Summer of 1816: Villa Diodati on the Shores of Lake Geneva

“DURING A STRETCH OF COLD, dismal summer days brought about by an environmental catastrophe, two of the most influential Gothic horror stories were born within the walls of this villa.” — atlasobscura.com

Non-comprehensive timeline:

July 18, 1814 — Percy and Mary’s initial elopement, with Jane (Claire): first to Calais, then to Paris, and on to Switzerland. Back in England by September 13, 1814.

February 18, 1815 — Mary gives birth prematurely, baby dies in infancy.

April 10, 1815 — Eruption of Mount Tamboro in Indonesia; causes worldwide climate change such that the following year became known as the Year Without a Summer. This is to explain the excessive amount of darkened skies and rainfall at Villa Diodati, Summer 1816.

January 15, 1816 — Lord Byron experiences the official loss of his wife; Lady Byron and daughter Augusta Ada left London by carriage for Kirkby Mallory before Byron rose that morning.

January 24, 1816 — Mary Shelley gives birth to a healthy son, William.

Spring 1816 — Jane (Claire) deepens her status as Lord Byron’s mistress. Later, she persuades Percy and Mary, with Baby William, to travel to Switzerland to meet up with Byron at Lake Geneva.

May 25, 1816 — Lord Byron with John Polidori arrive in Geneva, Switzerland; Percy, Mary, Baby William, and Jane (Claire) are waiting for them. Byron and Polidori lease the Villa Diodati, a large porticoed house once occupied by John Milton; Percy will lease Maison Chapuis at Montalègre.

June 10, 1816 — There begins days of ongoing darkness and rainy weather, which led to immense boredom among the group.

June 16, 1816 — A book of ghost stories entitled Fantasmagoriana (1812) is presented as a means to quell the ennui. Lord Byron then suggested having a contest in which each of them would write a ghost story. Byron didn’t follow through entirely, producing what has come to be known as “A Fragment.” And yet this is the work which John Polidori built upon to produce The Vampyre (1819). Percy wrote “A Fragment of a Ghost Story” while Mary conceived and essentially drafted what was to become her master-stroke of unparalleled, literary art.

By the hearth at Villa Diodati. From the left: Mary Shelley (Elle Fanning), Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley), Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), John Polidori (Ben Hardy), and Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). As seen in the movie Mary Shelley (2017).

July 1816 — Percy and Mary travel through the valley of Chamonix, which contributed to the realism of setting in Frankenstein.

August 29, 1816 — Percy and Mary are returned to England where, over time and with input from Percy, Frankenstein is refined into its 1818 version.

December 30, 1816 — Percy and Mary are married.

January 1, 1818 — Publication of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

April 1, 1819 — Publication of Polidori’s The Vampyre

October 31, 1831 — Publication of revised edition of Frankenstein

The publication of these two works will go on to become supreme icons of literature, phenomena unto themselves by which, their status as influence over the realm of storytelling approaches that of existing among the gods. The level by which the Villa Diodati and its surroundings contributed to the production of these works cannot be understated.

Polidori’s Vampyre

Lord Ruthven is John Polidori’s Vampyre. As a nobleman, he stands at the pinnacle of England’s Great Chain of Being, corresponding eerily with his status at the top of the food chain. Together these attributes make him an apex predator. He lurks among the fashionable elites of London high society, scanning the scene as an outsider looking in, not because of some neurotic insecurity, but because he simply doesn’t relate to people, because people are his prey. No one’s able to figure out what is so exotic about him and thus, paradoxically, he is wanted in every household for the nature of his “peculiarities.” That he exudes the essence of power and domination is undeniable; this is the source of his attraction, to those who are blind to what he really is — a very dangerous individual.

Supreme in his narcissism, the ability to manipulate is foremost in Lord Ruthven’s skill set. He combines his charismatic singularities with a “hatred of vice,” obscuring the view into his natural disposition. Believing him to be a man of wealth who is, in the same vein, a man of morals, women of rank seek to have him, and women with eligible daughters heed him in the hope that he will marry into the family. Likewise, when his sovereignty is threatened, he does not act on his emotions irrationally, lashing out with carelessness. Instead he showers his rivals with friendship and compassion, keeping his enemies close if you will, before going in for the kill, devouring them without mercy.

Lord Ruthven’s manipulative prowess is concerned with accessing, and protecting that access, to women, but there is more to what makes him dangerous. He’s sadistic. “[H]is eyes sparkled with more fire than that of the cat whilst dallying with the half-dead mouse.” This refers to his penchant for creating and increasing the suffering of those who participate in dissipation. When a drinker needs wine, he provides plentiful; when a gambler needs more money for gambling, he gives freely. Lord Ruthven takes it a step further by employing subtle tricks of the supernatural to influence the future: when a player at the table is winning, he will ensure many wins to come, increasing the likelihood of an addiction to form within said player. Lord Ruthven’s beneficiaries live to see their families starve, and on to face the most abject misery, and may even come to be “led to the scaffold.” It is all the kind of sadism that becomes glaring when, on encountering virtuous beggars merely fallen on hard times, he becomes indignant knowing that he cannot ruin them further because of their innate goodness.

We don’t grasp the full iniquity of Lord Ruthven as a vampire until we witness the actions of his bloodlust. Following the screams of a young woman and the “exultant mockery of a laugh,” we find that “upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein.” It is the defining moment, the everlasting trope of the vampire: Lord Ruthven’s immortality is secured by partaking of the blood of an innocent, young female. The associative power which extends between the mocking laugh, the draining of another’s life-force for the sake of self, and the resulting loss of life, forever enjoins the larger phenomenon of vampirism with the essence of pure evil. John Polidori’s work is done.

Polidori’s story, The Vampyre, was published in the April 1819 issue of The New Monthly Magazine. Much to both his and Byron’s chagrin, it was released as a new work by Byron. The poet released his own “Fragment of a Novel” in an attempt to fix the misunderstanding, but The Vampyre continued to be attributed to him nevertheless.

The interpretive framework from here is multitudinous, the main one being Lord Ruthven as a stand in for the aristocracy. But there are gray areas to explore: as a hunter himself, the “female hunters after notoriety” seem to get what they deserve when they chase after him, at the level that they play. For those who insist on leading lives of dissipation, the negative effects of Lord Ruthven’s actions function as a form of karma. And for notions of good vs. evil, what are we to think when we learn how Lord Ruthven’s nemesis, a young man named Aubrey, “ridiculed the idea of a young man of English habits, marrying an uneducated Greek girl.” Lord Ruthven is most certainly despicable, but this person Aubrey is actually more of a snob.

Claes Bang stars as the vampire-as-nobleman in BBC’s Dracula (2020).

The subject of attraction is difficult to miss throughout. Scientific research has produced a term called “baby schema,” which concerns the care we as humans extend towards our offspring based on the level of how “cute” we believe them to be. Of course that’s only part of the equation, but it’s behavior that is based on visual cues; and we can find the same kind of visual cues provoking behavior in the realm of physical attraction. Lord Ruthven’s vampiric activity may be nefarious, but his sustenance is derived “by feeding upon the life of a lovely female.” There is knowledge to be gleaned in understanding that the female he chooses has to be “lovely.” From an evolutionary standpoint, the human species has propagated itself by becoming better looking: people distinguish between what is attractive from what isn’t, in terms of their sexual practices, and the next generation comes into being.

But it’s not the just the “lovely female” that defines the phenomenon. Consider the amount of times the term “tall, dark and handsome” has been tossed about, and the opposite side of the coin presents itself. Lord Ruthven is the quintessential lady’s man, adapted and represented across thousands upon thousands of romance novels, their lustrous manly book covers seething with raw, masculine sexuality, archetypical of Lord Ruthven himself. The grayness of the question becomes: What is it about the stereotypical, potentially dangerous, tall, dark and handsome male that functions to trigger the interest of a “lovely female”? Is this really the evolutionary medium at work, or is there something more to the picture?

John Polidori’s The Vampyre has served as the blueprint for the vampire as we know it ever since its publication. From here we get tales such as Varney the Vampire (1845), Carmilla (1872) [which is curiously out of place since it involves lesbianism], Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and so forth and so on until we find, in some of its latest incarnations, the vampire is still a tall, dark and handsome aristocratic leaning creature in the film, Fright Night (1985/2011), with Chris Sarandon and Colin Farrell respectively. Love them or hate them, it’s certainly peculiar, even oxymoronic, that vampires have become one of humankind’s most beloved creatures of literary and filmic lore.

Chris Sarandon and Colin Farrell play modern versions of Lord Ruthven in separate versions of the film Fright Night (1985/2011).

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Other Characters:

Aubrey is an orphan from a wealthy family entering into manhood; he is “handsome, frank, and rich.” It’s a mistake when, new to London life, he decides to study the mysterious Lord Ruthven. He draws attention to himself and becomes a study unto himself. When Aubrey foils Ruthven’s plan to victimize an Italian countess and her daughter, he becomes an enemy. Aubrey’s ensuing situation formulates the viewpoint by which Lord Ruthven’s depravity is perceived.

Miss Aubrey is Aubrey’s 18-year-old sister. She’s Aubrey’s only family and dearly beloved by him. Though she is connected to the wealth of the family, she is nevertheless subject to the necessary rite of marriage during age. This is the means by which Lord Ruthven enacts his horrid scheme against Aubrey.

Ianthe, sweet and infantile, can do no wrong in the eyes of Aubrey. Her beauty and simplicity as a peasant girl endears him to her, though her stories about vampires cause him to see her as rather overly provincial. Her demise is tragic and it symbolizes the beginning of Aubrey’s descent into madness.

Lady Mercer was an adulteress fallen from grace, “who had been the mockery of every monster shewn in drawing-rooms since her marriage.” She’s one of those who sought Lord Ruthven for the sake of looking to be associated with the aristocratic classes, only to have her life ruined in the process.

A Modern Genre Novel: Labyrinth (2019) by Catherine Coulter

Catherine Coulter is one of those powerhouse writers whose oeuvre is comprised of 85 novels and counting. Her novel Labyrinth was published in 2019 and is part of a series that follows Savich and Sherlock, a pair of FBI agents who happened to be married. This particular novel is an oddity in that two different plots are developed, but are curiously intertwined by themes of family and the different kinds of family life that are described, apart from the essence of deception that ties everything all together.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is one of the more popular agencies that writers of crime fiction like to tap in to, because of the realism it provides to the stories being told.

Coulter’s two plots are launched into action in media res: a wonderfully described car accident directs the course of the first plot-line. And what are the odds that the perpetrators of the accident just so happen to be involved in a scheme of international intrigue? It’s very delicious and mind-tickling, considering that the accident victim is none other than Agent Sherlock herself, who proceeds to experience a case of retrograde amnesia. From this point another plot-path forms from out of the woodwork: in a different part of the country, one of Agent Sherlock’s associates encounters a crime-in-progress, and it’s through the connective force of an FBI camaraderie that the two stories are interwoven.

But if the notion of two plots isn’t enough to dazzle a reader, leave it to a master-of-the-craft like Coulter to introduce supernatural elements to spice up the game. Psychic powers are introduced and mind-control concepts are layered in so that the whole of the novel starts to bear the semblance of a gigantic chocolate cake, dripping with chocolate icing and syrup, topped with fresh strawberries. In truth, it does seem a little much, but it’s highly entertaining, and I believe this is entirely the point.

Imagine a novel that is so enticing and delicious you could reach out and eat it like a cake.

Many people the world over believe that psychic powers are a natural, very realistic phenomenon.

Much has been written about the differences between “genre” writing and that which may be considered “literature,” to the extent that it tends to generate controversy. For someone like Coulter, I don’t think it really matters, her résumé speaks for itself. As a reader, what I noticed most was that no matter how much a person was described “tossing their keys in the air,” or that I got to visualize “cute little dog ears over the side of a food bowl,” or that I encountered myriad variations on the “painting of her toenails” — I didn’t find myself caring as much about the characters as I did the plot. I kept glossing over phrases and whizzing through sentences so that I could hurry to the end of the book, so that I could find out what all the fuss was about. In this fashion, one thing I most certainly noticed was the difference between how long it took to read Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) and Coulter’s Labyrinth: around 22 days to read the one, about 8 hours to read the other.

Another noticeable thing were the continuous descriptions of FBI agents reputed to be astonishingly “good-looking.” Agent Savich is depicted as seriously in-shape and great to look at; Agent Sherlock is quite the looker, known to her husband for wearing tiger-striped underclothes; their colleague Agent Hammersmith is something of a living god of whom, women apparently get hot and heavy when they see him; and wouldn’t you know it — the girl he saves just so happens to have the looks of a supermodel. When the task force assembles to fill in the blanks of a later scene, it’s like we’re being treated to a law enforcement team that was formed from a workout club in Los Angeles. No less than four of these individuals have some kind of telepathic power, not counting the antagonist, and so it strays a little into the theater of the absurd; and yet it also feels a little like being drawn into superhero territory, the FBI being the people we can count on to give us hope. Alternatively, the details of their good looks, I believe, is quite naturally intentional, the goal being to make the experience feel as though it’s all playing out on television, which is part of the appeal of genre writing.

From Emmy Award winner Dick Wolf and the team behind FBI and the “Law & Order” franchise, FBI: MOST WANTED is a high-stakes drama that focuses on the Fugitive Task Force, which relentlessly tracks and captures the notorious criminals on the Bureau’s Most Wanted list. Seasoned agent Jess LaCroix oversees the highly skilled team that functions as a mobile undercover unit that is always out in the field, pursuing those who are most desperate to elude justice. Series premieres Tuesday, Jan. 7 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured (L-R) Kellan Lutz as Kenny Crosby, Keisha Castle-Hughes as Hana Gibson, Roxy Sternberg as Sheryll Barnes, Julian McMahon as Jess LaCroix and Nathaniel Arcand as Clinton Skye Photo: Mark SchaferCBS ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

At one point, members of the team end up at the CIA building in Langley, Virginia, where I was intrigued to have KRYPTOS brought to my attention. KRYPTOS is a sculptured cryptogram created by the American artist, Jim Sanborn.

“Since its dedication on November 3, 1990, there has been much speculation about the meaning of the four encrypted messages it bears. Of these four messages, the first three have been solved, while the fourth message remains one of the most famous unsolved codes in the world. The sculpture continues to be of interest to cryptanalysts, both amateur and professional, who are attempting to decipher the fourth passage. The artist has so far given three clues to this passage” (Source).

I run the risk of spoiling Coulter’s book if I analyze too much of it, since it’s relatively new, but I also get the feeling that if I did, it might be like trying to analyze a mini-series from the Rockford Files (1974-80). I mean, why would you want to do that? Not every published beast needs to undergo critical scrutiny; sometimes it’s nice just to have fun and let the words fly. Catherine Coulter’s novel is perfect for doing this, though it should be noted that her career is like a wannabe author’s dream. She’s in that position the woeful writers of the world, whose manuscripts rot away in the slush piles of publishing companies in and around New York City, imagine they’ll be in someday when that prized contract finally comes through. Coulter is the real deal, and I’m sure the day will come when I find myself blazing through another one of her fine crime thrillers.

In fact, as I’m always trying to balance out the tendencies I have for reading historic literature, I may as well fit Coulter’s novel into the list of contemporary works I’ve managed to read thus far:

Red Dragon (1981) by Thomas Harris
The Body Farm (1994) by Patricia Cornwell
Pure Instinct (1995) by Robert Walker
Black Lightning (1995) by John Saul
The Poet (1996) by Michael Connelly
Lake of Dead Languages (2002) by Carol Goodman
Sharp Objects (2006) by Gillian Flynn
Labyrinth (2019) by Catherine Coulter

Harris’s book is the one I remember being riveted by the most, probably because I’m a character/atmosphere person; a view into the life of Francis Dolarhyde is something I will never forget.

The Body Farm will always stick in my memory for the novel idea that bodies were left to rot in the open for the purposes of conducting forensic science.

Pure Instinct draws forth memories of a nasty serial killer, mad Matthew Matisak, and the terror he instilled into the poor woman trying to conduct her investigation.

John Saul’s Black Lightning is impossible to forget because the killer was the only one I ever learned about who stripped naked to commit his crimes, after shaving his whole body, committing his acts on vast sheets of clear plastic; truly demented.

The Poet is memorable for precisely just how unmemorable it is, but I believe there were poetry quotes throughout the book.

Carol Goodman gets a bad wrap for this book, and it is just so wrong because it has everything I love: snow and frozen lakes, suspicious characters, dank gothic atmosphere, and plenty of mystery.

How can anyone forget the look of Amy Adams as she drives around the Mid-west with her spaced-out, alcoholic gaze? It’s because I saw the show before I read the book, so memorable.

And, of course, Labyrinth is the latest addition to this excellent genre list, because it has dueling plots — and nothing short of a matriarch with Force-powers.

Something to Fear in Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” (1852)

Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” is the perfect piece for the beginning student of literature. A seventeen-year-old girl is charged with the care of a young toddler-child, following the death of the child’s parents, and with the mechanics of family law in place, the two are tearfully whisked away to a mysterious mansion where the supernatural reigns with abandon. The threat of danger gets real, and in the vein of Poe’s vision for the short story, the ending is appropriate and even satisfying — our storyteller’s intentions have been realized and a chill goes spiraling down the spine as the calamity goes colliding into the mind! It’s sensational writing (provided there’s a candle by your bedside and it’s a stormy night).

A standard haunted mansion cuts the line of a cloudy sky.

And then the analytical work begins. Notwithstanding, it’s the briskness of the story flow that concerns us here, as it seems, our authoress may not have endowed her narrative with the care she put into her novels, which isn’t meant to undermine her worth as a writer at all. Dickens asked her to pen the thing and by God, she penned it. What the close reader finds, accordingly, are convoluted family-lineage paths, a vague story-point or two, and a mystery at the end that, even as we think we’ve solved the riddle, the queasiness of all that’s been written has us double-thinking our conclusions. It may be tempting to go in for the unreliable narrator because, after all, we are talking about a frazzled seventeen-year-old girl here, recalled as she is now, an old nurse; but the writers of The Works of Elizabeth Gaskell, Part I Vol 3 (2017) are politely keen to suggest that Gaskell was merely “undecided” about certain aspects of the story. Maybe it’s a little of both.

The story begins in that manner so maligned in the modern age — anti-in-media-res — but Gaskell pulls it off with such charm because she is “showing us” that she is “telling” her story to a set of children, speaking in a manner that makes us feel like we’re sitting by the fire along with everyone else. Her aesthetic appears to take precedent over accuracy, considering that if Gaskell had charted out family ancestries on a separate sheet of paper, it may have compromised her narrative beauty. As a result, what we get by the time we learn about Lord Furnivall (the younger), apart from sheer confusion, is the notion that if all the parts of the lineage had been added up with precision, the old Miss Furnivall couldn’t possibly have been his “great-aunt.” But it’s just a little ghost story, right? The effect for the astute reader, nevertheless, draws to mind a sense of whimsy that for all we know, may have been intended.

Literary scholarship takes note (#13) of Elizabeth Gaskell’s continuity issue in “The Old Nurse’s Story” (1852).

The overall form makes it something of miniaturized novel. As was the standard at the time, novelists often adorned their opening chapters with a discussion about who was who in the world, replete with social standings and what everyone did for a living. By the time such details are established, the ball gets rolling with the action, which means for the nurse’s story, that the young Hester is being carted away from home with her new charge, the adoring Miss Rosamond, as they contend with feelings of loss — the death of a mother and father, an impending unfamiliar environment on the horizon. And this is where the text really begins to sing.

Gaskell’s tender narrative voice allows us to visualize a teenage girl who travels with her little Miss Rosamond as though their “hearts would break,” with a layover in a roughened town full of “colliers and miners.” (On this point, Gaskell couldn’t resist invoking imagery that is strongly associated with Chartism, an issue she felt very strongly about.) On arriving at the mansion where they are to reside, gnarled trees are overgrown and foreboding, the residents elderly and leering, causing the child Miss Rosamond to feel “scared and lost.” Before long the house organ begins to play by itself, which comes on the heels of learning that no one is ever to enter the east wing. The dreaded east wing! Gothic atmosphere at its finest, what could possibly go wrong?

Something about thick mist can cause the branches of certain trees to become “gnarled,” making for excellent imagery in a haunted house story.

The joy of discovering that a mystery lurks, combined with the chilling atmosphere, is what underscores the lasting impression Gaskell’s story imposes on the literary canon. Which begs the question: Why scrutinize it? Didn’t Barthes teach us about the pleasures of the text? As Ruth from the Ghostwriter so eloquently quipped, leave it to a researcher to ruin a good story with “too much research.” The problem is that quality literature demands scrutiny because, in the end, doing so elevates and edifies the work so that text and author receive the credit due of which they’re completely entitled.

For instance, we have — IMHO — the most perplexing line of the entire story:

“Folk did say he [Lord Furnivall (the younger)] had loved my young mistress; but that, because she knew that his father would object, she would never listen to him, and married Mr. Esthwaite; but I don’t know.”

Alright. The mistress here is Miss Rosamond; Hester is telling the story to this person’s children, also known as “my dears.” This would imply that much time has passed, so how could she not know? Even stranger: Mr. Esthwaite had just been described as Miss Rosamond’s uncle, so did she just suggest that she married him? Multiple readings fail to present answers on this note, but that she admits that she doesn’t know, it’s a curious narrative tincture on both the text and the meta-text, and even the subtext for that matter.

Another curiosity involves the paintings of Miss Grace and Miss Maude. When Hester and old Dorothy are upstairs rummaging through things, Dorothy tells Hester that with regard to Miss Maude’s portrait, she “must never let on” that she has seen it. Later in the story, turns out that portraits of both sisters have been in the state drawing-room the entire time. What’s the big deal about being secretive if everyone sees both portraits every day all the time?

Portraits of unknown beautiful women, circa 18th Century.

At the end, when trying process the thrill of the climax, the obscuring of character identity has us wondering what element of the supernatural we’re supposed to be observing. A woman had been spotted with the ghost-child in the snow; this ghost child is Miss Maude’s daughter. So, when the awful Lord Furnivall (the elder) makes his ghost-presence known visually, and he has two ghost-women with him, which are the two sisters, along with the ghost-child for good measure — then when the elderly Miss Furnivall begins yelling and hollering about the past, are we to understand that we are looking at both: Miss Maude the old in the flesh — AND — Miss Maude as a younger version of herself, superimposed upon the real world through some oddball astral phenomenon of identity projection? Was she, in fact, the woman out there in the snow with the ghost-child? Is she alive, is she dead, or is she both? I don’t know how to explain any of this, but it’s a new one and it’s certainly creative.

Gothic tales were a sensation during the late-18th Century, certain to keep readers on edge as to what the world around them may hold. (Image provided by The Imaginative Conservative)

Any discussion on Gaskell’s nurse’s story does not end without an examination of Lord Furnivall (the elder), and how his behavior stands at the pinnacle of the entire horror of the plot. He represents the patriarchal need for utter control and how this kind of thinking can ruin a family. As a lover of music, he hired a young foreign man from London to play along with him and to instruct him “every year.” This would indicate the amount of time they must’ve spent together; but because the man was “young” and “foreign” and from “London,” what are the odds that he would turn his eye to the lovely daughters roaming about the place, all lonesome amid that northerly British climate? Need I say more?

The logic that follows is that Lord Furnivall did not only exhibit concern about the interplay between the young man and his daughters, which is somewhat natural for a father, but that he was jealous as well. The young man had been attending to him for hours on end, installing a great organ for him to play even, so when Lord Furnivall felt that he was no longer the primary interest, temper tantrums ensued, described on a more whole-scale fashion as his manner of exerting “cruelty.” It’s really just a side-note that the young man was entertaining both daughters, discrediting him with regard to honor and decency; the guy was a player. What it’s really all about is the fact that some bogus marriage unfolded with one of the daughters, Miss Maude, and that she had a child. It was the final straw for Lord Furnivall, but why exactly?

Victorian men were happy so long as the household and everything else went according to plan. (Image provided by victorian-era.org)

Of course there’s the jealousy that results from feeling betrayed, but there is the time-period of the age to consider, and how marriages were often arranged, if at all possible, with goals for the future in mind, such as uniting with another prominent family for example. Miss Maude defied her father to marry his private music instructor, without consultation, and he was enraged. Scandal could ruin a man; Lord Furnivall saw pure hell. Some speculation has been given to the notion that because the young man was a “dark foreigner,” that somehow Lord Furnivall beat Miss Maude’s child because he was racist, but there’s not enough information to complete that argument. He hired the young foreign man to play music with him so that the “very birds on the trees stopped their singing to listen,” so I’m not feeling the racist element. I’m feeling the patriarchal need for control: Lord Furnivall couldn’t control his hired musician when he learned what was going on, and he couldn’t control his daughters to stop them from luring the man away for their walks in the woods. In the end, leave it to a man like Lord Furnivall to smack the product of all this riffraff with a stick, in a fit of fury, and with the poor child injured and exiled from the home, it’s no wonder that she froze to death in the snow.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s contribution to paranormal literature certainly doesn’t stop with the introduction of the ghost of such a terrible person. On a deeper level, the thing to fear in her story can be found in the trope of being destroyed by that which we love, or that which we think we love. Little Miss Rosamond was drawn into the cold by something she adored — and it nearly killed her, a fascinating concept to consider. It’s irony in its purest form, murderous. What thing is it that you love, which eats at you day by day? Are you perpetually seeking the affections of a man who drains you of your life’s vitality? You crave the rave, but don’t you wake up the next morning half-dead from overdoing it? Maybe Gaskell is channeling the myth of the Siren, so that when beauty calls and blinds a love-stricken man, all that’s left behind is his dead body. Or maybe you could just eat a bag of delicious chocolate chip cookies until you fall into a diabetic coma (like I do), but just make sure you’ve got one of Gaskell’s ghost stories to get you through the adventure, because she’s certainly worth the read.

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For good measure, evolving from when I labored to figure out the elements of the story, a character list has been provided, with an added note from our literary scholars, who helped as well to clear up the confusion about the character of Agnes (also known as Bessy).

Hester [narrator]: age seventeen; nurse-maid to little Miss Rosamond; from Westmoreland; good at sewing; a steady, honest girl, whose parents were very respectable but poor; brave, high-spirited [Hester is narrating the story at a time when she is much older.]

Miss Rosamond: age four or five; orphan, only child; little, sweet, bold, open-spoken; playing and pranking hither and thither, with a continual murmur; a pretty prattle of gladness; behaves pretty

James: old footman; hospitable, kind; lifelong servant at Furnivall household

Dorothy: married to James; originally from Westmoreland, lived on a farm; hospitable, kind

Agnes: servant to James and Dorothy; kitchen-maid

Miss Maude Furnivall: great-aunt to Lord Furnivall [the younger]; not far from eighty; thin and tall; face as full of fine wrinkles as if they had been drawn all over it with a needle’s point; eyes were very watchful, because of being so deaf as to be obliged to use a trumpet; wore spectacles; had been in youth prettier and prouder than Miss Grace

Mrs. Stark: lifetime servant and companion to Miss Maude, almost as old; she looked cold, grey, stony, as if she had never loved or cared for anyone except her mistress; dull; treated Miss Maude very much like a child, because of her deafness; wore spectacles

Lord Furnivall [the younger]: Miss Rosamond’s mother’s cousin; a stern proud man, as were all the Lords Furnivalls; never spoke a word more than was necessary; never married, though he thought of marrying Miss Rosamond

Mr. Esthwaite: Miss Rosamond’s uncle, brother to her father; shopkeeper in Manchester; came out of poverty, and grew a family [?with Miss Rosamond?]

Mr. Henry: servant to Lord Furnivall [the younger]

Lord Furnivall [the elder]: Maude and Grace’s father; loved music; could play many instruments; eaten up with pride; fierce, dour, awful temper; broke his wife’s heart with his cruelty; abused Maude’s child; as a ghost he plays the house organ

Miss Grace Furnivall: younger sister to Miss Maude; beautiful, proud; vindictive, seeks revenge

Musician from London: invited by Lord Furnivall [the elder] to play music with him; foreigner; secretly married Maude, got her pregnant; was a player with both sisters; eventually vacated the situation

Brother #1: Miss Grace and Miss Maude’s brother in the British army over in America

Brother #2: another brother of theirs who is “at sea”

Shepherd: finds little Miss Rosamond in the snow

“my dears”: children of Miss Rosamond

Miss Maude’s daughter: specter child; illegitimate; presumed a cottager’s child; beaten and outcast by Lord Furnivall [the elder]; died of exposure

Miss Rosamond’s mother: pretty young lady; died of broken heart, possibly miscarriage

Miss Rosamond’s father: took long rides, sometimes in the rain; died of fever from riding in the rain; came from questionable “stock”

Miss Rosamond’s grandmother: real lady born; no brothers or sisters; ventures to hire Hester as a nurse-maid

Miss Rosamond’s grandfather: Westmoreland clergyman; son to a shopkeeper in Carlisle; clever, fine gentleman; right-down hard worker

Gaskell may have written her story in a blaze of creativity, underscoring the profundity of inspiration, while explaining the mishap between the names of Agnes and Bessy, which is something that’s beyond forgivable for a story that will most certainly endure millennia.

Carmilla (1872)

Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla concerns the vampiress we know and love, because she loves us more than we love her. That is, if you’re the object of her desire. If not, then there’s no hope. Carmilla will drain you of life and you will die. Of course, as the novella would have us know, she seems partial to women, so the guys don’t have much to worry about. Unless they’re Victorian men and they feel threatened by feminine power. In this case the subtextual message runs its course as the men gather and plot to destroy this out of control woman and her wily ways.

Without delving into the problem of the patriarchy, Carmilla is known for the road it paves for lesbianism. Carmilla is insinuated as being responsible for the epidemic death that flourishes in the countryside, but she is seen pouring out her affections for the lovely Laura. Curious is Laura’s reaction for the way it mirrors the true-to-life phenomenon when a person confronts the possibility they may be homosexual. Laura is alarmed by Carmilla’s raptures but is not entirely put off by them. They stir her thoughts in ways that come off as though she has to consider how she really feels, where “the sense of attraction immensely prevailed.” The notion that Laura and Carmilla had the same dream-visions as children, and that they were destined to meet later in life, speaks to the modern scientific hypothesis that some people are predestined to be homosexual, determined by genetics even. What is certain concerns how modern media storytelling outlets (e.g. Hollywood television and movies) capitalize on the Carmilla story to usher in, as they do with any hot social topic, modes of social acceptance regarding the LGBTQ community. Bram Stoker may have penned an ultimate vampire legacy which addresses repressed sexuality but in truth, Le Fanu one-ups him by introducing the progressive angle — and the rest is history.

Julia Pietrucha as Carmilla and Eleanor Tomlinson as Lara in Styria (2014).

Carmilla as a story certainly has some oddities. Perplexing is Carmilla’s so-called mother who in doubling instances, sets about the task of unloading the vampiress upon unsuspecting older men with daughters and nieces. We never know who this woman is nor how this activity she engages in serves any specific purpose. Does she know that Carmilla is a vampire? What is her purpose if she doesn’t? What does she stand to gain if she does? The information is never conveyed. And then there’s the added mystery woman who was spotted the night of the accident…

“…with a sort of colored turban on her head, and who was gazing all the time from the carriage window, nodding and grinning derisively towards the ladies, with gleaming eyes and large white eyeballs, and her teeth set as if in fury.”

The answers never come as we are presented only with the mother vanishing off to towns that are leagues away, and the woman with the turban is only mentioned once. There is one scene in which the mother declares she knows General Spielsdorf, but since they meet at a masquerade, she wears a mask, refuses to disclose who she is, leaves Millarca (Carmilla) with him, and is never seen again. So I’m throwing my hands up in the air on these.

Elise Bauman as Laura and Natasha Negovanlis as Carmilla in the television show Carmilla (2014-16).

Carmilla herself is a wondrous marvel. Her manner is positively childlike and yet her personality bears the markers of possession. She dazzles with the magnetism of her charm yet she coerces with the spirit of her bloodlust. Plainly speaking, it’s manipulation, which makes her dangerous. Whatever the cloaked message is concerning the freedom for women to love other women, Carmilla is not herself; she is a murderess. She is a cold-blooded killer, though I dare say, her aspect as a vampire is gluttonously impressive when her coffin is discovered, revealing how she reposes in a pool of blood seven inches deep.

Her vampire consciousness controls how she behaves, the classic trope of sexuality leading from death and murder to eternal life, but it’s couched in this odd human/inhuman element in which philosophy is applied to justify Carmilla’s actions. When Laura’s father considers the epidemic that is killing the local young girls, he comforts the group by proclaiming how they are in God the Creator’s hands. Carmilla responds:

“Creator! Nature!…And this disease that invades the country is natural. Nature. All things proceed from Nature — don’t they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth, act and live as Nature ordains? I think so.”

Lily Cole plays the mysterious Carmilla figure in the movie rendition of Rachel Klein’s 2002 novel, The Moth Diaries (2011).

Carmilla callously simplifies the vampire’s need to prey on humans by implying that it’s merely in their nature to do so. Notions of good vs. evil are lost in a Darwinian maelstrom of psycho-sexual gold where the evolutionary traits of mating by laws of attraction underscores the behavior. For a vampire to survive, in spite of it’s gender, they must entice, befriend, and feed on young and pretty girls. Charm, beauty, poetic passion, youth, intelligence, all comprise the tactical method of operation, and it’s for Carmilla to analogize that it’s nothing more than a viral outbreak’s instinct to spread.

Apart from the delicious intrigue of Carmilla as vampire, it might be worth noting on the side how Laura and her father claim not to be “magnificent people,” that they are supplied by only a “small income,” yet they happen to live in what was known a “schloss,” a great castle-home with no less than “five and twenty” rooms. Excuse me? One theory of reading takes into account how the passing of time will affect reader point-of-view; this is where the constructs of that theory come into play. Nowadays only the notorious one-percent live in such extravagance and so for a book that was written in 1872, it’s fair to say that times have certainly changed. I want my schloss and I want it now.

Carmilla is wonderful reading and stands as the precursor to Bram Stoker’s masterpiece (though it’s odd how Dan Jones didn’t mention that). For the connoisseur of Victorian Horror, it is a must read; for the literary social historian, it is a valuable artifact. It takes models of family structure and social norms and turns them on their head for public display during an age when it was risky to do so. People have been having ideas about how society can change for eons, and we can thank the masters of literary art and art in general for the way we can see how this change can come around to be more than perfectly acceptable.

Transformation (1831)

Mary Shelley’s Transformation is a work of short fiction that bears some interesting similarities to the masterwork that is her magnum opus, Frankenstein (1818/31). It speaks to the psychological undercurrent that writers experience, even as H. M. Jones has suggested, that “our novelists search the subconscious mind…in order to achieve reality, the mode of achieving verisimilitude” (xx). This “search” is the meditative process that extraordinary art requires, which for Shelley is the opportunity to do what she does best, pairing bold, exquisite language with the recurrent themes that linger in her imagination.

Some comparisons go as follows:

1A) Victor Frankenstein is a self-assured student of medicine who through his ambitions, believes he can control the forces of nature, which underscores his character with a sense of arrogance.

1B) Guido of Genoa has an “imperious, haughty, tameless spirit.” He realizes the “wild impetuosity” of his character and states that he was “insolent and domineering,” and possessed of a “rebel heart.”

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2A) After experiencing a drastic chain of events, Victor finds himself scaling the Alps, alone seeking solace from the world and its woes.

2B) Having lost everything as a result of his behavior, Guido finds himself wandering alone the shores of the sea.

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3A) Surrounded by the vast mountainside isolation, Victor encounters the monstrous “fiend” bounding towards him, a sight that is highly unusual. The two end up conversing about the great dilemma Victor has caused for them both.

3B) Along the isolated sea shore, Guido observes a shipwreck from which the sight of a surviving dwarf “bestrding a sea-chest” is astonishing and very strange to see. They come to discuss Guido’s unfortunate predicament.

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4A) A voyeuristic theme emerges in connection with the loss of love, when Victor’s creation is seen peering through the window, where a mate is about to be created for him. Here the loss of love actually comes to take place.

4B) Voyeurism makes an appearance when Guido “hid himself” to watch the window of his love, who is set to marry the dwarf who is inhabiting his body. Here the loss of love is threatened.

Victor Frankenstein’s abhorred creation attempts love in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Both narratives establish characters who experience the “great-is-thy-pride” theme, which translates into the inevitable and subsequent theme, “the greater thy pride, the harder thy fall.” Victor and Guido are dumbfounded by the consequences of their actions, and turn to the sublimity of nature as a means to remedy their inner turmoil. Nature is viewed here as the go-to source for healing and wisdom in the presence of emotional discomfort and confusion. As well, the natural space becomes the metaphorical space of the mind, a natural-world battlefield where the ugliness of the alter-ego is forced to make an appearance for the purposes of confrontation.

Both confrontations are pivotal story points designed to bring forth a resolution, speaking to the human condition which all humans must face, the path of coming to terms with the debacle of self. For Victor, his alter-ego is personified as an unspeakably strong monster, representing the fostered arrogance which has grown to overpower him. For Guido, his cocksure, near-criminally-minded ways are represented and personified as the dwarf-human whose voice was “screeching and horrid, and his contortions as he spoke were frightful to behold.”

The dwarf is a fascinating aspect of Transformation for the way it ushers in the Victorian view of dwarfism, as seen in the writings of other authors. In 1872, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla describes a hunchback with “sharp lean features that generally accompany deformity,” who has a “pointed black beard…white fangs…and a grotesque hat.” In 1891, Oscar Wilde echoes a more startling picture, and the shame it incurs, when he describes what happens at The Birthday of the Infanta — when a dwarf who has never seen himself looks in a mirror, he realizes: “It was a monster, the most grotesque monster he had ever beheld.” Such views have a history, as we see in Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall (1762) — when a visitor spots what he believes to be a small zoo, a proprietor answers that the enclosure is an “asylum for those poor creatures who are rendered miserable from some natural deficiency or redundancy,” little people “whose deformity would lead them to wish to be secluded from human view.” Here they are kept from the “monster-mongers” who would display them, where the cost of the “maintenance of the monsters [is] a hundred and twenty.” The notion of displaying little people for money, along with the world of others who look different, reaches into the 20th Century, where criticism has been heaped upon Todd Browning’s notoriously ill-conceived movie, Freaks (1932).

G.R.R. Martin capitalizes on the olden view of dwarfs as undesirable in his book and television series A Game of Thrones (1996-2019). His view is vindicated as he seizes the opportunity to thoroughly celebrate the character and the actor who portrays him, Peter Dinklage.

Shelley’s depiction of a dwarf as “misshapen” is not so much a politically incorrect standpoint as it is, what I would term, a Barthesian Slip. Roland Barthes posited that writing does not need an authorial tag because an author is merely the transfer point between society and the written page (Source). The Great British perception of dwarfism emerges through Shelley’s writing; her mind is but an extension of a larger state of consciousness. Shelley’s authorship, as any author’s might, functions as the interpretation of the social mores of her day, even when judgments as to the exact nature of insensitivity are difficult to define and comprehend.

The form of Transformation is certainly worthy of note. To read it in a day or two sitting as a compact version of the Frankenstein story is to experience in real time the vivid power of language. Written in the first-person, the first few acts consist of Guido “telling” us about the horror he has caused, a combination of conveyed events with heartfelt confessionals that read like intense poetry.

“I arrived in Genoa. I trod the pavement of my ancestral palace. My proud step was no interpreter of my heart, for I deeply felt that, though surrounded by every luxury, I was a beggar. The first step I took in claiming Juliet must widely declare me such. I read contempt or pity in the looks of all. I fancied that rich and poor, young and old, all regarded me with derision. Torella came not near me. No wonder that my second father should expect a son’s deference from me in waiting first on him. But, galled and stung by a sense of my follies and demerit, I strove to throw the blame on others.”

The language is dense and requires careful reading, yet when the moment arrives when he agonizes at sea, the sudden “showing” of the scene becomes impacting on the mind. We are treated to lustrous visuals along with a sense of alarm, thus drawing in the readership into the stakes of the story.

“Even now my heart fails within me when I recur to this rout of grim-visaged ideas. Now subdued almost to tears, now raving in my agony, still I wandered along the rocky shore, which grew at each step wilder and more desolate. Hanging rocks and hoar precipices overlooked the tideless ocean; black caverns yawned; and for ever, among the seaworn recesses, murmured and dashed the unfruitful waters.”

The key formulaic detail that alters the text from condensed story-telling to the sudden feeling of immersion is found in the dialogue, and the effect which reflects the very title itself becomes complete. The story literally “transforms” from the diegetic to the mimetic, serving to move a claustrophobic texture to that which is open and breathable, allowing for a lightening of the mind, a chance to ride the wave of the plot-line.

Transformation stands in opposition to Frankenstein when the ending unfolds, and for this we are thankful. The sense of tragedy that clung to the lives of people before and during the Victorian Era is hard to fathom — Chartism was a nightmare, civil rights were unheard of, children had it very rough, and the continual presence of death from disease, most notably in tuberculosis among others, must have been a nuisance. To read then a story in which a protagonist changes his ways to become a better person is the kind of writing of which, if Shelley was a conduit of the times, then what she gave back was the notion that matters do not have to remain as they stand.


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Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Essay, 1967. UbuWeb, 2019.

Jones, Howard Mumford. Introduction. Joseph Andrews, by Henry Fielding, 1742. The Modern Library, Random House, Inc., 1939.

Le Fanu, Sheridan. “Carmilla.” In a Glass Darkly. London, 1872.

Scott, Sarah. Millenium Hall. London, 1762.

Shelley, Mary. “Transformation.” The Keepsake. London, 1831.

Wilde, Oscar. “Birthday of the Infanta.” A House of Pomegranates. London, 1891.