The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"Some Experiences of Lord Syfret" (1896-1897)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The series “Some Experiences of Lord Syfret” was written by Arabella Kenealy and appeared in “Some Experiences of Lord Syfret” (The Ludgate, June 1896-Apr 1897). Kenealy (1862-1938) was a noted novelist and author of New Woman non-fiction.
Lord Syfret is a gentleman of independent means. At age forty he has health, wealth, and position, but is bored with his life, and to alleviate his boredom he begins a series of investigations into strange matters:
I like my pages of story wet with the ink of life. I meet a man or a woman whose appearance or conditions stir me. By the expenditure of a little ingenuity, some trouble, and more or less hard cash, that person’s story lies in my hand. Aided by a staff of well-drilled agents, whose duty I have made it to shadow in one capacity or another the fortunes of such persons as roused my curiosity—I am enabled to read their stories like a book.1
Some of these stories involve supernatural events. In one story the ghost of a murdered woman possesses a baby at its birth. The ghost haunts the baby, who sees the ghost and reacts to it, and the baby dies soon after its birth. In another story Syfret defeats a female vampire. Other events which Syfret becomes involved in are merely unusual. A haunted house which has killed several residents is revealed to have several hidden caches of cyanide gas. Syfret helps apprehend a sociopathic misogynist. A rare coin in a museum mysteriously disappears (and is prosaically found). A valuable necklace stolen from India is pursued by a vengeful Hindu Prince. A woman wastes away out of love for a statue of Antinous, the lover of Emperor Hadrian. A woman feels sympathy for an ugly, brutal man, marries him out of a desire to change him, and then has her heartbroken by him and endures the murder of their child by her husband; the baby is as ugly as the father, and he does not want the child to suffer through life and become warped because of his ugliness, the way the father was.
Lord Syfret was one of the earlier professional occult detectives. He is a professional and employs operatives as the head of a detective agency does. Syfret is not summoned solely for supernatural mysteries, as the Prichards’ Flaxman Low is (see: The Flaxman Low Adventures). But the concept of a competent investigator employing professional means to solve strange and occasionally supernatural cases is present in the Syfret stories, and Syfret can be seen as a prototype for Low and later occult detectives. Like most later occult detectives, Syfret is a member of Society and is approached by them for help. He is active, but in several of his cases he finds the answer to a mystery but is unable to wholly or partially solve the central problem. Unlike future occult detectives he is armed with neither spells, psychic abilities, or arcane and occult weapons. He has only his native intelligence and those weapons which any person might carry. Syfret is successful, but he does not like publicity and despite his many friends is a misanthrope: “I am no amiable person, nor do I think I can be suspected of loving.”
The Lord Syfret stories are told in the slick prose style of the magazines of 1890s. The stories are enjoyable reading and have aged only slightly, although the occasional antisemitic and anti-Indian stereotype may reduce the modern reader’s pleasure. The stories also have a few unusual attributes. Syfret is genial, but he is much more ruthless in his approach than similar characters. He is cynical and cunning and is capable of unblinkingly telling falsehoods and encouraging others to do the same if it will serve his ends.
“A Beautiful Vampire,” which appeared a year before Stoker’s Dracula was published, is unusual. The vampire, Lady Deverish, is a typical 1890s Fatal Woman. But she drains energy, rather than blood. More interestingly, she is an updated version of Lord Ruthven (see: “The Vampyre”). She is a modern, English woman, a socialite and a woman-about-town. There is no hint of Eastern European or ethnic characteristics about her, just as Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Ducayne (see: “Good Lady Ducayne”) was an Englishwoman of the upper classes. As with Lady Ducayne, Lady Deverish lacks any influence of Stoker, and represents a what-could-have-been for English fictional vampires if Dracula had not been published. Too, “A Beautiful Vampire” is an unusual, even extraordinary, story in its portrayal of a menopausal woman (Lady Deverish), a character type usually ignored by Victorian writers.2
Finally, as they do in the rest of Kenealy’s fiction, women play an unusually prominent role in the Lord Syfret stories. In the Syfret stories women appear as both good and evil characters, but they are all capable; Nurse Marian, in “A Beautiful Vampire,” is the character who carries most of the action against Lady Deverish. Syfret employs many women as agents and trusts them implicitly, sending them undercover into dangerous situations. Later occult detectives, whose stories were written by male authors, would not be nearly so progressive in their treatment of women–women would either be absent, dead, or damsels in distress.
1 Arabella Kenealy, “The Haunted Child,” The Ludgate 2, no. 2 (Jun 1896): 172.
2 Kristine Swenson, “The Menopausal Vampire: Arabella Kenealy and the Boundaries of True Womanhood,” Women’s Writing 10, no. 1 (2003): 27-46.