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The Last Man: Cousin de Grainville’s Dernier Le Homme and Mary Shelley

In my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, I devoted an entire chapter to Mary Shelley and her place within the Gothic tradition, discussing not just Frankenstein but her third novel The Last Man (1826). The Last Man has become of great interest to critics in the last few decades for its apocalyptic vision of the end of the world. While Shelley had some predecessors in writing about the theme of the end of the world and there being one lone survivor, most of those works were poems, notably, Lord Byron’s “Darkness” (1816), Thomas Campbell’s “The Last Man” (1823), and Thomas Hood’s “The Last Man” (1826). However, one work was a novel, and it was not one I had read previously.

Published in 1805, Grainville’s novel was pirated and published without an author in England in 1806. Mary Shelley may have been inspired by it to write her own novel titled The Last Man

Recently, I reread Shelley’s The Last Man with an online group and became curious about this other novel that may have influenced her. The novel was Jean-Baptiste Francois Xavier Cousin de Grainville’s 1805 French novel Le Dernier Homme. I found a copy published in 2002 by Wesleyan University Press that states it is the “New English Translation.” It is translated by I. F. Clarke and M. Clarke, and it includes an introduction and critical materials by I. F. Clarke.

I purchased this copy on Amazon but did not realize it was a new translation of the novel until I received it. I admit I was disappointed by this because I wanted to read the version Mary Shelley would likely have read, if she did read it. However, after reading the introduction, I was not disappointed because it clarified that what Mary Shelley may have read was not really what Cousin de Grainville wrote, much less what he initially planned to write.

Grainville was born in 1746 of lesser nobility and became a priest in 1766. According to I. F. Clarke, he began writing Le Dernier Homme at age sixteen. Meanwhile, the French Revolution broke out. In 1790, he took an oath to the French Republic, and during the Reign of Terror, he left the priesthood. He would later marry, but his life was not happy; he and his wife were relatively poor, and in 1805, he committed suicide by throwing himself in the Somme Canal at Amiens at 2 a.m. If Grainville had no influence on Mary Shelley, it is clear that both of them had difficult lives and may have written their novels out of despair and grief. Shelley wrote her novel in the years immediately after her husband Percy Shelley drowned in 1823 and her friend Lord Byron died in 1824, making her feel like “The Last Man.”

Grainville’s manuscript was published after his death, but it was still not complete. While the text is a complete long piece of fiction, Grainville divided the book not into chapters but ten cantos. His intention was to use the prose he had written as a rough draft to be the structure for an epic poem, the first canto of which he had begun to turn into verse. Instead, the book was published as a novel in France in 1805. It caused no stir, and according to the preface to the second edition of 1811, it did not sell well. Clarke says it sold forty copies. However, it gained the interest of someone who wanted to translate it into English. In 1806, Grainville’s novel was published as The Last Man, or Omegarus and Syderia, a Romance in Futurity in England. No author’s name appeared on the title page. According to Clarke, the translation shows that it was translated into English by someone whose first language was not English. Who the translator was remains unknown. Even if not English, the translator did know enough about English readers that they would not like certain passages in the novel that glorified France and belittled England. Remember, the novel was written during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. In one passage, we are told that in the future world Grainville depicts, England has sunk into the ocean. In another passage, the main character, Omegarus, is said to be descended from Napoleon and he is also of French royal lineage—a sign of the French thinking themselves superior since Omegarus is believed to be a messiah figure in the novel. These passages were removed from the English translation, and many other similar changes were made. The result was what appeared to English readers as an anonymous novel written by an Englishman.

So what Mary Shelley may have read had no taint of French to it. Le Dernier Homme is a very religious novel and one written by a Catholic priest, but Shelley, who would have been more attune to Protestant thinking and was perhaps an atheist, and whose own novel is often described as existential, would not have known any of these details, though doubtless she could not ignore the novel’s biblical and religious elements.

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man was inspired by her grief over the deaths of her husband Percy and close friend Lord Byron

What is religious about Le Dernier Homme is obviously influenced by the Bible, specifically the book of Revelation, but as Clarke points out, Paradise Lost must have also been an influence, especially Milton’s scene of Adam seeing the future of mankind since in Le Dernier Homme, Adam is a character who gets to visit his descendants Omegarus and Syderia, the last of the human race. Omegarus also at one point gets to see the future of the human race if he and Syderia should have children. Shelley no doubt would have picked up on these parallels to Paradise Lost since she herself was influenced by Milton’s masterpiece in writing Frankenstein.

Although I wish I had read the original pirated English edition of the novel because it would have been a more accurate way to determine any influence of Grainville’s book on Shelley, I think it’s fair to say that if the novel had any influence on Shelley, it was simply the theme of the end of the world and the Last Man that influenced her and nothing more specific. Clarke, in his introduction, says the novel did not influence Shelley’s work and that the similarities are coincidences. The only real similarities are, as Clarke notes, that both novels begin with a cave where an unnamed narrator enters and information is given about the future. Shelley’s narrator and her companion enter the Sibyl’s cave and find sibylline leaves scattered about the cave with writing on them—they piece together these fragments to create the narrative of her novel. Grainville’s narrator instead meets a Celestial Spirit in a cave who then shows him the story through an enchanted mirror. There isn’t anything else in the two novels that is similar other than a few passages where people see what appear to be multiple suns in the sky—Shelley doesn’t explain this phenomenon while Grainville explains that a volcano has erupted on the moon, causing it to look like another red sun from the lava.

Are those similarities or coincidences? Did Shelley read Grainville or not? We can’t say for sure. I think it likely, but if she used the novel as inspiration, it did not in any way limit her imagination from creating her own world. They are very different novels, Shelley’s novel shies away from religion except in the case of depicting one religious fanatic, while Grainville’s novel is filled with biblical imagery. The two novels are so different it is hard to say which is superior. For those interested in more information on Shelley’s novel, I invite them to read the novel and my chapter on it in my book The Gothic Wanderer. For those who want a plot summary of Grainville’s novel, I provide it below but also invite people to read it for themselves. Both novels have been discussed as early forms of science fiction, but there is nothing in terms of technology used in them—the authors could not foresee the technological world or even the advances to items like trains just decades away. The characters travel in balloons, although Grainville calls them “airships.” What makes the novels early forms of science fiction are simply their depiction of the future.

More importantly, both novels, though two centuries old, are still relevant to us today. Shelley’s world is destroyed through plague, which critics have likened to AIDS and other health crises we have faced in recent years. Grainville’s novel has more of an environmental message where the people have gone to live in cities and forsaken cultivating the earth so that plants no longer grow or are able to sustain people, and people themselves have become infertile. (Infertility is, notably, also a theme in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel written in 1985 and now a Hulu Original Series in 2017.) Both novels depict a pessimistic future, one that was not really imagined until the aftermath of World War II when it became apparent that mankind can destroy itself through nuclear weapons—a threat that has only become scarier as the years have passed. As we live today amid fears of overpopulation, global warming, and increased violence, we can look back and see just how insightful and prophetic both Shelley and Grainville were. In fact, just recently, Stephen Hawking has come out to say the earth can only sustain us for 100 more years. It is not far-fetched to think that one day one of our grandchildren’s grandchildren could be the last man or last woman.

In their day, Shelley and Grainville’s novels might have been dismissed as the works of people filled with depression, grief, perhaps even madness to the point where both were likely suicidal and one did commit suicide. But perhaps we can also see both authors as realists in their view of the future, even if not all of us would subscribe to Grainville’s Christian viewpoint or Shelley’s more atheistic one.

Today’s apocalyptic, end-of-the-world stories tend to be far less religious, and human fate tends to remain in human hands rather than in God’s. For example, in Robert O’Brien’s novel Z Is for Zachariah (1974), made into a film in 2015, the human race also gets wiped out save for a young woman and a man. When the man tries to rape the woman, she chooses to abandon him. In this case, it is not God who decides the human race cannot continue, but the modern-day Eve figure. She refuses to let a man have power over her. In a sense, this is coming full circle with ancient traditions and the tale of Lilith, believed in Jewish tradition to be Adam’s first wife who was rejected because she refused to let him be dominant over her.

In any case, Grainville and Shelley’s apocalyptic visions still resonate with us today. Perhaps they are prophets of a future we have yet to face.

 

Plot Summary with Some Commentary on Le Dernier Homme

Book I: Canto I

The story begins with a cave near the ruins of Palmyra (in Syria). This reminds me of Shelley’s Sibyl’s cave. However, what is in the cave is not fragments of a story (Sibylline leaves) but much more. An unnamed narrator visits the cave and is summoned in by an old man who says this is a cave of death that cannot be disturbed. Those who disturb it are punished, but the unnamed narrator won’t be because he was summoned into it. The old man is able to communicate with the narrator by thought. He explains he is the Celestial Spirit. In the cave, the narrator also sees Time personified and bound. The Celestial Spirit tells the narrator that he knows all the future and the past and it’s his purpose to share with him the story of the end of the world and the Last Man. The narrator then watches the events of the end of the world through an enchanted mirror (the only real element of sci-fi technology in the novel, though Grainville would have likely called it magic). This unnamed narrator is similar to St. John, who witnesses the end of the world in the Book of Revelation. Grainville also draws upon “Dies Irae,” a hymn in Latin meaning “Day of Wrath” that was once sung at all Masses for the dead. The translation that Clarke provides of Dies Irae is by Macaulay and includes “This vain world shall pass away/Thus the sibyl sang of old.” This line is not in the novel, but the sibyl reference reminds one of Mary Shelley’s sibyl’s cave.

In the enchanted mirror, the narrator sees Adam, the first man, who has been banished to an island where he is punished and suffering until the end of the world—this depiction is odd because this book is being written by a Catholic priest, and the medieval Catholic tradition is that when Christ died, he descended into hell and freed all the dead from sin—in medieval art, Christ is frequently portrayed as taking Adam by the hand and leading him out of hell with the rest of the human race following. However, Grainville decides to ignore this tradition. Instead, he subscribes to the idea that when people die, they remain dead until the Day of Judgment when they will come back to life (as is depicted at the end of the novel). Adam is an exception—rather than dying (although the Bible says he died), he has been kept alive until the end of the world.

The Harrowing of Hell was a popular medieval theme. Here it is depicted by Fra Angelico. The premise is that when Christ died, he descended into hell and freed the human race. He takes Adam by the hand and behind Adam the rest of the human race follows so they can be freed from sin and enter heaven. Grainville’s novel, however, believes all humans remained dead and in the grave until judgment day.

The angel Ithuriel appears to Adam and tells him he must go to the last humans, without revealing his identity, and in time, his purpose in doing so will become known. The success of Adam’s mission will determine whether his suffering will come to an end. Adam is then transported to where he is found by Omegarus and Syderia, the last couple likely to produce a child. (A few other humans are still alive, but Omegarus and Syderia are the only fertile ones—this is Grainville’s reversing of Paradise Lost, focusing on the last rather than the first couple.) Omegarus and Syderia have spent the night in fear, having seen various spirits and feeling the end of the world is approaching. Adam tells them he is there to comfort them and asks to hear their story.

 

Book I: Canto II

Omegarus begins to tell Adam his life story. He is descended from royalty, kings who once ruled both hemispheres—later it is clear he is descended from French royalty. (This detail is similar to Shelley’s Adrian being the last of English royalty.) Omegarus is something of a wonder child because most people on earth are now sterile and he is the first child born in Europe in many years. Omegarus grows up being the only child in Europe, and eventually, his parents die while he is yet a teenager. As a young man, Omegarus meets a man consumed by flame who tells him not to try to help him, but that the flame is his natural element. This man tells him the world is going to come to an end soon. This man is the Guardian or Spirit of the Earth, appointed by God, so he has knowledge that the day of destruction is near. The spirit tells him he must go to the city where the maid was burnt in France (Rouen and St. Joan of Arc) and there meet Idamas who will help him so he can go to Brazil to find the only woman still fertile who can help him repopulate the earth.

As Omegarus travels to Rouen, he is greeted by other humans who witnessed his birth; they now proclaim him as a prophesied messiah figure who will restore the earth to health and allow mankind to breed and multiply again. Once Omegarus meets Idamas, he is told they will travel to Brazil in an airship (a hot air balloon).

 

Book I: Canto III

Omegarus, Idamas, and a few others take off in the airship. They fly past England, which is sunk into the sea. (The endnote in the Clarke edition suggests this was to please the French readers since England was the enemy and it was the time of the Napoleonic wars.) As they travel, Idamas tells Omegarus the recent history of the world. Not long ago, mankind had reached the peak of evolution and had been experiencing its golden age. Then one man discovered the secret to life extension. He was going to gift it to humanity but then he realized it would result in overpopulation if people did not die, so he captured it in a flame/vial and placed it in a temple on the Fortunate Isles. The flame was then only to be gifted to the very talented who dedicated their lives to humanity. The entire world population would have to vote to allow someone to receive it.

Then a horrible event happened—a second red sun appeared in the sky, which turned out to be the moon rising. A volcano had erupted on the moon, making it red, and soon the moon was completely destroyed and fell from the sky. This destruction affected vegetation on earth, causing scarcity of food, and made people become violent and warlike. This even led to airship wars—people fighting each other in hot air balloons with knives.

The earth was now overpopulated. However, a scientist named Ormus solved this problem by suggesting the land beneath the rivers was fertile so they should divert the rivers and farm in the riverbeds. This worked, so Ormus suggested they do the same thing with the oceans, but it was decided to be unnecessary because people were becoming sterile, which made the overpopulation and food scarcity issues less severe.

Next, the sun began to die. The northern climates became too cold to live in so people fled to warmer lands, resulting in Brazil becoming a major population center. Idamas concludes his history at this point as the airship lands in Brazil.

 

Book I: Canto IV

Upon arrival in Brazil, Omegarus and his companions are told they have to leave or die because there is not enough food there for them. However, after they explain their mission to the king, including that Omegarus brings hope because he has been prophesied to restore the human race, they are welcomed. A sort of beauty contest is then held to find the right maid for Omegarus. There are many signs during the time leading up to the contest of whom the right maiden will be. Nature personified appears and shows Omegarus what his bride will look like. Meanwhile, Syderia, who will be chosen, is having visions of a man whom she later realizes is Omegarus. Eventually, it’s determined that Syderia is to be the bride for Omegarus. We learn that Omegarus’ father is the king or chief of a native tribe in Brazil—they are the last people to have quit living an agrarian and natural food lifestyle, and hence, Syderia is still fertile. To celebrate the fertility, the humans dig and plant seeds into the earth, something that their civilized recent ancestors scorned to do, which caused the earth to cease to be fertile.

 

Book I: Canto V

Idamas now wants Ormus, the river converter, to come and bless Omegarus and Syderia’s marriage. Ormus is found, but he is resistant. He also has the gift of prophecy and says God is not in favor of the marriage so if it happens, it will only be a way to try to stop the prophecy of the earth’s destruction, which will actually further it because mankind cannot be saved. Nevertheless, Ormus comes to the ceremony. During it, he claims to speak to God and prophesies destruction (though no one else hears God’s voice). Ormus says that as proof of the prophecy he’s hearing, he will die, which he then does.

The fifth canto ends with the Brazilians demanding that Omegarus and his French companions depart before more doom is brought upon them.

 

Book II: Canto 6

Omegarus and the French prepare to leave Brazil, but they decide to bring Syderia with them. She loves Omegarus so she departs to France with him, but at the same time, she is worried that she is defying God by being with him so she won’t consummate the marriage. After they leave Brazil, Syderia’s father appears to her in a dream, saying he died of grief after she left, but he now knows as a spirit that God is in favor of their union. As a result, Syderia gives in to Omegarus’ advances, they have sex, and she becomes pregnant.

 

Book II: Canto 7

Adam, who is listening to Omegarus recite his tale, now has God appear to him and tell him that he is against the union of Omegarus and Syderia. Adam then explains to Omegarus that God is indeed against the union and, furthermore, the child conceived, if born, will murder its parents, and that will be the least of its acts. It will father an evil race as well. (I was struck by this because it made me wonder whether Shelley was inspired by this novel in writing Frankenstein as well—after all, the monster is Victor Frankenstein’s son, and it seeks to murder him and does murder Victor’s wife.) Omegarus is defiant, refusing to believe what Adam says and refusing to obey God until Adam finally reveals to Omegarus that he is Adam, the father of mankind. He then explains to Omegarus that all the prophecies in favor of his and Syderia’s union have been the deceitful work of the Spirit of the Earth who first sent Omegarus on his journey and told him he was to father a new race of men. As the earth’s guardian, the Spirit will cease to exist if mankind dies out and the earth is destroyed, so he is lying to preserve his own life. In this sense, the Spirit is like Satan, a deceitful transgressor against God’s will.

Omegarus still refuses to separate from Syderia, but Adam continues to try to convince him. Adam says that if he can prevent the birth of this evil race that will spring from Omegarus and Syderia’s union, then he will be able to wipe away his sin. (In other words, Adam has as much of an agenda as the Spirit of the Earth.) At first, in reading this section, I thought Adam was advocating that Omegarus and Syderia commit suicide, but instead, it turns out that if Omegarus will just separate from Syderia, that will be enough for God to realize they are obeying him, and then he will destroy the earth and the human race so that all the humans of the past can rise from the dead to have eternal life.

Omegarus finally agrees to separate from Syderia, though he feels great guilt. He almost returns to her, then instead writes on a stone, “Omegarus is not guilty” hoping Syderia will see it and understand.

This canto is disturbing in its Christian message. Even Omegarus wonders how a beneficent God can be so cruel. However, Adam says that once Omegarus dies, the souls of men will praise him for they will have eternal life.

 

Book II: Canto 8

Now that Omegarus has separated himself from Syderia, God is ready to fulfill his plan to destroy the earth. Comets strike. The earth begins to erupt. The bones and ashes of the dead rise up from the earth, which causes mountains to fall and the earth’s landscape to alter. Omegarus finds shelter in a house where he finds the bodies of an old couple, Tibes and his wife. He sees the aged bodies become youthful. God has restored them to life but their shades have not yet returned to them. Omegarus feels grateful that their souls and those of all humanity will now be freed.

 

The Last Man, a 1849 painting by John Martin. The painting does not depict a scene from either Shelley or Grainville’s novels but just the popular theme. That said, notice the red sun/moon in the darkness.

Book II: Canto 9

Syderia wonders why Omegarus hasn’t returned. She finds the stone on which he wrote “Omegarus is not guilty” and realizes he has deserted her. She feels, however, that he is guilty; then she feels bad to think he is guilty. She is in misery and then in shock as she sees the earth throwing up stones as the dead are raised from the earth. She becomes wounded and miserable. She finally sees Omegarus again and he looks radiant and tells her it’s a happy day, but she is then separated again from him.

 

Book II: Canto 10

The Spirit of Earth, determined still to live, makes a bargain with Death not to kill Syderia because then both will be able to live if the human race continues. Death promises not to kill her so long as the flame of love is in her heart. Of course, Syderia’s love eventually dies and Death does kill her. He then kills the Spirit of the Earth. Eternity then dawns. Meanwhile, the human race enters eternal life, praising Omegarus as its savior.

The End

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Mary Shelley, The Gothic and the Bible

“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!

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

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Lady Caroline Lamb’s “Glenarvon” and the Byronic Vampire

The following article is an excerpt from my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption:

Lady Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon (1816) is the first novel to make notable use of the vampire figure. The novel contains no actual vampire characters but suggests that its title character has vampiric characteristics. Glenarvon is usually passingly referred to as a source for Polidori’s The Vampyre, considered to be the first vampire tale in English prose fiction, but its own rich use of the vampire metaphor and the novel’s overall position within the Gothic wanderer tradition make Glenarvon a work that deserves more attention than it has hitherto received. While the work is poorly written and the plot is confusing, Lamb provides a remarkable treatment of the Gothic by blending the supernatural with the realistic. The novel never explicitly creates supernatural events until the final dramatic chapter, but it continually suggests how the supernatural is born of the psychological terror an individual experiences as the result of transgression and guilt. The novel focuses upon two distinctive Gothic wanderers: Glenarvon, who is based on Lord Byron, and the female heroine, Calantha, based upon Caroline Lamb. Glenarvon and Calantha’s romantic relationship is consequently Lamb’s rewriting of her tumultuous affair with Lord Byron. Lamb wrote the novel to avenge herself against Lord Byron for abandoning her. She depicts Glenarvon as a type of vampire damned beyond hope while Calantha is redeemed and forgiven her transgressions. Calantha’s redemption is surprising in a pre-Victorian novel, making the novel a notable exception in the early Gothic wanderer tradition; Calantha’s redemption results from Lamb’s identification with the heroine and a desire to vindicate herself from any wrong. Consequently, Lamb creates a remarkable double standard for the Gothic wanderer by allowing the female wanderer to be redeemed while the male wanderer must face damnation. The use of the vampire metaphor for Glenarvon furthers the legitimacy of his damnation while preparing the way for the vampire’s popularity throughout nineteenth century Gothic fiction.

Lady Caroline Lamb, author of Glenarvon

Lady Caroline Lamb, author of Glenarvon

From his first appearance in the novel, Glenarvon is considered a dangerous man and is described in terms suggestive of supernatural Gothic wanderers, particularly that of Satan, the Wandering Jew, and the vampire. Calantha first sees Glenarvon in the moonlight, making her feel she is in the presence of a “fallen angel” (121). She is told of Glenarvon’s melancholy and depressed state and that “it would surprise you how he howls and barks, whenever the moon shines bright” (122). The howling at the moon is suggestive of a werewolf to modern readers, but more specifically it relates Glenarvon to the vampire who is traditionally restrengthened by moonlight, only implied here in Glenarvon but expanded upon in later vampire tales. Calantha also learns that Glenarvon’s ancestor, John de Ruthven “drank hot blood from the skull of his enemy” (123), suggestive that Glenarvon’s vampiric characteristics are inherited. Lamb bases this anecdote on the actual occurrence of Lord Byron drinking wine from a skull in Newstead Abbey (Wilson, “Notes” 371). Glenarvon’s vampirism is also implied in rumors of his death, and in the novel’s description of how he keeps nocturnal hours.

“Glenarvon wandered forth every evening by the pale moon, and no one knew whither he went….And when the rain fell heavy and chill, he would bare his forehead to the storm; and faint and weary wander forth, and often he smiled on others and appeared calm, whilst the burning fever of his blood continued to rage within.” (178)

Like the vampire, Glenarvon is a nocturnal wanderer, and like Milton’s Satan, who feels Hell within, Glenarvon feels the “burning fever of his blood…rage within” (178). Glenarvon’s preference for the fiercest of nature’s elements is self-destructive and recalls the Wandering Jew who seeks death but is unable to achieve it. Furthermore, like the Jew, Glenarvon appears to realize that he is cursed so neither man nor Nature can harm him.

“That which was disgusting or terrific to man’s nature, had no power over Glenarvon. He had looked upon the dying and the dead; had seen the tear of agony without emotion; had heard the shriek of despair, and felt the hot blood as it flowed from the heart of a murdered enemy, nor turned from the sickening sight—Even storms of nature could not move Glenarvon. In the dark night, when the tempest raged around and the stormy ocean beat against the high impending cliffs, he would venture forth, would listen to the roaring thunder without fear, and watch the forked lightning as it flashed along the sky.” (141-2)

While Glenarvon is not actually supernatural, such descriptions suggest that he, and by extension, Lord Byron, are unnatural in their actions.

An edition of Glenarvon with a portrait of Lord Byron on the cover

An edition of Glenarvon with a portrait of Lord Byron on the cover

The most supernatural aspect of Glenarvon’s nature is his metaphorical vampiric ability to drain life from his female victims. While he does not literally drink his victims’ blood, he nevertheless drains energy from them, as Byron drained the women he loved and then abandoned them. As Glenarvon and Calantha’s relationship progresses, he becomes stronger and more dominant, while she becomes physically and emotionally weak and subservient. Frances Wilson remarks that Glenarvon seems to be draining “the living daylights out of her in order to maintain his own nocturnal existence” (Introduction xx). Glenarvon is not completely monstrous, however, for he warns Calantha of the dangers of loving him, saying “My love is death” (229). He states he is concerned about her fate, while he is “indifferent” (229) regarding his own. Calantha remains constant in her love for Glenarvon, although his warning makes her fear the future. Her friend, Gondimar, warns her to “look to his [Glenarvon’s] hand, there is blood on it!” (203), suggesting that, like the Wandering Jew, Glenarvon is marked with a curse. Following this warning, Calantha dreams of a monk, who like an Inquisitor, questions and warns her about Glenarvon. The monk tells her she must ask to see Glenarvon’s right hand because “there is a stain of blood on it” but “he [Glenarvon] will not give it you; there is a mark upon it: he dare not give it you” (204). When Calantha relates this dream to Glenarvon, he gives her a “demoniac smile” (204), and holds forth an unblemished hand. Nevertheless, Calantha feels frightened for, “His eyes glared upon her with fierce malignity; his livid cheeks became pale; and over his forehead, an air of deep distress struggled with the violence of passion, till all again was calm, cold, and solemn as before” (204). Glenarvon’s metaphorically marked hand and the fierce glare of his eyes are both trademarks of the Wandering Jew, while his paleness again suggests his vampiric nature. Calantha is stunned by his emotional behavior, but she is also irresistibly fascinated by him. In another of Calantha’s dreams, Glenarvon appears “pale, deadly, and cold: his hand was ice, and as he placed it upon hers, she shrunk from the grasp of death, and awoke oppressed with terror” (172). Nevertheless, she allows him to manipulate her, feeling sympathy for him when he tells her there is a “horrid secret, which weighed upon his mind” (175). Calantha’s concern for Glenarvon makes her think the guilt from this secret has driven him mad.

“He would start at times, and gaze on vacancy; then turn to Calantha, and ask her what she had heard and seen. His gestures, his menaces were terrific. He would talk to the air; then laugh with convulsive horror; and gazing wildly around, enquire of her, if there were not blood upon the earth, and if the ghosts of departed men had not been seen by some.” (175-6)

Despite Glenarvon’s strange behavior, Calantha continues to love and befriend him even when she feels her love places her on the border of sin. Like Melmoth the Wanderer, Glenarvon seeks a mate to lighten his curse, yet he regrets the afflictions she will receive by sharing his fate. He warns Calantha that he is the Hell she should shun because her association with him will forbid her entering Heaven, but she replies that the hopes and promises of religion and virtue are nothing to her without him (202).

Although Calantha is married, Glenarvon then convinces her to swear an oath of love to him, an oath that will bind their souls together as Christians are bound by their marriage vows. At first, Calantha’s inner soul revolts, but then she agrees, feeling one hour with Glenarvon is worth all calamities. She tells Glenarvon she will take the oath because his “words are like the joys of Heaven: Thy presence is the light of life” (218). Calantha has spoken blasphemy, making Glenarvon the light of life, thus comparing him to Lucifer before the fall, and setting him up as a type of Antichrist. She has committed a transgression against God by taking a sacrilegious oath that violates her marriage vow. She has also transgressed against the family by committing adultery. Now she has committed further sin by declaring Glenarvon is “the light of life” as if he were God, thus making her an idolater. Although she feels the impiety of her words, Calantha tells Glenarvon that their souls are now linked and he is her only master (220-1).

The impious marriage ceremony occurs during the moon’s half crescent, suggestive of Satan’s horns. The moon is also commonly depicted in vampire fiction as providing a source of life for vampires. During the ceremony, the moon casts fearful shadows (219-20), providing an ill omen for the couple’s future. Glenarvon gives Calantha a ring, saying that if there is a God, He will be the witness to the marriage vows. Calantha’s forehead begins to burn, suggestive of the guilt she feels, as if by the marriage ceremony she has a cursed mark on her forehead like that of the Wandering Jew. This burning suggests her connection now to Glenarvon, because on “his pale forehead…the light of the moonbeam fell” (220), suggesting he is himself cursed.

Once Calantha is damned with Glenarvon, the Narrator explains the moral of the tale, foreshadowing the novel’s denouement.

“When man, reposing upon himself, disdains the humility of acknowledging his offences and his weakness before his Creator, on the sudden that angry God sees fit to punish him in his wrath, and he who has appeared invulnerable till that hour, falls prostrate at once before the blow: perhaps then, for the first time, he relents; and, whilst he sinks himself, feels for the sinner whom, in the pride and presumption of his happier day, he had mocked at and despised. There are trials, which human frailty cannot resist—there are passions implanted in the heart’s core, which reason cannot subdue; and God himself compassionates, when a fellow-creature refuses to extend to us his mercy or forgiveness.” (253)

The moral is that no one is beyond salvation if he or she asks for forgiveness, for God is merciful even when humanity is not. This philosophy, however, Lamb only applies to Calantha while Glenarvon is condemned to damnation because Lamb chooses to depict him as unwilling to repent.

Soon after the sacrilegious marriage ceremony, Glenarvon abandons Calantha, leaving her heartbroken. Similarly, Lamb felt destitute when Byron deserted her, so she depicts Byron metaphorically as a vampire who leaves women feeling lifeless and longing for death after he deserts them (Wilson, Introduction xx). Calantha now repents for her transgressions committed with Glenarvon. She becomes ill and dies, but first she gains her husband’s forgiveness, and she feels that God has forgiven her for her sins.

After Calantha’s death, Glenarvon has a vision of her as an angel surrounded by celestial light. She tells him to live and be his nation’s pride, but when he asks whether she is happy or she still loves him, she becomes pale and ghastly and fades from sight (362-3). Glenarvon’s dream occurs on the eve of a battle for Irish freedom, equating it with typical dreams of ill omen that legendary heroes experience before their defeat and death in battle.

Glenarvon distinguishes himself in the following battle, but becomes ill immediately after. He now has a horrendous vision, which provides the climactic and powerful supernatural ending of the novel.

“‘Visions of death and horror persecute me,’ cried Glenarvon. ‘What now do I behold—a ship astern!….Is it that famed Dutch merchantman, condemned through all eternity to sail before the wind, which seamen view with terror, whose existence until this hour I discredited?’” (364-5)

The legendary Flying Dutchman

The legendary Flying Dutchman

Glenarvon has seen the legendary Flying Dutchman, a ship composed of murderous sailors, who are forced for all eternity to sail the seas, much as the Wandering Jew is continually forced to wander the earth until Judgment Day. The scene is also suggestive of the Ancient Mariner who travels aimlessly about the sea as punishment for his transgression of killing the albatross. Glenarvon sees spectral images on the vessel, including a friar who drowns a woman who loves him. Following this deed,

“the monk drew slowly from his bosom the black covering that enshrouded his form. Horrible to behold!—that bosom was gored with deadly wounds, and the black spouting streams of blood, fresh from the heart, uncoloured by the air, gushed into the wave. ‘Cursed be the murderer in his last hour!—Hell waits its victim.’….Well was it understood by Glenarvon.” (365)

Glenarvon orders his men to follow the phantom ship and they travel from coast to coast after it until Glenarvon, now mad, jumps into the sea. He feels himself sinking into darkness, even when his companions rescue him. Oblivious to those around him, Glenarvon hears a voice condemn him, “you did not bow the knee for mercy whilst time was given you: now mercy shall not be shown” (366) and Glenarvon is condemned to the lowest pits. The novel concludes with the statement, “God is just; and the spirit of evil infatuates before he destroys” (366). This stunning conclusion declares there is no redemption for the Gothic wanderer who shows no mercy to his victims and who does not repent until the last hour. Unlike Calantha, Glenarvon completely fails to gain the reader’s sympathy. His failure to repent makes him more typical of the Byronic hero who celebrates his rebellion and transgression than was Byron’s own depiction of a vampire in The Giaour.

Glenarvon’s condemnation is dramatic and stunning even beside the many other Gothic novels of the period. Lamb felt the novel tended to be too intense, so she made several major revisions in the second edition. Despite her obvious disgust with Lord Byron, Lamb toned down the characterization of Glenarvon as satanic (Clubbe 210), and she made Calantha and Glenarvon’s relationship intimate, but not suggestively sexual as in the first edition (Clubbe 211). Most strikingly, the second edition is more respectful of religion, all references to “God” being either omitted or replaced by “Father” (Clubbe 212). Lamb also surprisingly predates other Gothic novelists in her use of Catholicism, when its adherents were still politically oppressed and the Gothic continually depicted the Catholic Church as corrupt. In the second edition, Calantha converts to Catholicism before her death, which Lamb felt was explainable by the novel’s being set in Catholic Ireland (Wilson, Introduction xxiv). Lamb also adds a paragraph full of pious morality to describe how God forgives Calantha upon her death (Clubbe 212).

Glenarvon’s importance in the Gothic tradition and its influence upon the vampire figure cannot be overestimated. While Glenarvon is not a vampire, his vampiric characteristics would influence John Polidori, whose famous story would make the vampire a popular figure in English fiction. Glenarvon was also the first novel to redeem a transgressive Gothic wanderer figure, two decades before the Victorian period when such redemptions became common. Notably, the redeemed wanderer is a female, thus linking Calantha to the feminine Gothic tradition that seeks to vindicate Eve, and by extension all women, from being transgressors. Lamb’s use of Catholicism in the second edition as a means to redemption may have influenced Dracula’s use of Catholic religious objects to destroy Dracula, thus vindicating Catholicism from its derogatory image in earlier Gothic novels. Lamb’s depiction of a Gothic wanderer as redeemable would allow the vampire to become the most popular Gothic wanderer figure used by novelists to explore the psychological transformation of a person who passes from transgression to redemption as best demonstrated in the later works, Varney the Vampyre and Dracula.

Glenarvon was largely condemned by the critics, but notably, two Gothic novelists appreciated it. The painter, Northcote, recommended the novel to William Godwin as being a work of great talent. Because Godwin later became good friends with Lamb, he must have agreed (Wilson, “Lamb” 377). Edward Bulwer-Lytton remarked that when he was a schoolboy, Glenarvon:

“made a deeper impression than any romance I remember, and, had its literary execution equalled the intense imagination which conceived it, I believe it would have ranked among the few fictions which produce a permanent effect upon youth in every period of the world” (Wilson, “Caroline” 377).

The novel made such an intense impression upon Bulwer-Lytton because he admired Byron and in youth wished to model his life after him. Later when Bulwer-Lytton met Lamb in 1824, the novel contributed to his infatuation with her, and he hoped he could replace Lord Byron in her affections, although she was clearly not interested in such a relationship (Campbell 5-6). Lord Byron’s reaction is perhaps the most interesting though predictable. In a verse he wrote, he stated, “I read Glenarvon, too, by Caro Lamb— / God damn!” (Maurois 353). He further remarked that if Lamb had written the truth, the book would have been far better, and “As for the likeness, the picture can’t be good—I did not sit long enough” (Maurois 353).

Brocket Hall, said to be haunted today by Lady Caroline Lamb

Brocket Hall, said to be haunted today by Lady Caroline Lamb

While Glenarvon was the first novel to redeem the Gothic wanderer, the redemption of Lord Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb is more questionable. The novel ironically foreshadows in Glenarvon’s death while fighting for Irish independence, Byron’s own death in 1824, during which time he was assisting in the Greek cause for independence, and died in Greece from an illness. Lamb’s own dramatic and often immoral life appears to have prevented her soul from achieving rest. Today, Lamb’s former home of Brocket Hall is said to be haunted by her ghost, which walks the halls and can be heard playing the piano (Bextor). Perhaps Lamb’s decision to damn Glenarvon/Byron resulted in her own soul’s damnation and eternal wandering.

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Lord Byron Memorabilia and the Gothic Tradition

Recently, a copy of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was discovered and is expected to sell for 400,000 pounds at auction. And it wasn’t just any copy of Frankenstein; it was the copy Mary Shelley had autographed specifically for her good friend Lord Byron. You can read more about the sale at http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/09/06/lord-byron-frankenstein-mary-shelley_n_1860447.html

Tyler at Knebworth House in 2000.

As has been told thousands of times, Frankenstein was first conceived during a holiday in 1816 when Lord Byron, his physician John Polidori, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley all gathered together to tell ghost stories. From that evening Polidori’s The Vampyre was conceived—the first vampire story in English—and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Consequently, Byron was present at the origins of Frankenstein.

What I wouldn’t give to have Byron’s copy of Frankenstein, but alas, I don’t have 400,000 pounds. But the auction sale reminded me of one of my favorite literary experiences I had in the summer of 2000 when I attended the first Edward Bulwer-Lytton conference at the University of London in England. There I presented a paper about the influences of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Zanoni (1842) on Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859), a paper that later formed the basis for a chapter in my new book The Gothic Wanderer. But for me, the highlight of the conference was when Lord Cobbold, descendant of Bulwer-Lytton, had us all for dinner and a play at Knebworth House, the fabulous Victorian Gothic home built by Bulwer-Lytton.

Knebworth House and Gardens

Bulwer-Lytton fancied himself as a Lord Byron type, having come of age while Byron’s poetry was all the rage. Bulwer-Lytton was born in 1803 while Lord Byron died in 1824. Not far from Knebworth House was the home of Lady Caroline Lamb, Lord Byron’s former mistress, who had committed adultery with him, despite her marriage to Viscount Melbourne, later Prime Minister of England. By the time Bulwer-Lytton knew Lamb, she was middle-aged, but he was a young man who fancied she might take an interest in him, although eighteen years his senior.

As far as we know, his attraction to her—perhaps more from her former relationship with Lord Byron than her own beauty—never amounted to anything, but because of his interests in Lord Byron, she gave him Lord Byron’s ruler which she had in her possession as well as a copy of Glenarvon, a fabulous Gothic novel she wrote in 1816, a thinly disguised portrait of her relationship with Lord Byron, in which she depicts him as having similarities to a vampire. The main character, Callantha, commits adultery with the title character Glenarvon, a relationship that is akin to achieving damnation, but in the end, they separate and Callantha finds redemption while Glenarvon is tormented at sea, seeing the Flying Dutchman, the haunted ship manned by sailors who can never rest and which would later be developed more fully in Captain Marryat’s novel The Phantom Ship (1839). While Glenarvon is not the best written novel, it’s a fascinating one, full of Gothic elements, and interesting as a portrait of Lord Byron. Byron was himself not impressed by the book, remarking upon it, “I read Glenarvon too by Caro Lamb….God damn!”

You can well imagine how exciting it was for me to visit Knebworth House and especially when Lord Cobbold gave us a tour, showed us Lord Byron’s ruler, and then unlocked the glass cabinet, and unbelievably, passed around the copy of Glenarvonthat Lady Caroline Lamb had given to Edward Bulwer-Lytton! For just a moment, I got to hold it in my hands and feel connected to those far away great Gothic authors of the past. Now if I only had 400,000 pounds.

Gargoyles on one of Knebworth House’s many towers.

For more information on Gothic literature, Lamb, Bulwer-Lytton, Shelley, and Byron, check out my new book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, Gothic Fiction 1794-present available at www.GothicWanderer.com. and if you’d like to visit Knebworth House, well worth the visit, and a house that has been featured in many films, you can learn more at: http://www.knebworthhouse.com/

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