The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
A Strange Story (1861-1862)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
A Strange Story was written by Edward Bulwer Lytton and appeared in All the Year Round (Aug 1861-Mar 1862). Edward George Earle Bulwer Lytton, 1st Baron of Knebworth (1803-1873) was a popular, productive, and influential writer for over forty years.
A Strange Story begins with Allen Fenwick, a British physician, living in the town of L_____. Fenwick is a strident materialist and rationalist who reacts blindly, stubbornly, and with no small amount of rhetorical violence to the merest hint of anything dealing with mesmerism, clairvoyance, or spiritualism. Fenwick meets and falls in love with Lillian Ashleigh, a dreamy, neurasthenic woman. Allen has some difficulties with Society because of his feelings for Lillian, but they are as nothing compared to the problems caused when a brilliant and charming young man named Margrave appears on the scene. Fenwick is initially attracted to Margrave but soon becomes suspicious of him. Fenwick meets Sir Philip Derval, a wealthy eccentric just returned to England from Asia. Derval was studying white magic under Haroun of Aleppo, a white magician and Rosicrucian, when Louis Grayle, an unprincipled and wicked old Briton, arrived and demanded the elixir of life from Haroun. Haroun refused, and Grayle killed him. Derval went in pursuit of Grayle. Derval is convinced that Margrave is Grayle and confronts Margrave and defeats him in a duel of magic and mesmerism. This partially opens Fenwick's eyes as to the existence of spiritual forces, but then Derval is murdered under mysterious circumstances. At Derval’s mansion Fenwick reads Derval's memoir and discovers the mutual history of Haroun, Grayle, and Derval. But Fenwick is put into a trance through seemingly magical means and the memoir is stolen. Fenwick is suspected of the theft and then charged with the murder of Derval. Fenwick is jailed, and while in jail Margrave, via a magical sending, offers Fenwick help if Fenwick will at some later point aid Margrave. Fenwick agrees, and Margrave arranges for the real murderer of Derval to be revealed. Margrave leaves L_____. Lillian disappears and follows Margrave, and Fenwick pursues Lillian. Fenwick confronts Margrave and discovers that Margrave wants to make use of Lillian's prophetic abilities to make more of Haroun's elixir of life. Fenwick does not want Margrave to do this, as it will endanger Lillian’s life, so Fenwick attacks Margrave, using Margrave’s magic wand. Fenwick defeats Margrave but spares his life on the condition that Margrave leave England. Lillian briefly recovers (she was put into a trance by Margrave) but Fenwick discovers that Lillian's pursuit of Margrave has brought Society's opprobrium upon her, and that Fenwick, for his involvement with Lillian, is likewise shunned by Society. Fenwick then decides to accelerate the date of his wedding to Lillian and to leave L_____. But on their wedding night Lillian reads a bitchy letter anonymously sent to her that points out that Society scorns her for chasing after Margrave and that if she marries Fenwick she will ruin Fenwick's good name. The shame of this drives Lillian mad. She develops amnesia and cannot remember or recognize Fenwick or her own mother. Fenwick moves Lillian, her mother, and himself to Australia, to give Lillian a chance to recover her wits in a new environment. In Australia Margrave approaches Fenwick. Margrave looks aged and even decrepit. He demands and receives Fenwick's help in making a new batch of the elixir of life. Unfortunately, during the magical ritual necessary to create the elixir, something goes wrong and Margrave, unable to control the spirits he has summoned, is killed. Lillian recovers and she and Fenwick live happily ever after.
Occult fantasy is a subgenre of modern fantasy in which occult mysteries are explored, hidden occult masters or guardians are pursued by the protagonists or pursue them, and a climactic good-versus-evil battle takes place.1 Occult fantasies date back to the Classical Era, with Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass (circa. 150 C.E.) having an occult core, but in the modern era they spring from four works: Jacques Cazotte’s The Devil in Love (original: Le Diable Amoureux, 1772; see The Fatal Woman); William Beckford’s Vathek; A Strange Story; and Bulwer Lytton’s Zanoni. Occult fantasy was a flourishing genre throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, but “the emergence of genre fantasy and the recommercialization of horror fiction during the past 30 years blurred the distinction between occult fantasy and other genres…most fantasies featuring Wizards studying arcane lore might be regarded as having their bases in occult fiction, but they have been overtaken by the wider popularity of Sword and Sorcery.”2
Occult fantasy novels and stories were written by a number of French authors during the nineteenth century. Bulwer Lytton was the foremost exponent of the form in Victorian England, and A Strange Story established many of the basics of the form. Much of the material in A Strange Story will seem trite and clichéd to modern readers, but what the modern reader must keep in mind while reading A Strange Story is that what they have seen hundreds of times over in novels, television shows, comics, and movies–magical trances, rites, magic wands, and so on–was considerably newer to Bulwer Lytton's readers. Bulwer Lytton was doing something new and had explain things to his readers that the modern reader will take for granted. The modern reader is familiar with the genre and its particulars; Bulwer Lytton and his readers were not.
A Strange Story provides an interesting contrast to modern occult fantasy novels. The occult element of A Strange Story feels less learned than later works. It is as if merely invoking the Mysterious East and dropping the name “Rosicrucian” were enough for Bulwer Lytton's audience, where more recent writers might provide extensive scholarly trappings for Haroun, Grayle, and the final ritual. Similarly, while the occult/horror moments in A Strange Story are less explicit than in modern novels, and even stories from the 1920s, within the context of the novel the moments are effective. There is only one moment of horripilation: when Doctor Lloyd, a physician who Fenwick has ridiculed for his believes in mesmerism, is dying, Fenwick visits him, and is treated to a chilling “Your time is coming, mate” speech, which ends with “The gibbering phantoms are gathering round you!”3 Apart from that moment, there is nothing that will make the skin of the modern reader crawl pleasantly, as the work of Machen (see: The Little People Stories, “The Great God Pan”) or Chambers (see: The King in Yellow) can. However, once immersed in the novel, the modern reader may, if they are willing, derive pleasure from the occult and horror moments.
Bulwer Lytton does something in A Strange Story which later horror story tellers found and find useful in preparing the reader to be frightened. The occult fantasy elements of A Strange Story are not introduced immediately, with the exception of Doctor Lloyd's dying threat, which at the time seems more the ravings of a dying man than a genuine premonition. Instead, Bulwer Lytton spends the first fifth of the novel introducing Allen Fenwick, Lillian Ashleigh, Mrs. Colonel Poyntz (the voice of Society), and Fenwick's immediate surroundings, and establishing L_____ as a mundane, normal environment for the novel. A Strange Story has substantial elements of the Society novel, especially in the concerns of Poyntz and Fenwick for propriety. Bulwer Lytton had previously written novels about Society, like Pelham, and the Society sections of A Strange Story show his experience with that environment, both as a person and as a writer. The backdrop of Society can be tiresome to readers who are unwilling or unable to adjust their mindset to the Victorian worldview, but the Society setting is effective in creating a day-to-day, prosaic feel for the novel, which in turn makes the intrusion of the occult fantasy elements more effective.
The novel develops in a few ways. The feel of the novel goes from Society and the mundane to the occult and the fantastic. Bulwer Lytton's writing style likewise changes, from a brisk and straightforward narrative style, which relies heavily on dialogue and occasionally even verges on the punchy, to the ponderous rhetorical philosophizing that readers of Bulwer Lytton expect and dread from him. It must be admitted that the early sections of the novel, though lacking in occult fantasy elements, are faster and frankly easier and more pleasant to read than the later, pages-long disquisitions on the Soul and spiritualism, the increasingly long-winded, ponderous, and stiff dialogue, and the increasingly uninteresting love story subplot. At one point, later in the novel, Fenwick’s mentor, Julius Faber, drones on for ten to fifteen pages at a time. Critics have traditionally been hostile to the Society chapters of A Strange Story, but most modern readers will find those pages much easier going than the more philosophical later sections.
Bulwer Lytton's treatment of the materialism vs spiritualism argument also changes. Bulwer Lytton comes down squarely on the side of spiritualism, and one of the purposes of A Strange Story is to rebut the rationalist argument as well as the theory of evolution—A Strange Story was published only two years after Darwin’s Origin of Species, and Bulwer Lytton extols the immortal spiritual essence of humanity and inveighs against the idea of amoral self-preservation, which he felt was the moral message of Darwin’s theory. But the early sections of A Strange Story actually make the reader side with the rationalist Doctor Fenwick and against the mesmerist advocate Doctor Lloyd and his ally Mr. Vigors. The reader knows that Doctor Fenwick will eventually be proven wrong, but–initially, at least–Bulwer Lytton puts the readers' sympathies on the side of the materialists rather than the spiritualists.
Bulwer Lytton was a Rosicrucian and reportedly joined the English Societas Rosicruciana, a notable English Rosicrucian group, in the mid-1860s. Like Zanoni, A Strange Story is a vehicle for Bulwer Lytton’s occult and Rosicrucian beliefs. The book is intended as allegory, as eventually becomes clear. Fenwick represents blind materialism and too great a reliance on the intellect, Mrs. Colonel Poyntz represents the petty and hypocritical concerns of Society and "The World," Margrave and Grayle represent the use of knowledge (occult or otherwise) without conscience and the soul sacrificed to carnal ends, and Lillian is the spirit unbound by earthly concerns (in A Strange Story this is a bad thing).
A Strange Story has one of Bulwer Lytton's few well-realized female characters. Female characters in Bulwer Lytton are usually one-dimensional; characterization was not Bulwer Lytton's strong suit, and his female characters are usually weak. But in A Strange Story he managed to create two interesting female characters. Ayesha, Margrave's too-devoted lover/assistant, is memorable, but Mrs. Colonel Poyntz, the unofficial ruler of Abbey Hill, the privileged section of L_____, is fully three-dimensional, a character who would not be out of place in a Jane Austen novel. Bulwer Lytton's allegory places Mrs. Colonel Poyntz in a bad light, and her actions toward Fenwick and Lillian are not kindly. But Bulwer Lytton (perhaps unconsciously–in real life Mrs. Colonel Poyntz types caused Bulwer Lytton no end of trouble) treats Mrs. Colonel Poyntz sympathetically, gives her real motives and depth, at times casts her as an almost tragic figure, and in general makes her more real to the reader than Fenwick or Margrave. Mrs. Colonel Poyntz may in fact be Bulwer Lytton's most realized and memorable character, female or male.
A Strange Story is of historical significance, and should be read by anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with the Victorian origins of the occult fantasy genre. But beyond that it has some enjoyable moments of horror, with the final ritual being particularly effective. Although A Strange Story has some prominent flaws, it also has some effective moments of occult fantasy and horror, and the character of Mrs. Colonel Poyntz is particularly well sketched.
Print: Edward Bulwer Lytton, A Strange Story. London: Forgotten Books, 2017.
1 Mike Ashley, “Occult Fantasy,” in John Clute and John Grant, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (New York: St. Martin’s, 1997), 703.
2 Ashley, “Occult Fantasy,” 703.
3 Edward Bulwer Lytton, A Strange Story (New York: Harper, 1873), 21.