This week’s weird fiction is a welcome return by Vernon Lee. Her “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady” proved, surprisingly, one of my most popular posts.
I suspect MarzAat, the weirdly named blog, is supplying material for school papers the world over.
Review: “Amour Dure”, Vernon Lee, 1890.
This is a clever ghost story told in the form of diary entries from a Polish historian named Spiridion Trepka.
The story takes place from August 20, 1885 to Christmas 1885.
Trepka goes to Urbania in Italy to write a history of the area. He’s mostly bored there, especially by the Director of Archives.
However, in the week of September 9, 1885, he comes across the story of one Medea da Carpi. She reminds Trepka of Bianca Cappello and Lucrezia Borgia. Murder and violence trail in her wake.
Born in 1556, she is engaged at age 12. A year later, the marriage is cancelled because the other family has become poorer. At 14, she is married by proxy to Giovanfrancesco Pico. However, Pierluigi Orsini the Duke of Stimigliano gets the marriage annulled on some pretext. Pico isn’t allowed to plead his case before the Pope, so he abducts Medea with whom he is madly in love (he finds her very lovely, cheerful, and amiable). However, Medea escapes and Pico, only 18, is found stabbed by Medea.
Medea marries the Duke of Stimigliano. Two years later, though, the Duke is found dead, stabbed by a groom. Conveniently, she causes the groom to be “cut down” by two servants in his own chamber. However, before he dies, the groom says he did it for Medea who promised her love for him. Medea has to flee Urbania and goes to Duke Guidalfonso II. She claims she only had the groom killed to preserve her name because of the slander, and she had nothing to do with her husband’s death.
Her beauty entrances Guidalfonso – even though he’s happily married to Maddalena Varano of Camerino. He eventually accuses his wife, who he formerly had a happy marriage with, of “ill-conduct”. She eventually flees to a convent. Duke Guidalfonso quarrels with the Orsini family, who accuse Medea of killing Stimigliano. The Duke’s wife mysteriously dies, and he marries Medea.
Medea convinces the Duke to give his land to Bartolommeo, Medea’s son by Stimigliano. The Orsinis claim Bartolommeo is Medea’s son by Pico and this action by the Duke dispossesses his natural son, Cardinal Robert. In 1579, Duke Guidalfonso dies “suddenly and mysteriously”. Bartolommeo is immediately proclaimed the Duke. Medea serves as regent and gets involved “two or three unscrupulous men” including taking Oliverotto da Narni. He leads an army against the Varano and Orsini families, defeating them and “and ruthlessly exterminating every person who dared question the lawfulness of the succession”.
Cardinal Robert goes to Spain and gets allies to fight Medea – allies from Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Eventually, Medea finds herself imprisoned in a mountain citadel in Urbania. Later that year, Robert takes his kingdom, kills da Narni. Medea is installed in the Duke’s palace.
Medea is compared by him to a siren. He won’t see her or talk to her. A few months later, a conspiracy tries to kill the Duke. Medea is obviously involved, but one of the conspirators, Marcantonio Frangipani, won’t implicate her even under severe torture. The Duke transfers Medea to a convent and puts her under guard.
From there, Medea sends a portrait of herself and a letter to one Prinzivalle degli Ordelaffi. Nineteen years old, he immediately breaks off his engagement with a beautiful girl and tries to kill the Duke at an Easter mass. Ordelaffi is starved and tortured. He is promised a quick death if he implicates Medea. Medea is urged to save him by confessing. On a balcony, she tosses Ordelaffi her handkerchief. Ordelaffi asks to kiss it and then repeats Medea is innocent. He dies after several hours of torture.
That’s the last straw for the Duke. He orders Medea strangled in the convent, but he stipulates that only women should carry out the deed, and two women convicted of infanticide do. The Duke also instructs Medea should be unshriven.
Trepka understandably wants to see what Medea looked like. In the September 28th entry, he finally comes across her portrait.
The face is a perfect oval, the forehead somewhat over-round, with minute curls, like a fleece, of bright auburn hair; the nose a trifle over-aquiline, and the cheek-bones a trifle too low; the eyes grey, large, prominent, beneath exquisitely curved brows and lids just a little too tight at the corners; the mouth also, brilliantly red and most delicately designed, is a little too tight, the lips strained a trifle over the teeth. Tight eyelids and tight lips give a strange refinement, and, at the same time, an air of mystery, a somewhat sinister seductiveness; they seem to take, but not to give. The mouth with a kind of childish pout, looks as if it could bite or suck like a leech. The complexion is dazzlingly fair, the perfect transparent rosette lily of a red-haired beauty; the head, with hair elaborately curled and plaited close to it, and adorned with pearls, sits like that of the antique Arethusa on a long, supple, swan-like neck. A curious, at first rather conventional, artificial-looking sort of beauty, voluptuous yet cold, which, the more it is contemplated, the more it troubles and haunts the mind.
In the October 13th entry, Trepka relates a strange story about the Duke he’s come across. A silver statuette of “his familiar genius or angel” is put in a statute of the Duke “that his soul might rest until the general Resurrection”. It’s an odd belief for a Catholic. After all, after death, the Duke should expect his soul to go to Purgatory.
In the October 13th entry, we get the first sign that Medea has started to possess Trepka’s mind. In an outing with the local Vice-Prefect’s son, the talk turns to women. Trepka says he has no love, is “wedded to history” and uninterested in Italian or French women. Then he thinks that, maybe someday, he will find a great passion in his life like Medea and confesses “she haunts me”. He wishes he could meet a woman like her of “extreme distinction of beauty, of that terribleness of nature”. He could love such a woman.
In the November 5th entry, we see his full haunting by Medea. To Trepka, she is a genius of a woman. How dare those men she tangled with treat her so. He provides a long rationale, a justification of her actions from her perspective.
The possession of a woman like Medea is a happiness too great for a mortal man; it would turn his head, make him forget even what he owed her; no man must survive long who conceives himself to have a right over her; it is a kind of sacrilege. And only death, the willingness to pay for such happiness by death, can at all make a man worthy of being her lover; he must be willing to love and suffer and die.
“Amour Dure— Dure Amour” runs her device— “love that lasts, cruel love”.
In the local archives, Trepka finds a letter of Medea’s later in November. He also comes across some letters of Duke Robert’s. He took various precautions against Medea when she was alive: mail under his jacket, only drinking milk from a cow milked while he watched, suspecting wax-candles, and fearing riding lest his horse be somehow spooked. Medea has been dead two years when he has that magical charm made to be put in his statue. He intends to sleep until the Day of Judgement for then Medea will be chained in Hell.
Later on, Trepka hears local stories about Medea as a bogey-man figure used to scare children.
Towards the end of November, Trepka thinks maybe it’s not good for his sanity to be alone in a strange country. Trepka sees another portrait of Medea in the local palace. Strangely, it’s in a room he has never been in before after all this time.
Things start to really escalate in the story in December.
On December 14th, he sees Medea in the street. He begins humming a tune he’s made up about her. He again sees Medea.
The second part of the story starts here.
Trepka begins to suspect his obsession with Medea is making him a laughingstock.
On Dec. 17th, he gets a letter, in Medea’s hand, asking him to meet “A person who knows the interest you bear her” at the Church of San Giovanni Decollato at nine o’clock that evening.
And here Lee really kicks the strangeness up from just a gothic ghost story.
Trepka goes to that church. At first he can’t get in despite hearing music inside, but, eventually, he finds an open door. The worshippers within are wearing antique clothes. He also sees Medea. Medea has a ghostly crowd with her. But two days later, he learns the church has not been used “in the memory of man”.
Trepka, to prove he’s not mad, goes back to the Church on Dec. 19th. He sees the same thing but, this time, Medea gives him a rose – which turns to dust the next morning.
On the night of Dec. 22nd, he sees Medea again. And he realizes the crowd are dead men and women, that they don’t exist for anyone but him. Their touch is cold. He goes towards Medea, follows her outside where she vanishes. But she’s left a letter for him.
Addressed to him, it asks him to take that charm out of the Duke’s statue on Christmas Eve. It’s signed with Medea’s “AMOUR DURE – DURE AMOUR”. Trepka is ecstatic. He feels he has been “reserved for something wonderful in this world”.
On Dec. 23rd, he gets a hatchet and saw. On Christmas Eve, he goes to his task. Does he think he’s going to get Medea’s undying love? No. “I shall die also. But why not? … the others died, and I must die.”
But, on the way, Lee surprisingly gives us other ghosts. One murmurs to Trepka, as he passes “Do not go: I am Giovanfrancesco Pico”. Another figure, a man leaning against a wall, his face bloody, says “Do not obey her; return home: I am Marcantonio Frangipani
But Medea’s hold persist over others. Near the statue, another figure, Ordelaffi, grapples with Trepka, tells him “She is mine, and mine alone!” He disappears under a hatchet blow. And Trepka destroys the charm.
Trepka’s diary ends with him hearing Medea on the stairs to his room, his final words “Ah! AMOUR DURE – DURE AMOUR!”
A concluding note mentions the mysterious mutilation of the Duke’s statue and that Trepka was found, stabbed through the heart, “by an unknown hand”.
Lee’s Medea is a memorable femme fatale. Lee’s original contribution is that those under Medea’s sway know her character and their fate and her selfish, vicious nature. They don’t care. They will sacrifice anything for her. That and the ghostly apparitions that swirl around Medea make this a memorable story.
However, I still don’t know why Medea insisted on Christmas Eve as the time to destroy the Duke’s protection.