Tag Archives: George W. M. Reynolds

The Feminist She-Fiend of Victorian Literature: George W. M. Reynolds’ The Parricide

George W. M. Reynolds’ The Parricide (1846) is a fascinating Victorian crime novel, and at its center is one of the most fascinating women in Victorian literature, Sophia Maxwell, who tries to thwart the title character and his accomplice in their schemes and revenge herself upon them. She is an early example of feminism in Victorian literature in how she advocates for women, making her far more interesting than even the dramatic plot twists that fill the novel’s pages.

The Parricide is actually a rewrite of Reynolds’ first novel The Youthful Impostor (1835). I discovered this after I ordered a copy of The Youthful Impostor and only received a reprint of Volume 1. In trying to find a copy of Volume 2 online (which I never did), I discovered with the help of a friend that Reynolds’ rewrote and retitled the novel. Although Reynolds refers to the main character, James Crawford, several times in The Parricide as an impostor, he probably felt the new title would be more attention-grabbing and consequently sell more books.

Always curious why someone would rewrite a book, I tried to follow along in both volumes as I read to see what changes Reynolds made. I discovered he primarily took extremely long chapters and divided them into two or three chapters. Not until Chapter 20 of The Parricide, which coincides with Chapters 12 and 13 in The Youthful Impostor, does the text seem to vary significantly. Unfortunately, the first volume ends soon after so I couldn’t see just how much divergence there is and to what extent Reynolds majorly rewrote, although Stephen Knight, in his wonderful book G. W. M. Reynolds and His Fiction, sheds some further light on the differences between The Youthful Impostor and The Parricide, which I will discuss below.

Interestingly, The Youthful Impostor was published in Philadelphia but not London. When it was translated into French, a French reviewer made several points that Reynolds listened to in revising the novel as The Parricide. The most obvious change besides the title is a new dramatic prologue that discusses how parricide (killing one’s father) is the worst crime imaginable and forever weighs on the murderer’s mind. While Reynolds does not reveal it until the end, it is obvious to the reader from the novel’s opening pages when the main characters are introduced that James Crawford is the parricide, though he himself doesn’t know it until the book is almost over. Spoiler alert: I will give away all the secrets below. Before discussing further the differences between the two versions of the novel and the character of Sophia, the “feminist fiend” who interests me most, a plot summary is in order.

The novel opens by introducing the reader to the Crawford family. Mrs. Crawford has three children, James, Catherine, and Emily. The late Mr. Crawford died under mysterious circumstances after he had gone to visit his cousin Sir George Mornay, a baronet. While Mr. Crawford was heir to the baronetcy, he and his cousin had experienced a falling out years before. Furthermore, Mrs. Crawford’s marriage to her husband, though legal, is not verified because someone tore out the page from the church register that recorded it, thus making James Crawford’s legitimacy questionable and giving Sir George reason to deny James is his heir.

James has a friend, Mr. Arnold, who poses as a caring friend to all the family, but he is actually a highwayman who has led James into a life of crime (unknown to James’ mother and sisters). Among those crimes is robbing coaches and even murder. Somehow James never realizes that he and Arnold were the highwaymen who killed his own father, something Arnold keeps a secret until the end of the novel.

Arnold has another great secret that the reader figures out before the novel ends—he is Sir George Mornay, whom none of the Crawfords have met save the late Mr. Crawford. Sir George is determined not to let James be his heir, resulting in the murder of James’ father and his stealing the Crawfords’ marriage record. In fact, Arnold is intent on destroying the whole family, leading James into a life of crime and pretending to be in love with Emily until he gets her pregnant and then abandons her while claiming he has talked to her mother about their marrying.

The novel is full of one twist after another and makes for exciting reading even if the plot is somewhat predictable. However, the biggest surprise is Sophia Maxwell. James Crawford manages to finagle his way into Sophia’s affections because her father thinks him a man of business and the favorite of a wealthy Mr. Fitzgerald, who is really just another of Arnold’s cronies posing as a rich man. Consequently, through these false connections, James manages to acquire large sums of money from Mr. Maxwell and begins to associate with his daughter. Between the money Maxwell gives James, thinking he’s investing it, and the possibility that James will marry his daughter, given that James is heir to a fortune, Mr. Maxwell considers himself very fortunate.

However, Sophia soon begins to fear James’ interest in her is waning, so she decides to do some snooping, resulting in her discovering he is a villain. Not wanting to hurt her father, Sophia blackmails James into giving her the money he took from her father. Meanwhile, Mr. Maxwell is also owed money by Sir George Mornay, so Sophia goes to see him and realizes that he is Arnold, James’ accomplice, although at this point, James still does not realize his friend Arnold is really his enemy Sir George.

Arnold now starts to plot against Sophia, calling her a “wanton slut” and “she-fiend” in Chapter 37. When she goes to visit Sir George and discovers he’s Arnold, Arnold tries to strangle her, but someone comes to her rescue.

Sophia now wishes to be rid of James, but she feels like her “life’s current” is now blended with his. She goes to find Dimmock, James and Arnold’s accomplice who has been masquerading as Fitzgerald. She learns James paid him off by giving him money to go to America, but she finds his son, also a criminal, in poverty. With a little work, she gets the younger Dimmock to share with her details of crimes he knows James and Arnold have committed. She offers to help him financially if he’ll turn from a life of crime, so he becomes her loyal follower, even going to James and Arnold to negotiate, pretending to let them bribe him and making them believe he will side with them, only to turn against them.

Matters come to a climax when James acts like he will make things right with Sophia and even go through with marrying her. He invites Sophia to meet his family, but he leads her to people pretending to be his relatives who drug her and then let James rape her in a scene obviously inspired by the rape of Clarissa in Richardson’s famous novel. James then celebrates her rape by getting drunk while Sophia wanders home in a stupor.

The rape becomes a turning point for Sophia. After being ill for several days, she decides not to die to prove her virtue like Clarissa, but to become vindictive. Her father tries to learn what is wrong, but she will only tell him she has done nothing wrong but been punished for looking into others’ affairs. He silently fears she is becoming mentally unstable because mental illness runs on her mother’s side of the family.

Sophia now makes arrangements to meet Arnold and James on a bridge with the idea that they will be arrested. Despite the danger, they go to the meeting, and when the fake police Sophia has hired try to arrest them, they jump over the bridge, but Dimmock retrieves them with a rope he has secretly hooked to them. Arnold, by this point, is repulsed by Sophia’s unlady-like actions. The narrator even seems to agree with Arnold, saying there is something about her “so ominous of mental perversion and female impropriety” that it has “removed the thing from the comic and brought it under the compass of the desperate and tragical” and that Sophia’s ‘diseased taste” from her crushed hopes now worked a “dread revolution in her nature” (Chapter 45). Up until the rape, there is almost a sense of good-natured rivalry in how Sophia and her adversaries try to best one another, but now the narrator clearly sees any such hint of humor or fun is removed by Sophia’s “mental perversion.”

James now tells Arnold that he should cheer up because Sophia is on the border of insanity, so she cannot be a serious threat to them. These two villains are truly appalling at this point because they are not the least horrified by how they have tortured Sophia to the point of near-madness.

Sophia next decides she wants to start a community for women who will not marry, and she will do this by extorting money from James and Arnold so their crimes will pay for it. She never becomes quite clear, however, on what this community will be, referring to it as a place for “abjuring women” and a type of convent or nunnery. She gets Dimmock to extort 500 pounds from her adversaries to start the community while she looks at possible locations in Pentonville for her women’s asylum. She says these women will be her “disciples in a new social religion.” She also begins to claim she has visions that provide her with knowledge from heaven and she has supernatural aid to assist her in creating this community of women. She is almost a precursor to Mary Baker Eddy in the sense that she is practically setting out to found her own religion guided by the supernatural.

Sophia enlists the aid of a man named Donald to help her find a location, but his response to her is very sexist. He tells her she is not clear on what she wants so it is difficult for him to help her, and he asks her ignorant questions such as whether it will be a home only for ugly women who can’t find husbands or for a broader group of women. Sophia replies that it will be a home for wronged women and those who have enough sense not to want to marry. Donald takes such responses as a further sign Sophia is a little crazy, and he hopes she’ll come to her senses and maybe marry him, a sign that he thinks women are only good for one thing—to please men.

Once Donald finds a location for Sophia’s “folly,” as the narrator calls it, he again asks if she wants him to look for women who are old and ugly or young and beautiful. She replies she wants the “pure in heart.” The narrator then refers to Sophia’s plan as a “most impracticable institution” and “crazy scheme” (Chapter 50).

Meanwhile, James and Arnold plot to murder Sophia and frame Dimmock for it. Before that can happen, however, Sophia tells a doctor she is being influenced by spirits from above who are giving her guidance to create her institution. The result is she and Dimmock are confined to a madhouse and we never learn more about them after Chapter 51. The narrator in a few paragraphs bids Sophia goodbye here and tells us the “obdurate door” has been shut upon us and other than for our imaginations, we will be denied access to her further wretchedness.

The novel now moves to its dramatic conclusion. Eventually all is revealed. James learns Arnold is really Sir George, and then Sir George reveals that James was responsible during the highway robbery of killing his own father. Arnold/Sir George and James duel, and James dies, but Hunter, who is in love with Emily, whom Arnold got pregnant, then fights Arnold/Sir George and kills him. However, as Hunter brings the news to Emily, he reveals he has also been shot and he dies. The End.

Not even the good are rewarded in The Parricide. James and Arnold get what they deserve, but Hunter does not deserve to die, and Sophia and Dimmock do not deserve to be locked up in an insane asylum. One wishes that Reynolds had provided an afterword sharing what became of them, but we can assume they are never released. Knight remarks that the text says they will die of starvation, but I have been unable to locate such a passage.

It is worth noting here a few differences between The Youthful Impostor and The Parricide now that I have given the full plot. Knight reveals that Reynolds, who is well known for borrowing/stealing other people’s plots or story ideas, was inspired by Dumas’ play Angèle, and borrowed the pregnancy plot and duel scenes from it. The jail scenes were likely inspired by scenes from Ainsworth’s novels. Minor changes include that Lord Mornay is renamed Sir George Mornay and that Arnold only implied James had stabbed his father in the first novel, but Reynolds has Arnold insist James committed the murder in this novel, a change in line with the new title. Of most interest is that in the original novel, Sophia does not take on a detective role or dress like a boy. She is not intent on revenge nor has reason for it. Instead, in The Youthful Impostor, she is a minor character. Knight writes of her “James also meets a satirically treated ‘Matrimonial Advocate’: the rich wife he is offered is Sophia Maxwell, whom he already knows and admires, but James’s mysterious death will end their possible happiness.” One has to wonder what led Reynolds to revisit Sophia and develop her into one of the most fascinating and mistreated women in literature when he revised the novel.

It amazes me that The Parricide is not one of the best known Victorian novels. Is it great writing? Yes, if one likes potboilers—few authors do a better job than Reynolds of keeping the reader intrigued with a fast-moving plot. Is it great literature? Perhaps not, but Sophia Maxwell deserves to be one of the best known women in Victorian literature. What is surprising is that Reynolds allows the reader to sympathize with her and cheer her on, yet then he makes her insane and even lets the narrator disparage her. Perhaps the sympathy I feel as a reader is a result of my twenty-first-century sensibilities while Reynolds’ readers would have seen her as solely a mental perversion like the narrator. Even though the argument that she is insane has a basis in her father’s fear she will become insane because insanity runs on her mother’s side of the family, it is questionable if Sophia really is insane. Her desire to help women is laudable. That she doesn’t die but fights back when she learns her lover is a louse and even after he rapes her makes her one of the strongest women in literature to this point. One might argue her belief that supernatural beings are aiding her makes her insane, but wouldn’t that make most of the founders of world religions equally insane?

Also notable is that Reynolds turns on its head the idea that virtue must result in death if you are raped. And yet, Reynolds then seems to turn against Sophia by letting the narrator call her scheme impracticable and not allowing her to be the ultimate form of vengeance upon the male perpetrators. Reynolds seems to be on her side by showing the stupidity of Donald who can’t understand her intentions to help women, thinking she can only help ugly women no man would want, but at the same time, the narrator appears to be agreeing with Donald. Reynolds, who is known to have been a champion of women and to have supported his own wife, Susannah Reynolds, in her own novel writing and even to have benefited from her editing, likely was trying to be as subversive as he felt his readers would allow without going too far.

Certainly more work needs to be done on Reynolds’ attitudes toward women. Most of his female characters in other works, notably The Mysteries of London and The Seamstress, receive sympathetic treatment, yet while Reynolds mourns Sophia being locked up in her asylum, he will not lift his pen to free her. But perhaps that was the strongest statement he could make—to leave her locked up, to provide an overwhelming dose of reality about how women were treated in his society.

Consequently, Sophia Maxwell is one of those Victorian characters who haunts the reader after the book is closed, a women ahead of her time whose own creator may have felt he needed to lock her up because she had gotten out of hand.

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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 historical fantasy series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other titles. Visit Tyler at http://www.GothicWanderer.com, http://www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and http://www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Filed under Alexandre Dumas, Classic Gothic Novels, George W.M. Reynolds

Freaky Friday Meets Faust in Dumas’ Werewolf Novel

Alexandre Dumas’ Le Meneur de loups (The Wolf Leader), published in 1857, is one of the earliest werewolf novels. Prior to it, a werewolf story was included in the middle of English author Captain Marryat’s The Phantom Ship (1839) and English author George W. M. Reynolds provided a more thorough depiction of a character who turns into a werewolf in Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-7). A few other pieces of werewolf literature, all by British authors, exist from this period, but Dumas’ novel may be the first werewolf story in French Gothic literature, and it does not appear to have been influenced by either Marryat or Wagner’s works.

The plot of The Wolf Leader is not complicated. What makes the novel interesting for me is how Dumas weaves in many Gothic elements that might be missed by someone who is not a serious student of the Gothic. I will summarize the plot here focusing on the Gothic elements worth noting.

The introduction begins with Dumas speaking in his own voice, telling how he heard this story from his father’s friend, Mocquet. Mocquet was superstitious and believed a local woman, Madame Durand, was a witch and was causing him to have nightmares. He held this low opinion of her because he said in her youth she was the mistress of Thibault, the wolf leader. By passing the story off as Mocquet’s, a real person he mentions in his Memoires, Dumas is using a literary device to make the story appear more authentic. Obviously, it is a supernatural tale that cannot possibly be true, but he can at least claim it is an authentic legend. Dumas says his father objected to Mocquet telling him supernatural tales, but when he was older and his father had died, Mocquet took him hunting and then told him the tale of Thibault.

Today, Dumas is best known for The Three Musketeers, but he was the author of many Gothic works, including The Count of Monte Cristo (1845), which plays with Gothic themes, as well as writing the play The Vampyre (1851) and using supernatural themes in his Marie Antoinette novels. The Wolf Leader, however, has received little attention by critics. According to Wikipedia, in 1951, Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas reviewed the 1950 Prime Press edition and placed it among “Dumas’s drabbest hack-work.” However, Franz Rottensteiner described it as “considerably superior from a literary point of view.” I would have to agree with the latter. While the book has its faults, Dumas thought out the plot carefully and used many Gothic elements for his story. That it could be dismissed as hack-work, however, may result from its rather light tone. Despite the dramatic incidents in the book and the overall Gothic theme of redemption, the main character suffers no major feelings of agony and there is no intensely Gothic atmosphere, the result being that it reads almost like a spoof on Gothic literature, and if not directly mocking Gothic literature, it has a light and almost humorous tone at least in several of the scenes. In fact, despite the main character’s less than moral behavior, readers may find themselves cheering him on to his next adventure.

That Dumas is drawing upon Gothic literary traditions is obvious from the beginning of the tale when we are told Thibault is a shoemaker. Similarly, the Wandering Jew was a shoemaker, and his profession immediately, therefore, tells us that Thibault is a Gothic wanderer figure, one who is or will be cursed. Of course, shoemakers are not supernatural and we could argue it is just a coincidence that he and the Wandering Jew were shoemakers, but given that just a few years earlier Dumas wrote Isaac Lacquedem (1852-53), his incomplete novel about the Wandering Jew, it is unlikely Dumas did not intentionally make Thibault a shoemaker.

Although a shoemaker, Thibault has received some education and traveled, which has given him a high opinion of himself. He has gotten permission to set up trade in the forest on the estate belonging to the Duke of Orleans. He is also unwilling to let others think they are better than him, despite the social disparity that exists in 1780, the year the novel is set, less than a decade before the French Revolution. Thibault’s troubles (or adventures) begin when he encounters the Baron of Vez, who is out hunting. When the baron asks him if he’s seen a deer, Thibault gives him saucy answers that result in the baron’s gamekeeper beating him. Afterwards, Thibault wishes for revenge and becomes determined to hunt down the deer before the baron can. Thibault issues this wish out loud and is heard by the devil or one of his minions, though Thibault doesn’t realize it at first.

Later, Thibault enters his goat shed and is surprised to find the deer the baron sought mysteriously tied inside. Thibault decides he will take it to the convent and sell it to the nuns to get money to buy a wedding dress for Agnelette, his beloved. However, before he can do that, a black wolf enters his cottage on its hind legs and speaks to him. The wolf explains that it brought Thibault the deer at his request and it offers to help Thibault get revenge on his enemies, the baron and the gamekeeper. To seal the pact, Thibault and the wolf exchange rings. Soon after, Thibault is astounded to hear the gamekeeper has died and his wish has come true. However, the baron is also ill and Thibault is forced to let the baron’s men kill his goat to make a healing potion for the baron. And so it goes with everything Thibault wishes. He wishes ill on his enemies, and while what he wishes comes true, it also leads to something detrimental for himself.

Agnelette soon after confronts Thibault about how he got the gold ring he is wearing. Unable to tell her he received it from the wolf, he claims he got it for their wedding, but she knows he is lying since it is obviously too large for her. She then breaks off their engagement.

Meanwhile, wolves begin to follow Thibault everywhere and obey him. Part of the pact with the wolf was that the wolf would be granted a hair for his first wish, two hairs for the second, four for the third, and so on. For every hair the wolf takes, a red one takes its place until soon Thibault has a shock of red hair, which he tries to conceal by combing his hair in different ways. His hair is a sign he has been marked by the devil, rather like the mark of Cain, and eventually, Thibault can no longer hide it.

Thibault has several more adventures, mostly involving women he decides he would like to wed, which results in wishes to possess them and be rid of their current suitors. In one such encounter, Thibault wishes he could become the Baron Raoul, the lover of a countess. Consequently, he is able to make love to the countess when he and the baron switch places for twenty-four hours. This is one of the most interesting scenes in the novel and probably the first case in literature of people switching places in the style popularized by the Disney film Freaky Friday (1976). Another novel using this plot is Vice Versa (1882) by F. Anstey, a novel in which a father and son, through use of a magic stone, switch places. That novel is said to have been so funny that English novelist Anthony Trollope died while laughing over it. (A myth about his death, but one often repeated.) While both Vice Versa and Freaky Friday use the switched roles theme for comical means, Dumas uses it more seriously. Thibault, under guise of the baron, ends up being pursued by the Countess’ husband and wounded in a duel. Fortunately, the twenty-four hours of switching places ends just before the baron dies, so Thibault finds himself returned to his own body.

By this point, people have figured out that Thibault is in some way involved with sorcery. He wakes in his home in his own body only to find his cottage on fire and people shouting “Death to the sorcerer! Death to the were-wolf!” (Thibault has not become a werewolf yet, but that he leads a pack of wolves that terrify the villagers has earned him the name.) He escapes from his house but now feels like “Cain, a wanderer on the face of the earth.” Earlier in the novel, he also compared himself to Cain because he brought about the death of the gamekeeper. These references to Cain again relate to the Gothic tradition and particularly the mark of Cain that showed Cain was cursed among men.

Homeless, Thibault now begins to sleep in a wolves’ den with his wolf followers. People fear him as he begins having his wolves destroy property, leading to the bishop excommunicating him. Then one day, Thibault rescues Agnelette from a wolf. She is not grateful but expects he will kill her. He tries to convince her to leave her husband and be with him, but while she admits she still loves him, she refuses. He then tells her he wishes her husband were dead. Terrified because she knows his wishes come true, Agnelette runs to her husband who turns out to be fine, but after Agnelette tells him of Thibault’s behavior, he goes to report the behavior to the authorities and is accidentally shot on the way. Soon after, Agnelette becomes ill over his death.

By this point, a year has passed since the day Thibault made his pact with the wolf. He is now cursing all his ill luck and wishing he had never met the wolf. The wolf now appears and says Thibault can still enjoy everything he wants if he will only take the wolf’s form. No one will then be able to hurt him because his skin will be so strong. He will have to be a wolf by night but can be a man by day. The only catch is that he must be a vulnerable wolf for twenty-four hours once a year. Thibault agrees to the proposal because he is assured he will have unlimited power and wealth. Once the agreement is made, the wolf takes on the form of a man and Thibault becomes a wolf. (If the novel was influenced by Reynolds’ Wagner the Wehr-Wolf, this would be the only scene because in that novel Faust convinced Wagner to take his place as a werewolf.)

Immediately, Thibault finds himself in trouble because it happens to be the twenty-four hours when he must be a wolf. He is hunted by the Baron of Vez and his dogs. As he flees from them, he comes to a church where he finds Agnelette’s funeral in progress. At that moment, he blames himself for her death, feels great sorrow, and asks God to restore her to life even if it means his death.

The baron’s dogs now catch up to him and attack. When the baron arrives, he finds the dogs fighting over a bloody wolf skin, but there is no body to be found. The priest presiding over the funeral says he heard Thibault’s prayer of repentance and sacrifice and that saved him. The sacrifice, however, isn’t a true one since Agnelette died anyway. The novel closes by telling us that each year on the anniversary of Agnelette’s death, a monk comes to pray beside her grave. The implication is that Thibault became a monk.

The novel’s storyline has one plot hole in that it never shows us Madame Durand as Thibault’s mistress, although she is the person who supposedly caused Mocquet to have nightmares and tell the story in the first place.

The novel is interesting for blending the Faustian pact with other themes of the Wandering Jew and Cain. At one point, we are even told that Thibault’s thoughts were like those of Milton’s Satan after he fell. This statement reveals that Dumas probably knew Paradise Lost (1667), which was a major influence in the development of the Gothic novel in England as I have discussed in my book The Gothic Wanderer.

Is The Wolf Leader Dumas’ best work? Far from it, but it is a highly readable and enjoyable novel. It is somewhat predictable and far from as complicated and wide-ranging a plot as in Reynolds’ novel. But it is also interesting that while Wagner agrees to be a werewolf, he does not wish to kill people. Thibault has few qualms about hurting his enemies, although he becomes more careful about making wishes as the novel progresses.

Given that the novel was written in 1857 but set before the French Revolution, it might be interpreted as showing the uprising of the common man against the French aristocracy, especially since Thibault’s first assault is upon a baron. Thibault is also shown as climbing the social ladder as the novel progresses, especially in relation to the women he desires. He goes from loving Agnelette, a peasant girl, to imagining himself marrying a widowed miller’s wife, then a bailiff’s wife, and then a countess, even becoming a baron himself for a short time. In each case, however, the women ultimately reject him or make fun of him behind his back. His social climbing also is obvious from his increasing wealth through not having to work since the wolves provide him with meat that he often sells to support himself. His improved financial situation makes people suspicious of him and in time accuse him of sorcery. We might interpret the novel as showing he is punished for his transgressions against the social order and rising above his class. In the end, he regrets that he was untrue to Agnelette, the only woman he really loved and the only one of his class. Only when Thibault tries to save her and repents is he redeemed from his crimes. The story is thus both subversive in its attacks upon aristocracy and ultimately conservative by showing the dangers or sin of trying to move beyond one’s class. In the end, like Milton’s Satan, pride comes before the fall for Thibault.

However one wishes to interpret The Wolf Leader, it is a fascinating piece of Gothic literature that deserves more attention than it has received, especially in relation to its social implications and revenge theme, a theme that Dumas used to greater effect in The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas was a diverse and powerful writer, and while his work is somewhat uneven in quality, his lesser-known works deserve reevaluation.

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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 historical fantasy series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Filed under Alexandre Dumas, Classic Gothic Novels, George W.M. Reynolds, revenge tragedies, The Wandering Jew

Robert Macaire, Reformed Gothic Transgressor

George W. M. Reynolds (1814-1897) needs no introduction to regular readers of this blog. I have written about numerous of his works here, especially his Gothic novels, but even his non-Gothic works contain elements closely associated with the Gothic. Reynolds was also an author who had no qualms about capitalizing upon the works of other authors, from his sequel to Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, titled Pickwick Abroad, to his borrowing of Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris to create the Victorian bestseller The Mysteries of London.

The British Library edition of Robert Macaire

In Robert Macaire; or, The French Bandit in England (1839), Reynolds again recycles someone else’s work to create his own. I had never heard of the character of Robert Macaire before reading this novel, but according to Wikipedia, he was a stock character in French literature for about sixteen years before Reynolds borrowed him and sent him across the channel. The Wikipedia entry on the character states:

Robert Macaire is a fictional character, an unscrupulous swindler, who appears in a number of French plays, films, and other works of art. In French culture he represents an archetypal villain. He was principally the creation of an actor, Frédérick Lemaître, who took the stock figure of ‘a ragged tramp, a common thief with tattered frock coat patched pants’ and transformed him during his performances into ‘the dapper confidence man, the financial schemer, the juggler of joint-stock companies’ that could serve to lampoon financial speculation and government corruption.

“Playwright Benjamin Antier (1787–1870), with two collaborators Saint-Amand and Polyanthe, created the character Robert Macaire in the play l’Auberge des Adrets, a serious-minded melodrama. After the work’s failure at its 1823 premiere, Frédérick Lemaître played the role as a comic figure instead. Violating all the conventions of its genre, it became a comic success and ran for a hundred performances. The transformation violated social standards that demanded crime be treated with seriousness and expected criminals to be punished appropriately. The play was soon banned, and representations of the character of Macaire were banned time and again until the 1880s. Lemaître used the character again in a sequel he co-authored titled Robert Macaire, first presented in 1835.”

The next mention of Macaire at Wikipedia is to Reynolds’ novel, and while Macaire would appear in numerous other works, including a 1907 film, what interests us is only his early depictions that inspired Reynolds. That depiction also includes Bertrand, his good friend, who often accompanies him. While the plot is more complicated than I will get into here, I will hit the highlights that make the novel interesting in relation to Reynolds’ other works.

In Reynolds’ novel, Macaire and Bertrand leave France for England, first robbing the Dover mail coach and tying up passenger, Charles Stanmore, who will figure later in the plot. They then obtain a letter from a business in Paris that says a M. Lebeau will be going to see Mr. Pocklington in England to transact business and asks that Pocklington advance money as needed to Lebeau. Macaire decides to pretend he is Lebeau and under that guise introduces himself to Pocklington, soon finding himself staying under Pocklington’s roof with his friend who goes by the name of Count Bertrand. Mr. Pocklington has a wife, and more importantly, a niece, Maria. Although Macaire is about forty and Maria closer to twenty, he soon wins her love. All the while, he is also receiving financial advances from her uncle under the belief they are connected to business.

Not surprisingly, Macaire seduces Maria, but not before making her vow to love him no matter who he truly is. The scene recalls those in Gothic novels like Melmoth the Wanderer, where a woman basically sells her soul to her lover. Maria makes the vow, and then Macaire reveals his true identity as a bandit.

Stanmore, the victim at the mail coach, is not only a friend of the Pocklingtons but romantically interested in Maria, and while she is not interested in him, he becomes jealous of Macaire, not at first recognizing him as his assailant. As the plot unravels with Macaire returning to France and Stanmore also traveling there, Stanmore not only realizes who Macaire is, but he discovers Macaire was responsible for previously murdering his father. Macaire, meanwhile, visits a cottage where a young girl, Blanche, has been placed in the care of a couple, Paul and Marguerite, who were involved in the murder of Stanmore’s father. Blanche knows nothing of her family other than that her mother was the daughter of a nobleman and her father was disliked by the family. It turns out Blanche is the granddaughter of a count who has entrusted her to Macaire’s care. Macaire goes with Blanche to a notary to discuss the terms of money her grandfather wishes to settle on her, but when the grandfather visits at the same time, he and his granddaughter are reconciled, which infuriates Macaire, who wishes to have control of Blanche’s money.

Meanwhile, Maria’s friends and family realize who Macaire is. When he returns for the wedding, it is interrupted by Stanmore, who declares Macaire’s identity and accuses him of murdering his father. Maria tries repeatedly, even by eloping, to be with Macaire because of the vow she made him, and also because she is pregnant with his child, but her hopes are useless. In the end, she becomes ill. Macaire visits her on her deathbed, when she implores him to vow to reform. Heartbroken when she dies, she having been the only person who ever truly loved him, Macaire decides he will reform.

However, by now Stanmore has helped collect evidence against Macaire, which results in his capture and arrest by the police. Macaire hopes to be released so he can spend the rest of his life in penance, but following a trial, he is found guilty of murder and sentenced to decapitation. Fortunately, one of his criminal friends helps him to escape.

The pivotal scene when Charles Stanmore attacks Macaire just before learning he is his father-in-law

By this point, Stanmore has met and fallen in love with Macaire’s former ward, Blanche. Macaire, unaware of the marriage, has his heart now set on finding Blanche and convincing her to spend the rest of her days with him. When he goes to her house, she is horrified, for only now does she realize he is the convicted man her husband has sought to prosecute. Macaire implores her to have mercy on him and not turn him over to the police. He then makes the shocking announcement that he is her true father. She is instantly overwhelmed with happiness to know her father and also in fear of her husband’s wrath. When Stanmore returns home, his anger at seeing Macaire knows no restraint and he wishes to arrest or even kill him, declaring that Macaire murdered his own father, but then Blanche reveals that Macaire is her father. At this stunning revelation, Stanmore instantly relents and agrees to let Macaire escape, even lying and trying to postpone the police from pursuing him.

In the end, Macaire escapes and goes to Switzerland where he lives another six years in solitude, an “outcast” doing penance until he dies. Although the novel does not contain Gothic elements, his being an outcast, a Gothic wanderer really, and the guilt he feels for his past transgressions make him cousin to repentful Gothic characters like William Godwin’s St. Leon and James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire. Macaire is actually one of the few in early Gothic novels who is not punished but allowed to find redemption through years of penance.

I suspect the novel was highly influenced by French drama, of which I know little. While coincidences and shocking revelations are not uncommon in Gothic literature and even the works of Dickens, I sense an influence here of French dramatists like Victor Hugo where the final scene is intended both to shock the reader/viewer and create deep emotion. Certainly, the dramatic revelation that Macaire is Blanche’s father and how this news immediately softens Stanmore’s heart has a similar shocking but almost cathartic effect on the reader. I felt the same grief and shock as when at the end of the opera Rigoletto, based on a play by Hugo, the father discovers that the sack he carries contains the corpse of his daughter.

Some other points of interest in the novel include when Macaire first returns to France, he goes to visit his fellow criminals. He enters the den of thieves and must give a password to get in, reminscent of secret societies, which often figure in Gothic novels. The author refers to the appearances of some of the criminals as being like Guy Fawkes, Cagliostro, and an insolvent priest. Cagliostro, notably, would be the alias of Joseph Balsamo, a historical magician or occultist of sorts who figures in Alexander Dumas’ Marie Antoinette novels of the 1850s.

Also notable is some of Reynolds’ social satire, which is often far from subtle. For example, in Chapter 37, Macaire escapes from the Pocklingtons by going down the neighbor’s chimney. The neighbor is a parson. When Macaire tells him the Catholics next door are saying mass and have tried to kill him, the parson declares “Catholics! What—are they Catholics?…if so, they are capable of anything.” He then gives Macaire some parson’s clothes to disguise himself. When Macaire then walks down the street dressed like a parson, we are told “the beggars in the street forebore to ask him for alms—because mendicants never do apply for charity to a clergyman, knowing very well that if they do, they will only be sent to the cage or the county gaol as rogues and vagabonds.”

Also of interest is that when Macaire is in prison, he meets a fellow prisoner who is executed for parricide or matricide, the jailor can’t remember which. (Reynolds had previously written in 1835 The Youthful Impostor, which he later revised and published as The Parricide, or The Youth’s Career of Crime. I have not yet been able to read this work, but one wonders if it is an intertextual play on his earlier work.)

Robert Macaire, besides its Gothic connections, is an interesting addition to the Newgate novels of the time. I feel Reynolds’ novel superior in pacing and plot to similar novels of the time such as William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (serialized in 1839-1840) and Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford (1830). Paul Clifford may actually be another source for Robert Macaire since in that novel, Clifford is revealed to be the son of the judge who condemns him to death, similar to the fatherhood shock at the end of Robert Macaire. However, interestingly, and despite the controversy that the Newgate novels caused, Reynolds has no qualms with letting his criminal live—provided he is reformed of course. Plus, we should note that in the French version, as stated by Wikipedia above, Robert Macaire is also not punished, which caused outrage at the time. Certainly, the overlaps between the Gothic and crime novels are many, as would be evidenced later by Reynolds’ masterpiece, The Mysteries of London, a criminal and a Gothic transgressor being often the same kind of person, just one being surrounded by more Gothic atmosphere.

An early scene from the novel when Macaire asks Maria not to reveal his identity

It is worth mentioning that Robert Macaire includes eighteen illustrations by Henry Anelay, which are exquisitely done. I could find little about Anelay online, though he illustrated many novels in his day. The pictures really add to the text, although I did not like that they were often ten or twenty pages before the action they depicted, which gave away the plot a bit at times.

I read the British Library edition of the novel, which is basically a photocopy of the original. The print is extremely small and I fear I will end up going blind one of these days from reading their books, but they are often the only editions of Reynolds’ works available. As always, I hope my blog posts will help bring Reynolds to greater attention so better editions will be issued and his popularity will grow so he can take his place among the great Victorian novelists, alongside Dickens, Trollope, Bulwer-Lytton, Ainsworth, and the Brontes. While his style may not be as ornate and his plots as deep or philosophical, his social satire and the way he writes gripping plots make Reynolds worthy of far more attention than he has received.

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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 many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, George W.M. Reynolds