Victorian and Edwardian Women’s Ghost Stories

Emma LigginsMCRh

This panel aims to reassess the development and diversity of women’s writing about the supernatural in the Victorian and Edwardian period. It focuses on the ways in which female authors of ghost stories, including neglected figures such as Mary Braddon and the Anglo-Indian writer Alice Perrin, used the conventions of the ghost story to tap into wider cultural heritages of Victorian and Edwardian gender and genre construction. It includes papers by scholars at different stages in their careers.

Victorian Women’s Haunted Houses: Sensational Ghosts (Janine Hatter, Lecturer, University of Hull)

Dr Janine Hatter researches Victorian popular literature, art and culture. She is co-editor of two series: New Paths in Victorian Fiction and Culture and Key Popular Women Writers, both for Edward Everett Root Publishers. Janine is Associate Editor of Victorian Popular Fictions, conference co-organiser for the Victorian Popular Fiction Association and has co-founded the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association.

As friends, Rhoda Broughton and Mary Elizabeth Braddon discussed such mundane daily activities as shopping, gardening and hosting tea parties. As two of the best-selling authors of the mid- to late-Victorian period their published works are more gripping, but essentially cover domestic settings and issues. Both authors made their names in the 1860s writing sensational narratives, and both continued to write into the Edwardian period, keeping up-to-date with social advances. This paper examines some examples of their haunted house narratives, ranging from the 1860s to the 1890s, to demonstrate their engagement with the key genre of Victorian women’s ghost stories. Sensational, psychological and urban in their settings, Broughton’s ‘The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth’ (1868) and Braddon’s ‘The Ghost’s Name’ (1891) used the genre to address a range of social issues, such as women’s knowledge and agency, the damaging effects of the construction of Victorian masculinity and medical advancements.

Haunted Gardens in the ghost stories of Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Margaret Oliphant (Dr Emma Liggins (Manchester Metropolitan University))

Dr Emma Liggins is Senior Lecturer in English Literature in the Department of English at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her publications include George Gissing, the Working Woman and Urban Culture (Ashgate, 2006), The British Short Story (with Andrew Maunder & Ruth Robbins) (Palgrave, 2011) and Odd Women? Spinsters, Lesbians and Widows in British Women’s Fiction, 1850-1939 (Manchester University Press, 2014). She has a chapter on modernist women’s ghost stories in British Women’s Short Story Writers: The New Woman to Now eds. Emma Young and James Bailey (Edinburgh University Press, 2015). She is currently completing her forthcoming monograph, The Haunted House in Women’s Ghost Stories, 1850-1945: Gender, Space and Modernity, to be published by Palgrave in 2020.  

This paper examines the spatial dynamics of the haunted garden in Victorian ghost stories such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s ‘Eveline’s Visitant’ (1867) and Margaret Oliphant’s ‘Earthbound’ (1880) and ‘The Lady’s Walk’ (1882-3). It considers the haunted garden in relation to notions of the architectural uncanny, as a place of both freedom and imprisonment for women whose spectral encounters atone for or symbolise a suffocating and stultifying domesticity. As Sarah Bilston has argued, the Victorian garden is a contradictory space, disrupting notions of public and private, both domestic and non-domestic, yet ‘a freer place than the home’ (2004: 2).

In ‘Eveline’s Visitant’, the pleasaunce, or antique garden, in the French chateau is supposedly safe from intruders but admits a ghostly rival to the neglectful husband with fatal results. In ‘Earthbound’ the neglected walled garden becomes a prison for the lost female ancestor whose commemorative urn encloses her untold story. The staging of the spectral encounter outside, rather than inside, the Victorian home, highlights the relationship between women’s restricted movements and the freedoms/limitations of green space.

Marriage and the Inefficacious Supernatural in Alice Perrin’s Anglo-Indian Tales (Dr Victoria Margree (University of Brighton))

Dr Victoria Margree is Principal Lecturer in the Humanities at the University of Brighton. She is the author of a monograph entitled British Women's Short Supernatural Fiction, 1860-1930: Our Own Ghostliness (Palgrave, November 2019), which explores how the ghost story functioned as a public forum for negotiating women's experiences in rapidly changing social conditions, looking at stories by Margaret Oliphant, Charlotte Riddell, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Edith Nesbit, Alice Perrin, Eleanor Scott and Violet Hunt. She is also co-editor of an essay collection on fin de siecle popular fiction writer, Richard Marsh (Manchester University Press, 2018) and author of a study of the second wave radical feminist, Shulamith Firestone (Zero Books, 2018). She is co-founder of the Short Story Network, a research network dedicated to the short fiction of the long 19th century.

In Alice Perrin’s short stories of life in the British Raj, the 19th century marriage question migrates to a colonial context. Here it is reworked in relation to a hybrid Anglo-Indian supernaturalism, utilised by Perrin in her attempt to resolve the tensions between her commitment to imperial marriage and her recognition of the pervasiveness of marital discontent. This paper focuses on Perrin’s depiction of supernatural phenomena that are, however, inefficacious. In ‘Eastern Echoes’ (1901), transgressive longing is sublimated into spiritual communion at the moment of the death of a would-be lover. In ‘The Packet of Letters’ (1906), Perrin subverts the conventions of the Victorian ghost story to show that not even otherworldly intervention can avert the terrible consequences of marital infidelity. In these stories the supernatural is made a vehicle for expressing feminine knowledge about the emotional complexities of married women’s lives, but only on the condition that such epiphanies entail no material change within the masculine, pragmatic world of Empire.

Fri 11:00 am - 12:15 pm