Friday, 4 November 2011

Reading Group Report: A Hallowe'en Consideration of the Nineteenth-Century Ghost Tale

'Fashions Born in Dead Brains': A Reading Group for Hallowe'en
Led by Hellen Giblin-Jowett (Newcastle) and Nicole Bush (Northumbria)

2pm, Wednesday 2 November

Texts: Walter Scott ‘The Tapestried Chamber’ (1829)
E Nesbit ‘Man-Size in Marble’ (1893)
H. G. Wells' ‘The Red Room’ (1896)

Roger Lockhurst, ‘Introduction’, Late Victorian Gothic Tales (2009)
Srdjan Smajić, excerpts from Ghost-seers, Detectives and Spiritualists:
Theories of Vision in Victorian Literature and Science (2010)

This session was not only pleasing in terms of introducing new members to the reading group from Durham, Northumbria and Newcastle Universities, but it also inspired a wide scope of research questions through reading the texts provided by Hellen and Nicole. We began by examining the nature of the ghost story. We drew upon the secondary readings by Smajic and Luckhurst and considered its historical context in relation to spiritualism and science in the Victorian period. We then thought about how these aspects of the nineteenth century related to our individual research interests, drawing parallels with Darwinism, the Enlightenment, and socio-political issues. We were especially interested in the ways that candle imagery was used to great effect in each of the stories. Whilst the extinguished flames in Walter Scott’s ‘The Tapestried Chamber’ (1829) inspire fear, the candles lit by the doomed Laura in E. Nesbit’s ‘Man-Size in Marble’ (1893) attempt to dispel fear.

This discussion of the social and political contexts of the ghost story led us into wider questions on gender. We considered how the stories relate to the conventional theme of the confident male narrator, who is often scientifically-inclined, and how the ghost story narrative operates to slowly destabilise such security. An interesting point made in relation to Nesbit’s story was that it is Laura, rather than the narrator, who becomes the subject of ghostly happenings, and how the author employs a male and female protagonist in order to question Victorian notions of gender. This was then extended out to the group’s wider thoughts on this issue. The examples of Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen were discussed in order to illustrate how the female protagonist features in Gothic tales. Similarly, authors like Vernon Lee and Ann Radcliffe were discussed in relation to the female writer of the ghost story.

The scientific reading of the ghost story was something we were particularly interested in. We considered how the lone scientist, from Victor Frankenstein to Dr. Moreau, is distrusted when isolated from a social sphere. We found this particularly relevant to H. G. Wells’s ‘The Red Room’ (1896), with its basis in fin de siècle literature. Finally, we thought about the seasonal context of the ghost story, finding it interesting that they were primarily Christmas stories in the Victorian period. This led into a discussion of how writers from Radcliffe and Mary Shelley, to Matthew Lewis and James Hogg set their tales in the darkness of winter. Overall, this session was both valuable and informative, not only for the interesting context of the ghost story, but also as an introduction to the group’s wider research interests. We encourage members, whether they attended Wednesday’s session or not, to add their own comments and continue the discussion below.

By Leanne Stokoe, Newcastle University.


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