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Dracula’s Origins: A Review and Summary of Barbara Belford’s Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula

Barbara Belford’s Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula (1996) is a biography of Stoker’s entire life, with some commentary on the history of Dracula’s influence after Stoker’s death and what happened to some of Stoker’s family and those close to him. More specifically, it gives a close look at Stoker’s relationship with Henry Irving, the famous actor whom Stoker worked for. The book’s premise is that Henry Irving was the inspiration for Dracula. Irving is depicted as a controlling man. Belford suggests Stoker was at his beck and call, and apparently enjoyed Irving’s power over him. This implies homeroticism in their relationship.

I do not doubt Irving was very demanding, but Belford’s argument feels weak or exaggerated to me. She has all the biographical facts here of Stoker and Irving’s lives, and I do not doubt Stoker idolized Irving, but she goes overboard in talking about how Bram Stoker considered Irving his master, much as Renfield calls Dracula master. She states that “The fascination and horror of Dracula, for males, was as a humiliator of men,” (9) focusing upon how Dracula is able to seduce all the women in the novel, taking them from the men, and especially how he is able to force Mina into drinking blood from his breast (symbolic of fellatio) while Harker lies there unconscious. I completely agree with this statement, but to suggest that Irving also was a humiliator of men and Stoker enjoyed this feels a bit of a stretch. I am not saying it isn’t very possible, but Belford is reading between the lines of their relationship without a lot of hard evidence. She makes other statements such as that Stoker, “even more than wanting to be admired, liked admiring” (28), and “Being anywhere with Irving was contentment for Stoker, who felt complete in his company, safe and protected” (121). I do not doubt Stoker admired Irving or he would not have gone to work for him, but that he worshipped Irving seems a stretch to me, and how can we know he felt safe and protected by him? Maybe he did in some financial sense since Irving gave him employment, but Stoker was a tall and strong man, who did not physically need Irving’s protection. Other such broad and sweeping statements include “As he approached middle age, Stoker’s infatuation with men of power continued, doubtless aided by his growing insecurity over Iriving’s affection” (189).

I am sure Stoker had affection for Irving as one would for a close friend, and there may well have been homerotic feelings between them, at least on Stoker’s end—but Belford’s statements seem overreaching and she does not always provide evidence to back up her claims. Of course, in Victorian England, neither Stoker nor Irving would have committed to paper any overt love felt for the other. This is made even more clear in the context of Dracula, in the sense that Stoker himself later advocated for censorship of overtly sexual and pornographic novels, yet Belford notes that Dracula is full of sexual imagery and overtones. That no one tried to censor the novel reflects that no Victorian was willing to admit they understood its overtones.

Henry Irving in the role of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. A Jewish character who would influence treatment of the Wandering Jew figure in literature and later characters like Svengali in Du Maurier’s Trilby, which in turn would influence Dracula.

Belford’s biography has many strong points beyond her questionable interpretation of Stoker and Irving’s relationship. It is an informative look into the Victorian theater, especially of Irving’s numerous and varied roles, many of which may have influenced Stoker’s creation of Dracula—performances such as Faust, for example. Other interesting plays are The Three Bells, a translation of The Polish Jew, about a mayor who kills a Jew and feels guilt over it. Eventually, a mesmerist causes him to confess his guilt. This play is a perfect example of the Victorian fascination with crime and guilt and Gothic wanderer figures. Belford also mentions many mesmerism novels of the Victorian period, including George Du Maurier’s Trilby, which sold more than 200,000 copies and was the first novel to really succeed by publicity efforts.

Of greatest interest to me were the many possible sources of inspiration for Dracula that Belford outlines. She notes that the heroine Trilby also has three rescuers/suitors like Lucy in Dracula, and that Trilby succumbs to the villain Svengali’s power through mesmerism much as the women succumb to Dracula’s hypnotic power. Both are also anti-Jewish novels since Svengali is a Jew and Dracula is often seen as a symbol of the Jewish or at least Eastern European immigrants into England. Belford notes that Shaw’s Pygmalion, which later became the musical My Fair Lady, may also have been inspired by Trilby. Belford goes a bit far, though, in suggesting that Irving himself was able to use hypnotic powers on his audiences and that Stoker was subject to this power, which made him subject to Irving. However, here Belford gives a source, saying that Gordon Craig actually believed this. Craig was the son of Ellen Terry, who was Irving’s leading lady (74). It is possible Irving studied and tried to use hypnotism on audiences to keep them mesmerized by his performance, but whether he deliberately used it on Stoker we can’t know.

The great threat of Dracula to other men, and the idea that he controls them, supposedly influenced by Irving and Stoker’s relationship, is definitely a powerful theme in Dracula, particularly when Dracula warns the female vampires “This man belongs to me.” Belford notes that this line is a constant throughout Stoker’s notes and various revisions of Dracula—and there were many. (Stoker typically wrote a book a year; The Lair of the White Worm he wrote in three months, and it shows. He was typically a wordy, second-rate writer, but to Dracula, he devoted seven years and it went through many revisions, a dedication that made it far superior to his other works.) However, Dracula does not sexually desire Harker like he does Mina and Lucy. Rather, he wants to keep Harker alive so he can accomplish his goal of invading England where he can find fresh blood. Dracula is not interested in Harker for sexual reasons or to dominate him in a sexual way but simply as a tool to get him to England.

A painting of Irving performing the role of Mephistopheles in Faust, a play about a man selling his soul to the devil, a theme that would influence the Gothic and reflects the very close fatal deal Mina finds herself in with Dracula.

Other sources for Dracula include Macbeth, which Irving often performed. Dr. Seward of Dracula may be based in Lord Siward, Earl of Northumberland, from the play. Belford notes that Macbeth and Dracula both end up trapped in their castles. (Dracula actually is trapped in his coffin just before reaching his castle.) And both contain the cathartic ancient Celtic ritual of severing a head to release evil. (Dracula doesn’t lose his head but Lucy does.) Tarot cards also had an influence—Van Helsing is equal to the Magician card, and the 1901 Constable edition had a tarot-inspired drawing on the cover that shows readers saw a tarot influence on the novel. Interestingly, there was also a Joseph Harker who worked for Irving’s company—he is the only person Stoker knew whose name got borrowed for the novel in the character of Jonathan Harker.

Stoker’s first encounter with the name Dracula happened as a result of visiting the Whitby library (where Dracula comes ashore and where Mina is visiting Lucy). At the library, he read William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia.

Once Dracula was published, Stoker wanted to create a play version for Irving to star in, but Belford says Irving likely never read the novel nor expressed interest in a play version. What Irving actually said or didn’t say about the novel we don’t know, but Belford sees this as further reason to show Irving degraded Stoker, perhaps thinking he could not act in a play by someone who was his inferior as Bram, as his manager, apparently was.

I have sought elsewhere for sources for the name of the character Mina, which is a strange name not common in England. I have found the name in Paul Feval’s vampire novel Knightshade (1860), but as Belford notes, Stoker was also influenced by Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, primarily for the novel’s use of numerous voices. (The result of the characters collecting documentation of the chain of events in both novels, although I wonder whether Collins’ character Marian Halcombe may not have inspired Mina Harker since the characters’ initials are the same. Belford, however, notes that Stoker was fond of creating female names that started with M, perhaps as a tribute to his mother and his sisters Margaret and Matilda. That said, there’s no reason why he might not have chosen names for multiple reasons and layered them with meaning.)

Dracula’s publication coincided with the display of the painting The Vampire by Philip Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones painted it because he fell in love with a well-known actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell. She rejected him in favor of another; in revenge, he painted her as a vampire! People recognized her in the painting.

Beyond the Dracula origins information, Belford’s book is interesting for the insights it gives us about Stoker’s relationships with many other literary people of his time, including Wilde, Shaw, W.S. Gilbert, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman. Anyone interested in late Victorian literature and Victorian theatre would find this book fascinating, whether or not they are convinced by Belford’s arguments about Stoker and Irving’s relationships.

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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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America’s First Musical Had Gothic Origins: Celebrating The Black Crook on Its 150th Anniversary

On September 12, 1866, the musical extravaganza The Black Crook premiered at the 3,200-seat Niblo’s Garden on Broadway. It would run for a record-breaking 474 performances and enjoy numerous revivals throughout the United States for the rest of the nineteenth century.

Today considered the first true American musical, The Black Crook was the result of a dramatic group joining forces with a Parisian ballet troupe. While a few new songs were composed for the show, such as “March of the Amazons” by Giuseppe Operti and “You Naughty, Naughty Men,” with music by George Bickwell and lyrics by Theodore Kennick, much of the music was adapted from other earlier sources.

Poster from the 1873 revival of The Black Crook

Poster from the 1873 revival of The Black Crook

The music must have filled a great amount of the show since it ran for five-and-a-half hours, yet the libretto of the play is only 62 pages and takes a little over an hour to read. Unfortunately, the libretto, as recently published by the Historical Libretto Series, contains little of the lyrics. The libretto is available at Amazon. Most commentaries on the play never mention the plot other than to say the story was badly written, but it really wasn’t that bad and quite typical of the day.

The show was a smash hit and the scanty costumes of the female cast raised quite a scandal. The New York Times called it “trashy” and the Rev. Charles B. Smyth, writing in the New York Herald, warned, “Let husbands and parents and guardians who value the morals of their wives, their daughters, and their wards, bear a watchful eye, and keep them out of the walls of Nible’s [sic] during the rein [sic] of The Black Crook.” Despite such warnings, the female costumes were rather modest compared to many today, though bare arms and lower legs could be seen.

More importantly, the musical was the product of its age’s fascination with the Gothic. When I first heard the title of this play many years ago, I assumed it was about an African-American thief and was perhaps a racist play created in the aftermath of the Civil War. Instead, it owes more to the European Gothic tradition than to anything American for its sources. Nor is the play very original in its Gothic themes. The playwright, Charles M. Barras, wrote the script after having been influenced by seeing a performance of the German Romantic opera Der Freischütz (1821) by Carl Maria von Weber.

I had never heard of Weber’s opera before, but after researching it, I think it clearly contains many Gothic elements common to the time period. It was itself obviously influenced by the Faust legend. In the opera, the main character, Caspar, whose soul is to be forfeited to the devil on the following day, hopes to obtain three more years of grace by substituting a young forester, Max, in his place. Caspar calls upon Samiel, the Black Huntsman, for assistance; however, in the end, Caspar is taken by Samiel instead of Max.

This basic plot of an evil character making a pact with the devil or a demonic being to gain a soul for the devil in exchange for youth or longer life was a frequent plot in other Gothic novels of the time as well, notably William Harrison Ainsworth’s Auriol, or The Elixir of Life (1844) and George W.M. Reynolds’ The Necromancer (1851-52). Earlier novels also focused on the idea of life extension, usually a Rosicrucian theme, such as William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799) and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842). What is interesting is that while I have studied the Gothic in literature, the Gothic also permeated into music, and so a Gothic opera would influence the first Gothic musical probably more than Gothic literature did. One is left wondering whether Der Freischütz also influenced Reynolds and Ainsworth’s novels.

The Black Crook opens in the Hartz Mountains in the year 1600. Rodolphe is betrothed to Amina, an orphan girl whose foster mother, Dame Barbara, disapproves of the match because Rodolphe is an unsuccessful painter while Amina has had an offer made to her by a nobleman, Wolfenstein. When Wolfenstein comes to marry Amina, he has Rodolphe locked up in a dungeon.

Meanwhile, Hertzog, whom men call “the Crook,” is reading out of a cabalistic book, gleaning dark knowledge in forbidden paths. He has a servant, Greppo, whom he saved from drowning so Greppo obeys him. Greppo provides some comic relief in the story, but he also plays a role that reminds one of Caliban in The Tempest with Hertzog as a type of Prospero since Hertzog can summon spirits. Unlike The Tempest, however, Hertzog’s spirits are not bound to obey him but rather have some control over him. Hertzog longs to extend his life, so he makes a deal with Zamiel, a demon spirit, whom he summons. (Note the similarity between the spellings of Zamiel and the Samiel of Der Freischütz.) Zamiel promises Hertzog that for every soul he gives him, he will live another year; therefore, he can live forever if he continues to provide souls. This is similar to how in Reynolds’ The Necromancer, Danvers must convince six women to elope and marry him over the course of 150 years in exchange for incredible power; all those women’s souls are then lost to the devil. Zamiel tells Hertzog to begin by trying to capture Rodolphe’s soul since Rodolphe is in prison and likely to do anything to escape and marry the woman he loves.

Act II opens with Hertzog coming to Rodolphe in prison and offering to help him. Rodolphe, however, knows Hertzog is a sorcerer and does not trust him. Hertzog persists by telling Rodolphe that Amine is actually of noble birth, and therefore, Rodolphe will need gold so he can buy a noble status for himself and be worthy of her. He tells Rodolphe that there is gold in a mountain that he can get, and he gives him a magnetic ring to guide him to the gold. Since Greppo is a tiresome servant, Hertzog sends him with Rodolphe. He believes Rodolphe will become greedy in his quest and this will lead to both Rodolphe and Hertzog’s deaths.

However, once in the mountain caverns, Rodolphe manages to rescue Stalacta, the queen of a group of fairies, gnomes, and other beings. While disguised as a dove, she stumbled into a charmed circle of Zamiel’s. This rescue means that the fairies now protect Rodolphe. Stalacta warns Rodolphe that Hertzog has ill intentions toward him, and she gives him a circlet with a jewel to kiss if he’s in danger, and she will then come to his rescue.

In Act III, Rodolphe appears in costume at a masked ball at Wolfenstein’s castle. Wolfenstein and Rodolphe end up in a fight and Rodolphe kisses the circlet, leading to Stalacta and her fairies and nymphs arriving to rescue him. They are dressed as Amazons, hence the best known song from the show, “The March of the Amazons.”

In Act IV, six months have passed. Rodolphe and Amina have long since fled and Wolfenstein is searching for them. Once again, he finds them and once again Rodolphe kisses the circlet and Stalacta and company come to his rescue. This time, Wolfenstein is slain. Hertzog now appears and summons his fiends to burn down the forest to stop Rodolphe and Amina from escaping, but when Rodolphe again kisses the circlet, a rock opens and they enter a grotto. By now, a year has passed and Hertzog’s time to capture a soul has passed, so he is dashed into a flaming chasm that must have been a magnificent scene on stage. The play ends with a beautiful scene of Rodolphe and Amina, along with Greppo and Carline, a woman he loves, in the realms of Stalacta.

Scene of the Finale from the 1873 revival of The Black Crook

Scene of the Finale from the 1873 revival of The Black Crook

There are some subplots and some humorous moments amid the action, but that’s the basic plot. It is not a brilliant plot, but the Gothic atmosphere in the play is quite dramatic, and the special effects must have been magnificent as they depicted illuminated books, skeletons and other Gothic style monsters appearing on stage, costumed Amazons, a burning forest, a masked ball, a flaming chasm, and a beautiful grotto. As much as the story and the music are combined to make a musical, we can never underestimate the power of spectacle to wow an audience, and The Black Crook must have been a very impressive spectacle to keep audiences entranced for five-and-a-half hours.

By the time The Black Crook premiered in 1866, most of the great Gothic novels had been written. Gothic literature had had its heyday in the 1790s, and there had been a Gothic renaissance in the 1840s and 1850s with the popularity of penny dreadful literature. The Black Crook marked the end of this period that was heavily influenced especially by German Gothic literature, or in this case, German opera. But what a dramatic and spectacular show—this very unAmerican musical in its theme and setting—to become the first American musical. It’s not surprising then that the musical has ever since been a very popular vehicle for other Gothic tales that became popular musicals from Phantom of the Opera to Jekyll and Hyde and Dracula, just to name a few shows from more recent decades.

It is unlikely we will ever see a new stage production of The Black Crook. There was a 1916 silent film made of it, but even that does not appear available to the public. But you can view some photos of the production at YouTube. And we can dream of how splendid it must have been. What’s not to love about a grotto of fairies, a scheming villain in a pact with a devil, and an army of Amazons in “trashy” costumes.

Happy 150th Birthday to the American Musical!

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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 series. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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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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The Necromancer: George W.M. Reynolds’ Final Supernatural Novel

Last year, I read and wrote a blog about George W.M. Reynolds’ fabulous Gothic novel, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf. I enjoyed the novel so much that I was not at all surprised that Reynolds was the bestselling author of his time, outselling even Dickens.

The Valancourt Books edition of The Necromancer.

The Valancourt Books edition of The Necromancer.

Consequently, this year for Halloween I decided to read The Necromancer (1851-2), the third and last supernatural novel Reynolds wrote. (The other being Faust (1847), which was actually a prequel to Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-7). While I did not find The Necromancer quite as full of twists and turns and fascinating characters as Wagner, it was nevertheless a compelling story, and the recent edition by Valancourt books was also highly valuable for its lengthy introduction that provided biographical detail about Reynolds, who remains little known today, as well as an afterword by Dick Collins that traces the influences of other writers upon The Necromancer. Certainly, Reynolds should hold a place of esteem among Gothic writers if not a place in English literature.

The necromancer of the title is Lord Danvers, a man who has made a pact with Satan to obtain several incredible powers, including perpetual youth and the ability to change his appearance. In exchange, he must, over the course of 150 years, convince six women to elope and marry him, thus allowing Satan to take their souls. Danvers began his pact in 1390 and the novel opens in 1510 when he has acquired the soul of Clara Manners, his fifth victim. It then jumps ahead six years. We are not fully let into Danvers’ secret until toward the end of the novel, but it is clear from the beginning he has supernatural powers and is up to no good.

Each of Danvers’ victims has family members who have sworn to gain their revenge on him for what he did to the woman he abducted from their family. What these people do not know is that Danvers is one person and not several generations of men, due to his ability to change his age and appearance, and that he takes on numerous different first names.

The major plot concerns Musidora, a young woman with a secret she will not reveal that has made her more quiet and hard than in her youth. At this time, King Henry VIII is unhappy with his wife, Katherine of Aragon, and it is believed he will divorce her and find a new wife. Musidora’s relatives convince her father to have her visit them since they live near the palace of Greenwich. They are in disgrace with the king but believe that Musidora is so beautiful that King Henry will fall in love with her and then they will be restored to their former positions at court. Things go precisely as planned, and soon Musidora has agreed to marry Henry. A secret wedding is held in which he produces a document from the Pope testifying to the annulment of his previous marriage and his ability to marry again. A violent storm erupts as soon as the marriage is over, and before long, all is revealed, including that Danvers has been impersonating Henry.

As these events develop, the novel intersperses the tales of Danvers’ other five victims, as told by their relatives or descendants. I found these stories rather tedious since it’s clear Danvers will convince the maiden to elope with him each time, and they rather slowed down the action. But they do explain the reasons behind the revenge each family seeks.

In the end, Musidora escapes from Danvers’ clutches and marries her cousin and many more years go by. St. Louis, a relative of one of the other victims, and in the king’s favor, meanwhile, is visited by his ancestress in a dream and told to go to the Holy Land. There he meets the father of another victim who warns him that Danvers’ time to finish his contract with Satan is running out and he must stop him from capturing his last victim. The old man gives St. Louis a crucifix to aid him in his efforts.

St. Louis returns to England, and with Musidora’s help, goes to Danvers’ castle on the Isle of Wight where Danvers is about to abduct his last victim. Musidora prevents him by using the crucifix to open the castle doors so she can make her way to Danvers and Marian, the victim, who turns out to be Musidora and Danvers’ daughter (the long held secret of Musidora’s youth). Danvers is horrified that he has nearly destroyed his own child and repents. Musidora then prays for him as Satan comes to take him, but her prayers are fruitless. The other souls of the victimized women are released and sent to heaven, but Danvers goes to Hell with Satan.

I found the story rather long, but not without a great deal of excitement and wonderful Gothic trappings. The Afterword in the Valancourt edition by Dick Collins was full of interesting information about Reynolds and his literary predecessors, citing some works I could clearly see as sources for the novel, such as Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew (1846) and Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Sue’s use of a family line of descendants is apparent as an influence in the generations bent on revenge in the novel, and Melmoth the Wanderer’s efforts to seduce young maidens is clearly an influence as well. Other typical Gothic trappings include the incest plot, where a father nearly abducts his daughter—a plot that hearkens back at least as far as Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791), and the ghost that haunts the family—in this case, St. Louis’ ancestor appearing to him in a dream—a plot that goes back to at least Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1795) but also has origins in much earlier legends like that of the serpent-fairy Melusine, who cries whenever one of her descendants dies at the castle of Lusignan. However, Collins cites several other sources for the novel, most notably William Harrison Ainsworth’s Auriol, or The Elixir of Life, a work I will have to add to my reading list.

Perhaps most interesting of all to me was the role of the crucifix in the novel. I may be wrong, but I think this is the earliest use of a crucifix in Gothic fiction to fight evil, although rather than warding off evil, it contains powers to open doors. One has to wonder whether Bram Stoker read The Necromancer and was influenced to adapt the use of the crucifix in Dracula. Another possible influence on Dracula is how Danvers drives his coach allowing him to cover incredible distances in impossibly quick times—there is one particularly dramatic scene where he promises to take Clara Manners’ father to her at his castle and they arrive in just hours for a journey that should have taken much longer. It reminded me of Jonathan Harker’s coach ride to Dracula’s castle, although that journey does not defy the barriers of time, but still is full of mystical atmosphere.

Certainly, The Necromancer is a much overlooked Gothic novel that deserves a key place in the history of Gothic literature, both for its use of previous Gothic literature and its likely influence on Stoker and other Gothic successors. I would especially advocate that readers interested in the novel read the Valancourt edition because Dick Collins’ afterword alone is worth the price of the book for all its information about what has for the last century been a very obscure Gothic text from the early Victorian period but that was widely read and influential in its day.

Now that I have read two of Reynolds’ novels, I plan to go on and read his first supernatural one, Faust, as well as his most popular work, The Mysteries of London, so stay tuned for future blogs.

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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 historical fantasy series, The Children of Arthur. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula, The Wandering Jew

Best-Selling Victorian Author’s Werewolf Novel Fascinating

Until recently and only thanks to a blog by Interesting Literature, I had never heard of George W.M. Reynolds (1814-1879), and even Anne Rice in her novel The Wolf Gift (2012), where she mentions several early Werewolf novels and short stories, does not mention him, yet in his day, Reynolds outsold Charles Dickens as well as all the other well-known Victorian novelists, including the Brontes, Thackeray, Eliot, and Trollope.

Reynolds - a page from Reynolds' Miscellany - the beginning of Wagner the Wehr-Wolf can be seen at the bottom.

Reynolds – a page from Reynolds’ Miscellany – the beginning of Wagner the Wehr-Wolf can be seen at the bottom.

Why didn’t Reynolds’ fame endure down to the twenty-first century with his contemporaries? I suspect it’s because of the types of books he wrote. His books were Gothic and often serialized in the penny dreadful format. They also were derivative of other writers. He was clearly a reader of the great French novelist Eugene Sue, best known for his novel The Wandering Jew (1846) and also The Mysteries of Paris (1842-1843). Reynolds capitalized on Sue’s popularity by writing The Mysteries of London (1844-1848). He also capitalized on the popularity of the penny dreadful installments of Varney the Vampyre (1845-1847) by writing the similarly titled Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-1847). I have read both Varney the Vampyre and Sue’s The Wandering Jew and can clearly see the influence of these works on Wagner the Wehr-Wolf in terms of its style, complicated plot, and moral themes. The book is also very derivative of the early Gothic novels of a half-century before; in fact, it reads like it could have been written by a male counterpart to Eleanor Sleath, author of The Orphan on the Rhine (1798), although its plot and style is too far-fetched and simplistic to raise it to the level of Mrs. Radcliffe’s works. That said, there is much that is interesting and even remarkable about Wagner the Wehr-Wolf that makes the work deserve more attention.

To summarize Wagner the Wehr-Wolf’s plot would be tedious and it would be hard to follow. It’s enough to say it is full of twists and turns, remarkable coincidences, family secrets, a mysterious manuscript, bloody deeds, and supernatural events. The setting, other than the brief prologue that takes place in Germany, is primarily Florence, Italy in the 1520s, with some scenes on a deserted island and in Constantinople. There are a handful of main characters, but only two—Wagner and Nisida—really stand out. I will focus upon them and the main plot that involves them, while including a few additional comments about minor characters and the subplots to highlight their Gothic elements that add to the novel’s fascination.

Wagner is the true main character. When the novel opens, he is a ninety-five-year-old grandfather who fears he has been abandoned by his granddaughter and left alone in their forest home. He is visited by a mysterious stranger who gives him the gift of youth in exchange for traveling with him for a year and a half. Wagner agrees to the conditions—that in exchange for youth, he will become a werewolf for twenty-four hours once a month. He drinks from a vial to make the transformation to occur. I find this detail remarkable because most werewolf stories today show the werewolf transformation happening from being bitten by the werewolf. However, the vial seems more significantly to be an elixir of life that restores youth and gives extended life—this is noteworthy because the Rosicrucians, a mysterious and allegedly medieval secret brotherhood, were said to have two primary secrets—the elixir of life and the philosopher’s stone that turns lead into gold. While the stranger who gives this gift to Wagner is not a Rosicrucian, we encounter Rosicrucians later in the novel.

Actually, the stranger turns out to be none other than Faust, well-known for selling his soul to the devil in works by Christopher Marlowe and Johann Goethe. Following the prologue, he does not appear again in the book and the narrative jumps ahead several years until we learn that after Wagner completed the prescribed eighteen months of traveling with Faust, Faust passed away.

That Wagner is changed by Faust is significant because Satan then appears after Faust’s death to tempt Wagner to seal a pact with him as well. Wagner is tormented by his werewolfism and longs to be freed from it, but Satan says he must sell his soul to him in exchange for freedom and additional power, something Wagner refuses to do, and at the moments when he is most tempted, he manages to send off Satan with a crucifix. (Reynolds would return to the subject of Faust in soon after in 1847 in his novel Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals.

Some of the novel’s best passages are the descriptions of Wagner as a werewolf. Here is the depiction of his transformation and the resulting violence that results in Chapter 12:

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In the midst of a wood of evergreens on the banks of the Arno, a man—young, handsome, and splendidly attired—has thrown himself upon the ground, where he writhes like a stricken serpent, in horrible convulsions.

He is the prey of a demoniac excitement: an appalling consternation is on him—madness is in his brain—his mind is on fire.

Lightnings appear to gleam from his eyes, as if his soul were dismayed, and withering within his breast.

“Oh! no—no!” he cries with a piercing shriek, as if wrestling madly, furiously, but vainly against some unseen fiend that holds him in his grasp.

And the wood echoes to that terrible wail; and the startled bird flies fluttering from its bough.

But, lo! what awful change is taking place in the form of that doomed being? His handsome countenance elongates into one of savage and brute-like shape; the rich garments which he wears become a rough, shaggy, and wiry skin; his body loses its human contours, his arms and limbs take another form; and, with a frantic howl of misery, to which the woods give horribly faithful reverberations, and, with a rush like a hurling wind, the wretch starts wildly away, no longer a man, but a monstrous wolf!

On, on he goes: the wood is cleared—the open country is gained. Tree, hedge, and isolated cottage appear but dim points in the landscape—a moment seen, the next left behind; the very hills appear to leap after each other.

A cemetery stands in the monster’s way, but he turns not aside—through the sacred inclosure—on, on he goes. There are situated many tombs, stretching up the slope of a gentle acclivity, from the dark soil of which the white monuments stand forth with white and ghastly gleaming, and on the summit of the hill is the church of St. Benedict the Blessed.

From the summit of the ivy-grown tower the very rooks, in the midst of their cawing, are scared away by the furious rush and the wild howl with which the Wehr-Wolf thunders over the hallowed ground.

An illustration from Wagner the Wehr-Wolf depicting his disruption of the funeral procession.

An illustration from Wagner the Wehr-Wolf depicting his disruption of the funeral procession.

At the same instant a train of monks appear round the angle of the church—for there is a funeral at that hour; and their torches flaring with the breeze that is now springing up, cast an awful and almost magical light on the dark gray walls of the edifice, the strange effect being enhanced by the prismatic reflection of the lurid blaze from the stained glass of the oriel window.

The solemn spectacle seemed to madden the Wehr-Wolf. His speed increased—he dashed through the funeral train—appalling cries of terror and alarm burst from the lips of the holy fathers—and the solemn procession was thrown into confusion. The coffin-bearers dropped their burden, and the corpse rolled out upon the ground, its decomposing countenance seeming horrible by the glare of the torch-light.

The monk who walked nearest the head of the coffin was thrown down by the violence with which the ferocious monster cleared its passage; and the venerable father—on whose brow sat the snow of eighty winters—fell with his head against a monument, and his brains were dashed out.

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Wagner continually commits manslaughter (it’s not exactly intentional murder) in his werewolf state, although the novel only shows us his transformation on a few occasions. Nevertheless, his situation is not hopeless and neither is he unredeemable.

But before mentioning Wagner’s redemption, I will turn to the other remarkable character in this novel—perhaps one of the most remarkable female characters in literature, Nisida.

If ever there was a villainess in a Gothic novel, it is Nisida. When we are first introduced to her, it is believed she is deaf and dumb, but it is soon revealed that she fakes these disabilities as a way to spy upon others. She’s also not above cross-dressing. And certainly not above committing murder to get her way. Early in the novel, this “noble” woman meets Wagner and they fall in love. But when she suspects Wagner is unfaithful to her by having an affair with Agnes (a young woman who had an affair with Nisida’s father and is now living with Wagner because she is the granddaughter he thought had deserted him in the forest), Nisida murders Agnes. When Wagner is arrested for the murder, he is unable to explain his true relationship with Agnes (his granddaughter barely believed he was her grandfather since he looks as young as her, so how will the court believe it?), so he is imprisoned. Nisida is not above cross-dressing as a man so she can visit him in prison. (He doesn’t yet know she murdered his granddaughter.)

Eventually, Wagner escapes from prison, and after a series of events, he and Nisida end up shipwrecked on a deserted island (interestingly, there is an island of Nisida off the coast of Italy, and it’s volcanic—perhaps a source for Nisida’s temper in the novel). Here Nisida reveals to him that she actually can speak and hear. She and Wagner experience a sort of island paradise experience—one that recalls Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and also the island scenes between Immalee and Melmoth in Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) only it is not the female but the male who is more innocent here while the female is the tempter. During this time, Nisida feels overcome by Wagner’s beauty “so joyful, too, was she in the possession of one whose masculine beauty was almost superhumanly great” (Chapter 53), a hint at the eventual evolution of the Gothic Wanderer figure into the twentieth century superhero. But soon Nisida grows bored on the island. She also doesn’t like that Wagner every month leaves her without explanation (because he doesn’t want her to know of his werewolf transformation). She also longs to return to Italy to look after her brother whom she knows is in love with Flora, her maid, a marriage she is not happy about. Consequently, when Satan appears on the island to tempt Wagner again and he refuses to give into temptation, Satan next turns to Nisida to tempt her—not unlike the serpent tempting Eve in the garden of Eden. He tells Nisida that Wagner has the power to leave the island but refuses to share it with her. (The truth is that Wagner doesn’t have this power, but he will if he sells his soul to Satan.) Satan tells Nisida to demand Wagner transport them from the island, and if Wagner refuses, to question why he leaves her each month. Despite Nisida’s efforts and questioning, however, Wagner refuses to give in.

Eventually, a boat comes and takes Nisida back to the mainland, but Wagner stays behind, not wanting to live among humans because he knows he might hurt them as a werewolf. Nisida promises to return to him once she takes care of her brother, but meanwhile, Wagner despairs of ever being freed from his werewolfism. Then he has a dream in which an angel appears to him and tells him he has done much already to atone for his sins by resisting Nisida and Satan’s temptations. Consequently, he finds a boat and is told by the angel to take it to Sicily where he will meet a man who is 162 years old who can help him.

Wagner cannot imagine how a man can be 162 years old, but he arrives in Sicily and questions an innkeeper about such a man. The man consequently tells him he has heard lies about the Rosicrucians, including their legendary founder, Christianus Rosencrux, who would be 162 years old if the legends were true. The Roscrucians feature in many other Gothic novels, most notably Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842) but also Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyne, or the Rosicrucian (1811) and the theme influences William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799). (For more on the Rosicrucian novel, see my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption.) However, I was stunned to find that Christianus Rosencrux (a Latinized spelling of the German name Christian Rosenkreuz, which means Christian Rosy Cross—a reference to the blood on the cross of Christ) should be a character in this novel. Wagner soon realizes it must be Rosencrux whom he seeks, and that night, a mysterious stranger comes to him and leads him to Rosencrux.

I find this part of the story very interesting. The angel appearing to Wagner after he repents and prays for the werewolf curse to be lifted reminds me of the conversion of St. Paul when Christ himself speaks to St. Paul, telling him to go to a man who will heal his blindness. Here Wagner must go to a man who can help to heal his werewolfism. The scene also reminds me of the Ancient Mariner who goes to the hermit to have his sins forgiven in Coleridge’s famous poem.

Gustave Dore's illustration of "Shrieve me, Holy Man" - the scene in Coleridge's Ancient Mariner when the mariner seeks atonement from the hermit.

Gustave Dore’s illustration of “Shrieve me, Holy Man” – the scene in Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner when the mariner seeks atonement from the hermit.

Wagner is surprised that the mysterious stranger knows he seeks Christian Rosencrux, but the stranger explains that the Rosicrucians are the servants of the angels who show them in visions what they must do to fulfill God’s will, and so he has come to bring Wagner to Rosencrux.

Rosencrux, however, doesn’t really do much for Wagner except point him toward the next part of his journey. He’s told to go to Florence to meet Nisida and that a circumstance connected with his destiny will occur there, including that he will be released from his werewolf curse when he sees two innocent people’s skeletons hanging from the same beam.

I don’t want to give away how the novel gets us to its conclusion—it’s convoluted to say the least—but after a series of events, Wagner does see the skeletons and instantly falls dead upon the sight of them. We now learn the skeletons are tied to a secret that has been the primary motivation behind Nisida’s actions, as she now explains everything to her brother and his new bride Flora before she becomes ill. Christian Rosencrux now appears and acts as her confessor. After Nisida dies, Roxencrux tells Flora and Francesco that Nisida is forgiven and can rest in peace.

The idea of redemption here is strange indeed. Typically in the earlier Gothic novels, a transgression results in damnation, but Varney the Vampyre was one of the first novels to depict a repentant and redeemed Gothic transgressor and Reynolds is following that format, although not quite as convincingly. Neither Wagner nor Nisida do anything to gain forgiveness—no acts of kindness required—just repentance, but while Wagner committed murder as a werewolf, it might be argued he cannot be blamed for what happens to him during his transformed moments. However, Nisida has cruelly murdered and her justifications for it make her sound more like she is psychotic than deserving of forgiveness; she even states in the case of killing a woman named Margaretha that the woman got what she deserved. Still repentance is enough, even if you are a liar and murderer.

The role of religion is interesting in the novel in terms of this redemption. Both Nisida and Wagner seek redemption and consequently die as Christians. But Reynolds is not as kind to non-Christians. One other main character in the novel faces serious temptation—Alessandro, Flora’s brother. Early in the novel, he goes to Constantinople to serve in Florence’s embassy there. In Constantinople, he finds a beautiful woman, Aisca, who tempts him to convert to Islam in exchange for enjoying her company. He does so and soon finds himself promoted until he is grand vizier to Solyman the Magnificent, who turns out to be Aisca’s brother. Aisca’s tempting of Alessandro is reminiscent of Eve tempting Adam—it is a woman who turns a man to sin, as earlier Nisida tempted Wagner. Today, we would be less inclined to see converting to another religion as a serious transgression, but Reynolds surely did.

The other temptation and the only real “sin” Alessandro (who becomes Ibrahim upon conversion) commits is that he falls in love with a beautiful young woman, Calanthe, and commits adultery with her. Aisca’s mother, however, finds out about his betrayal and has Calanthe drowned. Then Alessandro is warned that any woman he seeks to be with other than Aisca will meet the same fate. At the end of the novel, Calanthe’s brother, Demetrius, murders Alessandro in revenge for his sister’s death. It’s not clear whether Demetrius thinks Alessandro is the murderer, or just one who stole her virtue. In any case, Alessandro’s crimes are minor compared to the multiple murders Nisida commits, yet Alessandro does not receive redemption.

Surprisingly, while I think the novel is anti-Muslim because of how it treats Alessandro, it is not anti-Semitic. Another minor character, Isaachar, is a Jew who finds himself imprisoned by the Inquisition but is defended by a Marquis (himself an adulterer) and is ultimately rescued. Isaachar only survives two years after the torture he experiences in the Inquisition’s prison before he dies and leaves all his fortune to the Marquis (the Christian male adulterer gets off, but not the Muslim adulterer). Before his death, Isaachar gives some fine speeches defending the Jewish people as does the Marquis. Reynolds is clearly not against the Jews and saves his narrator comments for pointing out the Inquisition’s cruelty—if anything, he is anti-Catholic more than anti-Jewish, as is typical of Gothic novels.

One final interesting aspect of this novel is the treatment of the Inquisition in it, and more specifically, that female torture is included. Earlier novels that depicted the Inquisition, notably Melmoth the Wanderer, depict male torture and come off being masochistic in their tone, but Wagner the Wehr-Wolf includes a convent where the women are forced to become nuns and those who attempt to escape are whipped. While Flora manages to avoid punishment when she is imprisoned in the convent, Giulia (the Marquis’s lover who is unfaithful to her husband), is not so fortunate, and later when she is tried before the Inquisition, her husband, the Count of Arestino arranges for her torture and takes great delight in watching her suffer and die (fortunately, the Marquis then kills him). In any case, women adulterers are punished while male adulterers are rewarded, provided they are Christian.

In the end, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf is one of the most violent and disturbing, yet completely entertaining Gothic novels ever written. The pacing and plotting never lags. If there is any reason for disappointment in it, it can only be because the werewolf scenes are minimal. Even while the novel feels like it belongs more to the 1790s than the 1840s, Reynolds was so popular in his day that it is surprising its popularity was not retained longer and its style makes it far more accessible to modern readers than many better known novels of the time.

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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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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Superheroes and the Gothic