That Scoundrel Emile Dubois is something of a genre-bender. It is set during the Regency era (in terms of its atmosphere and background, rather than in a strictly chronological sense), and evokes a social milieu that will be familiar to readers of Jane Austen. The heroine, Sophie, is also a character that Austen might have recognised: a plucky poor relation who has to transcend social boundaries in order to find love (in this case with her distant but much more noble relative, the titular Emile Dubois). Dubois and his valet Georges are the kind of scoundrels who find a natural home in gothic romance. After escaping from Revolutionary France (where he suffered horrific personal tragedies), Emile becomes a “Gentleman of the Road” – the kind of mannerly, dashing highwayman who wouldn’t be out of place in a Barbara Cartland novel. What follows, however, owes less to Mills and Boon than to the Hammer House of Horror, just as it owes less to Austen than to the sensational gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe.
This is a vampire novel, and a genuinely creepy one on occasion. Every blast of wind and flurry of snow seems to herald some stealthily-approaching menace. Dark deeds are carried out in isolated country houses, and mysterious creatures flit outside the windows; some places are so cursed, so abhorrent to nature that even the birds refuse to sing there. It is also, in part, speculative fiction, with time travel forming a significant strand of the story. Arguably, it might fall under the admittedly vague heading of “steampunk”, though in general steampunk is inspired by the mid- to late-Victorian period. “Regencypunk”, perhaps?
Sophie, at the outset, is meek, unassuming, and altogether rather unassertive (and not, therefore, the kind of feisty heroine we tend to admire these days). Gradually, however, as she finds herself fighting for both her own soul and that of Emile, she begins to draw upon inner reserves of strength; “I must be braver and fight harder,” she tells her tough, sensible maid Agnes. Sophie, a good Christian girl, sees vampirism as an aberration from God’s ordained plan, a monstrosity; but to other, less devout characters it holds a distinct attraction: “Is it so bad a fate, mon ami, to lose the threat of the worm and the grave?”
I was impressed by the way Elliot not only reproduces the style and tone of the late eighteenth century, but maintains it throughout the novel. Admittedly, I’m by no means an expert on the period, but I couldn’t detect a single lapse or false note. The novel is also notably well-researched, to the extent that Elliot includes a glossary of terms at the end.
There is also a lovely vein of humour that runs through the novel. A few examples:
“Mademoiselle Sophie has seen something unpleasant – do not glare at me so, it was no part of me.”
“I never thought things like this would happen here in our village … Now, if it had happened down in Swansea, where folks are about All Sorts of Mischief, I would be less surprised.”
And this, just prior to a marriage proposal:
“Alors, you deserve to be asked with all due punctilio, though I think I see some splinters on the floor, which I will avoid, as my springing up with a yell would detract from the gravity of the occasion.”
It’s difficult to point to any particular weaknesses in the novel. The only one I could honestly complain of was the “clunkiness” of one or two sentence constructions: “Forgive my roughness, I must be careful, which also applies to what Ma Tante terms these Mischievous Experiments as much as my strength, chérie, given you have poor taste enough to fear the loss of your wicked brigand.” I would have split that sentence up a bit, to make it read a bit more smoothly; as it is, it jolted me out of the story for a moment while I tried to understand exactly what was being said. However, this only occurs once or twice in the course of the novel, and didn’t spoil my overall enjoyment of it. If you like gothic romance, vampire fiction, humour, or indeed all three, this would be an excellent choice of reading.