The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Traitor's Way (1901)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Traitor’s Way was written by S. Levett-Yeats. Sidney Kilner Levett-Yeats (circa 1858-1916) was a writer of historical fiction. The Traitor’s Way is a good idea gone woefully wrong in the hands of a talented writer.

The Traitor’s Way is the story of one man’s inability to resist the darker angels of his nature. Gaspard de Vibrac is the last son of a noble French house during the 1560s. He is also a Huguenot, and this places him, as a wealthy nobleman, in the conspiracy of Amboise, the Huguenot plot to usurp the power of the ruling Guise family. When the conspiracy is uncovered, Vibrac attempts to flee Paris with the woman he loves, Marie de Marcilly. Marie is the wife of Vibrac’s best friend, the noble soldier Jean de Marcilly, and Vibrac is desperately in love with her. Marie does not reciprocate Vibrac’s feelings, but neither does she issue firm denials to his avowals of love. She feels that her husband does not love her and is miserable, and she has spent time with Vibrac, although the extent of their involvement is unclear. But just before she is to meet Vibrac and leave Paris she overhears Vibrac and her husband discussing her, and her husband reveals to Vibrac that he truly loves her. This strengthens her, and she turns Vibrac down.

This makes Vibrac wretched; his despair is deepened when he discovers that the letter he bore, which contained the names of a hundred other Amboise conspirators, has been taken from him by an agent of the Queen Mother and “the tyrants of Guise.” Vibrac decides to leave Paris and help the conspiracy, but things go against him and his comrades. Vibrac is with Jean de Marcilly at Châtillon, guarding the Princess of Condé, when they receive the news of the imprisonment of the leader of the conspiracy, the Prince of Condé. Vibrac and Marcilly leave to rescue the Prince, but things grow complicated, and the pair become entangled in more plots than just their own. Worse, Vibrac encounters Marie again, and in displeasing circumstances to them both. In conversation with a notorious gossip Marie dismisses her affair with Vibrac (which is widely known by this time, although Marie’s husband is still unaware of it) as a mere diversion. Vibrac overhears this, is wounded by her words, and speaks insultingly to Marie. Marie, hurt by his attack, confirms what she said, although Vibrac, discussing this in retrospect, acknowledges that he was at fault for taking her initial statement seriously. Marie’s response pushes Vibrac all the way to evil, and he betrays the leaders of the Amboise conspiracy to the Duc de Guise and Cardinal Richelieu. But before the Condés and Marcilly and the others can be tortured and executed, the King, Francis II, dies, depriving de Guise of power. Vibrac flees Orleans, where the events of The Traitor’s Way takes place, and returns to his home so that he does not have to face those he betrayed. Forty years later “The Shame of Vibrac” has entered common parlance as a catchphrase for betrayal, and Vibrac, still alive, waits for death, “the pity of God.”1 

Levett-Yeats is a member of the Weyman School (see: The Historical Romance) and has many of the same stylistic qualities of his contemporaries: a quick, smooth narrative style; snappy dialogue; accurate history used as background and setting rather than as the engine of the plot; emotion conveyed through understatement or in a direct and simple way; fluid descriptions; a focus on the doings of nobility rather than the working class; a certain romanticization of the novel’s period and setting; and an abundance of high adventure, from duels to midnight escapes. But Levett-Yeats, in The Traitor’s Way, displays some flaws which the work of Weyman and Levett-Yeats’ contemporaries do not, and these result in a flawed and ultimately unsatisfactory work.

Levett-Yeats begins the novel in media res and makes abrupt, jarring transitions from scene to scene and in some cases from month to month or even year to year. Levett-Yeats also makes too frequent use of the forward allusion. The story is told in retrospect, from the point of view of Vibrac, forty years after the events took place, and at a number of points Vibrac says something like, “Little did I know what fate awaited me” or “Had I but known the dire end which awaited Achon.” Too much of this sort of thing, which The Traitor’s Way has, is annoying. Worse than that is the lack of historical context for the events and figures of the novel. In part this is due to the diminished education of the modern reader. Levett-Yeats wrote The Traitor’s Way with the assumption that his English readers would be familiar enough with the particulars of sixteenth century French history that he would not have to explain who the Duc de Guise was or what the conspiracy of Amboise was about. Levett-Yeats’ contemporary readers probably did not need that contextualization. Modern readers will, and will not find it in The Traitor’s Way. Even when Levett-Yeats does attempt to provide some explanation of events and introduction of historical characters, he fails.

The most critical flaw of the novel is Gaspard de Vibrac himself. The stylistic flaws of The Traitor’s Way could be forgiven if the protagonist was sufficiently likable, but de Vibrac is a weak man who succumbs to a wretched form of villainy. De Vibrac is not an enjoyable character with whom to spend a few hundred pages. Vibrac is undoubtedly brave, and a good swordsman, and as an older man he acknowledges all he did wrong, but the younger Vibrac, whose thoughts and feelings we read about, is a weakling. He repeatedly gives in to temptation and then feels miserable and wretched for having done so. He is neither a good man nor a remarkably bad one; he is too weak to resist his darker impulses and lacks the strength to be really evil. He is only strong enough to hate himself for being weak. A few hundred pages of guilty recriminations overwhelms whatever pleasure can be had from the occasional moment of fun in the novel, whether it is a duel or a punchy one-liner.

Levett-Yeats was too talented to have produced The Traitor’s Way.

Recommended Edition

Print: Sidney Kilner Levett Yeats, The Traitor’s Way. London: Methuen & Co., 1906.



1 S. Levett-Yeats, The Traitor’s Way (New York: F.A. Stokes & Co., 1901), 2.