Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Interesting Shorts: Good Lady Duncayne

Published in 1896, Good Lady Duncayne was a short by prolific author Mary Elizabeth Braddon and follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) and Bella Rolleston – a young woman determined to earn a salary in order that she might lift her mother and herself out of the poverty they live in.

As such she goes to an agency that arranges work as a companion but, given her lack of education and young age, she really has little chance of finding a position with anyone. That is until the agent has her meet the wizened Lady Duncayne who, having checked that she is healthy, immediately hires Bella for a princely salary of £100 per annum. Within a week she is to travel to winter in Italy with the woman.

She only makes one friend, Lotta, who is in Italy with her brother Mr Stafford (despite their friendship Lotta does warn her brother off romantic thoughts, given how destitute Bella is). As time passes Bella feels a lassitude coming over her and also finds that she is prone to a strange dream – the description more a whirling sensation than substance – and disposed to mosquito bites, which are treated by Lady Duncayne’s Doctor, Dr Parravicini. Whilst her friend is away, touring Italy, she hears rumours of other companions whose health failed and who died. Although other guests gossip about the elderly lady, mainly due to her advanced years, her retinue refer to her as good Lady Duncayne due to her kindness.

When Lotta and her brother return to where Duncayne’s retinue are staying they are shocked by the deterioration in Bella’s health (though she insists she is not ill). Stafford knows that the “mosquito bites” are actually lancet wounds and suspects that her strange dreams are actually her succumbing to chloroform.

He confronts Lady Duncayne and she all but admits that her Doctor has been drawing blood from her companions so as to treat her – against, we assume, old age. Duncayne herself suggests she was born the day Louis XVI was guillotined (in 1793). Presuming a contemporary date for the story this puts her at just over 100.

This was nearly a ‘Vamp or Not?’ as we do not know what Parravicini was doing with the blood – there is a mention of blood transfusion, but no definitive confirmation. The story is, however, widely recognised as a vampire story – though in this case the vampire is living and it is science using the blood to create longevity. We do know from the narrative that Lady Duncayne wants more years (she asks if Stafford has heard of any new longevity developments) but she also seems remorseful with regards the girls who died, and so orders Stafford to take Bella away and gives her a very generous £1000 gratuity.


Vladkergan said...

Are you sure about the title ? As far as I know, the title of the short story is Good Lady Ducayne, not Duncan ?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Well spotted Vladkergan - and a rather embarassing typo. Thanks for the alert