Eventually, the vampire hunters are saved by the sound of celestial music. It turns out their rescuer is not an angel, but the godlike Arthur, a young nobleman whose true identity Anna’s cousin says she cannot reveal, and the music is caused by him playing a lute as he drives by. He is completely oblivious to how he has saved Anna and her companions. (At the very end, it is revealed that the godlike Arthur was really the young Duke of Wellington.)

Other humor is often pointed at Radcliffe herself. Allow me to quote a few passages. This first one is taken from the scene where she is about to leave home to go to the continent on her rescue mission:

“Although she had not yet composed any of her admirable works, she already possessed the brilliant and noble style which Sir Walter Scott was to praise to the skies in his biography. Indeed, she could not help exclaiming: ‘Goodbye, dear refuge. Happy shelter of my adolescence, adieu! Verdant countryside, proud hills, woodlands full of trees and mystery, shall I ever see you again?’”

You cannot help laughing out loud if you’ve read Radcliffe because her heroines do talk in such affected style, although the style seems Romantic rather than absurd when reading Radcliffe because she draws the reader so fully into her fictional worlds.

In several places, Féval tries to use Radcliffe’s style of introducing supernatural events and then always providing a realistic explanation for them. In this passage, he explains how at the crucial moment, a supernatural event like the characters falling into a pit that suddenly opens in the ground is possible.

“The earth suddenly opened up to engulf them, thus confirming the presentments of our Anna. If you balk at believing in the instantaneous formation of a deep pit, I will freely confess that the personal opinion of our Anna was that a cave-in had already taken place, caused by the high tides of the new moon. The principal charm of a narrative like ours is its realism. And besides, in making further progress we shall encounter more than enough hyperphysical incidents. She was fond of that word—which could, I suppose, be rendered ‘supernatural.’”

In fact, the novel is supremely funny. I rarely laugh out loud when reading, but I did so several times while reading Vampire City.

One final example of how Féval tries to give rational explanations for the supernatural comes with the very end of the novel when Anna has gotten herself into a very sticky situation, then wakes up to find it was all a dream and that it is her wedding day. But Féval goes a step further, having Anna’s cousin, in telling the story, assure us it wasn’t all a dream because after she marries, Anna goes to the continent and discovers the places she visited and many other events that have happened that seem to have coincided with her dream, perhaps a sign that she has the second sight.

I think Vampire City was simply ahead of its time in its mocking of the Gothic and consequently was overlooked as a minor work, but any student of the Gothic will find it a treat to read.

But what of Féval’s influence on Stoker? In his Afterword, Stableford states without reservation “Stoker certainly never read Féval.” He also mentions the influence of LeFanu’s Carmilla (1871-2) upon Dracula and says that LeFanu probably never read Féval. However, Stableford says that Féval, LeFanu, and Stoker all read Dissertations sur les Apparitions des Esprits, et sur les Vampires (1746) by Dom Augustin Calmet, which clearly was a huge influence on vampire fiction so it is not surprising if there are coincidental similarities in their works.

D

Bram Stoker, whose novel Dracula would set the standard for vampire characteristics.

Bram Stoker, whose novel Dracula would set the standard for vampire characteristics.

Personally, however, I think there are some similarities that might suggest Stoker read Féval. As I mentioned earlier, the name Mina might have come from Féval. Not that it wasn’t an existing name, short for Wilhelmina, but it is not a common English name to my knowledge—perhaps the name similarity is a coincidence, perhaps not.

Perhaps the most striking similarity concerns Mina’s relationship with Dracula and Polly’s relationship with Goetzi. In Dracula, Mina Harker, because she is Dracula’s victim, is able to help lead the men to Dracula when he flees across the continent. In Vampire City, Polly is able to do the same, and throughout the process, she is both longing to destroy Goetzi to get revenge as well as sympathizing with him. Similarly, Mina is torn between the vampirism in her and her desire to destroy Dracula. Polly actually goes a bit further and becomes Goetzi once his actual body is destroyed. I don’t know of any cases where vampires have doubles in the form of their victims before Féval or again until Dracula, which makes me think there could be an influence here.

Another similarity is the use of animals. Neither Polidori’s vampire, nor Varney the Vampire, nor Carmilla, nor any of the other pre-Stoker vampires appear to have doubles or control over animals who serve them. In Vampire City, however, the vampires often have dogs, bats, and other creatures serving them. In Dracula, the vampire not only has control over such creatures but can turn into them.

Many critics have also written about homosexual elements in vampire literature and in Dracula particularly. Stoker never goes so far as to make it explicit, but in Féval when the vampires awaken in Vampire City, they are described as “The men of considerable stature, but for the most part effeminate; the females, by contrast, were both tall and bold.” These sound like typical stereotypes of effeminate gay men and butch lesbians to me.

Finally, is it a coincidence that Arthur is a hero and savior in Vampire City and that there is an Arthur Holmwood among the male heroes in Dracula? Holmwood is Lord Godalming while Féval’s Arthur turns out to be the future Duke of Wellington, who was himself “Honorable” as the third son of an earl in his youth, the age at which he appears in Vampire City.

We may never know whether Stoker read Féval, and to some extent it does not matter. To say Stoker drew from Féval may in some ways limit Stoker’s genius. To say Féval influenced Stoker may make it seem like Féval’s work is inferior to Stoker’s. It may be a detrimental argument for both their sakes. That said, one cannot help wondering, and I do not believe either author is more or less important if Stoker was influenced by Féval. Both made significant contributions to vampire literature and deserve to be read and acknowledged for it.

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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.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula, Literary Criticism, The Wandering Jew