Tag Archives: Percy Shelley

New Biography Shows Fascinating Parallels between Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

Charlotte Gordon’s new biography, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley provides a fascinating look into the lives of these two remarkable, though often misunderstood and maligned, women who were groundbreaking writers of the Romantic and ultimately the Feminist movements. The book is newly published this year by Random House, and while much of what it contains is the same biographical information provided in other books, Gordon has provided much more powerful connections between this mother and daughter by discussing them both in the same book.

"Romantic Outlaws," a new biography, uses alternating chapters to explore the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and the mother's influence on her daughter.

“Romantic Outlaws,” a new biography, uses alternating chapters to explore the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and the mother’s influence on her daughter.

I decided to read this book because while I have studied and written about Mary Shelley, most notably her novels Frankenstein and The Last Man, and also about her father William Godwin’s novel St. Leon, in my own book The Gothic Wanderer. I have also read Shelley’s other novels—Valperga, Mathilde, Lodore, and Perkin Warbeck (I have yet to read Falkland)—and I wanted a better sense of how her life influenced those novels, especially after finding some comments about how her husband Percy Shelley influenced her depiction of Perkin Warbeck, the pretender to the throne, believed to have been Richard, Duke of York, one of the princes in the tower. I knew a lot about Mary Shelley’s biography but I had never sat down and read a full biography all the way through, and I wanted more insight into her life especially after the well-known years she was married to Percy Shelley, since the bulk of her writing occurred after his death.

So I intended to buy a biography of Mary Shelley, but then I stumbled on this book which also discussed her mother, whom I felt I really didn’t know much about. I knew Wollstonecraft had written some famous treatises and a couple of novels and of her affairs with Gilbert Imlay and Fuseli, but I was intrigued by the idea that she had a huge influence, despite being dead, on Mary Shelley’s life, and I thought it would be interesting to understand that influence better.

Romantic Outlaws is divided into alternating chapters about Wollstonecraft’s life and then Mary Shelley’s life. To some extent, Gordon has done this to tie together similarities and influences from mother to daughter, and that is apparent in a few places, but in others, less so. I have mixed feelings about this structure. Some other reviewers have complained that they had just get interested in one woman when the story flipped to the other woman. That is true, and at times, I got so caught up reading about Mary Shelley that when the chapter changed to be about Mary Wollstonecraft, I momentarily was confused which “Mary” was being referred to, but I quickly realized my mistake. It is possible the book would feel more organized if the book were divided in half, as two books in one, the first about Wollstonecraft, the second about Mary Shelley, but perhaps readers would ignore half then and only read the other half. Gordon made a decision to organize the book in this way, and despite its faults, it does have some advantages and did help to make the influence of Wollstonecraft on her daughter, as well as on Mary’s stepsister and half-sister and Percy Shelley, much more clear. I don’t think I would have ended up understanding Mary Shelley as well without having read so extensively about Wollstonecraft, and I think Gordon really showed that influence in a more complete way than any of the other books I have previously read about Mary Shelley.

I did learn a lot more about Mary Shelley than I knew in terms of her relationships, but I also was disappointed in the later chapters about her. Once Percy Shelley drowns, Gordon quickly wraps up the last half of Shelley’s life in a few chapters, which I wish had been spread out more. For example, she makes one passing reference to Mary Shelley’s friendship with the Carlyles, but I would have liked to know more about that friendship. I was also hoping to learn a little about her friendship with Frances Trollope, mother to the novelist Anthony Trollope and a novelist in her own write, but Frances Trollope is not even mentioned. Perkin Warbeck is only mentioned in passing. There is a little analysis of the other novels, but not what they warrant, especially in the case of The Last Man, which is arguably, Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, although I do appreciate that Gordon refers to it as the single voice of protest against war and manifest destiny in this time period. I suspect part of why these later years are brushed over is because Wollstonecraft’s life did not provide enough detail to provide more alternating chapters to juxtapose with Shelley’s, or maybe Shelley’s life was simply not as fascinating once her husband died, and Gordon was more interested in events than literary analysis. In any case, I was disappointed that I did not get out of this book what I initially wanted.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a novelist with a revolutionary pen who fought for the rights of women and left a tremendous legacy that would ultimately fuel the modern feminist movement.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a novelist with a revolutionary pen who fought for the rights of women and left a tremendous legacy that would ultimately fuel the modern feminist movement.

That said, I got a lot that I did not expect in regards to Mary Shelley. I especially appreciated the discussions of Frankenstein and its composition. Gordon makes clear that while Percy Shelley did do some editing of Frankenstein, it is less than the editing done to many famous books, such as The Great Gatsby, and furthermore, the 1831 edition of Frankenstein was heavily rewritten by Mary Shelley, years after Percy Shelley’s death, and made to be much darker in tone. Charges that Percy Shelley was the genius behind Frankenstein have hopefully now finally been laid to rest. I have always thought it ridiculous he should get so much credit anyway since his own novels, Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, while written before he was twenty, are far inferior to Mary Shelley’s first novel, which she wrote at about the same age. Percy Shelley was no great fiction writer and even his poetry I have usually found tedious with a few exceptions. Furthermore, as Gordon makes clear, Mary grew up in a very literary home and would have inherited her parents’ talent and have developed writing skills early from all the reading she did and her father’s influence. She knew her mother’s writings well and this no doubt developed her literary skills. I suspect had Percy Shelley never entered the picture, she would have been a writer regardless given her family background, and while Gordon doesn’t mention it, Mary’s half-brother, William Godwin, Jr. (another person I wish Gordon had spent more time on) wrote a novel also. They were a literary family, regardless of Percy Shelley being involved with them.

But the most valuable part of this book is the treatment of Mary Wollstonecraft. I grew to have so much respect for her. Yes, perhaps she acted like a stalker in her pursuit of Fuseli, but she also was a true revolutionary, trying to create a new world for women. Whatever faults she had I think we can dismiss as being the result of the confines of her time and the strain she experienced in going against the grain of her society. As Gordon says in the book’s conclusion of both women, “They asserted their right to determine their own destinies, starting a revolution that has yet to end.” I will not go into details here about how they did this, but will instead encourage people to read the book.

Finally, what I found fascinating about Gordon’s book was her treatment of how literary legacies are fought over. She discusses Godwin’s biography of Wollstonecraft, his desire to publish a biography before anyone else, and the harm it did to his wife’s reputation, despite his intending otherwise. Gordon also makes passing reference to how women who might be inspired by Wollstonecraft’s ideas were treated in the literature of the time, notably Harriet Freake in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) and Elinor Joddrel in Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814). That said, both of those characters, while meeting bad ends, have been read by modern literary scholars less as a condemnation of Wollstonecraft’s ideals and more as a subversive statement of how women were treated—a point Gordon overlooks. I wish again that more literary analysis had been included in this case, especially since The Wanderer is a feminist masterpiece in my opinion, as I discuss in more detail in my book The Gothic Wanderer, and I would have liked more comparison between Wollstonecraft and Burney, who was arguably the greatest female novelist of the late eighteenth century and very much a woman who used her novels to champion women, even if in more subtle ways—yet, while Gordon never directly says so, when she cites the female novels of the day that Wollstonecraft disapproved of, it often sounded like she was referring to plots found in Burney’s novels.

Mary Shelley also had to fight to preserve her husband’s literary legacy, and in many ways, she chose to whitewash it to remove the scandal and atheism Percy Shelley was known for. Similarly, Gordon explores how Mary Shelley’s own literary legacy has changed over the years. Ultimately, both of her subjects were rediscovered in the 1970s and today have been given their place in the canon of British literature, a place well-deserved.

Mary Shelley, too often in her husband's shadow, was devoted to preserving and cultivating the Romantic legacy. Today, she is acknowledged as one of the greatest Romantic writers.

Mary Shelley, too often in her husband’s shadow, was devoted to preserving and cultivating the Romantic legacy. Today, she is acknowledged as one of the greatest Romantic writers.

Personally, I found Romantic Outlaws to be a valuable and eye-opening book. It adds to and expands on the conversation about these two fascinating women, and it leaves room for further exploration. I will definitely be reading Wollstonecraft’s novels now, and Romantic Outlaws also made me want to read more of Godwin’s work. In truth, I found the book hard to put down, and while I wish it had even more information about these women, at 547 pages of primary text, it is a good length and reads with excellent pacing. Both informative and entertaining, Romantic Outlaws is literary biography made to read almost like a novel (in a few places early in the book I felt like Gordon bordered on fiction in presenting viewpoints of the subjects in the book, something she’s been charged with in her biography Mistress Bradstreet). My criticisms of this book are minor really when placed aside the tremendous amount of research and the vivacity of the presentation throughout that Gordon has accomplished. I was won over by Gordon’s style, and since I am a fan of Anne Bradstreet (and relative), I will be interested in reading that Gordon biography in the near future. Most importantly, Gordon has achieved what she set out to accomplish—to convince her readers of the powerful voices these two women had and to help us better understand them and their time.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Literary Criticism, Mary Shelley

Best-Selling Victorian Author’s Werewolf Novel Fascinating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Superheroes and the Gothic

“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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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Literary Criticism