The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"Good Lady Ducayne" (1896)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Good Lady Ducayne” was written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and first appeared in The Strand Magazine (Feb 1896). Braddon (1835-1915) was a successful commercial writer who is best-known for her sensation novels. Although “Good Lady Ducayne” is not the equal of her “The Cold Embrace,” it is still an entertaining horror story.
Bella Rolleston is in desperate straits. She is eighteen and uneducated, but her family is poor–her poor mother’s caddish husband deserted the family six years before and provided no support for them–and needs whatever money Bella can earn for them. So Bella approaches a London employment agency and pays them five shillings (“told off reluctantly from one of those sovereigns which were so rare with the mother and daughter”1) to place her. This proves difficult, however, as Bella, though a hard worker and a sweet person, lacks the qualities that most aristocratic ladies require. The agency, in the person of the snooty “Superior Person,” does not give Bella a job for weeks, but one eventually appears: the wealthy and elderly Lady Ducayne is in need of a strong, active young woman as a companion. Lady Ducayne has been “unfortunate” with her previous companions, and so she needs a new one, and Bella is all too eager to take the job, especially since it will require her to spend the winter in Italy (“Italy! The very word was magical.”2) with Lady Ducayne. So Bella takes the job, sends her advance money to her mother, and goes to Italy with Lady Ducayne. Initially Bella is happy there, going on long walks through the lovely landscape and making two new friends, a young student, Lotta, and Lotta’s older brother Doctor Herbert Stafford. Bella sends long letters back to her mother every week. But soon enough Bella begins to feel a weakness and a lassitude creep upon her, and her friends leave Cap Ferrino to travel around Italy. Bella overhears two elderly English discussing her predecessors, who both died in Ducayne’s service. The pair also mention Ducayne’s age (“I have heard her say things that showed she was in Parisian society when the First Empire was at its best–before Josephine was divorced”3) and Ducayne’s Italian doctor, Parravicini, a “wicked old quack.”4 Bella is not alarmed by all of this, but she begins to have an alarming recurring dream. She also finds a wound on her arm which she ascribes to mosquitoes. Parravicini agrees and treats the wound, but it “recurred now and then at longish intervals.”5 Lady Ducayne and her household eventually go to Bellagio, where Bella meets up with Lotta and Herbert. Herbert is looking forward to seeing Bella again, even though Lotta frowns on Bella for being far below the Staffords’ social class. But when Herbert sees Bella, he is shocked at how pale, weak, and aged she looks. Herbert eventually finds out about the dream and the “mosquito bites,” and when he examines the “bites” he is certain that she has been bled–and without her knowledge, from what she says. So Herbert confronts Lady Ducayne and Parravicini. Herbert discovers that Ducayne is in search of anything that will prolong her life, that she claims to have been born “the day Louis XVI was guillotined,”6 and that Parravicini has been taking blood from Ducayne’s young female companions and giving it to Ducayne to keep her alive, and also that she is dissatisfied with Parravicini. Stafford tells Ducayne that he is removing Bella from her employ and threatens her with the law if she takes another girl into her service. In a fury Ducayne sends both Herbert and Parravicini away. Ducayne then discharges Bella and gives her a large check for her trousseau, and Bella agrees to marry Herbert.
“Good Lady Ducayne” falls into that class of vampire story which escaped the Stoker influence by being published before Dracula. (Stoker and Braddon were friends, and the two may have discussed vampires, “Good Lady Ducayne” being published only a year before Dracula and Stoker being a frequent visitor to Braddon’s home). The nineteenth century produced a wide range of vampire stories, from the hallucinogenic horror of Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla” to the Gothic adventure of James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire to the straightforward fright of Julian Hawthorne’s “Ken’s Mystery.” “Good Lady Ducayne” is not like those three or any of the others which preceded it. Though there is vampirism, it is of the quack/medical variety, through the transferal of blood, rather than of the supernatural variety. “Ducayne” was written in the 1890s, so even more than “Ken’s Mystery” it has the late Victorian slickness of storytelling, the stress on realistic and spare dialogue, and the characterization revealed through dialogue and action rather than narrative description. And the nature of the vampire itself is different in “Ducayne” than in its predecessors. Braddon does not present Ducayne as unalloyed evil, ala Le Fanu’s Carmilla (see: “Carmilla”), or as an alluring, supernatural temptress, ala Gautier’s Clarimonde (see: “Clarimonde”). Lady Ducayne is an old, frail woman afraid of dying, and although her complicity in the deaths of Bella’s predecessors was evil, her reasons for doing it are more understandable and realistic than the supernatural motivations of Carmilla et al. Ducayne’s is a more tawdry and base wickedness than normal vampires, but more true to human nature as well.
Braddon leaves the nature of Ducayne herself ambiguous. The text of the story describes her as “wicked,” but Ducayne’s dismay and anger at Parravicini seems due as much at his methods, which, admittedly, she made use of when she thought they were effective, as at their ineffectiveness. And although Ducayne was willing to drain Bella, and spoke of her in callous terms, Ducayne’s farewell note is kindly phrased. It might be argued that this ambiguity simply reinforces the realistic feel of the story. Ducayne is not wholly evil, but is more complicated than that, as real people tend to be.
Braddon, well-informed about vampiric folklore and legend, and quite possibly influenced on some level by the great success of Varney the Vampyre, alluded several times to
the new scientific and technological innovations that would also be fundamental in Dracula. Indeed, Braddon’s and Stoker’s texts are examples of what Kathleen L. Spencer terms the ‘Urban Gothic’, which acknowledges ‘the eighteenth-century ancestry [of traditional Gothic fictions] while identifying the major modifications that have been made to adapt the fantastic to the needs of a new era’...Braddon’s peculiar vampire story testifies to her desire to draw inspiration from the latest fin-de-siècle issues. In ‘Good Lady Ducayne’ the relationship between the ancient past and the Victorian present embraces concerns related to social discrimination, political questions and scientific debates centered on the female body, which relationship in Braddon’s Gothic stories is described in ‘monstrous’ (or at least ‘abnormal’) terms, or reduced to ‘phantasmal’ forms.7
“Good Lady Ducayne” also shares with Dracula the implicit fear of a foreign invasion proving to be debilitating to Englishmen and women.
From a chronological point of view, ‘Good Lady Ducayne’ was published when debates on degeneration – originating from the imperial fears of invasion which would largely inform Dracula – were widespread. This justifies a further approach to the figure of Adelaide Ducayne as a representative of the cultural, sexual and racial ‘other’ who tries to penetrate, corrupt and infect Bella’s Englishness. Significantly, the year Braddon’s tale was published coincided with the English translation of Max Nordau’s Degeneration (1892) and with the first French edition of Cesare Lombroso’s L’uomo delinquente (1876), two texts that Braddon and Stoker had certainly in mind in the characterisation of their alien vampires.8
Moreover, Braddon–well aware of the contemporary portrayal of Jews as leeches on the body national of England--gives Ducayne stereotypically Jewish features–pointed chin, peaked nose, sharply pointed chin, small aquiline nose–and makes her a figurative “wandering Jew(ess).”
Even Ducayne’s condition as ‘wandering’ vampire in search of new methods to fight against the doom of ageing seems to be a parodic revision of the myth of the Wandering Jew and, generally speaking, of the destiny of the Jewish population. But Braddon’s vampire is not the only one who is associated with Jews in late-Victorian literature, since Bram Stoker’s Dracula as well, as Andrew Smith puts it, ‘articulates a contemporary anti-Semitic view in the association between the Count, eastern Europe and disease, which tapped into a popular anxiety of an “alien invasion” of Jews’.9
“Good Lady Ducayne” is not a classic of the vampire genre, but it is still entertaining. It has the slick style mentioned above along with some good landscape descriptions, realistic dialogue, and some effective and even ominous lines. The plot is predictable, but the reader still enjoys seeing how the story plays out. The character of Bella is particularly well done. She is not overly clever, and is more a victim than a heroine, but Braddon makes her sympathetic. She is a good person, and the reader is likely to identify with her. Braddon also nicely handles Bella’s poverty. Bella is no Girton Girl or New Woman. She is someone who is truly poor, to whom a tenner is a vast sum and who is too preoccupied with earning enough money to support her mother to have the time to be a New Woman, and so she feels far more realistic than the charming but unreal Lois Cayley (see: Miss Cayley’s Adventures).
Print: Richard Dalby, ed. Dracula's Brood: Neglected Vampire Classics by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James and Others. New York: Harper, 2017.
1 Mary E. Braddon, “Good Lady Ducayne,” Collected Stories (Luton, UK: Andrews UK Ltd., 2012), Project Gutenberg Australia, accessed Jan. 28, 2019, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0605261h.html.
2 Braddon, “Good Lady Ducayne.”
3 Braddon, “Good Lady Ducayne.”
4 Braddon, “Good Lady Ducyne.”
5 Braddon, “Good Lady Ducayne.”
6 Braddon, “Good Lady Ducayne.”
7 Saverio Tomaiuolo, In Lady Audley’s Shadow: Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Victorian Literary Genres (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 2010), 62.
8 Tomaiuolo, In Lady Audley’s Shadow, 66.
9 Tomaiuolo, In Lady Audley’s Shadow, 69.