The Haunted House in Women's Ghost Stories
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The Haunted House in Women's Ghost Stories

Gender, Space and Modernity, 1850–1945

Emma Liggins

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eBook - ePub

The Haunted House in Women's Ghost Stories

Gender, Space and Modernity, 1850–1945

Emma Liggins

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About This Book

This book explores Victorian and modernist haunted houses in female-authored ghost stories as representations of the architectural uncanny. It reconsiders the gendering of the supernatural in terms of unease, denial, disorientation, confinement and claustrophobia within domestic space. Drawing on spatial theory by Gaston Bachelard, Henri Lefebvre and Elizabeth Grosz, it analyses the reoccupation and appropriation of space by ghosts, women and servants as a means of addressing the opposition between the past and modernity. The chapters consider a range of haunted spaces, including ancestral mansions, ghostly gardens, suburban villas, Italian churches and houses subject to demolition and ruin. The ghost stories are read in the light of women's non-fictional writing on architecture, travel, interior design, sacred space, technology, the ideal home and the servant problem. Women writers discussed include Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant, Vernon Lee, Edith Wharton, May Sinclair and Elizabeth Bowen. This book will appeal to students and researchers in the ghost story, Female Gothic and Victorian and modernist women's writing, as well as general readers with an interest in the supernatural.

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Year
2020
ISBN
9783030407520
© The Author(s) 2020
E. LigginsThe Haunted House in Women’s Ghost StoriesPalgrave Gothichttps://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-40752-0_1
Begin Abstract

1. Introduction: Women in the Haunted House

Emma Liggins1
(1)
Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, UK
Emma Liggins
End Abstract
Edith Nesbit’sThe Shadow” (1905), a short story about something which “wasn’t exactly a ghost” (173), typically locates the supernatural in relation to women’s responses to architectural façades and navigation of domestic interiors.1 Narrated to a group of young women by a usually silent, older housekeeper, Margaret Eastwich, a “model of decorum and decently done duties” (170), it is framed by the words of the niece staying in her aunt’s large country house. The housekeeper’s story of her friend Mabel’s death, which she tells to “pay” for the cocoa she is sharing as a “guest” in the girls’ bedroom after a Christmas dance, questions the invisibility of servants. It prompts the female narrator to admire this “new voice” of a woman whom she had previously dismissed and feared; the housekeeper’s silence “had taught us to treat her as a machine; and as other than a machine we never dreamed of treating her” (170). The malevolent shadow that kills Mabel, who is newly married to a man whom Margaret had loved herself, is glimpsed on the stairs, and in dark passages and corridors, and, more unnervingly, at any hour of the day and night. Visible in the in-between spaces occupied by domestic staff, this spectral entity in the story is that “something about the house” that one “could just not hear and not see” (176), like the “comforting” but liminal servants who silently bolster class privilege. The shadow is also produced by the unsettling newness of the nervous couple’s “gloomy” house in the London suburbs:
there were streets and streets of new villa-houses growing up round old brick mansions standing in their own grounds … I imagined my cab going through a dark, winding shrubbery, and drawing up in front of one of these sedate, old, square houses. Instead, we drew up in front of a large, smart villa, with iron railings, gay encaustic tiles leading from the iron gate to the stained-glass-panelled door and for shrubbery only a few stunted cypresses and aucubas in the tiny front garden. (172–73)
When Margaret pronounces the house “homelike – only a little too new” (173), the unnamed husband replies, “We’re the first people who’ve ever lived in it. If it were an old house … I should think it was haunted” (173). The “too new” house without a past, lit by modern gas lights, becomes uncanny, as the glare of technology and its excessive newness render it disturbing. Even though “the gas was full on in the kitchen,” the husband agrees that “all the horror of the house” (175) comes out of the open cupboard used to store empty boxes at the end of a dark corridor. The dazzling light of modernity cannot blot out the darkness and emptiness that shadows it, for “the future … seemed then so much brighter than the past” (176).
Published on the cusp between the Victorian and modernist periods, this haunted house narrative exhibits some of the key conventions that I address in this feminist history of the ghost story between the 1850s and the 1940s. It transforms domestic space into a place of terror that threatens marital relations and women’s lives and sanity. The supernatural seems to be activated by, or take the form of, a visitor, guest or intruder. It directly addresses the complex mistress-servant relationship and includes a female servant narrator, both key components of the stories written by women in this period. Moreover, the story is saturated with architectural description that renders both old and new architectures, the country house and the modern villa, uncanny. What makes the house haunted cannot be separated from women’s experience of the “homelike,” what is homely but also unhomely and therefore uncanny. If, according to Anthony Vidler in The Architectural Uncanny, architecture can demonstrate the “disquieting slippage between what seems homely and what is definitely unhomely,”2 then this slippage becomes apparent not only in supernatural manifestations in the home but also in the unsettling transformations in domestic space which span this period.
Freudian notions of the uncanny and the familiar/unfamiliar distinction have become essential to our understandings of the nineteenth-century ghost story and the haunted house.3 In his examination of the definitions of the German words heimlich and unheimlich and their correlates in other languages, Sigmund Freud notes that in English the uncanny is glossed as “uncomfortable, uneasy, gloomy, dismal, uncanny, ghastly, (of a house): haunted, (of a person): a repulsive fellow.4 The German definitions of the adjective heimlich begin with “belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, dear and intimate, homely, etc.” before indicating that it shades into its opposite, also denoting “something secret,” “mysterious,” “concealed, kept hidden,” used in relation to the “ghostly,” the “gruesome” and the “eerie,” or to modify the word “horror.”5 One definition glosses the meaning of heimlich as “intimate” in the sense of “a place that is free of ghostly influences.”6 The uncanny can be an experience of disorientation, or the feeling of being lost in an unfamiliar environment. These contradictory meanings of the term cluster around notions of space and spectrality, as if, paradoxically, intimacy and homeliness both incorporate and exclude the ghostly. In his reflections on the relationship between dwelling and the uncanny, Julian Wolfreys has emphasised the necessary “undecidability” of inhabiting the border between homely and unhomely, suggesting that haunted locations invite a disturbing “interaction between person and place” which underwrites “the uncanniness of dwelling” itself.7
This uncanniness of dwelling underpins but does not fully explain conceptualisations of the haunted house. Theorised in terms of “the familiar turned strange,” the unlivability of the haunted house, according to Vidler, can be mobilised by the insecurity of the newly established middle classes, so that the uncanny operates as “the quintessential bourgeois fear,” the underside of material comfort.8 It is a place of dark and sometimes unfathomable secrets; as Nicholas Royle points out, the uncanny is not only about what is hidden and secret which comes to light, but also, “at the same time, about what is elusive, cryptic, still to come (back).”9 The notion of the haunted house, for Freud, is annexed to emotional responses to the dead: “to many people the acme of the uncanny is represented by anything to do with death, dead bodies, revenants, spirits and ghosts.”10 The return of the dead may destroy the intimacy of the home by revealing its secrets, what is “kept from sight” in the ostensibly comfortable interior. This study is in dialogue with these Freudian framings of the haunted house in terms of death, disquiet and estrangement, the terrors of dwelling. Missing from these readings, though, is any recognition of the particular terrors of home for women, an omission borne out by the male authors and theorists used as evidence for Vidler’s arguments. Re-examining the resonances of the architectural uncanny for women writers is important in order to extend our understandings of gendered space in a transitional period, when the modernisation of the home, the growth of tourism and the veneration for the past as figured through the “old house” all seemed to call up the ghosts.
The gendering of space has not been fully explored in debates about haunting and the haunted house. If Gothic writing, with its emphasis on location and setting, is “a spatially articulate mode,” as Minna Vuohelainen has claimed, it is surprising that “critical attention to Gothic spatiality is only slowly gathering pace.”11 An examination of the spatialities of women, of the ways in which they inhabit and navigate space in the...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Front Matter
  3. 1. Introduction: Women in the Haunted House
  4. 2. The Old Ancestral Mansion and Forbidden Spaces in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ghost stories
  5. 3. Left Out in the Cold: Exclusion and Communications with the Female Ancestor in the ghost stories of Margaret Oliphant
  6. 4. The Rapture of Old Houses: Dust, Decay and Sacred Space in Vernon Lee’s Italian ghost stories
  7. 5. “Ghosts Went Out When Electricity Came in”: Technology and Mistress-Servant Intimacy in the ghost stories of Edith Wharton
  8. 6. Finding Her Place: Claustrophobia, Mourning and Female Revenants in the ghost stories of May Sinclair
  9. 7. Ideal Homes? Emptiness, Dereliction and the Ruins of Domesticity in the Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen
  10. 8. Conclusion
  11. Back Matter