Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Andrew Smith. the Ghost Story 1840-1920: A Cultural History

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Andrew Smith. the Ghost Story 1840-1920: A Cultural History

Article excerpt

Andrew Smith. The Ghost Story 1840-1920: A Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2010, Pp. 256. 55.00 [pounds sterling].

Andrew Smith's book, The Ghost Story 1840-1920: A Cultural History, s an ambitious and versatile work of scholarship and interpretation. It draws on a thorough knowledge of the latest writing on ghost stories, indicative of Smith's expertise in the field. The book investigates numerous writers across a wide historical range and reads their ghost stories in relation to several different cultural contexts: economic, national, colonial, gendered and literary.

The first chapter begins with an investigation into the significance of the gothic and the ghostly in economic writing, and then chapters on Dickens and Wilkie Collins pursue the theme. Gender issues are foregrounded in a chapter on three women writers of ghost stories: Charlotte Riddell, Vernon Lee, and May Sinclair, which focuses specifically on "ideological and historical factors such as love, money and history" (69). This is followed by a stimulating chapter on the way in which ideas about literary inspiration and creativity were influenced by, but also themselves influenced, the way that the spiritual world was thought about. It refers to familiar works such as Eliot's The Lifted Veil (1859) and Browning's poem, "Mr Sludge 'the Medium' " (1864), as well as less likely texts including the explicitly spiritualist fiction, The Book of the Golden Key (1909), by Hugo Ames and Flora Hayter, and Sir Oliver Lodge's novel, Raymond (1916). A chapter on Henry James persuasively situates James's accounts of ghosts in the context of his thinking about imagination and writing. It focuses on the trope of the "haunted house" as a point of contact between ideas about imagination, ghosts and the past: a gothic reworking of his "house of fiction," as it were. There is a return to Dickens in the penultimate chapter, this time to consider colonial, rather than economic, ghosts, when American Notes is read alongside tales by Le Fanu and Kipling: "How ghosts can be discussed in a colonial context helps to illuminate the complex relationship which existed in the period between the colonial gaze and the apparently subaltern subject" (143). The final chapter on M. R. James's "gothic revival" discerns in the disjunction between narrator and plot in James's tales a "critique of modernism" and of the ghost story tradition itself.

The cover declares the book to be a cultural history of the ghost story, and yet one of its best achievements is to show the intriguing presence of the language of ghosts and "spectrality" beyond the confines of the ghost story, to develop a "discourse of spectrality." This is apparent in some of M. R. James's more generally uncanny stories and, compellingly, in the spectral language in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1860) and No Name (1862). Foundationally for this study, Smith points to Marx's recourse to gothic language, in Das Kapital (1867) and elsewhere, and to Freud's reading of the ghostly in Hoffmann's The Sand Man" in his 1919 essay The Uncanny. Their use of the gothic shows its pervasiveness and it establishes some of the connections between ghosts, the economy and the psychological self that the book goes on to explore.

The book is too multi-faceted, cognisant of too many cultural contexts, to have a dominant central argument, but one of its most recurrent commitments is to read the genre of the ghost story alongside economic discourse. This focus is less central in later chapters, where economic concerns are less pressing, in the stories of the two Jameses, for example, but in Dickens and Collins in particular, Smith shows that figures are haunted often when they are dislocated from a capitalist, consumerist culture.

Smith's readings often raise questions about whether the cultural significance that he traces in the ghost stories is present in the stories themselves, available to their first readers, or only discernible to the later critic. …

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