The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Véra” was written by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and first appeared in La Semaine Parisienne (May 7, 1874). Jean Marie Mathias Philippe Auguste, Comte de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (1838-1889) was a French poet, dramatist, novelist, and short story writer. Villiers was well-regarded during his lifetime, influencing W.B. Yeats among others, and is now seen as an important figure in the history of French literature. His work is valued for its imagination and its combination of the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century and the Symbolist movement of the early twentieth century. “Véra” is story of will and love conquering death.
The Comte d’Athol returns home from his wife’s funeral. She had died suddenly the night before–the ecstasy of their lovemaking had been too much for her heart. “She had scarcely had time to give her husband a farewell kiss, smiling wordlessly; then her long lashes had fallen like mourning veils over the splendid darkness of her eyes.”1 Theirs had been an absorbing love; lacking a belief in the soul or religion, they made each other the subject of their worship and had isolated themselves together in a mansion, becoming “the beat of one another’s heart...their kisses, the meshes of a burning chainmail, bound them together in an ideal fusion, a prolonged ecstasy.”2 And now she was gone. The Comte had gone one final time to her vault and then, on a whim, tossed the key to the vault door into the tomb. He then goes to Véra’s death chamber and tells his servant Raymond
The countess and I are tired out this evening, you will serve supper about ten o’clock...incidentally, we have decided to isolate ourselves even more here, as from tomorrow. None of my servants, except yourself, is to pass the night in the house.3
Raymond believes that grief has unhinged the Comte’s mind, but he is a loyal servant and follows his orders. The Comte is not insane. He simply forgets, or makes himself forget, that Véra is dead. He feels that she is with him, and speaks to her, reading to her at night, and soon he begins to catch glimpses of her face or feel her kiss on his lips and hear her whispering to him at night. Even Raymond begins to see her, briefly. On the one year anniversary of her death the Comte surrounds himself with all of Véra’s best loved objects. All of them speak to him of her presence; her pearls are still warm from her flesh, her opal is shining as if it had just been taken off. The Comte sees Véra, lying languidly on a couch, and she speaks to him, but then he remembers that she is dead, really dead, and she disappears, and the feeling of her presence vanishes, and he is left alone. He is devastated and wonders aloud how he is to find her again. In response the key to her tomb falls on to the marriage bed.
“Véra” draws from both Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” (1838), in which the narrator’s beloved Ligeia returns from death to be with him, and from the writings of Eliphas Lévi (1810-1875), the French magical philosopher, who wrote that man, the “miracle-worker of the Earth,” can defeat, through “the force of his will and the potency of his magnetism,”4 natural laws, including death. Villiers’ language is full of strikingly vivid imagery which effectively conjures up the scenes in the story, but the core of “Véra” is the loss of a dearly loved one, and Villiers uses this idea to create an affecting story.
Print: Joan C. Kessler, ed., Demons of the Night: Tales of the Fantastic, Madness, and the Supernatural from Nineteenth-Century France. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
1 Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, “Véra,” in Joan C. Kessler, ed., Demons of the Night: Tales of the Fantastic, Madness, and the Supernatural from Nineteenth-Century France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 275.
2 Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, “Véra,” 277.
3 Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, “Véra,” 278.
4 Qtd. in Joan C. Kessler, “Introduction,” in Joan C. Kessler, ed., Demons of the Night: Tales of the Fantastic, Madness, and the Supernatural from Nineteenth-Century France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), xl-xli.