Tag Archives: Gothic wanderer figures

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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Failed Redemption and Fantastic Gothic Historical Romance: George W.M. Reynold’s Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals

Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals (1847) is thefirst of Victorian novelist George W.M. Reynolds’ three Gothic novels. The others, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1847) and The Necromancer (1851-2), I have written about in this blog previously. Faust is perhaps not as tightly plotted as The Necromancer (understandable due to the serialization of these novels), nor quite as thrilling as Wagner the Wehr-Wolf. There are sections where the plot drags a bit, but all that said, there is plenty here for a lover of classic Gothic literature to enjoy. I also wish I had read Faust before Wagner because Wagner is really a sequel to it. Faust is the one who changes Wagner into a werewolf in the opening of that novel. (See my previous post on Wagner the Wehr-Wolf for the details of why Faust commits this heinous act.)

Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals - this reprint by the British Library preserves all the original text and illustrations but you need eagle eyes to read the tiny print.

Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals – this reprint by the British Library preserves all the original text and illustrations but you need eagle eyes to read the tiny print.

I admit part of my enjoyment in reading Faust was affected by my reading the only copy I could find in print, a reproduction of the original book from the historical collection of the British Library. The problem with this reproduction is that it is just a photocopy of the original book, but reduced in size to a 6” x 9” book. The print is the tiniest I have ever seen in a book, such that I had to use a bookmarker under each line to focus my eyes upon it. I even tried a magnifying glass but that just distorted the text too much. Consequently, it was a bit tedious reading at times and caused my enthusiasm to wane, but nevertheless, it is worth the persistence. On the plus side, this reprint also includes the original illustrations.

Part of why I put off reading Faust for so long was I figured I knew the story, as detailed in Marlowe and Goethe, but Reynolds greatly expands on the Faust story, adding all kinds of details and making it a far-reaching novel that takes the reader throughout much of central and Eastern Europe, from Germany to Italy and even into Turkey.

To summarize the plot in its entirety would be tedious and only make it sound like nonsense, so I will just hit upon the highlights of the main plots (there are multiple plots that eventually all tie together but some are far more significant than others). We basically have two main characters in the novel, intended to be opposites representing evil (Faust) and good (Otto). As expected, Faust is the villain since he sells his soul to the devil. In Reynolds’ version, however, he does so to save the woman he loves.

The story begins at the end of the fifteenth century when Faust, a common man, is in love with Therese, the daughter of a baron. Her father refuses to let her marry him and even throws Faust in prison to keep him away from his daughter. The devil appears to Faust and makes a deal with him to help him win Therese and have great power and riches, in exchange that at the end of twenty-four years, Faust’s soul will then belong to him. Faust agrees to the deal, not realizing at first that he is not only damning himself but the soul of the child he and Therese will have. After Faust passes himself off as a young nobleman and rescues Therese when she is abducted, her father gives Faust his approval. Faust adopts the title of Count of Aurana, marries Therese, and happiness seems imminent for the couple—except that Faust doesn’t want to sell his child’s soul to Satan as well.

Fortunately, Faust’s friend the Archduke has a wife who becomes pregnant at the same time as Therese. Therese gives birth to a boy and the Archduke’s wife to a girl, but before either knows the sex of her child, Faust convinces his lover, Ida, to switch the babies, thinking that will protect his son.

Satan shows Therese to Faust but will not let him see her until he signs the contract giving up his soul.

Satan shows Therese to Faust but will not let him see her until he signs the contract giving up his soul.

We could almost sympathize with Faust in wanting to protect his child, but he does so through deceit, and that he has already taken a lover in Ida soon after his marriage is sign of his moral depravity. Meanwhile Ida’s brother, Otto, our hero in the novel, learns of the affair and tries to defend her honor. Faust agrees to do what is right by Ida, but since he is already married to Therese, Faust arranges a marriage for Ida with Baron Czernin.

Meanwhile, Otto, through a series of accidents, ends up imprisoned inside a mountain while traveling. He is the prisoner of the Vehm, a secret tribunal, which is really a secret society manipulating political situations. (At first, I thought this organization was fictional, but it was a historical organization in Germany of the late Middle Ages that often acted in secret. It reappears in other literary works including A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle and The Vampire Countess by Paul Feval.) Eventually, Otto is released from imprisonment, but while there he has learned that Baron Czernin is also imprisoned—it then turns out the prisoner is the true baron and his sister’s husband an impostor.

Here is where the novel really gets complicated. Otto helps Baron Czernin escape, but that puts him on the Vehm’s blacklist. Somehow the plots become convoluted here—one suspects Reynolds was running out of ways to keep the serial going—so he takes us to the Vatican and introduces us to Pope Alexander VI and his children Caesar and Lucrezia Borgia. Otto will unwillingly become involved with the Borgias in an attempt to save his own life. Unfortunately, Lucrezia becomes attracted to him, but when he learns her identity, he is so repelled by her reputation that he spurns her, causing her to vow revenge.

Eventually, the twenty-four years of Faust’s compact with Satan are almost over. By now his son and adopted daughter have grown and have fallen in love, wishing to be married. Faust is against the marriage because he believes if he enters a church, he will instantly become the devil’s before his time is up. Finally, he confesses his secret to Otto since Otto is such a good person. Otto tries to get him to pray, but Faust fears Satan will only come for him if he tries. Otto then asks how else he might help Faust.

Faust confesses there is nothing Otto can do for him, but that he might do something to save his son. If Otto can travel to Mt. Ararat and retrieve a piece of wood from Noah’s Ark, which his son can wear about his person, then Satan cannot take his son. Otto agrees to do this. It’s one of the more fascinating scenes in the novel, and fortunately, Otto succeeds in getting a piece of wood from the ark.

On the way home, Otto travels by ship, but the ship he is on sinks. He is rescued and finds himself on an island where Lucrezia now resides. She is now married to her third husband, the Duke of Ferrara. She has Otto cast into “The Iron Coffin”—a dungeon that has walls and a roof that over the course of several days slowly move inward until it is clear Otto will be crushed to death. Otto is terrified that he will lose his life, but on the last day before he will be crushed, Lucrezia comes to him and asks for his love, but he again refuses on moral principles. She then condemns him to death, but just moments later, the Duke of Ferrara, learning of her schemes, rescues Otto and instead places Lucrezia in the coffin to die.

Lucrezia Borgia throws herself on her knees before Otto, asking him to help save her brother Caesar.

Lucrezia Borgia throws herself on her knees before Otto, asking him to help save her brother Caesar.

Otto then returns to Faust and brings him the talisman to save his son. Faust’s final day now arrives. Satan comes to claim him. Faust begs and pleads for his life. Satan tells him if he had listened to Otto and prayed, he might have still saved his soul, but now it is too late. They travel to Mt. Vesuvius where Satan pushes Faust into the volcano (which we learned earlier in the novel is one of the entrances to hell.)

The plot is far more complicated than all that. There are evil priests and plenty of court intrigue, and the secret tribunal plays a more prominent role, but those are the main points. Reynolds tries to be historical, setting the novel in the 1490s to early 1500s and provides constant dates to the events. He documents the plague killing people in Vienna and he even has footnotes telling us when he has altered events and dates for his own purposes. The book certainly made me want to learn more about the Borgias—Reynolds goes a bit to extremes with them—Lucrezia does have her famous ring that she poisons people with, but she did not die in an iron coffin but from complications following giving birth.

I do hold Reynolds in high regard as a sensational storyteller, and somehow he manages never to drop his various plots but to bring them all to fulfillment, although some more successfully than others. What I found most interesting, however, is that to the very end, I thought Faust would have his soul saved (even though Reynolds intrudes into the narrative to tell the reader Faust and Otto are opposites to show us the differences between good and evil). Furthermore, all of Faust’s intentions were usually carried out to save the woman he loved or his child. He only turned to the devil when in desperate circumstances, and when he did, the devil always went to extremes to make Faust’s crimes worse. For example, at one point, Faust begs the devil to create some form of distraction to make his son and adopted daughter forget their love for one another. The devil obeys by causing the plague to erupt, which kills countless people. An extreme solution Faust did not want.

Faust’s plummeting into the mouth of Mt. Vesuvius is also fascinating since one of Reynold’s fellow writers of penny dreadfuls, James Malcolm Rymer, depicts Varney the Vampire trying to destroy himself by plummeting into a volcano but the volcano always spits him out, refusing to let him lose his existence. However, Varney the Vampire was written in 1846-7, and Rymer allows Varney to find redemption—in fact, I believe it is the first time a Gothic wanderer figure is allowed to achieve any true redemption, but Reynolds apparently prefers to damn his Gothic wanderer.

In the end, I think Reynolds may well win the prize for creating the most fantastic supernatural fiction that blends history on a wide-scale. Earlier Gothic novelists like Mrs. Radcliffe set their novels in the past but did not use historical events to color the plot. Contemporaries to Reynolds like Eugene Sue also had fantastic plots but did not use historical coloring to such an extent. Ainsworth, in his fabulous The Lancashire Witches (1849), limits himself to one specific historical event, but Reynolds takes readers on a rollercoaster ride across half of Europe and brings in the most notorious historical people of the time—Lucrezia Borgia—despite her already bad reputation—truly comes off as one of the greatest female villains in Gothic fiction. While I liked both of Reynolds’ other two supernatural novels better, Faust shows that Reynolds was always at the forefront of fantastic Gothic romance.

Tiny print aside, Faust brings together the Gothic and historical novel genres in surprising ways that create a true page-turner. Is it great literature? Perhaps not, but it makes clear why Reynolds was the bestselling Victorian novelist, outselling his contemporaries, even Charles Dickens.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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