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Victorian Ghosts, 1852-1907: EN 4573 Collection

The Implication of the Female Ghost in Victorian Ghost Stories by Matthew Azar

            In consideration of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Cold Embrace, R.S Hawker’s The Botathen Ghost and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ Since I Died, each Victorian ghost story differs in its portrayal of a female apparition: a spirit with malevolent intent, one with the aim to leave the mortal world and finally a spirit conflicted between staying with her love and the freedom of the afterlife. The issue of power is investigated as the texts’ respective characters hold control over another’s lives and needs. As the human is transported into the form of a spirit, their characteristics are diminished or multiplied depending on the world created by the author. As a result, the newly transformed spirit can lose the ability to move, speak, or gain the capacity to retaliate against those that harmed them. Furthermore, the feeling of inner-peace is questioned as the ghost has either been met with escaping a patriarchal and restrictive world or being stuck within a purgatory with the inability to pass-on. The implication of gender and the abilities given to the female spirits allows for a commentary on society as their needs and wants are explored through the lens of post-mortem. The differentiations of the female apparition between the ghost stories suggests an exploration on what the authors accomplish in the representations of the female ghost; the restrictions of society are eliminated, but they are met with a goal to accomplish.

            In Braddon’s The Cold Embrace, the character of Gertrude highlights the utilization of suicide to escape an unhappy life to achieve escape. Despite the lack of information given about Gertrude, her experience while alive was charged with the motivation of marrying her cousin; the love that she had for him was the driving-force of her life. Additionally, Braddon demonstrates the benefits of being a white, fit male in a patriarchal society in which she states, “Life is such a golden holiday to him—young, ambitious, clever—that it seems as though sorrow and death could have no part in his destiny.” (27) His ability to freely roam the world and explore his wants and needs is juxtaposed with Gertrude’s forced marriage. Systemic Victorian institutions create the need for a woman to take the mantle of the housewife while men are free to become educated with the propensity to influence society. Braddon’s inclusion of what society offers to being “young, handsome and eloquent” (25) is in direct contrast to Gertrude’s lack of say or freedom to do as she pleases. With the elimination of her cousin’s love, her propensity to live the only life she deems as happy is also taken away from her. Along with a time-restraint, her agency is further diminished, resulting in the need to find an escape from the mortal world. Being betrothed was Gertrude’s totality before death; the only agency attained by her was through the act of suicide.

            In comparison, Hawker’s The Botathen Ghost introduces a strong religious element to the ghost story, wherein while death was an escape for Gertrude, Dorothy Dinglet is forced into purgatory for an undisclosed sin during her mortal life. Through the transgressions of her past, power is taken away from Dorothy and is then forced into the quest of finding a “youth or a maiden of clean life…” (Hawker 504). A major difference between Gertrude and Dorothy is their morality: one has escaped life and seeks malevolence, while the other it trapped and must repent. Hawker writes, “But Now, although face to face with the spirit, my heart grew calm, and my mind was composed. I knew that the pentacle would govern her, and the ring must bind, until I gave the word.” (504) Throughout the whole story, power is kept from Dorothy. Despite dying, she is further restrained by a lack of speech despite requiring it to pass on. Therefore, it is only through the powers of a male intermediary that she can eventually proceed to heaven. As she is governed, she gives up the ability to move and becomes trapped inside a circle of another’s making. As the rules of the spirit world are ambiguous and fluid, Hawker constructed conventions that spirits must abide by. The ramifications of a female apparition rather than one that is male speaks to the power-dynamics of the real world. Meaning, the human realm being connotated with patriarchal attributes follows the female-sex into death. Regardless of being alive or dead, a male entity must grant permissions and proper conduct.  

            Similarly, Phelps’ Since I Died is constructed around the narrative of a temporary purgatory; rather than escaping life or being stuck in a timeless nothingness; the narrator of the story is confronted with dying and leaving her partner. As a homosexual couple, the narrator is evading the rules of society that repudiates their relationship, while being kept from her partner. As she feels the pleasures of deserting ailment, her significant-other is mourning her death. Along with the detriment of death, the narrator is placed into a limbo of having to watch her beloved’s grief in silence. Phelps writes, “I think I hardly understood you then. Now that I hold your eyes in mine, and you see me not; now when I stretch my hand and you touch me not; now that I cry your name, and you hear it not,— I comprehend you, tender one! A wisdom not of earth was in your words. “To live, is dying; I will die. To die is life, and you shall live.” (62) With death, the narrator has gained the ability to live freely. She is no longer forced into the regulations of the material world while being permitted to live without fear. Having to live through pain and misery is an eventuality of life that all must experience. Death, however, allows for the fear of death to subside. While the power of speech is taken away, the love she had for another is allowed to exist.

            The role of women in Victorian society is given anecdotal context by Frances Power Cobbe in an article published in 1862 titled “Female Education, and How it Would be Affected by University Examinations." As feminist ideals were beginning to be introduced, the consideration of power-structures began to be investigated. Cobbe states, “For (let us hope it will some time or other be recognized) there are purposes in the order of Providence for the lives of single women and childless wives, and they too are meant to have their share of human happiness. Most people prefer to ignore their existence as a class to be contemplated in the education of women, but it is as vain to do so as it is cruel.” (4) The character of Gertrude was driven by the concept of marrying her cousin. Cobbe’s inclusion of the lack of purpose and happiness given to single women or childless wives addresses the expectations of Victorian society on women. Cobbe’s further mentions the “deplorable depreciation of character for want of employment of heart and mind” (4) on wives of no children with a lack of housework. For Gertrude, to lose the only life she foresaw as acceptable meant that the only escape from the constraints of Victorian society was death. Her need for revenge superseded the finality of death as suicide was an escape of a life of depreciation and diminishment. Where the act of betrothal was a gesture of permanency, her cousin regarded it as a fleeting indication of passion. As a male, he was given the qualification of selfishness; he can life the life that he wants, whereas Gertrude fully relied on the word of a man. While the male-sex is given the chance to determine their wants and aspirations, their female counterpart must conform to the duties of domesticity.

            Furthermore, Braddon’s story includes the gothic conventions of the ‘innocent heroine’ and the ‘awful villain’. That being said, the convention became inverted with Gertrude’s death: the innocent heroine gained the ability to harm the individual that harmed her. Jennifer Bann’s essay, “Ghostly Hands and Ghostly Agency: The Changing Figure of the Nineteenth-Century Specter” mentions The Cold Embrace in which she writes, ““For Gertrude, the story’s protagonist, life is a sequence of denied opportunities and negated agency; abandoned by her lover and forced into an unwanted marriage by her father, she lacks any ability to affect the world around her through words, deeds, or thoughts” (677) While the spirit of a Victorian ghost story often takes the mantle of the nefarious and evil element, Braddon submits Gertrude’s cousin to the role. As an unnamed personage, his whole being is surrounded with his selfishness and ambition for freedom. In contrast, Gertrude gains the ability to affect the world around her through death. Braddon writes, “Many months have passed since his cousin’s death,autumn, winter, early spring. His money is nearly gone, his health is utterly broken, he is the shadow of his former self, and he is getting near Paris.” (28) Through life, Gertrude’s cousin had the totality of power in their relationship; in death, however, Gertrude took the thrill and value of life away. Overtaken by fear, the power-dynamic between the two had shifted as the awful villain’s life had been demeaned and minimized.

            The issue of agency also persists in The Botathen Ghost. Not much is known about Dorothy other than her inability to pass-on from purgatory and the restraints of the spirit world. Carol Margaret Davison’s chapter, “The Victorian Gothic and Gender” in Victorian Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion includes context on the interests and issues of Victorian society in relation to sexuality and gender. Davison writes,

Gothic literature into the Victorian period evidences an ongoing fixation with issues of sexuality and gender, extending that genre’s range, in tandem with the Victorian novel’s forays into social realism, sensation fiction, science fiction, and beyond, to an interrogation of the patriarchal social structures that shaped Britain’s political and domestic life. (125)

Essentially, Hawker’s background in religious doctrine and conservative ideals pertain to an opposition to Braddon and Phelps. While the two female authors placed their spiritual entities outside the grips of the existent Victorian socio-political beliefs, Hawker includes them even through death. As Victorian society delved deeper into some of the hypocritical aspects of gender-norms, the comparison between imaginative worlds and reality became interlinked. As such, the Victorian ghost story allowed for an environment therein the rules of death were unclear. Hawker writes, “She was at last obedient, and swam into the midst of the circle, and there stood still suddenly.” (504) In the scope of the narrative, the characteristics and qualities of Dorothy do not matter. Instead, Hawker’s utilization of religion promotes the didactic and obedient attributes of the Christian doctrine: rather than death freeing an individual from the reservations of mortality, it enforces the need to remain dutiful and compliant in life. The obligation to remain faithful without sin forced the need of confession for Dorothy. Regardless of her pure motivations of journeying forward, without confessing to a higher male-power keeps her oppressed and tied to Earth.

            Contrastingly, Phelps used the medium of the ghost story and her protagonist to address the problematics of a homosexual relationship in the nineteenth century. While the narrator is accepting their death, Phelps is also contending with the restrictions on sexuality and gender. Ruth Heholt’s “Visible yet Immaterial: The Phantom and the Male Body in Ghost Stories by Three Victorian Women Writers” includes context into implications of gender in the genre of ghost stories with the inclusion of a citation by Diana Wallace in which she writes “Diana Wallace states that “[t]he ghost story as a form has allowed women writers special kinds of freedom, nor merely to include the fantastic and supernatural, but also to offer critiques of male power and sexuality which are often more radical than those in more realistic genres. (Wallace 2004: 57)” (149) Through death, spirits are transported outside rational and what is known to be true. The immersive and fictious environment of a ghost story permits its author to critique society without directly mentioning it. Phelps writes,

Soul that my eternal soul has loved, can you stand enveloped in my presence, and not spring like a fountain to me? Would you not know how it has been with me since your perishable eyes beheld my perished face? What my eyes have seen, or my ears have heard, or my heart conceived without you? If I have missed or mourned for you? If I have watched or longed for you? (66)

Phelps’ variation of the spirit world includes a nuanced version of death. The juxtaposition between the freedom it grants and the worldly-tethers it leaves behind is represented by the lasting need for a final connection with the loved-ones left on the other side. While the connection between the narrator and her love has ceased in a material way, there is an aspect of an everlasting love. The focus on the convention of ‘tragic love’ through the eyes of one with a former malady indicative of complex issues that arise if there is a temporary limbo between domains. As the narrator comes to terms with her death, she must contemplate the life she had while watching its effects on others. Despite her eventual understanding, she is also conflicted leaving her partner. Phelps’ inclusion of a lesbian partnership humanizes a demographic that were often demonized and regarded as lesser; within the same era in England, Oscar Wilde was met with death for his sexual orientation. The incorporation of a dynamic and sympathetic character allows its audience to relate to those that were otherwise ignored.

            Overall, Braddon’s The Cold Embrace, Hawker’s The Botathen Ghost and Phelps’ Since I Died creates an overarching discourse concerning power-structures and how they effected women during the Victorian period. The implication of gender in the representation of female apparitions pertains to what the author allows for their characters to gain or lose in their passing. For Braddon, the loss of death also meant the gain of revenge. Through Gertrude’s suicide, she was offered the potential of agency; the possibility to act in accordance to her own interests. In a different sense, Hawker portrays the female apparition in an environment of obedience wherein the only option for betterment is to succumb to the influence of a male-figure. Likewise to the female living in a patriarchal society, death gave Dorothy an added addendum to achieve peace. On the other hand, Phelps included a nuanced portrayal of death; while the afterlife removed the worry and pain of her medical issues, she had to endure watching her loved ones mourn and grieve. While her partner and herself shared a secretive relationship, death also took her ability to speak and gain closure. Intended or not, the methodology of the individual author’s portrayal of the female ghost manufactures a commentary on society; when the imaginative and fictitious world of ghost stories are compared with reality, comparisons between the two realms become evident. As a result, the variation in power-dynamics emphasises what Victorian society lacks or gains in the exploration of gender-norms and socio-political expectations of either gender.

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