The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Princess Daphne (1888)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Princess Daphne was written by Edward Heron-Allen and “Selina Delaro.” Heron-Allen (1861-1943) was something of a polymath. He was interested in and published on topics as varied as violin-making, palmistry, and Persian literature. He also wrote a small assortment of novels, including The Cheetah Girl (1923), a work suppressed in the 1920s because of its sexual subject matter. “Selina Delaro” was the pseudonym and stage-name of Selina Dolaro (1849-1889), a part of the London theater crowd; Richard D’Oyly Carte managed the Royalty Theater for her in 1875.

The Princess Daphne is about four characters: Paul du Peyral, Mahmouré di Zulueta, Eric Trevanion, and Daphne Préault. Paul du Peyral is a mesmerist and Creole who is left a large fortune in a will on the condition that he marries his cousin and double, Daphne Préault, or remains unmarried. If Paul marries someone else, the money goes to Daphne. Paul proposes to Daphne, she turns him down, and he goes merrily on his way, happy to remain a wealthy bachelor. Mahmouré di Zulueta is a mysterious and beautiful foreigner with a dark past living in New York; she inspires curiosity and desire among all the men who meet her. Paul wins her heart, and they marry in secret. Paul begins practicing psychic experiments on her, projecting her personality into Daphne’s body–the blood link between Paul and Daphne enables this possession–and demonstrating to others that mesmerism works. These experiments drain him, and he weakens himself further using his power to bolster Mahmouré’s failing health. Paul pours too much of himself into his experiments and dies.

Eric and Daphne, meanwhile, live in London among the Bohemian artists. Daphne is “the Princess Daphne,” the beautiful, serene idol and inspiration of all the artists of her colony. Eric is a dilettante, an untalented painter who enjoys being around Daphne and their more talented artist friends. Eric is mad for Daphne. Initially she does not feel so strongly for him, but eventually she falls in love with him. But then her personality changes, in part because Paul’s psychic experiments start to alter her personality. Eric is thrown on hard financial times, which brings further stress to his relationship with Daphne. She momentarily dies due to a bodily weakness brought on by Paul’s experiments. She recovers, but her personality is greatly altered, more “earthy,” and she begins cheating on Eric. Mahmouré arrives in London and visits Daphne, and there is an immediate connection between them. When Paul died his soul followed the connection to Daphne and commingled with her soul, and Daphne feels for Mahmouré what Paul felt for Mahmouré, and vice versa. What follows is a thinly-veiled lesbian love affair. Eric is cruelly rejected by Daphne and returns to America, where he marries a kind minor character. Mahmouré and Daphne carry on together, but Daphne weakens, and despite Mahmouré’s best efforts Daphne dies. Mahmouré then goes to Greece to end her days.

The Princess Daphne is an entertaining tale whose enjoyment will be ruined for most modern readers by the figure of Clytemnestra, the freedwoman servant of Daphne Préault. This is always a danger with popular fiction of previous generations, but it is especially true here: Heron-Allen’s attitudes are not just politically incorrect, but outright racist. It is a benign racism, wherein “Clytie” does care for Daphne, albeit in a stereotyped manner, and does have positive qualities, but it is racist nonetheless, from Clytie’s dialogue (“‘Sho, honey! Sho, there! What is it, chile?”1) to the basic concept of the character (“...generation after generation of master and slave had looked after one another, and the ideas of freedom, and a vote, and the College of Surgeons were, to Clytie, iconoclastic institutions which she strenuously objected to....”2) to Heron-Allen’s ideas about what character attributes might be contained in “Creole blood.”

The Princess Daphne has a number of virtues. It is smartly told and more than occasionally amusing, with several witty lines. The novel has some informed views of the Bohemian lifestyle of nineteenth century artists, although their portrayal is even more romanticized than in George du Maurier’s “Trilby.” And The Princess Daphne contains a couple of enjoyably pointed satires, especially of Anglophilic Americans. Heron-Allen works a little too hard at persuading the reader how wonderful the main characters are, and there is a bit too much persiflage, but the downfall of the novel is “Clytie” and Heron-Allen’s attitude toward her.

The Princess Daphne is sometimes described as a novel of “psychic vampirism,”3 but this is inaccurate. Paul does not drain anyone’s life force while he lives. If anything, the reverse is the case, as he invests his own life energies into Mahmouré and heals her at the cost of his own health. When Mahmouré’s soul possesses Daphne’s body, her personality changes but her health and soul are not affected. And when Paul’s soul possesses Daphne’s body, she is not drained. The Princess Daphne is not a novel of vampirism, but rather of mesmerism, possession, and soul transference–occult fantasy rather than pure horror.

Perhaps of most interest to the modern reader is the fact that Princess Daphne features a lesbian romance. The generally-accepted histories of lesbian fiction usually begin with Henry James’ The Bostonians (1885-1886) as the first novel with a lesbian character in it, and proceed to Gertrude Stein’s Q.E.D. (1903), which “signals the beginning of the production of lesbian novels by lesbians; Stein's lesbian self-consciousness was reflected in her making no effort to publish the manuscript.”4 Princess Daphne does not appear in these histories, no doubt because of its obscurity and because it’s possible that, like The Bostonians, it was not co-written by a lesbian.5 Nonetheless, Princess Daphne’s publication date of 1888 places it very early in the history of lesbian fiction, and if Selina Dolaro was indeed a lesbian, that would make Princess Daphne the first novel—not the first science fiction novel, but the first novel about lesbians by a lesbian. Lesbians were not unknown to the Victorians:

Marcus 2007 [Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007)] argues for the existence of different phenomena in nineteenth century England: female friendship, which involved the eroticization of femininity; unrequited love of one woman for another; and marriages between women, which were understood to include sex. All, she argues, were central to the sex, gender, and marriage systems of Victorian England rather than an alternative to heteronormativity.6 

But this awareness of women-loving-women did not usually extend to publishing stories or novels about them or to lauding published stories or novels about them, as J. Sheridan Le Fanu found out with the reaction to “Carmilla.” That Heron-Allen might have meant the lesbian romance to titillate and appeal to the prurience of male readers is likely; his The Cheetah Girl (1923) is a 1920s version of softcore pornography. But it’s equally likely that Dolaro meant the romance to be more affecting.

The Princess Daphne is entertaining, though racist, but is of more interest historically than as a reading experience.

Recommended Edition

Print: Edward Heron-Allen and Selina Delaro, The Princess Daphne. Leyburn: Tartarus Press, 2001.



1 Edward Heron-Allen and Selina Delaro, The Princess Daphne (Chicago: Belford, Clarke, 1888), 111.

2 Heron-Allen and Delaro, Princess Daphne, 98.

3 See, for example, Brian J. Frost’s otherwise quite reliable history of the vampire, The Monster with a Thousand Faces: Guises of the Vampire in Myth and Literature (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989).

4 Julie Abraham, Are Girls Necessary? Lesbian Writing and Modern Histories (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 5.

5 Selina Dolaro, who acted under the stage name “Selina Delaro,” certainly would have known gays and lesbians through her experience in the world of English and American theater. She was married with children, but that doesn’t disprove the possibility of her being bisexual or even a lesbian.

6 Leila J. Rupp, Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 248n86.