The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"One of Cleopatra's Nights" (1838)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“One of Cleopatra’s Nights” (original: “Une Nuit de Cléopâtre”) was written by Théophile Gautier and first appeared in La Presse (Nov. 29-Dec. 6, 1838). Gautier (1811-1872) was a French poet, novelist, and critic of art and literature. He was one of the major figures in French letters for almost fifty years, a leader of the French Romantic movement, and the founder of the l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake) movement, which held that beauty, not morality, was the only aim of art. “One of Cleopatra’s Nights” is seen as one of Gautier’s best weird stories, and although it is more of a vignette than a story, it more than merits the phrase “classic.”

Cleopatra is bored, tired of all her old games, tired of her former lovers, and most of all, tired of Egypt:

This Egypt crushes, annihilates me; this sky with its implacable azure is sadder than the deep night of Erebus...from the inflamed pupil of that sky of bronze no tear has ever yet fallen upon the desolation of this land; it is only a vast covering for a tomb--the dome of a necropolis.1 

The empty, dead nature of Egypt haunts her. Worse, she is alone and loveless, and unsure if anyone really loves her: “Can a queen...ever know whether it is her face or her diadem that is loved?”2 Meanwhile Meïamoun, a strange and passionate young man and a skilled hunter, is deeply in love with Cleopatra, even though he is merely a hunter of a poor family. But he dares, after much planning, to get close enough to fire an arrow into her room, an arrow on which is written, “I love you!” Cleopatra is intrigued by this, for none of those who she might be expected to love truly care for her. When Meïamoun is caught spying on Cleopatra as she bathes, she does not have him executed, but instead takes him for a lover. His time with her is short, however, for that night, after a truly magnificent orgy of food and drink which lasts all night and through until dawn, he prepares to take poison: “it is daybreak, it is the hour when happy dreams take flight.”3 At that moment the officers of Mark Antony arrive, and rather than stop Meïamoun from committing suicide she allows him to do so and then blithely greets Mark Antony.

Gautier is one of those rare writers who produced supernatural and adventure stories while still retaining the respect of the Parisian Académie. Gautier’s stories of the weird are written with an unusual level of skill. The style of “One of Cleopatra’s Nights” is lush and recalls the sensory overload of Flaubert’s Salammbô. The story is vivid, with colorful, evocative, sensual imagery. “Cleopatra’s Nights” is not a story of plot, but rather of feeling; it is a story of impressionismus, of passages designed to create sensual impressions in the minds of the readers, and it succeeds wonderfully. It must be added, though, that one of the most common English translations of “One of Cleopatra’s Nights” is by Lafcadio Hearn and has the reputation of being more faithful to Gautier’s intent and spirit than to his words.

Another aspect of the story which is effective is its evocation of an Egypt which is haunted by the “stairways built only for the limbs of Titans,” by the “bandage swathed myriads,” a country

where the only perfume you can respire is the acrid odor of the naphtha and bitumen which boil in the caldrons [sic] of the embalmers, where the very flooring of your chamber sounds hollow because the corridors of the hypogea and the mortuary pits extend even under your alcove.4 

Gautier’s description of Egypt, in the mouth of Cleopatra, becomes Lovecraftian in its phrasing:

...this land is truly an awful land; all things in it are gloomy, enigmatic, incomprehensible. Imagination has produced in it only monstrous chimeras and monuments immeasurable; this architecture and this art fill me with fear; those colossi, whose stone entangled limbs compel them to remain eternally sitting with their hands upon their knees, weary me with their stupid immobility; they trouble my eyes and my horizon.5 

In his “Supernatural Horror in Literature” Lovecraft writes highly of Gautier and “One of Cleopatra’s Nights:”

…the Egyptian visions evoked in “One of Cleopatra’s Nights” are of the keenest and most expressive potency. Gautier captured the inmost soul of aeon-weighted Egypt, with its cryptic life and Cyclopean architecture, and uttered once and for all the eternal horror of its nether world of catacombs, where to the end of time millions of stiff, spiced corpses will stare up in the blackness with glassy eyes, awaiting some awesome and unrelatable summons.6 

One could easily speculate on how influential Gautier was on Lovecraft, one of the most influential of all modern horror writers. Certainly “One of Cleopatra’s Nights” was well-known and influential, inspiring two operas (1885, 1920), a Diaghilev ballet, Cléopâtre (1908), and even the Italian film comedy Due notti con Cleopatra (1955).7 The abyss of time and doom-haunted landscape of “One of Cleopatra’s Nights” could easily have imprinted themselves on Lovecraft.

Cleopatra is another of Gautier’s femmes fatale (see: The Fatal Woman). Gautier was actually much in advance of the century’s cultural trends. Most popular and genre literature in the 1830s was still suffering from the post-Byron, post-Romanticism hangover, and the common fatale character was the homme fatale, the Byronic Manfred character type (see: The Fatal Woman), a type of Romantic Hero-Villain who is, like Byron himself, mad, bad, and dangerous to know, especially for women. But Gautier used women in that role, something that wouldn’t become common for two decades. The idea of a beautiful woman who preys sexually on a younger, more innocent man and kills him predates Gautier, of course, but Gautier was one of the first to give the character type a Romantic cast and to introduce her into what would today be classified as a horror story.

Recommended Edition

Print: Robert Reginald and Douglas Menville, eds. Phantasmagoria. Rockville, MD: Wildside Press, 2008.



1 Théophile Gautier, “One of Cleopatra’s Nights,” transl. Lafcadio Hearn, in One of Cleopatra’s Nights and Other Fantastic Romances (New York: Brentano’s, 1906), 16.

2 Gautier, “One of Cleopatra’s Nights,” 22.

3 Gautier, “One of Cleopatra’s Nights,” 76.

4 Gautier, “One of Cleopatra’s Nights,” 21.

5 Gautier, “One of Cleopatra’s Nights,” 16.

6 H.P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” in Leverett Butts, ed., H.P. Lovecraft: Selected Works, Critical Perspectives and Interviews on His Influence (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018), 183.

7 David Huckvale, Ancient Egypt in the Popular Imagination: Building a Fantasy in Film, Literature, Music and Art (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), 137-138.