English Fiction

Absinthe BooksContemporary fiction inspired by absinthe took many forms – poems, plays, short stories, novels. By far the most influential and popular English language work was Marie Corelli’s novel Wormwood, a lurid Victorian melodrama that was enormously popular both in the UK, and in the United States, where it went through dozens of unauthorised editions within the first few years of its initial publication in 1890.

Wormwood: A Drama of Paris

By Marie Corelli
Published 1890 by Richard Bentley & Son, London.

‘Excellent Let me be mad, then by all means! mad with the madness of Absinthe, the wildest most luxurious madness in the world!’

Marie Corelli’s Wormwood tells the story of Gaston Beauvais, a promising but naïve young man whose disillusionment at the hands of a woman leads to his downward spiral into the decadent world of fin-de-siècle Paris. When his story begins he is callow but handsome and wealthy with good career prospects. He meets the beautiful ‘innocent and fresh’ Pauline de Charmilles at her mother’s house and is instantly smitten with her ‘quick brightness’ He describes Pauline as ‘his fate’ and declares himself ‘no longer master of his own destiny.’ Ironically this is true but sadly not for the reasons that Gaston believes. It is not ultimately this girl ‘fresh from school’ who ‘ravishes his soul’ but Absinthe!

Wormwood - a drama in ParisGaston asks Pauline to marry him and she accepts, but the first flickers of doubt begin to cross his mind as he notices her slight reticence.’ Later Gaston thanks the ‘merciful Elixir that I love’ for erasing some of the memories of this time ‘as clearly as if they had been burnt out with fire’. Inevitably Pauline falls hopelessly in love with another man – the virtuous seminary student Silvion Guidèl, warily described by Gaston as ‘too handsome for a man.’ In a melodramatic confession she admits her ‘dishonour’ and pleads with Gaston to free her from their engagement. The poor betrayed Gaston is angry and devastated but initially he is resolved to forgive her.

After the dramatic scene with Pauline, Gaston wanders desolate around the streets of Paris. It is abjectly sitting on a bench on the Champs Elyseés that an artist acquaintance André Gessonex finds him. Gessonex is well known for his ‘décolleté sketches’ of burlesque actresses – paintings far too risqué for ordinary householders. It is this fateful encounter which is to change Gaston’s life because it is Gessonex who introduces him to the ‘Elixir Vitae’ – absinthe:

“Do you like that stuff?” “ Like it?” I love it! And you?” “I have never tasted it.” “Never tasted it!” exclaimed Gessonex amazedly. “Mon Dieu! You, a born and bred Parisian, have never tasted absinthe? “I smiled at his excitement.
“Never! I have seen others drinking it often, – but I have not liked the look of it somehow. A repulsive colour to me, – that medicinal green!” He laughed a trifle nervously, and his hand trembled But he gave no immediate reply for at that moment the waiter placed a flacon of the drink in question on the table with the usual supply of water and tumblers. Carefully preparing and stirring the opaline mixture Gessonex filled the glasses to the brim, and pushes one across to me. I made a faint sign of rejection. He laughed again in apparent amusement at my hesitation.
‘By Venus and Cupid, and all the other dear old heathen deities who are such remarkably convenient myths to take one’s oath upon’ he said.’ ‘I hope you will not compel me to consider you a fool, Beauvais! What an idea that is of yours – ‘medicinal green!’ Think of melted emeralds instead. There, beside you, you have the most marvellous cordial in all the world, – drink and you will find your sorrows transmuted – yourself transformed! Even if no better result be obtained than escaping from the chill you have incurred in this nights heavy drenching, that is surely something! Life without absinthe! – I cannot imagine it. For me it would be impossible! I should hang, drown or shoot myself into infinitude, out of sheer rage at the continued cruelty and injustice of the world – but with this divine nectar of Olympus I can defy misfortune and laugh at poverty as though these were the merest bagatelles! Come! To your health, mon brave! Drink with me!’ 

For Gaston the drink begins to promise something new and thrilling. He begins to fall prey to its seduction.: ‘..his words, his manner, fascinated me, and a curious thrill ran through my veins. There was something spectral in his expression too, as though the skeleton of the man had become suddenly visible beneath its fleshly covering, – as though Death had for a moment peered through the veil of Life. I fixed my eyes doubtingly on the pale green liquid whose praises he thus sang – had it indeed such a potent charm?” Would it still the dull aching at my heart – the throbbing in my temples – the sick weariness and contempt of living that had laid hold upon me like a fever since I knew Pauline was no longer my own? Would it give me a brief respite from the inner fret of tormenting thought. It might! – and slowly lifting the glass to my lips, I tasted it.“ Gaston winces at his initial taste of the drink but Gessonex persuades him to try another sip. ‘….it is like vengeance, – bitter at first, but sweet at last!’ Gessonex assures Gaston that Absinthe offers ‘sure consolation’ and that ‘the remedy for all suffering is here’. Gaston decides to ‘taste the nauseous fluid again,’ and this time ‘..it was now delicious to my palate – exquisitely fine and delicate as a balm.’ Gessonex is pleased ‘…the only good I can possibly do you in return for your many acts of friendship is to introduce you to the ‘Fairy with the Green Eyes’ – as this exquisite nectar has been poetically termed. It is a charming fairy! – one wave of the opal wand, and sorrow is conveniently guillotined!’

The two men carry on drinking and eventually venture into the miserable night. Before they take leave of one another, Gessonex asks Gaston if he feels a ‘different man now?,’ Has “..the ‘green fairy’ .. cured you of your mind’s distemper?” Gaston replies that “whatever was the matter with me, I am now quite myself again.”

Gessonex then begins a strange rambling speech where he describes a vision of his own death. Gaston realises that the ‘appellation of mad painter never seemed so entirely suited to him (Gessonex) as now’ Absinthe has driven Gessonex insane. Eventually with an ‘assumption of excessive gentility’ Gessonex bids Gaston farewell and it is then that the implication of all that has happened really resonates with Gaston as the absinthe coursing through his veins takes on a sinister quality as it takes possession of his body: ‘… then as though a flash of blinding fire had crossed my sight, it suddenly became clear to my mind – what he had done for me! As I realised it I could have shouted aloud in the semi-delirium of feverish intoxication that burnt my brain! That subtle flavour clinging to my palate – that insidious fluid creeping drop by drop through my veins – I knew what it was at last! – The first infiltration of another life – the slow but sure transfusion of a strange and deadly bitterness into my blood which once absorbed must and would cling to me forever! Absintheur!’

Volume II

Gaston returns home where he begins to experience all the fabled effects of absinthe. He has vivid, hallucinogenic dreams – he sees fields of poppies, dead bodies with ghastly wounds. He also begins to feel that at last he is ‘at peace’ and that among the ‘lambent wreathes of exquisitely brilliant green – I can THINK!’ Thought in fact becomes an ‘urgent and paramount necessity’ He begins to feel that he was a fool to ‘entertain for a moment the idea of forgiveness!’ His resentment asserts itself and gathers strength and he laughs out loud when ‘I remembered what a soft hearted weakling I had been before – before I had learned the wisdom of absinthe! Oh wonderful elixir!’ He quotes from the poem ‘Lendemain’ in Le Coffret de santal by Charles Cros saying

Glorious Absinthe! What is it the poet sings?
Avec l’absinthe, avec ce feu
On peut se divertir un peu
Jouer son role en quelque drame!

It is clear that absinthe has had a profound effect on Gaston. ‘All things are possible to Absinthe! It can accomplish more marvellous deeds that its drinkers wot of! It can quench pity – freeze kindness, – kill all gentle emotion, and rouse in a man a spirit of a beast of prey! For Gaston all his previous ideas about morality are erased by the absinthe.’ Who is there living that can make me regret a single evil deed I have committed, or prove to me a all satisfactorily that my deeds are evil? No one! Whosoever has Absinthe for his friend and boon companion has made an end to conscience…’

In a reversal of his previous ideas about forgiveness, Gaston writes a letter challenging Sylvion Guidèl to a duel, but when he delivers it in the morning he finds that Guidèl has returned to Brittany to be with his dying father. Gaston writes to Pauline asking her not to tell anyone that their engagement has been broken but he cannot explain the ‘ulterior motive lurking in the background of my thoughts.’Once again he blames absinthe, saying that ‘there is something stronger even than hypnotism – and that is Absinthe!’The absinthe has ‘placed an idea, -a diabolical conception of revenge somewhere in (his) brain.’

Gaston has become addicted to absinthe – .’.a craving the unwholesome nature of which I perfectly understood although I had neither strength nor desire to resist it. The action of absinthe cannot more be opposed than the action of morphia. Once absorbed into the blood, a clamourous and constant irritation is kept up throughout the system, – an irritation which can only be assuaged and pacified by fresh draughts of the ambrosial poison…I made my way down to the Boulevard Montmartre, where I entered one of the best and most brilliant cafes, and at once ordered the elixir that my very soul seemed athirst for! What a sense of tingling expectation quivered in my veins as I prepared the greenish opal mixture, whose magical influence pushed wide ajar the gates of dreamland! – with what lingering ecstasy I sipped to the uttermost dregs two full glasses of it, – enough, let me tell you, to unsteady a far more slow and stolid brain that mine! The sensations which followed me were both physically and mentally keener than on the previous evening, – and when I at last left the café and walked home at about midnight, my way was encompassed with the strangest enchantments. For example: there was no moon, and clouds were still hanging in the skies heavily enough to obscure all the stars, – yet, as I sauntered leisurely up the Champs Elysees, a bright green planet suddenly swung into dusky space, and showered its lustre full upon my path. Its dazzling beams completely surrounded me, and made the wet leaves of the trees overhead shine like jewels; and I tranquilly watched the burning halo spreading about me in the fashion of a wide watery rim, knowing all the time that it was but an image of my fancy. Elixir vitae! – the secret so ardently sought for by philosophers and alchemists! – I had found it, even I! – I was as a god in the power I had obtained to create and enjoy the creations of my own fertile brain’
As Gaston makes his way home he realises that his thoughts are being affected by the absinthe but ‘we of Paris care nothing as to whether our thoughts run in wholesome or morbid channels as long as self-indulgence is satiated. My thoughts for instance, were poisoned – but I was satisfied with their poisonous tendency!’

When he reaches his front door he has a vision of ‘the door draped with solemn black, as if for a funeral, and saw written across it in pale yet lustrous emerald scintillations – LA MORT HABITE ICI’ Death resides here!’ He simply brushes away the ‘insubstantial’ hanging on the door and enters to find his father waiting for him. When his father leaves he has another hallucination of Pauline covered in a ‘shimmering veil of green.’

The change in Gaston is profound. He feels ‘morbid satisfaction’ that Pauline is ‘inwardly enduring agonies of mental torture,’ for example. He begins flirting with Héloïse but admits that still loves Pauline ‘madly’…’no sane mind would have ever indulged in such a tumult of mingled desire and hatred, as burned in mine!’ He takes an immoral delight in the fact that he can see that he is having an effect on Héloïse. ‘I suppose it must have been the consciousness of the growing devil inside of me….The Devil born of Absinthe!’

Gaston can feel the strange changes in himself as the ‘absinthe furia’ takes hold and his ‘drugged brain’ conceives a ‘devilish plot.’ He is completely transformed. ‘..what moralists call good, presented itself to me as not only distinctly unnatural, but wholly absurd….the swift and marvellous influence of the green nectar of Paris on the human nerves and blood is, that my former ideas and habits of life were completely and absolutely reversed.’ Pauline is still waiting in hope for Silvion to come for her. Finally however Gaston receives a letter from Silvion who has joined the priesthood, meaning he is unable to marry Pauline. Gaston seems to view the whole scenario from a distance. He calmly considers that Pauline might kill herself – ‘or I might die! That would be droll!’. He congratulates himself on managing to keep the secret of his ‘growing absinthe-mania’ from his father and all those around him. He scarcely seems to care whether he marries Pauline in the morning or not. Instead, the night before his wedding day He sits drinking ‘glass after glass (of absinthe).’ I drank till the solid walls of my room…appeared like transparent glass shot through with emerald flame’ He begins to hallucinate that he is ‘Surrounded on all sides by phantoms – beautiful, hideous, angelic, devilish – I reeled to my couch in a sort of walking swoon, conscious of strange sounds everywhere….conscious too of a singular double sensation – namely as though Myself were divided into two persons who opposed each other in a deadly combat..’ ‘It was a night of both horror and ecstasy, – the beginning of many more such nights…And I forgot as I always forget that there are fools in the world for whom heart-freezing Absinthe has no charms, and who therefore still prate like children and idiots, of God and Conscience!’

The day of their proposed marriage dawns beautiful and clear. Gaston unsurprisingly wakes with a ‘violent throbbing in my temples!’ I was seized with a remarkable sensation, as though some great force were, so though speak, being hurled through me, compelling me to do strange deeds without clearly recognising their nature’ He goes for a long walk before breakfast ‘I though of that white half naked witch who had been my chief companion in the flying phantasmagoria of the past wild night. How swiftly she had led me into the forgotten abodes of the dead and how her mere look and sign had sufficed to lift the covers of old coffins and expose to view the mouldering skeletons within! Oh, she was a blithe brave phantom, that Absinthe-witch of mine!’
Before the wedding Gaston goes through all the motions of greeting the guests and relatives. However while watching the pale and miserable Pauline walking down the aisle he is suddenly seized with fury – ‘how dared she knowing herself so vile, thus mutely invite compassion!’ Without even realising himself what he is about to do, he waits until her father presents her to him before announcing his refusal to marry her. He ‘feels’ rather than sees the scene around him. ‘I was mad, and I revelled in my madness!’ He announces to the congregation that Pauline is the cast off mistress of Silvion Guidèl and that he cannot marry her. In an angry outburst Gaston’s father accuses him of the actions of a beast -only a ‘madman, – a drunkard, a delirious absintheur would be capable of such useless ferocity.’ Gaston however feels nothing but contempt for those who have not been taught ‘more worldly wisdom’ by ‘the fairy with the green eyes.’ Instead of marriage to Pauline, Gaston knows that in his heart ‘the most wondrous wedlock was consummated – an indissoluble union with the fair wild Absinthe witch of my dreams! – she and she alone would be part of my flesh and blood from henceforth I swore!’

After this appalling scene Pauline runs away, and her cousin Héloïse St. Cyr and Gaston’s father come to plead with him to help them find her. Gaston however declares that any feeling he once had for Pauline are stone dead. In an impassioned speech to the reader he states that ‘like many other young men’ he had his ‘ideals of greatness and goodness’ ‘but the wise green fairy has cured me of this otherworldly foolishness.’

Gaston has an appointment with Pauline’s father which in spite of everything he keeps, seeing no need to disappoint him. He finds the Count silent with an open case of pistols on the table beside him ready for a duel. With growing dread however, Gaston realises that the Count is already dead: ‘..and some narrow minded fools may consider if they like that I killed him. But how? What crime had I committed? None! I had merely made a stand for moral law in social life! My career was stainless, save for the green trail of the Absinthe-slime which no one saw.’

Gaston begins a search for the ‘wildest and most unpurchasable varieties of pleasure’ In spite of his father’s request that he leave Paris, Gaston stays and takes an apartment in an obscure hotel under an assumed name. Walking around Paris he carefully keeps to the back streets, not only to avoid a chance meeting with old acquaintances but because that is where he is most likely to find the disgraced Pauline now, although he has no idea what he will do if he finds her. Absinthe becomes for Gaston ‘the chief necessity of life’ …‘because it can absolutely be relied upon to kill conscience!.’ Gaston finds himself looking for Pauline although he still does not know why and it is on one of these walks along the Seine, that he encounters Guidèl, “You! – you!” he whispers choked with rage, “Silvion Guidèl!”

Silvion has been cloistered in the Priesthood and does not know the whole ghastly story. He tells Gaston that he simply could not stay away. In a fury, Gaston tells him that Pauline is ‘dead to everyone that honoured or loved her.’ Silvion is horrified to find that Gaston did not marry her. Gaston sneers that Pauline is on the streets of Paris and her father is dead. Silvion is stricken but begins to boast that Pauline loved him best and always would. Gaston is driven into a rage and throws himself onto Silvion hearing wild voices screaming ‘Kill! Kill! Kill him’! In a furious struggle he murders him and throws his body into the river.

Gaston spends the next week justifying his actions to himself when one day while taking a short cut to his hotel he sees Pauline. She doesn’t see him and he loses sight of her. Suddenly he hears a loud laugh and turns to find Gessonex who ‘with the oddest gestures of fantastic courtesy he invited me to follow him!’ Gessonex now lives in squalor with a deformed boy described as ‘a mingled monkey and savage’ who lives on rats. He has the receding forehead, flat nose and undeveloped chin described by some scientists of the time as hereditary symptoms of the children of absinthe drinkers. Gessonex calls him ‘a production of Absinthe.’ Gessonex shows Gaston his latest painting. It depicts a priest wrenching open a coffin containing a beautiful woman who has obviously died recently. Underneath he has written in French ‘O God whom I abjure! Restore this woman to me!.’

Gessonex then asks Gaston if he still drinks absinthe and warns him, not for the first time, to maintain his mastery over the drink: ’…don’t let the charming fairy master you..’ Gessonex then suggests that they ‘do something amusing’ and go to the morgue. When Gaston asks why, he replies: ‘Because it is dusk, mon ami, – and because the charm of the electric light will give grace to the dead! If you have never been there at this hour, it will be a new experience for you, – really it is a most interesting study to any one of an artistic temperament! I prefer it to the theatre!’

Inevitably at the morgue they find the body of Silvion who is hideously disfigured beyond all recognition, with only his eyes eerily intact. When Gaston sees the body he begins to laugh uncontrollably. He is delighted with the idea that the beautiful Silvion cannot be kept above ground for even another day because he is so badly decomposed.

Gaston is drinking more and more heavily. He reels home in the grip of ‘the furia of absinthe’ knowing that he would have murdered for money or taken love ‘by force’ if he wanted to. ‘There are plenty of people in the furia of Absinthe…men who would ensnare the merest child in woman’s shape and not only outrage her but murder and mutilate her afterwards’. He goes to a music hall where he considers that men are only one step removed ‘from barbarism’ ‘Why does an English Earl marry a music hall singer? He has seen her in tights’ ‘The Can-can turns Parisian men’ ‘into screeching, stamping maniacs.’ While sitting with a prostitute in a frenzied daze he begins to hallucinate that he is seeing Silvion watching him across the dance hall. He tries to rush at the vision and hits his head falling to the ground where he lies for several hours.

Soiled and ill Gaston is woken from his stupor by a policeman who is appalled at his drunken state so early in the day. Feeling horribly sick he staggers blindly into his father. Beauvais senior is appalled but Gaston mockingly tells him he is not ill ‘I have been up all night – dancing all night – going to the devil all night..’ He informs his father that he has found a new profession, he has become an absintheur: ‘You tell me you have become an absintheur, – do you know what that means?’
‘I believe I do’ I replied indifferently. “It means, in the end, – death.’
‘Oh, if it meant only death!” he exclaimed passionately…. “But it means more than this – it means crime of the most revolting character – it means brutality, cruelty, apathy, sensuality, and mania! Have you realised the doom you create for yourself, or have you never thought thus far?’ Horrified at Gaston’s uncaring reply, his father disowns him.

Gaston wanders around the streets feeling more and more depressed. He has lost his appetite and thinks of Guidèl obsessively. Eventually he encounters Gessonex in a café and they share a tumbler of ‘the old cordial’. Gessonex is deeply affected by a cartoon he has seen in the Journal pour Rire. He strides away from the café to buy a copy of the journal and to Gaston’s horror and surprise he shoots himself right in front of the newspaper kiosk. ‘Absinthe had done its work well this time.’

Gaston sees Pauline in the graveyard and follows her for a time but once again he loses her. He also encounters the good Héloïse again and is conscious that the pure air around her is ‘tainted by the unquiet breathing of a murderer and a coward’
He confesses to her that he is searching for Pauline but that he has no intention of marrying her but simply making her his mistress. He tells Héloïse that absinthe has become dearer to him than his own life. Gaston is drinking heavily and spends his days in a feverish delirium. The only object which interests him other than absinthe is Pauline. One day he hears a child like voice singing and finds that it is Pauline begging for coins. She tells Gaston that she has remained faithful to Silvion and that she still loves him. Angrily he tells her that the priest is dead: ‘He is dead, I say! – stone dead! – who should know it better than I, seeing that I – murdered him!’

Pauline faints at his confession. Gaston lifts her into his arms and without ‘knowing what I did’ kisses her. Even though she is unconscious he begins kissing her more and more ardently and with more and more hatred. ‘Now at any rate Pauline was in my power. I could make her mine if I chose.’ At this Pauline wakes and with a superhuman effort breaks free and begins wailing and screaming. He begins taunting her with how he killed Silvion, embellishing the details while poor Pauline listens. As he is speaking he once again perceives the ‘pale phosphorescence’ of Silvion creeping around him. “There he is!” he exclaims to Pauline. Suddenly Pauline rushes away and although Gaston follows her he cannot catch her. She runs to the deserted Pont Neuf where after only a moment’s hesitation she throws herself off the parapet into the gloomy waters of the Seine. “Pauline! Pauline!” I cried into the hushed and dreary waters – “I loved you. You broke my heart! You ruined my life! You made me what I am! Pauline! Pauline! I loved you!” Once again Gaston sees a vision of Silvion Guidèl and falls to the ground insensible.

He wakes the next morning still on the bridge to the realisation that Pauline is dead. He comforts himself with the thought that she will be taken to the morgue and in a few days he can see her there. He longs for a draught of absinthe. He then has a terrifying premonition that something is about to happen and begins to hear and feel the heavy breathing of some creature following him. He is startled by the apparition of a leopard with sly green eyes. Panic stricken and vaguely aware that this is some sort of ‘brain-phantasm’ he tries to ignore it. Gaston is faint from lack of food but has no appetite. He knows that others would tell him to give up absinthe but how can he. ‘Give up Absinthe – why then, I should give up my life! I should die!’ He tries to accept the presence of the spectral leopard as he knows that it will ‘continue to haunt me to my dying day.’ He realises that like him, Gessonex also used to peer behind him as if looking at some vision, ‘and I idly wondered what sort of creature the Absinthe-fairy had sent to him so persistently that he should have seen no other way out of it but suicide’.

Gaston begins spending all his time at the morgue desperate to see Pauline again, and eventually she is brought in. He realises it is his duty to inform her family that she is dead so that she can receive a proper burial but then he begins to take a peculiar delight in the fact that if her body is not identified she will be thrown into a communal grave like her lover Silvion. ’It seemed good to me to wreak spite upon the dead and as I have already told you, the brain of a confirmed absintheur accepts the most fiendish idea as both beautiful and just. If you doubt what I say, make inquiries at any of the large lunatic asylums in France, – ask to be told some of the aberrations of absinthe-maniacs, who form the largest percentage of brains gone incurably wrong, – and you will hear enough to form material for a hundred worse histories than mine!’ While the mortuary keeper realises that Gaston knows something about the dead girl, Gaston persists with the lie that he does not know her. As he is swearing ‘by my honour’ that he does not know her, he looks up into the face of Héloïse St. Cyr who has come to claim the body. Gaston is ‘Defeated! – defrauded of the last drop of my delirious draught of hatred!’

‘What was there to do now? Nothing – but to drink Absinthe! With the death of Pauline every other definite object in living had ended. I cared for nobody; – while as far as my former place in society was concerned I had apparently left no blank.’ He watches Pauline’s funeral from a distance: I – I only had wrought all the misery on this once proud and now broken-down, bereaved family! – I– and Absinthe! If I had remained the same Gaston Beauvais that I once had been, – if on the night Pauline had made her wild confession of shame to me, I had listened to the voice of mercy in my heart – if I had never met Andre Gessonex…imagine! – so much hangs on an ‘if’! After the funeral he remains in hiding so that he ends up being locked within the graveyard. The guardians of Père-la-Chaise, patrolled the place as usual and locked the gates – but I was left for prisoner within, which was precisely what I desired. Once alone – all alone in the darkness of the night, I flung up my arms in delirious ecstasy – this City of the Dead was mine for the time! – mine, all these moulding corpses in the clay! I was sole ruler of this wide domain of graves! I rushed to the shut-up marble prison of Pauline – I threw myself on the ground before it, – I wept and raved and swore, and called her by every endearing name I could think of! – the awful silence maddened me! I beat at the iron grating with my fists till they bled; “Pauline!” I cried – “Pauline!” Over the next few weeks Gaston suffers from increasingly alarming visions and delusions. He renounces Christianity with an indifferent shrug –‘I, an absintheur? Kneel at a crucifix? Never? It could do me no good I knew…’

Gaston becomes so ill that a doctor is called. The doctor tells him that he must give up absinthe, “at once, – and for ever. It is a detestable habit, – a horrible craze of the Parisians. Who are positively deteriorating in blood and brain by reason of the their passion for this poison. What the next generation will be, I dread to think!” […] “I must inform you that if you persist drinking absinthe you will become a hopeless maniac.” At once like a ‘rainbow of hope’ Gaston thinks of Héloïse St. Cyr. He decides to go to her and ask for her pity feeling that only she can help him escape from his addiction. Little does he guess ‘what swift vengeance the wild Absinthe witch can take on any one of her servitors who dares to dream of disputing her inexorable authority!’ When he gets to the St. Cyr mansion, he finds that someone has died, and to his horror the figure lying in the house chapel is Héloïse. “Dead!” cries Gaston, “Dead! Grovelling on the ground in wild agony, I clutched handfuls of flowers with which her funeral couch was strewn – I groaned – I sobbed – I raved! – I could have killed myself then in the furious frenzy of my horror and despair.”

Gaston has become a murderer and a liar and he has lost everything he ever held dear. He kills his last ‘vestige of flickering conscience’ And what am I? My dear friends I have told you, -…….an absintheur, pur et simple! – voila tout! I am a thing more abject than the lowest beggar that crawls through Paris whining for a sou! – I am a slinking, shuffling beast, half monkey, half man, whose aspect is so vile, whose body is so shaken with delirium, whose eyes are so murderous, that if you met me by chance in the day-time you would probably shriek for sheer alarm! But you will not see me thus – daylight and I are not friends. I have become like a bat or an owl in my hatred of the sun! -…At night I live; – at night I creep out with the other obscene things of Paris, and by my very presence, add fresh pollution to the moral poisons in the air! I gain pence by the by the meanest errands – I help others to vice, – and whenever I have the opportunity, I draw down weak youths. Mothers’ darlings, to the brink of ruin, and topple them over – if I can! […] For twenty francs, I will murder or steal, – all true absintheurs are purchasable! For they are the degradation of Paris, – the canker of the city – the slaves of mean insatiable madness which nothing but death can cure….”

Finally in ‘a mere friendly exchange of poisons’ Gaston gives a chemist friend a little absinthe for a phial of toxic liquid which he intends to take ‘some day perhaps..’

The end.

Wormwood Marie Corelli

Each of the three volumes of the first edition originally had criss-crossed red ribbons over their spines. These soon perished, leaving only remnants.

Les absintheurs de Paris

Félicien Rops

Félicien Rops was born in Belgium in 1883. In 1856 he co-founded the satirical newspaper Uylenspielgel which humorously caracatured the bourgeois morality and politics of the time. He also contributed extensively to Charivari Belge where he was heavily influenced by Daumier. In the mid-1850’s he became a member of the Atelier St.Luc, a group of Belgian sculptors, writers and poets. In 1864 Rops met Charles Baudelaire who was to have a profound influence on him. Rops became famous
for his depiction of an underworld milieu of prostitutes, sex, satanic images and death. Closely associated with the literary movements of symbolism and decadence, Rops showed a controverial mixture of sensuality, eroticism and fantasy in works such as Tentations de St.Antoine, Pornocrates and the series Sataniques and Diaboliques.

Félicien Rops was obsessed with drawing the female absinthe drinkers he encountered around the dance halls of Paris. He drew La Buveuse d’Absinthe in 1865 and frequently re-drew the same woman over the next thirty years. The picture always shows a haggard woman leaning against a pillar outside a dance-hall. The challenging expression in her eyes and her slack mouth suggest she is a prostitute.

Rops offered a newly drawn Buveuse d’Absinthe for exhibition in 1876, explaining to a friend: ‘It’s a girl called Marie Joliet who arrives every evening drunk at the Bal Bullier and who had in her eyes a look of death galvanised into life. I had her sit for me and tried to render what I saw.”

Joris-Karl Huysmans, author of À Rebours (1884) (Against the Grain or Against nature), a work often said to be the ultimate expression of ‘decadent’ literature, described Rops’s absinthe drinker as follows:

“M. Rops has created a type of woman that we will dream of, again and again and be drawn back to, the type of absinthe drinker who, brutalised and hungry, grows ever more menacing and more voracious, with her face frozen and empty, villainous and hard, with her limpid eyes with a look as fixed and cruel as a lesbian’s, with her mouth a little open, her nose regular and short … the girl bitten by the green poison leans her exhausted spine on a column of the Bal Mabille and it seems that the image of Syphilitic Death is going to cut short the ravaged thread of her life.”