A Real Life Haunted House

the-silver-quill-blogger-awardLast year I swore I’d do an Halloween post next autumn, as appropriate to a blog on Gothic.

This year I’ve had some nice conjunctivitis; that’s put me behind a bit, what with flinching away from the brightness of the pc screen as from an instrument of torture, but I’ll do a quick one now, as it has occurred to me; I can recount an entirely appropriate story just by drawing on my family of origin’s experiences in one of the isolated great old houses my parents used to renovate, back in the days before it became fashionable.

The most Gothic of the lot had to be the now demolished house in the Clwyd Valley, North Wales (demolished not because of the ghosts, but because a philistine builder wished to put some new build homes on the site; these have yet to be built, as he ran into difficulties with planning permission). All that remains is a empty site with an oddly cold draught coming out of it, even in the heat of a summer’s day.

The pretentious part of the house was not that old; the grand part was Victorian Gothic. This had been added to the remains of an eighteenth century foursquare type of structure. I personally found the grandiose aspirations of the architecture of the one clashed with the solid functional appearance of the other. However, I can only suppose the original architects thought otherwise.

This house was nothing like as isolated as the previous one we had lived at, seven miles from Barnstaple in the then entirely cut off North Devon. But that was a beautiful Regency Rectory complete with long windows that would have baffled any ghost.

This Victorian Gothic great house, by comparison, was gloomy inside despite the size of the windows. The most piled up fires blazing in the fireplaces never seemed to make any impression on the chill of the rooms. As twilight fell, and the song of the birds silenced, and the owls began to cry and the tickings and stirrings and the sounds of the night took over, it always began to seem most isolated after all.

It had a suitably melodramatic history, certainly. An older ‘substantial’ house had been built on the site, and subsequently largely burnt down, with only a part of it used in the creation of the modern building. The family of Leicester, who commissioned the building, had subsequently gone bankrupt, and the property had been betted away, reputedly at a railway station.

A son of the family had died of ‘consumption’ in a sort of Victorian one storey villa with a steep red tiled roof next door. It was connected to the main house by an ornamental conservatory (one of the finest features of the house). My parents let that out as one of the holiday cottages.

For some reason, the people who came to stay in that particular one, at first full of enthusiasm for its striking architecture, generally had to cut their holiday short, with tales of births and sickly grandmothers.

I can’t say I liked the atmosphere of that place myself. There were a lot of carved woodwork screens, and I always had the impression that someone was observing me from behind them…

When we first moved there, often, when my father and sister were out of the house, I would leave my mother in the kitchens and run down to the other end of the house to get something. As I stopped to collect whatever it was, I was puzzled to hear the sound of the footsteps of a woman in heels walking briskly upstairs. For a long time, I was foolishly puzzled as to how my mother, who struck me as slow moving in the manner of all adults, had reached that part of the house only a few moments after me.

It took me some time to work out that those footsteps were, quite simply, not my mother…

My parents were committed atheists; they were quite religious about not attending church. They didn’t believe in ghosts as a matter of principle, but my mother was forced to admit that some strange things happened. For instance, there was the tendency of the upstairs front bedroom to light up in the middle of the night.

She ascribed the cries of ‘fire!’ she occasionally heard to jackdaws, and the semi transparent form of woman she saw near the old kitchen quarters as a trick of the light. She said that the disembodied footsteps we all regularly heard were echoes caused by something or other (I forget what).

The same with the disembodied voices.

My father laughed aloud at the horror that my sister and I had over strange, dragging, whirring noises that regularly sounded in the middle of the night along the main corridor in the older part of the house.

At first, I put it down to my clock. Then I realised that it was coming from outside the room. Not only that, but it seemed to have come to a stop outside my door. It took some time for me to work up the courage to look out; however, being more scared of being a coward than of ghosts (which I was sternly told did not exist), I finally forced myself to get up, switch on the light and go to open the door.

Of course, there was nothing to be seen; the noises stopped as by magic. All was still. I went back to bed, and the noises began again at once, seemingly moving to pause by the door of my sister’s bedroom, and move on again.

If possible, we liked to avoid having a bath in the bathroom under the tower. There, you would be lying still, and the water would start, unaccountably, to move, to slosh up and down with increasing violence, until you were sitting in a bath with the effects of a wave machine.

‘Vibrations,’ said my parents….

The haunted lavatory next door to that bathroom really was taking it too far. You always felt eyes on you in there, which seemed to indicate a sordid type of spectre.

Those were a few of my impressions of the ghost life at Plas Isaf

I have to say that the combination of reading ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ by Gaskell while sitting up late by the dying fire in the old library so unnerved me that I ran through the house at top speed to bed.

So, this Halloween, I am quite grateful to be living in a prosaic house.

‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Bronte; An Underestimated Classic

63daa92b710561d87498049b891eb71bA reader of this blog was flattering enough to want my opinion of Anne Bronte’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’. I was delighted, as that was a novel that fascinated me, and it gave me a reason to bring it up on my long and dusty reading list ( a second attempt at ‘Moby Dick’ was supposed to be next).

I first read this longer ago than I care to admit, when I was in my early twenties. I remember being impressed with it then, and thinking that for powerful writing, and Gothic effects, it is easily the equal of either ‘Wuthering Heights’ or ‘Jane Eyre’; why was Anne Bronte so underestimated as the least gifted of the Bronte sisters?

I think the introduction of the edition I am reading 2008 by Oxford World Classics  by Josephine McDonagh, gives one very good reason. Anne Bronte was the youngest child in the family. Older siblings are not exactly notorious for giving a fair estimation of the capacities of the youngest, not as a conscious piece of injustice, but through an unquestioned attitude which never concedes that youngest sibling can be anything but  comparatively undeveloped, and can often fail to take into account the age of the youngest when certain remembered events took place (I couldn’t possibly have experienced the position of youngest sibling myself, by any chance?).

There is an anecdote about the reactions of the young Bronte’s when each chose one of Bramwell’s set of toy soldiers, the imaginary adventures of whom would lead to the construction of the fantasy worlds of ‘Gondal for Anne and Emily,  while Bramwell and Charlotte created ‘Angria’. Charlotte and Emily chose fairly striking figures; Anne selected a little, unremarkable one; this seems to be taken to indicate generally less striking taste on Anne Bronte’s part and perhaps a wish to take the place of a follower in life. Ms McDonagh points out that Anne was six years old at the time.

Little is known about Anne’s life; the little we do know of her is often from the recollections of her fond but condescending older sister Charlotte, and it seems that she has been judged accordingly as a writer of works less strong, as something of an afterthought amongst critic s of the Bronte’s.

More recently this has been belatedly challenged, and now I come to the second reason why I think that Anne Bronte’s work has been underestimated. ‘Agnes Grey’ her first published work ,was a short, vivid and painfully believable (because based on personal experience) account of a sheltered young girl’s short career as a governess. It was not a ‘romantic’ novel (in the old sense) with a gothic hero, but a realistic one.

It is shocking in its depiction of dismally indulged, unfeeling children and astoundingly insensitive parents who saw a governess as a drudge devoid of human feeling; but it is not gothic in tone. There are no rambling, derelict mansions, brooding anti heroes or haunted attics, wild passions or captive maidens such as one encounters in ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Jane Eyre’. It is a sobering (if you’ll forgive the expression, in the light of what is to come) tale, and one with a strong moral point (all the Bronte sisters were strongly moral in their differing ways).

But ‘Agnes Grey’ could not have the impact on the critics in the manner of Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s Gothic novels which were also published in 1847, and Anne Bronte was accordingly seen as the more conventional, milder and narrower writer.

‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ was thought by critics to veer in the opposite direction. ‘Acton Bell’ was fated as a writer to fail to please. Critics, though retaining the belief that she was still the least gifted Bronte, were disgusted at the depictions of the wild drunkenness and moral degeneracy depicted within, and in general took a low view of the literary merit of the novel.Helen H painting

Anne Bronte here depicts the life of a devout but healthily sensual girl from the gentry who in the late 1820’s falls for the charming and high spirited, hard drinking Regency rake Arthur Huntingdon. She marries him against the advice of the aunt who has raised her. This aunt, embittered by her own experience as the wife of an unprincipled man, urges Helen to marry the appropriately dubbed Mr Boarham and live an existence of dull respectability. Anne Bronte makes an excellent job of managing to portray Helen’s physical attraction to the wicked Arthur for all the limits of Victorian text.

Helen believes that she can use her influence to reform Arthur; this scheme will, of course, only work if Arthur truly wishes to change his lifestyle himself, particularly as Helen in marrying him gives up all her legal rights.

She underestimates the hold that drink and his egotistical joy in his libertine conquests has over him, and unlike the outcome apparently foreseen by many a romantic historical novelist who blithely marries off a heroine to a Regency rake who claims that he will change now that he has met the love of his life, Helen gradually loses her respect for Arthur as he sinks into drunken debauchery, while what he sees as her joyless hectoring quickly extinguishes his passion for her.

The disgust that the critics felt for the brutality of some of the scenes of riotous drunkenness in the novel seem to me to indicate Victorian repression. They seem as appalled as much as anything by the preoccupation that the author might possibly be a woman, and if so, what sort of a woman could witness, let alone reproduce in a novel, such appalling excess?

Of course, Anne Bronte herself is appalled by drunkenness and squalid debauchery; while her (startlingly modern) ‘Universalist’ outlook was that of an enlightened Christian who had no belief in eternal damnation, through the lips of her heroine, she expresses the strongest moral disapprobation of such brutal excesses; but for the critics, the unimpeachable Christian moral of the story was nto sufficient to make up for its shocking content.AnneBronte.jpg

Charlotte Bronte herself did not consider ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ worthy of publication and excluded it from the posthumus editions of the novels of her sisters’ which she subsequently to bring out.

I am one of a growing number of modern readers who consider that Anne Bronte was generally underestimated author of strong and impressive texts and fully the equal of her more celebrated sisters.

I hope to write more of this in subsequent posts as I read through the novel, but for now, I would like to remark that the note of startled horror which Anne Bronte brings to the drunkenness of Arthur Huntingdon and his friends was to some extent the product of her own age.

Views on how far it is socially acceptable to be obviously drunk in public vary between ages. In the eighteenth century, members of both houses of parliament were sometimes so drunk that they would vomit, and I gather that across the classes, drunkenness was far more socially acceptable up until well into the nineteenth century.

A great many long suffering female relatives of all classes accepted that frequently male family members would drink until ‘their ideas became confused’ (to quote Elizabeth Gaskell). Beer (and rather stronger beer than is sold nowadays) was commonly taken instead of the unsafe water, and while the upper classes took port and brandy the lower classes drank gin.

Helen is in many ways a delightful heroine, spirited and compassionate, lively and opinionated; Ms McDonough quotes the remarks of an early critic, who comments that Helen, with her modern disgust at drunkenness, is slightly incongruous amongst the Regency rakes. The critic comments that it is as if Jane Austen had entered into an earlier, coarser age. I think that this critic to some extent has a point; a woman from their era would have been too familiar with male drunkenness to be shocked at encountering it. Anne Bronte probably was incorrect in dismissing the more tolerant views of the earlier age towards excess. However, that would not mean that a wife of spirit would necessarily find it acceptable as a regular habit in a spouse, and Helen is every bit a woman of spirit.

Clarissa, Richardson’s heroine of a hundred years earlier, does not have to struggle against drunkenness in Lovelace, because  drunkenness is not one of the excesses in which he indulges, but given the sharp homilies she repeatedly gives him on all his other failings, we may be sure that had it been one, that most thoroughly Georgian of heroines would have taken him to task for that too.

And on the sheltered gentility of Jane Austen’s heroines, that can be overestimated; they too, were from the Regency age. Elinor from ‘Sense and Sensibility’, though  decidedly from the respectable gentry, assumes when she meets an incoherent and emotional Willoughby that he must be drunk. She calmly advises him, ‘Your errand will more properly be conducted tomorrow’.

Next week: More reflections on ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.

More Thoughts on Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’

Having finished Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’, I still find myself puzzled by exactly what the author was trying to achieve, and feel more then ever convinced that in the nineteenth century, authors often started writing a novel unsure what they were trying to accomplish, and often ended up with something else.

Not as if I’m saying that in this century, authors always know what they intend to achieve when they start out, or that the work doesn’t change in emphasis, or even the importance of characters alter, as the story develops; but no modern author would get away with the ambiguity of theme and content which does seem to characterise so many Victorian classics in particular, and I find this fascinating.

I assume Hardly wished to depict two things; how a noble character could rise above adversity, and also, how leading a secluded life, one in fact, in ‘idyllic’ rural surroundings, might not preclude a man or woman from tragedy and intense passions.

He does this; but with uneven emphasis and success in depicting the said passions, and their changing nature, and with rather a lot of set comic pieces to offset the tragedy, which carry on too long, at least for modern taste.

The four main characters – Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba Everdene, Sergeant Frank Troy and Boldwood (I’m not sure his first name is ever given; anyway, I didn’t feel on first name terms with him) are involved in melodramatic relations which seem all the more striking for being set against a peaceful, traditional rural background some time between 1815 and 1875 (the date of the publication of the book).

It is an interesting read; as I have said, I like the character of the heroine, who dares to try to be a woman farmer in Victorian times. The weaknesses in her character that enable the story to take place are fully believable in a pretty and spirited young woman, and don’t detract from the heroine’s general appeal for the reader (or this one, anyway). The main one is her vanity, which is an aspect of her valuing too highly superficial attractions to the detriment of placing a true value on sterling qualities which may be hidden. Accordingly, her inability to see the worth of Gabriel Oak, and her corresponding inability to perceive the worthlessness of Troy as a potential husband to a hard working farmer, is well thought out.

Gabriel Oak is an admirable, if not especially interesting, character, and is well drawn, though I would have liked to know more of his fluctuating emotional states. Sergeant Frank Troy is an intriguing example of a superficially attractive and charming but unscrupulous and highly unreliable man, and Boldwood is an equally interesting example of a dangerously repressed and potentially violent and obsessive man. The minor characters are adequate for the roles they play, but rather in the nature of stereotypes.

The structure is also good. There are two climatic scenes in the novel. The first, which is very successful, comes about two thirds of the way through. Here, Bathsheba and Troy stand looking at the corpses of the girl he has seduced and deserted, Fanny Robbin, and her newborn baby.

This is tellingly depicted:

’He was gradually sinking forwards. The lines of his features softened and dismay modulated to illimitable sadness. He sank on his knees, with an indefinable union of remorse and reverence on his face, and bending over Fanny Robbin, gently kissed her.’

Bathsheba’s jealousy and anguish overcome her pride and pity for ‘your other victim’ and she hysterically demands that Troy kiss her too. Brutally, he refuses; ‘You are nothing to me – nothing.’

At this, Bathsheba rushes out of the house, and Troy soon goes himself. Their very short marriage (it lasts about three months) is at an end.

This scene is vividly portrayed and dramatically effective.

The second climatic scene , which in fact constitutes the chapter which decides the fate of the characters in the whole novel, is a good deal less satisfactory. It’s recounted in a flat, cursory way (rather like the writing I was doing this morning, sigh) and fails to bring a sense of dramatic satisfaction to the reader.

The obsessive and reclusive Boldwood has become fixated with the notion of marrying Bathsheba after she sent him a facetious valentine. Troy’s whirlwind courtship of her frustrated his previous plans to marry her, but after it is wrongly assumed that Troy has been drowned, Boldwood hopes that he might persuade Bathsheba to marry him when Troy can be presumed dead after seven years.

Over a year passes. Oak is now working for Boldwood as well as Bathsheba, and shows no jealousy of his employer when he finds out that he plans to marry her. This seems to demonstrate remarkable self-restraint. Oak is depicted as fairly devout, and one assumes his praying helps him to overcome feelings of resentment and envy of Boldwood. He accepts, it seems, that having lost his former social status, he no longer is in a position to pay court to her, and whether he regrets the unimaginative and unromantic way in which he originally paid suit to her in the comic scene of his proposal, is not revealed.

The uneven access the narrator has to Oak’s various moods and attitudes towards the other characters in the book is one of the main weaknesses in the story. We are told in some detail how Oak is able to accept his loss of his status with stoicism, but not how he is able to bring himself to accept that Boldwood ‘deserves’ Bathsheba. I assume the first is meant to be a pointer to the second. Also, he approves of Boldwood as a suitor for her, while he does not approve of Troy, whom he rightly considers to be immoral and unreliable. He does not, however, seem to notice that Boldwood is potentially dangerously obsessive.

The mirthless Boldwood holds a Christmas party. Despite the ample food, music, and roaring fires, nobody enjoys it. Things are made worse by the fact that Troy has been seen in the area, and Bathsheba doesn’t know it. Bathsheba is hectored by Boldwood into agreeing to marry him in nearly six years’ time, on the grounds that in sending him that Valentine in the wrong spirit, she has inflicted misery on him.

The unlucky girl is in the hall when it finally dawns on Boldwood that his guests look at him oddly. As he demands the reason, Troy arrives. He has been living an itinerant life since he left her, and is fed up with it. He orders her to come home with him.

Seemingly horrified (we never are told just what her feelings are at this point) Bathsheba shrinks away:

‘The scream had been heard a few seconds when it was followed by a sudden deafening report that rang through the room and stupefied them all. When B had cried out in her husband’s grasp, Boldwood’s face of ghastly despair had changed. The veins had swollen and a frenzied look had gleamed in his eye.’

Troy ‘Uttered a long and guttural sigh; there was a contraction, an extension, his muscles relaxed, and he was still’.

The very brevity of this depiction in the second sentence has a good deal of skill, but it cannot make up for the moment of high drama being recounted largely in the passive and in the perfect tense (to be pedantic). This has a distancing effect and much of the drama is dispersed. It would have been a good way for a novelist to recount something really distressing, as the sudden death of the unpleasant Troy is not, but leaves the reader unsatisfied in this, the climatic scene of the whole novel.

After this, the novel does rather peter out. Bodlwood is discovered to be mad, and the death penalty in his case is commuted. Troy’s widow and Gabriel Oak’s wedding seems inevitable, and the delays before it happens, with Oak threatening to leave the country (presumably in order to escape his seemingly hopeless passion for Bathsheba) did not make it seem any less likely to me.

I liked the fact that in putting up a memorial for her errant husband, Bathsheba demonstrates that she has acquired the very quality she has admired in Oak before, a stoic ability to endure life’s injustices without engaging in self pity or low minded acts of retaliation to those who have frustrated our personal desires. She buries him with Fanny Robbin, and the tombstone he erected for her commemorates them both. Bathsheba was earlier the one who replanted the flowers on Fanny’s grave, when a downpour had washed away Troy’s handiwork. She has matured and grown in emotional stature to become the worthy mate for Gabriel Oak that she was not before.

I just hope that Bathsheba finds him physically attractive; that she obviously did not at the beginning, is shown by how she does not even acknowledge him when he gives her money to pay at the toll gate where he first sees her. However, he is described as ‘a fine young man’ and we gather he is well made enough, so I assume that though the Victorian author could not make any direct statements about such a matter, that he has come to appeal to her physically too.

I saw various resemblances to George Elliot’s ‘Adam Bede’ in some of the themes in this novel, including that of a seduced and pregnant unmarried girl, a young woman mistakenly choosing a dashing and unreliable admirer rather than the steady and less glamorous one, the stoic, hard working and devout hero, the depiction of ‘traditional’ rural life and traditions, and the contrast between the ‘peaceful’ countryside surroundings and the strong passions of the main characters.

Would I recommend it? Yes, as I say, it’s an interesting read, and I found the plot far more believable than, say, ‘Tess of d’Ubervilles’ or ‘Judge the Obscure’.  Still, the somewhat sketchy depiction of Troy, who is after all, a character central to the novel, and the equally threadbare depiction of Bathsheba’s growing passion for him and her quick disillusionment with him (she says ‘I may die soon’ implying a general weariness with life only weeks after she marries him) make for weaknesses in the development of the plot (even the wedding takes place ‘offstage’ in ‘Casterbridge’(Oxford?) .

There are circumstances where a writer leaving a character’s mental life unknowable to the reader, or perhaps only partly known, can make him or her all the more intriguing to the reader, but I didn’t find this to be so with Troy, for the simple reason that Hardy devotes a whole chapter to revealing Troy to the reader through ‘tell not show.’

Next Week: Beginning on my re-read of Anne Bronte’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.