TALES OF THE DEAD (1812)

SARAH BROWN UTTERSON (trans.) (c. 1782–1851)


Mary Shelley has described how, during a rainy spell during the summer of 1816, she, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, his physician John Polidori and his mistress Claire Clairmont gathered around the fire of Villa Diodati on Lake Leman outside Geneva and amused themselves in the evening with reading – and writing – ghost stories. The book that they read was Fantasmagoriana, ou Recueil d’Histoires d’Apparitions de Spectres, Revenans, Famtômes, etc. (1812), which was a French translation (by Jean Baptiste Benoit Eyries) of macabre German fairytales by Friedrich Schulze (under the pseudonym of Friedrich Laun) and Johann Apel published in the five-volume Gespensterbuch (1811–15). Five of these ghost stories (some from the German original and some from the French translation) were translated into English by Sarah Elizabeth Brown Utterson, together with one native English folktale, and published in 1812 as Tales of the Dead. Mrs Utterson’s husband was an antiquarian whose book on chivalric legends was published by the same publisher as Tales of the Dead. Mary Shelley particularly remembered one story in which a group of friends share with each other their stories about ghostly apparitions, much in the manner of those assembled in the Villa Diodati, from which the following extract is reproduced. Matthew Gregory Lewis was also struck by the same story, which he probably read in the German original, and which he recounted to Shelley in August 1816. The authorship of the various stories, and their reappearance in different versions in a large number of chapbooks, German, French and English, lead into one of the more intricate labyrinths of Gothic bibliography.

(Copyright 2000, 2013 Rictor Norton)


The Family Portraits

Ferdinand began in these words: – ‘One day, when I was arguing with the friend of whom I am about to make mention, on apparitions and omens, he told me the following story:––’

          ‘I had been invited,’ said he, ‘by one of my college companions, to pass my vacations with him at an estate of his father’s. The spring was that year unusually late, owing to a long and severe winter, and appeared in consequence more gay and agreeable, which gave additional charms to our projected pleasures. We arrived as his father’s in the pleasant month of April, animated by all the gaiety the season inspired.
          ‘As my companion and I were accustomed to live together at the university, he had recommended to his family, in his letters, so to arrange matters that we might live together at his father’s also: we in consequence occupied two adjoining rooms, from whence we enjoyed a view of the garden and a fine country, bounded in the distance by forests and vineyards. In a few days I found myself so completely at home in the house, and so famliarised with its inhabitants, that nobody, whether of the family or among the domesticks, made any difference between my friend and myself. His younger brothers, who were absent from me in the day, often passed the night in my room, or in that of their elder brother. Their sister, a charming girl about twelve years of age, lovely and blooming as a newly blown rose, gave me the appellation of brother, and fancied that under this title she was privileged to shew me all her favourite haunts in the garden, to gratify my wishes at table, and to furnish my apartment with all that was requisite. Her cares and attention will never be effaced from my recollection; they will long outlive the scenes of horror that château never ceases to recall to my recollection. From the first of my arrival, I had remarked a huge portrait affixed to the wall of an antechamber through which I was obliged to pass to go to my room; but, too much occupied by the new objects which on all sides attracted my attention, I had not particularly examined it. Meanwhile I could not avoid observing that, though the two younger brothers of my friend were so much attached to me, that they would never permit me to go at night into my room without them, yet they always evinced an unaccountable dread in crossing the hall where this picture hung. They clung to me, and embraced me that I might take them in my arms; and whichever I was compelled to take by the hand, invariably covered his face, in order that he might not see the least trace of the portrait.
          ‘Being aware that the generality of children are afraid of colossal figures, or even of those of a natural height, I endeavoured to give my two young friends courage. However, on more attentively considering the portrait which caused them so much dread, I could not avoid feeling a degree of fear myself. The picture represented a knight in the costume of a very remote period; a full grey mantle descended from his shoulders to his knees; one of his feet placed in the foreground, appeared as if it was starting from the canvass; his countenance had an expression which petrified me with fear. I had never before seen any thing at all like it in nature. It was a frightful mixture of the stillness of death, with the remains of a violent and baneful passion, which not even death itself was able to overcome. One would have thought the artist had copied the terrible features of one risen from the grave, in order to paint this terrific portrait. I was seized with a terror little less than the children, whenever I wished to contemplate this picture. Its aspect was disagreeable to my friend, but did not cause him any terror: his sister was the only one who could look at this hideous figure with a smiling countenance; and said to me with a compassionate air, when I discovered my aversion to it, “That man is not wicked, but he is certainly very unhappy.” My friend told me that the picture represented the founder of his race, and that his father attached uncommon value to it; it had, in all probability, hung there from time immemorial, and it would not be possible to remove it from this chamber without destroying the regularity of its appearance.
          ‘Meanwhile, the term of our vacation was speedily drawing to its close, and time insensibly wore away in the pleasures of the country. The old count, who remarked our reluctance to quit him, his amiable family, his château, and the fine country that surrounded it, applied himself with kind and unremitting care, to make the day preceding our departure a continual succession of rustic diversions: each succeeded the other without the slightest appearance of art; they seemed of necessity to follow each other. The delight that illumined the eyes of my friend’s sister when she perceived her father’s satisfaction; the joy that was painted in Emily’s countenance (which was the name of the charming girl) when she surprised even her father by her arrangements, which outstripped his projects, led me to discover the entire confidence that existed between the father and daughter, and the active part Emily had taken in directing the order which reigned in that day’s festivities.
          ‘Night arrived; the company in the gardens dispersed; but my amiable companions never quitted my side. The two young boys skipped gaily before us, chasing the may-bug, and shaking the shrubs to make them come out. The dew arose, and aided by the light of the moon formed silver spangles on the flowers and grass. Emily hung on my arm; and an affectionate sister conducted me, as if to take leave, to all the groves and places I had been accustomed to visit with her, or with the family. On arriving at the door of the château, I was obliged to repeat the promise I had made to her father, of passing some weeks in the autumn with him. “That season,” said she, “is equally beautiful with the spring!” With what pleasure did I promise to decline all other engagements for this. Emily retired to her apartment, and, according to custom, I went up to mine, accompanied by my two little boys: they ran gaily up the stairs; and in crossing the range of apartments but faintly lighted, to my no small surprise their boisterous mirth was not interrupted by the terrible portrait.
          ‘For my own part, my head and heart were full of the intended journey, and of the agreeable manner in which my time had passed at the count’s château. The images of those happy days crowded on my recollection; my imagination, at that time possessing all the vivacity of youth, was so much agitated, that I could not enjoy the sleep which already overpowered my friend. Emily’s image, so interesting by her sprightly grace, by her pure affection for me, was present to my mind like an amiable phantom shining in beauty. I placed myself at the window, to take another look at the country I had so frequently ranged with her, and traced our steps again probably for the last time. I remembered each spot illumined by the pale light the moon afforded. The nightingale was singing in the groves where we had delighted to repose; the little river on which while gaily singing we often sailed, rolled murmuringly her silver waves.
          ‘Absorbed in a profound reverie, I mentally exclaimed: With the flowers of spring, this soft pure peaceful affection will probably fade; and as frequently the after seasons blight the blossoms and destroy the promised fruit, so possibly may the approaching autumn envelop in cold reserve that heart which, at the present moment, appears only to expand with mine!
          ‘Saddened by these reflections, I withdrew from the window, and overcome by a painful agitation I traversed the adjoining rooms; and on a sudden found myself before the portrait of my friend’s ancestor. The moon’s beams darted on it in the most singular manner possible, insomuch as to give the appearance of a horrible moving spectre; and the reflection of the light gave to it the appearance of a real substance about to quit the darkness by which it was surrounded. The inanimation of its features appeared to give place to the most profound melancholy; the sad and glazed look of the eyes appeared the only hinderance to its uttering its grief.
          ‘My knees tremblingly knocked against each other, and with an unsteady step I regained my chamber: the window still remained open; I reseated myself at it, in order that the freshness of the night air, and the aspect of the beautiful surrounding country, might dissipate the terror I had experienced. My wandering eyes fixed on a long vista of ancient linden trees, which extended from my window to the ruins of an old tower, which had often been the scene of our pleasures and rural fêtes. The remembrance of the hideous portrait had vanished; when on a sudden there appeared to me a thick fog issuing from the ruined tower, which advancing through the vista of lindens came towards me.
          ‘I regarded this cloud with an anxious curiosity: it approached; but again it was concealed by the thickly spreading branches of the trees.
          On a sudden I perceived, in a spot of the avenue less dark than the rest, the same figure represented in the formidable picture, enveloped in the grey mantle I so well knew. It advanced towards the château, as if hesitating: no noise was heard of its footsteps on the pavement; it passed before my window without looking up, and gained a back door which led to the apartments in the colonnade of the château.
          ‘Seized with trembling apprehension, I darted towards my bed, and saw with pleasure that the two children were fast asleep on either side. The noise I made awoke them; they started, but in an instant were asleep again. The agitation I had endured took from me the power of sleep, and I turned to awake one of the children to talk with me: but no powers can depict the horrors I endured when I saw the frightful figure at the side of the child’s bed.
          ‘I was petrified with horror, and dared neither move nor shut my eyes. I beheld the spectre stoop towards the child and softly kiss his forehead: he then went round the bed, and kissed the forehead of the other boy.
          ‘I lost all recollection at that moment; and the following morning, when the children awoke me with their caresses, I was willing to consider the whole as a dream.
          ‘Meanwhile, the moment for our departure was at hand. We once again breakfasted all together in a grove of lilacs and flowers. “I advise you to take a little more care of yourself,” said the old count in the midst of other conversation; “for I last night saw you walking rather late in the garden, in a dress ill suited to the damp air; and I was fearful such imprudence would expose you to cold and fever. Young people are apt to fancy they are invulnerable; but I repeat to you, Take advice from a friend.”
          ‘“In truth,” I answered, “I believe readily that I have been attacked by a violent fever, for never before was I so harassed by terrifying visions: I can now conceive how dreams afford to a heated imagination subjects for the most extraordinary stories of apparitions."
          '"What would you tell me?” demanded the count in a manner not wholly devoid of agitation. I related to him all that I had seen the preceding night; and to my great surprise he appeared to me in no way astonished, but extremely affected.
          ‘“You say,” added he in a trembling voice, “that the phantom kissed the two children’s foreheads?” I answered him, that it was even so. He then exclaimed, in accents of the deepest despair, “Oh heavens! they must then both die!”‘ –

          Till now the company had listened without the slightest noise or interruption to Ferdinand: but as he pronounced the last words, the greater part of his audience trembled; and the young lady who had previously occupied the chair on which he sat, uttered a piercing shriek.
          ‘Imagine,’ continued Ferdinand, ‘how astonished my friend must have been at this unexpected exclamation. The vision of the night had caused him excess of agitation; but the melancholy voice of the count pierced his heart, and seemed to annihilate his being, by the terrifying conviction of the existence of the spiritual world, and the secret horrors with which this idea was accompanied. It was not then a dream, a chimera, the fruit of an over-heated imaginationi! but a mysterious and infallible messenger, which, dispatched from the world of spirits, had passed close to him, had placed itself by his couch, and by its fatal kiss had dropt the germ of death in the bosom of the two children. . . . Three days afterwards the young count received news of the death of his two younger brothers. They were both taken off in the same night.’


[SOURCE: Tales of The Dead. Principally translated from the French (London: Chute, Cochrane, and Co., 1813), pp. 15–25]


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