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
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.”
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 www.nunkie.co.uk, 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