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Gothic Existentialism in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris

Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), better known to English readers as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, due to the title chosen by Frederic Shoberl for his 1833 translation of the novel into English, is a curious book that can’t quite decide if it’s a novel, an exposé on fifteenth-century Paris, or a treatise on medieval architecture. For the modern reader, the result is impatience, some boredom, and a surprise because the story is not at all what one expects as a result of all the extratextual materials available. But most importantly for our purposes here, it is a key text in Gothic literature.

Frollo and Quasimodo in the 1996 Disney film

Let me clarify that by extratextual, I mean all of the extra materials inspired by the book, including the films, comic books, and cameo appearances of the Hunchback (his name is Quasimodo, though it is generally forgotten) in a variety of horror-related films and TV series. For example, in the 1996 TV film The Munsters’ Scary Little Christmas, the Hunchback shows up to the Christmas party as part of The Munsters’ extended family. However, most of us probably know the Hunchback best from one of the many film productions, including the 1923 silent film with Lon Chaney, the 1939 film with Charles Laughton, the 1982 TV film with Anthony Hopkins, and the 1996 Disney animated film, which later was adapted into a more Gothic musical in Germany, and whose English cast album was released in 2015. All of these many versions cause people to believe they know the story, but Hugo’s original tale has been bastardized, romanticized, and deeply changed in most of these versions, including a frequently happy ending where Esmeralda rides off with Phoebus into the sunset. Hugo’s version is far darker, and perhaps less to our taste today, but it is still worth reading for its Gothic elements and its philosophy about life.

The story behind the novel is that Hugo was hired in November 1828 to write a two volume novel in the style of Sir Walter Scott. In 1823, he had favorably reviewed Scott’s Quentin Durward (according to A. J. Krailshemer’s “Introduction” to the Oxford World Classics’ edition). Scott’s influence is obvious in the historical elements of Notre-Dame de Paris, and yet, at the end of his life, Hugo denied ever writing a historical novel. That is not to say he disowned the book, but that he did not see it as historical. This is surprising given the novel’s many historical elements and Hugo’s great efforts to create an accurate depiction of the book’s physical and historical setting, but he obviously saw the novel’s Gothic and Romantic elements as more important than the historical ones. According to Krailshemer, while generally appreciative of Scott’s work, as his review of Quentin Durward shows, “Hugo regretted the absence of a truly epic dimension, a broadly sweeping view which would give the narrative some deeper meaning.”

The novel’s most overwhelming Gothic element is the cathedral itself. It is the equivalent of the discovered manuscript in most Gothic novels. Hugo wrote the novel largely to create interest in the cathedral and to help restore it. Throughout the novel, he talks about the importance of preserving architecture, and he even discusses how the printing press has killed architecture (in Book V, Chapter 2, “This Will Kill That”). Hugo argues that the great buildings of the past, especially cathedrals, were the books of their day, because they told stories, made statements, and generally educated the population in religion, politics, and history. The novel begins with Hugo claiming to have discovered an inscription in the cathedral, a Greek word, which he later claims was removed. I suspect the inscription is completely fictional and Hugo is here using a fictional technique to give authenticity to his tale. In fact, we learn Claude Frollo incised the word on the wall with a pair of compasses (Book 7, Chapter 4). This word is ’ANÁΓKH, and in the novel’s context, it appears to mean fate, compulsion, or determinism. While Christianity teaches that humans have free will, the novel ultimately shows that all the characters play out what are their natural propensities, unable to resist their natural passions or desires that ultimately lead to their destruction. We see this in how Frollo’s obsession with Esmeralda undoes his reason; we see it in how despite Frollo’s efforts to raise Jehan in a moral way, Jehan becomes a wastrel; we see it in how Esmeralda’s passion for Phoebus causes her to stupidly reveal her hiding place to the soldiers, thus leading to her execution, and we see it in Quasimodo, whose love for Esmeralda causes him to kill Frollo, the only one who loves him, and then to end his own life by burying himself in the tomb with Esmeralda, even though his love for her has been unrequited, as is the case with all the love in the novel. Indeed, not one character in the novel has his or her love returned, although most of the characters do feel love for someone. Ultimately, while the novel can be described as Gothic, historical, or Romantic, in many ways it feels like a precursor to the Naturalist movement of writers like Emile Zola.

Victor Hugo claimed he never wrote a historical novel.

But Notre-Dame de Paris’ role as Gothic literature is what most interests us here. A look at the three main characters, Claude Frollo, Esmeralda, and Quasimodo, will highlight the way Hugo effectively uses Gothic elements to create his dramatic and somewhat existential tale. Existential because, in the end, one has to wonder if the novel has any meaning other than to show the inability of the characters to create any sort of meaning and to show that the world is ultimately devoid of any supernatural forces, benevolent or sinister, to aid or even sympathize with humans, despite their religious beliefs.

 

Claude Frollo

Although later editions of the novel were named for Quasimodo, The Archdeacon of Notre Dame would perhaps be a more accurate title for the book because everything that happens in the novel begins with actions set into motion by Claude Frollo, Notre Dame’s Archdeacon.

Claude has many of the aspects of the Gothic Wanderer figure. Indeed, all three of the best known characters, Claude, Esmeralda the gypsy, and Quasimodo the hunchback, are Gothic Wanderer figures. Because Claude is our villain, however, he is the truest Gothic wanderer. He is strict in his religious beliefs, and yet incapable of overcoming his baser nature. Hugo develops his character early on by telling us what the people of Paris say about him, expressing their beliefs that he is a sorcerer. In time, we learn he is not, but he is obsessed with alchemy, which was aligned with sorcery in the medieval mind. Among Hugo’s inspirations for the novel was Henri Sauval’s Histoire et recherches des antiquités de la ville de Paris (1724). Among other things, Sauval mentions the statues and figures in Notre Dame and other buildings that alchemists associate with the mystery of finding the philosopher’s stone. Frollo is obsessed with learning the secret of the philosopher’s stone, which could allegedly turn lead into gold. In Gothic fiction, this secret is believed to be known to the Rosicrucians, and while Hugo does not mention the Rosicrucians, he may have been influenced by this aspect of the Gothic novel. Further research would be needed to learn if he had read such Rosicrucian novels as William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799), whose main character acquires the philosopher’s stone. However, it has been speculated that Hugo was himself a Rosicrucian or a member of some other similar secret order. This would not be surprising since his contemporary, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, was a Rosicrucian and the author of the Rosicrucian novel Zanoni (1842).

Frollo is an alchemist determined to discover how to create gold. He is obsessed with the gold of sunbeams and believes that in them lies the secret. However, the act of creating gold was itself considered a transgression against God. It was seeking to overturn the laws of nature and considered forbidden knowledge. The possession of such a stone would allow the owner to introduce gold into circulation, which would upset nations’ economies and also enrich the owner, giving him power to become a world leader. Such is the situation St. Leon experiences in Godwin’s novel (I discuss St. Leon in depth in my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption). Consequently, Frollo is committing a transgression through his alchemy efforts.

Frollo is so gung ho in these efforts that he goes to the house of Nicolas Flamel, who has died decades earlier, but was reputedly an alchemist himself. There Frollo occupies himself in:

Frollo and Quasimodo in the 1923 film.

“turning over the earth in the two cellars whose buttresses had been daubed with countless verses and hieroglyphs by Nicolas Flamel himself. Flamel was supposed to have buried the philosophers’ stone in these cellars and the alchemists for two hundred years, from Magistri to Father Pacifique, did not cease from tossing the soil about until the house, so roughly excavated and ransacked, finally turned to dust beneath their feet.” (Book 4, Chapter 5)

Frollo’s quest for forbidden knowledge eventually draws the attention of King Louis XI, who comes to him in secret, and together, they debate on astrology, medicine, and alchemy. The king thinks Frollo mad, but he needs money, so he wants to find the philosopher’s stone and they frequently talk after that. Frollo tells King Louis “to make gold is to be god. That is the only science.” (Book 5, Chapter 1) That Frollo wishes to be God is itself a transgression—the ultimate transgression of pride, which caused Lucifer’s fall from heaven.

Frollo’s quest for forbidden knowledge takes a new turn when he begins to lust over Esmeralda, who represents another type of forbidden knowledge because as a member of the clergy, Frollo has taken a vow of chastity, so the knowledge of sex is also forbidden to him.

I will pass over the details of Frollo’s attempts to deride and also seduce Esmeralda, but his interest in her transforms him metaphorically into a type of supernatural being. As he realizes the lust he has for her, a woman and a gypsy whom he should otherwise abhor, he realizes the relationship between love and hate, and how his position in society has caused him to turn love into hate.

“As he thus delved into his soul, when he saw what spacious provision nature had made in it for passions, he laughed all the more bitterly. He stirred up all the hatred, all the malice in his innermost heart, and recognized, with the cool eye of a physician examining a patient, that this hatred and malice was nothing but vitiated love; that love, source of every human virtue, could, in a priest’s heart, turn into something horrible, and that a man constituted like him, by becoming a priest became a devil. Then he gave a dreadful laugh, and suddenly paled again as he contemplated the most sinister aspect of his fatal passion, of that corrosive, poisonous, hateful, implacable love whose only outcome had been the gallows for one of them, hell for the other: she condemned, he damned.” (Book 9, Chapter 1)

We can almost feel sorry for Frollo here. Had he not had to take his unnatural vow of chastity, he could have married and had release from his lust. Had he sought after good things rather than the philosopher’s stone, he might not have isolated himself from mankind. Now his love for Esmeralda has made him into a devil, a type of supernatural being. Esmeralda recognizes this when he visits her in her cell, calling him a “monster.” In response, he begs for mercy:

“‘Mercy! mercy!’ murmured the priest, pressing his lips to her shoulders.

“She seized his bald head in both hands by his remaining hair, and strove to ward off his kisses as if they had been bites.

“‘Mercy!’ the wretched man repeated. ‘If you knew what my love for you is like! It’s fire, molten lead, thousands of knives in my heart!’

“And he held her arms still with superhuman strength. Distraught, she said: ‘Let me go, or I’ll spit in your face!’

“He let her go: ‘Degrade me, hit me, be vicious! Do whatever you like! But mercy! love me!’”

(Book 9, Chapter 6)

Here we see how Esmeralda has Frollo under her spell as if she is the one with the supernatural power, and he must beg mercy from her, yet she calls him a monster and she avoids his kisses as if they are bites, and just a few lines later, she does call him a “vampire.” He meanwhile holds her with superhuman strength—an attribute Quasimodo also shares.

Later, in one of the novel’s most vividly Gothic scenes, Pierre Gringoire (Esmeralda’s playwright husband) and Frollo try to rescue her and escape with her on a boat. Frollo is disguised by a hood and long robe, so that Esmeralda does not know him. As he rows the boat, he fills her with fear:

“He could be dimly seen in the bows of the boat, like a spectre in the dark. His hood, still lowered, had the effect of a kind of mask, and each time he opened his arms as he rowed, with the wide black sleeves hanging down, they looked like two huge batwings.” (Book 11, Chapter 1). Readers of classical literature here might liken him to Charon, who ferries the dead to hell, but more modern readers will think of the Phantom of the Opera, ferrying Christine to his underground cavern. The bat wings also again stir up the idea of a vampire here.

Finally, Frollo carries another mark of the Gothic wanderer: The Mark of Cain. In the Bible, God curses Cain by placing a mark on his forehead after he murders his brother. In Gothic literature, the Wandering Jew also frequently has a mark on his forehead for his transgression in refusing to let Chris rest on the way to Calvary. However, Frollo’s Mark of Cain is largely undeserved. Krailshemer says, “Frollo, now raving mad and made more so by the news of Jehan’s death, indirectly caused by his rejection of his brother, has to bear the mark of Cain to add to all his other crimes.” (However, Jehan is a drunkard and Frollo has simply refused to give him more money and support his bad habits—we would call it tough love today.) Later, Jehan joins the attack on the cathedral to rescue Esmeralda, which Quasimodo mistakes as an attempt to capture and kill her, so he ends up killing Jehan during the attack. Frollo learns of his brother’s death but does not seem to know Quasimodo killed Jehan.

Frollo himself plants the mark upon his forehead, talking to himself in horror after he learns of his brother’s death:

“He fell silent for a moment, then went on, as though talking to himself, in a loud voice: ‘Cain, what have you done with your brother?’ There was another silence, then he continued: ‘What have I done with him, Lord? I took him in, I brought him up, I fed him, I loved him, I idolized him, and I killed him! Yes, Lord, they have just now dashed his head before my eyes against the stones of your house, and it is because of me, because of this woman, because of her….’” (Book 11, Chapter 1).

After Frollo dies, and Quasimodo has been seen sending him to his death, we are told:

Many rumours went round concerning this incident. There was no doubt in people’s minds that the day had come when, in accordance with their pact, Quasimodo, that is the devil, was to carry off Claude Frollo, that is the sorcerer. It was supposed that he had shattered the body as he took the soul, as monkeys break the shell to eat the nut.

That is why the archdeacon was not interred in consecrated ground. (Book 11, Chapter 3)

This is the final suggestion of Frollo’s supernatural nature and again links him to vampires because he cannot rest in consecrated ground.

 

Esmeralda

Esmeralda is herself a type of Gothic wanderer, as are gypsies for being outcasts of society. The Parisians even go so far as to make Esmeralda nonhuman, believing she is a “supernatural” creature, and comparing her to a salamander, a nymph, and a goddess (Book 2, Chapter 3). Of course, all these words are translations from the French, but the supernatural element is still there. However, little does Esmeralda realize she is even an outcast among the outcasts, for she is not even a gypsy but a French child stolen from its mother.

Quasimodo and Esmeralda played by Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara in the 1939 film.

In Book VIII, Chapter 3, Esmeralda is even referred to as a “vampire” because she is a gypsy and consequently must be a child-stealer. Krailshemer translates the French as “vampire” but the word is actually “stryga,” which can also mean witch. In Albanian folklore, the styrga is a vampiric witch that sucks the blood of children. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shtriga)

Ironically, Esmeralda is cursed by her own mother, who calls her a child-stealer because she is a gypsy and because her own child was stolen by gypsies, only to learn later that Esmeralda is the child who was stolen. Esmeralda’s mother then tries to hide her when she is being pursued so she can be hanged. Esmeralda, however, believes she hears the voice of Phoebus, the man she loves, calls out his name, and thereby reveals her whereabouts, thus leading to her capture and eventual death. Her inability to overcome her passion for Phoebus, who is anything but a hero, and nothing more than a womanizer, brings about her downfall. While her love for Phoebus is not described as lust in the way Frollo’s love for Esmeralda is, it amounts to the same thing—both characters bring about their own downfall because of their inability to control their human desires.

 

Quasimodo

Quasimodo, like Esmeralda, is also an outcast, not because of his race but because of his deformity. Later, however, we will learn he is a gypsy child, traded like a halfing child, for a French child, which also implies a supernatural element, since halfings were the children of fairies traded for human children. His name itself means “half-made” suggesting like halflings he is only half-human. At the same time, Quasimodo is described as the child of a “sow” and a “Jew” (Book 4, Chapter 1), making him half-animal as well as half-human, though being part-Jewish would make him even less than half-human since in the Middle Ages, Jews were believed to have horns and be akin to the devil.

Later, Quasimodo displays superhuman, though not supernatural powers. Besides his incredible strength, he is very nimble and able to climb up the façade of the cathedral (Book 4, Chapter 3), which the modern reader will see as resembling the skills of Spiderman and which also is a precursor to Count Dracula. In fact, we have here the seeds of the future superhero character embedded in the Gothic.

That Quasimodo was adopted by Frollo, believed to be a sorcerer, adds to his supernatural nature. The people of Paris claim Quasimodo must serve Frollo for a set number of years, and then he will be given a soul, in a sort of reverse Faustian pact.

In an extended passage, Hugo describes Frollo and Quasimodo’s relationship:

“We must say, however, that the sciences of Egypt, necromancy, magic, even of the whitest and most innocent kind, had no enemy more relentless, no one who denounced them more inexorably to the officiality of Notre-Dame. Whether this was from genuine horror or the play-acting of the thief shouting: ‘Stop thief!’, it did not prevent the archdeacon being regarded by the learned heads in the chapter as a soul who had ventured into the antechamber of hell, lost in the caverns of the Kabbala, groping in the darkness of the occult sciences. The people made no mistake about it either; for anyone with a little sense Quasimodo was the demon, Claude Frollo the sorcerer. It was obvious that the bell-ringer had to serve the archdeacon for a given time, at the end of which he would carry off his soul by way of payment.” (Book 4, Chapter 5)

In short, Frollo is Faust to Quasimodo’s Mephistopheles.

While their bond is not supernatural in truth, Quasimodo does reverence Frollo for how the man saved him. However, both Frollo and Quasimodo have a love for Esmeralda that supersedes their love for each other. Indeed, there seems to be something Oedipal or Freudian here. Quasimodo seeks to kill his father-figure to be with the woman his father desires, although calling Esmeralda a mother figure might be going too far. In any case, after Quasimodo sends Frollo to his death, Quasimodo cries out, “Oh! all I have loved!” (Book 11, Chapter 2) in the realization that everyone he has loved is dead.

In the end, Quasimodo makes his way to the sepulcher where Esmeralda is buried, and there he wraps his fingers around hers and gives up his life so he can spend eternity with her, although she is dead and unable to know he is there with her.

The death of Claude Frollo, an early illustration.

 

Existential Ending

In the end, love is unrequited for all the characters, and all the characters have let their love or lust lead to their committing actions that have brought about their deaths.

Hugo has created a fatalistic world. There is no free will in it, for the characters are unable to stop themselves from acting as they do. Instead, we might call Hugo’s novel an early example of naturalism, and in the end, it is a very existential novel as well.

While earlier Gothic novels, even while often deriding Catholicism, worked within a Christian structure where the good are rewarded and the bad punished, it is too simplistic to describe anyone in this novel as good or bad. Even Frollo, who is the villain if there is one, had kind intentions in raising his brother after his parents had died and in caring for Quasimodo when no one else would. Yet in the end, any good in his nature is overcome by his uncontrollable lust. Despite the setting in Notre Dame, there is little about God in this novel. As Krailshemer says, “The most notable omission from the book is Christianity.” Consequently, what makes the novel most Gothic of all is the horror that life is meaningless and no matter what we do, death is the end. None of the characters go to their graves repenting their sins or having hope in redemption.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Superheroes and the Gothic

The Sylph: The Duchess of Devonshire’s pre-Gothic and pre-Romantic Novel

In recent years, Georgiana Cavendish, nee Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire, has enjoyed renewed interest due to the 2008 film The Duchess starring Keira Knightley, as well as her being an ancestral aunt to the late Princess Diana. But it was not until my friend and fellow literary scholar, Ellen Moody, author of Trollope on the Net, told me that it was believed the Duchess had also written a novel that I really became interested in learning more about her.

The Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806) had many portraits painted of her including this one by Sir Joshua Reynolds. She was celebrated as a great beauty in her day.

The Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806) had many portraits painted of her including this one by Sir Joshua Reynolds. She was celebrated as a great beauty in her day.

The Duchess is the alleged author of the epistolary novel The Sylph (1779), which was published anonymously because of her social position and also because of its subject matter, presenting the unhappy marriage of a woman whose husband is a rake, adulterer, and gambler, which in many ways paralleled her own marriage. Speculation exists that the novel was actually written by Sophia Briscoe, a contemporary novelist, but the Duchess in private is said to have acknowledged she was its author. To this day, her family denies her writing the book. I am not surprised, however, by the possibility that she is the author considering she was also the aunt to Lady Caroline Lamb, author of the fabulously interesting Gothic novel Glenarvon about her own love affair with Lord Byron. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lamb learned a few things from her aunt, although I think the Duchess’ novel superior in many ways.

The Sylph’s title is a reference to the sylphs that appear in Alexander Pope’s poem The Rape of the Lock, in which they are depicted as fairy-like creatures who look after the female protagonist. The Duchess quotes from The Rape of the Lock as the frontispiece to the novel, describing sylphs’ roles:

“Ye Sylphs and Sylphids, to your chief give ear,
Fays, Fairies, Genii, Elves, and Demons, hear!
Ye know the spheres, and various tasks assign’d
By laws eternal to th’aërial kind:
Some in the fields of purest æther play,
And bask, and whiten, in the blaze of day;
Some guide the course of wand’ring orbs on high,
Or roll the planets thro’ the boundless sky:
Our humbler province is to tend the Fair,
Not a less pleasing, nor less glorious care.”

In the Duchess’ novel, the Sylph also takes on the role of protector to a young lady. Because it is difficult to find information about the novel online, I will briefly summarize the plot. The book is available at Project Gutenberg and in print copies, but little has been written about it in terms of literary criticism.

The novel begins with a letter by Sir William Stanley describing an accident he has that requires him to recuperate in the country where he becomes acquainted with the Grenville daughters. Of course, he quickly falls in love with one sister, Julia, who is our protagonist and whose letters make up the bulk of the novel. Julia agrees to marry Sir William, and he takes her off to London to live. Her adventures are then revealed through her letters to her sister Louisa, with letters included from Louisa, as well as from several of Sir William’s male friends and acquaintances describing the adventures in further detail, as well as their plots against Julia.

The novel in many ways can be compared to Fanny Burney’s novel, Evelina, or a Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World (1778). Julia, like Evelina, finds herself in London learning about the wickedness of that city and trying to maintain her morals. Many difficulties ensue for Julia, including attending a masquerade ball and returning with a masked man she believes is her husband but turns out to be Lord Biddulph; he seeks to have his way with her in her bedroom, but fortunately, she escapes his wiles. Julia then tells Sir William what has happened, but he is under the thumb of Biddulph because he is a terrible gambler and deeply in debt. His debt is so bad that when Julia offers her jewels to Sir William to pay his debts, she learns he has already sold them and replaced them with glass and paste jewels, which she is too naive to have realized.

Early in her entrance into wicked London life, Julia begins to receive letters from an anonymous writer who describes himself as the Sylph. This character is fascinating because he keeps his identity secret, but he tells Julia he can see what she does and even know the thoughts of her mind. It is worth quoting this passage at length to understand his supernatural claims:

“I am a Rosicrusian by principle; I need hardly tell you, they are a sect of philosophers, who by a life of virtue and self-denial have obtained an heavenly intercourse with aërial beings;—as my internal knowledge of you (to use the expression) is in consequence of my connexion with the Sylphiad tribe, I have assumed the title of my familiar counsellor. This, however, is but as a preface to what I mean to say to you;—I have hinted, I knew you well;—when I thus expressed myself, it should be understood, I spoke in the person of the Sylph, which I shall occasionally do, as it will be writing with more perspicuity in the first instance; and, as he is employed by me, I may, without the appearance of robbery, safely appropriate to myself the knowledge he gains.

“Every human being has a guardian angel; my skill has discovered your’s; my power has made him obedient to my will; I have a right to avail myself of the intelligences he gains; and by him I have learnt every thing that has passed since your birth;—what your future fortune is to be, even he cannot tell; his view is circumscribed to a small point of time; he only can tell what will be the consequence of taking this or that step, but your free-agency prevents his impelling you to act otherwise than as you see fit. I move upon a more enlarged sphere; he tells me what will happen; and as I see the remote, as well as immediate consequence, I shall, from time to time, give you my advice.—Advice, however, when asked, is seldom adhered to; but when given voluntarily, the receiver has no obligation to follow it.—I shall in a moment discover how this is received by you; and your deviation from the rules I shall prescribe will be a hint for me to withdraw my counsel where it is not acceptable. All that then will remain for me, will be to deplore your too early initiation in a vicious world, where to escape unhurt or uncontaminated is next to a miracle.

“I said, I should soon discover whether my advice would be taken in the friendly part it is offered: I shall perceive it the next time I have the happiness of beholding you, and I see you every day; I am never one moment absent from you in idea, and in my mind’s eye I see you each moment; only while I conceal myself from you, can I be of service to you;—press not then to discover who I am; but be convinced—nay, I shall take every opportunity to convince you, that I am the most sincere and disinterested of your friends; I am a friend to your soul, my Julia, and I flatter myself mine is congenial with your’s.”

The reader, however, realizes the Sylph is not really a supernatural being but a human who must be close enough to Julia to see her and know what she is doing. He writes several letters of advice to her and she responds, and although he cannot always rescue her from evil, he is a wise counselor to her.

In the end, Sir William’s debt gets the better of him and a truly horrid situation results. Lord Biddulph agrees to rescue him from debt in exchange that he divorce Julia so Lord Biddulph can marry her. Sir William refuses to sell his wife in this manner and ends up committing suicide. Julia writes to her sister, asking that she and her father receive “your poor wanderer” and she returns to them in the country. The Sylph now writes to tell her she no longer needs his services since she is returning to the “peaceful vale of innocence.”

But the Sylph returns in a new appearance soon after. Early in the novel is a letter from Woodley, a childhood friend of Julia’s who moved away but has now grown up and returned, hoping to marry her, but he arrives just after she has married Sir William. Realizing the mistake in choosing a husband that Julia has made, Woodley has bided his time and is the Sylph who has sought her welfare through all her trials. Now it is revealed to her that he has been disguised as the Baron Ton-hausen, a friend of hers in London whom she thought a foreigner and whom she admired and almost wished she had chosen over Sir William as a husband. Woodley has had smallpox and changed over the years since childhood so she did not recognize him, but her friendship with the baron allowed him to be close enough to observe and advise her.

When Woodley’s identity as the Sylph is revealed, Julia calls him “Proteus,” and “three in one” and a “variable being.” Proteus, from Homer’s Iliad, was able to change or metamorphose his form. She also compares herself and Woodley to Henry and Emma, the title characters of a poem by Matthew Prior. (Today, the poem is best known for being alluded to in Jane Austen’s Persuasion).

Of course, once she gets over her surprise, Julia agrees to marry Woodley and we can assume they live happily ever after.

I find The Sylph to be a remarkable novel for many reasons. The novel reminds me of Burney’s novels, including Evelina as I already mentioned, but also Burney’s later novels. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it influenced Burney to some degree. The horrible results of debt in the novel remind me of Cecilia (1782), in which Cecilia tries to pay the debts of a man who threatens suicide if she does not. More importantly, I think the magical depiction of the Sylph, though a male in this novel, is very similar to the more extensive idea of a supernatural being who can metamorphose herself in Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814). In that novel, Burney draws upon the wanderer theme of Gothic and Romantic literature (note above that I quoted Julia as describing herself as a “wanderer”), and especially the Wandering Jew. Burney’s heroine, Juliet is known through most of the novel as Ellis; she hides her identity from others, and plays so many different roles that she might have been seen as a female “Proteus,” although instead, Burney refers to her as a “wandering Jewess,” and one of the characters in the novel remarks of Juliet:

“You have been bruised and beaten; and dirty and clean; and ragged and whole; and wounded and healed; and a European and a Creole, in less than a week. I suppose, next, you will dwindle into a dwarf; and then perhaps, find some surprising contrivance to shoot up into a giantess. There is nothing that can be too much to expect from so great an adept in metamorphoses.”

A more in-depth discussion of Juliet’s metamorphoses and Burney’s use of the Gothic Wandering Jew theme can be found in my book The Gothic Wanderer.

I really don’t know what kind of influence The Sylph had upon its contemporaries, but it certainly is a remarkable novel of the period, and many of the themes in it became significant ones for the Gothic novel, including gambling, the idea of metamorphosed identities, Rosicrucianism, and depictions of Jews. There is only one reference to Jews in the novel when Julia writes that her husband is surrounded by “Jew-brokers” who are “such wretches” and “infernal agents,” but it’s interesting that they are included as being responsible for Sir William’s downfall. Biddulph is also an interesting Gothic wanderer type villain; he is largely the cause of Sir William’s death. At first, he feels haunted by Sir William’s suicide, and recalling Milton’s Satan who has “hell within him,” Biddulph remarks, “my mind is a hell,” but Biddulph is also partially in denial of his responsibility in Sir William’s death, saying how thankful he is that he didn’t seduce Julia (regardless, he still caused Sir William’s death).

Also interesting about the novel is how it builds on the Romantic Myth of Consciousness, where someone begins in stage of innocence, moves into experience, and then seeks to escape the miseries of being experienced about life by entering into wise innocence. When Julia finally returns home, Woodley as the Sylph, remarks that she is returning to a “vale of innocence,” but really it is wise innocence she seeks. The use of the word “vale” is interesting here too, not only because of its religious implications, but because Woodley’s family originally owned the land where Julia’s family lives, so the area is known as “Woodley-vale.” So in marrying Woodley, Julia is able to enter into the vale—Woodley becomes her vale, her refuge of wise innocence. Woodley’s name also recalls the role of Nature in Romantic poetry since she finds her refuge in a wooded vale or forest, far from the wickedness of city life.

The Sylph is a remarkable novel that deserves far more attention than it has received over the years. The Duchess of Devonshire is truly a foremother of the Gothic and Romantic traditions as well as a fascinating novelist in her own right. I highly recommend the novel to readers.

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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 upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy: The Children of Arthur, Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, The Wandering Jew