Step back a century or so. Mind the dog, and have a look at the bookcase over there. No, not the little one – the big one next to it, that’s it. Ghost stories, supernatural tales, gothic horrors and and chills in the night. All written by women, that lot. Want to know more? You’re in luck, for today we have that most excellent author Amanda DeWees on women writers and classic supernatural fiction. It’s a broad Edwardian Arcane, and we couldn’t be more pleased.
We’ll say a bit about Amanda’s own work at the end, but we should get to the heart of the matter. There are many questions asked about women in modern horror, something we’ve discussed here more than once, but there is, of course, an enormous body of scary fiction written by women in the mid-Victorian to Edwardian period. Not long ago we talked about the fascinating writer and Egyptologist Amelia B Edwards, (see all saints’ eve ) and so we steal from her for the title of today’s post:
“It may be said of some very old places, as of some very old books, that they are destined to be forever new. The nearer we approach them, the more remote they seem; the more we study them, the more we have yet to learn. Time augments rather than diminishes their everlasting novelty.”
For in many of the cases mentioned below, time really has augmented these stories. Let’s dive in…
Forever New: Women and Supernatural Fiction
I’ve always loved stories of the supernatural. Growing up in Atlanta in the 1970s and ’80s, I quickly exhausted the offerings of my local library and used each family outing to the used book store to search for more spooky tales. I was particularly drawn to stories of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, times that were close enough for me to understand while distant enough to be intriguing, charming, and replete with pretty dresses (an urgent concern for my childhood self, and one that has lost little importance over the years).
It quickly became apparent to me that a high percentage of these tales were by women writers—70% by some estimates—and as a burgeoning writer myself, I found this exciting. I still do. In a time when women did not have the legal, economic, or social footing of men, they nevertheless flourished in this particular niche. The question of why they did is one that continues to fascinate critics and scholars.
One obvious explanation is old-fashioned ideas about gender roles. Spiritualism, or making contact with the spirits of the dead, became extremely popular during this time period, but it was no coincidence that almost all spirit mediums were women. Spiritualism was seen as a more appropriate career for women than for men, because of its perceived emotional and thus unmanly nature, and the ghost story likewise may have been a genre considered better suited to women than men. The ghost story often comprised extremes of emotion, both terror and poignancy, and such emotionality was considered more of a feminine attribute, while men were associated more with the rational.
It’s a good indication of how the supernatural and emotional realm was viewed by properly manly men of the era that in these stories it is usually children, servants (that is, the uneducated), or women who first experience the haunting, and when they bring it to the attention of the master of the house, his first reaction is to scoff. Of course, this device also serves a useful story function by allowing the reader, too, to be gradually convinced, or to witness how much more palpable and frightening the haunting must become in order to convince the skeptic.
Whether or not women writers were truly better suited by nature for emotional material, many created exceptionally affecting tales. Mrs. Oliphant’s “The Open Door” (1881) for example, is a genre standout in which a rational family man must confront a pitiful specter that has worried his young son into a fever of compassionate anxiety. One of my absolute favorites, the deliciously gothic “The Old Nurse’s Story” (1852) by Elizabeth Gaskell, starts tugging on your heartstrings right away by killing off the kind young parents of a five-year-old girl and sending her and her young nursemaid off to a terrifying old house where a wistful child ghost will try to lure the little girl to her death. At the same time, however, women writers could also be every bit as creepy and gruesome as their male counterparts. Take, for example, Amelia Edwards’s 1864 tale “The North Mail” (also known as “The Phantom Coach”), which features animated dead men, and “How the Third Floor Knew the Potteries,” from 1863, which does not shy away from the concrete details of murder and corpse disposal!
Of course, other factors than an affinity for emotions were no doubt at play in the prevalence of supernatural stories by women. Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert, editors of The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, suggest in their introduction that economic necessity as much as natural affinity may have led so many women to take up the extremely popular genre, and one can certainly see that force at work in the busy careers of writers such as Charlotte Riddell, Mrs. [Margaret] Oliphant, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
Braddon, for example, having singlehandedly launched the new genre of the sensation novel in 1862 with Lady Audley’s Secret, went on to produce more than 90 novels and 150 short stories, the income from which supported her and her common-law husband, publisher John Maxwell, and his five children from his first marriage as well as the six children she bore him. (Maxwell’s first wife died in 1874, at which time he and Braddon married.) My earliest reading about Braddon conjured up an image of her madly scribbling pages while bailiffs pounded at the door, demanding money, all while children swarmed about her. Certainly she must have been one of the hardest-working Victorian writers, and in her long career (she wrote until her death in 1915) one can see her style mature as she engages with issues of the day and offers veiled social commentary. The website of the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association notes that even in her first novel she was “prob[ing] the darker side of the upper classes.”
This brings one to the very interesting issue of how—and to what extent—women authors used the seemingly simple form of the ghost story to grapple with deeper concerns. Critics have pointed out that within the formula a skilled writer could comment on all kinds of issues that bedeviled women in the living world—issues that women might not be able to discuss openly. Sex, ambition, dysfunctional relationships, gender dynamics—all could be brought up veiled as tales of restless phantoms and vengeful spirits.
Hephzibah Anderson, in her intriguing article “The Secret Meaning of Ghost Stories,” suggests that ghosts and women shared the status of outsiders, a parallel that clever writers could exploit by using the figure of the ghost to reveal the realities of actual women’s lives. Certainly the frequent pairing of betrayal and vengeance in ghost stories hints at a bit of wish fulfillment. Women betrayed by false lovers or thwarted by tyrannical parents might not have much recourse in life, but in ghost stories their angry spirits could express their fury. And it is no accident that, in an era of high infant mortality rates, women’s ghost stories often feature the specters of children.
Some authors had pet causes to which they kept returning. Braddon, as noted, returned often to the subject of the power imbalance between the classes, showing in tales such as the delightful vampiric adventure “Good Lady Ducayne” and the poignant “The Shadow in the Corner” how wealthy, landed folk exploited those in less economically advantageous circumstances. (Readers will forgive me if my phrasing begins to resemble the orotund iterations of these tales—the style is contagious.) Lady Ducayne literally bleeds her working-class companions and uses their blood to extend her own life, an extreme example of the aristocrat as parasite.
In “At Chrighton Abbey” (1871) a falling-out between the scion of a distinguished house and his proud fiancée, who has nothing against charity per se but can’t bring herself to actually, well, talk to the poor, leads to a tragic death—and through a means associated with the moneyed aristocracy, a fox hunt. The tragedy transforms the proud beauty into a saintly figure of compassion, but the death continues a tragic tradition among the Chrightons that seems to imply that wealth, land, and status carry a certain risk—and perhaps this young man’s poor choice of a wife is meant to be seen as a fatal failure of his duty to the tenant farmers and local poor who would have become his responsibility had he lived.
An advantage that many women had over male authors of the day was an intimate knowledge of domestic life and routine. Since many ghost stories gain their effect by introducing an alien element into a cozy or recognizably mundane setting, women writers’ greater familiarity with everything from the servant hierarchy to the parlor tchotchkes allowed them to create a vivid, convincing setting to lull the reader into relaxing before introducing horror into the household. Stories of this era remind me of Sigmund Freud’s term for the uncanny, unheimlich, which literally means “un-homelike.” It is the invasion into the home of something Other, something alien that does not belong, that evokes the frisson of horror in so many stories of this era (and our own).
In a similar vein, one of the pleasures of exploring ghost stories of this era is recognizing names one knows from very different contexts, authors we might not expect to be turning out eerie tales. E[dith] Nesbit, for example, known to generations of children as the author of Five Children and It, The Railway Children, and other beloved children’s classics, could curdle one’s blood when she so chose. In particular, her often-anthologized story “Man-Size in Marble” (1893) is both chilling and heartbreaking. Her other ghost stories are also worth seeking out, including one of the very earliest stories of a haunted automobile, “The Violet Car.”
Her horror stories were published in the collections Something Wrong and Grim Tales (both 1893), Tales Told in Twilight (1897), and Fear (1910). Dinah Mulock Craik, whose name you may recognize from (depending upon your circles) either the wistful children’s tale The Little Lame Prince (1874) or the wildly successful bootstraps parable John Halifax, Gentleman (1857), also penned some effective ghost stories. “The Last House in C— Street” (1856) is a gentle, wistful story that uses the popular device of a spirit appearing at the time of a person’s death to alert the loved one(s) of the departed.
Across the pond, one of the best writers of American supernatural suspense in domestic settings is New Englander Mary E. Wilkins, sometimes published under her married surname, Freeman. Like many women writers, Wilkins started writing young to support her family. Her delicately satirical non-supernatural story “A New England Nun” is often anthologized and is a delightful character study, but her ghost stories, such as “The Wind in the Rose-Bush” and “The Shadows on the Wall,” are legitimately creepy.
One of my favorites is “Luella Miller” (1902), an unconventional vampire story in which the title character, the very ideal of sweet, delicate, helpless femininity, sucks the life force from everyone around her. To me it’s a clever jab at the common stereotype of the fragile female, suggesting that these clinging vines actually feed on the vitality of the people that support them. Independent women, like the plain-speaking spinster who narrates the story, are actually a lot healthier to be around!
Other American women of the era who left their mark on the genre include Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Wharton’s “Afterward” (1910) is frequently anthologized, although I find it one of those stories that ends right when it starts to get interesting. Her 1925 semi-supernatural story “Miss Mary Pask,” though it falls after the period with which we’re concerned, describes an encounter with a woman who is all but literally the specter of lonely spinsterdom, and this tale makes my flesh creep much more. Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) is assuredly a masterpiece, but whether it is truly a supernatural tale or a devastating portrait of postpartum mental breakdown—or both, perhaps?—is up to the reader.
If you’re interested in exploring more of these stories, there are several anthologies that are great places to start. The Virago Book of Victorian Ghost Stories and The Wimbourne Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, Volume I comprise only ghost stories by women writers of the Victorian era. Other anthologies that offer a good selection by Victorian women writers include The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories and The Mammoth Book of Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories. You’ll find a lot of stories available for free online at locations such as Project Gutenberg. I think you’ll discover that many of these stories are the perfect companions for the long winter nights ahead.
Atlanta author Amanda DeWees wrote her doctoral dissertation on 19th-century vampire literature, the perfect training—though she didn’t know it at the time—for writing Victorian gothic romance novels. These include With This Curse, which won the 2015 Daphne du Maurier Award for historical mystery/suspense, and, most recently, The Last Serenade, book two in her mystery series about Victorian actress and spirit medium Sybil Ingram. Visit her at amanda dewees website to learn more about her books.
Not only can you read full length adventures by Amanda in books such as The Last Serenade, but Issue One of Occult Detective Quarterly will feature a brand new Sybil Ingram ghost story, ‘When Soft Voices Die’. Huzzah! ODQ is available on pre-order here:
We leave you with another Amelia B Edwards quote:
“The camel has his virtues – so much at least must be admitted; but they do not lie upon the surface.”
Something for serious consideration, dear listener.