The Shadow in the Corner by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1879)
By Francis Booth | On January 18, 2024 | Updated January 26, 2024 | Comments (0)
A fairly common trope in uncanny stories is that of a shadow. An example of this is the short story “The Shadow in the Corner” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1879), a serious, if rather sensationalist, female novelist who wrote ghost stories. Braddon is most famous for the 1862 novel, Lady Audley’s Secret.
As in other such stories, one of the characters is an educated, responsible man, in this case a scientist, who seeks to disprove what he sees as local superstition. This time we start with a spooky and unhomelike old house, which is believed to be haunted by the restless spirit of a previous owner who had hanged himself in one of the top floor servants’ rooms.
This discussion is excerpted from No Direction Home: The Uncanny in Literature by Francis Booth (©2023, by permission). Read “The Shadow in the Corner” in full.
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Wildheath Grange stood a little way back from the road, with a barren stretch of heath behind it, and a few tall fir-trees, with straggling wind-tossed heads, for its only shelter. It was a lonely house on a lonely road, little better than a lane, leading across a desolate waste of sandy fields to the sea-shore; and it was a house that bore a bad name among the natives of the village of Holcroft, which was the nearest place where humanity might be found.
It was a good old house, nevertheless, substantially built in the days when there was no stint of stone and timber — a good old grey stone house with many gables, deep window-seats, and a wide staircase, long dark passages, hidden doors in queer corners, closets as large as some modern rooms, and cellars in which a company of soldiers might have lain perdu.
This large, dilapidated house is occupied only by three elderly people: two old retainers in the form of the butler and his wife, and the rational, detached, scientist owner Michael, whose family home it has always been and who now lives there in peaceful solitude; “it would not have been difficult to have traced a certain affinity between the dull grey building and the man who lived in it.
Both seemed alike remote from the common cares and interests of humanity; both had an air of settled melancholy, engendered by perpetual solitude; both had the same faded complexion, the same look of slow decay.”
The butler has recently insisted that his wife must have a maid to help her in her old age; the owner has agreed though the butler complains that they will not be able to engage anyone local because of the house’s gloomy reputation.
They do find a young woman, recently orphaned (as we will discuss at length later, orphans have no home; everywhere is unhomelike) and gone to live with a distant relative, like many other literary orphans. She has been “educated above her station” by her late father but seems happy to find a “place,” literally and metaphorically.
Maria is innocent and attractive, as even the unworldly owner can see. Ostensibly because all the other rooms on the servant’s floor are damp, though probably because of his natural curmudgeonliness, the butler puts Maria in the room where the suicide of the present owner’s great uncle had taken place. Even the shy Maria has to say something to her new, skeptical master.
“I felt weighed down in my sleep as if there were some heavy burden laid upon my chest. It was not a bad dream, but it was a sense of trouble that followed me all through my sleep; and just at daybreak — it begins to be light a little after six — I woke suddenly, with the cold perspiration pouring down my face, and knew that there was something dreadful in the room.”
“What do you mean by something dreadful. Did you see anything?”
“Not much, sir; but it froze the blood in my veins, and I knew it was this that had been following me and weighing upon me all through my sleep. In the corner, between the fireplace and the wardrobe, I saw a shadow — a dim, shapeless shadow —” “Produced by an angle of the wardrobe, I daresay.” “No, sir; I could see the shadow of the wardrobe, distinct and sharp, as if it had been painted on the wall. This shadow was in the corner — a strange, shapeless mass; or, if it had any shape at all, it seemed —”
“What?” asked Michael eagerly.
“The shape of a dead body hanging against the wall!”
Michael looks for a rational explanation, even if it is a psychological one. He examines the room and spends the night there.
“Yes; there was the shadow: not the shadow of the wardrobe only—that was clear enough, but a vague and shapeless something which darkened the dull brown wall; so faint, so shadow, that he could form no conjecture as to its nature, or the thing it represented.”
Then he finds a hook high up in the wall that he cannot explain; he does not know that his great uncle had hanged himself from it, though the butler probably does. Michael tells the butler to move Maria to a room on a lower floor, but he ignores the instruction and tells Maria she must go back.
The next morning Maria does not come downstairs, and her room is locked. Breaking down the door, “Maria was hanging from the hook in the wall.”
Although Braddon’s sensational Lady Audley’s Secret is by no means either Gothic or uncanny, it does contain the dichotomy we have been looking at between the homelike and the unhomelike.
As Elaine Showalter summarized it, “Braddon’s bigamous heroine deserts her child, pushes husband number one down a well, thinks about poisoning husband number two and sets fire to a hotel in which her other male acquaintances are residing.”
“A glorious old place. A place that visitors fell in raptures with; feeling a yearning wish to have done with life, and to stay there forever, staring into the cool fish-ponds and counting the bubbles as the roach and carp rose to the surface of the water. A spot in which peace seemed to have taken up her abode, setting her soothing hand on every tree and flower, on the still ponds and quiet alleys, the shady corners of the old-fashioned rooms, the deep window-seats behind the painted glass, the low meadows and the stately avenue.” (Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, 1862)
All these dark events are based around an idyllic, homelike, and peaceful country estate, which makes them seem even more uncanny.
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See also: Classic Uncanny Stories by British Women Writers
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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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