Friday, February 07, 2014

Classic Literature: The Pale Lady

Alexandre Dumas père is one of France’s most famous authors, known for the D’Artagnan Romances – especially the Three Musketeers – but his body of work is so much larger than that. He was a prolific author and playwright and previously we have looked at his sequel to Polidori’s The Vampyre: A Tale entitled, The Return of Lord Ruthven.

The Pale Lady is a short story, perhaps even a novella, that Dumas published in 1849 and holds the distinction of being one of the first, indeed possibly the first, vampire tales to have been set in the Carpathians.

The story is told from the point of view of Hedwig, a Polish maiden whose brothers have been killed in war with the Russians. Her father sends her and a retinue to the safety a Monastery in the Carpathians as the Russians march on their castle.

The first mention of vampires we get is within a song that is sung on their journey:

’Tis a vampire! The wild wolf 
Runs howling from the horrid thing!

The song is cut short as brigands attack the travellers. Ultimately Hedwig and four guards are left alive when the attack is interfered with. The brigands’ leader is a Moldavian called Kotsaki and the man who interferes is his half-brother Gregoriska. Gregoriska is the elder and lives in a nearby castle with their mother, who clearly favours Kotsaki, whilst the younger leads the brigands from the forest. Interestingly, Kotsaki carries Hedwig to the castle and she likens the ride to Lenore in Bürger’s poem. Often taken as a vampire poem itself, it isn’t but was quoted, famously, within Dracula.

Kotskai moves to the castle and declares his love for Hedwig (and declares that she will die if she gives her heart to another) but her heart is already given to Gregoriska and he shares her love – though neither declare it at first. News that her father has died gives her an excuse to keep Kotsaki at a distance.

Eventually Gregoriska liquidates his fortune and arranges to elope with Hedwig but Kotsaki obviously gets wind of this and – off page – brother confronts brother; Kotsaki is killed.

It is Kotsaki who haunts Hedwig as a vampire. At quarter to nine in the evening she feels a lethargy overcoming her and swoons onto her bed. She can hear footsteps approach her chamber and the door opening and then senses nothing but a throb of pain in her neck before falling into complete unconsciousness. In the morning she is exhausted (and likens this to exhaustion felt during her menstrual cycle), unnaturally pale and has something like an insect bite, a pinprick, over her carotid artery.

There an identical incident the next night and Gregoriska is confided with. They both realise it is a vampire – she recalls forty graves being opened in a cemetery, during her childhood, and seventeen bodies bearing the signs of vampirism – “that is to say, their bodies were found fresh, rosy, and looking as if still alive;” They were all staked and cremated.

Gregoriska gets her “a twig of box consecrated by the priest and still wet with holy water”. This prevents the lethargy and stops Kotsaki approaching. Gregoriska has been given the holy sword of a crusader and forces his brother to admit that his death was not an act of fratricide but the younger brother had thrown himself onto the elder’s sword – in short a suicide. They force the corpse to march back to its grave (some distance away). He gives the younger brother the chance to repent, which is refused, and uses the sword to pin him onto the earth. However the effort (spiritual not physical) kills the elder brother and both end up buried together (“God’s servant keeping watch and ward over the Devil’s”). The association of the vampire with the Devil would be repeated by Dumas 2 years later when he wrote The return of Lord Ruthven. Hedwig has to rub grave earth splashed with the vampire’s blood onto the wound to keep her safe from Kotsaki in the future. She is left with the “mark” of those who survive an attack by a vampire – an unnatural paleness.

One of the interesting things about this is the use of tropes that are familiar to post Stoker stories. The use of holy relics are explicit (and the twig of box appears to be a folk atropaic; when I googled it as research for this I found the couplet “A twig of box, a lilac spray, Will drive the goblin-horde away” in Henry Van Dyke’s Eight Echoes from the Poems of Auguste Angellier) and Hedwig is clearly being preyed upon the neck, although the description of Kotsaki doesn’t describe anything unusual about his dentition. The use of the Carpathians and the reference to Bürger does lead me to speculate as to whether Stoker was aware of the story?

The story is, of course, a tragedy. The fact that the threat lasts longer than the duration of the story (hence the use of grave dirt, which is straight from Slavic folklore) and leaves a lasting mark on the victim (the pallor of her skin) lends the tale a wonderfully dark and potentially open ending.

7 comments:

JaredMithrandir said...

It's interesting to compare this with his Ruthven plat.

I think the Mysterious Stranger is the main influence on Stoker using the Carpathians, and other details.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Undoubtedly Mysterious Stranger and Carmilla were influences on Stoker (and I suspect he was aware of some Varney) but whilst there is no evidence that he knew of this I suspect he was all too aware of Dumas' work (or at least his plays, through the theatre) and, as I said in the piece there is enough in here to warrant speculation at the very least :)

Justin Elvins said...

This looks really interesting to me. I may pick this book up. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful review. Best Books

JaredMithrandir said...

Varney was definitely an influence on Stoker.

I'm not sure when The Pale Lady first was translated into English, but his Ruthven play was never officially done till the BlackCoatPress edition, however in Stage Blood there is mentioned an English play that essentially just plagiarizes Dumas's.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

No worries Justin.

Jared, I don't know when, or if, the Dumas' material was translated during the 19th century but he was almost certainly a flow between the stages of Paris and London of information about the successes and failures and popular plays were less translated more (as you mention) plagerised.

There is no evidence for my suposition, simply it made me wonder.

kirsi mannonen said...

I love this story. Carpathian setting, old castle, gorgeous costumes, great vampire lore... it deserves to be better known!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I can't say I disagree Kirsi, many thanks for stopping by :)