Vic­to­rian ghost sto­ries and the spirit of change

Eerie tales were not just for dark and stormy nights. In­dus­trial, so­cial, re­li­gious and cul­tural fac­tors pro­vided a surge of in­ter­est in the genre year-round

The Field - - Contents - Writ­ten By Et­tie Neil-Gal­lacher

Et­tie Neil-gal­lacher in­ves­ti­gates the ori­gin of ghostly tales

Ican’t have been more than six when my fa­ther sat me on his lap by the fire a few days be­fore Christ­mas and read me my first MR James: Num­ber 13, a ghost story set in Den­mark, about the ap­pear­ance and dis­ap­pear­ance of the epony­mous room in an inn, and its un­earthly in­hab­i­tant of whom all we see is a skele­tal hand, cov­ered with long grey hairs, which emerges when the pro­tag­o­nist and his col­leagues try to en­ter. My mother was, of course, fu­ri­ous – such tales of the su­per­nat­u­ral were en­tirely in­ap­pro­pri­ate for her be­smocked lit­tle girl. But I was hooked. In­deed, from that mo­ment, I have well un­der­stood the fris­son of fright­ened ex­cite­ment – “the pleas­ing ter­ror” of which James wrote – that a good Vic­to­rian ghost story en­gen­ders.

Yes, yes, I know. MR James was re­ally an Ed­war­dian. But we re­quire a slightly flex­i­ble def­i­ni­tion of ‘Vic­to­rian’ here. If a “some­what elas­tic” ap­proach suf­ficed for the ex­cel­lent Ox­ford

Book of Vic­to­rian Ghost Sto­ries, then

I feel a lit­tle au­tho­rial lee­way can be coun­te­nanced, al­low­ing us to fo­cus on ghost sto­ries by writ­ers “Vic­to­rian by birth and ed­u­ca­tion”. In­ter­est­ingly, Michael Cox and RA Gil­bert, au­thors of the Ox­ford Book, take the dates as 1850 to 1914, dis­tin­guish­ing what came be­fore the ear­lier date as largely Gothic tales, “in­dul­gently heroic and os­ten­ta­tiously fic­ti­tious”; there­after, they ar­gue that Vic­to­rian ghost sto­ries were gen­er­ally more do­mes­tic in tone and less fan­tas­ti­cal.

Vic­to­ri­ans didn’t, of course, in­vent the ghost story. Nor did they in­vent its as­so­ci­a­tion with win­ter. There are the me­dieval Ice­landic sagas with revenants who ap­pear around Christ­mas, and in­deed pre-chris­tian fes­ti­vals ob­served the win­ter sol­stice – the dark­est days of the year would seem an ob­vi­ous back­drop for tales of the un­dead. By the 17th cen­tury, the tra­di­tion seems to have been fairly well em­bed­ded in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion. In The Win­ter’s Tale, Shake­speare’s Mamil­lius noted that, “A sad tale’s best for win­ter: I have one / Of sprites and gob­lins”. But it was the mag­nif­i­cent Vic­to­ri­ans who turned it into an art form.

For the Vic­to­ri­ans, ghost sto­ries weren’t just to be read as the nights drew in, of course. A com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors – so­cial, re­li­gious, in­dus­trial, cul­tural – combined to pro­duce a surge of in­ter­est in the genre year-round. As ob­served by Cox and Gil­bert, “with the shadow of change fall­ing across vir­tu­ally ev­ery area of life and thought, the re­ced­ing past be­came a fo­cus for anx­i­ety, and in lit­er­a­ture the ghost story of­fered a way of an­chor­ing the past to an un­set­tled present by op­er­at­ing in a con­tin­uum of life and death... For a pro­gres­sive age... the idea of a vin­dic­tive past held an es­pe­cial po­ten­tial for ter­ror.”

RISQUÉ In­ter­est

This revo­lu­tion in Vic­to­rian liv­ing man­i­fested it­self in dif­fer­ent ways. Chang­ing re­li­gious at­ti­tudes were a ma­jor fea­ture of Vic­to­rian Bri­tain, with both Catholic and Jewish eman­ci­pa­tion wrestling the moral fab­ric of so­ci­ety from its Protes­tant stran­gle­hold a lit­tle. At the same time, the growth of spir­i­tu­al­ism and a fas­ci­na­tion with the oc­cult pro­duced a risqué in­ter­est in the su­per­nat­u­ral, which fed into a fond­ness for re­lated tales.

An­other more pro­saic pre­cip­i­tant was the ad­vent of magazines. Cox and Gil­bert point to the re­peal of the news­pa­per tax in 1855, new tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ments and hugely im­prov­ing lit­er­acy rates, which combined to cre­ate “an un­prece­dented boom”. The newly emerg­ing mid­dle class, born out of the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion and ed­u­ca­tional re­forms, was par­tic­u­larly keen; “ed­u­cated but rel­a­tively un­so­phis­ti­cated in its lit­er­ary tastes”, this bur­geon­ing so­cial group de­voured these short sto­ries and se­ri­al­i­sa­tions. Ghost sto­ries fit­ted the bill per­fectly: short and for­mu­laic, read­ers in­dulged in the will­ing sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief with alacrity, com­plicit in the deal they were strik­ing with the au­thor: they were to be sub­jected to in­ter­ac­tion be­tween or­di­nary mor­tals and the un­dead, and that it would be un­set­tling. In­deed, the con­straints of the form were a key strength, with the most suc­cess­ful prac­ti­tion­ers us­ing the con­ven­tions cre­atively, ac­cord­ing to Cox and Gil­bert.

In the same in­ven­tive vein, there were a large num­ber of fe­male writ­ers. Why women took to it is a mat­ter for spec­u­la­tion. Cox and Gil­bert muse that “it was due less to an in­her­ent sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to the su­per­nat­u­ral... than to the prac­ti­cal – of­ten press­ing – need of a cer­tain type of ed­u­cated woman to earn a liv­ing”. These pe­ri­od­i­cals were full of fic­tion, much of which was al­ready pro­vided by fe­male au­thors, and so it is not per­haps al­to­gether sur­pris­ing that they turned their hand to ghost sto­ries. Some­times this was out of ne­ces­sity – mul­ti­task­ing isn’t the pre­serve of the 21st-cen­tury work­ing woman. Char­lotte Rid­dell, who spe­cialised in tales of haunted houses, wrote to com­pen­sate for her hus­band’s “fi­nan­cial de­fi­cien­cies” (Cox and Gil­bert); while Mar­garet Oliphant wrote, “I want money. I want work, work that will pay, enough to keep this house go­ing which there is no one to pro­vide for but me”. Other suc­cess­ful prac­ti­tion­ers in­cluded Vi­o­let Hunt, Edith Whar­ton, Amelia Ed­wards, Rosa Mul­hol­land, Edith Nes­bit, Mary E Wilkins and Louisa Bald­win (Rud­yard Ki­pling’s aunt), who all wrote tales that merit in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

In­ter­est in ghost sto­ries peaked dur­ing the win­ter with the spe­cial ‘Christ­mas num­bers’. And the key fig­ure here was The Field’s old friend, Charles Dick­ens. He him­self wrote very few ghost sto­ries – A Christ­mas Carol, of course, and the first-rate The Sig­nal-man – but as an ed­i­tor of sev­eral magazines, he was the driv­ing force be­hind the pub­li­ca­tion of works by con­tem­po­rary au­thors such as Ed­wards and Mul­hol­land, along­side Sheri­dan Le Fanu and RS Hawker. It was Dick­ens who turned these su­per­nat­u­ral tales into a fes­tive tra­di­tion. Tanya Kirk, lead cu­ra­tor, Printed Her­itage Col­lec­tions, 1600-1901, at the Bri­tish Mu­seum, and ed­i­tor of Spir­its of the Sea­son – Christ­mas Haunt­ings, sug­gests that the oral prac­tice was al­ready fairly well es­tab­lished and that it was Dick­ens who turned it into a writ­ten one. So piv­otal was his role in

the pro­mo­tion of this, that Cox and Gil­bert have as­serted that it was he, “more than any­one else who es­tab­lished and ex­ploited the Christ­mas mar­ket for su­per­nat­u­ral fic­tion and em­bed­ded [the idea of ghost sto­ries round the fire] firmly in the na­tional con­scious­ness”.

rav­ages of time

But while this tra­di­tion per­sists, these tales are, of course, sub­ject to the rav­ages of time – so of­ten a cruel mis­tress. Many have not aged well. La­bo­ri­ous scene-set­ting and heavy-handed sign­post­ing of ter­rors ahead can make some of these sto­ries a lit­tle clunky, to say the least. But there are many that can still mer­rily un­set­tle one on a dark win­ter’s evening. Edgar Allen Poe and Le Fanu be­ing the most ob­vi­ous early Vic­to­rian writ­ers of spooky sto­ries to have stood the test of time, though the for­mer’s works were rather more Gothic. Cox and Gil­bert posit Le Fanu and MR James as the genre’s most suc­cess­ful ex­po­nents, book­end­ing the Vic­to­rian pe­riod. Kirk finds her favourites change, though she rec­om­mends The Shadow by Nes­bit, while Robert Lloyd Parry of, per­for­mance sto­ry­teller, largely of MR James’s work, also rates Arthur Machen.

For me, how­ever, James stands out – and not just for sen­ti­men­tal rea­sons. At the time, he was bet­ter known as a me­dieval scholar, re­spected as provost of King’s Col­lege, Cam­bridge, and then vice-chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity, be­fore tak­ing up the reins as provost of Eton. His ghost sto­ries were al­most a side­line; he would in­vite col­leagues to his rooms at Christ­mas to be read the lat­est. There was cer­tainly a leit­mo­tif: a quaint set­ting (of­ten in East Anglia, Scan­di­navia or France); a naive gen­tle­man, some­times an aca­demic fig­ure, of­ten a bach­e­lor, by way of pro­tag­o­nist; and a seem­ingly in­nocu­ous arte­fact that pro­vokes the wrath of a malev­o­lent spec­tre. But his ge­nius lies in the sub­tlety of his nar­ra­tive and the el­e­gance of his writ­ing. Lloyd Parry ar­gues that what sets James apart is, “his aca­demic back­ground – the fan­tas­tic el­e­ments have such a strong ground­ing in au­then­tic history and leg­end and folk­lore. He had a uniquely bril­liant imag­i­na­tion but that was al­lied with deep knowl­edge of the past. A clas­si­cist’s abil­ity to ex­press him­self.”

It was the First World War that called time on the Vic­to­rian ghost story: more ter­ri­fy­ing hor­rors were re­vealed. But that doesn’t mean these tales have ceased to be pop­u­lar. Read­ers and lis­ten­ers still en­joyed, “spec­u­lat­ing about what might be hap­pen­ing in the shad­ows”, sug­gests Lloyd Parr, while Kirk cites Vir­ginia Woolf’s apho­rism that, “it is pleas­ant to be afraid when we are con­scious that we are in no kind of dan­ger”. Our ter­rors might be of a dif­fer­ent na­ture in the 21st cen­tury but these Vic­to­ri­ans tapped into our seem­ingly pri­mal long­ing for dis­tur­bance in the most set­tled en­vi­rons: our home.

Above: Edgar Allen Poe’s Gothic sto­ries are among those that have stood the test of time, in­clud­ing (right) The Pit and the Pen­du­lum (1842)

Charles Dick­ens’ A Christ­mas Carol re­mains the most fa­mous Yule­tide ghost story

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