'The Ghost and Mrs. Muir': Laughing with the Captain of the House

By Steitz, Margaret D. | Studies in the Novel, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

'The Ghost and Mrs. Muir': Laughing with the Captain of the House


Steitz, Margaret D., Studies in the Novel


For the women of Britain, 1945 must have been a year filled with ghosts: ghosts of dead sons, brothers, fathers, husbands, and lovers; ghosts of the lives they had led before the war, smashed into atoms along with the 475,000 houses totally destroyed by bombs dropped during the Blitz(1); ghosts of their own former selves--selves that had believed in peace and security. Many of these women must have felt haunted, as Vera Brittain had at the end of the previous World War, when she had wandered the environs of Oxford alone, obsessed with remembrances of her brother and fiance, both killed in action:

The two of them seemed to fuse in my mind into a kind of composite

lost companion, an elusive ghost which embodied all intimacy, all

comradeship, all joy, which included everything that was the past and

should have been the future. Incessantly I tramped across the Hill,

subconsciously pursuing this symbolic figure like a lost spirit seeking for

its mate.(2)

In the disorienting aftermath of that earlier war, Vera Brittain had experienced a breakdown of the psychic barriers between the actual and the supernatural, seeing before her not only the forms of desired figures who were not there, but impossible transformations of her own body:

I looked one evening into my bedroom glass and thought, with a sense of

incommunicable horror, that I detected in my face signs of some sinister

and peculiar change. A dark shadow seemed to lie across my chin; was I

beginning to grow a beard, like a witch?(3)

Surely many of the women who emerged from the nightmare of the Second World War, especially those who had also lived through the First, felt themselves similarly caught in a liminal world, a place inhabited by spectres. For such women, gothic conventions and metaphors provided the nearest equivalent to a language with which to describe that mental state and to render its strangeness more familiar. But it was gothic comedy or mock-gothic narrative that could offer the safest framework through which to acknowledge this condition of being "haunted" and yet to allay the terrors attached to that recognition. Although Sybil Korff Vincent may claim in "The Mirror and the Cameo: Margaret Atwood's Comic/Gothic Novel, Lady Oracle" that Atwood "created a new sub-genre--the comic/Gothic" as late as 1976 to express the anxieties of female readers,(4) Atwood's work actually follows in an existing tradition that had embraced and revised the gothic form to help an earlier generation of women to regain their sense of control.

Thus it was to the popular comic-gothic novel The Ghost and Mrs. Muir that large numbers of British and American readers turned for solace and relief in 1945. In that novel, Josephine Leslie, an Englishwoman writing under the ambiguously gendered pseudonym of "R. A. Dick," encouraged her female audience to accept as both real and as beneficent the ghosts that populated their minds and to draw comfort from these presences. When Joseph Mankiewicz directed his Hollywood film version of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir in 1947, with a screenplay by Philip Dunne, he emphasized the role of the phantasm as a romantic substitute or consolation, a role that the author herself had to some degree endorsed. But Leslie's original work also had a more subversive intent: to urge her audience to use their ghosts as inspirations for creativity and as allies in a rebellion against social forces that were acting to regulate and circumscribe women's lives. What readers found in this novel was not so much a romantic ghost as a laughing one. With the help of this defiant, satirical figure, they could learn to ridicule the new feminine ideal toward which they were being aggressively pushed at the War's end. This was a ghost who allowed women to uncover, among other things, their sexual androgyny and "masculine" potential for independence, adventure, and self-definition, and who taught them to prefer the company of their own unfettered imaginations to the coercive situations of social life. …

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