I. Doubts and Affirmations: the Purposes of the Victorian Ghost Story

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ne way of approaching the spectral tale is to view it within the shifting contexts of Victorian culture. Though derived from the literary traditions of Gothic, the genre was responsive to a series of contemporary ideas and attitudes, sometimes responding with affirmation and sometimes with doubt. Shimmering like the ghosts they describe, many texts are finely poised between alternatives, in equal measure asserting and questioning the limits of science and the potentialities of the unknown.

In one sense, the ghost story was part of the Victorians’ fascination with the supernatural and the desire to establish a link with the past. In an age when life could be threatened by trivial dangers and death was ever present, it could be read, in the words of Peter Ackroyd, as a ‘bridge of light between the living and the dead’, a ‘continuity … albeit of spectral kind’ (1). For the most part, however, the supernatural story was a frightener or thriller – a genre which, though it contemplated an afterlife, was barely reassuring and, on the contrary, set out to postulate a malign otherworldliness, immersing the reader in strange worlds and the possibility of alternative, dream-like realities. In the words of Margaret Oliphant in ‘The Open Door’, the inexplicable is a fundamental source of terror, noting how ‘This is the thing that human nature trembles at’ (189). Invoking Burke’s theories of the Sublime, authors set out to engage their readers with fearful experiences which were pleasurable because they were purely imaginative and consumed within a domestic context – by the fireside or, most especially, in bed.

However, that comfort is subtly undermined by stories which privilege the Home and subvert its conventions. In contrast to the neo-medieval fantasies of the eighteenth century Gothicists Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, with their exotic castles and abbeys, Victorian Gothic is firmly located within the bourgeois household, a modern haunted house of up-to-date fittings, prosaic décor and mundane rituals.

The genre’s approach to domesticity is complex and provocative. It generally presents a challenge to the everyday routine. In these conventional circumstances the arrival of the unknown creates a frisson of uncertainty as an apparition frightens the servants and destroys the peaceful atmosphere; in classic Freudian terms as outlined in his essay of 1919, the uncanny is generated as the ‘heimlich’ (the homely) is infected by the ‘unheimlich’ (the unhomely) and nothing is quite as it should be. In M. E. Braddon’s ‘The Shadow in the Corner’, for instance, the ossified rituals of Mr Bascom’s household are overturned by the new maid’s response to a menacing spectre, injecting uneasiness into a dull routine. Such events point unerringly to the fragility of prosaic everyday realities.

Yet there are greater challenges at work. The supernatural presence sometimes make a direct assault on the family, particularly the head of the house, with bourgeois characters narrating terrifying experiences as they respond to an irrational ‘something’ which is seen or sensed as a menacing presence. Le Fanu makes the situation clear in ‘Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street’, where the narrator is assaulted by feelings of ‘dreadful anticipation’ and ‘horrid … torment’ as he contemplates the ‘unknown agency’ (21). The threat on this occasion is psychological, although it can be physical too: in Oliphant’s ‘The Open Door’ the narrator’s son is brought to the brink of death as a result of his encounter, and in other stories, notably M.R James’s, the ghost itself is visceral and threatening.

In all of these examples the characters’ suffering makes a direct address to readers’ anxieties, carrying with it the implication that supernatural torment can afflict even the most ordinary bourgeois. Indeed, the underlying anxiety is the fearful contemplation of the collapse of the Home and the loss of social authority – with middle-class households overturned by the servants leaving service in terror – and the family disintegrating in the face of unknown forces. Rhoda Broughton draws these elements together in ‘The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth’; framed as a polite exchange of letters between two highly respectable ladies, it traces the impact of an apparition so horrible that it drives one of the maids insane and kills one of their husbands, who dies of fright (82). These events strike at the heart of the Victorian concept of Home as the repository of safety and stability, and it is also interesting to note that ghosts undermine the value of property, so doubly discounting the key elements of bourgeois power and respectability.

The ghost in the house and the ghost that makes it impossible for middle-class families to let or sell their property becomes a bogeyman, a threat enmeshed in the discourse of wealth and status. This economic theme is addressed by Le Fanu’s and Charlotte Riddell’s short stories, and it is also explored by Dickens in ‘The Mortals in the House’. Broader themes of ownership and inheritance are notably anatomized by Riddell in stories such as ‘The Open Door’ – which is not to be confused with Oliphant’s text of the same title. In this tale the endlessly opening portal is elaborately involved with an all-too mortal explanation in which the strange events are constructed in order to conceal a nocturnal search for a will. The supernatural becomes on this occasion a metaphor for the mysterious dealings of the transmission of wealth – and the extremes to which some will go to retain or acquire it.

Such stories act as a cathartic release, postulating a fearful inquiry which interrogates the ‘reality’ of the well-established, traditional home while extending this analysis to social mores. They are further concerned with a philosophical consideration of reality, questioning beyond the material, as noted earlier, by suggesting the existence of the otherworldly. Viewed from a modern perspective, this notion seems obvious, a simple equation in which the here-and-now is unsettled by an inexplicable presence from a domain beyond. For the Victorians, however, the question of there being an immaterial world was a profound speculation. The rise of the physical sciences and the codification of species meant that Victorians were troubled by the idea, as Carlyle famously puts it in Signs of the Times (1829), that

we shall find that this faith in Mechanism has now struck its roots down into man’s most intimate, primary sources of conviction; and is thence sending up, over his whole life and activity, innumerable stems, — fruit-bearing and poison-bearing. The truth is, men have lost their belief in the Invisible, and believe, and hope, and work only in the Visible; or, to speak it in other words: This is not a Religious age. Only the material, the immediately practical, not the divine and spiritual, is important to us. [8]

Bewildered by the concept of the ‘Invisible’, early and mid-Victorians looked for evidence of a mystical something beyond the ‘Mechanism’ of hard facts, and ghost stories – along with spiritualism and ‘spirit photographs’ – seemed to cater for this overwhelming desire. In a world apparently constructed out of nothing more than atoms, of things and more things that could be catalogued but were ultimately meaningless, accounts of the supernatural seemed to offer some solace. Catherine Crowe’s The Night-Side of Nature (1848) contained anecdotal evidence of the reality of the other-worldly, and a more sustained explanation was inscribed in fiction. For Oliphant, who wrote some of the most suggestive texts of their type, the real was composed of the ‘Seen and Unseen’, and the same belief informs the work of myriad authors, allowing the reader to have a momentary glimpse of the supra-natural.

Presenting or suggesting the phantasmal is nevertheless an extremely complicated process, and one full of contradictions. One strategy is to insist on the literal reality of what had been seen or experienced. Paradoxically, ghost stories validate their mystical claims by rooting it in the mundane and factual, enshrining the inexplicable events in phenomenal detail which recalls the particularization of Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics. Amelia Edwards typifies this approach in ‘Was it an Illusion?’ This queasy text recounts a series of strange events as reported by a scrupulous public official, a schools’ inspector who even records the character of his ‘beat’:

a rambling, thinly populated area of something under 1,800 square miles … Intersected at right angles by two ranges of barren hills and cut off to a large extent from the main lines of the railway … The two villages lay wide apart, often separated by long tracts of moorland [and he inspected] an outlying hamlet in the most northerly corner … [239–40].

Edwards’s emphasis on measurement and number provides a documentary texture to inscribe the unknown – this time in the form of an anomalous shadow – and provides a sombre validating tone. As in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), where Cathy’s phantom is encountered by the conventional Lockwood, Edwards’s dull narrator convinces us that the fantastical must be true: a man of data and formal reports, he is (theoretically at least) unlikely to deceive. In his closing words, as if he were reporting minutes from an official meeting, ‘Certain things I undoubtedly saw … as I saw them, I have described them; withholding nothing, adding nothing, explaining nothing’ (255). This deadpan accounting typifies the way in which the impact of the unknown is amplified by placing it, in Thurston’s terms, as an ‘anamorphic guest’, a distorted figure contained within the ‘host-narrative’ (23) of everyday events and only glimpsed from the perspective of the closing pages.

Conveyed in these terms, many texts persuasively argue for the apparition’s reality, affirming the existence of the after-life by deploying the semantics of ‘truth’ and ‘facts’; though fantasy, they pretend to be journalism. Such works bear some relationship, as critics such as Zoë Lehmann Imfeld have argued, with theology, and reanimate faith in the Christian God and the world of spirits rather than just suggesting the presence of the unspecified unknown.

But affirmations of the Other were challenged by writers who question the spectre’s reality: on the one hand are those who deny the all-embracing rationality of science, while some advance practical and materialistic solutions, insisting, in the words of one of Dickens’s tales, that visions and ghosts should be regarded with common-sense, ‘To be taken with a Grain of Salt’. Dickens and Le Fanu are especially sceptical of the supernatural, suggesting, in strict accordance with contemporary theorists, that apparitions are the product of illness, physical or psychological. One argument, derived from theorists such as Alexandre Brière de Boismont and John Netten Radcliffe, is that spectres are hallucinations emanating from a ‘disordered state of the eye’ (Radcliffe 108). This notion is asserted in Le Fanu’s ‘Green Tea’, implying that the Reverend Jennings’s visionary monkey is just as likely to be an ocular disturbance as a supernatural phenomenon. Dickens presents a similar explanation for the railway worker’s distress in ‘The Signalman’, which is created, the narrator insists, by a ‘deception of the sense of sight … originating in disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye’ (84): far from haunted, he needs to see a doctor. In these and other examples, as Le Fanu explains in ‘Some Strange Disturbances’, ‘the corporeal system’ can be ‘indispensable to the production of certain spiritual phenomena’ (23).

This emphasis on hallucinations is made to seem plausible, and the explanations are usually detailed in prosaic terms. In Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Scrooge famously explains Marley’s conjured presence as a matter of indigestion, of gravy more than the grave, the result of an ill-digested ‘bit of beef’ or ‘blot of mustard’ (67); and in Le Fanu’s ‘Green Tea’ Dr Hesselius thinks that Jennings’s over-indulgence in his favourite beverage is the source of the disorder.

The Apparition, Sol Eytnge Jr's illustration
for Dickens's "The Signalman."

Far more suggestive is the notion that supernatural visions have a psychological explanation. Radcliff argues that ghosts are the result of a ‘fertile imagination’ (104), and this possibility is pondered at length in many fictions and theoretical writings. Visions are typically described as shapeless or indistinct, and are often found to be ‘recollected images’ (Hibbert 20) or dreams created in the ‘condition of mind … between sleeping and waking’ (Radcliff 115) – a view echoed by James Sully in Illusions (1884), for whom the ghostly was never more than the ‘debris’ of sleeping (184). Interestingly, the apparition in Dickens’s ‘The Signalman’ first turns up when the man should be fast asleep, ‘one moonlit night’ (265), when he is not sure if he is dreaming or awake but has to be on duty; and the same is true of the narrator in Le Fanu’s ‘Strange Disturbances’, whose encounters elide the two conditions.

Supernatural fiction is in this sense a typical production of Victorian culture’s embracing of science and doubtfulness, a locus of unresolved anxiety, of oscillation between alternatives spiritual and material. In the most suggestive fiction the author playfully balance both, unsettling the reader by compelling him or her to choose – or, more often, to accept that the enigma cannot be resolved. Is the Signalman ill, as the narrator suggests, or is he haunted? Is Jennings’s mind affected by green tea, or is the monkey in fact a spectral creature from hell? This indeterminacy adds another layer, amplifying the fear of the unknown, a collapse into chaos that infects and assaults bourgeois values Generating debate, Victorian supernatural fiction is designedly evasive. At the same time, its contemplation of psychological explanations is developed at length, with many stories deploying the ghost as an image of mind.

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Created 1 June 2021