Monday, 16 February 2015

Five Victorian Ghost Novels

Five Victorian Ghost Novels, a reprint of the 1971 Dover volume of the same name, contains five short novels published between 1846 and 1897: The Uninhabited House by Mrs J. H. Riddell, The Amber Witch by Wilhelm Meinhold, Monsieur Maurice by Amelia B. Edwards, A Phantom Lover by Vernon Lee, and The Ghost of Guir House by Charles Willing Beale.

Mrs J. H. Riddell's The Uninhabited House was first published in Routledge's Christmas Annual for 1875. Mr Elmsdale, a money-lender, is found dead in his library, and the subsequent inquest finds that he committed suicide while not of sound mind. Following his demise, the letting of his house, River Hall, is managed by Messrs Craven and Son, but the property is seldom let for long. One tenant after another abandons the place in haste, and all state the same reason for their departure: the house is haunted.

Colonel Morris and his family agree to rent River Hall for two years, but three months later they, like all tenants before them, abandon the place, resulting in a legal battle between the Colonel and Miss Blake, the deceased owner's sister-in-law, who is a woman of strong character and decidedly frayed gloves. The court case, which is highly entertaining, renders the house unlettable. 

Believing that someone is up to no good and wishes the house to remain empty, Miss Blake says she will give fifty pounds to anyone who can fathom the mystery of River Hall, and the narrator, Henry Patterson, a clerk at Mr Craven's firm, offers to live there and do just that. It is at this point that the tale becomes more serious, as Patterson goes about investigating the cause of the curious goings on at River Hall... the apparition on the stairs, doors that open and close by themselves, and the regular visits of a suspicious, slightly lame figure who watches the house after dark.

In his introduction to the book, E. F. Bleiler says that Riddell was 'in many ways the Victorian ghost novelist par excellence,' and I can certainly see why she was such a popular and successful writer of her day. It's a very sad thing that she's almost forgotten these days.

The Amber Witch by Wilhelm Meinhold, was first published in English in 1844. The more successful translation, by Lady Duff Gordon, was published in 1846 and is the one used in this book. It is a fictional work claiming to be a factual seventeenth century account of a witch trial that took place during the Thirty Years War, which Meinhold claims to have discovered amongst various papers in a church at Coserow, on the Island of Usedom. The narrator is Pastor Abraham Schweidler, whose daughter Maria is accused of being a witch.

The Amber Witch was a Victorian favourite, especially popular with the Pre-Raphaelites. At the time that it was first published in Germany, it was taken by many to be a factual account, and I can see why. But it is so authentic sounding that it does rather ramble on a bit; thirty-seven pages go by before there's talk of witchcraft. It's actually rather ingenious, but it's also very slow. It would be fascinating from a historical point of view if it were factual, and horrific (don't forget that the book is fiction, but witch trials were very real indeed), but as a work of fiction it's a bit too much like hard work. Oh, and it isn't a ghost story.

Monsieur Maurice by Amelia B. Edwards first appeared in 1873 in Monsieur Maurice, A New Novelette and Other Tales. The narrator, Gretchen, tells us that the events she is relating took place in Brühl, in Germany, fifty years earlier, when she was ten years of age. She and her father become hosts for a state-prisoner, a Frenchman called Monsieur Maurice, of whom little Gretchen becomes immensely fond. It's impossible to say much more without giving the plot away, but the main focus of the tale is the relationship between Gretchen and Monsieur Maurice, and the former's attachment and devotion to the latter.

A Phantom Lover by Vernon Lee first appeared in novella form in 1886 as A Phantom Lover: A Fantastic Story. The text used here is that from Hauntings, Fantastic Stories, published in 1890, in which the tale is entitled Oke of Okehurst; Or, The Phantom Lover. The tale is narrated by an artist who, having been commissioned to paint the portraits of William Oke and his wife Alice, is staying with the Oke's at Okehurst throughout the summer. From the outset, there is something not quite right about Alice Oke, who appears to gain some perverse enjoyment from teasing her husband, towards whom she is otherwise indifferent. She is obsessed with her seventeenth century ancestor, also called Alice Oke, who, along with her husband, is said to have murdered a poet called Christopher Lovelock at Cotes Common. Lovelock was the lover of the seventeenth century Alice Oke, and the current Mrs Oke appears to be in love with his ghost, which is said to haunt the yellow drawing-room of Okehurst. But is she? It's all rather ambiguous... rather Jamesian (as in Henry). If you are a fan of The Turn of the Screw, as I am, you will like this one.

Charles Willing Beale's The Ghost of Guir House was first published in 1897. In it, Paul Henley receives a redirected letter intended for some other Mr P. Henley of New York City, written by Miss Dorothy Guir of Guir House, Virginia. The letter contains an invitation to the intended Mr Henley, who Miss Guir has never actually seen, to visit her home, and our Mr Henley decides to impersonate his namesake and visit Guir House in his place. Once there, Paul falls in love with Dorothy, who lives with an elderly man called Ah Ben, but there is something mysterious about the inhabitants of Guir House. There is also something mysterious about the staircase Paul discovers inside his bedroom closet, and the locked door that lies beyond it.

In part, Beale's novel is an eerie romantic tale of Henley's relationship with Dorothy and his exploration of Guir House. To a greater extent, it is a series of long lectures on Theosophy and the nature of reality. Though the philosophical dialogues between Henley and Ah Ben are relevant to the eerie romantic storyline, they form such a large part of the novel that they go way beyond merely offering an explanation of what is happening. Ultimately, the novel is less about the supernatural and more about occult philosophy, so I'd not call it a ghost story. I'd call it a fictionalised treatise on the nature of existence.

This collection is a very mixed bag; no one tale is like another. It's a good way to dip your toe in if you've not read anything by these writers before. The best, in my opinion, is Vernon Lee's A Phantom Lover. Mrs Riddell's The Uninhabited House comes in as a close second. The Amber Witch, the longest of the five novels, is the least enjoyable, despite being the most ingenious. It's an interesting collection, and well worth a read.

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