The fourth story, ‘La Morte Fiancée’ / ‘The Death-Bride,’ opens the second volumes of Gespensterbuch and Fantasmagoriana. Along with ‘Les Portraits du Famille’ / ‘The Family Portraits,’ Mary Shelley recalls the reading of ‘La Morte Fiancée’ / ‘The Death-Bride,’ as an influence on her composition of Frankenstein.
This blog entry will be somewhat longer than the previous ones in its examination because there are several motifs and passages in ‘La Morte Fiancée’ / ‘The Death-Bride’ that echo elements in Shelley’s masterpiece. Before reading on: a spoiler alert. This is a great story, so before proceeding you may want to read the story first yourself! Read it here.
Provenance Paths and Variants
The provenance path from the German source to the French and English translations is as follows:
Friedrich Schulze is again the author of the German original which runs 69 pages. Due to some double-spacing, the French translation is 101 pages long and the English 56 pages.
There are a few minor variants worthy of note. The characters of Graf Globodo and his daughter Libussa are renamed by Utterson as Count Lieppa and his daughter Ida. The unnamed setting of the Graf’s abode is determined to be ‘Bohemia’ in the English version. Presumably, these changes were made for an English reading audience.
As has been her wont, Utterson again frames the story with an epigraph. Here, as in ‘The Family Portraits,’ she quotes Paulina from Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale:’
————–‘She shall be such
As walk’d your first queen’s ghost————–‘
The Winter’s Tale (V. i. 98-99).
A very apt quotation, for the legend of the Death-Bride! Also worthy of note just as a curiosity for us Frankensteinphiles: both stories directly named by Shelley as an influence in 1831 have epigraphs spoken by Paulina from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale!
Plot of the Story
‘La Morte Fiancée’ is a layered narrative featuring several anecdotes within the story. The setting are the baths where a particular society has enjoyed the entertaining stories of an Italian marquis who on this occasion tells his auditors the story of the Death-Bride.
The marquis recounts a visit to his friend Graf Globodo / Count Lieppa who had two twin daughters—Libussa / Ida and Hildegarde—who are identical with the exception of a strawberry mark on Hildegarde’s neck. The count is still grieving the loss of Hildegarde who died a year previously. Shortly after the arrival of the marquis, the duke of Marino is announced, who although unknown to the count himself intends to marry the lovely Libussa / Ida. Marino explains he immediately fell in love with Libussa / Ida upon seeing her in a Paris museum. The count and Ida are astonished because Ida has never been to Paris. Marino insists, however, and informs the count that at the Parisian gallery he observed a strawberry mark on Ida’s neck. The count explains that Marino is describing his dead twin-daughter, Hildegarde, and concludes that Marino has been the dupe of some trick, or illusion.
The gardener mentions the return of the ghost of an old chaplain, and along with Marino’s story, the count decides to open Hildegarde’s tomb in his presence to be sure she was not interred prematurely. A small party desends at night to the chapel and upon opening the coffin all see a perfectly preserved corpse that looks like Libussa / Ida.
The marquise was in Venice when Marino was betrothed to countess Apollonia and had inquired after her upon Marino’s arrival. Marino led the marquise ‘to conclude that Apollonia had been guilty of infidelity or some other crime towards the duke’ (Tales of the Dead, 130). Initially, therefore, the marquise had agreed not to mention this sensitive issue of Marino’s former engagement to the count. However, after Marino’s continual evasion, the marquise comes to realise that Marino has forsaken his former fiancee, Apollonia, upon seeing Libussa / Ida at the picture gallery. Fearing for Ida’s happiness in marrying Marino, the marquise ‘resolved to unmask the perfidious deceiver as quickly as possible, and to make him repent his fidelity’ (Tales of the Dead, 142).
To accomplish this, the marquise tells the following story of Filippo and Clara as a warning. Before his departure to Venice, Filippo promised to marry Clara and ‘invoked the aid of the spirit of vengeance, in case of infidelity’ where the faithful party—even if already in the grave—would haunt the unfaithful partner (Tales of the Dead, 145). Their covenant is sealed by the lovers ‘making punctures in their arms, and letting their blood run into a glass filled with white champaigne’ (Tales of the Dead, 145). On his return to Venice, Filippo is introduced to, and becomes engaged to, Camilla. At a dinner the moment that the rings are exchanged a piercing shriek is heard. Camilla’s ring goes missing. Next, a mysterious lady with the same jewels as Camilla appears at the dinner. She does not speak to anyone nor partakes in eating and drinking. She offers Filippo a drink out of a glass of champaigne which only he sees as red. The other guests all see his glass filled with white champaigne. The uninvited mute guest then beckons Filippo to follow her. The shriek is heard anew and the mysterious lady has disappeared. Filippo receives a letter from Clara’s mother informing her of the death of her daughter caused by the grief of his infidelity. It is concluded that the first shriek occurred at the moment of Clara’s death. Filippo and Camilla decide to go ahead with the wedding. At the church, Filippo sees a stranger at Camilla’s side. He then proclaims to be torn away from Camilla by this stranger, yet, the ghost is invisible to the rest of the party. A moment later, Filippo dies ‘in most violent convulsions’ (Tales of the Dead, 161). The marquise concludes his tale by explaining that the ring is found amongst Camilla’s jewels upon her return from church.
Naturally, Marino is not pleased with the marquise for telling this tale. A duel with the marquise leads to his former engagement becoming known to the count. Despite all this, Marino and Libussa / Ida continue to plan their wedding. During the festivities, Libussa / Ida leaves the ballroom in tears, only to return a moment later with ‘a countenance as calm as possible’ (Tales of the Dead, 168). She rejoins Marino and they leave together for the bridal-chamber. The gardener informs the count that the old chaplain had been seen again. He also claims to have seen a form that resembles Hildegarde. Libussa / Ida returns inquiring about Marino’s whereabouts revealing that she had not left with him previously. Upon entering the bridal-chamber Marino is found dead with ‘his features […] distorted in the most frightful manner’ (Tales of the Dead, 173).
Before leaving the count’s realm, the marquise inquires in the village after the legend of the Death-Bride. The villagers inform him that in the fourteenth or fifteenth century a young noble lady had been unfaithful to her lover. She had been assisted by an old chaplain. Her lover ‘died of grief; but afterwards, when she was about to marry, he appeared to her the night of her intended wedding, and she died in consequence.’ Her spirit continues to ‘wander on earth in every possible shape; particularly in that of lovely females, to render their lovers inconstant’ until ‘she finds a man whom she will in vain endeavour to make swerve from his engagement’ (Tales of the Dead, 173 – 174).
The marquise concludes his tale with the promise to tell another instance of the Death-Bride in the future. Suddenly, an officer arrives and arrests the marquise. The two leave the room together only for the officer to return a moment later to inquire for the marquise again. The house is searched yet the marquise has mysteriously disappeared forcing the officer to leave without a prisoner.
Influence on Shelley’s Frankenstein
‘The Death-Bride’ is one of the two stories Mary Shelley directly recalls as an influence in 1831:
‘Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands. There was the History of the Inconstant Lover, who, when he thought to clasp the bride to whom he had pledged his vows, found himself in the arms of the pale ghost of her whom he had deserted’ (Shelley, Introduction; Macdonald and Scherf, 354).
Clearly, Shelley is not entirely accurate in recalling the plot. Terry Hale notes that ‘if Mary Shelley’s recollection of the story’s denouement is inaccurate, it is because the German author had deliberately planted the error in her mind’ (Hale, 14).
Schulze was a prolific author and his writings have been criticized for quantity over quality. The German romantic writer Jean Paul apparently gave him the advise to spend more time, rather than more paper, on his writing.
However, as Hale alludes, Schulze’s layered narrative in ‘Die Todtenbraut’ / ‘The Death Bride,’ embodies some complexity. The mysterious disappearance of the marquise, as well as his intimate knowledge of the legend of the Death-Bride, suggest that the storyteller himself is an active supernatural presence. The curse of the inconstant lover is decisive in its result—death of the inconstant lover—but ambiguous in its supernatural origins and power. As a motif, this draws several parallels with Frankenstein which may interest the reader.
First, Hale enlightens us that ‘Mary Shelley’s [mis-]recollection of the inconstant lover who “when he thought to claps the bride to whom he had pledged his vows, found himself in the arms of the pale ghost of her whom he had deserted” finds a curious echo in Frankenstein. After Victor has animated his creation, he falls into sleep and dreams of Elizabeth, the girl whom he has left behind’ (Hale 14-15).
The passage in the novel reads:
I threw myself on the bed in my clothes, endeavouring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness. But it was in vain: I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. (Frankenstein, Volume I, Chapter iv. Macdonald and Scherf, 85)
Here we see the influence of Shelley’s mis-recollection of Schulze’s story in Victor’s dream.
Hale suggests that ‘this passage is the source of Mary Shelley’s error in her recapitulation of the tale [which] perhaps adds weight to the possibility that this idea captured the imagination of those around the fireplace of the Villa Diodati’ (Hale, 15).
I would like to go even further here and examine how the opening of Hildegarde’s tomb embodies several motifs in Shelley’s novel. When Hildegarde’s tomb is opened, the count reflects on the possibility of a corpse being restored to life:
‘You may readily believe also, that the affection we bore our poor girl would prevent our running any risk of burying her too soon: but suppose even the possibility of that, and that the tomb had been opened by some avaricious persons, who found, on opening the coffin, that the body became re-animated; no one can believe for a moment that my daughter would not have instantly returned to her parents, who doted on her, rather than have fled to a distant country [….] seeing that the features of the corpse bore a perfect resemblance to those of Ida. I [marquise] was obliged to prevent the count, who was seized with astonishment, from kissing the forehead of the inanimate body.’ (Tales of the Dead, 138-139; 141. See Fantasmagoriana, 32-33; 36)
Hildegarde’s features are so perfectly preserved in death as to resemble her living twin. In contrast, the Creature in Frankenstein is assembled from so many different parts that his animation causes horror:
‘His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! – Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth a pearly whiteness [….] I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body […] but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.’ (Frankenstein, Vol I, Chapter iv; Macdonald and Scherf, 85).
Thus, in Frankenstein the scene of opening the tomb is reversed. The animated corpse of the Creature more realistically resembles the decay of death than the angelic preservation of the dead Hildegarde, thus adding to the horror Frankenstein feels upon accomplishing his goal.
Secondly, the count’s rationale that his daughter would instinctually come home to her parents had she been ‘re-animated,’ is exactly what the Creature does upon discovering that Frankenstein is his creator / parent.
‘I learned from your papers that you were my father, my creator; and to whom could I apply with more fitness than to him who had given me life? [….] From you only could I hope for succour [….] But on you only had I any claim for pity and redress, and from you I determined to seek that justice which I vainly attempted to gain from any other being that wore the human form.’ (Frankenstein, Vol II, Chapter viii; Macdonald and Scherf, 164).
The count likewise reflects on the possibility of Hildegarde having been alive to find a way of returning to her parents:
Lastly, the Hildegrade-tomb passage emphasizes the beautiful ‘inanimate’ features of Hildegarde preserved in death, which Shelley also uses to describe the death-scene of Elizabeth:
‘She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features half covered by her hair’ (Frankenstein, Vol III, Chapter iv; Macdonald and Scherf, 218).
And where the marquise prevents the count from kissing the corpse, Frankenstein
‘rushed towards her, and embraced her with ardour; but the deathly languor and coldness of the limbs told me, that what I now held in my arms had ceased to be the Elizabeth whom I had loved and cherished’ (Frankenstein, Vol III, Chapter iv; Macdonald and Scherf, 218).
Clearly, the opening of Hildegarde’s tomb in ‘The Death-Bride’ fosters interesting motifs that are reversed and developed in Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Another point of influence in Frankenstein regards the legend of the Death-Bride itself. All the inconstant lovers in the story—the original fourteenth-century Death Bride, as well as Filippo and Marino—perish on their wedding nights. This is also what the Monster promises Victor:
‘ “It is well. I go; but remember, I shall be with you on your wedding-night.”
I started forward, and exclaimed, “Villain! before you sign my death-warrant, be sure that you are yourself safe.” ’ (Frankenstein, Vol III, Chapter iii. MacDonald and Scherf, 193).
In ‘The Death-Bride’ the grooms are punished with death on their wedding night. In Frankenstein, Victor also interprets the Monster’s threat as the groom-to-be–i.e. himself–being killed on his wedding night.
‘And then I [Victor] thought again of his words—“I will be with you on your wedding-night.” That then was the period fixed for the fulfilment of my destiny. In that hour I should die, and at once satisfy and extinguish his malice. The prospect did not move me to fear; yet when I thought of my beloved Elizabeth,—of her tears and endless sorrow, when she should find her lover so barbarously snatched from her […] ’ (Frankenstein, Vol III, Chapter iii. Macdonald and Scherf, 193).
Here, Shelley masterfully intimates the curse of the Death-Bride as a misdirection. It is the bride Elizabeth, not the groom Frankenstein, that is the wedding-night target. This is a subtle, yet effective, gender and motif reversal as the innocent and faithful bride is punished for the deeds of the inconstant groom. In this case, the groom is also the parent who deserted his child / creation.
While the ‘Family Portraits’ is often cited as a strong influence on Shelley’s novel, it is clear that Schulze’s plot and devices in ‘The Death-Bride’ are embodied in crucial scenes in Frankenstein. It is perhaps the subtlety of Shelley’s genius in weaving, reversing, and misdirecting, these aspects in her masterpiece that has resulted in the complex details of Schulze’s story to be overlooked as an influence. Certainly, ‘The Death-Bride’ is a significant influence and should no longer go unnoticed in discussions of the novel’s inspiration.
Next: we will examine the fifth Fantasmagoriana story, ‘L’Heure fatale’ / ‘The Fated Hour’ / ‘Die Verwandtschaft mit der Geisterwelt,’ and we will see how this story was an influence on Byron’s Manfred. Till then.