1902 – The Mystery of The Sea

1902. The beginning of the Edwardian era (1901-1910), a leisurely time in British History when the British Empire was still a thing. This was a period in which the social narrative dictated that British women wore picture hats and did not vote, were treated like goddesses, and were expected to comport themselves accordingly. 1902 was also the year Cuba won its independence from the United States, barely four years after America fought a war against Spain to liberate the country.

Both the social elements and historical elements need to be unpacked in order to properly appreciate The Mystery of the Sea by Bram Stoker, a supernatural political thriller adventure told from the perspective of Archibald Hunter, a British Gentleman, possessing the ability to see omens and future deaths, who falls in love with Marjory Drake, a politically active American Heiress.

Bram Stoker (1847-1912), was an Irish author. He wrote thirteen full length novels, and three short story collections. Today, he is best known for Dracula (1897). However during his lifetime, he was better known as the business manager of the Lyceum theater in London and the personal assistant of the actor Sir Henry Irving. Stoker only started seriously writing much later in his career, starting with The Snake’s Pass (1890).

Stoker mainly wrote horror fiction, gothic romance, and melodramas. However, he also delved into other areas, such as science fiction, and adventure. Like many other writers of his period, Stoker strongly believed in science and the scientific method, and these views are frequently expressed in his books. As part of his work for Irving, Stoker got to travel the world, and the places he visited often ended up as the backdrop for many of his novels, including The Mystery of the Sea.

The book takes place in 1898, in the middle of the Spanish-American war. At the beginning of the book, Hunter who is spending his summer in a small town in Scotland, discovers he can foretell the deaths of people, an ability immediately confirmed as “second sight” by a slightly deranged crone, Gormala, who decides to stalk him throughout the book, hoping to glean from him hidden secrets. Shortly after he discovers his ability, due to a strange turn of circumstances, he witnesses a ghostly procession marching from the sea up the cliffs by the seashore. At this point the supernatural portion of the book basically ends, and the story shifts into becoming a political thriller and an adventure novel.

A year has passed, Hunter decides to move permanently to Scotland. He buys a chest in an auction containing old letters written in a hidden code, the very real Baconian Cipher. Later he rescues two ladies from drowning, Marjory Drake and Mrs. Jack, her elderly companion. With Marjory’s help, he decodes the letters and discovers that they are the key to a hidden treasure buried by a captain of the Spanish Armada that tried to invade England in 1588 and was defeated by Marjory’s ancestor, Sir Francis Drake. Like her ancestor, Marjory also has a strong antagonism towards Spain and Spaniards, which is only increased by the war between the United States and Spain. Their hunt for the treasure, Archibald’s love and marriage to Marjory, and finally Marjory’s kidnapping and subsequent rescue take up the lion’s share of the book.

This book managed to do a very good job of both pulling me in and then later pushing me away. I was initially very intrigued by Hunter’s second sight, and his ability to foretell deaths – the first 50 pages. Unfortunately, The rest of the book focuses on the treasure hunt and kidnapping rescue. Second Sight isn’t revisited until the very end when it is used as a Deus Ex machina to help rescue Marjory from her kidnappers. The action in the remaining 400 pages of adventure story is too slow, and is frequently, too frequently, interrupted, by Archibald’s expressions of love towards Marjory.

Finally, the overbearing condescending attitude towards women expressed in the book (which admittedly was very normal of the era) was very difficult for me to bear. Marjory left the United States for Scotland to escape her constant stream of suitors, only to promptly marry the first man she meets, Archibald. And while it was a nice reversal for the man to be one who falls head over heels in love after saving her life, that doesn’t make up for the fact that Archibald treats her as a prize he needs to win over. Her initial hesitation towards Archibald has much to do with her desire to not really surrender her freedom. Archibald overcomes this by promising not to expect anything until their adventure is over. Archibald genuinely believes that marrying her is the best thing he can do to protect her reputation, and manages to persuade her of the same idea. It doesn’t even occur to him to not behave in a way that endangers her reputation in the first place. And then there is an entire chapter titled, “The Duty of a wife,” in which Mrs. Jack talks to Marjory about her duties as a wife, which included this dubious gem:

“For oh! Marjory my dear one, when a woman takes a husband she gives up herself. It is right that she should; and it is better too, for us women. How can we look after our mankind, if we’re thinking of ourselves all the time!”

Nothing in the chapter, or in the book for that matter, about a husband’s duty to his wife. Archibald genuinely worships Marjory throughout the book, but it is also very clear that he does not truly consider her his equal. 400 pages of this attitude made the book a very difficult read, which was a huge disappointment considering all the other things the book had going for it: supernatural overtones, hidden codes, buried treasure, and two wars as part of the historical background.

The Omer today is courage in kindness. Archibald Hunter demonstrates both these traits in his repeated fearless rescues of Marjory, and in his selfless (and extremely infuriating) attitude towards her. However, the Omer is also about spiritual growth, and this book does a very good job in demonstrating why such a journey is needed, while also giving me hope for better books in the future.

The Mystery of The Sea

Author: Bram Stoker

Publisher: Heinemann

Published: 1902

Pages: 300

Format reviewed: Digital PDF