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Underground Reading: Five Victorian Ghost Novels

T81 If there is one thing we may safely claim about the Victorians, it is this:  they loved a good ghost story.  Dover's Five Victorian Ghost Novels is an excellent introduction to the highs (and lows) of the genre, containing five excellent representations of the Victorian ghost story in all its glory.

Being a Dover publication, Five Victorian Ghost Novels also features an excellent introductory essay by EF Bleiler and cover art by Pornokitsch favorite Edward Gorey.  And you can read it online absolutely free, here.  Keep in mind that these ghosts are not particularly frightening, as the Victorians preferred to use the genre as a vehicle for moral lessons.

The novels in question are more correctly novelettes, being relatively brief and usually serialized (during the Christmas season, no less; the Victorians apparently also preferred to read their moralizing ghost stories over their plum puddings).  

The most famous of the novelettes in the collection is Wilhelm Meinhold's "The Amber Witch."  "The Amber Witch" was a runaway success in Victorian England, and is still regularly reprinted, although the story got Meinhold into some serious trouble in his native Germany.  Meinhold initially published the story claiming it was a fragmentary chronicle of a witch-trial that he had discovered and translated.  He later admitted that he'd written the story himself, as a hoax to send up a group of historian-critics who were currently engaged in a debate about the historical veracity of Old Testament sources.  Meinhold proved his authorship and fell from grace, but two English translations gave the story a second lease on life in England.  There it became wildly popular, and was even turned into an opera.  All that aside, however, "The Amber Witch" is a bit of a slog for the modern reader, as its themes of fatherly devotion, childish innocence, moral rectitude and chaste, treacly love combine into a whole more exhausting in its sermonizing than anything else.

The best of the lot is Amelia B. Edwards' "Monsieur Marice," which finds a little girl learning the life story of a mysterious French gentleman her father is holding as a prisoner of war. A few uncomfortable nods to colonialism aside, Edwards' characters are remarkably well-drawn, and her prose is gorgeous.  This may come as no surprise if you're familiar with Edwards, a novelist and Egyptologist whose enduring fame comes from her travel memoir A Thousand Miles up the Nile (recently cited by Gail Carriger as an excellent example of Victorian travel writing).

The final three stories in the collection are of reasonable interest, although not quite of the stand-alone quality of "Monsieur Maurice."  Mrs. JH Riddell's "The Uninhabited House" is charmingly Dickensian, while Charles Willing Beale's "The Ghost of Guir House" gets points for sheer weirdness.  Vernon Lee's "A Phantom Lover" is perhaps the most forgettable of the collection, despite its author's extraordinary history.

Minor quibbles aside, Five Victorian Ghost Novels is an excellent introduction to the Victorian ghost story, and a necessary addition to the collection of any fan of ghost stories or Victoriana. 

Rating: 8/10

Tube journeys: NA (Read at night before bed, as one must with ghost stories.)