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Victorian Ghosts, 1852-1907: EN 4573 Collection

Representation of the Supernatural Within the Context of Victorian and Contemporary Society by Manreet Lotay

           Madness posed real and haunting threats to the stable normative social order, as ghost stories entail that beneath the veneer of gentile Victorian society lurked things that were unnatural. Everything that we do throughout our lives is not black and white. Ghosts and the supernatural are what we can use to cope with our fear and grief or it can be a form of terror that causes fear. The texts that I will be comparing and contrasting are Rhoda Broughton’s The Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth, Mary Louisa Molesworth’s The Rippling Train​​​​​​​, and the contemporary TV show directed by Mike Flanagan called The Haunting of Hill House. I will be critically analyzing what each text says about Victorian and contemporary society through the representation of the supernatural. 

​​​​​​​           Rhoda Broughton’s Nothing but the Truth is a tale about two affluent women sending a collection of letters to each other about the trivialities of their life, until it takes an unnatural turn. In the story Elizabeth finds an inexpensive home called May Fair for her best friend Cecilia. Elizabeth reassures Cecilia that the house is inexpensive not due to a member of the demimonde. This is important since it shows how Victorian society sees women and what their role should and should not be. This is evident in the following quote:

With that suspiciousness which is so characteristic of you, you will immediately begin to hint that there must be some terrible unaccountable smell, or some odious inexplicable noise haunting the reception-rooms…You will next suggest--remembering the rose-coloured curtains--that its last occupant was a member of the demimonde... Its last occupant was an elderly and unexceptionable Indian officer, without a liver, and with a most lawful wife. They did not stay long, it is true, but then, as the housekeeper told me, he was a deplorable old hypochondriac (Broughton). 

Elizabeth reassured Cecilia that the house was not cheap due to anything supernatural related, since she knew that her friend’s mind would wander to unexplainable events. Broughton often sought to locate the dread lurking in the domestic – the secret anxieties, repressions, and rage stuffed into the dark spaces in the minds and hearts of British society women (Kellermeyer). For example, the two women talk about other men even when they are married, girls who wear clothing that are too revealing and the horror of caring for children when they are sick (Broughton). All of these discussions that they have are hidden; yet externally, all was well-kept, proper, and acceptable, but underneath even the most wholesome home, there are secrets (Kellermeyer). Elizabeth's words to Cecilia showcase how women should be perceived in society. A member of the demimonde is the class of women considered to be of doubtful morality and social standing (Merrick 30). Previously, the home owners were a law abiding wife and an elderly man. Cecilia would not have moved into the house if previously a woman did not fit the typical acceptable woman of Victorian society nor would she have moved if there was a ghost indiscriminately terrorizing people.  

​​​​​​​           Furthermore, Broughton shows how the supernatural has no boundaries as they do not need to follow a role or the norms that society has set for them, since they are dead. In the story, a maid and a high ranked officer both see the ghost that is haunting Cecilia’s home. What is interesting is that the maid went mad due to the shock of seeing something unexplainable and was sent to an asylum, while the high ranked officer was killed on the scene. This is evident in the following quote: “And first, as to the housemaid, she has been removed to a lunatic asylum, where she remains in much the same state. She has had several lucid intervals, and during them has been closely, pressingly questioned as to what it was she saw; but she has maintained an absolute, hopeless silence, and only shudders, moans, and hides her face in her hands when the subject is broached” (Broughton). This shows how ghosts can be life threatening and bring madness to those who are innocent bystanders. The impact of seeing something unnatural caused the maid to go insane. In Victorian society, women who were not in their right mind were seen as being crazy (Merrick 32). Even Elizabeth, a woman herself, believed that either madness ran in her family or she has a mental illness. On the other hand, the high ranked officer was overconfident as he went into the room, which resulted in his death. This is evident in the following: “stony fear on his brave young face. For one instant he stood thus; then stretching out his arms stiffly before him, he groaned in a terrible, husky voice, 'Oh, my God! I have seen it!' and fell down dead” (Broughton). Broughton’s tale is more interested in psychology than melodramatics. What and why are far less important than how – namely, how the characters respond to the presence of a socially-destabilizing infestation (Kellermeyer). This story could just as easily have been written about a house fire because its victims – ranging from a lower-class female servant to an aristocratic male officer – are struck down without warning or opportunity for self-defense (Kellermeyer). Cecilia’s worldview of protection and privilege as a white wealthy woman is devastated by the May Fair phantom’s rampage – blind to class distinctions, and stripped of mercy (Merrick 30). The strong, dependable men of affluence and distinction are no more capable of warding off death than the illiterate maids who clean.
​​​​​​​           In every horror literature, there is usually always a realist. There is usually someone who insists on a logical explanation and refuses to believe in the supernatural. They are consistently framed as oblivious and in denial of the obvious, but it is the most natural response to something unknown.  Humans try to be rational, and are terrified of the irrational, so we work our way around it. In The Haunting of Hill House, the oldest son Steven Crain is a realist. He dismisses the theory of the house being haunted multiple times throughout the story. He is convinced that their entire family has a hereditary mental illness that causes them all of them to be self destructible. This is evident when Steven tells his dad the following: “Nell was delusional, depressed, Luke’s an addict, Shirley is a control freak, and Theo’s basically a clenched fist with hair. The whole fucking family is on the brink of a breakdown and seeing things that aren’t there, hearing things that aren’t there, and that shit happened after the house. It’s not the house. There’s something wrong with our goddamn brains” (Flanagan). When examining a work of Gothic literature it is important to keep in mind the Realist foundation of the genre. While the themes presented and events portrayed in Gothic literature may be largely unrealistic, the genre is meant to be understood in a very realistic sense. Therefore, the “Gothic supernatural appears very real, disturbing, and uncanny” (Bayer-Berenbaum 32). The portrayal of events in Gothic fiction is meant to make the reader feel as if those exact events could easily happen to them. The Gothic supernatural feels real and disturbs the reader not because of its horrific quality, but because “it is so close; it permeates” (Bayer-Berenbaum 32). The division between what is natural and what is other-worldly is dissolved, “[rendering] the supernatural greater and nearer,” creating a “materialization of the spiritual” through the depiction of supernatural phenomena (Bayer-Berenbaum 33). This division of what's real and what's not real gets blurred within the show due to the psychological trauma that each Crain member faces. The psychological trauma that the children face for the rest of their life is manifested within their internal struggle via the ghosts that they see. Just like how the emergence of Spiritualist beliefs, the Gothic supernatural attempts to take the unreal and make it real (Vickers). Therefore, the true terror of the Gothic supernatural is not the idea of horrific specters or unexplainable phenomenon, but the degree of reality that is achieved by the Gothic style (Vickers). The ghosts represented each sibling's fear, sadness or grief. 

​​​​​​​           In comparison, in Broughton’s Nothing but the truth, Elizabeth is also a realist, as she reassures Cecilia that the house is not haunted. Even after hearing that the house is haunted by something unnatural, she finds it hard to believe, since Cecilia’s family is not affected by the madness. This is evident in the following quote: 

But I am still unconvinced as to house being in fault. You know I feel a sort of godmother to it, and responsible for its good behaviour. Don't you think that what the girl had might have been a fit?...I myself have a cousin who is subject to seizures of the kind...exactly as in the case you describe. Or, if not a fit, are you sure that she has not been subject to fits of madness? Please be sure and ascertain whether there is not insanity in her family. It is so common nowadays, and so much on the increase, that nothing is more likely. You know my utter disbelief in ghosts. I am convinced that most of them, if run to earth, would turn out about as genuine as the famed Cock Lane one. (Broughton)

Elizabeth does not believe in the spiritual and uses scientific means to explain the maids behaviour. There is natural phenomenon that we understand and then there is natural phenomenon we do not understand. For example, when the eclipse was first experienced by people they were scared of it, since they did not know what it was. However, once it was understood through scientific means it became natural. Moreover, Elizabeth compares Cecelia’s apparition to the Cock Lane ghost. This haunting that occurred at Cock Lane was a haunting hoax in 18th Century London (Rhodes). There is an imagery of the séance taking place where people would come to ask questions (Rhodes). This imagery depicts how back in the Victorian era, séances and ghost stories were commodities.
The Supernatural- Power of Love
​​​​​​​           Molesworth’s The Rippling Train is an interesting ghost tale as there is no fear present rather the tale is bittersweet. In the course of the narrative, the author demonstrates the fact that despite their segregation, she still thought about him. Moreover, before the death, her mind was filled with this person to such an extent, that her figure appeared to him. The ghost Maude Bertram came to Mr. Marischal just to look at him and remind him about their past relations. She did not frighten him, but expressed her sadness through her expression. This was also the manifestation of her true love. What is interesting is that Maude did not show her right side when she manifested as a memory to see her beloved for the last time. This is evident in the following: “The right side of her face was utterly ruined…though, strange to say, the left side entirely escaped, and seeing her in profile one would have had no notion of what had happened… shiver ran through me at his words. It was the left side of her face only that the wraith of my poor friend had allowed me to see” (Molesworth 621). Bertram’s desire to see her ex-lover was so strong, that she sent her mental image to Mr. Marischal, and managed to say goodbye to him in such a strange and intriguing way. She applied the image of a phantom to show the readers the power of female love. Molesworth has confirmed the readership that this feeling has to be valued, because in the end of human life, love is the only thing, which truly matters. Her work proves to the audience that these feelings have no borders and that it is able to pass through time and space. The manifestation of the phantom in her literary work is the approval of the author’s belief that women can do anything to see her beloved. Moreover, Bertram purposely showed her left side rather than her right side, which would have disfigured her beauty. She made sure that Mr. Marischal saw her how he remembered her rather than what she had become after the accident. Women in the Victorian era had to look the part. There are so many restrictions and expectations that women need to meet in order to be desirable to men. I find it very aggravating and perplexing when society’s expectations are so judgmental when it comes to how women should look and behave.

​​​​​​​           In comparison, the ghost called the bent neck lady in the Haunted of Hill House is another apparition that oozes sadness and fear. The youngest daughter of the Crain’s, named Nell turned out to be the bent necked lady. Ever since she was small she saw the bent necked lady, which was terrifying. When Nell passes away she realizes she was the bent necked lady all along. As a ghost she is pitiful because when she was alive none of her siblings would help her with the trauma she was facing when she was alive. Sadly, her death was able to bring her siblings together, but no one could see her even though she tried to get their attention. The power of love comes into play when at the end of the TV show, Nell is able to give relief to her sibling’s traumas and show them the bigger picture of life, which is to always be there for each other and to love one another.

​​​​​​​           In the Haunting of Hill House, the father of the Crain children had to live his life alone with the trauma of not being able to be a part of his children’s lives as they grew older, due to the incidents in the Hill House. The loss of his wife due to suicide was so traumatic that to cope with it he manifested her ghost to be beside him at all times. Throughout the TV show, Mrs. Crain is always beside Mr. Crain to support him and uplift him when he meets all his kids at Nell’s (the youngest daughter) funeral. Mr. Marischal’s commitment to only one woman reminds me of Mr. Crain’s devotion to his wife even when she went crazy. Mrs. Crain was perfectly healthy before entering the Hill House. She was brainwashed by a ghost that resided in the haunted mansion. Mrs. Crain became obsessed with wanting to protect her children from the vicious teeth of the outside world. When children leave the nest they become susceptible to terrible things that would not be in her control such as drugs. The ghost brainwashed her to kill her children so that they will always be in her loving arms inside the house. In Victorian era, if a woman did not fulfill her role as a child carer and a house wife, then she was a failure as a wife and mother (Merrick 30). Or if the spouse passed away the husband would move on to the next wife; which is evident in the Rippling Train, as Maud’s husband moved on two years later, while Mr. Marischal remained single for the rest of his life. The portrayal of Mr. Crain’s wife shows you that even after death your loved ones are always there whether you can see them or not.

​​​​​​​           In the Haunting of Hill House, the women in the Crain family have a sixth sense that has been passed down from their mother. Shirley has night visions, Nell sees through time, and Theo has this touch sensitivity to the past. Theo Crain’s ability can be traumatizing to have but it can also save people. This is evident when Theo, who is a therapist, went to a foster child's home to use her ability to see why the child is blocking people out of her life (Flanagan). When Theo took her gloves off and felt the couch she saw that the foster parent had molested the little girl. Her ability to sense what happens to people through objects or by directly touching the person is a gift and a curse. Theo gained a traumatic experience by experiencing the assault, but was able to rescue the child by informing Child Protection Services and the arrest of the child molester. The child had created a manifestation of a creepy smiling monster in order to cope with the foster dad’s assault and blocked out people. This shows how contemporary society has so many social issues that are hidden inside homes that are supposed to make us feel safe and comfortable. On the other hand, in Broughton’s Nothing but the Truth, the supernatural phenomenon is nothing but evil, as it shows how an evil being has no bias to who pain is inflicted on. This shows you two different version of supernatural aspect, where one uses their power for others and the other indiscriminately attacks whoever is within the vicinity.  

​​​​​​​           In conclusion, the representation of ghosts within these three texts showcases how Victorian and contemporary society perceive women, how trauma works to blur the line of what is real and what is not, and how not all ghost stories are horrifying. The mind is a very powerful thing; especially a grieving mind. When we try to push away our realities and traumas aside and try to run away from them, it all comes out at night.

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