Tag Archives: Gothic novels

Rookwood: The Gothic Family Plot Taken to the Extreme

William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1834 novel Rookwood took the literary world by storm in its day, and although it is largely forgotten now, its influence lingers on in much better known works of literature.

William Harrison Ainsworth, painted by Daniel Maclise

In Rookwood, Ainsworth wanted to write a Gothic novel in the style of Walpole and Radcliffe, but at the same time, he was heavily influenced by the rise of the historical novel, particularly by Sir Walter Scott, and so he set the novel in England in the reign of George II in 1737. This decision was also partly made because of his long-time interest in the famous highwayman Dick Turpin, who figures as a main character in the novel, and reflects the influence of the Newgate novels of the time, novels which focused upon criminals.

Anne Williams, in her book Art of Darkness: The Poetics of Gothic, has said “Gothic plots are family plots; Gothic romance is family” (22-3). Nothing could be truer of Rookwood, which has one of the most complex family inheritance storylines of any novel ever written.

The novel opens at the manor of Rookwood Place. The owner Sir Piers Rookwood has recently died after a bough of an ancient tree is found on the ground. Family legend says a death always follows the dropping of a branch from the tree. Sir Piers’ son Ranulph is believed to be the true heir to Rookwood Place, but Peter Bradley, the estate’s keeper, reveals to his grandson Luke Bradley that he is really Sir Piers’ legitimate and oldest son. Sir Piers had married Peter Bradley’s daughter, and Peter brings Luke into the family vault to show him his mother’s body and even the hand bearing the wedding ring. In a grotesque moment, Luke takes his mother’s hand and ring as proof of his legitimate birth. Not surprisingly, we also learn Luke’s parents were married by a Jesuit priest, Father Checkley. The Gothic loved to pick on Catholics, and the Jesuits were frequently manipulative plotters in Gothic storylines, especially in Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew (1846). Rookwood, however, may be the first use of Jesuits in a Gothic plot.

Peter Bradley now plots to marry Luke to his cousin Eleanor Mowbray, the daughter of Sir Piers’ sister. However, Ranulph is also in love with Eleanor. Luke is not interested in Eleanor at first. Rather, he has been raised by gypsies and is in love with a young gypsy named Sybil Lovel. At his grandfather’s insistence on the marriage to Eleanor, however, Luke finally gives way.

Eleanor Mowbray comes to Rookwood Place with her mother for Sir Piers’ funeral and under the belief she will marry Ranulph. However, their carriage is waylaid and they find themselves among the gypsies. Dick Turpin, at this point, intercedes to help Luke marry Eleanor. However, at the ceremony performed among the gypsies, Luke is fooled into marrying Sybil. Sybil, realizing Luke does not love her, kills herself. Sybil’s grandmother then takes revenge by poisoning a lock of Sybil’s hair and giving it to Luke, which eventually results in his death.

Rookwood’s cover page

After Luke’s death, Peter Bradley reveals that he is really Alan Rookwood, the brother of Reginald Rookwood, the father of Piers. (This makes the family tree extremely complicated since Luke’s parents were first cousins and he also has attempted to marry his first cousin.) Ranulph’s mother, Maud, who has been scheming for her son, now manages to find herself accidentally locked inside the family tomb with Peter Bradley, in one of the most terrifying moments in the novel as they realize they will die before they are ever found. In the end, Ranulph and Eleanor, the only surviving members of the family, marry.

The plot is more complicated than my summary, and it includes a long chase of Dick Turpin by the law, which goes on for many chapters and was said to thrill readers, although the modern reader wonders why Dick is really in the novel at all and wants to get back to the dysfunctional family plot.

The novel would win no awards for subtlety or even style, but it is a rousing good story for the most part. It is sensational and at times gory—who would want to carry around their long-dead mother’s hand? It is also amoral. The reader is not clear whom to cheer for. At times, it seems like Ainsworth is on Luke’s side as the rightful heir, but critic Stephen Carver in his article “The Design of Romance: Rookwood, Scott, and the Gothic,” argues that Luke’s fatal flaw is his lust for power, property, and revenge for his mother, which is why he fails in the end. Furthermore, Luke is driven on by his grandfather’s own desire for revenge upon the family—his own family.

As stated earlier, Ainsworth’s goal was to write a novel like Radcliffe. In the novel’s 1849 preface, he states, “I resolved to attempt a story in the bygone style of Mrs. Radcliffe,—which had always inexpressible charms for me,—substituting an old English squire, an old English manorial residence, and an old English highwayman, for the Italian marchese, the castle, and the brigand of the great mistress of Romance.” He succeeded in doing so, and notably, like Mrs. Radcliffe, he shies away from any actual supernatural events, although at times the characters think supernatural things are happening, and there are both family curses and legends and contradicting curses and legends. Like Mrs. Radcliffe, Ainsworth also sprinkles poetry throughout the novel, most of it in the form of songs, many of them about highwaymen and of questionable merit—Mrs. Radcliffe was no great poet herself. The songs tend to delay the action for the modern reader, but they have some charm.

The Bridal scene by George Cruikshank who did several illustrations for the novel.

Sir Walter Scott’s influence is prevalent in the novel’s historical setting in England—one of the first Gothic novels to be set in England rather than abroad. Ainsworth is less interested, however, in the historical drama of the period that Scott tried to depict in his own works. Stephen Carver, in the article referenced above, argues that Scott’s poetry was a greater influence on Ainsworth than his fiction.

Having just reread Notre-Dame de Paris, which was the subject of my last blog post, Victor Hugo’s novel was strongly in my mind as I read Rookwood, and consequently, I felt the influence of Hugo throughout. Given that Notre-Dame de Paris was published in French in 1831 and in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1833, it is very likely Ainsworth read the novel before or while writing Rookwood. Furthermore, Ainsworth references Hugo in his preface along with several other authors, stating:

“The chief object I had in view in making the present essay was to see how far the infusion of a warmer and more genial current into the veins of old Romance would succeed in reviving her fluttering and feeble pulses. The attempt has succeeded beyond my most sanguine expectation. Romance, if I am not mistaken, is destined shortly to undergo an important change. Modified by the German and French writers—by Hoffman, Tieck, Hugo, Dumas, Balzac, and Paul Lecroix (le Bibliophile Jacob)—the structure commenced in our own land by Horace Walpole, Monk Lewis, Mrs. Radcliffe, and Maturin, but left imperfect and inharmonious, requires, now that the rubbish which choked up its approach is removed, only the hand of the skilful architect to its entire renovation and perfection.”

It is noteworthy here that Ainsworth does not list Scott among the English writers of romance. Of course, that is not to say all these writers were influences upon Ainsworth since he wrote the preface in 1849, fifteen years after the novel was first published, and Dumas, for example, did not begin publishing until a few years after the novel’s publication. However, Hugo’s influence seems highly likely, especially since after the novel was published, Ainsworth was praised as “The English Victor Hugo” (Carver p. 4).

Turpin’s Flight Through Edmonton, also by Cruikshank

While the comparison to Hugo may be general because Ainsworth had written a popular Gothic and historical novel like Hugo, the influence seems more apparent in the sort of lack of a moral to the work, just as Hugo’s novel, as I argued in my previous blog post, presents an existential or amoral viewpoint. Certainly, Ranulph seems no more moral than Luke, and Luke has more reason to behave in dastardly ways because of his being cheated from his inheritance. None of the characters are overly moral, but the theme of revenge does suggest Luke fails due to his lust for property, as Carver suggests. In any case, as with Notre-Dame de Paris, we are left with bodies littering the novel’s pages and most of the characters dead because of their inability to control their passions. As scholar Heather Glen states, Dick Turpin, Luke, and other Newgate heroes seem driven to break the law to right the injustices of society (Glen xxii), and Luke here believes himself wronged and trying to right that wrong. This position of the hero also makes him an outcast in society, a type of Gothic wanderer, who is not a transgressor, but rather feels society has transgressed against him, and consequently, he must transgress against society to right the first transgression.

As for Rookwood’s influence, one has to wonder if the revenge theme played into the creation of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas’ Edmond Dantes also seeks revenge after being wronged. He just carries it out far more intelligently than Luke does.

More definitely, the novel influenced the works of Charlotte and Emily Brontë. In her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Tales of Angria, Heather Glen discusses Rookwood’s influence on the Angria stories. She says the character of Henry Hastings in the stories is an ironic treatment of Rookwood (Glen xxiii). In my opinion, Jane Eyre also well may have been influenced by Rookwood. The gypsies who are primary characters in Rookwood may have inspired Mr. Rochester dressing up as a gypsy in Jane Eyre. Notably, Brontë has Jane call this supposed gypsy a “Sybil,” which is the name of the primary gypsy character in Rookwood. Of course, the name is also appropriate since a Sybil can foresee the future and Brontë’s fake gypsy claims to be a fortune teller. Furthermore, while Sybil in Rookwood does not appear to be prophetic, the novel has several prophecies, one of which Sybil helps to fulfill.

Even more so, in reading Rookwood, one cannot help thinking of Wuthering Heights. The complicated family relationships of Rookwood all relate to a family fight over who will inherit the property. It is interesting that Luke has to prove himself the legitimate heir. Critics have often speculated that in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff may be Mr. Earnshaw’s bastard child. Heathcliff is also referred to as a gypsy in the novel since his origins are unknown. Luke was himself raised by the gypsies. Like Luke, Heathcliff tries to gain control of the family property. However, Heathcliff succeeds where Luke fails. Regardless, in the end, Heathcliff dies and the property returns to the only two remaining descendants of the Earnshaws and Lintons. Similarly, in Rookwood, the only remaining family members inherit the property. Emily Brontë must have had Rookwood in the back of her mind and simplified the family plot while also whitewashing the taint of illegitimacy from the novel enough just to hint at it for Heathcliff rather than make it blatant.

The Vault by Sir John Gilbert

Finally, I can’t help wondering if the creators of the Gothic TV soap opera Dark Shadows (1966-1971) were influenced by Rookwood. The house in the series is named Collinwood—is the similar name a coincidence? There is no plot of fighting over the inheritance of the property, but the series chronicles the Collins family over two centuries. Most notably, in the episodes set in 1897, there are gypsy characters, a dismembered hand of great power (which recalls Luke’s mother’s hand), and a family curse. The very complicated family tree of the series also reflects the complicated, multigenerational family tree of Rookwood.

Rookwood has been almost forgotten today, but it is a notable link in the chain of Gothic literature between Radcliffe and Scott and later writers like Dickens, George W. M. Reynolds, and the Brontës. I hope this article helps to create renewed interest in Rookwood and all of Ainsworth’s works.

(For other reviews at The Gothic Wanderer of Ainsworth’s work, visit Auriol, or the Elixir of Life and The Lancashire Witches.)

_________________________________________

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Sir Walter Scott

The Husband as Horror: Charlotte Smith’s Montalbert

Charlotte Smith’s 1795 novel Montalbert, although not strictly a Gothic novel, uses many Gothic themes and elements to create a somewhat uneven but still powerful story. Smith (1749-1806) was the author of several late eighteenth century novels that use Gothic elements. She was a contemporary of Fanny Burney and Mrs. Radcliffe and wrote largely in the same vein as them. She was also a precursor to Jane Austen, and her poetry had an influence on the Romantics. Previously, I blogged about her novel Ethelinde (1789).

The most affordable edition of Montalbert, although a poor edition without page numbers and many typos. Good editions of her novels are hard to find.

At the center of Montalbert is young Rosalie Lessington. She is the youngest daughter in her family, but experiences a sort of coldness from her parents, a situation that is exasperated when her father dies and omits her from his will. Soon after, Rosalie learns she is really the daughter of Mrs. Lessington’s friend, Mrs. Vyvian. Mrs. Vyvian, before she married her current husband, had loved an Irishman named Ormsby, but her father, named Montalbert, opposed the marriage and forcefully had them separated. Mrs. Vyvian was then coerced into marrying her current husband, whom she has always had a bad relationship with. When she gave birth to Ormsby’s illegitimate daughter, Rosalie, she asked Mrs. Lessington to raise the child as if she were her own. Rosalie eventually learns the truth of her birth, and Mrs. Vyvian tells her a detailed story of love and separation from Ormsby, including the horrible belief that her father had Ormsby killed. Mrs. Vyvian’s story is one of the most Gothic sections of the novel.

In Mrs. Vyvian’s illicit romance, Smith seems to be drawing upon Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753-1754). Richardson’s novel focuses on Englishman Sir Charles’ love for the Italian Clementina. Because he is Anglican and she Catholic, and because of familial opposition, they cannot be married. In Montalbert, both Mr. and Mrs. Vyvian are Catholic, although he later leaves the church while she remains Catholic. Her lover, Ormsby, being Irish, is also likely Catholic, so it is not religion but social and financial status that cause Mrs. Vyvian’s father’s opposition to the marriage. Regardless, the family’s Catholicism will affect Rosalie’s own future marriage.

Rosalie’s illegitimacy plays on Gothic and Sensibility novel themes as well. In Burney’s Evelina (1778), the title character is illegitimate and seeking her father’s recognition. Later, in Burney’s The Wanderer (1814), the main character is assumed illegitimate. In other novels like Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791), the main character’s father remains unknown and, consequently, an incestuous relationship almost results for her.

Smith uses illegitimacy and incest as themes in Montalbert. Before Rosalie learns the truth about her identity, Mrs. Vyvian’s son returns to England with his cousin, Montalbert (for whom the novel is named). Rosalie and Montalbert become smitten with each other, but everyone else assumes Rosalie and the young Vyvian are attached and both the Lessingtons and Mrs. Vyvian oppose the match. Mrs. Vyvian finally tells Rosalie that young Vyvian is her half-brother. Fortunately, Rosalie is instead involved with her cousin Montalbert, and marriages between cousins are permissible.

Rosalie was raised Protestant and Montalbert Catholic, but she agrees to marry him regardless. However, the marriage must be secret because while he had an English father, his mother is a wealthy Italian of noble birth who would not approve because she has already picked another young woman to be his bride. Montalbert assures Rosalie they can be married by a priest and later he’ll make peace with his mother. Rosalie agrees to the secret marriage. This section of the novel is one of the weakest. Smith does not develop Rosalie and Montalbert’s relationship enough to convince us of their love, but before we know it, not only are they married but Rosalie is pregnant.

Smith is less interested in romance than in putting her heroine in a precarious situation so the rest of the novel’s plot will work. However, it should be noted that Montalbert is typical of other men in Gothic novels by women. Like Valancourt in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Montalbert is charming but ultimately impotent in his ability to act like a real man. Valancourt fails to rescue Emily St. Aubert when she is imprisoned in Udolpho—he doesn’t even go after her but instead becomes mixed up in gambling and ends up in prison. Montalbert is far from being a manly man, being under the thumb of his rich mother. He brings Rosalie to Italy in secret, then leaves her at Messina with his friend while he goes to wait on his mother. Rosalie is now separated from Montalbert for nearly half the novel, constantly awaiting his return. Like Valancourt, Montalbert becomes an absent presence as the reader keeps wondering where he is and when he will finally come to Rosalie’s aid.

While at Messina, Rosalie’s troubles begin. Smith, unlike other Gothic novelists, does not set her novel in the distant past but in more recent times. Later, she even reveals it’s the year 1784. Rosalie experiences one of the real earthquakes that occurred at Messina in February and March 1783 (1784 actually but the old calendar was used in Italy at this time when the new year began on March 25). During the earthquake, Montalbert’s friend, Count Alozzi, has his villa destroyed, as is the building where Rosalie resides. Fortunately, she and her child survive, as does the count. The count then takes her to his home in Naples, although she does not want to go but would rather wait for Montalbert to return. Later, we learn Montalbert thinks she died in the earthquake, and only after he learns she lives, does he begin to follow her.

The most Gothic scenes of the novel follow when the count takes Rosalie and her child to Calabria to a fortress, the Castle of Formiscusa. Not surprisingly, the castle is haunted by a murdered knight. But Smith shies away from introducing the supernatural. Instead, we are reminded of confinement scenes in other Gothic novels like Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) as well as Mrs. Radcliffe’s works. Rosalie is served by a rather unfriendly nun and confined to the castle and its grounds, basically the count’s prisoner, unable to leave or send word to Montalbert of her whereabouts.

Outside the castle, Rosalie meets Walsingham, an Englishman who befriends her and helps her escape to Marseilles. From there, they book passage to England. Rosalie understands the impropriety of traveling with a man who is not her relative, but she feels she has no choice and Walsingham appears to be honorable. Most people who see them together assume they are married. Walsingham quickly falls in love with Rosalie, but being a gentleman, he represses his feelings and promises to help her reunite with her husband. Walsingham has his own past, having loved a lady named Leonora, who has died. Consequently, he lives the melancholy life of a wanderer and even tells Rosalie that once he helps her reunite with Montalbert, he will return to the life of a “dissipated wanderer,” seeking a way to replace the happiness she has given him.

Charlotte Turner Smith. Her bad marriage forced her to write for money and she used her marriage as source material.

Eventually, Montalbert catches up with Rosalie and Walsingham in England, but by the time he does, he’s heard rumors that Rosalie is with Walsingham and believes she has been unfaithful to him. In a moment of true horror for Rosalie, Montalbert sees her on the beach and calls out her name, but when she tries to approach him, he runs from her, saying she is lost to him forever. Rosalie is shocked and beside herself; soon after, she becomes completely immobilized when Montalbert sends men to remove her son from her. Montalbert’s temper and assumption she is unfaithful make him a sorry excuse for a husband and father, and his rejection of her becomes the greatest cause of horror for Rosalie in the novel.

Rosalie now becomes very ill. During this time, her half-brother, Vyvian, and her adopted brother, Lessington, find her and bring her father Ormsby to her. Ormsby was not killed by Mrs. Vyvian’s father but has been in India all these years, becoming filthy rich.

Montalbert now shows himself at Rosalie’s residence to state he has killed Walsingham. In truth, he has confused Walsingham with a cousin of the same name whom he killed in a duel. When the correct Walsingham now arrives, Montalbert shoots him. Walsingham, in great pain, pleads his innocence and forgives Montalbert for killing him, wishing Rosalie and Montalbert only happiness.

Fortunately, Walsingham recovers from his wound. Montalbert is now reunited with Rosalie and allows her to see her child. However, being estranged from his mother, he is financially cut off from his inheritance. Ormsby is willing to support his daughter and her family, but Montalbert and Ormsby don’t get along, resulting in Ormsby hoping Montalbert will go abroad as a fugitive after the murder he committed, so he can have his daughter and her son to himself.

However, Walsingham saves the day. He goes to Montalbert’s mother and manages to work out a reconciliation between her and her son so that Montalbert will have an income and she will leave her wealth to her grandchildren. Everyone is now happy except Walsingham, who decides he will wander to Spain, Portugal, and the East Indies, seeking science and knowledge; the only thing that softens the sadness of his destiny is knowing Rosalie is happy.

Talk about unrequited love. Smith’s novel is full of coincidences and plot twists that feel rather unrealistic, but where she excels is in creating in Walsingham a true Gothic wanderer figure. While most Gothic wanderers commit transgressions, he is innocent yet his grief over Leonora and now his inability to be with Rosalie make him an outcast from the human race. In his altruistic behavior, Walsingham is an early version of Dickens’ Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) who gives his life to save the husband of the woman he loves. Similarly, Walsingham acts always for Rosalie’s happiness even when her husband behaves like a maniac. Rosalie is, frankly, a fool to have married Montalbert in the first place, and one cannot help but think her married life will be miserable with such a man. This is a weak man who cannot stand up to his own mother, who has a violent temper, and who easily jumps to assumptions and accuses his wife of infidelity. Even though Smith resolves Rosalie’s current marriage problems, we can only imagine the horror and perhaps terror of living with such a man for life.

Like many of Smith’s other novels, Montalbert was influenced by her own unhappy marriage. Her father forced her into a marriage that she said made her a “legal prostitute.” Her husband was a violent, immoral man. Montalbert does not seem immoral in his activities, but he certainly has a temper. I’m actually surprised Smith allows Rosalie to stay with Montalbert in the end, but to have Rosalie run off with Walsingham or in some way kill off Montalbert might have been too indecorous or unrealistic an ending, even if it’s the ending the reader would prefer.

After finishing the book, Walsingham is the character the reader remembers. Although not a transgressor, his going off to seek knowledge and science finally links him to transgressive Gothic wanderers who seek forbidden knowledge like the title character of William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799). I wish Smith were more specific in what Walsingham seeks—he is not the type to delve into the supernatural, but rather, he is likely seeking the meaning of life—while his sadness makes his life appear pointless and existential. Smith’s use of religion in the novel only causes problems for her characters. The novel is devoid of any sense of Christian redemption, which is at odds with many of the more religious Gothic novels of the time. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) is often cited as perhaps the first existential novel. However, Montalbert predates it by thirty-one years, and while Smith does not wax philosophical in it, much can be read between the lines.

__________________________________________________

Tyler R. Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love, which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. He also writes history and historical fiction about Upper Michigan. You can learn more about Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

2 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Mary Shelley

“Tales of the Dead”: A Source for “Frankenstein” and “The Vampyre”

The story has been told countless times of how a party composed of Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, Dr. Polidori, and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont met at Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816 and there amused themselves by, among other things, reading ghost stories. When Lord Byron proposed that they each write a ghost story, the results were Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Polidori’s The Vampyre, two of the most important works of Gothic literature.

An integral part of this story that usually receives little mention is that the book of ghost stories they read was Fantasmagoriana, in its French edition, which was later translated into English as Tales of the Dead. Sometimes sources list one or other title as the book read. The confusion about the book’s title results from its publication history. Although this book had an influence on the group of famous writers, not a lot of attention has been given to it, which made me curious to read it and see what, if any, merits it might contain. I was pleasantly surprised by its quality.

Lord Byron - He first suggested, based on reading "Tales of the Dead" that the party at Lake Geneva each right a ghost story. Byron's own story was never completed, but Polidori later tried to claim Byron was the author of "The Vampyre."

Lord Byron – He first suggested, based on reading “Tales of the Dead” that the party at Lake Geneva each right a ghost story. Byron’s own story was never completed, but Polidori’s story was at first erroneously attributed to him.

First, a little about its publication history to clarify some of the confusion about the title. Although it is often said that Shelley and company read a volume of German ghost stories, without stating the title, the compiler of the book, Sarah Elizabeth Utterson, actually translated the majority of the stories in Tales of the Dead from the French collection Fantasmagoriana, which in turn was a collection of various translated German works. Utterson left out three of the stories from Fantasmagoriana because they “did not appear equally interesting to her.” She also “considerably curtailed” her translation of the story “L’Amour Muet” (“The Spectre-Barber”) because the love story aspect didn’t suit the story collection in her opinion. To the collection, she added a new story, “The Storm,” which she said she had heard from a friend. She published the book in 1813, three years prior to the famous Lake Geneva meeting of Shelley and friends.

I won’t go into great detail about the differences of the stories and their titles here over the course of the translations. I recommend that people visit the Wikipedia entry on Tales of the Dead for more details. The page is very informative about the publication background, and it looks at this time as if it is intended that it will eventually have full plot summaries for all six of the stories, although only the first story’s plot is currently there, but that summary includes a wonderful family tree of the characters, which readers will find helpful since the relationships are very complicated.

My purpose here is to entice people to read these fabulous stories without giving away the entire plots of them, and to answer the question of whether they are of literary value and did they have any influence on Mary Shelley and Polidori.

I do believe they are of literary value, both for their influence on the Shelley party as well as their being extremely readable without a lot of the flowery language common in the period. In fact, I think they are some of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read, far more so than many of the other short stories of this period as well as some of the better known novels, including some of the Northanger novels mentioned by Austen.

I have read elsewhere that two of the stories, “The Family Portraits” and “The Death-Bride” were the two stories that most influenced the Shelley-Byron party, and I have to agree with this assessment. I found nothing in the other stories, despite their merits, that seemed to reflect anything in Frankenstein or The Vampyre. That said, I was relieved not to find a great deal of influence because that shows just how phenomenal and imaginative were the writers of Frankenstein and The Vampyre.

So what was the influence? In the first story “The Family Portraits,” a group of people gather together to tell ghost stories. That scene no doubt inspired Lord Byron to make his suggestion that the party do the same. In “The Death-Bride” the storyteller is also a gambler, so it’s possible that the gambling influenced Polidori to include the gambling theme in The Vampyre, although gambling occurs in numerous Gothic novels (see my chapter on “Gambling as Gothic Transgression” in my book The Gothic Wanderer) so naming the gambling here as an influence may be a stretch since the gambling in this story is not too prevalent to the tale’s importance and Polidori himself was known to be in debt for gambling at the end of his life. Another interesting point is the piercing look that the storyteller gives one of the listeners, a look reflective of the hypnotic look of the Wandering Jew in literature of this time, notably Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1795); hypnotic eyes will also become a key element of the vampire figure.

It is not known whether Percy Shelley wrote a ghost story in the summer of 1816, but he had previously written two short Gothic novels "St. Irvyne, or the Rosicrucian" and "Zastrozzi" while still a teenager.

Percy Shelley wrote a ghost story in the summer of 1816 that he later published in a travel book, but he had previously written two short Gothic novels “St. Irvyne, or the Rosicrucian” and “Zastrozzi” while still a teenager.

It’s also interesting to note that although Polidori’s story is considered the first treatment of a vampire in English prose (some poems have vampire type characters in them prior to it including Southey’s “Thalaba the Destroyer” and Coleridge’s “Christabel”), in the “Preface to the French Translation” reference is made to vampires, so such creatures were known to an English audience then even though the author is referencing foreign works that mention them. Still Polidori’s story would set the precedent for what would be the typical vampire character in fiction.

Also of interest is that in the “Introduction,” it’s stated because of the number of imitators of Mrs. Radcliffe’s books, the interest in Gothic stories had already declined. Actually, Gothic novels remained fairly popular until the end of the decade, perhaps partly due to Shelley’s book published in 1818, and the last really notable Gothic novel of this period is Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin.

As for the stories themselves, I’ll just discuss the premises of them here without giving away the endings because it would be a shame to spoil the fun of reading them for anyone. So in brief, here are what the six Tales of the Dead are about:

The Family Portraits: This story begins with a group of characters telling ghost stories. The main character stumbles upon the group. He is on his way to meet a young lady his mother wishes him to marry, but he has his qualms about doing so. He hears the story of a family portrait that fell and caused a young woman’s death and he tells his own story, both stories being based on people he knew, which leads to him discovering a mystery of complex family relationships and an ancestral ghost. The story reminds me of The Mysteries of Udolpho with its complex family secrets and the discoveries of family relationships unknown to the heroine in that novel. That someone might be killed by a portrait falling on her seems a bit far-fetched, but this story is probably the most complicated in the book and it sets the precedent for family or ancestral ghosts that haunt the characters in several of the stories, a type of haunting that is a common element in Gothic literature.

And the curse is wonderful in this story. Without giving away the storyline, a young man, Ditmar, is cursed by a monk and becomes a true Gothic wanderer figure (one who lives beyond the regular lifespan and is fated to wander the earth in misery, unable to die or have his soul redeemed):

“this Ditmar has been seen wandering abroad dressed in the garb represented in the picture; and by kissing the descendants of the family, has doomed them to death. Three of my children have received this fatal kiss. It is said, a monk imposed on him this penance in expiation of his crimes. But he cannot destroy all the children of his race: for so long as the ruins of the old tower shall remain, and whilst one stone shall remain on another, so long shall the count de Wartbourg’s family exist; and so long shall the spirit of Ditmar wander on the earth, and devote to death the branches of his house, without being able to annihilate the trunk. His race will never be extinct; and his punishment will only cease when the ruins of the tower are entirely dispersed.”

Of course, the curse is finally lifted, but how it comes about is a complex story you will have to read.

Not only was Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley's stepsister, pregnant by Lord Byron in the summer of 1816, but she did not write a ghost story and all her literary attempts during her life were for naught. She finally told a friend, "But in our family, if you cannot write an epic or novel, that by its originality knocks all other novels on the head, you are a despicable creature, not worth acknowledging."

Not only was Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepsister, pregnant by Lord Byron in the summer of 1816, but she did not write a ghost story and all her literary attempts during her life were for naught. She finally told a friend, “But in our family, if you cannot write an epic or novel, that by its originality knocks all other novels on the head, you are a despicable creature, not worth acknowledging.”

The Fated Hour: This is one of the strangest stories I have ever read. Florentina is about to be married but believes when she marries she will die. Then she tells her friends about her sister Seraphina, who is now dead, but who while living could at time seem to be in two places at the same time. At one point, she disappeared and came back looking deathlike. She also makes prophecies before she dies that convince the girls’ father that if Florentina ever marries, she will also die. You just know this story isn’t going to turn out well.

The Death’s Head: This tale tells of a young man, Calzolaro, who comes to town with a group of rope dancers to contest his father’s will as well as give a performance in the town. The story treats of ventriloquism and it is planned that Calzolaro will use ventriloquism to make it appear that a skull will speak during the performance. A skull is then brought to him after being dug up from the churchyard, but Calzolaro is not aware of whose skull it is, which leads to a surprising result. It’s enough to say here that again a dead family member is the cause of a haunting.

The Death-Bride: Here, as in “The Family Portraits,” we have a story within a story, the frame being that of the Marquis who likes to gamble. He tells to his friends a story he heard about two twin sisters and how one died. Later the deceased sister is seen in Paris and mistaken for the living sister, but the living sister protests she’s never been to Paris. Once again, a family member is the ghost haunting the family, although the story gets more complicated from that point, and the Marquis also has the purpose in telling his tale of drawing out the guilt of one of his listeners who recognizes the story concerns himself.

The Storm: This story is the only one not originally taken from the Fantasmagoriana. When I began it, I thought it the most-attention grabbing story in the book. It begins when a young man is to be married and his uncle the Chevalier invites all the local nobility, some whom the family scarcely knows. During the reception, the Chevalier’s daughter, Emily, befriends Isabella, a young widow who is new to the neighborhood. Before the party is over, a great storm springs up and the guests are forced to spend the night at the Chevalier’s castle. Isabella refuses to stay but finds she has no choice since her attendants cannot return in the storm to fetch her. Then she wants to be alone, but Emily first tries to get her to share her room and then offers to sit up the night in the sitting room with her. Finally, Isabella tells her it is the six year anniversary of a horrible event and she is doomed to witness it tonight and Emily will now have to witness it also and be doomed as a result. Isabella swears Emily to silence over what she shall see. Emily keeps asking questions about what is to happen but Isabella only keeps saying how they are doomed, and not even religion can save them or penance atone for sins like hers. And then midnight strikes and the door to the room opens…

I won’t give away the ending, but the buildup results in a let-down and I think this added story ends up being the weakest in the collection. Emily ends up fainting when she sees the horror which reminds me of Emily St. Aubert fainting when she sees what is behind the veil in the Castle of Udolpho.

Dr. John Polidori was Lord Byron's physician. Besides "The Vampyre," he would later write the Gothic novel "Ernestus Berchtold."

Dr. John Polidori was Lord Byron’s physician. Besides “The Vampyre,” he would later write the Gothic novel “Ernestus Berchtold.”

The Spectre-Barber: This tale is the one with the edited love story, and in truth, the love story is barely there now. A young man, Francis, inherits his wealthy father’s fortune, but he quickly spends it all and goes into debt. He then has to try to make his fortune in the world, inspired by a young woman named Meta with whom he falls in love. The story wanders about a great deal but it has its suspenseful moments such as when Francis is traveling and must seek shelter for the night. A peasant refuses to let him stay at his home but tells him to go to a nearby castle for shelter, but with the warning that the owner always flagellates all he entertains. I couldn’t wait to see the flagellation happen, but I ended up being disappointed.

Later, Francis stays at another castle where the title character shows up. I won’t go into explanations of the spectre, but we do find out he was cursed by a monk (it was a monk in “The Family Portraits” who also gave the curse), which resulted in his becoming a Gothic Wanderer figure. Here is the monk’s curse:

“‘Depraved wretch’ said he, ‘know that at your death, the formidable gates of heaven, of hell, and of purgatory will alike be closed against your sinful soul, which shall wander through this castle, in the form of a ghost, until some man, without being invited or constrained, shall do to you, what you have so long done to others.’”

This story ends up being entertaining but the plotting is not as tight or satisfactory as the earlier stories in the work. I also have to admit I find a ghost who is a barber rather comical.

I hope by now you’re enticed to read Tales of the Dead for yourself. Imagine it being read aloud by Lord Byron or Mary Shelley on a dark and gloomy summer night near Lake Geneva in 1816. Who knows? Perhaps it will inspire you to write the next great Gothic novel.

Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" would be the greatest novel that resulted from the ghost storytelling in the summer of 1816. She would go on to write another six novels.

Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” would be the greatest novel that resulted from the ghost storytelling in the summer of 1816. She would go on to write another six novels.

So where do you find a copy today of this two-hundred-year-old collection? At Amazon, you can buy Fantasmagoriana: Tales of the Dead edited by A.J. Day, but this is not the Tales of the Dead that Shelley and company read. This is Fantasmagoriana, the source for Tales of the Dead, translated into English without the added “The Storm” story and with the three stories that Utterson did not find interesting enough to retain. I don’t believe you can purchase Tales of the Dead anywhere currently, but it is available online at http://archive.org/details/talesofdead00utte where you can actually view a copy of the original 1813 edition page-by-page as well as read it online or download it. Enjoy!

_________________________________________

Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of numerous books including The Gothic Wanderer. For more information, visit him at www.GothicWanderer.com

5 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Literary Criticism