Haunted Holidays: Scary Lady Writers

Nothing says winter better than a Victorian ghost story, and I’ve already covered A Christmas Carol and The Haunted House by Charles Dickens, and the awful world of occult detectives. The most natural author to write next about would be Henry James, one of the 19th century’s major literary dudes, and the writer of classic, delicately shaded ghost stories.

But that would ignore the legion of 19th century women who wrote for a living, their stories filling the pages of periodicals, their sensation novels jamming the shelves. They were an army of society hobbyists, sole breadwinners, explorers, gossip-magnets, spiritualists, suffragettes, Egyptologists, adventurers, sanctimonious prudes, and salacious scandal-mongers. Whether their names have receded from the limelight because they were pushed by the patriarchy, or due to lack of timeless talent, it’s impossible to know, but one thing is clear: we’ve lost a large chunk of our literary legacy by letting their books fade into the background, because many are as entertaining, if not more so, than their male counterparts.

If you’ve ever read the Amelia Peabody mysteries by Elizabeth Peters, then you’re reading the story of Amelia Edwards. A literary prodigy, Edwards was born in 1831 and started selling stories to the magazines when she was 12. Her novels made her financially independent and when her parents died nothing was keeping her in England. So, eschewing convention and refusing to travel with a male chaperone, she and her close friend Lucy Renshaw hit the road, eventually winding up in Egypt where they fell in love with the country. Dismayed at the looting of Egypt’s glorious past (“The work of destruction, meanwhile, goes on apace. There is no one to prevent it; there is no one to discourage it. Every day, more inscriptions are mutilated—more paintings and sculptures are defaced. […] When science leads the way, is it wonderful that ignorance should follow?” she wrote), Edwards returned to England, published a best-selling travelogue, and co-founded the Egypt Exploration Fund with Reginald Poole of the British Museum, and immediately set about preserving ruins and fighting the “plunder and pillage” instincts of the day. She was the face of Egypt in the West, going on grueling lecture tours, until the men of the Egypt Exploration Fund conspired behind the scenes to cut her out of the society she founded. She died in 1892, three months after the death of Lucy Renshaw who had been her live-in companion, friend, and comrade for more than 30 years.

Her best known ghost story is the much-anthologized “The Phantom Coach,” but it’s her later story, “A Night on the Borders of the Black Forest” that really delivers the goods. The less said about it the better, but be prepared for not so much ghosts but for a sort of low key German version of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

If it’s the distilled essence of pure Victorian Christmas ghosts you want, then Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “At Chrighton Abbey” is your moonshine. Set on a lavish country estate over the course of Christmas, it’s got the penniless female narrator, a young man torn between two loves, a snotty upper-crust fiancé, and a phantom hunt that foretells doom. It’s written in the bright, bouncy, evocative prose you’d expect from a woman who churned out 80 novels, and was called the “Queen of the Sensation Novel,“ sort of the feminine counterpart to Wilkie “The Moonstone” Collins. Her life was appropriately gothic as well. An actress-turned-writer, she and her lover, publisher John Maxwell, lived together for 13 years with Braddon acting as stepmother to his five children, before Maxwell’s wife, consigned to a Dublin lunatic asylum, died and freed them to marry and have six more children.

Charlotte Riddell, on the other hand, seems to be the very picture of dignified regularity. Married at 25 to an engineer who died about 20 years later, she moved to the country and died in 1906, but that surface bio hides a lifetime of shame and pain. Born in Ireland, she moved to London with her mother after her father died and almost immediately discovered that her mother was dying of cancer. Like a heroic orphan, Riddell vowed to keep them from the poorhouse with her writing, which was totally stupid since she’d never published anything. Winter 1855 was turning street urchins into popsicles, and Riddell spent it tramping by frozen foot from one publisher to the next, none of them interested in her books. Finally, she sold a story to Thomas Newby, the only printer who had a female manager.

Her first few books did well, and she moved to fancier publishing houses, got married, and realized that her publishers were ripping her off. Acting most unladylike (read: in her own best interests), she signed with a new publisher and received a massive advance (close to half a million dollars in today’s money) which her old publishers jeered would never be earned back. She earned that and more with close to 40 novels. This did not make her rich, however, because her husband was an idiot who threw all her money away on bad business investments. When he died, he left his family in a debt deeper than the Mariana Trench.

Bonehead or hero, Mrs. Riddell took on his debts and repaid them, bankrupting herself for the rest of her life. She was under no legal obligation to do so, but viewed it as her ethical responsibility. She died of cancer, poor and miserable, in 1906. It’s no wonder that her books, praised for their naturalism, weren’t about love and domestic affairs, but about business, debts, money, finance, courts, financial frauds, and the crushing weight of loans.

Her best short story is her novella, The Uninhabited House, which is not so much memorable for its rather trite ghost story, but more for the financial panic that grips its heart in an ice-cold fist. The narrator is a poor clerk in a law firm whose job security hinges on finding tenants for the haunted house owned by a crazy client who steals money, wails and cries, and only cares about her pocketbook. It’s a book about pounds and shillings and property values and tenant-landlord court battles, and at the end the class system makes a guest appearance just in time to smash everyone’s hopes and dreams to dust. There’s a tacked-on happy ending, much as Dickens tacked on a happy ending to Great Expectations, but ignore it. This is one of the first haunted house stories that’s as much about the value of real estate as it is about a spooky ghost saying “Woooo…”

The best, and most flamboyant, forgotten female writer of the 19th century was Vernon Lee, aka Violet Paget, a certifiable genius who wore men’s clothing and sported an androgynous look decades before David Bowie. Publishing articles in French and German when she was 13, Lee was devoted to her older half-brother, Eugene Lee, a crummy poet and hypochondriac who took to his sofa for 20 years forcing the family to settle down in Florence, and Vernon Lee to travel back and forth to England hawking his manuscripts. After 20 years, Eugene suddenly rose from his sickbed, got married, and completely cut off contact with his devoted sister.

Fortunately, Vernon Lee wrote like a machine and was smart as a whip. She collected and published Italian folktales, massive essays on aesthetics and Italian art history that often took David Foster Wallace-ian digressions into other fields, full of dialogue and flights of fancy that erased the boundary between fiction and non-fiction. She was also a self-destructive writer whose first novel, Miss Brown (1884), was dedicated to Henry James. Bad move. It was a satirical evisceration of London literary circles, slicing to ribbons the sexist assumptions of James and his circle, leading James to harrumph that her book was “a deplorable mistake.” Later he would describe her in a letter as “dangerous and uncanny.”

In 1883, she wrote an essay “Faustus and Helena: Notes on the Supernatural in Art” in which she compared Marlowe and Goethe’s versions of Helen of Troy. Brian Stableford summarizes her essay as being about the fact that, “art’s various attempts to render the supernatural explicit are bound to obliterate exactly those qualities which surpass the natural, and the supernatural can only retain its quintessential power over the imagination if it is allowed to remain obscure, ambiguous and paradoxical.”

It was from this ambiguity that her stories drew their power. Her first, “A Wicked Voice” (collected in her book, Hauntings) was an attempt to capture Venice, which contained, “…the market-place with the stage coach of the dentist, the puppet show against the Gothic palace, the white owl whom my friend John [Sargent] and I wanted to buy and take home to the hotel….a land where the Past haunted, with its wizards, sphinxes, strange, weird, curious.” The plot tells of a man who sees a tacky old painting of a fat castrato and becomes haunted, and ultimately driven insane, by the dead man’s hypnotic, tacky, shrill, ugly, beautiful, vulgar, glorious voice.

Her most famous story is The Phantom Lover. A short novella, it tells the tale of an artist hired to paint the portrait of the lady of a country house, and his long stay drops him into the middle of a battle between husband, wife, and a long-dead poet. If there was ever a ghost story that rivaled James’s The Turn of the Screw, it’s this one, full of haunted, insubstantial landscapes, a past that is continuously consuming the present, an emotionally-charged house dominated by a dark, dead presence, and the delicate charting of subtly shifting emotions.

To stumble across a novella this accomplished is, to put it bluntly, astonishing, and in a way it’s the obscurity of these women writers that adds luster to their work. Plenty of famous critics have opinions about A Christmas Carol or The Turn of the Screw but when you read The Uninhabited House or The Phantom Lover, it feels like a private discovery, something intended for your eyes alone. These women’s works feel like a single plucked violin string, far from the crashing orchestral scores of Dickens or James, and when you read their words it’s like they’re standing right behind you, whispering intimately in your ear. Their books feel like the writings of a phantom.

Or a ghost.

Grady Hendrix is the author of Satan Loves You, Occupy Space, and he’s the co-author of Dirt Candy: A Cookbook, the first graphic novel cookbook. He’s written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today and his story, “Mofongo Knows” appears in the anthology, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination.


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