Ghost Story, 1840-1920: A Cultural History

Article excerpt

The Ghost Story, 1840-1920: A Cultural History by Andrew Smith (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), ISBN 978-0-7190-7446-2, 202pp. + x., £55hb.

As clearly written, convincingly documented, analytically probing, and consistently revealing as this new study is, it quite rightly does not claim to be the only important approach to its subject. From its outset, it respectfully presents itself as deepening our understanding of certain exemplary tales over an eighty-year span within what is surveyed in Julia Briggs' Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story (1977), as being something of a sequel to Sasha Handley's Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth-Century England (2007), and as furthering, in Professor Smith's own way, the historical-sociological lenses and method of Owen Davies' The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts (also 2007). At the same time, though, this book is more sharply - and helpfully - focused than most of its predecessors on how stories about ghosts in Victorian-to-earlymodernist periodicals, collections of tales, and whole novels or novellas extend the established Gothic tradition by playing out cultural tensions stemming from the most 'pressing social issues' from the accession of Queen Victoria to the 1920s: 'debates about economics, national and colonial identities, gender, [even] the workings of the literary imagination . . . [and the very] conception of identity' bound up with all of these (2). We and our students can learn here, better than we can almost anywhere else, how indicative English tales about ghosts from Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) up to and including M.R. James 'The Haunted Doll's House' (1825) disguise, but thereby reveal, (a) the contentious 'politics of the time' that stem from the increasingly capitalist 'economics' of the 1840s and after, (b) levels of social (and hence psychological) 'liminality' - in half-conscious middle-class thinking influenced by such economics - that threaten would-be 'models', including genderings, of 'identity' as 'supposedly coherent, self-conscious and self-present' with clear distinctions between 'masculine' and 'feminine', and (c) the particular 'ideological tensions and contradictions that the spectre [consequently] introjects' in each ghost story that is studied here, as has always been the case with ghosts in fictions and myths since the dawn of recorded history (2). Granted, even in the contexts of gender and colonial politics, ghosts in this book, in one way or another, are nearly always 'allegories about how individuals' are 'alienated' from themselves and their roots by 'the financial system' broadly defined 'even while that system appears to psychologically "possess" them' as ghosts have long been thought to possess living beings (34); this study is therefore not so comprehensive as to account for every dimension of every English ghost tale from the 1840s to the 1920s. But the ghost stories that are selected and treated are given rich, arresting, and incisive interpretations, ones that nearly always increase, and often transform, our understanding of them. This book should therefore become essential reading for anyone in search of the social forces that most fundamentally drive the English literature of spectres during the Victorian and modernist periods and the full history of how and why the Gothic as a mode of fiction spectralises the most unsettled ideological conflicts in its cultural and historical contexts.

To be sure, faced with a wide proliferation of ghost stories after the 1830s that both gives him his subject and still arouses the interest of readers, Professor Smith has had to make organisational choices, as well as story selections, that both lend coherence to and reveal important patterns in such a mass of material. This necessity inevitably leads him to marginalise some considerations and texts, such as those connected with the late-Victorian debate (here mentioned briefly) over how a 'science' of detecting ghosts was actually attempted and justified - a subject already well treated by Janet Oppenheim and others. …