The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Rosicrucian" (1853)  

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Rosicrucian” was written by “Mrs. Craik” and first appeared in Avillion and Other Tales (1853). “Mrs. Craik” was the pen name of Dinah Mulock, later Mrs. George Lillie Craik (1826-1887), one of the more successful and popular female writers of the Victorian age; her John Halifax, Gentleman (1856) was a bestseller. “The Rosicrucian” is a cautionary tale about the Rosicrucians and their heartless pursuit of knowledge.

Basil Wolgemuth is a dreamy young student who has two conflicting desires. The first is to be with his loved ones: his gentle, loving mother, his devoted, caring sister Margareta, and Isilda, the great love of his life. Isilda and Basil have loved each other since childhood, but it is only recently, during “The Rosicrucian” itself, that they admit their love for each other and agree to become man and wife. Basil’s second desire is to plumb the depths of nature’s secrets. Toward this end he has become a Rosicrucian and studies under Michael Meyer himself. Meyer has given Basil his book of knowledge, and Basil has studied it closely, but so far he has not seen any of the nature spirits which God created. Part of the problem, as Michael points out and which Basil admits to himself, is that a true Rosicrucian must cast aside all his emotional ties and deaden himself to human, earthly pleasures, and this is something Michael is finding difficult to do, especially with the lovely, sweet, and innocent Isilda near him. But one night the Salamandrine, the spirit of Fire, appears in Basil’s fireplace and speaks with him, and the two begin carrying on long conversations. Time passes; Basil’s mother dies, and Basil grows distant from Isilda and Margareta. Basil is preoccupied with the occult knowledge he is learning; the Salamandrine shows Basil more of nature’s secrets and he wanders through the mountains, seeing the Sylphs of the air and the beautiful Undines of the rivers. Basil realizes that he must leave Isilda behind if he is to truly master the secrets of the Rosey Cross, and he begins treating her harshly. Isilda continues to love him, however; she has idolized him from childhood and believes he can do no wrong. Then, one night, Basil sees Isilda’s house on fire, and he dashes into her burning home to rescue her. But as he holds her the spirits of the air grow faint and vanish, and Basil blames Isilda for driving them from him, and when she shrieks, “No power in heaven or earth shall tear us asunder–thou art mine, Basil–let me lie for thee–die for thee”1 he responds by stabbing her. From that point forward none of the spirits appear to him, and the Salamandrine, now invisible, tells him that only the pure of heart and intent can commune with the invisible, and that sin has now polluted him. He dies two days later, and Margareta takes to a convent.

“The Rosicrucian” is part of the minor genre of nineteenth century anti-Rosicrucian stories. The concern shown by these stories for the Rosicrucians may seem amusing to modern readers, but during the nineteenth century the Rosicrucians and their philosophy (or, rather, what their philosophy was perceived as being) were seen as mysterious and sinister. They were often portrayed as having some type of superior knowledge but also as being unwholesome and dangerous to be around, so that writers as various as Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (see: Axël), Balzac (see: The Centenarian, or the Two Beringhelds), and Bulwer Lytton (see: A Strange Story) wrote cautionary tales about the Rosicrucians. These stories were particularly prevalent in the 1840s and 1850s, thanks to Bulwer Lytton’s Zanoni (1842) and George Sand’s Consuelo (1842) and Countess of Rudolstadt (1843), and contributed to what Theodore Ziolkowski calls the “resurrection of the Rosicrucians.” Michael Meyer, in “The Rosicrucian,” is not sinister; he is almost avuncular, and he sees Rosicrucianism as a good vehicle for helping mankind, healing the sick, and becoming closer to God. But his ethos, Rosicrucianism, with its demands for a severing of emotional ties with humanity, is sinister, and Craik shows this.

The story is not bad, although it is not nearly as good as Craik’s “The Last House on C---- Street.” The characters are melodramatic and stereotypical, and the story is clearly didactic. But Craik has a nice touch with the imagery, and the recurring motif of fire is well handled.

Recommended Edition

Print: Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, Avillion and Other Tales. London: Forgotten Books, 2015.

Online: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008718276

 

1 Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, “The Rosicrucian,” in Avillion and Other Tales, volume 2 (London: Smith, Elder, 1853), 267.

2 Theodore Ziolkowski, The Lure of the Arcane: The Literature of Cult and Conspiracy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 116.