Robert Southey’s “Wedding of Robin Hood and Maid Marian”

By Stephen Basdeo

Dr Mark Truesdale and I are currently transcribing Robert Southey’s ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’ (Bodleian MS Eng. Misc. e. 21), which was originally written in the summer of 1791.

45
Robin Hood and Maid Marian, as printed in Life and Ballads of Robin Hood and Robin Hood’s Garland (Halifax: Milner and Sowerby, 1859)

Although in the marketing for our edition we have designated it as a novel, Southey’s text should be read more as a romance, a curious blend of the Gothic (which predominates whenever the outlaws leave the safety of Sherwood) and the pastoral, for in Sherwood an outlaw’s life is idyllic and divorced from the cares of the outside world.

7
Depiction of Robin Hood, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Allen-a-Dale, as printed in Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795). Towards the end of the eighteenth century, life in Sherwood was always pictured as a pastoral idyll. 

In Southey’s text, the usual stock characters from Robin Hood tales can be found: Little John, Will Scarlet, Maid Marian, the Bishop of Hereford; there are also several new characters, many of whom are taken from early modern plays such as Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd (1641).

In keeping with previous portrayals of the outlaw legend, Robin Hood and Maid Marian are in love. Yet they are star-crossed lovers: Marian is the daughter of the wicked Baron Fitzosborne—the man who murdered the good Harold’s father—and the Baron, the main villain of the tale, naturally objects to his daughter’s marrying an outlaw.

17
Another ‘romantic’ portrayal of Robin Hood from Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795)

With such an impediment to their match, Robin kidnaps Marian when a jousting tournament is held at the Baron’s castle. The pair of them escape to Sherwood and immediately marry each other, presumably by Friar Tuck, although the marriage scene is not recorded in the novel and we jump to the post-nuptial feast scene.

After feasting on venison and ale—Southey has clearly done his Robin Hood homework—Robin asks for music to be played. What follows is the first of many instances throughout the novel where the young, barely 16-year-old Southey, exercises his budding poetical talents. In praise of the union between Robin and Marian, the Sherwood minstrel sings the following ballad:

Behold yon elm high towering lift his head

How brightly his foliage and how cool his shade

His branches wide and towering how they spread

And cast a grateful shadow o’er the glade.

Yet though he lift his head luxuriant high

And proudly seems to threat the neighbouring sky

Useless he flourishes there barren stands

Till doom’d to perish by the woodman’s hand.

Yet should some tender joy-inspiring wine

From some robuster tree that seeks support

Round his base trunk her circling arms entwine

The elm with pendant clusters black we see

The baron once now rich with choicest

Useless and barren were the elm alone

The vine unaided barren too had grown

Mutual assistance each to the other goes

And each by mutual kindness friended lives

Emblem expressive this of human life

The elm the husband and the vine the wife

How blest indeed the faces who truly know

The never ending bliss of wedded love.

Boudeville ended and received the applause of the whole company. Come Aeglamour, said Little John, try your skill and [illegible] happiness of the life we lead here. Were you once to experience the pleasures we enjoy, turning to Richard, you would love to die in the forest of merry Sherwood what are all the pleasures of a court to the pure entertainment of a country life! Richard was preparing to answer him when Aeglamour arose and began

Rises now with orient ray

Bright the gold on the orb of day

Aw’d by his effulgent light

Swiftly they the shades of night

On the leaves with silver hue

Glittering shines the pearly dew.

Scar’d by the hunters now the deer awakes

And swiftly scuds along through o’er bushes and o’er brakes.

What pleasures can the palace yield

Equal to these woodlands give

How blissfully the outlaws live.

Who roams at will [o’er] field and hill

How happily dwell we in the wood

And o’er the flowery field

How happy live we in the wood.

Beneath the sway of Robin Hood.

The deer with spreading antlers crowned

Stalks stately o’er the bower.

The bowman fits his dart

And fixes the sharp point within the victim’s heart

He falls upon the ground

We hail the prize with choral strain

Feast on his flesh and Nottingham brown ale

List to the minstrels song and merry outlaws tale

What pleasures can the palace yield?

 

Now we with sober mien comes

And darkness hides the sky

The labour of the day is done

And home the outlaws hie.

 

The cheerful dance and minstrels sing

The pleasures of the time prolong

We beat the ground with skilful [illegible]

With skill we separate with skill we meet

The wholesome beverage goes around

At last by calm repose the happy day is crown’d

What pleasures can the palace yield?

Low shouts of applause proclaimed the universal approbation. This is the life, said Robin Hood turning to Marian, this is the life we lead. You have exchanged pomp and pageantry for the wild uncultivated pleasures of simple nature. But they are pleasures which art can never equal. I have exchanged a life of trouble and of care replied Marian sweetly smiling for one of happiness of liberty of love. She looked tenderly upon her husband and blush’d. Robin kiss’d her to hide it. In the meantime Richard enquired of Little John who sat next to him the manner in which Marian had been so successfully carried off.[i]

Mark and I are, to put it mildly, very excited at the prospect of seeing Southey’s unpublished novel finally in book form. For now, let’s hope that this ‘sneak preview’ of it has whetted your appetites.

In the meantime, see some of my work on other eighteenth century portrayals of Robin Hood:

“If they must have a British Worthy, they would have Robin Hood”: Joseph Addison’s remarks on Robin Hood.

John Winstanley’s Robin Hood poems from 1742.

Portrayals of Robin Hood in eighteenth-century true crime literature.

12
From Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795)

[i] Robert Southey, ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’ (1791). Bodleian MS Eng. Misc. e. 21, ff. 11r–13r.

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Anon. ‘Robin Hood’ (1828)

The following poem, written anonymously and titled simply as ‘Robin Hood’, appeared in The Oriental Observer and Literary Chronicle in 1828.

The newspaper, printed in Calcutta during the rule of the East India Company, went through a number of name changes during its run (which was not unusual for a newspaper at this time). Its alternative names were:

  • Oriental Observer. 
  • Oriental Literary Observer.
  • Oriental Observer.
  • Oriental Observer and Literary Chronicle.

As some of the names indicate, the paper had a literary focus and often published anonymous pieces of poetry.

‘Tis merry, ‘tis merry, in green Sherwood,

To wind the horn,

When breaks the morn,

O’er the leafy bed of bold Robin Hood.

And the welkin sounds,

And the roebuck bounds,

Through copse, and fallow, and brake, and flood.

The chase is o’er, the merry men all

In their Lincoln green,

Are gather’d at e’en,

To tell of the gallant roe-buck’s fall:

And the bowl is crown’d,

And the toast goes round,

To the grey goose shaft and the bugle call.

‘Robin Hood’, The Oriental Observer, 3 February 1828, p. 407.

The Female Vagrant

By Stephen Basdeo

English authorities always seems to have had a harsh attitude towards its destitute and homeless people, or vagrants. At the height of the Black Death in medieval England, when labour was becoming scarce and many people, understandably, were falling ill, the Ordinance of Labourers made ‘idleness’ a criminal offence. The penalty for being as an idle vagrant was whipping or branding.

Eleanor_Fortescue-Brickdale_-_The_Female_Vagrant
20th-Century Illustration

During the reign of Henry VIII, vagabonds were again targeted by lawmakers. The Vagabonds Act (1530) decreed that

“Beggars who are old and incapable of working receive a beggar’s licence. On the other hand, [there should be] whipping and imprisonment for sturdy vagabonds. They are to be tied to the cart-tail and whipped until the blood streams from their bodies, then they are to swear on oath to go back to their birthplace or to serve where they have lived the last three years and to ‘put themselves to labour’. For the second arrest for vagabondage the whipping is to be repeated and half the ear sliced off; but for the third relapse the offender is to be executed as a hardened criminal and enemy of the common weal.”

More laws against vagabonds were passed in 1547, 1572, and 1597. The harsh laws against vagabondage occurred at an interesting time in English history: it was a period when feudalism—through which serfs worked for and owed loyalty to the lords in return for protection—was breaking down and capitalism was emerging. The old social structures, with kings, lords, barons, and knights, still remained, of course. Yet whereas at the height of the middle ages the upper classes felt some kind of social responsibility to those beneath them, in the new capitalist, individualist world, the elites no longer felt obligated to care for society’s poorest.

And of course, there was no attempt to address the causes of vagrancy. The authorities merely saw it as a problem which had to be dealt with through harsh measures such as branding. The Henrician and Elizabethan laws against vagrancy had a minor update during Queen Anne’s reign, but the punishments remained largely the same.

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By the time that the industrial revolution began in the mid-eighteenth century, the power and social pre-eminence of the nobility had been displaced by the rising bourgeoisie. Where the lords in a feudal world might have felt some kind of obligation to the poor and needy, by the Georgian period, contract had replaced custom and, in the words of Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto (1848),

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

There had indeed always been poor people, but poverty had a new sting in its tail: people were now poor in a capitalist world in which, as Marx rightly observed, the paternalist bonds between the classes existed no more. Poets in the late eighteenth century were observed the poverty around. William Wordsworth was one such poet who was moved to write a heart-rending ‘biographical’ poem of the plight of a homeless woman living in the late eighteenth century (the poem does not refer to any particular historical figure but was from Wordsworth’s imagination—vagrancy was not an uncommon experience for many at the time).

8ac368e725669caf8ec1fc68b0af35b7
Later Victorian image of a homeless woman, c. 1890.

The poem was published in Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798). The volume was envisaged as an experiment—it marked a shift away from the pompous ‘Augustan’ poetry of the eighteenth century, which dealt with great men and big events, to a poetry which could be intelligible to common people. Most of the poems in the collection deal not with great men but with commoners as the subject. Even the use of the word ‘ballad’ in the title evokes the popular poetry of the plebeian classes.

williamwordsworth1
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

The poem is meant to evoke feelings of tenderness and kindness to those less fortunate, and in this, at least, Wordsworth succeeded. In the words of Joseph Devey, writing in A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873):

It would appear that Wordsworth designed, by the instrumentality of the lowest ranks of society, to erect a poetic temple, at the shrine of which the most selfish hearts should be humanized, and a feeling of love kept alive, reciprocating and reciprocated, between the rich and the poor, the politically great and the socially defenceless, for ever. ‘Life is the vital energy of love;’ and as long as the two extremes of society stood looking at each other with feelings of repulsion, the end of existence could not be realised. His verse was to become the medium of identifying the loftiest purposes of his art with the purest aims of Christianity.

Yet things took a while to get better: the Speemhamland System of dole relief and wage subsidies did attempt to deal some of the causes of homelessness, but another vagrancy act was passed in 1824 which made it an offence to beg for money or to sleep rough.

vagrancy.jpg.gallery
The Vagrancy Act (1824)

And the Act remains in force to this day in England (though thankfully whipping is no longer part of the punishment, merely a fine):

In 2016, the Vagrancy Act (1824) was used nearly 3,000 times to punish poor rough sleepers.


wordsworth_1798_0881
The Female Vagrant as it appeared in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads (1798)

William Wordsworth, The Female Vagrant (1798)

1 By Derwent’s side my Father’s cottage stood,

(The Woman thus her artless story told)

One field, a flock, and what the neighbouring flood

Supplied, to him were more than mines of gold.

Light was my sleep; my days in transport roll’d:

With thoughtless joy I stretch’d along the shore

My father’s nets, or watched, when from the fold

High o’er the cliffs I led my fleecy store,

A dizzy depth below! his boat and twinkling oar.

 

2 My father was a good and pious man,

An honest man by honest parents bred,

And I believe that, soon as I began

To lisp, he made me kneel beside my bed,

And in his hearing there my prayers I said:

And afterwards, by my good father taught,

I read, and loved the books in which I read;

For books in every neighbouring house I sought,

And nothing to my mind a sweeter pleasure brought.

 

3 Can I forget what charms did once adorn

My garden, stored with pease, and mint, and thyme,

And rose and lilly for the sabbath morn?

The sabbath bells, and their delightful chime;

The gambols and wild freaks at shearing time;

My hen’s rich nest through long grass scarce espied;

The cowslip-gathering at May’s dewy prime;

The swans, that, when I sought the water-side,

From far to meet me came, spreading their snowy pride.

 

4 The staff I yet remember which upbore

The bending body of my active sire;

His seat beneath the honeyed sycamore

When the bees hummed, and chair by winter fire;

When market-morning came, the neat attire

With which, though bent on haste, myself I deck’d;

My watchful dog, whose starts of furious ire,

When stranger passed, so often I have check’d;

The red-breast known for years, which at my casement peck’d.

 

5 The suns of twenty summers danced along,—

Ah! little marked, how fast they rolled away:

Then rose a mansion proud our woods among,

And cottage after cottage owned its sway,

No joy to see a neighbouring house, or stray

Through pastures not his own, the master took;

My Father dared his greedy wish gainsay;

He loved his old hereditary nook,

And ill could I the thought of such sad parting brook.

 

6 But, when he had refused the proffered gold,

To cruel injuries he became a prey,

Sore traversed in whate’er he bought and sold:

His troubles grew upon him day by day,

Till all his substance fell into decay.

His little range of water was denied;

All but the bed where his old body lay,

All, all was seized, and weeping, side by side,

We sought a home where we uninjured might abide.

 

7 Can I forget that miserable hour,

When from the last hill-top, my sire surveyed,

Peering above the trees, the steeple tower,

That on his marriage-day sweet music made?

Till then he hoped his bones might there be laid,

Close by my mother in their native bowers:

Bidding me trust in God, he stood and prayed,—

I could not pray: — through tears that fell in showers,

Glimmer’d our dear-loved home, alas! no longer ours!

 

8 There was a youth whom I had loved so long,

That when I loved him not I cannot say.

‘Mid the green mountains many and many a song

We two had sung, like little birds in May.

When we began to tire of childish play

We seemed still more and more to prize each other:

We talked of marriage and our marriage day;

And I in truth did love him like a brother,

For never could I hope to meet with such another.

 

9 His father said, that to a distant town

He must repair, to ply the artist’s trade.

What tears of bitter grief till then unknown!

What tender vows our last sad kiss delayed!

To him we turned: — we had no other aid.

Like one revived, upon his neck I wept,

And her whom he had loved in joy, he said

He well could love in grief: his faith he kept;

And in a quiet home once more my father slept.

 

10 Four years each day with daily bread was blest,

By constant toil and constant prayer supplied.

Three lovely infants lay upon my breast;

And often, viewing their sweet smiles, I sighed,

And knew not why. My happy father died

When sad distress reduced the children’s meal:

Thrice happy! that from him the grave did hide

The empty loom, cold hearth, and silent wheel,

And tears that flowed for ills which patience could not heal.

 

11 ‘Twas a hard change, an evil time was come;

We had no hope, and no relief could gain.

But soon, with proud parade, the noisy drum

Beat round, to sweep the streets of want and pain.

My husband’s arms now only served to strain

Me and his children hungering in his view:

In such dismay my prayers and tears were vain:

To join those miserable men he flew;

And now to the sea-coast, with numbers more, we drew.

 

12 There foul neglect for months and months we bore,

Nor yet the crowded fleet its anchor stirred.

Green fields before us and our native shore,

By fever, from polluted air incurred,

Ravage was made, for which no knell was heard.

Fondly we wished, and wished away, nor knew,

‘Mid that long sickness, and those hopes deferr’d,

That happier days we never more must view:

The parting signal streamed, at last the land withdrew,

 

13 But from delay the summer calms were past.

On as we drove, the equinoctial deep

Ran mountains-high before the howling blast.

We gazed with terror on the gloomy sleep

Of them that perished in the whirlwind’s sweep,

Untaught that soon such anguish must ensue,

Our hopes such harvest of affliction reap,

That we the mercy of the waves should rue.

We reached the western world, a poor, devoted crew.

 

14 Oh! dreadful price of being to resign

All that is dear in being! better far

In Want’s most lonely cave till death to pine,

Unseen, unheard, unwatched by any star;

Or in the streets and walks where proud men are,

Better our dying bodies to obtrude,

Than dog-like, wading at the heels of war,

Protract a curst existence, with the brood

That lap (their very nourishment!) their brother’s blood.

 

15 The pains and plagues that on our heads came down,

Disease and famine, agony and fear,

In wood or wilderness, in camp or town,

It would thy brain unsettle even to hear.

All perished — all, in one remorseless year,

Husband and children! one by one, by sword

And ravenous plague, all perished: every tear

Dried up, despairing, desolate, on board

A British ship I waked, as from a trance restored.

 

16 Peaceful as some immeasurable plain

By the first beams of dawning light impress’d,

In the calm sunshine slept the glittering main.

The very ocean has its hour of rest,

That comes not to the human mourner’s breast.

Remote from man, and storms of mortal care,

A heavenly silence did the waves invest;

I looked and looked along the silent air,

Until it seemed to bring a joy to my despair.

 

17 Ah! how unlike those late terrific sleeps!

And groans, that rage of racking famine spoke,

Where looks inhuman dwelt on festering heaps!

The breathing pestilence that rose like smoke!

The shriek that from the distant battle broke!

The mine’s dire earthquake, and the pallid host

Driven by the bomb’s incessant thunder-stroke

To loathsome vaults, where heart-sick anguish toss’d,

Hope died, and fear itself in agony was lost!

 

18 Yet does that burst of woe congeal my frame,

When the dark streets appeared to heave and gape,

While like a sea the storming army came,

And Fire from Hell reared his gigantic shape,

And Murder, by the ghastly gleam, and Rape

Seized their joint prey, the mother and the child!

But from these crazing thoughts my brain, escape!

—For weeks the balmy air breathed soft and mild,

And on the gliding vessel Heaven and Ocean smiled.

 

19 Some mighty gulph of separation past,

I seemed transported to another world:—

A thought resigned with pain, when from the mast

The impatient mariner the sail unfurl’d,

And whistling, called the wind that hardly curled

The silent sea. From the sweet thoughts of home,

And from all hope I was forever hurled.

For me — farthest from earthly port to roam

Was best, could I but shun the spot where man might come.

 

20 And oft, robb’d of my perfect mind, I thought

At last my feet a resting-place had found:

Here will I weep in peace, (so fancy wrought,)

Roaming the illimitable waters round;

Here watch, of every human friend disowned,

All day, my ready tomb the ocean-flood—

To break my dream the vessel reached its bound:

And homeless near a thousand homes I stood,

And near a thousand tables pined, and wanted food.

 

21 By grief enfeebled was I turned adrift,

Helpless as sailor cast on desart rock;

Nor morsel to my mouth that day did lift,

Nor dared my hand at any door to knock.

I lay, where with his drowsy mates, the cock

From the cross timber of an out-house hung;

How dismal tolled, that night, the city clock!

At morn my sick heart hunger scarcely stung,

Nor to the beggar’s language could I frame my tongue.

 

22 So passed another day, and so the third:

Then did I try, in vain, the crowd’s resort,

In deep despair by frightful wishes stirr’d,

Near the sea-side I reached a ruined fort:

There, pains which nature could no more support,

With blindness linked, did on my vitals fall;

Dizzy my brain, with interruption short

Of hideous sense; I sunk, nor step could crawl,

And thence was borne away to neighbouring hospital.

 

23 Recovery came with food: but still, my brain

Was weak, nor of the past had memory.

I heard my neighbours, in their beds, complain

Of many things which never troubled me;

Of feet still bustling round with busy glee,

Of looks where common kindness had no part,

Of service done with careless cruelty,

Fretting the fever round the languid heart,

And groans, which, as they said, would make a dead man start.

 

24 These things just served to stir the torpid sense,

Nor pain nor pity in my bosom raised.

Memory, though slow, returned with strength; and thence

Dismissed, again on open day I gazed,

At houses, men, and common light, amazed.

The lanes I sought, and as the sun retired,

Came, where beneath the trees a faggot blazed;

The wild brood saw me weep, my fate enquired,

And gave me food, and rest, more welcome, more desired.

 

25 My heart is touched to think that men like these,

The rude earth’s tenants, were my first relief:

How kindly did they paint their vagrant ease!

And their long holiday that feared not grief,

For all belonged to all, and each was chief.

No plough their sinews strained; on grating road

No wain they drove, and yet, the yellow sheaf

In every vale for their delight was stowed:

For them, in nature’s meads, the milky udder flowed.

 

26 Semblance, with straw and panniered ass, they made

Of potters wandering on from door to door:

But life of happier sort to me pourtrayed,

And other joys my fancy to allure;

The bag-pipe dinning on the midnight moor

In barn uplighted, and companions boon

Well met from far with revelry secure,

In depth of forest glade, when jocund June

Rolled fast along the sky his warm and genial moon.

 

27 But ill it suited me, in journey dark

O’er moor and mountain, midnight theft to hatch;

To charm the surly house-dog’s faithful bark,

Or hang on tiptoe at the lifted latch;

The gloomy lantern, and the dim blue match,

The black disguise, the warning whistle shrill,

And ear still busy on its nightly watch,

Were not for me, brought up in nothing ill;

Besides, on griefs so fresh my thoughts were brooding still.

 

28 What could I do, unaided and unblest?

Poor Father! gone was every friend of thine:

And kindred of dead husband are at best

Small help, and, after marriage such as mine,

With little kindness would to me incline.

Ill was I then for toil or service fit:

With tears whose course no effort could confine,

By high-way side forgetful would I sit

Whole hours, my idle arms in moping sorrow knit.

 

29 I lived upon the mercy of the fields,

And oft of cruelty the sky accused;

On hazard, or what general bounty yields,

Now coldly given, now utterly refused.

The fields I for my bed have often used:

But, what afflicts my peace with keenest ruth

Is, that I have my inner self abused,

Foregone the home delight of constant truth,

And clear and open soul, so prized in fearless youth.

 

30 Three years a wanderer, often have I view’d,

In tears, the sun towards that country tend

Where my poor heart lost all its fortitude:

And now across this moor my steps I bend—

Oh! tell me whither — for no earthly friend

Have I. — She ceased, and weeping turned away,

As if because her tale was at an end

She wept; — because she had no more to say

Of that perpetual weight which on her spirit lay.

 

 

Outlaws vs. Vampires

By Stephen Basdeo

Vampires first appeared in English popular culture with the publication of Robert Southey’s epic narrative poem Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). Thalaba’s bride, Oneiza, dies on their wedding day, but she returns afterwards because her body had been reanimated when a demonic spirit invades her body:

Like the reflection in a sulphur fire

And in that hideous light,

Oneiza stood before them, it was she –

Her very lineaments, and such as death

Had changed them, livid cheeks, and lips of blue.

But in her eyes there dwelt

Brightness more terrible

Than all the loathsomeness of death.[i]

After the publication of Thalaba, vampyres would become a prominent feature of English gothic fiction; two notable Victorian examples are James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest’s Varney the Vampyre; or, The Feast of Blood (1847) and, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

Varney_the_Vampire_or_the_Feast_of_Blood
Frontispiece to “Varney the Vampyre; or, The Feast of Blood” (c) Wikimedia Commons

 

Between the appearance of Thalaba and Varney the Vampyre, however, another vampire novel was written by John Polidori entitled The Vampyre (1819). The idea for The Vampyre was conceived on the same night as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). While entertaining his friends, Mary Godwin, Percy B. Shelley, Polidori, and Clare Claremont, at his house on the banks of Lake Geneva in 1816, Byron suggested that each of them should write a ghost story after having read aloud to each other extracts from Fantasmagoriana (1812). When Polidori returned to England, The Vampyre was published, although at the time it was attributed to Byron, much to his annoyance.

Vampyre-Byron-Illustrated
Title page of Polidori’s The Vampyre – erroneously attributed to Lord Byron as late as 1884 (c) Wikimedia Commons

The Vampyre tells the story of Aubrey, a young English nobleman who, when he makes his debut into society, is entranced by a mysterious and aloof figure called Lord Ruthven:

It happened that in the midst of the dissipations attendant upon a London winter, there appeared at the various parties of the leaders of the ton a nobleman, more remarkable for his singularities than his rank. He gazed upon the mirth around him, as if he could not participate therein. Apparently, the laughter of the fair only attracted his attention, that he might by a look quell it, and throw fear into those breasts where thoughtlessness reigned. Those who felt this sensation of awe, could not explain whence it arose: some attributed it to the dead grey eye, which, fixing upon the object’s face, did not seem to penetrate.[ii]

One of the legends surrounding this mysterious man is that all who friends with him become usually end up experiencing some kind of misfortune. Nevertheless, Aubrey eventually becomes well-acquainted with this mysterious figure and the pair go on a tour of the continent together. At the time that Polidori was writing, it was very common for young noblemen, and the aspirant sons of the upper middle classes, to embark on a ‘Grand Tour’ of countries such as France, Italy, and Greece, as part of their education. As a man of high morals, however, Aubrey disagrees with Ruthven’s typical ‘aristocratic’ lifestyle, which mainly involves sleeping around with women, and the pair take their leave of each other.

Bandit 1
Illustration of a bandit from Charles Macfarlane’s Lives of the Banditti and Robbers (1833)

Aubrey travels on to Greece where, in the course of his antiquarian research into Ancient Greek monuments at Athens, he meets and falls in love with a young girl named Ianthe. However, one night she is killed in a very unusual manner:

There was no colour about her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there: –– upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein.[iii]

The locals immediately attribute Ianthe’s death to a vampire attack. Aubrey falls into a deep depression for several weeks and during much of the time he is insensible. When he recovers, he is startled to find that one of the men caring for him is Ruthven, who was also recently arrived in Athens. Gradually recovering, Aubrey asks Ruthven if they can begin making their way back to other parts of Greece because Athens holds too many unhappy memories.

While travelling in the northern part of Greece, Ruthven, Aubrey, and his party are attacked by bandits. Banditry always flourishes in parts of the world where the government is weak and unable to effectively enforce the law. Nineteenth-century Greece was such a place; since the fifteenth century it had been ruled by the Muslim Ottoman Empire but by 1819, which was when Polidori published his book, Ottoman rule in Greece was on its last legs. A war of independence would break out in 1821 and last until 1830. There was a lot of sympathy for the Greek revolutionaries; firstly they were Christians fighting against “heathen” overlords, so many in Western Europe warmed to their cause; and because Ancient Greece was viewed as the birthplace of Western civilisation, at a time of European international supremacy, it was thought by many governments and members of the public that the Greeks should be supported in their cause. Thus, members of the public in London, through the London Philhellenic Committee, raised £2,800,000 to enable the Greeks to buy arms. Some Brits took a more active role in the Greek Revolution, notably Lord Byron, who took up arms and joined the Greek rebels. While the Mediterranean countries had historically had problems with bandits, the problem got worse with the decline of Ottoman rule.

Banndits 4
Italian bandits hiding out in Roman ruins. Illustration by J. Cattermole (c) Stephen Basdeo

While Aubrey tells us in The Vampyre that he set little store upon accounts of banditry, and both he and Lord Ruthven decline the assistance of armed guards and take only two escorts with them. They soon regret this decision, however:

Scarcely were the whole of the party engaged in the narrow pass, when they were startled by the whistling of bullets close to their heads, and by the echoed report of several guns. In an instant their guards had left them, and, placing themselves behind rocks, had begun to fire in the direction whence the report came. Lord Ruthven and Aubrey, imitating their example, retired for a moment behind the sheltering turn of the defile: but ashamed of being thus detained by a foe, who with insulting shouts bade them advance, and being exposed to unresisting slaughter, if any of the robbers should climb above and take them in the rear, they determined at once to rush forward in search of the enemy. Hardly had they lost the shelter of the rock, when Lord Ruthven received a shot in the shoulder, which brought him to the ground. Aubrey hastened to his assistance; and, no longer heeding the contest or his own peril, was soon surprised by seeing the robbers’ faces around him—his guards having, upon Lord Ruthven’s being wounded, immediately thrown up their arms and surrendered.[iv]

Aubrey pleads with the robbers to allow him to take his friend to a nearby house, and promises them a greater reward than they would have gotten by simply robbing the party if they help to nurse Ruthven back to help. The robbers, enticed by the reward, agree to help Aubrey by accepting such a ‘ransom’. They are taken to a nearby dwelling and the outlaws stand guard outside until one of Aubrey’s men returns from the city with the promised money. The collection of a ransoms was one way in which many bandits, who often professed to be against all forms of wanton violence, made money from their victims. The celebrated Rob Roy in the Scottish Highlands often resorted to this manner of robbery; he would hold a (usually very wealthy) victim hostage and they would not be released until their family produced the required sum. One person who documented the problem of banditry in the Mediterranean was Charles Macfarlane, who published his findings in a book entitled The Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Robbers and Banditti of All Countries (1834), and he documents several cases of bandits resorting to this method of robbery.

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Bandits from Macfarlane’s Banditti (c) Stephen Basdeo

Lord Ruthven seemingly dies of his injuries and the robbers take his body out of the hut to be buried the next day. Yet when Aubrey and one of the robbers arrive at the burial spot, they find that the body is no longer there. The outlaws immediately tell Aubrey that the only possible explanation for the body’s disappearance is that Ruthven was a vampire, but Aubrey dismisses this explanation, thinking that the real reason is that the outlaws have buried him secretly and stolen his clothes.

On his return to England, Aubrey is increasingly plagued by visions of Lord Ruthven, and gradually he puts all the pieces together and concludes that Ruthven was, in fact, a vampire. Aubrey temporarily loses his sanity but when he recovers, he finds out that his sister has gotten married to a young nobleman who of course turns out to be Lord Ruthven. He relates all of his adventures to his servants who immediately rush to save Aubrey’s sister, but it is too late:

When they arrived, it was too late. Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE![v]


References

[i] Robert Southey, The Complete Poetical Works (Paris: Galignani, 1829), p. 122. Southey also introduced the word ‘zombie’ into the English language.

[ii] John Polidori, The Vampyre; A Tale (London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1819), p. 27.

[iii] Polidori, p. 48.

[iv] Polidori, p. 52-3

[v] Polidori, p. 72.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears: A Tale of Vagrancy and Imprisonment, by Robert Southey (1774-1843)

One of the writers that I have encountered frequently in my research upon both Robin Hood and Wat Tyler is the Romantic author and Poet Laureate, Robert Southey (1774–1843).[i] Southey’s contribution to popular culture has, in my opinion, been very understated: he authored the first Robin Hood novel;[ii] the publication of his Wat Tyler (1817) by several radical printers is one of the most enduring portrayals of the rebel leader;[iii] in his poem Thalaba (1801) we see the first vampire to appear in English literature;[iv] and he was the guy who was the first to use the word ‘zombie’ in the English language (although not in the context that we would use it today).[v] He is also the creator of the popular children’s story of Goldilocks and the three bears, which was first published in The Doctor (1837).[vi] However, Southey’s original tale is a little different to the one which you see in children’s books today.[vii]

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Robert Southey (1774-1843)

The story is framed as one which ‘may content the minds of learned men and grave philosophers’.[viii] The story begins typical fairy tale fashion, and we are introduced to the three bears:

Once upon a time there were three Bears, who lived together in a house of their own in a wood. One of them was a Little, Small, Wee Bear; and one was a Middle-sized Bear, and the other was a Great, Huge Bear. They had each a pot for their porridge, a little pot for the Little, Small, Wee Bear; and a middle-sized pot for the Middle Bear; and a great pot for the Great, Huge Bear. And they had each a chair to sit in: a little chair for the Little, Small, Wee Bear; and a middle-sized chair for the Middle Bear; and a great chair for the Great, Huge Bear. And they had each a bed to sleep in: a little bed for the Little, Small, Wee Bear; and a middle-sized bed for the Middle Bear; and a great bed for the Great, Huge Bear.[ix]

So far, this introduction may be familiar: we are introduced to the bears and their lifestyle, and we are then told that the mother bear has made some porridge but before the family of bears eats it they decide to go for a walk.[x] It has to be remembered that breakfast during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was not eaten as early as it is today, and it could be taken at quite a late hour of the morning. We have evidence of this in contemporary novels: in Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), John Keightley and his boys go for a walk before breakfast; in Austen’s Persuasion (1817), Anne and Henrietta take a stroll along the beach before their morning meal, which, in this period, was usually eaten at either 9 a.m. or 10 a.m.[xi]

Casual Ward workshouse
Tramps and homeless families waiting outside a workhouse casual ward during the nineteenth century (c) Wikimedia Commons

The bears then leave their house unguarded and this provides a perfect opportunity for somebody, usually up to no good, to enter the house. We all imagine the protagonist of the tale, Goldilocks (although she is not called by this name in Southey’s version), to be an innocent young girl. But in Southey’s version we are told that

She could not have been a good, honest, old woman; for, first, she looked in at the window, and then she peeped in at the keyhole, and, seeing nobody in the house, she lifted the latch […in fact] she was an impudent, bad old woman, and set about helping herself.[xii]

You may wonder what exactly an old homeless woman was doing in the middle of the forest on her own during the nineteenth century. England in this period certainly had a problem with homelessness, or vagrancy as governments of the day termed it. These people were destitute and wandered about from place to place seeking alms, and even sometimes engaging in petty crime just to survive. Of course, nineteenth-century governments did not view it as their responsibility to help anybody. The only measure they took to getting these people off the streets was to expand the workhouse system, which took place a few years earlier with the passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834). Tramps and vagrants, if they needed to, could apply for admission to a workhouse casual ward where they would receive a very uncomfortable bed for the night, as well as a small meal, in return for a day’s work. However, one would only go to one of these institutions if they were desperate because they were intended to be harsh and foreboding institutions.[xiii] It was not unusual for many vagrants to take refuge in the forest. After all, it could be easy to go poaching in rural forest areas and sustain yourself relatively well, in contrast to subsisting on the harsh fare provided by the workhouse casual ward.[xiv] Thus, as Paul Lawrence notes, ‘vagrancy is a crime or social problem which blurs notions of an urban/rural divide – quite simply, vagrants continually cross from rural to urban areas and back again’.[xv]

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Illustrations from the 1839 adaptation of Southeys Tale.

After the woman enters the bears’ house, the story looks a little bit more familiar to us. She tastes the porridge, but finds two of the bears’ meals not to her liking. Baby bear’s porridge, however, is just right. She then decides to enter the lounge and try the chairs. As we all know, it is only baby bear’s chair which is comfortable. Growing tired, she enters the bears’ bedroom, and it is only baby bear’s bed which is the comfiest. She then settles down for a nap.

Meantime, the three bears return and see that someone has been helping themselves to their porridge. They inspect the house and eventually find the woman sleeping in baby bear’s bed:

The little old woman had heard in her sleep the great, rough, gruff voice of the Great, Huge Bear, but she was so fast asleep that it was no more to her than the moaning of wind or the rumbling of thunder. And she had heard the middle voice of the Middle Bear, but it was only as if she had heard someone speaking in a dream. But when she heard the little, small, wee voice of the Little, Small, Wee Bear, it was so sharp and so shrill that it awakened her at once. Up she started, and when she saw the three bears on one side of the bed she tumbled herself.[xvi]

Startled, the woman jumps out of baby bear’s bed and then jumps out of the open window to get away from the bears. As she is running away, a constable finds her, arrests her, and she is sent to the House of Correction. While we noted above that the government made some provisions for tramps and wanderers in requiring workhouses to have casual wards, vagrancy was still a crime. If the police thought that a person with no abode was up to no good, they could arrest them, especially if they had been caught begging. In the words of the Act,

Every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or waggon, not having any visible means of subsistence and not giving a good account of himself or herself […] it shall be lawful for any justice of the peace to commit such offender (being thereof convicted before him by the confession of such offender, or by the evidence on oath of one or more credible witness or witnesses, to the house of correction, for any time not exceeding three calendar months.[xvii]

(This act has not yet been repealed: in 2014, two homeless men were arrested under this act for stealing food from a dumpster outside an Iceland supermarket store).[xviii] Alas, poor Goldilocks! – a starving, homeless pauper who just wanted a meal and somewhere to sleep, but who ended up in the House of Correction!


[i] Michael Gamer, ‘1813: The Year of the Laureate’, in The Regency Revisited, ed. by Tim Fulford & Michael E. Sinatra (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2016), pp. 93-104 (p. 107): The position of Poet Laureate was originally offered to Walter Scott (1771–1832). He refused this, however, because he feared that taking the position would tie him into artistic servitude to the Prince Regent who, if he was honest, he did not like very much.

[ii] Robert Southey, ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’, Bodleian MS. Eng. misc. e. 21 (Summary Catalogue 31777).

[iii] Robert Southey, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (London: W. Hone, 1817).

[iv] Robert Southey, Thalaba the Destroyer, 2 Vols. (London: Longman, 1801), 2: 102.

[v] Robert Southey, History of Brazil, 3 Vols. (London: Longman, 1810–19), 3: 24-28, 787.

[vi] Iona Opie & Peter Opie, The Classic Fairy Tales (Oxford University Press, 1974; repr. 1992), p. 199: A similar story to Southey’s was written slightly earlier by Eleanor Mure.

[vii] Southey is also noteworthy as a historian of South America. For further information see the following article: Rebecca Nesvet, ‘Robert Southey, Historian of El Dorado’, Keats-Shelley Journal, 61 (2012), 116-121.

[viii] Robert Southey, ‘The Story of the Three Bears’, in The Doctor, by the Late Robert Southey, ed. by J. Wood Warter, rev. ed. (London: Longman, 1848), pp. 327-29.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] See also Jane Newham, ‘Bear facts and fiction in 19th and 20th century children’s books’, New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship, 3: 1 (1997), 65-74.

[xi] Eileen Sutherland, ‘Dining at the Great House: Food and Drink in the Time of Jane Austen’, Persuasions: A Publication of the Jane Austen Society of North America, 12 (1990), 88-98, online edn. http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number12/sutherland2.htm Accessed 21 December 2017.

[xii] Southey, ‘The Story of the Three Bears’, p. 327.

[xiii] Peter Higginbotham, ‘Tramps and Vagrants’, in The Workhouse: The Story of an Institution, ed. by Peter Higginbotham, online edn. http://www.workhouses.org.uk/vagrants/index.shtml Accessed 21 December 2017.

[xiv] Harvey Osbourne & Michael Winstanley, ‘Rural and Urban Poaching in Victorian England’, Rural History, 17: 2 (2006), 187-212.

[xv] Paul Lawrence, ‘The Police and Vagrants in France and England during the Nineteenth Century’, in Polizia, ordine pubblico e crimine tra città e campagna: un confronto comparative. Stato, esercito controllo del territorio, ed. by Livio Antonielli (Manelli: Rubbettino, 2011), pp. 49-60 (p. 49).

[xvi] Southey, ‘The Story of the Three Bears’, p. 329.

[xvii] An Act for the Punishment of Idle and Disorderly Persons, Rogues and Vagabonds, 5 Geo. IV c. 83 (London: HMSO, 1824), online edn. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo4/5/83/section/4 [Accessed 21 December 2017].

[xviii] BBC News, 29 January 2014, online edn. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-25950761 Accessed 21 December 2017.

Post-Apocalyptic Bandits: Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” (1826)

I am the native of a sea-surrounded nook, a cloud-enshadowed land, which, when the surface of the globe, with its shoreless ocean and trackless continents, presents itself to my mind, appears only as an inconsiderable speck in the immense whole. [i]

The Last Man (1826)

Mary Shelley is popularly known as the author of the gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Her talents were not limited to the creation of horror stories, however, for, unbeknownst to most general readers today, she also gave birth to another genre: the post-apocalyptic story. The novel interests me for two reasons: I enjoy post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories, and the principal protagonist, Lionel, spends the first few chapters of the novel as a bandit.

The Last Man was published in three volumes in 1826, presents a vision of England in the year 2073: England has become a republic, but a deadly plague is sweeping the earth. Society breaks down, and England and Scotland become increasingly lawless places. On the continent, in France as in Britain, all government infrastructures have broken down and a Messiah-like cult leader has taken political power and promised his followers that, in return for their support, they will be spared from disease.

Before this nightmarish vision of society comes about, however, we first meet Lionel as a boy in rural Cumberland. Shelley’s vision of England in 2073 is a lot different to the emerging industrial powerhouse that she would have been familiar with in the 1800s. We see a predominantly agrarian country composed of peasants and lords. For her description of Lionel’s early life, Shelley follows a similar formula to that found in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734), and The Newgate Calendar (1784). We are told that Lionel was born to poor but honest and respectable parents, but due to them having died when he was young, and having a duty to care for his sister, Perdita, in his adolescent years he is forced to pursue a career as a shepherd.

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Title Page to the First Edition

Lionel soon finds that he must supplement this meagre income from shepherding by becoming a bandit. Although the novel is set in England in the future, Shelley likely based her depiction of banditry upon the stories she had heard of them when visiting Italy in 1818.[ii] At this time, the after-effects of the political upheavals of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), combined with rising food prices and the sale of common lands, meant that many southern Italians turned to banditry in order to sustain themselves. Eric Hobsbawm in Bandits (1969), when speaking of the types of men who turn to crime, notes that in predominantly agrarian societies such as nineteenth-century Italy, shepherds often turned to banditry, not only due to their low socio-economic status, but also because they often become acquainted with such highway robbers, which offers them a route into banditry:

There are, once again, the herdsmen, alone or with others of their kind – a special, sometimes a secret group – on the high pastures during the season of summer pasture, or roving as semi-nomads across the wide plan … the mountains provide their common world, into which landlords and ploughmen do not enter, and where men do not talk much about what they see and do. Here bandits meet shepherds, and shepherds consider whether to become bandits.[iii]

Thus Lionel tells us that,

I was in the service of a farmer; and with crook in hand, my dog at my side, I shepherded a numerous flock on the near uplands. I cannot say much in praise of such a life; and its pains far exceeded its pleasures. There was freedom in it, a companionship with nature, and a reckless loneliness; but these, romantic as they were, did not accord with the love of action and desire of human sympathy, characteristic of youth. Neither the care of my flock, nor the change of seasons, were sufficient to tame my eager spirit; my out-door life and unemployed time were the temptations that led me early into lawless habits. I associated with others friendless like myself; I formed them into a band, I was their chief and captain.[iv]

Another thing which, in agrarian societies, makes banditry an attractive option for shepherds is their existing familiarity with the terrain. This means that they are often able to attack travellers quickly, and then swiftly disappear into the hills and mountains of the countryside to avoid pursuit.[v] Although it should be said that the youthful Lionel is not the world’s most skilled bandit, for he regularly finds himself in the town lock-up:

It was seldom indeed that we escaped, to use an old-fashioned phrase, scot free. Our dainty fare was often exchanged for blows and imprisonment.[vi]

While other countries also suffered socio-economic setbacks in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, it was Italy which witnessed the largest amount of banditry. Shortly after Shelley authored The Last Man in 1826, Charles Macfarlane published The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in all Parts of the World (1833), which deals mainly with contemporary Italian brigands. A further indication of how common ‘shepherd-banditry’ was in Italy during the nineteenth century is provided by Hobsbawm, who notes that, for example, during the 1860s, out of thirty three bandits arrested, twenty eight of them listed their occupations as either ‘shepherd’, ‘cowherd’, or ‘field guard’.[vii]

Make no mistake, however, for Lionel and his fellow brigands bear no resemblance to the ‘good’ outlaw/Robin Hood archetype:

I feared no man, and loved none … My life was like that of an animal, and my mind was in danger of degenerating into that which informs brute nature. Until now, my savage habits had done me no radical mischief; my physical powers had grown up and flourished under their influence, and my mind, undergoing the same discipline, was imbued with all the hardy virtues. But now my boasted independence was daily instigating me to acts of tyranny, and freedom was becoming licentiousness.[viii]

However, Lionel changes his course of life when the deposed king, Adrian, comes to live in the same area as Lionel, having been pensioned off by the new Republican government. It turns out that Lionel’s father had been friends with Adrian’s in his youth, and the latter does all he can to help ‘civilise’ Lionel and turn him from his lawless ways. Eventually Adrian succeeds in educating and refining the manners and morals of his new friend, and the pair forms a strong friendship.

Of course, this is not to last, for soon the plague makes its way to England spreading havoc and desolation. In this volatile situation, four people, Lionel, Adrian, and two other survivors attempt to journey to a colder climate where, they hope, the disease will not be as virulent. However, along the way all but one of them succumbs to the disease. The remaining character, Lionel, “the last man”, is then shipwrecked on a Greek island. The novel ends in the year 2100.

This is not one of Shelley’s most famous novels, but it was one of her personal favourites. Given the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic stories such as The Walking Dead, etc., perhaps you migth also consider giving it a read.


[i] Mary Shelley, The Last Man, 3 Vols. (London: H. Colburn, 1826) [Internet <https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/mws/lastman> Accessed 7 July 2017].

[ii] Shelley, The Last Man [Internet <https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/mws/lastman/i-intro.htm> Accessed 7 July 2017].

[iii] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2000), p. 39.

[iv] Shelley, The Last Man [Internet <https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/mws/lastman/i-1.htm> Accessed 7 July 2017].

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Hobsbawm, Bandits, p.39.

[viii] Shelley, The Last Man, op cit.