John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-93) A lady in a garden by moonlight (1882)
Dear friends and readers,
This Christmas I revived on all three of my list-servs reading and discussion of Christmas ghost stories — or, failing ghosts (the case of Anthony Trollope, too strong a sceptic for this kind of thing), just stories meant for Christmas (we read “Christmas at Thompson Hall”). It is a long custom-sanction’d habit to tell ghost stories at the Winter Solstice, and I’d read some with others a few years ago for a couple of years in a row, and made a gothic section on my website for some of our conversations (see. e.g., Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “Lost Ghost”). On two lists people read with me, and on a third a couple of people watched the YouTube presentations I had found.
So, on the evening of this (fulfilling as it happened) Christmas Day I thought I’d re-tell one, offer a brief synopsis and YouTube of another, some links to powerful ones and an explanation from whence this urge to tell ghost stories Winter Solstice derives.
I found myself reading a-new, finding new qualities in Margaret Oliphant’s “Old Lady Mary.” Oliphant’s most powerful fiction is a ghost novella, The Beleaguered City, where, as in “Old Lady Mary,” part of the power of the story comes from the desire of the dead beloved and loving person to reach one another, in response to a shared loss and loneliness.
The story as I first understood it (here’s the online text):
In brief: a very old lady, ‘Old Lady Mary’, who is very rich and alone, takes the daughter of a distant cousin, nearly a child, without anyone else to turn to, into her house. She is all that can be loving and tender and good to the child as she brings her up. She is told that she must make a will out which will leave her money to young Mary, but cannot get herself to do it. She cannot face the reality she will die, has always herself been because of her wealth sheltered. Lady Mary resents advice, and avoids the lawyers by playfulness. She does however write a codicil, leaving everything to the girl, but she hides it away.
She dies, and the young girl is left desolate.
This begins the story which then takes us through the young girl’s fear, loss, humiliations at the hands of the family who takes over Lady Mary, her guardian’s house — they don’t mean to hurt her, but they put her in her place. She is now their servant. At the very end of the story we are told it was finally found, but that is in a coda and is not important.
The story is told from the point of view of Old Lady Mary after she has died — when she is a ghost, trying to make contact and reparation, retrieval is too late. Her presence is felt but the living act towards her frivolously, foolishly. Ghosts make them uncomfortable. The story is aimed at Dickens’s Christmas Carol, by then an iconic story where all can be undone, retrieved, redeemed. Not so, says Oliphant. Less seriously, she has some fun gently mocking the way ghosts are treated in stories.
The curious effect is to make us believe in Lady Mary as a ghost; to take her seriously. This is no silly story for people who want titillation or reassurance.
These are certainly besides the point to Lady Mary who is desperate to make contact with the young Mary. But, she supposes that she wants more than emotional catharsis, forgiveness, and release. She wants to help her. (Think Tiny Tim.) She wants more than to compensate; she wants to retrieve, to make up for past mistakes, and finds she cannot make genuine contact. She
has convinced herself her attempts her unselfish because there’s the codicil to be found and then the young Mary will own the house where she is now a servant. But ghosts are laughed at or make people nervous. Their paraphernalia is absurd.
The climax of the story is in a obscure but precisely described vision of the young girl. From all her troubles and the disquiet and upset brought on by Lady Mary’s efforts, the young Mary grows ill, and, as in a dream, for a split second sees Lady Mary who feels she is seen. In that moment the girl holds out her hand and Lady Mary feels she has been forgiven. After all she discovers she needs no nothing more. That’s it. We get a sense the young Mary and the old Lady Mary were face to face. But we are not sure. It might just be in the ghost’s mind. Young Mary never fully explains what she feels because people would laugh, and she’s not sure what she saw though she did from the beginning forgive & never hated her ex-guardian. She was taught by the old lady not to expect much.
The last enigmatic line of the story: ‘Everything is included in pardon and love’.
Re-reading: I was more than ever persuaded Oliphant had Dickens’s one benign and perhaps other Christmas season texts in mind where all is made up for in a gush of end-of-story forgive and forgetfulness (modern term “Healing”). But I felt this time that Old Lady Mary however stumblingly and ambiguously did retrieve the situation and felt she reached the young girl she now realized she had loved so.
She does not get to reach out to young Mary directly, cannot have the satisfaction for sure which she is reaching out for soon after the tale opens. In life she could have made sure young Mary understood she was sorry for how she had behaved in life, what she had done in death, but still we are told the old woman managed to reach someone and point to where the will was and the will is found. The understanding and forgiveness are left ambiguous. We do not know for sure that the girl got the money she so desperately needed, but enough is put before us to assume so. How life-like.
I realized how much it’s a heroine’s text. Much of the story is spent in Lady Mary as a ghost’s mind and that is very unusual. I want to stress that. I dare say almost all ghost stories, we are not permitted to get close to the ghost. They are kept at a distance. Again, they are mostly scary, malevolent, Kafka-esque figures. The intensely benign aim of ghost Lady Mary’s efforts is as rare as Dickens, but with Dickens we do not enter the ghost’s consciousness. And show the ghost failing to reach.
Her story in this way shows belief in an afterlife and ghosts around us. The ambiguous wispy signals of seances you see are ghosts trying to reach us and unable to as God has made it too late. I think we may take it that this is how Oliphant understood the absurdity of what happens at seances. My outstanding favorite line from Downton Abbey is the Scots housekeeper’s retort to the lady’s maid’s conventional appeal,
“Don’t you believe in spirits?”
“I do not believe they play boardgames.”
By contrast, Oliphant has it, it’s that God will not let the dead reach us. She was a firm believer in the afterlife. I should stress that. These are not the kinds of ghost stories where the story is strictly speaking a metaphor. In Oliphant’s case her husband, both sons, nephew and a niece all pre-deceased her. To believe they carried on elsewhere was apparently one way she could endure her raw grief and continual sense of desperate loss.
I found it a much more moving story than I did the first time round.
Michelle Dockery could play the part of young Mary very well. Now known for her part as Lady Mary Grantham in Downton Abbey, she was much better as the unnamed governess in Sandy Welch’s 2009 Turn of the Screw)
It should be said most ghost stories are instances of female gothic, many have been written by women, and they are often ways of presenting the real vampirage over women by men and societies in general. This was a speciality of Edith Wharton whose “Kerfol” I reread last week. The writer need not be a woman, and the vulnerable figure can be a man (as they just about all are in M.R. James’s stories (“The Stalls”). But the one I read from 3 I chose by M.R. James all set in the 18th century was such a story, and gentle reader here it is online and as a YouTube
The film features a very young Edward Petherbridge, and with his and other actors’ help, the BBC group has brought out the terror and power and high violence of an MRJames story usually there, but in muted subjective form. The film version brings out the terror and horror. It’s the story of an 18th century squire-aristocrat who has returned to his estate and country house is haunted by the ghosts of women beaten, tortured and then hung as witches and that this is who the ghosts are that destroy him by their hideous tales only emerges slowly.
What I like particularly about the whole of this early series from the BBC is instead of the usual prettied up 18thcentury (say of faithful Austen films) we see the raw realities of rural life. It’s not a story for the weak stomached if you can get it up to full screen.
Gentle reader, it’s not hard to find potted explanations of the origin of ghost stories as matter for Christmas. But it’s often-half-hearted. How did this habit emerge?
I’ve a different explanation than most I’ve seen. This festival comes at the end of each year. Says John Donne: “‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s …” It’s natural to look back, to remember, indeed that’s one of the functions of this ritual time. And in many years of our lives, we lose people. Before the 20th century death was ubiquitous for young and old. This year my mother died. I was first drawn to ghost stories after my fathere died, irretrievably gone, and I could not make up wrongs that had happened. Psychologically I would feel his presence in my mind lurking.
This year I found myself remembering more cheerfully a good friend I met here on the Internet, who joined in various reads, who discussed, and who I was lucky enough on one fine night to spend an evening in Brooklyn with at a party with two of her close friends, Linda Ribas. She died in summer, too young to have left us. She read some of these stories with us on WWTTA, Henry James on Trollope19thCStudies, an 18th century novel by a woman on EighteenthCenturyWorlds. She especially loved pictures, John Atkinson Grimshaw a favorite, and landscapes, and I’ve included one by Grimshaw, and another favorite of hers by Nell Blaine. We miss her on WWTTA
So ghost stories come from this kind of remembering, not that in my case at any rate I think we are going to reach anyone after death. Death is annihilation. But we can remember them. And then the ghost is picked up and becomes a vehicle for entertainment, instruction, artful absorption, a suspension of disbelief.
I often assigned ghost stories when I taught the gothic and found students were fascinated by this sub-genre (mode) of a subgenre (short fiction for magazines) — for ghost stories are very artful configurations.