Tag Archives: Varney the Vampyre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________________________

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

Advertisements

17 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels

The Black Monk: Gothic Wanderers and the Early Comic Book Superhero

When I saw that Valancourt Books had republished The Black Monk, or The Secret of the Grey Turret (serialized 1844-1845), I had to read it. I had previously read James Malcolm Rymer’s best-known works, Varney the Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood (serialized 1845-1847), the first full-length vampire novel in English and the precursor to Dracula (1897), and also The String of Pearls (serialized 1846-1947), which introduced Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street into English literature, so surely, I thought, The Black Monk would be an exciting Gothic novel.

The Black Monk, one of James Malcolm Rymer's first penny dreadful serials.

The Black Monk, one of James Malcolm Rymer’s first penny dreadful serials.

Written as a penny dreadful like Rymer’s other works, this work predates Rymer’s two more famous novels, if we can truly call them novels. Certainly, the plot is tighter in The Black Monk than in Varney, but it also tends to be quite wordy, a sign that Rymer continually tried to drag out the story because it was popular with Victorian readers. For the modern reader, who reads it as a novel rather than a weekly serial, it feels overly long and many of the scenes and plots feel repetitive, but that aside, it is a fascinating book in many ways.

To try to summarize the novel’s plot would make it feel ridiculous, but there are some key elements about the novel and this edition particularly that make it stand out. First of all, I have long believed that the Gothic novel with its supernatural characters is the grandfather of the modern-day comic book superhero. In my book, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, I traced how Gothic wanderer elements, such as extended life and other supernatural powers, eventually culminated in characters like Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, Superman, and Batman. There is much about The Black Monk that feels cartoonish. This edition has a back cover with little cameo drawing of the main characters which makes them look like cartoon or comic book characters. The original woodcut illustrations are included in the book, but these are far less detailed illustrations than those in Varney the Vampyre, which look like book illustrations. The Black Monk’s illustrations look in many ways more akin to comic book drawings. Finally, this edition has an introduction by Curt Herr, Ph.D. The introduction is not so much about Rymer or the novel as it is about how penny dreadfuls were the precursors of comic books in terms of being thought to have a bad influence on youths. Both were also very cost affordable publications and were produced quickly and for the lower classes. Herr even mentions comic book burnings that were held by communities in the mid-twentieth century, and while most of the comic books he mentions as being burned are of the horror and crime variety, Superman is included among them.

It surprises me that, as Herr asserts, and which I believe, despite the surprise, that comic books and especially penny dreadfuls, were seen as immoral and glamorizing crime and evil. This is probably largely due to the people who condemned them not actually reading them. I am not a reader of comic books myself, although what little knowledge I have of the ones produced in this century makes me think there may be some merit to these charges, but the penny dreadfuls like the earlier Gothic novels, despite depicting criminals and sinners, always held a highly moral tone in which those who committed crimes were ultimately punished, and usually, the virtuous were also rewarded. Certainly, a great deal of subversive behavior and undertones exist in these books, but as Herr points out, the social problems that exist in society are not from reading fiction but from the poverty that causes people to break the law, often just to survive. I would add to that a lack of education. Those who act in an immoral manner, even if influenced to do so by reading such works, do so because they lack the intelligence to understand the messages in these works or to understand simply that crime doesn’t pay. This is the same kind of lack of intelligence that causes some children to jump off roofs because they think they can fly like Superman. It is not the literature but faulty thinking and poor judgment that are to be blamed.

As for The Black Monk, I think a good argument can be made that it has within it the seeds of the modern day superhero.

I won’t go into the novel’s full plot, but in brief, it begins when Sir Rupert Brandon, owner of Brandon Castle, leaves the castle after being grief-stricken over the untimely death of his wife, Lady Alicia. He leaves the castle in the hands of Alicia’s sister and brother, Agatha and Eldred, as well as his trusty knight Hugh Wingrove and the neighboring abbot. While Sir Rupert is away, Agatha plots with Morgatani, an evil monk, to get her revenge on Sir Rupert for spurning her love and marrying her sister instead. While there is a large cast of other characters in the book, there are only four who are really of great interest in terms of understanding the development of Gothic literature and the modern-day superhero. They are:

  • Agatha
  • Morgatani
  • Nemoni
  • The Crusader

Let us look briefly at each one.

Agatha: There is nothing superhero-like about Agatha, but there is plenty that makes her an interesting Gothic wanderer. Female Gothic wanderer figures are few in number in Gothic fiction. Women tend more often to be the moral compass of the novels while the men are transgressors and guilt-ridden, a few notable exceptions being Fanny Burney’s Juliet in The Wanderer (1814) and Alice Nutter in William Ainsworth Harrison’s The Lancashire Witches (1849). Agatha is a very vile woman and intent on getting revenge on Sir Rupert because he chose her sister over her for his wife. Agatha plots to take the castle from him, and to do so, she falls into a romantic and sexual relationship with the evil monk Morgatani. However, she has moments where she feels remorse and regrets her evil deeds, but she is continually egged on by Morgatani, who displays disdain for her weaknesses and makes her false promises that he will be her lover and take her away from the castle once the revenge is completed. Agatha, unlike other Gothic wanderers of this period who show remorse, ultimately meets a bad end when she collapses in guilt and terror over her crimes.

Morgatani: Morgatani is a true Gothic villain. He has Gothic wanderer elements in terms of his supernatural abilities, but he never presents himself as in any way sympathetic to the reader. He is firmly in the Gothic tradition, his Italian background making him reminiscent of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Schedoni in The Italian (1797). He is also an anachronism because the novel is set in the twelfth century but he is a Jesuit, and the Jesuits did not exist until the sixteenth century. The novel itself is somewhat anachronistic, beginning in 1204 in the time of King John, but then later telling us it is the time of King Richard I (1189-1199) and that Richard is a prisoner on the continent during the Crusades so John is trying to take his throne. This plot has some similarities to the Robin Hood legend and also causes Herr, in his introduction to the novel, to suggest it is a revision of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819). I would not go so far as to call it a revision of that novel, but it certainly does share some similar elements and themes. The Jesuits are frequently depicted as villains in Gothic novels, most famously perhaps in The Wandering Jew (1846) by Eugene Sue; they are considered highly knowledgeable and know secrets or are involved in conspiracies, using their knowledge to manipulate society and political events. Repeatedly in the novel, Morgatani suggests that he knows things most people don’t because he is a Jesuit. Despite his religious connections (or perhaps because of them since the Gothic is notoriously anti-Catholic), he denies the existence of God, and while his origins are never made clear, he tells Agatha he is not immortal, but neither is he human. When he finally dies, the mystery of his origins remain unclear. That said, he clearly has supernatural abilities, at the very least, he possesses superhuman strength. This is significant because characters like the devils in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) also have great strength, making them able to rip up trees. However, strength is also something that will later be associated with superheroes. The mid-nineteenth century is transitional in how Gothic wanderers are morphing into heroes. For example, Jean Valjean has superhuman strength in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862), a novel that is not supernatural but still has many Gothic elements in it, including that Valjean is a wanderer, and a transgressor, a fugitive from the law; he is a villain/criminal in the eyes of society, yet the novel’s hero. Morgatani also leads a charmed life—an arrow fails to kill him early in the novel. He will only die as a result of his own alchemy when the turret explodes and crumbles; alchemy is another activity Gothic wanderers tend to indulge in—a transgression because it is against God’s natural laws to try to change the elements.

Nemoni: Nemoni is one of the most interesting characters in the novel. He is considered a madman, and he lives like a wild man in the forest; others believe him to be a wizard. This suggests that he is also supernatural in some way, although there is no evidence in the novel that he has any supernatural abilities. He is mostly insane with only a few lucid moments. His insanity comes from his desire for revenge upon Morgatani after having seen Morgatani cause the woman Nemoni loved (or his sister; the novel contradicts itself) to be destroyed. This woman was in a convent in Italy, and Morgatani tried to seduce her sexually. When she refused, he accused her of immoral behavior, resulting in her being buried alive in a wall of the convent. Nemoni is also a nod to the Arthurian tradition. Sir Lancelot becomes an insane wild man who lives in the forest, his love for Guinevere driving him to madness. Merlin also has a period in early life of being a madman in the forest, which is a parallel to Nemoni being called a wizard. Eventually, Nemoni does get his revenge, though he dies in the end, but not before he gives Sir Rupert the information that he has two children he didn’t know existed, which thereby restores the social order for the novel. No matter how scary a Gothic novel might be, the social order is always restored in the end.

The Crusader: This last character is the real superhero of the novel. He arrives at the castle while Sir Rupert is away and attempts to put things to rights. All the while, his identity is kept hidden because he wears a velvet mask. He is described by Eldred as “a whopper,” meaning he is large and strong, true heroic elements, yet his mask is more reminiscent of the Gothic. It is interesting that his name in the book is “The crusader”—he is the masked crusader, but that is not such a far cry from the “caped crusader,” Batman. In the end, it amounts to the same thing—he is fighting crime to see the castle saved and returned to its rightful owner. The astute reader will guess his identity before the novel is over—he is King Richard, and his return restores the social order to not only the castle but also to England.

The Black Monk is a curious blend of Gothic and medieval pseudo-history, as well as a blend of heroes and villains. It shows early comic book elements in its pictures and its action adventure style plot. While I would not call it a seminal Gothic text, it certainly shows how the Gothic was evolving in the nineteenth century, showing us both a repentant Gothic wanderer in Agatha, not yet ready to be redeemed—I would argue that Varney the Vampire is probably the first true Gothic wanderer to be allowed redemption—and heroes who disguise their identity to fight crime—something that will eventually lead to characters like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and yes, Batman.

___________________________________________________

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

4 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Superheroes and the Gothic

Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Female Gothic Rebel: An Interpretation of Jupiter Lights

Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894) is generally regarded as an author of realism, but she was influenced by her famous great-uncle, James Fenimore Cooper, to create Gothic forest and island scenes in her early novella Castle Nowhere (1875) set near the Mackinac Straits, and while her later works are always set within the real world without any traces of the supernatural, she still used many Gothic elements to enhance her themes.

Constance Fenimore Woolson - the author of Jupiter Lights, whose title refers to lighthouses in Florida and on Lake Superior, both places Woolson visited and wrote about extensively.

Constance Fenimore Woolson – the author of Jupiter Lights, whose title refers to lighthouses in Florida and on Lake Superior, both places Woolson visited and wrote about extensively.

Woolson’s third novel, Jupiter Lights (1889), was regarded by many at the time of its publication as Woolson’s best work. After her death, however, Woolson—despite her first novel Anne (1882) being a bestseller in its day—was largely forgotten, and even when women’s texts were revived in the later twentieth century as a result of the women’s movement, Woolson remained in the shadows. I find this surprising because the heroine of Jupiter Lights, Eve Bruce, is one of the most surprising and even desperate heroines in literature, a woman not afraid to act as needed in a moment of crisis, and a character whom I believe Woolson was using to comment on and reverse old Gothic and biblical stereotypes about women. However, her rebellion against a patriarchal establishment through the pseudo-transgression she commits may have resulted in the men who determined the literary canon and even women who thought the novel went too far from celebrating this novel’s extraordinary achievement.

Gothic novels are frequently about a transgression that the main character commits and then feels deep regret over. As I’ve explored in detail in my book The Gothic Wanderer, the Gothic novels of the 1790s and beyond were highly influenced by Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), a retelling of the Garden of Eden story. In both the Bible and Paradise Lost, Eve transgresses by eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, and that story has been used for centuries to justify making women second class citizens to men. Can it be any accident then that Woolson names her heroine Eve? It is a heavy name to bear, so I believe Woolson knew fully her intentions in using it for her main character.

The novel begins in the years following the Civil War. Eve has been living in England but now returns to the United States. Her brother Jack had married a Southern belle, Cicely, and then died during the Civil War, but not before leaving a son, also named Jack. When Eve arrives in the South to visit Cicely and her nephew, she quickly learns that Cicely has remarried to a man named Ferdie. Eve is shocked by this second marriage when she is herself still grieving her brother. Soon after, she decides Cicely is not a fit mother for Jack and she begins to plot how she can take away Jack and raise him herself. To some degree, Eve seems overly emotional in her grief, and while she does not consider kidnapping Jack, she does continually try to convince Cicely to give him to her, thinking Cicely neglects him.

During this time, Ferdie is in South America on business, but when he returns, Eve soon learns the truth about Ferdie and Cicely’s marriage. Ferdie is an alcoholic, and when he is in his drunken stupor, he can explode into a rage; he is not above beating Cicely, and even worse, he once broke little Jack’s arm. Ferdie also suffers from more than drunkenness; he has a hereditary type of madness that at times consumes him. Woolson’s biographer, Anne Boyd Rioux, notes that Henry James was friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, whose The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appeared in 1886. We don’t know whether Woolson, who was close friends with James, read Stevenson’s book, but Mr. Hyde is not such a far cry from the same kind of tormented man who can turn into a monster that she depicts in Ferdie, and not unlike Milton’s Satan, who changes from an angel into a demon, Ferdie has “hell within him” and is largely helpless to dispel it.

Eve is horrified at the danger to her nephew that Ferdie represents, so she plots even more to get Jack away, but before she can accomplish it, the family goes to Singleton Island to visit relatives. While there, Ferdie flies into one of his drunken rages and it is clear he intends to murder Cicely. In the night, Eve flees from the house with Jack and Cicely. They journey through the swamps to reach a boat to escape in during the most Gothic scene in the novel. With Ferdie pursuing them, the women climb into the boat, but Eve, realizing Ferdie will be upon them before they can push off, in desperation, shoots Ferdie. Then leaving his fallen body behind, the women make their escape.

Cicely feels that the only safe place for them to go is to Ferdie’s brother, Paul, who lives far away in a mining town called Port aux Pins, on Lake Superior, in Upper Michigan. The women journey there, all the while dreading both that Ferdie will pursue them and also that Ferdie has been killed. The words Woolson uses here to describe Eve’s agony are significant:

“But, once away, the horror had come, as it always does and must, when by violence a human life has been taken. She had dropped the pistol into the Sound, but she could not drop the ghastly picture of the dark figure on the sand, with its arms making two or three spasmodic motions, then becoming suddenly still. Was he dead? If he was, she, Eve Bruce, was a murderer, a creature to be imprisoned for life,—hanged. How people would shrink from her if they knew! And how monstrous it was that she should touch Cicely! Yet she must. Cain, where is thy brother? And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. Would it come to this, that she should be forced at last to take her own life, in order to be free from the horror of murder? These were the constant thoughts of that journey northward, without one moment’s respite day or night.”

The mark of Cain is a frequent Gothic theme. The Wandering Jew and other Gothic Wanderer characters carry the mark of Cain on their brow, a sign that they are murderers or transgressors, and, therefore, cursed by God. Eve believes the only way to free herself from her guilt is to commit suicide, which is also a common Gothic theme. Many Gothic wanderer figures, including the Wandering Jew and the title character of James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampyre (1846) seek to destroy themselves. These two characters, in particular, often try to drown themselves or jump into volcanoes, but the sea and the volcanoes spit them up, refusing to let them die. Eve does not go so far as to attempt suicide, but later in the novel, she will try to lock herself away to prevent her murderous act from continuing to hurt those she loves, especially Paul.

While in Port aux Pins, the women remain silent about what happened to Ferdie. In time, Paul receives news that Ferdie was shot, and two negroes are suspected of having shot him. Eve then believes she is cleared from suspicion, but she holds guilt within her heart, even though she felt obligated to shoot Ferdie to save Cicely and Jack’s lives that night.

Cicely has fallen into a sort of mental illness by the time they reach Port aux Pins, so she is unable to provide any clarity about what happened to Ferdie. She only knows that she loves him and she wants to return to him when she learns of his gunshot wound, although Paul and Eve persuade her otherwise. She falls into great despair when she then hears that Ferdie has died.

Ferdie’s death leaves Eve in anguish over the belief that she is a murderer. Her anguish is all the greater because now she is falling in love with Paul. Added to that, Paul declares that if he ever finds out who killed Ferdie, he will shoot that man. He says he could never forgive his brother’s murderer—it must be blood for blood. Matters become more complicated when soon after, Paul and Eve confess that they love each other. However, Eve says she cannot marry him because a barrier lies between them. Paul thinks she means that she loves another man, and Eve lies when she confirms that she does because she feels she could not bear his anger and hatred if she confesses that she killed his brother.

Meanwhile, Cicely is consumed with grief over Ferdie’s death. She now curses Paul for not letting her go to him before he died, saying, “If you trust anyone, I hope that person will betray you,” an eerie foreshadowing for the day when Paul will likely learn the truth about Eve and the murderous act she committed.

Finally, consumed with guilt, Eve confesses to Cicely that she shot Ferdie. At this knowledge, Cicely goes mad. She begins reliving the events of that night and thinks they are on Singleton Island again where they were the night they escaped from Ferdie. Madness is also a common theme in the Gothic, although typically only the women go mad, such as Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, or they are accused of madness and locked up, as in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

When Cicely eventually regains her senses, she sees Paul and Eve together and realizes they are in love. She then threatens Eve with telling Paul the truth, but before she can, the novel’s most dramatic and, for this reader, terrifying event occurs.

Jack is placed in a boat on the beach and inadvertently the boat gets washed out into the lake before anyone can stop it. Eve quickly gets into another boat and begins paddling out onto Lake Superior in pursuit, while Cicely finds a man to get another boat and follow her. The scene is terrifying because Lake Superior is enormous, and several times, the women lose sight of Jack’s boat. Many times they must call to Jack on the lake and listen for his cries and then try to follow in that direction, sometimes seeing the boat, sometimes losing sight of it. Woolson refers to the women here as “wanderers” as they cross the lake on their desperate quest. Living as I do on the shore of Lake Superior, I can well-imagine how terrifying as well as realistic this scene is and how nearly impossible it would be to catch Jack’s boat.

Eventually, the women are able, despite the wind and waves, to find Jack, aided somewhat in the night by the lightning flashing in the sky. They get close enough to Jack’s boat to pull it behind theirs, but then it becomes filled with water and Eve has to jump into it to grab the sleeping Jack as it capsizes. For a moment, Eve and Jack are underwater, and then they come back to the surface. Eve hands the boy to Cicely and somehow they make it to shore.

Cicely is now so grateful to Eve for saving Jack that she promises not to tell Paul the truth about Ferdie’s death. The near drowning is almost like a baptism for Eve, as if to redeem her sins, since she gains Cicely’s forgiveness. She has also had to sacrifice her life for another’s here, just as Christ did.

But despite Cicely’s promise, Eve is consumed with guilt, so she finally tells Paul the truth, including all the details of how Ferdie threatened their lives.

The women now return South with Jack, but Cicely remains mentally unstable. She wants to return to Singleton Island and the place where the murder happened. When she and Eve go there, she loses control of her emotions and tries to choke Eve, declaring, “How do you like being dead?” Fortunately, she then faints and Eve carries her “sister” home. This scene is significant with the wording “sister” because in the Bible, Cain tells God that he is not his “brother’s keeper” and yet Eve, who equates herself with Cain, is now caring for her “sister.” She acts more like a Christian than a murderer here, and in doing so, she is replacing the Old Testament law of vengeance with the New Testament gospel of turning the other cheek and loving your enemy.

Paul now follows the women South. He finds Eve and proposes to her, telling her he understands why she shot Ferdie and that she was brave to do it, but she refuses his proposal, saying he will hate her later. She then flees to Europe without Paul knowing, and Paul is angry when he learns that Cicely did not try to stop her. Cicely only replies that she wants to make Eve suffer.

At this point, Dr. Knox, who had attended Ferdie when he was dying, returns from a trip abroad. He had gone just after Ferdie had died so he had never been able to communicate the details of Ferdie’s death to Paul. He now tells Paul that he had cured Ferdie of the bullet wound, but Ferdie died soon after from a series of drinking sprees.

Relieved by this news, Paul goes to Italy to find Eve. She is in a “retreat center,” but Paul fears it is really a convent and that she is planning to take vows. Gothic novels are full of convents in which women are often forced into vows. The women at the retreat center tell Paul no one is being forced, but Paul is desperate and even violent as he pushes people aside and tears through the building until he finds Eve and takes her in his arms, and so the novel ends, with the assumption that Paul tells Eve she is not guilty of murder.

I find this novel fascinating because Woolson is clearly rejecting and reversing the role of transgressor in her character Eve. While Eve is ultimately relieved from the guilt of being a murderer, she is also not afraid to stand up to the patriarchal system that enslaved women—in this case represented by Ferdie, who is the true Gothic monster of the novel. In other words, Eve’s attempted murder of Ferdie, which can be seen as a rebellion against the patriarchal system, is not the transgression society would have us believe. The final scene where Paul tries to free her from the convent suggests that the old secrets often contained in monasteries and castles in Gothic fiction are now free to see the light of day. In fact, that no one is forced to take vows in the convent suggests that women no longer need be imprisoned in their lives by men or religion or social pressures.

Paul’s violent entry into the convent is also an act of defeating the past, like a storming of the Bastille, and pushing away the old to make way for the new. Would it be too far to equate Paul with St. Paul, preacher of the New Testament? After all, his last name, Tennant, might be translated as “tenet,” which isn’t a far cry from “testament.” Just as Christ redeemed mankind and replaced the Old Testament with the New, so Paul can love a transgressive woman and in a sense redeem her, though in truth, she needs no redemption for she is not a transgressor since she is not guilty of murder.

In the Bible, Eve says that the serpent made her eat the fruit. Modern language has turned this concept into the phrase, “The devil made me do it.” The same may be said in this novel, if Ferdie is seen as the devil. Eve did what she had to do to protect herself and Cicely and Jack, and in that sense, shooting Ferdie was self-defense. It was not a true transgression. Even so, when Eve learns that she is not a murderer, she also need no longer feel like she is cursed and bearing the mark of Cain. Instead, she is free to marry Paul—in a sense, she is redeemed by the “good news”—the gospel—that he preaches to her of her innocence, which frees her from what may later have been the confinement of a convent.

Eve Bruce is a true Gothic wanderer both justified in her transgression and redeemed even though it turns out she never needed redemption.

Even the most ardent feminists would not publicly advocate murdering an abusive husband, even in self-defense, and so I suspect that is why this novel and Woolson have not yet been embraced by feminist scholars. Even so, Eve Bruce is a true champion for women’s rights and one of the most powerful female characters in literature, a woman with a guilty conscience who nevertheless acts when necessary to protect those she loves. She is a female Gothic wanderer and one of the most extraordinary ever created.

________________________________________________

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 series. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

8 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, The Gothic and the Bible, The Wandering Jew