Sunday, July 6, 2014

Origins of the Short Story in British Romantic Period: Part II: "Dream Children," "The Vampyre," "Wandering Willie's Tale"

T. O Beachcroft suggests that Charles Lamb's most famous essay, "Dream Children," from   Essays of Elia (1822), because of its narrative movement and its management of time between the present and the past, is a central example of the emergence of the short story from the essay.  However, the piece is typical of  basic short story conventions in more intrinsic ways in that it is a story about the telling of story as well as a story about a purely imaginative event. It also anticipates the short story in depending upon a surprise ending in which storytelling itself is revealed to be reverie. On a first reading of "Dream Children," one has no reason to doubt the actuality of the dramatic event described: that of the narrator's children sitting around him to hear about their great grandmother and their uncle, that is, until the very end of the piece when the narrator awakes and finds himself in his bachelor arm chair. 
The mode of the story does not make it clear whether it is a pure dream tale or whether it is a combination of dream and reverie, a kind of hypnogogic state. The latter seems the most likely, both because of the subtitle, "A Reverie," and because of the specificity of the events recalled from the past. The story is a combination of both dream and memory; the tale the narrator tells to the children is memory, but the children themselves are a product of projective imagination. The entire story is told in terms of the telling of the telling; the present time is that of Elia writing about his telling the story to the children. The imagined events, because they correspond so closely to reactions of the children to the  story itself, so convince us of the irreality that we are affected by the sentimental nature of the whole of the tale until the conclusion when we discover that the teller is an old bachelor and that the children are only those who might have been.  
No one really exists in the piece except the teller himself; all are shades of those who have been or those who are never to be. "Dream Children" is an interesting experiment in the creation of ideal fictional listeners who respond to the separate events of the tale. Thus, the truly narrative mode of the work lies not in the memory that is related, for that indeed is only reverie, but in the narrative of the telling of memory events, in the creation of the listeners to the story. The structure of the piece consists of the alternation of long passages of discursive recollection, beginning with the phrase, "Then I told them how..." with short descriptions of the children's reactions, beginning with such phrases as "Here Alice put on one of her dear mother's looks," "Here John smiled, as much as to say...," 'Here the children fell a crying...." The climax comes when the teller, talking to the children about their dead mother, looks at the child Alice and "the soul of the first Alice looked out of her eyes with such a reality of presentment, that I became in doubt which of them stood there before me." 
  While the narrator gazes, the children grow fainter and recede until only their "mournful features" are seen in the distance, "which, without speech, strangely impressed upon me the effects of speech: 'We are not of Alice, nor of thee, nor are we children at all.... We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams.'"  Because the piece depends so much on the revelation at the end that the "as if real" children listening to the reminiscences are dream children only, the story bears some resemblance to other stories later in the nineteenth century in which a supposedly real character is revealed at the end to be a product of the imagination. Thomas Aldrich's famous American short story "Marjorie Daw" is the most obvious example, but this motif is a common one in the short story in the nineteenth century and is part of the general romantic emphasis on responding to the imaginary as the most significant real. 

Although John Polidori's "The Vampyre: A Tale" (1819) cannot be said to have had a direct influence on the development of the short story in English literature, it deserves mention as the first vampire story in English, which gave rise later to Sheridan LeFanu's "Carmilla" and many other gothic stories in the latter half of the century. The manner of the story has often been criticized as pretentious, convoluted, and prolix, although the plot idea and many of its details have been said to derive from Byron, most directly from "A Fragment" which Byron appended to  Mazeppa in 1819, and from his earlier verse tale, "The Giaour." 
It is not clear that "The Vampyre" is the story which Polidori started on that famous night on Lake Geneva, for Mary Shelley in her introduction to Frankenstein says that Polidori had in mind some "terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a keyhole."  It is more likely that after Byron dismissed Polidori from his service as a physician, Polidori made use of both Byron's public image and Byron's work to create the prototype of the Byronic vampire, Lord Ruthven. Thus, the story is important in the history of gothic romance, and since the gothic is the predominant form of the English nineteenth-century short story, it is important for a study of short fiction in that period also.  However, it is significant for my purposes in a more intrinsic way, primarily in the manner with which it deals with character.  
Indeed the most interesting aspect of "The Vampyre" is the character of the central figure Aubrey and his relationship to the larger-than-life figure of Lord Ruthven, for it is truly Aubrey's story that is central here. Lord Ruthven,  a mysterious figure who inspires awe in those who see him, is more an objectification of Aubrey's own conflicting desires than he is a folklore vampire figure from European myth. His arrival in London is coincident with the arrival of Aubrey, a young gentleman who "cultivated more his imagination than his judgment." Aubrey's central characteristic is that he thinks "the dreams of poets "are the "realities of life." However, discovering that there is "no foundation in real life for any of that congeries of pleasing pictures and descriptions contained in those volumes, from which he had formed his study," he is about to relinquish his dreams when he meets Lord Ruthven, who becomes indeed a figure of the imagination made real. 
In a sentence that both reflects the awkwardness of Polidori's style and the focus of the relationship between Aubrey and Ruthven, we see a central theme of short fiction in the nineteenth century:  "He watched him; and the very impossibility of forming an idea of the character of a man entirely absorbed in himself, who gave few other signs of his observation of external objects, than the tacit assent to their existence, implied by the avoidance of their contact:  allowing his imagination to picture everything that flattered its propensity to extravagant ideas, he soon formed this object into the hero of a romance, and determined to observe the offspring of his fancy, rather than the person before him."  In the last half of the century, this projection of an imaginative state outward and then the response to it as if it existed in the external world is a dominant short fiction motif.  
  The narrative thrust of the story, as it is for many stories later in the century, is Aubrey's desire to "break that mystery, which to his exalted imagination began to assume the appearance of something supernatural." When Aubrey decides to leave Ruthven in Rome and to travel alone to Greece, another common nineteenth century short story motif is introduced--the projection of the desire for the spiritually beautiful on to an object in the external world.  The Greek girl Ianthe becomes an embodiment of the mystery of pure innocence for Aubrey, "a vision of romance," a "fairy form." After Ianthe is killed, presumably by Ruthven,  Aubrey, in his delirium and despair, calls upon Lord Ruthven and Ianthe as if "by some unaccountable combination he seemed to beg of his former companion to spare the being he loved." The combination is "unaccountable" only in the manifest level of the story. On the unconscious level, it suggests that Ruthven and Ianthe are Manichean projections of Aubrey's own imagination. Indeed, Ruthven's very existence depends on Aubrey's projection of him.   
As the events of the story come full circle, Aubrey is constantly haunted by  Lord Ruthven; he withdraws to solitude and deteriorates both physically and mentally because of his obsession. Aubrey is finally considered insane and  confined to his chambers.  Ultimately,  because his rage cannot be vented against Lord Ruthven (in the manifest story because of an illogical and unmotivated promise, but in the latent story because Lord Ruthven is indeed his own projection) Aubrey breaks a blood vessel. When the hour of midnight strikes, marking the end of his promise, Aubrey "frees himself" by writing the story we have been reading and dies immediately afterwards. 
"The Vampyre" is a flawed version of the kind of story which Robert Louis Stevenson later perfects in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," but it is a typical romantic gothic story, for just as Mary Shelley in Frankenstein develops the monster as a projection of Victor Frankenstein's own repressed nature, so also does Aubrey project his own desires on Lord Ruthven, creating out of him a creature of his own imagination. What seems highly implausible in the tale--the fairy tale figure of Ianthe, the promise that Aubrey makes to Ruthven, the illogical companionship of the two men, the marriage of Aubrey's sister to Ruthven—can be accounted for by understanding the image of Ruthven as the active double of the passive and imaginative Aubrey.  The story is an interesting, if primitive, version of a quite common romantic short fiction convention: the mysterious evil figure, projected as an embodiment of the imagination of the central character--a figure who seems more a denizen of story reality than of external reality.  
Poe, of course, develops this motif to its most polished extreme in "The Fall of the House of Usher," although other examples of the theme can be seen in tales throughout the nineteenth century. Aubrey is the typical romantic searcher for that which is supernatural, i.e. that which is a product of the pure imagination. The romantic notion of the quest for the purely spiritual (which then ironically is reduced to the  merely physical), or the corresponding quest for the spiritual in the physical,  can be seen later in the gothic fictions of Hawthorne, Poe, Le Fanu, Bulwer Lytton, and others.  It is also a common theme in the stories of Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Hoffman, Gautier, and Nerval. I am not suggesting that Polidori is responsible for these themes, but rather that he serves as the clumsy transmitter of romantic motifs which become common devices in short fiction later in the century. 

The best known example of the oral folk tale in the early nineteenth century is Sir Walter Scott's insert tale in  Redgauntlet which is often anthologized as "Wandering Willie's Tale" (1824).  Told by the blind fiddler Willie Steenson, the story has been called by Wendell Harris and Julia Briggs Scott's "only fully successful brief narrative" and "almost a textbook example of the well-told tale as opposed to the short story." The story differs from the previous pieces I have discussed in that it is  oral rather than written and thus more radically foregrounds the character of the teller.  Because the tone of the tale takes on such importance, the story manifests a self-conscious ambiguity as to whether the events recounted are supernatural or psychologically realistic. The story has much the same oral ironic tone as the famous tales by Washington Irving and much the same ambiguity  concerning the tension between dream reality and external reality as the tales of Hawthorne. 
"Wandering Willie's Tale" forms an interesting bridge between the traditional folk tale in which confrontations with the devil are the stock in trade and the later British mystery story in which the supposed supernatural is accounted for in a grotesque but naturalistic way. Thus, there are both folklore elements as well as literary elements in the story, although the literary is not as pronounced as in the works of Washington Irving who subsumes the folk tale by a more sophisticated style of the teller. Although the Scottish dialect of Willie's telling and the somewhat trivial crux of the missing money and rent receipt on which the story depends undercut the seriousness of the supernatural and make the story a cause for chuckles rather than horror, what primarily makes the story more interesting than the old fashioned ghost story is the foregrounding of the theme of the supernaturalizing of the natural which lies at the very heart of the folk tale impulse itself.  As is evident from his  Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, Scott was familiar enough with this impulse to play with the conventions that underlie it. 
Both the supernatural and the natural are presented side by side in the tale to create a pattern of motifs which mocks the Lord of the manor, Sir Robert, even as it also lightly mocks the supernatural explanation  of mysterious events.  The central events in the story are the mysterious disappearance of the rent money which Steenie pays to Sir Robert just before his death and Steenie's consequent visit to hell to obtain the receipt he needs to prove he paid the rent. The basic manifest motivation of the tale is to clear Steenie's good name, even as the satiric thrust is to lay disrepute on the name of Redgauntlet and thus register a triumph of the lower class over the higher. 
Sir Robert is presented as a powerful figure so hated and feared that he is made mythical by the folk as one who has a compact with Satan. This fearsome image is undercut when Steenie goes to pay the master his rent, for Sir Robert  dies in grotesquely comic struggle with the gout, screaming for water to put his legs in, all the time being mocked by his pet Jack an'ape. The Jack an'ape plays a crucial role in the story not only in providing the naturalistic explanation for many of the seemingly supernatural events, but in being presented as a grotesque "familiar" for Sir Robert, both of whom bear the image of the fiend in the folk imagination  "a fearsome couple." At the end of the story, Willie notes that many feel that the shape of the fiend that the butler saw on Sir Robert's coffin was the monkey, as it was the monkey who blew the master's silver whistle which summoned the butler to his death from fright. It is of course the ape also who is responsible for hiding the money in the old turret called "Cat's Cradle." Thus the monkey serves as a crucial naturalistic explanation for supposed supernatural events as well as a metaphoric image of Sir Robert himself. 
Stennie's trip to hell to get the receipt is seemingly motivated by his drinking of brandy and his calling upon Satan to help clear his name of being a thief and a cheat. However, it is also an objectification of Steenie's exasperated reply to Sir Robert's son's question about the whereabouts of the money: it is "in hell!  with your father and his silver whistle." The stranger who meets Steenie in his ride through the dark forest is a typical figure of folklore which both Irving and Hawthorne use in their tales of Sleepy Hollow and Young Goodman Brown. Steenie responds to his journey to a hell like image of the Redgauntlet castle filled with ghastly revelers as if he were "like a man in a dream."  After receiving the receipt from Sir Robert and being ordered to return in one year, Steenie calls on God's name and immediately finds himself lying in the old churchyard of the Redgauntlet parish. "Steenie would have thought the whole thing was a dream, but he had the receipt in his hand."
 The explanation of the mystery of the money is provided very quickly, as Sir John finds the Cat's Cradle, kills the jack an'ape, and urges Steenie to say nothing about his "dream" in the wood of Pittmurkie. Thus, the central ambiguity of the tale, whether the events took place in the realm of superstition and folklore or whether they took place in the real world depends on whether it is the Lord of the manor's good name that is to be preserved or whether it is Steenie's reputation that must be secured.  Thus, because of the ambiguous tone of the teller, "Wandering Willie's Tale" marks a transition from the supernatural tale of the folk to the modern short story in which the supposed supernatural has either a naturalistic or a psychologized explanation. In the next phase of the British short story, with the quasi-scientific mystery stories of Wilkie Collins and Edward Bulwer Lytton, this ambiguity becomes the central concern of the narrative. 
The nineteenth-century short story differs from earlier short fictions because it combines the following previous separate generic conventions: the basically sacred and symbolic tale of romance and folk ballad; the personal voice of the eighteenth century essay; the focus on everyday reality of the realistic novel; and the sense of reality as an imaginative projection of Romantic poetry. The result of the union of these seemingly incompatible conventions is a new tradition of short fiction that first comes to full flower in America and Europe at mid-century, but whose traces can be found in  short fiction in England a generation earlier.   

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H.  Natural Supernaturalism. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., l97l.
Beachcroft, T. O. The Modest Art . London: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 86.
Briggs, Julia. Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story. London: Faber and Faber,1977), p. 101.
Canby, H. S. The Short Story in English. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., l909), p. 303.
Exjenbaum, B. M. "The Structure of Gogol's 'The Overcoat'," trans. Beth Paul and Muriel Nesbitt,  The Russian Review, 22 (Oct. 1963): 377-99.
Gerould, Katherine Fullerton. "The American Short Story," Yale Review, 13 (July 1924), p. 645. 
Harris, Wendell. "The Short Story in Embryo,"  English Literature in Transition), 15 (1972), 261-268.
Harris, Wendell. "Beginnings of the True Short Story in England," English Literature in Transition," 15 (1972): 269-76;
Harris, Wendell. "English Short Fiction in the l9th Century,"  Studies in Short Fiction) 6 (Fall 1968): 1414.
Kos, Erih. Kenyon Review, 30 (1968): 454.
Langbaum, Robert. The Poetry of Experience. New York: Random House, l957.
Lukacs, Georg. Solzhenitsyn, trans. William David Graf (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1969), pp.7-9.
Matthews, Brander. "The Philosophy of the Short Story. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., l901.
O'Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice. Cleveland: The World Publishing Co.,1963), pp.20-2l.
Perry, Bliss. A Study in Prose Fiction. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., l902, p. 303.
Rohrberger, Mary.  Hawthorne and the Modern Short Story: A Study in Genre. The Hague: Mouton; Co., 1966), p. 141.
Stevenson, Lionel. "Vision and Form: The English Novel and the Emergence of the Short Story," Victorian Newsletter, No. 47, (Spring 1975) : 8-12. 



Dorothy Johnston said...

I read with great interest your two posts on the origins of the short story in Britain. I haven't read the stories you discuss, and so don't feel able to comment on them individually, but I'm looking forward to the whole book. I think the way you plait together the realist, personal voice and supernatural elements is fascinating.

Here's a question out of the blue - will you be discussing the spiritualist movement when you come to the end of the century? I've been reading about it in connection with something I'm writing and it seems to me to give the supernatural side of things a boost!

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the kind words, Dorothy--always a pleasure to hear from you. I had not planned to talk about the spiritualist movement as such, but will certainly talk about what might be called "late gothic" stories near the end of the century as well as fin de siecle mystery tales by such as: Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Montague Rhode James, W.W. Jacobs, Lord Dunsany, G. K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells, Walter de la Mare, Saki, Conan Doyle, etc--many of whom were indeed interested in the spiritualist movement.


thank youvery interesting information,