Tag Archives: Dickens

Auriol, or the Elixir of Life: Ainsworth’s Rosicrucian and Faustian Novel

Originally published in 1844 in serial form as Revelations of London, William Harrison Ainsworth’s short novel Auriol, or the Elixir of Life is an interesting piece of Gothic literary history both for what it was influenced by and for the influence it had.

William Harrison Ainsworth, painted by Daniel Maclise

William Harrison Ainsworth, painted by Daniel Maclise

That influence was primarily upon George W.M. Reynolds’s novel The Necromancer (1852), which I previously discussed on this blog (The Necromancer), and the introduction to the Valancourt edition of that book by Dick Collins made me decide to read this one.

The theme of the elixir of life in Gothic literature goes back to early uses of Rosicrucian characters in Gothic novels. The Rosicrucians was a secret society supposedly founded by Christian Rosenkreutz. They claimed to know the secret of immortality and also the philosopher’s stone that would turn lead into gold. The first major novel that depicted the Rosicrucian theme was William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799) and similar themes appeared in numerous novels that followed, including Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyne (1811) and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842). (A chapter on the Rosicrucian influence on Gothic literature can be found in my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption.)

What makes Auriol stand out from its Rosicrucian predecessors is how it mixes its Rosicrucian theme with that of Faust. Of course, the Faust story had been around for centuries, treated in Elizabethan times by playwright Christopher Marlowe and more recently by Goethe. It was the Faustian pact with the devil in the novel that would go on to influence Reynolds’s The Necromancer.

The plot begins with a prologue set in the year 1599. Dr. Lamb is brewing a concoction that hopefully will be the elixir of life. As he is finishing it, in the street, Auriol Darcy is wounded in a scuffle after trying to remove heads on pikes from London bridge, which belonged to his father and grandfather. He escapes and is given refuge by Dr. Lamb, who reveals that he is Auriol’s great-grandfather. Dr. Lamb is ill and desperate to finish his potion, but not before he tells Auriol about it. When the potion is completed, Dr. Lamb is so weak he cannot lift it to his lips, and he begs Auriol to help him, but Auriol drinks the elixir for himself and lets Dr. Lamb die before rushing out in the street. What Auriol doesn’t know is that Dr. Lamb’s servant, a dwarf named Flapdragon, finds a few drops of the elixir left and drinks it so that like Auriol, he has become immortal. Flapdragon will figure in the plot going forward.

Interestingly, Dr. Lamb got the recipe for the potion from a rabbi (unfortunately, Jews are believed to be sorcerers in many Gothic novels), and he knows there is a heavy price to pay if he drinks the potion. It turns out that for the potion’s power to remain effective, Auriol must capture young women and surrender them to a mysterious man named Cyprian de Rougemont, who himself is in league with the devil (a plot very similar to Reynolds in The Necromancer in which the main character must find six women to marry him so he can give their souls to Satan in exchange for his long life.)

I will not get into the entire details of the plot, but the story jumps ahead to the first book, set in 1830, when Auriol is busy trying to find his latest victim for Rougemont, although he also falls in love with her and tries, unsuccessfully, to save her at the last moment.

A section called “Intermean” is between the novel’s two books. This section is set in 1800 and concerns Cyprian de Rougemont. Here we learn that he made his own pact with Satan when he visited the tomb of his ancestor of the same name who was a Rosicrucian. His ancestor left behind a great treasure, but he cannot enter the room where the treasure lies and obtain it unless he agrees to surrender his soul to the devil. Instead, he decides he will get Auriol’s soul for the devil.

The Tomb of the Rosicrucian - an illustration for Auriol, by Phiz

The Tomb of the Rosicrucian – an illustration for Auriol, by Phiz, who also illustrated Dickens’s novels

The novel continues into the second book where relatives of Auriol and Rougemont’s victims try to rescue the latest girl before it is too late. They find themselves basically in a haunted house although the strange things they encounter are not engineered by ghosts but enchantments or mechanics.

However, no real conclusion to the tale is reached. Instead, Auriol awakes to find he is back in Dr. Lamb’s room and has been dreaming. This ending is severely disappointing both for not resolving the plot and for destroying the possibility that anything supernatural in the book actually happened. That said, the novel ends with Auriol saying, “I am satisfied. I have lived centuries in a few nights.” This line makes me wonder whether the book was a bit influenced by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which was published the previous year—Scrooge is to be visited by ghosts over the course of three nights, during which time he reviews his whole past. The plot is similar except that in a few nights, Auriol experiences a future life for himself.

Ainsworth wrote several Gothic and fantastic stories, but Auriol is said to be the only one where he used this dream motif. It is an intriguing story until it gives up on itself—I suspect Ainsworth got bored with it or did not know how to resolve the plot. Fortunately, Reynolds saw the possibilities in it and was able to adapt it to create one of the great Gothic novels of the Victorian period in The Necromancer. Often, Ainsworth has been considered a superior writer to Reynolds, who has been seen more as his disciple, but at least in the case of Auriol and The Necromancer, the disciple surpassed the master.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Dickens’ Carlylean Gothic

The following article is taken from my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. It follows discussions of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni and discusses the influence of those works on Dickens’ writing of A Tale of Two Cities:

 

Dickens’ Carlylean Gothic

             Despite Charles Dickens’ constant use of Gothic elements, his place in the Gothic tradition has not been adequately explored by critics. Dickens was a master novelist within the Gothic tradition, innovatively building upon Carlyle’s natural supernaturalism to create grotesquely Gothic characters whose bodily disfigurements reflect the state of their souls. While Dickens’ use of the Gothic deserves a full-length study, a brief overview of his position in the Gothic tradition will display how he helped to transform the Gothic genre. My concentration upon A Tale of Two Cities will demonstrate Dickens’ literary debts to his Gothic predecessors and his unique revisions of the Gothic genre to create a novel that is life-affirming and provides redemption for its Gothic wanderer characters.

            Early in his career, Dickens considered himself as writing within the Gothic tradition. In The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) Dickens’ intention was to create a short Gothic story. Dickens recalled his original plan:

“it [had been] always in my fancy to surround the lonely figure of the child with grotesque and wild, but not impossible companions, and to gather about her innocent face and pure intentions, associates as strange and uncongenial as the grim objects that are about her bed when her history is first foreshadowed.” (Coolidge 114)

While Dickens does not use the word “Gothic” here, he does use the word “grotesque” and throughout his works, the Gothic and the grotesque have the same definition, specifically in character descriptions. Claire Kahane has remarked that the “modern” Gothic “by its transformation of the unseen to the seen, moves the Gothic toward the grotesque” (351). Kahane uses the word “modern” to refer to twentieth century writers like Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, but Dickens can be credited over a century earlier with equally moving the Gothic toward the grotesque.

 

Quilp, the dwarf villain of Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop

Quilp, the dwarf villain of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop

Dickens’ use of the grotesque to create Gothic situations was inspired by Carlyle’s Natural Supernaturalism which expressed that the human soul is hidden by the body but if our souls were visible, we would all be recognized as ghosts and beings of the supernatural. Dickens adapted Natural Supernaturalism, blending it with allegory, to show that the state of one’s inner soul is reflected by the state of one’s visible, outer body. Consequently, Dickens’ most Gothic characters are also the most physically grotesque because their souls lack spiritual nourishment and have practically died within them. Dickens uses these grotesque characters to criticize the society that makes them grotesque. While some individuals naturally tend toward evil, Dickens also realizes that society and its injustices contribute to the deformity of people’s souls and by extension, their bodies. Dickens purposely depicts a selfish, money-grubbing character like Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop as a dwarf to symbolize how Quilp’s selfishness has stunted the growth of his moral character, reflecting Dickens’ disapproval of an increasingly capitalist society that valued money over the well-being of the human spirit. In Bleak House (1853), Richard Clare becomes pale and drained because the Court of Chancery and its vampiric lawyers have sucked his life and energy from him by entwining him in a decades’ long lawsuit. Also in Bleak House, Tulkinghorn, the blackmailer of Lady Dedlock, is depicted as grotesquely devilish. Dickens creates numerous hints of Tulkinghorn’s satanic nature. Tulkinghorn’s name may be interpreted to mean “Old Horny” referring to the devil’s horns. Tulkinghorn always wears black and his clothes “never shine” but are “irresponsive to any glancing light” (10), which recalls Milton’s Satan whose “lustre” is “visibly impair’d” (IV, 850) and who has lost his former “transcendent brightness” (I, 86) only to have a “faded splendor wan” (IV, 870). In addition, Tulkinghorn’s apartment resembles Hell because it is an “oven made by the hot pavements and hot buildings” (542-3) (Georgas 25). Such examples demonstrate that the grotesqueness of Dickens’ characters reflects the state of their spiritual natures; such grotesque characters’ allegorical implications attest to Dickens’ Christian agenda in writing his novels.

Dickens’ use of Carlyle’s Natural Supernaturalism made him Carlyle’s greatest literary disciple, as acknowledged by his contemporaries. In 1841, after reading The Old Curiosity Shop, Caroline Fox remarked of Dickens, “That man is carrying out Carlyle’s work more emphatically than any other” (Oddie 1). Dickens himself told his son, Henry Dickens, that “the man who had influenced him most was Thomas Carlyle” (Oddie 3). Dickens and Carlyle first met in 1839, but it would not be until writing The Chimes in 1844 that Dickens would first feel he was working within a Carlylean tradition. Nevertheless, Dickens may have been unconsciously influenced by Carlyle in his earlier works, such as in Oliver Twist where clothing references suggest a debt to Sartor Resartus (Oddie 4). Carlyle was seldom a fan of Dickens’ novels, but he greatly approved of A Tale of Two Cities, pleased with its expression of his own belief system. Carlyle also assisted Dickens with the novel by loaning him numerous works about the French Revolution. Carlyle’s own history of the French Revolution, along with Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni, became major sources of inspiration for A Tale of Two Cities.

Despite Carlyle’s influence upon Dickens, there are notable differences between the philosophies of the two men as expressed in their writings. Carlyle’s belief in the importance of heroes made it difficult for him to admire Dickens’ lower-class characters as sympathetic or inspiring examples of the human spirit (Goldberg 16). William Oddie argues that Carlyle believed in a God of Vengeance, whereas Dickens believed in a God of Mercy. While Carlyle would try to show how men like Teufelsdrockh can be heroes by refusing to abandon themselves to despair, Dickens realized that many people face severe disadvantages that prohibit them from exerting such heroic strength. Dickens’ compassion for such people was the result of his own impoverished childhood which taught him to sympathize with the lower classes, the oppressed, and the outcasts of society (29). While Dickens believed in affirming life and the strength of the human soul, he was also aware of the many social injustices that prevented people from cultivating their spirituality. Consequently, Dickens’ grotesque characters are not always Gothic in the sense that they are guilty of transgressions. Dickens realized that people become so focused upon the daily need to support themselves that they often neglect their spirituality, and eventually this neglect can result in a one-sided, fanatical interest in acquiring material possessions. While Dickens tends to become overly sentimental in depicting the plight of the poor in his novels, his use of the Gothic is revolutionary in such cases because it is sympathetic. Whereas Gothic horrors had been created by earlier novelists to cause terror for victimized characters, or to serve as a means of punishment for transgressions committed, Dickens used the Gothic to reflect the everyday horrors of the modern world and to sympathize with people who suffered from these modern day horrors. Dickens’ Gothic worlds often become places of extreme nightmares from which good people can escape by their virtue, courage, and endurance. A Tale of Two Cities serves as a perfect example of how Dickens depicts the modern world as a place of terror where people can become Gothic wanderers, but where also the human spirit can rise above earthly concerns to achieve redemption and salvation.

Dickens' Dream by Robert William Buss

Dickens’ Dream by Robert William Buss

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