[This is an edited version of an essay that was first published in Le Fanu Studies (2011)]
reen Tea’ is frequently regarded as Le Fanu’s signature work, the text in which he most effectively combines a series of unnerving explorations of evil, illness, insanity, science, and the workings of the supernatural. Positioned as the opening story of In a Glass Darkly (1872), and later anthologized in practically every collection of Victorian chillers, it is probably his most popular story. Much of its appeal lies in its apparent originality: the terrifying tale of the Reverend Jennings and his spectral incubus is highly distinctive and seems, at first glance, unlike any other in the genre. Yet Le Fanu was an eclectic writer with a keen interest in playing on topical anxieties, and ‘Green Tea’, like so much of his work, draws heavily on a number of sources.
A likely influence is Samuel Warren’s Diary of a Late Physician (1835). Figured as a medical account, this text provides Le Fanu with a series of ready-made features. The Diary of a Late Physician is presented as a version of ‘Gothic medicine’, and it is quite feasible that Le Fanu set out to recreate what Meegan Kennedy has described as Warren’s central concern with the ‘slippery relation between medical and literary discourse’ (345). In Warren’s tale medicine and the fantastic fuse and intermingle, and the same could be said of ‘Green Tea’.
It is equally possible that Le Fanu was influenced by real medical texts. Throughout the mid-Victorian period visions and hallucinations were routinely explained as the symptoms of illness, rather than manifestations of the supernatural, and it is not impossible that in writing his story Le Fanu drew on ‘real-life’ accounts of the hauntings experienced by people who were not seeing ghosts, as such, but were merely unwell; a subject explored in detail in a recent study by Shane McCorristine. This type of literature took a populist form, and Le Fanu, as a ‘voracious reader’ (Hughes, 45), could have read a wide variety of essays in The Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science, in Dickens’s All the Year Round, in The Contemporary Review, and in the form of a wide range of text-books intended for a non-specialist audience.
Among these possibilities perhaps the likeliest influence is Alexander Brière de Boismont’s famous and influential study of visions and dreams, On Hallucinations: a History and Explanation of Apparitions, Visions, Dreams, Ecstasy, Magnetism and Somnambulism . First published in French in 1845 and issued in an English translation in 1859, de Boismont’s work contains passages and ideas which re-emerge in ‘Green Tea’, and could easily have been a source for Le Fanu's tale. Of course, we cannot be sure that Le Fanu read this author; in the absence of any details of his library or direct evidence of his reading we can only surmise and reconstruct. Nevertheless, the similarities between the texts are striking, and it would be reasonable to argue that de Boismont’s publication provides a technical framework for the explanation of Jennings’s ‘case’ while furnishing many of its details.
It is my belief that On Hallucinations is a meaningful source and that Le Fanu appropriated aspects of de Boismont’s analysis, using it as a structure for his tale, and drawing on its lexicon of symbols and signs. Such an approach had the advantage of providing the author with a convenient vocabulary of tropes while placing the tale within a discourse which was widely understood by middle-class readers of the 1860s. Having being exposed to books such as On Hallucinations, Le Fanu's audience would have been familiar with the medical concepts featuring in his tale; fusing the medical and the strange, Le Fanu offered that readership a text which reads as a fictionalizing or imaginative re-writing of contemporary ideas. This approach can be explained by a detailed textual comparison between On Hallucinations and ‘Green Tea’, focusing on the key elements which are sometimes lifted piece-meal from the source, and sometimes lightly re-worked.
Le Fanu and de Boismont
he general format of Le Fanu's chiller is based, it can be argued, on de Boismont’s division of his material into an introductory section, a series of detailed examples or case-studies, and a sequence of analytical writing. This framing is exactly reproduced in Le Fanu's writing of the ‘Prologue’ (5-6), in which the ‘medical secretary’ (5) introduces the subject and establishes Hesselius as narrator; the case-study, in the form of Hesselius’s telling of Jennings’s story (6-37); and the ‘Conclusion’ (38-40), which matches the French physician's closing remarks on a series of detailed studies. As in de Boismont’s medical text-book, ‘Green Tea’ is organized into proposition, example, and evaluation. On Hallucinations follows a scientific format, and so does the story, which could be read as a segment of the larger work.
Working within this arrangement, Le Fanu re-creates de Boismont’s primary idea that spectral apparitions are the result of being ill. Modern critics such as Colin Wilson have identified Jennings’s vision as the product ‘of a sick mind’ (142), but it is important to stress that his illness, read in de Boismont’s terms, is physiological rather than mental, physical rather than psychological (28). Hesselius comments that apparitions are generally as ‘curable’ as a ‘cold in the head or a trifling dyspepsia’ (Glass, 38), and even Jennings believes in the sort of explanations advanced by ‘physicians’ (25) such as de Boismont. Madness, at least initially, is not part of the diagnosis: de Boismont insists hallucinations can ‘co-exist with the due exercise of reason’ (27), and one of the most striking aspects of Jennings’s case is its emphasis on structure, meaningful activity and ‘narrow' routine’. He is described by his associates as ‘sensible’ (Glass, 13), and seems anything but insane. Of course, he is ultimately tormented by the question of the monkey's identity, describing it as an ‘evil’ spirit (15) sent to tempt him and draw him ‘into hell’ (28); but until he despairs he regards his visions as the product of some commonplace disease, as distinct as ‘small-pox or neuralgia’. (25).
This self-diagnosis precisely complies with de Boismont’s argument that apparitions have a prosaic explanation. They do necessarily represent a psychological disorder, nor are they in any way the product of the supernatural. Of course, ‘Green Tea’ constantly suggests the monkey might be a malign creature (26-7), but if we read the text in relation to On Hallucinations it can only be viewed in de Boismont’s terms as a physical phenomenon which gives the impression of the ‘effects of a supernatural power’ (28). Jennings may come to believe in the apparition’s role as a tormenting demon and ‘persecutor (Glass, 32), but his disastrous malaise yields neatly to de Boismont’s prognosis of visionary disorder as a mere illness.
Ill rather than haunted, physically unwell rather than mad, Jennings can be read as if he were one of de Boismont’s patients. The physician provides a series of detailed studies of characters who are haunted by creatures such as a gigantic cat (38–39), and Jennings’s weird apparition can be be categorized in the same class. Placed in this company, the tormented Reverend is figured as just another example of an acute condition, a man whose affliction compels him to hallucinate. But several questions remain. Firstly, what physiological disorders could be the cause of these strange effects? Secondly, what will happen if the disease is untreated? And thirdly – and most importantly - what is the underlying cause? These enquiries are inscribed in Le Fanu’s text, and the answers can be found, once again, by linking ‘Green Tea’ to de Boismont’s medical analysis.
De Boismont insists that strange visions are primarily created by a disorder of the ‘visual organs’ (39), and this is precisely the diagnosis offered by Hesselius and Harley (Glass,28; 38-9). Indeed, the terms are virtually interchangeable: de Boismont speaks of hallucinations as the product of a ‘deranged’ eye (39), and Jennings’s doctors suggest that his incubus is the manifestation of some malfunction of the ‘optic nerves’ (Glass, 28). Hesselius goes a little further, diagnosing the illness as some sort of mismatch between the instruments of interior and ‘exterior vision’ (39), but the main emphasis, as in de Boismont’s commentary, is on the very process of seeing. It is in the eye that the vision forms itself, and it is noticeable that ‘Green Tea’ follows its (possible) medical source in laying a great deal of emphasis on the very act of seeing and the processes involved in visual perception. De Boismont speaks of the nuanced qualities of the apparitions’ appearance and Le Fanu carefully ‘pictures’ (39) Jennings’s creature. Described in terms which vary between a photographic exactitude (26-7) and a suggestive chiaroscuro (23-25), the monkey shifts its appearance in ways which strongly suggests a series of obfuscations and confusions of the optic nerve.
Viewed in this context, Jennings’s incubus is an entirely random manifestation of visionary disturbance. Modern critics have variously explained it as a sign of ‘repressed desire’ (Burwick, 75), as a post-Darwinian emblem of the fear of regression (Hendershot, 104-6), and as some sort of political comment on the bestial Catholic peasantry, as it was regarded by the Anglo-English, and the sense of threat experienced by the Protestant ruling class (Tracy, Glass, 1993, xiv). But it can also be interpreted as an arbitrary sign of sickness. Indeed, de Boismont routinely links animals and illness. Menacing creatures of all sorts mill around in the pages of his book, and Jennings's monkey could just as easily have taken the form of the ‘large cat’ (38) or any of the other creatures infecting the minds of the doctor’s patients. All that matters, we might say, is its embodying of a slippage in the relationship with reality. Le Fanu's choice of animal may indeed reflect his desire to load the sign with implication and allusion, but in terms of the text’s linkage with the theorizing of apparitions the vision is no more than a mark of discord and dysfunction.
What matters, though, is the fact that it progressively intensifies its influence. Left untreated by his doctors, Jennings progresses from curiosity and fear to an uncontrolled ‘agitation’ (Glass, 31) and ‘horror’ (29). This process is carefully marked: following the pattern outlined in On Hallucinations, it recreates de Boismont’s analysis of what happens to the untreated sufferer. According to him, even the most sceptical patient is subject to the perils of obsession, leading to a psychological trap in which “hallucination, although recognised and appreciated as such by the person who is the subject of it, may, by its vividness and long continuance, produce so depressing an influence on the mind as to be the cause of suicide” (de Boismont, 35). This is exactly what happens to Jennings. Viewing the apparition rationally, he knows it cannot be real; but its persistence and intrusiveness make it quite literally impossible for him to put it out of his mind. Proceeding from its initial appearance to the moment when it starts to swear at him, the monkey imposes an ever greater ‘vividness’ (de Boismont, 35), ultimately driving him ‘wild with despair’ (Glass, 29). What makes his suffering ever more terrible is the fact that Jennings, having self-diagnosed his condition, is well aware of the pattern of degeneration. Le Fanu knows of de Boismont’s claims, and so, quite explicitly, does the Reverend, remarking to Hesselius, “These affections, I have read, are sometimes transitory and sometimes obstinate. I have read of cases in which the appearance, at first harmless, had, step by step, degenerated into something direful and insupportable, and ended by wearing the victim out” (25). Knowledgeable of the ‘phenomenon’ of ‘spectral illusions’ and how it is regarded by ‘physicians’ (25), Jennings realizes how, in the words of de Boismont, the ‘physiological [sometimes] passes into [the] pathological’ and ‘commences a state of insanity’ (28). Such a condition ultimately afflicts the character, created, we might say, by his incapacity to objectify what he sees. He writes the vision off as a physiological malady, but falls into mental as opposed to physical illness because he finally believes himself to be the victim of ‘satanic captivity’ (Glass, 26). In Jennings’s own panic-driven, paranoid words, physicians may speak of disorders of the ‘optic nerves’, but ‘I know better’ (30–1). The failure to maintain a sense of distance is fatal, and On Hallucinations contains numerous contrasting case-studies of patients who are treated for a physical disorder - most notably the famous Nicolai, the bookseller of Berlin who was cured of apparitions – and those who despair (35, 45-46). Hesselius says Jennings’s condition is as treatable as a ‘cold in the head’ and claims he could have ‘cured’ his patient ‘perfectly’ in ‘eighteen months’ (Glass, 38). However, the absence of treatment condemns his patient to a tragic outcome.
Such is the end result of Jennings’s ‘dreadful hallucination’ (29). Of course, the underlying question is a simple one: what, beyond a disordered optic nerve, is the cause of the character’s visions? Read as a morality tale, ‘Green Tea’ seems perverse and pointless: Jennings does nothing to deserve his fate, and generations of critics have puzzled over the meaning of his gruesome career. As Jack Sullivan remarks, the text seems to articulate a sort of Modernist irony in which the main subject is the ‘awful dis-juncture between cause and effect, crime and punishment’ (18). Read as a medical case-study, on the other hand, the underlying motivations are entirely consistent with the contemporary theorizing of On Hallucinations. Once again, Le Fanu borrows quite freely from de Boismont’s list of possible explanations, offering us a range of overlapping prognoses. Each of these helps to explain why Jennings sees the vision and how his life-style – which is apparently so markedly at odds with his fate – is in fact the cause of his condition.
One possibility is the character’s loneliness. He does have friends – Lady Mary and his associates in the parish – but he also gives the impression, as Hesselius explains, of having an ‘impenetrable reserve’, concealing his ‘transactions … not only from the world [but] from his best-beloved friends’ (Glass, 9). Such ‘solitude … may give rise to hallucinations’ (de Boismont, 276), and Jennings is always on his own during the creature’s most pressing appearances. Another possibility is the deleterious effects of ‘excessive study’ (279). Engaged, like George Eliot’s Casaubon in Middlemarch(1871–2), on some ‘abstract subject’ (Hallucinations it is possible for a patient to inherit a predisposition to see apparitions (313), and it is noticeable that Le Fanu tells us of Jennings’s father’s experience as a man who has seen ghosts (Glass, 12). This hereditary defect is stressed by Hesselius, who excuses his failure to help his patient by noting how, in his view, the real problem is not physiological but a repressed ‘suicidal mania’ (40).
In the final estimate, however, the cause for his visions is the obvious one: green tea. De Boismont notes how ‘poisonous narcotic substances’ (322) can create visions, and although Jennings’s vice is barely in the same register as opium, Le Fanu presents his habit as if it were an addiction (Glass, 22), one of ‘various abuses’ (39). Hesselius muddies his diagnosis by referring to suicidal mania, but his initial response is in line with de Boismont’s pragmatic commentary on the connection between drugs and dreams. As Hesselius remarks, ‘Green Tea’ is ultimately not a matter of haunting or the supernatural but can be read as a ‘story of the process of a poison, a poison which excites the reciprocal action of spirit and nerve’ creating a disturbance in the ‘equilibrium’ of the nervous ‘fluid’ that connects the inner and outer eye (37).
Such inter-textual readings provide another way of interpreting Le Fanu’s story. By placing it within the context of a popular text book we can see how the author exploited contemporary ideas about the intersection of science and the supernatural. It would be instructive, of course, to discover how Le Fanu’s original readers approached the text, which may have been viewed as a Gothic tale, as a piece of rationalist explanation, or – more likely – as an unsettling fusion of the two. In the absence of specific criticism it is difficult to say. However, the importance of the medical theme is suggested by the response of Le Fanu’s editor. When Dickens published the work in All the Year Round in 1869 he assumed Le Fanu was offering him a story of illness rather than a Gothic fantasy, and asked the author – whom he believed to be an expert in physiological understandings of the visionary - if he could help with the treatment of a delusional friend (29 November 1869, Letters, 12, 443-44). Clearly, Dickens regarded his contributor as a writer of medical drama rather than a writer of the supernatural; the editor had earlier played with the same ideas in ‘The Signalman’ (1866).
The effect of this ‘medicalizing’ of the strange should be reassuring, discounting the weirdest manifestations of the supernatural as the mere effects of a disordered body stimulated by a drug, and its effect on the eye. Such an approach places the tale within the mid-Victorian discourse of hallucinations and apparitions, as recently charted in McCorristine’s detailed study of the act of ghost seeing; in the nineteenth century, and labels it as another manifestation of the Victorian conquest of the unknown. But the effect, finally, is one of disorientation. Le Fanu may have used de Boismont’s theories to shape his presentation of Jennings’s plight and yet – as in the case of other Gothic conjunctions of science and the Other – he also shows the powerlessness of rational enquiry in the face of an alien force. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), R. L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and Margaret Oliphant’s ‘The Library Window’ (1896), ‘Green Tea’ is about the capacity of science to label and analyse, but its incapacity to assert its authority when it is confronted by the intractable unknown. Knowing and not knowing oscillate in its troubling pages. One of Hesselius’s topics is ‘Metaphysical Medicine’ (Glass, 9). In Le Fanu's tragic tale the ‘medicine’ of that oxymoron is finally undermined by the triumph of the ‘metaphysical’, the malign force that torments the unfortunate Jennings and leads him, finally, not to the doctor’s surgery, but to hell.
Block, Ed. ‘James Sully, Evolutionist Psychology, and Late Victorian Gothic Fiction’. Victorian Studies 25 (Summer 1982): 442–67.
Brière de Boismont, Alexander. On Hallucinations – A History and Explanation of Apparitions, Visions, Dreams, Ecstasy, Magnetism and Somnambulism. Translated from the French by Robert T. Hulme. London: Renshaw, 1859.
Burwick, Frederick. ‘Romantic Supernaturalism: the Case Study as Gothic Tale’. The Wordsworth Circle 34:2 (Spring 2002): 78–83.
Cooke, Simon. ‘Margaret Oliphant's “The Library Window” and the Idea of “Adolescent Insanity”’. Victorians Institute Journal 34 (2006): 243 – 57.
Hendershot, Cyndy. The Animal Within: Masculinity and the Gothic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.
Hughes, William. ‘The Origin and Implications of J.S. Le Fanu's “Green Tea”’. Irish Studies Review 13:1 (2005): 45–54.
Kennedy, Meegan. ‘The Ghost in the Clinic: Gothic Medicine and Curious Fiction in Samuel Warren’s “Diary of a Late Physician”’. Victorian Literature and Culture 32:2 (2004): 327 –352.
Le Fanu, J. S. In a Glass Darkly. Ed. Robert Tracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
McCorristine, Shane. Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost Seeing in England, 1780 –1920. Cambridge: CUP, 2010.
Sullivan, Jack. Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1978.The Letters of Charles Dickens. Vol, 12. Ed. Graham Storey. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 2002.
Wilson, Colin. The Strength to Dream: Literature and the Imagination. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
Created 5 May 2018