Wolves in Petticoats: The Victorian Werewolf

This is a rough excerpt from the introduction of a book on Victorian werewolves I am writing right now. It should be finished sometime around March 2013. (I have way too many projects to give it my full attention this year)



It has been suggested that the vampire legend, largely created by Bram Stoker, is the most enduring and famous creature mythos to emerge out of popular Gothic literature. While this may be true the lowly werewolf must also be given a place of distinction. The literature of the Victorian era werewolf has nowhere near the enduring popularity of the Vampire, nevertheless during the period the werewolf was at least as popular with a score of books and short fiction to testify to its enduring legacy. In this book I will seek out the werewolf in its many forms and discuss its origin and evolution in the modern world. I will  break down werewolf mythology into several themes. The first will be the Supernatural curse. The second will be the “New Woman” werewolf or the wolf-woman as seductress. The third and final category will be the exotic werewolves of the Americas and India.

The supernatural curse appears throughout the werewolf literary genre. In the earliest werewolf stories these curses are almost always self inflicted such as in Reynolds’s, “Wagner the Wehr wolf” here the curse is the price Wagner pays the devil for his immortality and riches, in later works such as Kipling’s, “The Mark of the Beast” the curse is involuntary placed on the bearer because of his desecration of an Indian temple. I will discuss the varied methods by which the victims and often willing participants are transformed into a beast.

An intriguing aspect of the Werewolf during the Victorian period is the appearance of the female werewolf. When we think of female shape shifters wolves are often the last things to come to mind. There are literally thousands of books depicting women turning into cats or catlike creatures but not wolves; however the female werewolf was much more popular in European mythology and Victorian literature than in our modern literary tradition. The female werewolf while rare was a staple of several authors such as Clemance Housman and Frederick Marryat.  Housman was a writer, illustrator and a leading feminist of her day. She wrote several werewolf short stories and one novel. Her stories fit more in with the traditional folklore than some of the other Gothic horror novelists.

The idea of the werewolf is not just limited to Western and EasternEurope. The wolf-man is a universal human concept appearing in the folklore of almost every human society. During the Victorian period the West was being exposed more and more to the variety of world cultures. We can see this variety expressed in the werewolf fiction of the era. From Kipling’s Indian werewolves to Beaugrand’s Native American skinwalkers we see the werewolf in a multitude of aspects. The Victorians were fascinated by exotic cultures and exotic locales this made the foreign werewolf all the more intriguing as it paired a myth that people were familiar with to a more mysterious setting.

The classic werewolf literature of the 19th century has been long overshadowed by the werewolf of Hollywood. The original mythology is much more creative and innovative than the stock portrait of the werewolf that has been fostered on our modern sensibilities by popular film. In the Gothic horror novel we find a werewolf that is more than just the rapacious beast that comes out at every full moon. Instead the Victorians gifted us with a character as nuanced as the vampire and as full of pathos as Shelley’s Frankenstein. Modern authors would do well to seek out this classic creature and forget what Lon Chaney Jr. taught us about the Wolf man.



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4 thoughts on “Wolves in Petticoats: The Victorian Werewolf

  1. This looks very interesting! I don’t know much about the Victorian era for werewolf literature, but I really enjoyed Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Werewolves, published in that time, in large part because the traditions he was surveying were necessarily all pre-Hollywood.

    1. His book is one of the sources I reference heavily. What is wonderful about Baring-Gould is that he was in the last generation of people who could actually experience the werewolf as a living cultural entity and did so. His experience in France where he met people who actually believed they were being stalked by werewolves is a fascinating glimpse into how persistent the myth really was. The vampire myth had to be imported and created but the werewolf was still held power in Western Europe even at the end of the 19th century.

  2. Jonathan,
    Do you think the popularity of vampires over werewolves stems from the fact they were not a local legend in Western Europe? It may simply be the fact that people look for something different and new. The werewolf legend is down the street, but the vampire is far away. It seems humans simply like the exotic rather than the common. If you ever publish this book, let me know. Based on what you have written here, I would love to read it.

    1. I think vampires represent a more exotic danger, but I think they still would have the same popularity had they been familiar. The real difference between vampires and werewolves is the sexual nature of the vampire and then the same as now, sex sells. Dracula hits on many more emotional levels than the werewolf myth. No one fears being raped by a werewolf nor do they wish to have sex with one. Many woman dream of being ravished by vampires.

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