Archive for August, 2017

J.S. Le Fanu’s “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter”

Posted in Brinsley Le Fanu, Ghost Stories, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Schalcken the Painter (1979), Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter with tags , , , , on August 6, 2017 by Manuel Paul Arenas

I have been on a bit of a Le Fanu kick these days. J. Sheridan Le Fanu was a master of the Victorian Ghost story. I believe I have mentioned him here before. His most celebrated work is Carmilla, which was the inspiration for much of the moodiness and homoeroticism in modern vampire literature and is the indirect impetus behind Anne Rice‘s Vampire Chronicles. (A fact which I intend to explain further in another post sometime in the near future).
Even so, Le Fanu has many more great ghost tales to offer and was also an inspiration to M.R. James, the recognized master of the classic ghost tale. One of Le Fanu’s most famous works is Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter (1839), which I had been aware of for decades but had never actually read.

Illustration for “Strange Event in the Life of Schalcken the Painter” by Brinsley Le Fanu from “The Watcher and Other Weird Stories” [1894, Downey & Co., London]

I have no excuse however, as I had it in my Dover edition of Best Stories of J.S. Le Fanu, and could have read it any time over the last 25 years or so. I finally decided to read it the other day however and was not disappointed. It is the tale of a painter (Godfried Schalcken) who while under the apprenticeship of the “immortal Gerard Douw”, secretly falls in love with his niece, Rose Velderkaust. Although Douw never suspects this, Le Fanu points out that this intelligence would not made a difference as he is steadfast in the belief that his ward would have a better life being married to a rich man and reluctantly gives/sells her to a mysterious and insistent older suitor, Mynher Vanderhausen, for an extravagant sum of money. After the marriage contract is signed, Vanderhausen spirits her off and she isn’t seen or heard from for months. The painter and his master try in vain to find the suitor, whom no one seems to have heard of in his alleged home town, and they despair of ever learning the fate of their beloved Rose until one night she arrives unexpectedly at her guardian’s house in a tizzy making wild claims about her husband, repeatedly exclaiming “The dead and the living cannot be one–God has forbidden it!”. What transpires next is a classic example of subtlety and terror. As an aperitif, there is a hint of Rose’s fate in a dream that Schalcken has wherein he receives a visit from his long lost love. Very chilling stuff. It wasn’t as gruesome as some of his tales can be, but it was definitely creepy, and the fact that the nature of the antagonist or the threat he imposes is never really explained makes it as enigmatic as it is disturbing. This would probably not sit well with some modern readers, who might need more explicit or neatly tied up explanations, but I found the ambiguity very intriguing.

Apparently there is a 1979 BBC adaptation of this story, with an abbreviated title, which is available on DVD. I shall have to try to find a copy of it online and see what they did with it. I have seen some images from it online though and the uncanny look of Mynher Vanderhausen is reproduced exactly as he was described in the story, which is promising.

DVD for BBC adaptation of Le Fanu’s “Schalken the Painter”.

I have also just found a nice copy of the Folio Society’s 1988 hardbound edition of  Le Fanu’s classic Gothic novel “Uncle Silas” illustrated by Charles Stewart, which I intend to review here when I get around to reading it. Look here for more on that in the coming months.

Update 09.02.2020:

I have finally seen the BBC adaptation of Schalcken the Painter and have some mixed feelings about it. The cast is perfect. They picked the right actors for the parts and the look of the film is great. There are many quiet scenes that are static and almost seem like tableaus or still life paintings from the era. There is a narrator who tells the tale using text from the Le Fanu story, and much of the dialog is taken from the source. In the beginning the episode follows the story fairly faithfully, although a lot of time is spent focusing on Schalcken selecting and interacting with models or honing his painting craft, which slows down the narrative. There also is an added subplot of Schalcken sinking into this life of venery where he hits on the maid and frequents houses of ill repute, visiting young women who remind him of Rose. There are lots of gratuitous nude scenes as well, all of which are distracting and do not add to the story. I assume they did some of this for padding, but if they needed more things to film, they could have portrayed the scene where Vanderhausen’s coach is stopped in the road to Rotterdam by a spectral retinue that take him and his new bride, sobbing and wringing her hands, into a litter that they carry into the shadows of the forest. In fine, a worthy attempt, but I would like to see a more faithful rendition some day.

The bride meets Mynheer Vanderhausen for the first time (l to r: Schalcken, Dou and Miss Velderkaust)