This book is a textbook for late-Victorian gothic stories. It’s not the Medieval gothic style, with castles in ruins, skeletons in closets, gory details, speaking ghosts and damsels in distress, which I suppose is rather the early Victorian kind. It’s the romantic version, with more mysteries than true horror.
Imagine these ingredients: a dashing young man passionate with music, Sir Maltravers, a Stradivarius violin discovered in a concealed cupboard, an Italian music tune that brings about strange events and places a curse on the young man. On a second level, to explain the curse, there are many other romantic ingredients: pagan rites, occult possession, an evil young man leading a dissolute life, a villa in Naples. Shake and enjoy the cocktail.
Having read Ruskin a few weeks ago and Forster’s Where the angels fear to tread earlier, I recognize a familiar pattern in this vision of Italy. The late Victorian era saw the huge development of tourism, and first among wealthy young British and American aristocrats, eager to make their European tour and learn some culture and manners there. But to British and American Victorian society, with a very rigid (Protestant) moral code, Italy was poor, hot, dangerous, Catholic, and mysteriously erotic. As much as they admired the great Renaissance masters in museums, Victorians feared that this corrupt atmosphere would lead to a loosening of morals.
The discovery of Pompei was ambivalent too. Ruins were hugely romantic and fashionable and Victorians knew history a lot better than we do, but a non-Christian civilization, as well as the rather explicit sex life of Romans, were a shock to them. It was probably reassuring for them to read a novel where all things un-Christian were clearly branded as evil, in a time where religion was challenged. It is very Victorian to recoil from every bit of sensuality yet being secretly obsessed with it.
For miles along that haunted coast the foot cannot be put down except on the ruins of some splendid villa, and over all there broods a spirit of corruption and debasement actually sensible and oppressive. Of the dawns and sunsets, of the noonday sun tempered by the sea-breeze and the shade of scented groves, those who have been there know the charm, and to those who have not no words can describe it. But there are malefic vapours rising from the corpse of a past not altogether buried, and most cultivated Englishmen who tarry there long feel their influence as did John Maltravers. Like so many decepti deceptores of the Neo-Platonic school, he did not practise the abnegation enjoined by the very cult he professed to follow. Though his nature was far too refined, I believe, ever to sink into the sensualism revealed in Temple’s diaries, yet it was through the gratification of corporeal tastes that he endeavoured to achieve the divine extasis; and there were constantly lavish and sumptuous entertainments at the villa, at which strange guests were present.
I remember Jensen’s famous story Gradiva, which inspired Sigmund Freud. The writer is German and not British, but the book was published in 1903 and is very much in the same vein as The Lost Stradivarius, published just a few years before: both are set in Naples with supernatural ingredients and an obsessed young man as main character. I don’t think I’m wrong to assume that music in this story carries a very sexual connotation. In contrast, Maltravers’ wife and sister are both very pious and serious. They get from the status of innocent maiden to mother without ever being a lover.
One of the weakness is that the story is always told in the past, so that the frightening effect is softened. The story is told in 1867 by the young man’s aunt to her nephew after his father’s mysterious death. The violin’s discovery is supposed to take place around 1842 and the explanation of the curse takes us back to the 1750s. Even though the writing isn’t as sharp and frightening as Wilkie Collins’, this book is still quite efficient when it discloses mystery and supernatural events. A good point is to never tell in detail what the source of evil is.