Anne Rice, the Mother of Vampires, Dark Queen of modern Gothic literature, has left this earthly realm. My favorite living author is no longer living. Here is a piece I wrote a few years ago, thought I’d reblog it in honor of her.
She is the mistress of the macabre, the weaver of witch tales, a native New Orleanian who may never have made her mark in the world if it weren’t for her near blood thirsty curiosity about what it would be like to interview a vampire.
We are only twenty seven days away from Halloween, and no countdown would be complete without a tribute to Anne Rice, my all-time favorite living author!
Luckily, today happens to be her birthday. (I’m sure it is no coincidence that this woman came into the world so near to Halloween.)
Anne Rice was born on October 4, 1941 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was the second of four daughters. Her parents, Howard and Katherine O’Brien, were of Irish Catholic descent. The family lived in the hard-scrabble, impoverished section of town known as the Irish Channel, where they rented a 3-room shotgun house. Most of Anne’s…
She was an author, essayist, critic, a thought-provoking feminist and literary pioneer. She is most famous for her novels Mrs. Dolloway and To The Lighthouse. She is considered one of the most important modernist writers of the 20th century and among the first to use stream of consciousness as a narrative device.
** CAUTION! TRIGGER WARNING!!! ** The following essay contains references to suicide and sexual abuse.
Virginia Woolf died on this day. March 28, 1941, by suicide. After writing a note to her husband, Leonard Woolf, she walked to the nearby River Ouse, filled her pockets with heavy stones, then walked into the water and drowned. Her suicide note reads:
I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.
I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”
What led to the suicide? What was the terrible disease, and what caused the voices in her head? To answer these questions, I did some sleuthing into Virginia Woolf’s life.
Virginia Woolf (Adeline Virginia Stephen) was born on January 25, 1882, into an affluent household in South Kensington, London. She was the seventh child in a blended family. Her mother, Julia (Jackson Duckworth) Stephen had three children from her previous marriage to Herbert Duckworth, who had died. These children were: George (age fourteen at the time of Virginia’s birth) Stella (age thirteen at the time of Virginia’s birth) and Gerald (age twelve at the time). Her father, Leslie Stephen, had a daughter named Laura, from his previous wife Harriet Thackaray who died in childbirth. Julia and Leslie then had four children of their own: Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian. The Stephen family had many artistic and literary members, including famous Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who was Virginia’s great aunt.
Death, Depression and Devastation
Virginia was home schooled. She learned English Classics and Victorian Literature, Mathematics and Science. The family spent summers in Cornwall, which later became a great influence on her writing. The Godrevy Lighthouse in Cornwall was the inspiration for her novel To The Lighthouse.
Virginia’s childhood was filled with tragedy. In 1895, her mother died of influenza. Julia was just thirteen years old and the death shattered her. (Virginia’s half brothers George and Gerald would have been twenty-seven and twenty-five, respectively.) She sank into a severe depression, which was to be the first of many. Just two years later, her half sister Stella (who had been a mother figure to Virginia) also died. This too was a devastating blow that really affected Virginia.
Despite her depression and grieving, in 1897 Virginia enrolled in the Women’s Department of King’s College, London. She studied there for four years. It was there she came in contact with early reformers of the women’s right’s movement, which would later influence her writing as well.
In 1904, Virginia’s father died. She was then said to suffer a “full blown nervous breakdown” and was hospitalized. These three family deaths no doubt affected Virginia’s mental state for the rest of her life. Some historians believed she may have suffered from bi-polar disorder (although at the time psychology did not yet have a name for it.)
After the death of their father, the four Stephens siblings (now all twenty-somethings) moved to Bloomsbury, known as the “Bohemian” section of London. They lived independently of George and Gerald Duckworth. Or perhaps, more accurately, Virginia had finally escaped cruel treatment from her half-brothers… Something sinister had been going on in Virginia’s childhood home. She would hint at it later in her autobiographical writings.
Fortunately, the four siblings were wealthy and had a lot of time to paint, write, entertain, and engage in artistic pursuits. They began hosting weekly gatherings of what were considered “radical” young people. These avant-garde parties and the people attending them came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. Participants included art critic Clive Bell (who Virginia’s sister Vanessa would later marry) writer Lytton Strachey, and economist John Maynard Keyes. The irreverent and sometimes bawdy gatherings encouraged Virginia to speak out and exercise her sharp wit (which was still rather frowned upon in Victorian circles.)
Through her Bloomsbury friends, Virginia became interested in radical new art forms such as Surrealism, Post-Impressionism and Cubism. The artwork would later influence her writing. She claimed she wanted to write in a language that was “some kind of whole, made of shivering fragments,” and could capture “the flight of the mind.”
But what was actually going on in Virginia’s mind? What kind of flight was taking place, and why?
Virginia began writing critical reviews of literature for the Times Literary Supplement and other journals. She never used her real name, and instead signed her reviews as “Anonymous”. Interestingly later in her book A Room of One’s Own, she would claim “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”
It was during this time that Virginia got the idea to “re-form” the standard novel. She wanted to create a “holistic” form embracing “aspects of life that were fugitive from the Victorian novel.” She attempted to write such a novel, and it would later be published as The Voyage Out, the tale of a sheltered young woman who embarks on an excursion to South America and is introduced to freedom and sexuality.
Marriage, Demons and More Death
Through the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia became acquainted with, and fell in love with, Leonard Woolf, a writer and political activist. They married in August, 1912.
Shortly after, Virginia began to have bouts of severe depression. She was plagued with irrational fears, and worried that she was a “failure as a writer and a woman.” She also believed her sister Vanessa hated her and that Leonard did not love her. These obsessions provoked a suicide attempt in September 1913.
What followed was an extremely productive period. The Woolfs bought their own printing press and published books, including the works of T.S. Elliot and Sigmund Freud, from their basement. Between 1924 and 1940, Virginia wrote her most popular novels including To The Lighthouse, Mrs. Dolloway, and Orlando.
Yet her demons were never far behind. During the thirty years of her marriage, Virginia continued to see a variety of doctors and mental health professionals for her illnesses. Reportedly, she made several more suicide attempts during this time. She suffered from hallucinations, as well as periods of both mania and depression.
Virginia tried various psychiatric treatments, but nothing worked. One of these treatments even involved pulling several of her teeth out — it was believed at the time that mental illness was associated with dental infection! It must have been a living hell. In her diaries and letters, Woolf provided a vivid picture of her symptoms and how she tried to reconcile them. “But it is always a question whether I wish to avoid these glooms… These 9 weeks give one a plunge into deep waters… One goes down into the well & nothing protects one from the assault of truth.”
For Virginia, writing was actually a therapy that helped her cope with her mental illness. “The only way I keep afloat… is by working… Directly (when) I stop working I feel that I am sinking down, down. And as usual, I feel that if I sink further I shall reach the truth.“
Sinking under water was Woolf’s metaphor for both the effects of depression and psychosis— but also for finding truth. Ironically, it was through drowning that she ultimately ended her own life.
Was There More to the Story?
More recent biographers have pointed out that Virginia’s mental illnesses may have been caused by childhood sexual abuse. Her nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell, states that Virginia’s nervous breakdowns and recurring depressive periods were a result of this abuse. Allegedly, Virginia and her sister Vanessa were continually molested by their half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth.
Is it true?
It is entirely plausible.
In her autobiographical essays “A Sketch of the Past“ and “22 Hyde Park Gate”, Virginia tells of George’s nighttime prowling, and even describes him as her first lover. She states: “The old ladies of Kensington and Belgravia never knew that George Duckworth was not only father and mother, brother and sister to those poor Stephen girls; he was their lover also.”
In the veiled world of Victorian sensibilities, Woolf may have not had the courage to write about the abuse specifically.
Biographers have pointed out that when Stella died in 1897, there was no no one left to control George’s torment of his young sisters. This would explain Virginia’s severe depression and breakdown after the deaths of Stella and her mother.
According to Virginia Woolf’s History of Sexual Victimization: A Case Study in Light of Current Research by Lucia C. A. Williams, Department of Psychology, Federal University of São Carlos, São Carlos, Brazil:
“Virginia Woolf was “an incest survivor” (DeSalvo, 1990: p. 1). She was sexually abused by her two older half brothers George and Gerald Duckworth, according to her own testimony. DeSalvo (1989) characterizes the abuse reported by Woolf as being “extremely traumatic”, and identifies variables which may be categorized in this case study as the following risk factors: 1) “she was abused when young” (p. 8); 2) the abuse had long duration (it started when Woolf was about six or seven, and only stopped when she was 24); 3) “it probably involved many incidents” (p. 8); 4) the abuse was perpetrated by close trusted members of the family, that is, it was incestuous in nature; 5) there was more than one perpetrator; and 6) “another member of the family was also abused” (p. 8), referring to Woolf’s sister Vanessa.“
It does seem highly unlikely that Virginia Woolf would use such terms to describe her brother if incest had not taken place. And it certainly would explain her mental illness. I also wonder why more hasn’t been written about this.
What we know for sure is Virginia Woolf was an accomplished writer, a trail blazer, a woman of many talents and a literary innovator. We honor her on this day, the anniversary of her tragic death.
I will leave you with this telling quote:
“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.“
He was called the “French father of fairy tales”, a politician turned story-teller who is largely responsible for the popularity of fantasies such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.
Over one hundred years before the Brothers Grimm cemented German culture and language in their chilling and horrific retellings, Charles Perrault introduced what came to be known in 17th century book circles as “a new literary genre” — the Fairy Tale.
Primed For Politics
Charles Perrault was born on this day, January 12, 1628. Ironically, he was the seventh child (sometimes considered to be clairvoyants) born into a wealthy Parisian family. His father and brothers before him had been government employees, and young Charles was groomed from birth to follow in their footsteps.
He studied Law at prestigious universities and had a reputation for his quick mind and wit. He served in the court of King Louis XIV and in 1663 he was appointed as a secretary to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, a society devoted to Humanities. He was later appointed to the Académie Française, a council which oversaw all matters regarding French language and literature. He persuaded the King to bring his brother Claude into court, where Claude famously became a designer for the Louvre.
Perrault was well aware of how to use clout and wield influence. His connections to people in high places helped cement his family’s place in elite society. Interestingly, years later, Perrault would write Puss in Boots — a tale of a determined cat who uses wit and charm to elevate his lowly owner to a high position.
Perrault’s writing talents were obvious. In 1668, he wrote La Peinture (Painting) to honor the king’s first painter, Charles Le Brun. In 1670 he wrote Courses de tetes et de bague (Head and Ring Races), to commemorate celebrations staged by King Louis in honor of his mistress, Louise Francoise, Duchess de La Valliere.
Perrault also had a hand in designing the layout of the gardens of Versailles. In 1669 he advised King Louis to include thirty-nine fountains. Each fountain represented one of Aesop’s Fables. Water jets spouted from the animals’ mouths, intended to give the impression the creatures were talking to one another.
Years later, Perrault would write of more talking animals — seductive wolves, slick cats, birds and rabbits who could be commanded to do a human’s will.
In the 1670’s an intellectual dispute began in the Académie Française between the “Ancients” and the “Moderns”. This was known, quite famously, as Le Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. It caused sharp divisions and much debate, not to mention bruised egos and political manipulation. The central argument was over which was to be valued more — “modern” art, created by contemporaries, or the “ancient” tried and true classics.
Perrault sided with the Moderns, taking the position that civilization, literature, art and culture must evolve together. He wrote a poem, Le Siècle de Louis le Grand (“The Age of Louis the Great”) which honored modern writers such as Moliere and Francois de Malherbe. Perrault saw these writers as greater than those of ancient Greece and Rome. Perrault’s stand was a landmark in the eventually successful revolt against the confines and restrictions of traditions. Interestingly, the French Revolution, overthrowing the “old monarchy” in favor of the “new rule” of liberty, would also take place in Perrault’s lifetime.
Father of Fairy Tales
Tensions at court between Perrault and his boss, the finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, eventually drove Perrault from court. He retired early, in 1682 at age fifty-six. It was then that he began to devote more time to his children. (Perrault had married late in life, at age forty-four. His bride, just nineteen years old, sadly died a few years later, leaving him with three young children.).
Perrault enjoyed telling the children folk tales which had been passed on by oral tradition. These stories were told in salons and had become very popular in France. Although Perrault is credited for introducing the “fairy tale” as a new literary genre, the term was actually coined by Marie-Catherine Le Jumel, Baroness d’Aulnov, who was writing stories of this nature as early as 1690.
Eventually, Perrault published his own versions of the oral traditions in his collection Tales of Mother Goose.
Interestingly, Mother Goose has never been identified as a real person, but several goddesses have been associated with her. The Alpine goddess Berchta, who is said to have one goose foot, is often thought to personify her.
Perrault’s stories, particularly his versions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Blue Beard, emphasize the dark side of human nature. They offer the lesson that success can be achieved if one can maintain virtue — even though the world is full of cruelty, trickery, chicanery and decrepit morals. Some scholars have suggested that Perrault used his fairy tale “spin” to reflect the evil nature of human beings, as he had experienced in his long career in politics.
Wolves, Beauties, Castles and Cats
One of Perrault’s most beloved tales is Little Red Riding Hood. It was written as a warning to readers about men preying on young girls walking through the forest. For anyone who has forgotten — Little Red goes out into the dangerous woods to deliver some goodies to her sick Grandma. She gets sidetracked by a conniving wolf. The wolf sneaks away and arrives at Granny’s house before Red, then actually poses as Granny, luring Red into more trouble. (It doesn’t end well.)
Perrault ends his tale with a moral, cautioning women and young girls about the dangers of trusting men. He states, “Watch out if you haven’t learned that tame wolves/ Are the most dangerous of all… I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are, of all such creatures, the most dangerous!”
In Perrault’s version, Little Red even goes so far as to get in bed with the Bad Wolf. This results in her being eaten alive. (Disney it is NOT!)
Perrault remained true to his principles of favoring the “modern” over the “ancient.” He updated the ancient folk tales to fit his current audience (albeit the 17th century.) He used images and characters taken from everyday life. For example, his palace for Sleeping Beauty was modeled after the Chateau Usse, a French castle that would have been recognizable to his readers.
In Puss in Boots, the Marquis de Carabas was modeled after Claude Gouffier, the real-life Marquis of Caravaz. Perrault’s stories are full of quips, details, asides, and subtexts. Many of these are drawn from the contemporary world of fashion. (Very important to 17th c French Society,)
Happily Ever After
Charles Perrault died in 1703 at age seventy-five. This was just eight years after his first fairy tales were published. His works continue to be popular to this day, best known for their easy-to read style, creativity and deep cutting moral lessons. The Mother Goose collection was translated into English by Robert Samber in 1729.
Happy Birthday Charles! Thanks for the forbidden forests, spectacular spells and magnificent magic!
She has been called the “Duchess of Death”, the “Mistress of Mystery”, and the “Queen of Crime”. She wrote sixty-six detective novels and fourteen short story collections.
The Guinness Book of World Records has named her the “best-selling novelist of all time”. She is also one of the world’s best-selling writers of any kind, second only to William Shakespeare. An estimated one billion copies of her novels have been sold in English, and another billion in 103 other languages. She is famous for intriguing plot twists that make the seemingly impossible, possible.
Fans of every generation cannot get enough.
But did you know that a non-fictional event in Agatha Christie’s life proved to be as mysterious as one of her novels? Read on to learn more about Agatha and the disappearance of the century!
Just My Imagination…
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on this day, September 15, 1890 in Devon, England. She was the youngest of three children. Her parents, Frederick Alvah Miller and his wife Clarissa were wealthy recipients of a family fortune. Because her siblings were so much older, little Agatha is spent much of her time with pets and “imaginary friends”. This may have fueled her great ability to later imagine characters for her novels.
Young Agatha was a clever child, able to read at age four. She was home schooled, but at age twelve she attended boarding school in Paris. She always had a keen interest in reading and writing, and even wrote and performed amateur plays as a child.
At First Sight
In October 1912, at age twenty two, she was introduced to Archibald “Archie” Christie at a formal dance given by Lord and Lady Clifford of Chudleigh.
Archie was a dashing army officer. The couple quickly fell in love. Just three months after their first meeting, Archie proposed and Agatha accepted. They were married on Christmas Eve, 1914.
During World War I, Agatha served as a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the Red Cross. She worked as a nurse, a medical dispenser and an apothecaries’ assistant.
It was here that she acquired special knowledge of poisons which she would later use in the plots of her stories. She was a huge fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ series. Her own first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920. Her second novel The Secret Adversary, was published in 1922. Both became bestsellers.
After the war, the Christies settled into home life. Agatha gave birth to a daughter named Rosalind.
They also toured the world, visiting exotic places like South Africa, Hawaii and New Zealand. They bought a house in Sunningdale, Berkshire, which they called “Styles”, named after the mansion in Agatha’s novel.
For all practical purposes, they seemed to have an ideal marriage. But trouble was brewing…
An Officer, Not a Gentleman
In April of 1926, Agatha’s mother died. They had an extremely close relationship, and the death sent Agatha into a deep depression. She was so distraught that she traveled to a small village in the Basque country of southern France to recover from a “nervous breakdown”.
When Agatha returned four months later, Archie asked her for a divorce. He had never actually been a very faithful husband. He now claimed he had fallen in love with a woman named Nancy Neele, whom he had met through his military connections. This, no doubt, added insult and agony to the already fragile Agatha.
On Friday, December 3, 1926, Archie and Agatha had an argument when Archie announced he planned to spend the weekend “away with friends” and unaccompanied by his wife. Agatha did not take it well.
Without a Trace
At shortly after 9.30 pm that night, Agatha kissed her sleeping daughter Rosalind goodnight. She then exited the house, climbed into her Morris Cowley automobile, and drove off into the night. She would not be seen again for 11 days. Her disappearance resulted in the largest manhunt ever conducted in British history.
Agatha Christie was a famous and beloved author. Her disappearance created a state of emergency. The Home Secretary, William Joyson Hicks, assigned over one thousand policeman to the case. Hundreds of civilians volunteered to help, bringing along bloodhounds, terriers and police dogs. For the first time ever, aeroplanes were incorporated in a missing person search, gliding over the rural landscape.
Even Agatha’s idol, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was called in, as well as detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers. It was hoped that their special knowledge of crime would help solve the mystery.
The next morning, Agatha’s car was found abandoned on a steep slope at Newlands Corner nature resort near Guildford. The car was reported to be “dangling on the edge of a chalk pit, the front wheels actually overhanging the edge,” with only a thick hedge-growth preventing it from plunging into the pit. Inside the car was an expired driver’s license and some clothes.
Agatha, however, was not there.
As the days passed and there was still no sign of her, speculation began to mount. The Christies were a stylish, high profile couple. Plus Archie’s infidelity was a known fact. The public was eager for gossip and the press quickly exploited the story. One newspaper offered a £100 reward for Agatha’s return (approximately equivalent to £6,000 in today’s money). Her disappearance was featured on the front page of The New York Times.
Stranger Than Fiction
It was the perfect tabloid story, with – ironically – all the elements of an Agatha Christie whodunnit. For the vivid imagination, there were also several spooky elements.
Close to the place where the car had been found was a lake known as the Silent Pool, where two young children were said to have died. Some tabloids began suggesting that Agatha had drowned herself.
Yet her body was nowhere to be found.
Rumors began circulating that Archie had killed her, wanting to be free to go off with his mistress.
Yet another tabloid specullated that Agatha had fled her own house, fearing it was haunted! “It stands in a lonely lane,” the paper claimed, “unlit at night, which has a reputation of being haunted. The lane has been the scene of a murder of a woman and the suicide of a man. … ‘If I do not leave Sunningdale soon, Sunningdale will be the end of me,’ she once said to a friend.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was known to have occult beliefs, tried using paranormal powers to solve the mystery. He took one of Christie’s gloves to a celebrated medium in the hope that it would provide answers. It did not. Other spiritualists even held a séance at the chalk pit where the car had been found.
To make things even more dramatic, one newspaper reported that eerie clues had been found near the site, including “a bottle labeled poison, lead and opium, fragments of a torn-up postcard, a woman’s fur-lined coat, a box of face powder, the end of a loaf of bread, a cardboard box and two children’s books.”
At this point it was anyone’s guess.
On December 14, a full eleven days later, Agatha was finally found. She was safe and well, having checked into the posh Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire.
Interestingly, she had registered as “Teresa Neele of Cape Town, South Africa”, using the last name of her husband’s lover.
Upon questioning, Agatha claimed she remembered nothing.
So what happened?
The police put together a story they believed was reasonable. They thought Agatha had left home and headed for London but crashed her car en route. She then boarded a train to Harrogate, Yorkshire, where she checked into the Swan Hotel with no luggage.
The town of Harrogate was a spa resort. In the 1920s it was known for its elegance. Agatha, a wealthy world traveler, probably looked right at home in the chic establishment. Apparently, she mingled around, attending balls and dances. It was a man named Bob Tappin, a banjo player, who finally recognized her and contacted the police. Archie was then notified.
When Archie showed up at the Swan to collect his wife, it was reported that she was “in no hurry to leave.” She even kept him waiting in the hotel lounge while she changed into her evening dress. It was not a happy reunion. When Agatha finally emerged, Archie was “welcomed by her with a stony stare.”
The celebrity couple continued to attract attention at the train station. Hundreds of people showed up, hoping to catch a glimpse.
Within the next year, Agatha sued her husband for divorce.
Silence is Golden
Agatha herself never offered an explanation for her eleven lost days.
Over the years, observers have crafted several theories as to what happened. Some believe it was amnesia. Others think she may have been in a “fugue” state – a rare condition brought on by trauma or depression. During this time, she could have developed her new personality, Theresa Neele, and failed to recognize herself in newspaper photographs.
Agatha Christie biographer Andrew Norman, who studied the case extensively, stated: “I believe she was suicidal. Her state of mind was very low and she writes about it later through the character of Celia in her autobiographical novel Unfinished Portrait.”
In her own autobiography, Christie wrote simply, “So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it.”
Love on the Orient Express
Needless to say, Agatha Christie went on to have an amazing career. She took several journeys on the Orient Express, traveling to places like Istanbul and Bagdad. It was on these journeys that she gathered inspiration for future novels. She also met the man who was to be her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan. (Archie ended up marrying his mistress, Nancy Neele.)
Agatha Christie received many awards in her long career. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1950, and appointed Commander of the Order of British Literature (CBE) in 1956. She was the co-president of the Detection Club from 1958 to her death in 1976. In 1961, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature Degree by the University of Exeter. Her play The Mousetrap was the world’s longest-running play, performed in London’s West End from 1952 to 2020, only being shut down this year in response to the Covid pandemic.
In 1971 she received the title Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Her husband Max also received knighthood for his archaeological work. After her husband’s knighthood, Agatha could also use the title “Lady Mallowan”.
She died peacefully of natural causes on January 12, 1976.
Happy Birthday Agatha! You gave us so much, and a part of you will always be a mystery.
We all know that Mary Shelley is the author of Frankenstein, a phenomenal work of Gothic horror. But did you know that the gory details of Mary Shelley’s life itself read better than any novel? Perhaps the strangest fact of all is that she kept her dead husband’s heart as a keepsake, carrying it with her and storing it in her drawer until her own death in 1851!
In honor of Valentine’s Day and my February Women in Horror Series, I would be remiss if I did not include the strange, romantic and horrific life of Mary Shelley.
In her short lifetime, Mary Godwin Shelley saw a great deal of death: her mother, three of her own children, her half sister Fanny Imlay, her husband Percy Shelley, her step-mother, her father and father-in-law. It comes as no surprise that the woman who experienced a cavalcade of grim reapers became obsessed with resurrecting and recreating life. Her character, mad scientist Victor Frankenstein, was the embodiment of this obsession.
Mary Godwin’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft was an early feminist and free thinker. She is best known for her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Wollstonecraft argued that women, given the proper education, were “intellectually equivalent” to men – a “radical” idea for the times.
Mary Wollstonecraft died of a post partum infection when daughter Mary was less than a month old. Little Mary’s father, William Godwin, a political activist and publisher, raised her along with her half sister Fanny Imlay – a child from another of Mary Wollstonecraft’s relationships. Godwin took a new wife – one Mary Jane Clairmont – who had two children of her own, Claire and Charles. The family set up housekeeping in London where William opened a publishing company that eventually went bankrupt.
Young Mary was given a somewhat radical education by her free-thinking father. When she was just seventeen, she became acquainted with the poet Percy Bysse Shelley – a friend and “political disciple” of William Godwin. Percy was twenty-two.
Percy and Mary fell deeply in love. The only problem was, Percy was already married. His wife was a woman named Harriet Westbrook – with whom he had eloped when she was just sixteen and he nineteen – much to the dismay of Percy’s aristocratic family. They subsequently cut him off from his inheritance, although Percy loved to flaunt his wealthy roots and often claimed that large sums of money would eventually be his. Percy and Harriet had one child, and to make matters worse, Harriet was once again pregnant.
Cemetery Trysts and Love Triangles
Nonetheless, Mary and Percy began having secret meetings in – of all great Gothic places — Saint Pancras Cemetery where Mary’s mother was buried!
Percy said he could not hide his “ardent passion” for her. Mary wrote she was attracted to Percy’s “wild, intellectual, unearthly look.”
The two made love for the first time in the cemetery, Mary losing her virginity to Percy. After that, forget it. Mary was ruined. RUINED, I tell you!!!! A social pariah!! A leper among women!! (I am only being slightly sarcastic here. Remember, in Victorian times, virginity was sacrosanct, an indication of breeding and virtue. No way in hell could Mary get away with this!) Even the so-called liberal thinking and politically radical William Godwin disapproved of their relationship.
The only sensible thing to do was run away. And so, Mary and Percy ran away to France. They took Mary’s step-sister Claire (daughter of her step-mother Mary Jane Clairmont) along with them. According to Percy, this was because Claire was “the only one among them who could speak French.” However, Claire and Percy reportedly had many “excursions” together, and historians believe the two were lovers as well.
Furthermore, older sister Fanny Imlay who was left behind, also expressed having feelings for Percy. He may have been three-timing the sisters. Of course, Percy’s pregnant wife Harriet also got left behind.
Mary, Claire and Percy traveled together throughout France and Switzerland until, broke and destitute, they could no longer survive. They then returned to England. Mary was pregnant. Mary’s father – apparently growing more traditional by the minute – still disapproved of their relationship and refused to take them in. The baby was born premature and died shortly after. Mary became pregnant again and in 1816 gave birth to a son, named William.
That same year, Mary, Percy, little William and Claire all traveled back to Switzerland. Soon after they were joined by Percy’s friends, the poet Lord Byron and physician John William Polidori. It was a meeting of the minds.
There, in Geneva, the group passed one of the coldest summers ever by telling ghost stories around the fire and challenging each other to write horror. It was one of these challenges that led 18 year old Mary to write her masterpiece Frankenstein.
Mary became pregnant again and gave birth to a daughter – but both children would be dead within two years. In the meantime, Mary completed Frankenstein and had it first published anonymously in 1818.
The couple returned to England in September, 1816. They settled in Bath with Claire Clairmont – who was now (ironically) pregnant with Lord Byron’s child. Mary then received a letter from her half-sister, Fanny Imlay, who had mysteriously skipped town, and wrote of her unhappy life. The letter was apparently so alarming that, on October 9, Percy took it upon himself to go looking for Fanny, worried about her state of mind. He never found her. On the morning of October 10, Fanny Imlay was found dead in a room at an inn in Swansea, Wales. She left a suicide note and an empty bottle of laudanum.
Fanny was not the only suicide that year. On December 10, Percy Shelley’s wife, Harriet, was discovered drowned in the Serpentine, a lake in Hyde Park, London. It seems the two women who got left behind decided to leave forever.
Both suicides were hushed up, as suicide in Victorian times was illegal, considered disgraceful, and brought great shame to the families.
Percy, for his part, tried to gain custody of his two children by Harriet. His lawyers told him it would be a good idea for him to take a wife, so he finally married Mary on December 30, 1816 at St Mildred’s Church in London. Although Harriet’s family ultimately gained custody of their children, the Mary and Percy remained in London and attempted their new married life.
It was not long before Percy’s debt collectors came calling. The couple left England again, this time bound for Italy, with Claire and her new born daughter Allegra (the child of Lord Byron) in tow.
In Italy, Mary’s two children developed malaria and died. On November 12, 1819, Mary gave birth to her fourth child, Percy Florence, the only one who would survive to adulthood. Mary became pregnant again in 1822. She suffered a miscarriage and almost bled to death. Percy, too distraught to call a doctor, put Mary in a tub of ice water to staunch the bleeding. It was later agreed that he had saved his wife’s life.
That same year, Percy Shelly set out on a sailing adventure from which he would never return.
The Heart That Would Not Die
On July 1, 1822, Percy Shelley, Edward Ellerker Williams, and Captain Daniel Roberts sailed south down the coast to Livorno. On July 8, he and Edward Williams set out on the return journey to Lerici — minus the captain — but with an eighteen-year-old boatboy, Charles Vivian. They were detained by a storm and lost at sea. Ten days later, three bodies washed up on the coast near Viareggio, midway between Livorno and Lerici.
Percy Shelley’s body was so mangled it was only identifiable by his clothing and a book of John Keats’ poetry that he had stashed away in his pocket. It was decided that Percy’s body would be cremated on the beach at Viareggio. However, something bizarre happened.
His heart would not burn.
Before we get too carried away with supernatural implications, it is only fair to say that modern-day physicians believe the heart may have calcified due to Percy’s earlier bout with tuberculosis – thus rendering it inflammable. Whatever the reason, Mary Shelley decided to save and preserve her husband’s heart.
Mary kept the heart as a prized possession, wrapping it a silken shroud. She is said to have carried it with her everywhere.
In 1852, a year after she died, Percy’s heart was found in Mary’s desk. It was wrapped in the pages of one of his last poems, Adonais – a tribute to John Keats.
Jagger, Jones, Juxtapose
This brings me to an interesting aside. When Rolling Stones musician Brian Jones died in 1969 by drowning in a swimming pool, it was the poem Adonais that Mick Jagger chose to read at his memorial service.
“Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep He hath awakened from the dream of life ‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep With phantoms an unprofitable strife, And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife…”
Another interesting aside: Brian Jones died of drowning. Harriet Shelley died of drowning. Percy Shelley died of drowning. Harriet died in a lake in Hyde Park. Brian Jones’ Memorial Service was held in Hyde Park.
See how that works? I suspect Mick saw some significance in this.
Although Mary is most remembered for Frankenstein, it was by no means the full extent of her writing career. After the death of Percy, Mary was active as a writer and editor. She wrote the novelsThe Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore(1835), and Falkner (1837). She contributed five volumes of Lives of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French authors to Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia. She wrote short stories, including sixteen for The Keepsake. She also championed Percy Shelley’s poetry, promoting its publication and quoting it in her writing. By 1837, Percy’s works were well-known and increasingly admired.
Believe it or not, in 1830, financially strapped, Mary sold the copyright for a new edition of Frankenstein for only £60!
In the summer of 1838 Edward Moxon (the publisher of Tennyson and the son-in-law of Charles Lamb) proposed publishing the collected works of Percy Shelley. Mary was paid £500 to edit the collection, called Poetical Works (1838).
Mary Shelley’s last years were blighted by illness. From 1839, she suffered from headaches and bouts of paralysis in parts of her body. On February 1, 1851, at Chester Square, she died at the young age of fifty-three from a brain tumor. Her son and daughter in law had her buried at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth, although Mary’s request was to be buried at Saint Pancras near her mother. (She obviously had fond memories of the place.) However, Mary’s daughter in law, Jane Shelley, had decided that by then Saint Pancras was simply “too dreadful” a place to bury her.
On the first anniversary of Mary Shelley’s death, Percy Florence and Jane decided to open Mary’s box-desk. Inside they found locks of her dead children’s hair, a notebook she had shared with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and, of course, the tell-tale heart!
This February, 2019, kicks off the tenth annual Women in Horror Month, a celebration of all things feminine and horrific. The two go together perfectly 🙂
Women in Horror Month is the brainchild of one Hannah Neurotica, creator of the Ax Wound website, and winner of a Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award. According to the website:
“Women in Horror Month (WiHM) is an international, grassroots initiative, which encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries. Whether they are on the screen, behind the scenes, or contributing in their other various artistic ways, it is clear that women love, appreciate, and contribute to the horror genre.”
Horror is traditionally male dominated — as it is thought men are naturally more “violent” than women. But au contraire! A closer look reveals that women are the true mothers of invention when it comes to the sinister, the supernatural, the occult and the ominous.
Women are vessels of the blood, keepers of intuition, soldiers of psychic activity and warriors of witchery. We are the breeders, the birthers, the shadow dwellers and the invisible observers. Nothing gets past our perceptive eyes and so, in creating horror, women are the deft and delving masters!
Consider for a moment all that women have contributed. Without women, the macabre would be missing out on some of its finest moments.
There would be no Frankenstein — creator Mary Shelley — who wondered what it might be like to give birth to a monster.
There would be no Mysteries of Udolpho. This novel by Ann Radcliffe (arguably the ‘grandmother of Goth’) was first published in 1794. It is considered to be the prototype of Gothic romance, complete with sudden death, creepy castles, unprecedented misfortune, cruel strangers and forbidden love.
Jane Austen even used The Mysteries of Udolpho in her novel Northranger Abbey, to illustrate the idea of horror-loving women reading one too many Gothic novels and letting their imaginations take over their lives.
Let’s not forget vampires! Without women, there would be no Count Saint Germain (creator Chelsea Quinn Yarbro) no Dark Cathedral (creator Freda Warrington) and no Trueblood (creator Charlaine Harris.)
There would also be no infamous and notorious Vampire Lestat (creator Anne Rice.) Ms. Rice took it upon herself to explore these blood thirsty outsiders as they drifted through hundreds of years of history and struggled to survive. The result was The Vampire Chronicles, a compilation of over twenty novels, delving into everything from ancient Egyptian deities to modern day rock stars.
Bring on the haunted houses! Without women, there would be no Hill House (creator Shirley Jackson.) Shirley wanted to explore poltergeists and paranormal activity in an eerie mansion. The result was overnight guests, foreboding dread and one of the best ghost stories in 20th century literature.
Let’s not forget the heart stopping Agatha Christie mysteries, the dark moor encounters of Emily Bronte, the real world creepiness of Daphne Du Maurier and Joyce Carol Oates. And of course, the horrific dystopia created by Margaret Atwood in A Handmaid’s Tale, where fertile women are kidnapped and then forced to serve as baby making ‘handmaids’ to the powers that be. If you have not yet seen it, check out the series on Hulu, starring Elizabeth Moss.
According to Atwood, everything in A Handmaid’s Tale had occurred at some point in history, somewhere in the real world, so it was not as fantastical as most people think…
Without women in horror, there would also be no Hitchcock Blondes — the whipped cream cool females that broke under the pressure of psychopaths, thanks to the acting expertise of Tippi Hedron, Janet Leigh, Kim Novak and Grace Kelly, to name a few.
There would be no Birds (writer Daphne Du Maurier) no Creature From the Black Lagoon (costume design by Milicent Patrick) and of course, no Halloween franchise (thanks to co-writer Debra Hill and the incomparable Jamie Lee Curtis!)
On a lighter note, plenty of women have taken horror and combined it with comedy. Consider Elvia, Mistress of the Dark (Cassandra Peterson), Lilly Munster (Yvonne De Carlo) and the fabulous Morticia Addams (Carolyn Jones.)
Morticia served as the general matriarch to the iconic Addams Family, complete with “Lurch” the butler, “Thing” (a severed hand with a mind of its own) her Gothic children Pugsly and Wednesday, her husband Gomez, weird Uncle Fester and crone Grandmama. Morticia had her hands full but she ruled with a funeral parlor cool, far removed from the average sitcom.
Who is your favorite woman in horror?
And finally, if you find yourself craving more tales of the terrible, please check out my very own horror stories in The Box Under The Bedand Dark Visions. Here, you’ll find Jack the Ripper, scary fairies, Charon the death messenger and Lucifer himself 🙂
He was a weaver of tales who brought us The Little Mermaid, The Wild Swans, The Emperor’s New Clothes and the Ugly Duckling. In the course of his lifetime he wrote novels, travelogues, and over three thousand fairy tales which have been translated into 125 languages. His stories have universal appeal, transcending age and nationality. He created a unique mythology which continues to haunt us and remains part of our collective consciousness.
Hans Christian Andersen was born on this day, April 2, 1805 in Odense, Denmark. His own life story is a classic rags to riches that could have been one of his fairy tales.
His father, also named Hans, was a struggling tradesman and his mother Anne Marie a washerwoman. Hans Sr. died in 1816. Two years later Anne Marie remarried. It was then decided, for some odd reason, that Hans Jr. should no longer be allowed to live in the house. At the tender age of eleven, Hans was sent away to a boarding school. (Evil stepfather, banishment. Do you see a pattern here?) Although the family was poor, Hans was somehow allowed to study and receive a good education. (Fairy godmother perhaps?)
At boarding school, the boy was expected to fend for himself and he earned money as a tailor’s apprentice. He showed a natural talent for singing and at age fourteen, he was accepted into the Royal Danish Theater. However, as luck would have it, Hans hit puberty that year, experienced the voice change, and could no longer sing the soprano part he had been assigned. But all was not lost — Jonas Colins, the theater director, saw something special in Hans and made arrangements that he could attend prestigious school in Elsinore.
Young Hans might have been considered privileged, but his story goes a bit dark here. He was sent to live with a school master who routinely abused and bullied him and discouraged him from writing. He went into a deep depression, and later wrote that his days at Elsinore were the darkest of his life.
The story, however, has a happy ending. Andersen graduated school in 1827 and almost immediately became successful writing short stories, plays and poetry. King Christian VIII of Denmark was so impressed with his work that he gave Andersen a grant to travel around Europe. Hans felt most comfortable on the road and later wrote, “To travel is to live.”
All these fairy godmother type favors may not have been an accident. There was a rumor that Hans Christian Andersen was actually the illegitimate son of Christian, King of Denmark. This rumor, however, has not been substantiated by any reliable source. (If true it would make a great story!)
It was during his travels across Europe that Andersen began writing fairy tales. In 1838 he wrote Fairy Tales Told for Children. This book earned him immense popularity when, in 1845 it was translated to English and other languages. It became a world wide best seller.
Andersen’s tales were often dark and creepy. By today’s standards, I find it rather astonishing that he decided to ‘go there’ regarding topics such as suicide, self harm, body mutilation, and a plethora of evil. His heroes and heroines often go through enormous difficulties. Although the endings are usually happy, they pay great prices for that happiness, often undergoing physical, mental and spiritual changes. For example:
— Karen, the protagonist in The Red Shoes, loves to dance and wear her beautiful shoes. However, it gets to the point where she cannot stop dancing and eventually her feet must be cut off!
— The Little Mermaid trades her fish tail for human legs. In the process she undergoes excruciating physical pain, is betrayed by a handsome prince, and even commits suicide before she is freed to the Daughters of the Air.
— In The Wild Swans, Eliza wants to free her brothers from a terrible curse, but to do so she must knit sweaters made of poisonous nettles that cause her fingers to bleed. To make matters worse, she has taken a vow of silence! During this time she is arrested for witchcraft and thrown in the dungeon.
And the list goes on. These stories remain popular because they entertain in a way that enables problem solving — while giving kids the scare of their lives! 🙂 The message is always that virtue will be rewarded.
Andersen never married, although he courted several women and wrote a few love letters to men as well. Some historians believe he was bisexual. He seems to have harbored terribly romantic ideas about love and often chose partners that were either unavailable or inappropriate. At one point he proposed marriage to the Swedish singer Jenny Lind.
She turned him down, but this did not stop Hans from writing a fairy tale which was inspired by her. It was called The Nightingale, about (you guessed it) a precious and beautiful bird that serenades the emperor. After that, Jenny Lind was given the nickname “The Swedish Nightingale.”
Andersen had a long and prosperous life. He died in Copenhagen on August 4, 1875, His death is thought to be caused by complications of liver cancer.
Andersen’s stories are still widely read. Many have been adapted as Disney features, including The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid and Frozen — adapted from The Snow Queen. In the original story the Snow Queen was an evil kidnapper, nowhere near as kind as Elsa!
Tribute statues to Andersen have been built all over the world, including New York’s Central Park, California, Sydney Australia and Rosenborg Castle Gardens in Copenhagen.
And of course, if you ever happen to be at the Langelinie promenade in Copenhagen, you can say hello to The Little Mermaid herself!
Today we celebrate the life of Lewis Carroll, best known for his books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass. He was an author, mathematician, Oxford don, part time babysitter, photographer, inventor, and a bit of an all-around inscrutable person.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know of my big obsession with Alice in Wonderland. I have long been fascinated by its white rabbits, mirrors, painted rosebushes, flamingo croquet, and the man who brought then to life.
His given name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but I will call him Lewis, since he is best known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. He was born on January 27, 1832 in Daresbury, Cheshire, England. Yes, Cheshire! No evidence as to whether or not he had a cat 🙂
Carroll’s father was a conservative minister in the Church of England, one in a long line of Dodgson men who had respectable positions in the Anglican clergy. Lewis was home-schooled until the age of twelve and developed an early love for reading amd writing. He attended grammar school at Rugby in Warwickshire, and began study at Oxford University in 1850. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and graduated with high honors. In 1855 he won the Mathematical Lectureship for the college of Christ Church at Oxford, which he held for the next 26 years.
In 1856, a man named Henry Liddell took a position as Dean at Christ Church. Henry arrived in town with his young family, all of whom would eventually serve to influence Lewis’ writing. Lewis became close friends with Liddell’s wife Lorina and their children, particularly the three sisters Lorina, Edith, and Alice Liddell.
It was this Alice Liddell who served as the inspiration and namesake for the fictional Alice. Lewis frequently took the children on outings. It was on one such outing, a rowing trip, that the girls begged to hear a story; the result eventually became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
It is said that Carroll never intended to publish Alice’s adventures, but his friend, fairy-tale author George MacDonald convinced him to do so after Macdonald’s own children read the stories and and loved them. Good thing they did! Can’t imagine a world without Alice.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865. The book quickly became an international hit, and was liked and promoted by Queen Victoria herself! In 1871, Carroll published the sequel Through the Looking-Glass. The Alice books are still among the most popular in the world. Reportedly they are also among the most quoted, second only to the Bible and Shakespeare. And many of those quotes arereally phenomenal, full of wisdom and humor. Some of my favorites:
“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”
“I give up,” Alice replied. “What’s the answer?” “I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.
“I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended,” Alice thought to herself.
“Shall I never get any older than I am now? That will be a comfort, in one way — never to be an old woman. But then — always to have lessons to learn? Oh, I shouldn’t like THAT!”
“How am I to get in?” asked Alice. “Are you to get in AT ALL?” said the Footman. “That’s the first question, you know.” It was, no doubt; only Alice did not like to be told so.
“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”
Lewis Carroll was also an amateur photographer. He ran in artistic circles with pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
He took this photo of Alice Liddell. dated 1868. Alice would have been about six.
Years later, Julia Margaret Cameron photographed the grown up Alice.
Despite the fact that the Alice books brought him fame and fortune, Carroll never left his position as don at Oxford. Other than traveling a bit throughout Europe, he seems to have lived modestly. He wrote a few more books — The Hunting of the Snark, a fantastical “nonsense” poem, and Sylvie and Bruno, a fairy tale which satirized English society. Neither had the astounding success of the Alice stories. He also wrote several treatises on mathematics, which he published under his real name, Charles Dodgson. His writings included works of geometry, linear and matrix algebra, mathematical logic and recreational mathematics. Yes, complicated stuff!
Carroll/ Dodgson’s mathematical contributions are noteworthy. Apparently, he was exploring The Matrix long before Keanu Reeves.
At Oxford he developed a theory known as the “Dodgson Condensation”, a method of evaluating mathematical determinants and patterns within equations. His work attracted renewed interest in the late 20th century when mathematicians Martin Gardner and William Warren Bartley reevaluated his contributions to symbolic logic. This led them to the “Alternating Sign Matrix” conjecture, now a theorem. The discovery of additional ciphers that Carroll had constructed showed that he had employed sophisticated mathematical ideas in their creation. Perhaps he understood that through mathematics and chemistry, humankind may eventually reach the kind of alternate worlds he created for Alice.
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll died of pneumonia on 14 January 1898 at the age of 65.
Some Fun Facts:
He was one of eleven children, the oldest son
As a young child, he suffered a fever which left him deaf in one ear
He was six feet tall — really tall by Victorian standards.
A self- deprecating guy, he often referred to himself as “the dodo” and is said to have modeled the Dodo in Alice after himself!
In actuality he was hardly a dodo, more like a near genius.
He invented the earliest version of Scrabble — a type of word ladder in which the words were changed by adding one letter.
He was an ordained deacon of the Anglican Church.
Don’t let the stoic pictures fool you. Although he never married, his letters and diary entries indicate he had relationships with several women, both married and single, which would have been considered “scandalous” by Victorian standards.