Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural by Victorian women writers (Wordsworth Press)

Posted by Maria Giakaniki on December 16, 2010 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , , ,

Tales of Mystery & the Macabre, Elizabeth Gaskell, ed. David Stuart Davies, Wordsworth Editions, 2008.

The Power of Darkness, Tales of Terror, Edith Nesbit, ed. David Stuart Davies, Wordsworth Editions, 2006.

reviewed by Maria Giakaniki

Several years ago, Wordsworth Editions launched a very promising series named Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural, which is almost exclusively devoted to Gothic fiction, including eighteenth-century works like The Castle of Otranto along with modern horror tales of the early twentieth century. The series is mostly comprised of short story collections, among which the contemporary lover of Gothic literature is fortunate to discover several compilations of mystery and supernatural stories written by women writers, who were highly prolific in the ghost story genre during the Victorian and Edwardian times. Most of these writers’ names, with the exception of few, are familiar to the Gothic fiction reader; there are also some others that are either neglected and little known today or totally forgotten. In general, these authoresses have produced either several or at least one or two classic horror tales that are usually found in anthologies. Nevertheless, the Wordsworth series provides the reader with the opportunity to get a fuller sense of their literary style and themes, by releasing a separate volume for each writer’ s stories, accompanied by introductory notes on that writer’s life and work.

The Victorian period is considered to be the golden age of the ghost story and most of the writers in this genre were women. According to Michael Cox, the realm of the supernatural provided the Victorian woman writer with imaginative flights of both mind and soul, as well as with a sense of freedom from social stereotypes and real life constraints (The Oxford Book of English Ghost stories, 2002, p.xiii) . Moreover, through the Gothic, the Victorian woman could explore darker and more intimate issues than other types of fiction would allow. Middle-class women writers wrote mystery and supernatural stories that were published in magazines, usually with the main purpose to increase the family income. Nonetheless, this gave them the opportunity not only to create some really spine-tingling tales of horror, but also, through the use of Gothic tropes, to express their ideas and feelings about love, death, marriage, motherhood, madness, sexuality, good and evil, betrayal and sin.

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), Charlotte Brontë’ s biographer and the author of such realist fiction as Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1854), is one of the best known of the women writers of Victorian ghost stories, though her novels have somewhat overshadowed her supernatural stories. The Tales of Mystery & Macabre collection, which consists of Gaskell’s nine Gothic tales, is accompanied by an introduction written by David Stuart Davies who, along with his perceptive analysis and critical commentary upon all nine stories, which do not in all cases have supernatural elements, also supplies some basic information about Gaskell’s life and work. Gaskell was mostly know as a writer of social realist fiction, novels that dealt with issues like poverty and the status of women. Her Gothic tales were published in Charles Dickens’ Household Words, and what is notable is that this happened due to Dickens’ s own persistence: Gaskell herself was not eager to publish them.

Tales of Mystery & Macabre opens with the well known ‘The Old Nurse’ s Story‘, the epitome of the traditional ghost story of the Victorian period, perfect to be read on Christmas Eve and containing numerous classic Gothic motifs: a haunted mansion, a female protagonist who encounters a series of mysterious, unsettling events, a ghost child, and a dark family secret. Other stories of particular note include The Poor Clare, a short novella depicting a strange case of a female doppelgänger and imbued with strong religious sentiments, and Lois the Witch, also a novella, concerning a Salem witch hunt: for the writing of this story Gaskell researched material concerning real persecutions of the year 1692 in Massachusetts. Also included in this collection are ‘The Doom of the Griffiths’, which focuses upon a dark family curse, ‘The Ghost in the Garden Room’ (later reprinted as ‘The Crooked Branch’) that refers to a house haunted by multiple phantoms, and ‘The Grey Woman’, a sinister tale about female victimization. Although, in general, Gaskell makes considerable use of Gothic conventions, every story, as David Stuart Davies points out, has its own themes and style, thus offering the reader a sense of unpredictability. The shorter stories of the collection, in particular, offer notable shifts in either style or content: ‘Disappearances’ is a documentary-like narration of unexplained incidents that are presented to be based on fact, and ‘Curious but True’, a really odd story, is a blend of different fairy-tale motifs that make a dreamy, almost surrealistic, whole. Both of these stories are distinguished by a satirical tone.

Unlike Elizabeth Gaskell, Edith Nesbit (1858-1924),  primarily associated with fantasy novels for children, is not at all known today as a Gothic writer. The Power of Darkness, Tales of Terror is a compilation of  twenty stories of mystery and the supernatural written by Nesbit and makes a notable contribution to the ghost story genre. This is a valuable edition which should help restore to critical attention this considerably neglected work, among which there are some true gems of horror fiction. David Stuart Davies, the general editor of the series, has also written the introductory note for this collection, and offers some very interesting information about Nesbit’ s life: in contrast with Gaskell, who was the respectable devoted wife of a minister despite her independent character, Nesbit lived a notably unconventional life: she was a political activist and co-founder of the socialist Fabian Society – the modern Labour Party’ s predecessor – along with Hubert Bland, a bank clerk with radical political ideas, with whom she had an affair before marriage. After some years of marital life, they started living in a ‘ménage a trois’ with his mistress, the secretary of the Fabian Society, raising the children that came from both relationships.

As David Stuart Davies claims, Nesbit’ s stories reflected the negative feelings that her complex, irregular family life forced her to experience. This emotional anxiety is echoed in ‘From the Dead’, a dark romantic tale that includes the classic motif of the dead bride, who, in this case, returns to the world of the living to reclaim her husband who had acted unfairly to her during a moment of marriage crisis. The theme of damaged relationships is also mirrored in ‘The Shadow’, one of the most compelling stories in this collection, which is about an obscure love triangle and the enigmatic appearance of a shadowy presence: the latter seems to be a metaphor for the haunting past that lies beneath the surface of what seems to be healthy friendly bonds during the present life of the characters. Moreover, in most of her stories, Nesbit examines the ways that humans react when encountering a incident – often supernatural – that transcends the boundaries of rationality. She also depicts the fragility of the human mind that verges on madness when it cannot classify something within its established system of ideas. In this respect, ‘Man Size in Marble’, possibly her most anthologized story, is about the unexplained enlivenment of a statue and the shock this incident provokes, while ‘Five Sensesis a story that skilfully describes the mysterious experiments of a scientist which lead to the horror of a premature burial. Finally, in ‘The Power of Darkness‘, an unusual mystery story that takes place in a wax museum during the night, the hero has to encounter the power of his own fear. Nesbit always stresses the impact that the unexplained phenomena have upon her characters but, most importantly, she presents the horrific experience as a means of unveiling whatever is that lies within the core of interpersonal relationships. Although several classic Gothic motifs can be traced in her tales, they are in terms of content quite different from the majority of stories written by Victorian women writers; Nesbit certainly had her own unique way of exploring the gloomy recesses of the human psyche. Her characters are not typical Victorians while her technique is based on a more modern combination of mystery and horror that somehow anticipates ghost stories of the twentieth century.

These are two excellent collections of short stories and Wordsworth Editions should be commended for making accessible such a wide range of often forgotten Gothic stories at what is certainly a most affordable price. The website for Wordsworth editions can be found at http://www.wordsworth-editions.com/category/mystery%20&%20supernatural

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