Le Fanu’s Faustian Variation: Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter

Light fades in the artist’s studio in Leiden. Godfrey Schalken, ambitious young student  of Dutch master Gerard Douw, struggles with his latest assignment. With charcoal on canvas he reworks ‘a group of extremely roguish-looking and grotesque imps and demons, who were inflicting various ingenious torments upon a perspiring and potbellied St. Anthony.

Aware suddenly of his own limitations, Schalken curses. He wishes the devils, saint, and picture to hell.

A sudden laugh from behind tells Schalken he is not alone. He turns to see an old man, obscure in the dim light. There is ‘something indescribably odd . . . in the perfect, stonelike movelessness of the figure.’

Author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Readers of Gothic fiction in 1839, when the story first appeared, would have recognized the essentially Faustian scenario. Schalken the painter is at the crossroads. He has conjured a malignant force. Someone is about to be tempted. A deal will be struck. But the price paid will be greater than anyone could foresee.

Author Sheridan Le Fanu, who would later write ‘sensational’ novels Uncle Silas (1864) and The Wyvern Mystery (1869),  was only twenty-five when he penned this extraordinary tale combining art history with supernatural invention. Godfrey Schalken (or Godfried Schalcken, 1643-1706) did indeed study under Gerard Douw (or Gerrit Dou) in Leiden, and the atmosphere in Schalcken’s paintings, ghostly candlelight barely penetrating an encompassing darkness, seems perfectly represented in Le Fanu’s story.

Young Girl with a Candle by Godfried Schalcken

The death-like stranger, who calls himself Wilken Vanderhausen, wishes for the hand of Gerard Douw’s niece and ward, Rose Velderkaust. The temptation he proffers is money. But there is one major deviation from devil-pact convention. In Le Fanu’s story, Schalken, who appears to conjure the malign force, is not the one lured into the deal. Although in love with Rose, he remains quite unconscious of the agreement struck between Vanderhausen and Douw for Rose’s hand. He acts as go-between, taking Vanderhausen’s chest of gold to be valued, turning up at his Douw’s request at the supper where Rose is introduced to her unearthly suitor, all the while unaware of the purposes of these events.

Rose herself is horrified when she hears of the plans. She recoils at the Vanderhausen’s ‘bluish leaden hue’ and his enormous eyes in which the white appeared both above and below the iris, which gave to them an expression of insanity.’ The stranger, she tells her uncle, reminds her of an “old painted wooden figure that used to frighten me so much in the church of St. Lawrence of Rotterdam.”

But her uncle is firm. The deal has been made. Rose will marry the grotesque stranger and live with him in Rotterdam. She does as she is told. Then, to the consternation of both Douw and Schalken, she seems to disappear from the earth. Neither husband nor young wife contacts Douw as promised and, when he makes inquiries, Douw can find no record of a Wilken Vanderhausen of Rotterdam.

One day Rose returns unexpectedly to her uncle’s Leiden home ‘wild and haggard, and pale with exhaustion and  terror.’ Seemingly about to expire, she begs for wine and then bread, and then for a priest from whom begs prayers that might saveone who lay in the hands of Satan.’

As Rose talks to the priest, a gust of wind blows out the candle. Douw and Schalken leave the room to get another light but the door jams behind them, preventing their return. Scream follows scream from within. Schalken hears the sound of a window thrown open. When at last he gains entry he runs to the window to see Rose gone and the ‘waters of the broad canal beneath settling ring after ring in heavy circular ripples, as if a moment before disturbed by the immersion of some large and heavy mass.’

Nothing more is heard of Rose. Many years pass. The now middle-aged Schalken travels to Rotterdam to attend his father’s funeral. Arriving before the procession, he accepts the hospitality of the church sexton and drowses in a fire-lit anteroom just above the church vaults. He wakes to see a female figure wearing a muslin robe and carrying a lantern. She glides away from him and moves down the steps to the vaults. Schalken follows. As she reaches an antique chamber full of old furnishings including a four poster with heavy black drapes, she turns and reveals herself to be Rose.

Rose touches one of the bed’s drapes. She pulls it back. ‘Bolt upright in the bed’ is the ‘livid form of Vanderhausen.’

At this terrible sight Schalken faints dead away until the following morning when he is found not by a four poster bed but rather by a large tomb.

Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter begins with the narrator describing an  (apparently fictitious) Schalken paining hanging in the house of a friend. A white-robed woman in an antique religious vault smiles archly at the viewer as though engaged in ‘some roguish trick’ while in the background there is a bed and a man standing in an ‘attitude of alarm.‘ 

Sensing that the scene springs from life rather than imagination, the narrator asks the owner about the painting, and hence draws the answer which makes up the bulk of story.

Originally published Dublin University Magazine, Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter showcases Le Fanu’s convoluted yet graceful style and, more particularly, an almost reckless embrace of the Gothic themes that would later make his novels so popular. Seldom does 19th Century literature provide such a frank juxtaposition of sexual desire and death as the one in the story’s finale.

The tale, with its cavernous darkness, living flames, and a sense of visual art coming to life is a such a gift to the world of film and television that it comes as a surprise that only one major screen dramatization appears to have been attempted. Like Jonathan Miller’s famed M.R. James adaptation, Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), Schalken the Painter (1979) was produced as of part the BBC’s arts series Omnibus.

Series producer Leslie Megahey adapted the Le Fanu story with co-writer by Paul Humfress and achieves a flavour of ‘docudrama’ by using Le Fanu’s voice-over (provided by Charles Gray). The author takes us on a tour of Schalcken’s works from restrained still lives, to commissioned portraits, to enigmatic candlelit dramas, settling on the portrait which propels the story. This last work, in Schalcken’s style, was especially created for the production.

The plot follows Le Fanu’s short story quite faithfully with a few major exceptions. Schalcken himself  (Jeremy Clyde) is made more responsible for the pact to sell Rose (Cheryl Kennedy) to Vanderhausen. Although initially unaware of the reason he is valuing the stranger’s gold, Schalcken is appealed to directly by Rose before the dreaded marriage. Schalcken responds that there is nothing he can do. Then, extravagantly, and implausibly, he asserts he will work, gain his fortune, and buy her back. The implication is clear. His position, pleasing his mentor Douw, and the rewards he believes will follow, are simply more important to him to his avowed love for Rose. 

In the original story, Le Fanu makes a number of disparaging asides about the phlegmatic, unromantic nature of the Dutch character in general and that of Schalcken in particular. It is possible Schalcken’s passivity is supposed to speak for itself. But by presenting Schalcken a clear cut chance to intervene, Megahey’s drama brings the theme of romantic cowardice much more to the fore. As he is seen to prosper in his subsequent career, still living with Douw, he becomes as much a part of the Faustian pact as his mentor.

In one telling addition to the story, Megahey takes a line from Le Fanu’s original dialogue, spoken by Vanderhausen to Douw, “You will not pledge yourself unnecessarily but you will do so if it is necessary,”  and has the same phrase repeated by a number of characters like a musical refrain that seems to mock Schalcken and his inability to commit. The recurrence centralizes the themes of hesitation, compromise, and self-interest.

Le Fanu has Douw travel to Rotterdam to seek out Rose in the silent months after the wedding. But the drama gives this task to Schalcken, who, falling into a pit of loveless ambition and self-loathing, resorts to visiting brothels once his search for Rose turns out to be fruitless.

The filmmakers looked to Vermeer as well as to Schalcken for set composition, and many scenes present themselves like a works of art in their own right. More impressively still, each visual detail is utilized to expand upon the emotional aspects of the story. We see a bird being plucked in preparation for Vanderhausen’s first meeting with Rose. Then we see Rose herself, ordered by her uncle to “trick” herself out nicely for the stranger. Goose bumps stand out on her neck as she puts on her necklace. When we see the carving knife slice through the goose on the table, we know this is poor Rose being likewise carved up against her will.

Cheryl Kennedy is an enigmatic presence at the heart of the production, passive like Schalcken, but transformed to half-feral when she returns demanding bread, wine and a confessor. Veteran actor Maurice Denham makes a suitably dry, grouchy Douw, and John Justin’s  fixed wooden stare, aided ghastly grey-green makeup, give Vanderhausen the required otherworldly quality.

John Justin as Vanderhausen

Jeremy Clyde makes a wonderfully subtle Schalcken, transforming seamlessly from gauche, un-mannered novice, to surly, embittered painter.

The climactic scene is even franker than Le Fanu would have dared, presenting the most nightmarish punishment imaginable for this man who lacks conviction in love. In the crypt, Rose gives Schalcken a knowing smile and then disrobes and climbs into bed to copulate with the corpse-like Vanderhausen. The distraught Schalcken holds his head and screams silently at the vaulted ceiling.

Godfried Schalken in happier times: self-portrait with signature flame

Shown originally on December 23, 1979 in the traditional spot for the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas, Schalcken the Painter has perhaps been overlooked among the M.R. James adaptations. This is a pity as it is a genuine high point of television supernatural drama, an adaptation that takes an excellent literary source and manages to improve on it.

  • Quick note: I’ve tried to make the spelling of the painter’s name reflect the work in question. Le Fanu removed a ‘c’ from Schalcken; the 1979 production put it back.

Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna), a Gothic-inspired revisit of Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion, and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020), in which the daughter of Dracula’s ‘heroes’ Mina and Jonathan Harker questions her parents’ claim to have acted with courage and virtue when disposing of a foreign nobleman. 

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