I loved this story! But then I am a tragic goth at heart, so it was just my sort of thing. I can't even promise I wouldn't have done exactly what Devigne did! I agree, though, that we're not supposed to read Devigne as a sympathetic character at all (unlike when, say, Lovecraft writes this sort of protagonist as an author-self-insert). That said, I feel like the critique of white male privilege could have been a bit more explicit. That's one of my only criticisms of the story really (and I think you raised it in the episode too) - Nesbit brings up a lot of issues, but we never really get a sense of how she feels about them. Maybe that's being a twenty-first-century reader reading a nineteenth-century story though.
For what it's worth, on the subject of class, I think through the story there's a critique of both the 'ignorant' lower classes who burn what they don't understand and the 'indolent' upper classes who waste their potential. And Glenn, on the historical accuracy of the witch burning, I feel like we just have to accept it for the sake of the story - it still kind of fits with the popular perception of the witch craze (the Devil painting a pre-Raphaelite portrait in the seventeenth century is oddly anachronistic too). There's a great weird prequel to be written about the learned seventeenth-century woman who delves deeper and deeper into occult knowledge and then sells her soul to the Devil. Although there's something almost anti-feminist about a such a strong female character selling her soul and giving up everything for the sake of love. Or maybe there isn't - that's how it seemed to me though.
On the metaphysics of re-incarnation, I didn't see this as a muddled issue actually. If we assume a basis in Christian theology, as the story seems to have (albeit inspired by Indian belief systems), it doesn't follow that belief in re-incarnation means belief that everyone gets re-incarnated. Re-incarnation (in the sense of coming back to Earth to live another life) isn't really part of Christian theology after all. So maybe in seventeenth-century England you have to make a satanic pact to be able to re-incarnate, and this is something the woman has discovered in her increasingly occult studies.
I know I sometimes complain about the abrupt and unsatisfying endings of some of these stories, but I'm going to defend this one. Devigne not having to make the choice of whether to sell his soul is the crux of the gothic tragedy. He now has to live a wholly mundane and unsatisfying life with a woman he doesn't really love love or appreciate instead of having Heaven on Earth with his soulmate - and he didn't even get a say in the matter, which makes it all even worse for someone of his self-importance. I do think he would have gone through with it though - it's easy to sell your soul when you don't believe in those sorts of things (even after being confronted by a woman emerging from a painting claiming to be your re-incarnated soulmate).
Finally, good timing for this episode to air during Women in Horror Month: https://www.womeninhorrormonth.com/
Some posts here are quite close, I think, to how I interpreted the ending: Devigne not only loses this "heaven" he was tempted with, the true Hell he must now live with is that he is a man who so readily would have sold his soul. He may not be the sort of person who cares that much about the distinction consciously, but on some level, perhaps as time goes by, that's the sort of realization that could gnaw away at someone's sanity.
Some very interesting ideas! I'm not usually a fan of the "it was all a dream" storytelling device, but this would be a good way of doing it.
This is a really interesting and compelling reading of the story. You've nicely tied together Nesbit's class-consciousness as a Fabian with the haughtiness of Devigne into a kind of morality tale of mental breakdown. I like it a lot, though, I'm with you in definitely not regarding this as one of Nesbit's best.
I really appreciate everyone's analysis of this story. Nesbit's stories typically enchant me, but I've always had trouble appreciating this one. The indolent protagonist may be partially to blame, but I also had trouble with the metaphysics/magic seeming not to hold together logically, so I'm glad you pointed this out on the podcast. One obvious gap to me was the "how long is it since I lost you" conundrum. Whether or not there is time in hell, an educated woman could have simply stated the year of her death and that mystery would have been solved with some simple math. She, instead, seems only to provide the most basic details (no name of the town, no name of the previous incarnation of her lover, etc.) Still, after struggling with this further, especially in wondering why Nesbit would set up an obvious plot climax (the soul-barter) only to undercut it by burning down the house. I'm wondering if anyone else considered this interpretation... We hear Devigne say emphatically "I was not sleepy; I was not drunk. I was as wide awake and as sober as ever was a man in the world," then, a few lines later he seems more plaintive: "It was not a dream. Ah! no? there are no such dreams. I wish to God there could be." And a few after that, he seems to be deflecting an unspoken question "If it was a dream, why have I never dreamed it again?" After that night, he never sees his true love in the flesh again, and, in fact, he begins describing every event in his subsequent life as a dream, an observation we the readers know is mostly false. I think "dissociation" was one of the terms used in the podcast to describe this, and then we see Devigne's hopes go up in smoke. What if we consider the above as a purely psychological event and that the permanent dissociation that claims the entire remainder of Devigne's life simply began one day earlier than he thinks it did? He had just inherited luxurious wealth and a high-class address. Then he discovers a painting of his ideal self as a wealthy aristocrat, and, facing that, a painting of his ideal mate. (The "woman of his dreams" perhaps?) He basks in that circumstance for a week or two, just long enough to happen upon a chair identical to the one in the woman's painting and to get a new frame built for his own. Then, "lying back in a pleasant languor" his gaze is "held fixed as by strong magic" to the painting. It makes a lot of sense that Devigne might have fallen asleep and had a sensuous dream in which he is the aristocratic lover of this enchanting woman. It also makes sense that he would want terribly to believe this, his final attainment of all the privileges he has so long felt denied, was real. I argue that it is also more likely that a man might have a dream and mistakenly believe it was real, than that a woman could successfully make a magical pact with the devil in order to be reincarnated intermittently via wistful thoughts directed at a painting. The next day his house burns down, losing the painting of the woman and even the chair on which she sat. Critically it also destroys the image of himself as an aristocrat, hanging on the opposite wall. The trauma of inheriting a patrician lifestyle only to have it burned away a couple of weeks later could certainly cause a depression and possibly even alter memories. He has used these particular paintings and this particular furnished house to build a new self-image, one no insurance check can restore. Maybe Nesbit was saying something really dark about human psychology here and the witch trials, devil, and suspiciously uninformative gorgeous lady genius are just the set props of a terrible self-deception.
Devigne was secretly haughty and greedy. In one swoop almost every aspect of his life (income, status, housing, etc.) was upgraded by fate. The only aspect which remained at its previous quality was Mildred. All his stifled dissatisfactions had been resolved except for her, so he ardently dreamed up a scenario in which that last remnant of his common life was also replaced. Then, not 24 hours later, Mildred's presence becomes so unbearable that he leaves his new house... only to come back that night to see everything he had gained (dreamed or real) burn to ashes, with only Mildred being retained. Nesbit doesn't show us a scene of making a choice with the devil, because Devigne never had such a choice to make. The choice Devigne makes is more subtle, but potentially even more damning. Rather than be a happy non-duke with a big insurance check and guaranteed yearly income, he chooses... insists, even, upon believing that he "had it all" for one night, and that, if he had only been quicker in delivering his soul to the devil, it would never have been torn from him. He would have been the ideal man in the painting, every day a fancy ball with the woman of his dreams.
He could, of course, simply accept that he had a nice house once and had a nice dream in it the day before it burned down. He could have dumped Mildred and used his wealth to enjoy the high-class dating scene until finally meeting a woman he truly loved. But that would have required acceptance that he was not quite the same man as the painted aristocrat, and that the beautiful woman had been dead for many decades before Devigne himself was born. Instead of acceptance, he chose denial. "I deny, with all my soul in the denial, that it was a dream." Nesbit did show us that choice.
Oh, I'm sure it's more than a coincidence. Dorian Grey was probably still a hot topic when Nesbit wrote this story, and I don't think anyone's allowed to write about a portrait now without considering Oscar Wilde.
I like the discussion here on this story: the solution of the reincarnation problem by Karanthir, and about the ending of the story.
I thought the ending was nice, but I read it in maybe a still different way. I interpreted the time span between the promise of the woman from the portrait and 'eleven 'o clock' as a sort of purgatory, in which Devigne should make up his mind. Then, when he made the 'wrong choice' in his mind (apparently wanting a heaven on earth without selling his soul), he was punished by hell on earth, symbolized by the flames of hell in his house and the loss of what he wanted.
I agree that the story could be a bit more elaborated, showing the story of the lady in the portrait and Mildred and more about the aristocratic milieu (and fall) of Devigne. (But then, it should be a novella at least.)
When I read a gothic(ish) story with a portrait painting in it, I can't help myself thinking of the Picture of Dorian Gray. It is a bit turned upside down here: while Dorian can have his 'heaven on earth' by a corruptive portrait (for a while), the woman in this story can have a nice portrait, but no heaven on earth. I know, it's just coincidence, but I think it's a nice one :-)
That's a great point -- we should have considered this story more from her perspective, and seen her as the one with agency and an objective. And now that I am thinking about it that way, I have to wonder what she even saw in him -- now or back in the seventeenth century.
The fact that Satan doesn't place enough value on the narrator's soul to even bother with a deal is the most massive critique possible. The sexy witch in the painting made a deal with the devil and he gave her exactly what was promised and made sure she didn't get to benefit at all. The lady in the painting is the protagonist in this story, the narrator is just the love interest, also effected by her choice in encountering Satan. I would think this is fairly unique for the time.
Haha, yeah, I mean, it's not like Nesbit had online access to hundreds of peer-reviewed journals. There is though, some massive project to be done about history and reception in weird-fiction.
I don't know if Nesbit was aiming for tragedy as such, and I confess when referring to the ending I was using the term in a loose "oh woe is me, isn't my life so depressing" kind of way, than strictly as the genre. Mildred's story certainly has potential, although you'd need to do a lot to lift her from the flat character she is here (largely because we only see her from Devigne's perspective of course).
Nothing wrong with pointing out historical accuracies. I find that as I get older I'm more willing to accept them in the service of a good story (but conversely angrier about them in bad stories).
Oh, we should have been paying more attention to the calendar and devoted the whole month to women in horror. I'd like to say we'll do better next year, but I struggle to know what day today is most days. But, looking over this website, I'm inspired to try to do some kind of live event next year. Here in Philadelphia there is the Edgar Allan Poe house which occasionally hosts events, and I think that could be a lot of fun.
I'm really glad to have your defense of her belief in reincarnation. It makes perfect sense: she doesn't believe that everyone will be reincarnated; but she knows that what the devil is offering her is technically possible, so she makes the deal. I read that line as a contradiction, but now I see that it's an explanation -- maybe an explanation I didn't need because I read a lot of speculative fiction, and so I couldn't even take it that way.
I also like your defense of the ending. I certainly wasn't reading the story as a tragedy, in large part I think because I didn't like Devigne and so had a hard time feeling sorry for him (and certainly didn't want to). But I wonder what this story would look like from Mildred's perspective. She's survived the economic injustices of the Industrial Revolution and become rich ... but at the same time her husband is distant and, presumably, a terrible partner. Does she feel like she's "won" or does she feel like she, too, is in a tragedy? I would read that story.
And, yeah, I try not to get cranky about historical inaccuracies ... but I still feel ethically obligated to point them out.