Classic Uncanny Stories by British Women Writers

Collected Ghost Stories by Mrs. Molesworth

Asked to name uncanny authors, most readers would come up with names like Edgar Allan Poe, M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu – all male. But a surprising number of women authors, some of whom may be better known for writing more homelike novels, also wrote very “unhomelike” short stories.  

Sigmund Freud’s famous essay about weird literature is usually translated as The Uncanny. But the German word “unheimlich” literally means “unhomelike.”

No Direction Home: The Uncanny in Literature by Francis Booth (©2023, from which this essay is excerpted by permission) traces how uncanny literature takes us from the familiar, the reassuring, the homelike, into a world of the unfamiliar, the unsettling, and the unhomelike.

The American author Edith Wharton understood that before leading us into the world of the tense and unsettling, the author first has to make us feel calm and settled; she says that this can be done by starting with a modern clean, electric-lit environment at least as well as with a gloomy old castle. This will be discussed further in Two Uncanny Stories by Edith Wharton.

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No Direction Home: The Uncanny in Literature by Francis Booth

No Direction Home by Francis Booth
is available on Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K.
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The Shadow by Edith Nesbit (1905)

This contrast between the bright, modern, recognizably homelike and the strange unhomelike encroaching on it is also perfectly encapsulated in a story by another Edith: Edith Nesbit, an English political activist and co-founder of the Fabian Society, best known for her children’s books as E. Nesbit, including most famously The Railway Children.

Nesbit was also the author of several collections of uncanny stories, including Grim Stories, Something Wrong and Fear.  

I told him I thought the house was very pretty, and fresh, and homelike — only a little too new — but that fault would mend with time. He said:
      “It is new: that’s just it. We’re the first people who’ve ever lived in it. If it were an old house, Margaret, I should think it was haunted.”
       I asked if he had seen anything. “No,” he said, “not yet.”
    “Heard then?” said I.
     “No — not heard either,” he said, “but there’s a sort of feeling: I can’t describe it — I’ve seen nothing and I’ve heard nothing, but I’ve been so near to seeing and hearing, just near, that’s all. And something follows me about — only when I turn round, there’s never anything, only my shadow. And I always feel that I shall see the thing next minute — but I never do — not quite — it’s always just not visible. (Edith Nesbit, The Shadow, 1905)

The new, fresh, homelike home has been made unhomelike by the mysterious shadow, which the narrator also sees. “It was crouching there; it sank, and the black fluidness of it seemed to be sucked under the door of Mabel’s room.”

When the narrator goes in, Mabel is dead but her baby is alive. At the funeral, another shadow appears.

“Between us and the coffin, first grey, then black, it crouched an instant, then sank and liquefied—and was gathered together and drawn till it ran into the nearest shadow. And the nearest shadow was the shadow of Mabel’s coffin.” Then Mabel’s daughter dies too. “I had never been able to forget the look on her dead face.”

At the start of her story The Shadow, Edith Nesbit had warned us, as many uncanny authors do at the start, that it will make no sense; it will have no easy, rational explanation.

This is not an artistically rounded off ghost story, and nothing is explained in it, and there seems to be no reason why any of it should have happened. But that is no reason why it should not be told. You must have noticed that all the real ghost stories you have ever come close to, are like this in these respects — no explanation, no logical coherence.

Another Nesbit story, from the collection Grim Tales, also begins with a similar disclaimer: the narrator is presenting the reader a version of events which they will not believe, but washing her hands of it, fending off the skeptics, disarming any doubters in the first paragraph:

Although every word of this story is as true as despair, I do not expect people to believe it. Nowadays a “rational explanation” is required before belief is possible. Let me then, at once, offer the “rational explanation” which finds most favour among those who have heard the tale of my life’s tragedy. It is held that we were “under a delusion,” Laura and I, on that 31st of October; and that this supposition places the whole matter on a satisfactory and believable basis. The reader can judge, when he, too, has heard my story, how far this is an “explanation,” and in what sense it is “rational.”  (Edith Nesbit, Man-Size in Marble, 1893)

 

Reality or Delusion? by Ellen Wood (1868)

Following are a couple more examples of openings of stories that start with disclaimers that the reader will not believe what is to come, even though it is all true. The first is from the British novelist Ellen Wood, better known at the time as Mrs. Henry Wood, most famous for the novel East Lynne, which is best remembered for the phrase, “dead and never called me mother.”

“This is a ghost story. Every word of it is true. And I don’t mind confessing that for ages afterwards some of us did not care to pass the spot alone at night. Some people do not care to pass it by.” (Ellen Wood, Reality or Delusion? )

In fact, as the title hints, it may well have been a mass delusion, and may be explicable without recourse to supernatural explanations. “If I say that I believe in it too, I shall be called a muff and a double muff. But there is no stumbling-block too difficult to be got over.”

 

The Open Door by Charlotte Riddell (1882)

Another example of this kind of opening disclaimer comes from the Irish novelist Charlotte Riddell, known at the time as Mrs. J. H. Riddell. As in the previous case, and as with many stories by female authors of uncanny stories, the narrator is male.

Some people do not believe in ghosts. For that matter, some people do not believe in anything. . . That is the manner in which this story, hitherto unpublished, has been greeted by my acquaintances. How it will be received by strangers is quite another matter. I am going to tell what happened to me exactly as it happened, and readers can credit or scoff at the tale as it pleases them. It is not necessary for me to find faith and comprehension in addition to a ghost story, for the world at large. If such were the case, I should lay down my pen. (The Open Door, 1882)

And again, as with the previous story, the mystery, of a “haunted” and unhomelike house in which there is a door that will not stay closed – those pesky doors again – turns out not to be a haunting at all but merely someone continually opening the door to scare away the superstitious in order to claim the house for themselves.

 

The Nature of the Evidence by May Sinclair (1923)

The frame story is a very common device in uncanny stories, where sometimes the tale is presented by the “author” as having been found in a diary or in letters by someone who is now dead and cannot explain further. Or perhaps the story has been told to the narrator by a friend; this allows the first-person narrator to present the story as “true” without having to vouch for it.

And sometimes the “friend” may be presented as an unimpeachable source, as in one of the stories in May Sinclair’s collection Uncanny Stories. Like the other female authors we have looked at, Sinclair was a “serious” novelist as well as a writer of uncanny stories and was also a political activist, being an active suffragist and member of the Woman Writers’ Suffrage League.

This is the story Marston told me. He didn’t want to tell it. I had to tear it from him bit by bit. I’ve pieced the bits together in their time order, and explained things here and there, but the facts are the facts he gave me. There’s nothing that I didn’t get out of him somehow.

Out of him—you’ll admit my source is unimpeachable. Edward Marston, the great K.C., and the author of an admirable work on “The Logic of Evidence.” (The Nature of the Evidence, 1923)

 

Lady Farquhar’s Old Lady: A True Ghost Story by Mrs. Molesworth (1873)

As well as presenting a story as coming from a scientific, rational source, the provenance of the uncanny tale may be presented as unimpeachable by virtue of the “facts” being from the upper classes, in the days when the aristocracy were seen to be trustworthy, as in the following opening paragraphs from a story by a British writer best known for her children’s books, published under the name Mrs. Molesworth, and her adult novels published under the gender-neutral name Ennis Graham.

I myself have never seen a ghost (I am by no means sure that I wish ever to do so), but I have a friend whose experience in this respect has been less limited than mine. Till lately, however, I had never heard the details of Lady Farquhar’s adventure, though the fact of there being a ghost story which she could, if she chose, relate with the authority of an eye-witness, had been more than once alluded to before me.

Living at extreme ends of the country, it is but seldom my friend and I are able to meet; but a few months ago I had the good fortune to spend some days in her house, and one evening our conversation happening to fall on the subject of the possibility of so-called “supernatural” visitations or communications, suddenly what I had heard returned to my memory.

“By the bye,” I exclaimed, “we need not go far for an authority on the question. You have seen a ghost yourself, Margaret. I remember once hearing it alluded to before you, and you did not contradict it. I have so often meant to ask you for the whole story. Do tell it to us now.”

Lady Farquhar hesitated for a moment, and her usually bright expression grew somewhat graver. When she spoke, it seemed to be with a slight effort. “You mean what they all call the story of ‘my old lady,’ I suppose,” she said at last.

“Oh yes, if you care to hear it, I will tell it you. But there is not much to tell, remember.”

“There seldom is in true stories of the kind,” I replied. “Genuine ghost stories are generally abrupt and inconsequent in the extreme, but on this very account all the more impressive. Don’t you think so?”

“I don’t know that I am a fair judge,” she answered. “Indeed,” she went on rather gravely, “my own opinion is that what you call true ghost stories are very seldom told at all.”

“How do you mean? I don’t quite understand you,” I said, a little perplexed by her words and tone.

“I mean,” she replied, “that people who really believe they have come in contact with—with anything of that kind, seldom care to speak about it.”

What Victorian reader could question the veracity of a woman called Lady Farquhar? Lords in Victorian literature may be rogues and roués but Ladies are always beyond reproach.

 

The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell (1852)

A nice twist on the first-person narration is provided in a ghost story by Elizabeth Gaskell, another female writer of uncanny tales who is best known for “serious” novels including Mary Barton, North and South and Wives and Daughters that tackled the social issues of her time. Mrs. Gaskell, as she was known, also wrote a biography of Charlotte Brontë.

Gaskell also regularly published uncanny stories in collaboration with Charles Dickens for his Household Words. Here the tale purports to be told to children by their mother’s former nurse and is about the ghost of a child that their mother saw when she was herself a child. It seems that this tale has been told to them before and has become a favorite.

You know, my dears, that your mother was an orphan, and an only child; and I dare say you have heard that your grandfather was a clergyman up in Westmoreland, where I come from. I was just a girl in the village school, when, one day, your grandmother came in to ask the mistress if there was any scholar there who would do for a nurse-maid; and mighty proud I was, I can tell ye, when the mistress called me up, and spoke to my being a good girl at my needle, and a steady, honest girl, and one whose parents were very respectable, though they might be poor.

I thought I should like nothing better than to serve the pretty young lady, who was blushing as deep as I was, as she spoke of the coming baby, and what I should have to do with it. However, I see you don’t care so much for this part of my story, as for what you think is to come, so I’ll tell you at once. (Elizabeth Gaskell, The Old Nurse’s Story, 1852)

The story is about a young orphan with no direction home. Miss Rosamond, the mother of the children to whom the story is being told, had been sent as a child, with her nurse, the narrator, to live in a big house with distant relatives. The enormous house has no homelike qualities, “and the hall, which had no fire lighted in it, looked dark and gloomy.”

It is so large that the nurse never even sees all of it and is so grand it has:

“… an organ built into the wall, and so large that it filled up the best part of that end. Beyond it, on the same side, was a door; and opposite, on each side of the fire-place, were also doors leading to the east front; but those I never went through as long as I stayed in the house, so I can’t tell you what lay beyond.”

As a child, lonely young Rosamond had found an imaginary friend outside the unhomelike big house who she insists is a real girl, though the nurse has seen Rosamond’s footprints in the snow and knows she has been alone. But the other “child” may not be imaginary and may be a ghost with bad intentions; one of the servants tells the nurse, “keep her from that child! It will lure her to her death! That evil child! Tell her it is a wicked, naughty child.”

But the ghost child is not evil, she has had evil done to her, by her father, watched by her sister, who is still alive and now an old woman. Reminded of this years later she sees, as does the nurse, an apparition of the scene where the ghost girl was killed all those years ago, while she watched on. So, this story does have a resolution and an explanation, though the rational explanation is that the ghost was real.

 

Hauntings by Vernon Lee (1890)

We were talking last evening—as the blue moon-mist poured in through the old-fashioned grated window, and mingled with our yellow lamplight at table—we were talking of a certain castle whose heir is initiated (as folk tell) on his twenty-first birthday to the knowledge of a secret so terrible as to overshadow his subsequent life. It struck us, discussing idly the various mysteries and terrors that may lie behind this fact or this fable, that no doom or horror conceivable and to be defined in words could ever adequately solve this riddle; that no reality of dreadfulness could seem caught but paltry, bearable, and easy to face in comparison with this vague we know not what. 

Vernon Lee is most famous now for her story collection Hauntings, though, like May Sinclair a generation later, she was a feminist campaigner. Lee also played the harpsichord and wrote several influential essays and books on art and aesthetics, especially concerning Renaissance Italy.

Lee herself was the epitome of the unhomelike: born to British parents in France, she lived most of her life in Italy, changed her name from the feminine Violet to the gender-neutral Vernon, dressed à la garçonne – as a boy – and may have had affairs with women at a time when women weren’t supposed to.

Lee continues the above thought, from the introduction to Hauntings, agreeing with writers of the genre that a supernatural story should not contain too much explanation:

And this leads me to say, that it seems to me that the supernatural, in order to call forth those sensations, terrible to our ancestors and terrible but delicious to ourselves, sceptical posterity, must necessarily, and with but a few exceptions, remain enwrapped in mystery.

Indeed, ‘tis the mystery that touches us, the vague shroud of moonbeams that hangs about the haunting lady, the glint on the warrior’s breastplate, the click of his unseen spurs, while the figure itself wanders forth, scarcely outlined, scarcely separated from the surrounding trees; or walks, and sucked back, ever and anon, into the flickering shadows.

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Contributed by Francis Booth, the author of several books on twentieth-century culture: Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth-Century Literary Eroticism; Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938; High Collars & Monocles: 1920s Novels by British Female Couples; and A Girl Named Vera Can Never Tell a Lie: The Fiction of Vera Caspary.

Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young Adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. 

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The Shadow in the Corner by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

See also: The Shadow in the Corner by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

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