Andrew Smith, The Ghost Story, 1840-1920: A Cultural History

Posted by Matt Foley on November 20, 2010 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

Andrew Smith. The ghost story, 1840-1920: A cultural history. Manchester University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0719074462

Reviewed by Matt Foley, University of Stirling.

Andrew Smith’s new monograph on haunting, which focuses on a turbulent time period he classifies as a long 19th Century (1840-1920), is certainly wide in its scope. Scholars with an interest in a number of authors will be drawn to the piece, including those working on Charles Dickens, Henry James, M.R. James, May Sinclair, Charlotte Riddell, Wilkie Collins, and Sheridan Le Fanu. The main crux of the book is an extended meditation on the complex interactions of the literary, the spectral, the monetary and the political in both the Victorian and, albeit in an extended sense, the Edwardian period. There is so much work covered here that it is a challenge to summarise a specific argument that links everything together, although Smith suggests in general that “the ghost story between 1840 and 1920 engages with a series of grand political debates about economics, national and colonial identities, gender, and the workings of the literary imagination” (p.2). Indeed, the book is divided into a series of chapters that look at each of these instances in more depth, teasing out any problems along the way by reading the nuances of their literary staging.

An important figure in Smith’s specific discussion of money and spectrality is Karl Marx. Marx’s account of fetishism suggests, by way of employing a Gothic idiom, that both goods and money are imbued with a phantasmatic and particularly spectral excess. Smith’s contention is that this is staged and interrogated by the literary of the period along with wider issues. While Smith is aware that “it would be crude to reduce all ghost stories to the level of economic parable” (p.23) he has certainly read widely enough to find some intriguing specific instances of where the literary, the ghostly and the economic collide. In particular there is an attempt to resuscitate, through some close textual analysis, the often overlooked work of Charlotte Riddell. Smith suggests an implicit link between some of her marketable and popular oeuvre and the work of Wilkie Collins. Indeed, the tales of Riddell “bear comparison with the work of Wilkie Collins as their repeated focus on money reworks a connection between money and spectrality that was… a characteristic of both Collins’ ghost writings and the implicit images of the spectre that were employed in his sensation fiction” (p.70). This analysis, however, also spreads to the work of Dickens, and Riddell’s work is seen as further reimagining the relationship between artistry, spectrality and monetary value.

Different elements of Dickens’ fiction and non-fiction are called upon throughout. Some of his renowned ghost stories are covered here, including a reading of ‘The Signalman’ (1866), which intriguingly suggests that the ghostly harbinger of the tale “serves to raise questions about interpretation because the tale is an alternative manifesto for the ghost story, one which invites the narrator and the reader to dwell on the problems of interpreting the ghost which most formulaic tales do not. What the ghost might actually mean is subservient to the ability to ask the question about what it is supposed to mean” (p.45). There is, then, a certain awareness of the impossibility of reading the ghost as performing just one function and a suggestion of its multifacetedness as a literary trope. Moreover, moments of haunting are foregrounded from Dickens’ American Notes (1842). Indeed, chapter seven of Smith’s monograph, which is entitled ‘Colonial ghosts: mimicry, history and laughter’, reads as “an examination of Dickens, Le Fanu, and Kipling [that] helpfully illustrates how the respective national contexts of America, Ireland, and India were reconstructed through a language of spectrality which (certainly in the case of Le Fanu and Kipling) parodies and covertly compromises images of ostensible colonial authority” (p.143). There is also a sense in these stories that the figuring of a particular kind of haunted laughter does not act as a release for anxieties surrounding power and race, but has rather an uncanny and distant element to it that emerges in the colonialist’s encounter with the subaltern.

The issue of nationhood and spectrality is also addressed in a reading of Henry James, whose work, being written by an Anglo-American, falls both within and outside the monograph’s general concern for the ghost story from the British Isles. It is this liminality that “underpin[s] a peculiarly Anglo-American spectrality in his writings” and, more specifically, “it is a sense of place which articulates an Anglo-American experience and… images of the haunted house reflect [this]” (p.120). There is focus on reading spectral spaces in “The Jolly Corner” (1908) and The American Scene (1907) that locates James as both a writer of the spectral double and of the uncanny. Moreover, “[there is an] essential paradox of James’s ghosts: that they articulate a history from which they cannot escape because they are condemned to repeat it, so that history cannot be reclaimed, but rather like James’s houses, only provisionally inhabited” (p.140).

This idea of reclaiming or appropriating the historical is further explored in Smith’s attempt to locate some of M.R. James’ later work as a challenge to modernism. For Smith, James’ stories recall and rely upon a certain type of spectrality found in the early Gothic novel. In turn, “[James’ writings] should be understood as a critical, perhaps conservative, response to modernism. This requires a close analysis of his tales and in particular how he employs embedded Gothic narratives” (p.168). M.R. James’ ghost stories have often been dismissed as formalistic but Smith is keen to resurrect an overlooked depth to James’ writing. This reading ties into his earlier examination of the tensions between the Gothic and modernism in general in the early 20th Century, where Smith draws upon the short stories of May Sinclair and Vernon Lee, and does concede that “Lee’s aesthetic principles are not quite so hostile to modernist experimentation and her aesthetic pursuits are echoed in the ghost stories of May Sinclair, which have a self-conscious modernist air to them” (p.77). The debate over the fault lines between modernism and the Gothic is likely to continue, as a full monograph is yet to appear, and Smith does gesture towards wider issues, while making particularly interesting reference to May Sinclair as an Imagist poet, something that is yet to be fully appreciated.

There are, then, many avenues left to explore after reading The ghost story, 1840-1920: A cultural history and it seems that the recent increased attention given to the ghost and its literary appropriations is likely to continue. Smiths’ readings of Victorian and Edwardian literature also carries a relevance to today. Following Karl Marx, Slavoj Zizek claims that in the contemporary economic environment, “it is the self-propelling metaphysical dance of capital that runs the show, that provides the key to real-life developments and catastrophes” (Violence, 2009, p.11). The horror in this suggested modern environment is that the economic abstraction of the market place is not an impotent, phantasmatic symptom. Instead, it figures more closely the Lacanian Real; it is a controlling and structuring force of our social environment. Smith’s monograph reads early capitalist anxieties about money, power, politics and social relations and the points at which the spectral manifests itself in response. These social issues, given the grip that capitalism and capital have over modern social relations, remain just as pertinent today. In turn, Andrew Smith’s book provides a timely reminder of the traumatic side to the history of capitalism in the British Isles. It also suggests scope for much more work to be done into the specific relationship between the literary, the ghostly and the spectral element of capital.

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