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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

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

The Introduction to “The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption”

If you’re curious about my new book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, Gothic Fiction from 1794-Present, here is the introduction to the book, giving insight not only into what the book is about but also why the Gothic is so popular and why it matters today.

Introduction

Our Long Love Affair with the Gothic

While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I called on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
I was not heard—I saw them not—
When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
All vital things that wake to bring
News of birds and blossoming,—
Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!

— Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”

         I love the Gothic. Most of us do, even if we don’t know exactly what the term “Gothic” means. It may mean different things to all of us, yet those things are closely related. Some of us might think of the Goth look where teenagers wear all black. Others might think of Gothic cathedrals. And a smaller percentage of us might think about classic Gothic literature—the great eighteenth and nineteenth century novels of Mrs. Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and several others.

We love the Gothic partly because we have a fascination with being scared. I love to be scared—I don’t go for the gory horror films of today, but I love suspense and the greatest Gothic literature builds up such suspense. But more importantly, Gothic literature reveals much about who we are, what we fear, and to what we aspire.

I was always fascinated with the Gothic—commonly called horror, or simply, when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, what was “scary.” I didn’t know the term Gothic and wouldn’t know it until well into high school, but I knew the Munsters, the Addams Family, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Broom-Hilda the Witch, and countless other characters in popular culture from that time who were often watered down children’s versions of the Gothic.

I remember the “Creature Feature” film being shown Saturday afternoons on TV50 from Detroit, and I loved Love at First Bite (1979) starring George Hamilton as Dracula—when it was broadcast on TV for the first time, my brother and I had a big fight over the TV (we only had one in the house in those days) because it was aired opposite Yogi’s First Christmas, which he wanted to watch.

I was the proud owner of the Weebles Haunted House complete with Weebles that “wobble but they don’t fall down”—including the witch with a removable pointy hat, a glow-in-the dark ghost, two Weeble children to be scared, secret panels, trapped doors, and a treasure chest with bats inside. All of it scary but wonderful!

In fourth grade, I was Dracula for Halloween—I remember still the thrill of running so my cape would flap in the wind, and I can still taste the plastic vampire teeth. Nor did I ever miss going through a Haunted House at the fair, and my friends and I commonly played haunted house, turning our bedrooms or the family room into a mansion of monsters and ghosts. Again, I was always Dracula.

And perhaps best of all, I owned the wonderfully dramatic record The Story of Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein from Power Records. This fabulous 33 1/3 record came with a read along book in graphic novel form (we called them comic books back then) and it combined into one dramatic tale the stories of its title characters. I played this record over and over again and still have my copy today. I constantly quoted it to others, including the pivotal scene when the werewolf (oddly not the Wolfman but Vincent von Frankenstein’s girlfriend Erika—Wolfwoman, I guess) attacks the Count, causing him to become enraged and reveal himself by declaring, “You dare!! You dare lay your paws on me! On me?! Low beast, you’ll die for this, die at the hands of the Prince of Darkness…FOR I AM DRACULA!” Recently, when I was working on this introduction, I dug out the record to engage in nostalgia and left it on my coffee table. My brother came over to visit and saw the record there and rolled his eyes. When I asked whether he wanted to listen to it, he said, “No, I never want to have to listen to that record again.” Apparently, I played it one—or maybe fifty—too many times.

But all these details could be dismissed as children’s games and just good fun (despite the fanatics who would ban The Wizard of Oz, or more recently, the Harry Potter books and films because they contain depictions of witchcraft). Only, I think on some innocent level that I could not have articulated when I was ten years old, I was even then searching for meaning—to understand the mystery of life, even if it were only the simplified notion of good and evil. I was a very religious child who had read the entire Bible by fifth grade, loved to play at being various characters from the Bible—mostly Moses or Jacob—and wanted to grow up to be a priest. So if I were such a “religious nut”—as one friend called me—how do I explain my fascination with horror and the supernatural?

And how explain my curiosity over an activity that countless children have attempted over the years? Yes, I am one of those many children who locked himself in the bathroom in the dark, stared into the bathroom mirror, and then tried to find out whether it was true that if I could say, “Bloody Murder!” one hundred times without blinking, the devil would appear in the mirror. But I was never able not to blink before I could say it one hundred times, or I would inevitably lose count.

Still, the quest for forbidden knowledge was strong in me at an early age. The fascination with Good and Evil thrilled me like it does many children, but I wanted proof that the supernatural forces of Good and Evil truly existed. Years later, when I discovered Percy Shelley’s lines quoted above, I was stunned by how perfectly he captured what I felt, his experiences matching mine of nearly two centuries later. And like Shelley, I eventually grew to love Intellectual Beauty.

As I reached my teen years, I discovered literature, having always loved to read, and soon novels like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and the works of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen became my primary fascination. It would be Jane Austen who really converted me into being a disciple of the Gothic. When I was about sixteen, I listened to an audio book version of Northanger Abbey with an introduction that explained the novel’s purpose as a satire of the Gothic novels, particularly of Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Of course, I had to read Mrs. Radcliffe. Her novel had to be special ordered from the bookstore and although it was well over 600 pages, I devoured it in a week, reading it every free minute before and after school. The prose was beautiful, the suspense fabulous, the Gothic world frighteningly fascinating. I went on to read the rest of Radcliffe’s novels while I was still a teenager as well as reading other Gothic classics like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and William Beckford’s Vathek (1786). Dracula (1897) and Frankenstein (1818) followed, and in college when I discovered the Romantic poets, I could put all these books into context.

What was it about these books that thrilled me so much? Why did The Mysteries of Udolpho seem like such a wonderfully pleasant book to read, as well as a suspenseful page-turner? What about Dracula made me afraid to go to sleep, yet want to read it again—and enjoy the original novel so much more than the film versions of it—save for Coppola’s fabulous Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)? I don’t know that I asked myself that question until the late 1990s when my fascination with literature and my desire to be a novelist led me to being a Ph.D. candidate in the literature program at Western Michigan University. The result would be my writing a dissertation titled The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, which has now been expanded into this book. And I wasn’t the only enthusiastic student of the Gothic—at least two of my fellow doctoral candidates at the time also wrote about the Gothic in their dissertations.

Of all the subjects a person could write a dissertation on, why did I choose nineteenth century Gothic novels? I also loved Dickens, the Arthurian legend, Anthony Trollope, eighteenth century epistolary novels—why choose the Gothic over one of these topics? The reason was because I could relate to the Gothic; it resonated with me in ways those other great literary works did not at that time in my life. And I wanted to write about why it resonated with me, why I thought the Gothic mattered so much to people—I wanted to write what was called a “reader-response” dissertation, but I was dissuaded from it by my professors—told it would not be good for my academic career.

Now that I have long since left academia behind, I can straightforwardly say that academics too often forget that while they are the keepers of the culture, in order to pass that culture on, they have to show people why that culture matters—how it still relates to them. While at Western Michigan University, I had the opportunity to co-teach a class on the British Survey of Literature with Dr. Stephanie Gauper. During that class, she commented to me about my teaching, “The students like you because you make them understand how the literature is relevant to their lives. Most teachers don’t do that.” I always felt that was one of the greatest compliments I ever received. And while, in my dissertation, I made the mistake not to explain why the Gothic mattered and was still relevant to our lives, in this book, written for a wider audience, I wish to remedy that by stating that the Gothic is very relevant to our lives, that it speaks to us today, two hundred years after the great Gothic novels were written because what the people in the decades following the French Revolution and during the Victorian period dreamt, feared, longed for, and sought, is still what we dream, fear, long for, and seek today. The Gothic is perhaps the most relevant piece of literature for the twenty-first century, and its continuation in the novels of Stephen King and Anne Rice, the popular books and films of the Twilight series, and the countless vampire books, films, and television series being produced each year, testify to this fact.

But how does it speak to us? Why is it still relevant to us? Let me give one more example from my own history to make my point.

In the fall of 1995, I moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the same state as my hometown of Marquette, but nearly five hundred miles from home—in fact on a different peninsula—I might as well have been in another state, in some ways, in another country. I had culture shock in Kalamazoo—it was the big city compared to what I was used to—I didn’t know the people, the city streets, the weather, the mindset of those people. I was isolated, lonely, and downright miserable in Kalamazoo, wondering why I had ever made the decision to leave my hometown, but realizing the job market in Upper Michigan offered nothing for me, so I would have to go on to finish my degree, to become an English professor, and to take a job wherever one might exist—meaning I would never get to return home. I felt even more depressed and despairing when I looked at the future. If not for good friends and family and a telephone to talk to them on, I never would have gotten through those years. I would have defined these feelings as homesickness if I had not discovered a better word for it. That word I learned that first semester at Western Michigan University while taking a course on the Brontë sisters.

I decided in that class to write my final paper on the theme of colonialism in the Brontës’ novels. In my research, I came across the term “displacement” to describe the African character in one of the Brontës’ juvenilia. Instantly, I understood that word as perfectly describing my own feelings and experience. I was displaced. I was convinced that while I loved teaching and studying literature, I would never get to go home—I felt depressed when not terrorized by the thought. The job market in academia was such that it was unlikely I would ever find a tenure-track job at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. I foresaw myself moving from one university to another, always separated from my family and friends.

I stuck it out to finish my Ph.D. but my feelings of displacement did not get better. The job market—academia itself—was largely a nightmare—the MLA convention like a massive haunted house of pale young men in black suits, looking like blood-drained humans, fearful of interviewers yet hoping to be hired for tenure-track jobs. When I did find a job, it was a lowly one-year instructor position at Clemson University where I was given the equally “blood-draining” task of teaching up to 107 students per semester in a variety of composition and British literature survey courses (one literature and three composition sections). I had, consequently, upwards of five hundred papers per semester to grade and was paid $24,000 a year. And I had to do it in a hellishly hot climate I hated, while again feeling displaced. I have no doubt many people love Kalamazoo and South Carolina and I do not wish to disparage those places—my point is that I was unhappy and felt like a Gothic wanderer in them. Equally, we are all shaped by our individual preferences, likes and dislikes, and we all have different levels of tolerance. Here in Marquette, Michigan, I’m sure many people find our long winters and 200+ inches of snow per winter equally hellish, as roads between six foot snowbanks become like Gothic labyrinths, and bone-chilling temperatures seem like undeserving torture. Any place can be interpreted as “Gothic” if we so choose because Hell is in the mind—and the Gothic is nothing if not an exploration of human psychology and what we fear, as well as how we choose to let guilt and fear color our perspectives—one man’s transgression may be another man’s freedom.

And while my personal example may not seem nightmarish to most, it was like torture to me at the time, and it was in the midst of that nightmare that I began my doctoral dissertation. I chose to write about the Gothic wanderer because I felt myself to be like a Gothic wanderer, displaced and wandering through the mysterious maze of academia and the academic job market. In the chapters that follow, while I will discuss the Gothic novels themselves without commentary on how their themes relate to our lives today—something I don’t doubt my readers can figure out for themselves, let me here briefly list a few examples of how these Gothic wanderer figures speak to who we—men and women, young and old, rich and poor, from all races and religions—are today, and who we have always been.

The Gothic’s popularity arose at the time of the French Revolution as people questioned the legitimacy of their government—the monarchy—as well as the governments that replaced it, and the entire social order and its institutions, especially organized religion. Paranoia and conspiracy theories were common—our political concerns have not changed much today and continue to be reflected in our fiction. Just as the early Gothic novels theorized that certain secret societies were manipulating the French Revolution, today, we are no less fascinated by conspiracy theories—whether it be Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code with its alleged revelation of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of the lost bloodline of Christ’s children via Mary Magdalene (the Gothic has always loved to pick on the Catholic Church), or beliefs that the government is withholding information from us about everything from terrorists to UFOs. In the twenty-first century, the U.S. Government has even been accused by some of staging the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an excuse to invade Iraq.

Concerns about the patriarchal system, legitimate children, and the sanctity of the family were common in early Gothic novels—how much more today when divorce is prevalent and children are frequently born outside of marriage, mothers take men to court and have DNA paternity tests given to verify who a child’s father may be, while in politics we hear about the need to return to “family values.”

The Wandering Jew is one of the key figures in the Gothic, and although we may not be cursed to wander like him, our jobs and the economy often force us to move to unfamiliar places, to find employment in sectors we feel uncomfortable with, to experience displacement. At the same time, the Wandering Jew is a metaphor for the plight of the Jewish people. The effects of the Holocaust—a horror the nineteenth century Gothic novelists never could have imagined—still haunt us, and the Jewish people still struggle with prejudice and violence directed against them, even after having a homeland established in Israel.

The Rosicrucian Gothic wanderer is obsessed with finding the secret to eternal life. Are we any less obsessed with it today when we value youthfulness, and when studies predict that half of Americans born in the late twentieth century will live to see age one hundred? The Gothic fascination with life-extension continues for us today.

The Gothic concern with gambling is no less relevant today. Gambling in Gothic literature is viewed as a transgression, a way to achieve wealth to advance oneself in society, and consequently, it usually results in destruction for the gambler and his family. Today, gambling is an even bigger problem than it was two centuries ago. We constantly hear tales of lottery winners who waste their millions, only to become bankrupts. We know of people who invest in the stock market, or worse, get taken advantage of in Ponzi schemes, only to lose everything. We continually worry about the economy, and most of us continue to have financial difficulties or an unhealthy relationship with money, while longing for wealth that we falsely believe will solve all our problems.

Working conditions became a Gothic concern with the rise of the Industrial Revolution. In Dickens’ day, horrendous working conditions were being fought against. In the early twentieth century, the rise of unions helped to solve many of those problems, establishing an eight-hour work day and the weekend. But how many of us today find ourselves working long hours? What industry did to the Victorians, modern technology has done to us, making us connected 24/7 and perhaps improving communication but also resulting in expectations to work constantly.

Perhaps no novelist in all of literature has been more visionary or speaks more to our time than the Gothic novelist Mary Shelley. The issues in Frankenstein are the very issues of stem cell research, cloning, and the other quandaries of science we continue to argue over today. The need for responsible science is now more important than ever. In The Last Man, Shelley introduced the fear of a worldwide plague which today remains a terrifying possibility. Shelley’s vision of the future is frighteningly accurate in many ways. In recent decades, the scare of AIDS and the bird and swine flu have made people fear worldwide human extinction as a possibility. The possibility of nuclear war and biological warfare has made it possible that man could someday be responsible for his own extinction, unintentionally, or intentionally. The recent film Contagion (2011) is just one of many works that speak to these fears.

In the Victorian period, a religious crisis arose with the introduction of theories of evolution. Organized religion began slowly to lose its hold over people. Those shifts have only continued to the present day. The understanding that we are spiritual beings having a human experience has become a mantra in recent decades. More and more people have quit subscribing to organized religion but come to describe themselves as spiritual, and this desire to connect with our spiritual (supernatural) selves has led many down less traditional Western paths, including to eastern religions, beliefs in reincarnation, listening to entities who channel their messages through humans, an emphasis upon “the Goddess,” and the creation of new religions such as scientology. In many cases, a general move away from institutional Christianity has not led to atheism but what might be termed a spiritual reawakening that allows humanity, if not the autonomy from God that Milton’s Satan sought, then at least the “faith, hope, and self-esteem” that Percy Shelley dreamt of for humanity.

The vampire is the nineteenth century Gothic wanderer figure who has remained most popular in the twenty-first century and continues to be reinvented. Despite his “evil” nature, he has become glamorous and attractive; the lines between good and evil have been blurred; we now have dark heroes and sympathetic villains. The continuing popularity of the vampire two centuries after he was first introduced to English readers speaks to how much the Gothic still influences our lives today.

While the bulk of this study will cover nineteenth century British Gothic fiction, I will offer in the epilogue some insight into how the themes of that period’s Gothic literature have continued and been transformed in twentieth and twenty-first century literature, some still noticeably Gothic, such as Stephenie Myer’s Twilight series and Anne Rice’s vampire novels, while other influences are hard-pressed to be termed “Gothic” but still have Gothic elements or owe a debt to the Gothic, including such popular figures as Tarzan and Batman.

The Gothic wanderer is still with us today; he has lost a lot of his angst over the centuries, but the figure still fascinates us. This study will hopefully help to explain a little of why we love the Gothic—because we discover in the Gothic wanderer our very selves.

Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. and Gothic Wanderer

October 31, 2011

Marquette, Michigan

The Gothic Wanderer is on sale now and available by visiting www.GothicWanderer.com

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels