The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The concept of the noble bandit is an old one, appearing in stories as far back as the ancient Greeks. Popular folklore during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was full of such characters, from Robin Hood to Til Eulenspiegel. The noble bandit character also appeared in chivalric romances like the Spanish Amadís de Gaula (1304). Many of these characters were loosely based on real outlaws, from the French highwayman Louis-Dominique Cartouche (1693-1721) and the French smuggler Louis Mandrin (1725-1755; see: The Gentleman Thief) to the German bandit Matthias Klostermayr (?-1771), a robber who attacked the wealthy and plundered monasteries and gave much of his loot to the poor. By 1781 the character was familiar and even clichéd. But Friedrich Schiller’s play The Robbers, which featured a noble bandit, was met with wild enthusiasm rather than audience fatigue, and inspired a genre of stories about noble outlaws, the räuberromane, or “robber novels.”
Schiller’s innovation was not in the theatrical presentation of an adventure story involving an outlaw. In the late eighteenth century the three most popular genres in German literature and theater were the abenteuerroman, the schauerroman, and the ritterroman. The abenteuerroman, or “adventure novel,” was the descendant of the verse romances of the Middle Ages. The schauerroman, or “shudder novel,” was the equivalent of the modern horror story (see: The Gothic). And the ritterroman, or “knight novel,” told chivalric stories about knights in armor. Outlaws, even well-intentioned ones, appeared in all three of these genres.
Schiller’s particular innovation, and the reason for The Robbers’ extreme popularity, was that it was the end of the Sturm und Drang era (see: Romanticism) and at the beginning of the Romantic era and the play incorporated elements of both. The Robbers took from the Sturm und Drang the emphasis on the genius as a being above the repressive rules of society and the celebration of forceful expressions of emotions regardless of decorum. From Romanticism The Robbers took both introspection and the privileging of the individual’s rights and condition over the obligations the individual owes the state.
Schiller based the outline of Karl Moor on both Klostermayer and Roque Guinart (from Cervantes’ Don Quixote [1605-1615]), but the personality of Karl Moor, his apoplectic passions and rejection of modern life, came from the zeitgeist and so resonated with his audience that its initial performances caused pandemonium. Women in the audience fainted, men fought and almost caused riots, and young men took to the woods to live in imitation of Karl Moor and his men.
Other playwrights produced imitations of The Robbers, but the first novel written in imitation of Schiller did not appear until 1794. Like The Robbers, Heinrich Zschokke’s Abällino the Great Bandit was immediately popular, and theatrical adaptations appeared in France and Germany and were successful. Abällino shifted the setting for the novel to the Italy, a shift imitated by later räuberroman writers. But unlike räuberromane before and after, the protagonist of Abällino abandons outlawry at the end of the novel. The traditional noble hero of the räuberroman remains an outlaw to the end.
The most popular of all räuberromane was Christian Vulpius’ Rinaldo Rinaldini. Rinaldo Rinaldini began the craze for the räuberroman that gripped readers in Great Britain and the Continent at the turn of the nineteenth century. Numerous imitations of Rinaldini were written, many bearing titles like Orlando Orlandini. In England, where there was a great enthusiasm for German literature, the reading audience consumed the räuberromane in great numbers, but few English authors wrote in imitation of Schiller, Zschokke, and Vulpius. Most English authors put their noble outlaws in Gothic novels instead.
The räuberroman declined in popularity in the 1820s. A final spurt of räuberromane set at sea, with noble pirates as protagonists, was briefly popular in the late 1820s. But the influence of the räuberroman extended beyond the end of the genre. The violent passion of the räuberroman’s protagonist was duplicated in the Hero-Villains of the Gothics and in the Byronic Fatal Man (see: The Fatal Woman). The noble outlaw as a rebel against a repressive state appeared in the highwayman penny bloods and penny dreadfuls (see: The Gentleman Thief) and in the American dime novels in the 1870s and 1880s, where characters like Deadwood Dick (see: The Deadwood Dick Adventures) and the James Brothers (see: The James Brothers Adventures) changed from defending rural communities against external threats to waging war on a cruel urban, Eastern society.
The occasional räuberroman did appear in the middle of the century (see: The King of the Mountains) and at the end of the century (see: The Don Q Adventures), but although popular they did not inspire imitators. Their place was taken at the end of the century by stories about Gentleman Thieves, rebels (in their own way) against society but no longer impassioned and no longer interested in anything other than monetary gains.
For Further Research
Patrick Bridgwater, The German Gothic Novel in Anglo-German Perspective. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013