Tag Archives: Edgar Allan Poe

Nasty Pieces of Work: Real-Life, Victorian-Era Villains


Rufus Wilmot Griswold

Charles Augustus Howell

Villains were easy to find in Victorian times. This is a quick glimpse at two of my personal favourites: Rufus Griswold and Charles Howell. Both men can claim to utter scoundrels, and both were two-faced to their purported friends.

Edgar Allan Poe – lucky to be so talented as to survive a smear campaign after his demise.

No one is quite sure what disease or defect killed Poe, but for a long while people were convinced he died of alcoholism. This is because Mr Griswold wrote Poe’s obituary – under the pename of ‘Ludwig’ – and then set about blackening Poe’s name. He also went on to fraudulently become Poe’s literary executor. He had a document where Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm transferred her power of attorney to Griswold, dated October 20, 1849, but there were no witnesses signatures and Maria Clemm wasn’t even Poe’s closest relative – legally, his sister should have been left the rights to Poe’s works. Still, Griswold got what he wanted, full access to Poe’s papers.

Griswold went on to a biographical article about Poe called “Memoir of the Author”, in which he depicted Poe as a drunkard  and a drug-addled madman. Most of his claims and facts were distortions and downright lies. As Poe’s work became popular and their as increased academic recognition of his literary influence, further research into his life and legacy uncovered Griswold’s small-minded attempt to destroy Edgar Allan Poe’s reputation as a writer.

Engraving of Rufus Wilmot Griswold – a heart of darkness well disguised .

And why was Griswold so bent on removing Poe from the literary canon?

Griswold wanted American poets to be added to the American curriculum, which at that time was dominated by English poets. A noble ambition, you might think. He even went on to print a textbook with this aim in mind, The Poets and Poetry of America. Poe had the audacity to criticize the book, commenting that it ‘unduly favoured’ New England writers. Before that, the men had been on relatively friendly terms.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – even though he looks a bit grim, he isn’t the villain, but the victim.

Charles Augustus Howell was a liar, art forger, and blackmailer, that that is only the high points of his character. It really is hard to know where to start with this chap. These days, he is best known for persuading Dante Gabriel Rossetti to dig up the poems he buried with his wife, Elizabeth Siddal. He went on to have his lover, Rosa Corder, to forge drawings in Rossetti’s style. To top things off, his reputation as a blackmailer inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to use him as a basis for the antagonist in Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”. He really was two-faced, seemingly friends with the very people he was robbing and blackmailing.

Charles Augustus Howell – a bad hat.

He made up a new story of his childhood every decade or so, so his childhood is something of a mystery. Therefore, it is somewhat ironic that the circumstances of his death are somewhat muddled. In some reports, he died of tuberculosis. In others, he was found murdered outside a Chelsea public house, with his throat slip and a coin jammed between his teeth. The coin was thought to symbolise an accusation of ‘slander’.

These two are exactly the sort of men you expect to tie damsels to a train tracks.


Filed under Antagonist, Characterization, Historical Personage, History, Steampunk Genre, Victorian Era

Thematic Cast of Characters: A Steampunk Writer’s Perspective

A Steampunk version of the character Death from the Endless by Neil Gaiman's Sandman universe.

A Steampunk version of the character Death from the Endless, from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman universe.

Thematic casting is when you base your characters around a central theme. Take the Fanastic Four as a fairly simplistic example of thematic casting. Mr Fantastic represents ‘water, Sue is ‘air’, the Human Torch is ‘fire’ and the Thing is ‘earth’; all four of the basic elements as understood by alchemists. The Planeteers from Captain Planet follow the same theme, adding ‘heart’ to the mix. In the Avatar series, the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra used the same for the various ‘benders’. Many children’s cartoons use thematic casting, but this doesn’t mean it can’t be used as a sophisticated writing tool.

The Victorian era version of the Fantastic Four.

When I think of sophisticated thematic casting, I think of Neil Gaiman’s Endless from his Sandman series. The Endless are seven siblings who rule the aspects of existence: Destiny, Death, Dream (Morpheus, then Daniel), the twins Desire and Despair, Destruction and Delirium (who used to be Delight). This list is also their ‘birth’ order. The Endless are above the gods, as even gods are subject to their forces. Dream is the titular protagonist of the Sandman series, with his siblings often taking centre stage in the plot and action.

Morpheus and Matthew, the Raven

Morpheus and Matthew, the Raven

Victorian-era Morpheus

Victorian-era Morpheus

The original Dream, who goes by the name Morpheus, is a Byronic hero, so that even the modern day version of him reminds me of a Victorian character, something thought up by Edgar Allan Poe. It isn’t a stretch to see him as a Steampunk character, with his sombre clothing and attitude. Of course, as the King of Dreams, he is also the font of inspiration for inventions and scientific discovery.

Death with Edgar Allan Poe

Death might seem at first glance to be the original Goth chick, but her nature is sunny, rational, and optimistic. I love Gaiman’s version of Death in the Sandman, as she breaks nearly every stereotype associated with character. Thematic casting doesn’t mean two dimensional characterization. It is meant to inspire and create a framework and structure; it isn’t meant to be a cage to entrap your creativity.

Gothic cosplay isn't the same thing as being a Goth in the alternative Goth subculture.

Gothic cosplay isn’t the same thing as being a Goth in the alternative Goth subculture.

As a writer, I love thematic writing, because it create deeper meanings to resonate with my audience. The Steampunk literary genre is easily adaptable to thematic casting, with the rich pickings of the Industrial Era available for inspiration. The various parts of a motor, the different types of metals, popular Victorian novels, the different sort of velocipedes, the items of clothing unique to the era … all of this and more is available for reinterpretation in your cast of characters.

I started off using ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as my inspirational stepping-off point for my characters in my Steampunk Work-in-Progress. I’ve strayed away from that original concept, but it was a great way to give me a feel for my characters at the start of writing process. But I find I am still using subtle Wonderland analogies throughout my narrative.

Steampunk Alice's tea party

And – after all – I am taking a leaf out of Neil Gaiman’s playbook. Who am I to argue with the Rock God of Fantasy Fiction?

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Filed under Analogy, Characterization, Metaphors, Steampunk, Steampunk Themes, Steampunk Work-in-Progress, Writing Style